My first Love

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.

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Getting stuck in:

Keen to get started in my new role, I asked to use one of the photographs offered at interview for my first foray into archive poetry. Permission was granted, with the senior archivist tracking the image down and sending a digitised version for inclusion here. It’s the one I chose at the time as it allowed me to talk about the likely date, social status, the relationship, the lack of backdrop and why that might be, the costumes worn and the fabrics of the time. I spoke about how I would teach a workshop based on this image, adapting my approaches for Yr 9 students and a more adult group.

On receiving the copy, I determined to write poems relevant to the time – and exploring the situation. As I wanted to begin writing, prior to my induction into the archives, I chose not to pursue additional information – preferring to cast stories around the enigmatic couple, questioning who they were, what the occasion and why they chose to record the event.

Theses first poems have been written with a Victorian tone but move into alternative structural configurations. I hope you enjoy some or all of my work. Feel free to drop me some comments regarding the posts, which poems you prefer and why.

Best wishes,

AG
Poet in Residence: Portsmouth City Council Library and Archive Service [2019]
January 29th
Image courtesy of Portsmouth City Council Library and Archive Service: for whom this blog is being completed as part of the Portsmouth City of Stories, Arts Council funded, project.
Archive ref: 700A/3/2

The Couple
(Names and Date Unknown)

You sit there in your Sunday best
its unwashed cloth, closeted
from moths, so you’d impress.
No backdrop framed a life for you
except, a plain one, unremarked:
a future, stark.

The printed likeness of your faces,
shadow-toned, without due smile,
no wily graces; no breath
to lift your hearts, beyond
the ribs that clutched them, then,
and in which cage they ceased:
hands dropped away, again, released.

The future gone. No dreams
to ride out from the storm,
no place to hide as maggots swarm
and render body back to bone:
in your cold grave, there, alone.

The names that grew themselves to you
became detached,
no longer matched, to whom
you once held claim in that life’s cruel,
cruel, and bitter game.

Amanda Garrie
[January 2019]

In Grace

In wardrobe clothes they pose,
she out of widow’s weeds – no longer lost.
Her bonnet trimmed with roses, growing there
beneath the brim; his watch-chain,
borrowed, not to cost a penny more
than pitiful allowances afford.

It’s not a time to dance or flounce
bright rings, as is the fashion
of those who’re wedded-once,
but time to be sedate. He elevated
to higher status in reward: equals, now,
in all things the church and law allow.
No time to contemplate quite how they might
consummate this union they undertake.

He meek, she hardly mild but forced to seek
solace in another man: one past
his peak but, whom she will shape to be,
her champion – for when their middle years are done
and she is weak, from every child and burden;
the toil and heartache, that must come
to those who strive to live a life, to build
themselves a place
to gild themselves in grace.

Amanda Garrie
January 2019


Pets, Emotions and the Embedding of Memory

image from Wikipedia
image from Wikipedia
Our parents were keen that my brother and I learned about life, compassion and loss, by caring for pets. Of, course I say parents, plural, but my mother could not always be part of this equation and I have no knowledge what her real influence was, apart from the budgerigar.

Our budgie, joined us when I was a baby. He was, apparently, my mother’s choice in that she refused the more common blue variety, insisting on one that was bright green. A few well placed yellow feathers gave ours the look of a cheeky boy, so that’s how he was named – Cheeky for short. If this was my mother’s choice, it reminds me there was a fun side to her that I seldom glimpsed, but I think it more likely my brother’s call and that the pet was a distraction for him when I was born.

It was, though, when a replacement was needed I witnessed my mother’s insistence on the colour. I was about eight, at this point, but didn’t ask her reasoning. Her brother, my uncle, had an aviary of such birds but mainly blue; perhaps my mother saw a green one as an oddity, echoing her own strangeness, or perhaps, to her artistic self, the pop of colour brought her joy. Anyway, it was our first edition Cheeky that provided one of my earliest memories – anchoring, for me, a period where my mother was at home and where life must have equated to somewhere near normal.

It was the practice in those days, to place very young children in the fresh air for the afternoon; coach built prams accommodating offspring until around two years of age. These ‘naps’ lasted in the region of two hours and happened more or less year round, barring thunderstorms or other times of driving rain. It gave mothers a welcome break and built resilience, both mental and physical, in their children.

