Last night after dreaming of mirror writing, which included the words etanutrofnu, emmargorp and rehtom, I was cast back into a deep memory. It was of my first love, Christopher. I was no more than four years old and he was around ten.
My grandmother had been a nanny to his family, until our needs outweighed theirs. He was the youngest of a clutch of boys living together on a large farm with their father and an ancient great aunt – their mother having died years before. Nearby, faithful cowhands lived in tied cottages and kept a weather eye on things. My brother and I would spend school holidays there, my grandmother resuming her duties whilst we became part of the family: eating daily breakfast at the kitchen long-table alongside 15, or so, others.
It was at the farm I learned the joys of dipping for minnow, tying straw dollies, and rolling in hay. All with Christoper. All innocent play. We spent our daytimes together; his closest brother being four years beyond him and mine seven more than me. My brother allied himself to the big boys, fishing and ratting and shooting. Christopher and I stayed closer to home: me, with my basined dark hair; he, blonde, locks left long at the front – to flop with an upward thrust curl. He was a boy of sunshine and when given a boy doll by an aunt I named it for him.
In my dream I was back playing in the farmyard, heard the noises, smelled the smells, in the early summer soil. It was morning, and idyllic. Primroses grew between flagstones and beneath one of the windows was a bench. I was not yet big enough to sit on the structure, unless Christopher lifted me there – which he often did. This day though he lifted one end, placing bricks under the foot, creating a slope.
It had the appearance of a slide but, bringing a paper wrapped package from his pocket, he said, ‘It’s a present for you.’ This was an unexpected kindness and one I’ve never forgotten. I unwrapped the soft brown paper, as he watched. Inside, hard yellow plastic showed itself to be a line of four ducklings. They had red beaks and waddling red feet. It was cheap and it was tawdry and the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. What’s more, it was mine. In return, I gave my heart – if I hadn’t given it already.
I looked up from the ducks to Christopher. His head bowed like one of the stone angels in the village churchyard, he smiled shyly back. I couldn’t have loved him more. Gently, he showed me how the ducks, placed on the high end of the bench, would wobble their way down the length and that, if we were careful, we could catch them as they fell from the end. I couldn’t trust myself to do that, fearing the treasure would smash to the floor and be broken. I did, though, trust him.
At other times I might be found sitting on his knee, or leaning into him with my arms round his waist, as we lounged on one of the sofas in the upstair games’ room – while the older boys played billiards. Or I’d hold his hand as we marched across bristly stubble to tell our brothers lunch could be had. But another memory surfaced after I’d woken from the dream. One I’d not thought of in years. It was tangible and redolent and brought me to tears.
Sometimes, Christopher would take me to the milking sheds, to watch the cattlemen at work. I can just remember when this was done by hand and my being enthralled by the rhythm of the work and the music of bovine murmurings and plashing of the milk in the pail. I was too small to do milking: the cows vast in comparison – although I was not once afraid and could often be found clambering on a fence to talk to them, they chewing cud and listening to my words. I remember too, feeling terribly sad when milking was mechanised – worrying it might hurt the cows and that lack of human contact was something they’d miss. It being, in its own way, a form of love.
Sometime around then, Christopher took me to visit the goats. Carrying a tiny stool from the house he then collected another, larger, and a zinc bucket from a side shelter. Opening the gate to the nanny’s enclosure, we went in. She came over, leaning against us, pushing and nuzzling into our clothes. It was funny, with Christopher trying to hold her back telling me she’d eat my dress if I let her. He sent me to gather fresh grass to distract her. There was plenty, outside the pen, out of her reach. I brought back an armful.
The goat was happy and so was I. Christopher sat himself on the larger stool, at her side, the small one in front. He invited me to sit, then placed the bucket at my feet. I was entirely cocooned by him, his arms reaching around my shoulders as he guided my hands to her teats. The warmth of him, his sunny breath, the encouraging words in my ear, the rhythm of movement, contact with her flesh, the sound of the milk as it came and as it hit the pail, were together entrancing.
In the years after those heady days, I saw Christopher only sometimes. We lost touch after his father died, although I met him one more time after I’d left home. I would have been sixteen and he was just married. Later again I heard he was working at a local garage. Kevin, my best friend from junior school, also worked there. He was the validation for my tomboy antics; I always leading him into trouble. (I’ve written about Kevin elsewhere on this blog.) In many ways Kevin was a substitute for Christopher. Sometimes I wondered if they spoke of me, or knew how I’d felt about them. I wondered, too, how they ended up as work mates. I thought about visiting the garage, but I never did. Lost loves are best left in the past, where the trust you had in them can exist in the aspic of memory.