On the day in question, I remember it to be pleasant, later fixing it as being autumn – on account of coloured leaves swirling above my head. I recall liking them and the nearly bare trees, against the pale blue sky. I was pleased too, because my mother brought Cheeky out to keep me company, saying it was a nice day and the air would do him good. His cage hung from a chrome stand and had an elasticated ‘skirt’: a bag made of lightweight plastic, slipped over the cage base, stopping thrown seed from strewing on the floor. (Note: much of the detail for this description comes from our having the cage for many years, so that I saw it daily, bolstering the visual memory, nonetheless I was aware of the bright gleam of sunshine on thin metal bars, at the time.)

I know that, as I glimpsed the cage, I chatted to Cheeky in my own way. But it was when the breeze strengthened and the cage began to swing that I became excited. I can remember trying to sit up,  putting my hand on the left side of the pram and pulling so that I was half raised. I would have been strapped in, of course, and frustrated not to sit up entirely – but then his cage came crashing onto the pram. I rolled back with the shock, bundled in all my warm clothes, but rallied and took up the conversation again. Cheeky, agitated by his unexpected flight, began to calm down. (Note: this detail of reasoning, comes from subsequent reflection on the embedded visual.) But here is the strangest thing: I can remember, and have always remembered, thinking, ‘I have a friend to talk to now; Cheeky is my friend,’ delighting in the fact. I absolutely remember trying to tell him the word friend, but was also conscious my attempts at the word were not right, trying again and again. I have then to deduce: I had the capacity for thought and for embedding memory, but not the language to articulate it. I knew my chat was merely babble.

Now, I am sure many will say this is a false memory, that presents itself as real: that it came from versions others told. I cannot prove it otherwise, but can say this: my brother, seven years older than me, was shocked to hear me speak of this a few years back. He, as the only witness, told me more. Apparently, he arrived home from school to find the cage tipped onto the pram, as I describe. He could see it had blown over and worried that our pet was hurt or flown. When he saw all was well he became  amused at my jabber, being more than he had heard me talk before.

In the way of older brothers, he decided to entertain me with his superior knowledge, explaining birds ate seeds, but others also ate worms. To show me what he meant he proceeded to find one, bringing it to let me see. And yes, you’ve guessed, I grabbed it from his hand and gobbled it right down. Terrified he’d poisoned me he ran for help, telling only of the fallen cage and fretting for the rest of the day, in case he was found out. Thankfully, I have no memory of the worm event, excepting a vague image of my mother, with her dark hair and housework pinny, rescuing me from the garden where my brother had left us.

As to exactly when this all occurred, I can’t be sure, but clues remain. The visual chain memory hints at the second of my homes, making me nearly three, if my assumption of autumn is correct. On the other hand, my brother insists it was before we moved (a garden also overlooked by trees), putting me at less than two. Elements of the story suggest this to be true. I don’t really accept I could embed such memory earlier than this, although the instinctive consumption of the worm might contradict that. Beyond this it is the absence of my grandmother, who joined our household when we moved, and the presence of my mother that seems to prove my brother right. That I had the capacity of thought, with only some understanding of language and without the means to articulate it is, however, undeniably clear to me.

Where it all began

early days at school
early days at school

I began life in rural Oxfordshire: in a village of both political and religious dissent; a place that harboured secrets and where tales of witchcraft still whispered in the walls. Within that context, I was nomadic from the age of two.  

My mother suffered from serious mental health issues and, although her mother (Nanna) was drafted in to fill the mothering space, I was determined to be free range. Family time and energies were caught up with other things and, with a close village community, my wanderings rarely caused concern.

Perhaps it was the notion of things not being right at home that lead people to take me in, or perhaps I was an enchanting child. Whatever the reason, I walked through open doors and many that were normally closed. I was welcomed at tables where others feared to go and it is that broad church of experience, that began to carve the person that is me.

Who Am I?

Who am I indeed? Who are any of us?

If we are the sum total of our experiences, why am I not the same as those who shared those experiences with me? Current thinking suggests mindset has much to do with it. I think they might be right.

I’m a very positive, pro-active person. Afterall, you’ll never know if you can fly unless you jump; they might just be telling you that you can’t, so they have the power. So I jumped. And here I am.

What I am needs more explaining: I learned early on, when life gets tough you can curl up like a woodlouse and either dry out or get trodden on, or you can push yourself on towards a different now. That isn’t always easy and sometimes can only happen in small steps – but those steps add up and the difficulties, once overcome, give you a very valuable perspective. Check out my posts to see where some of my perspectives come from.

Locations:

Physically: now usually somewhere near the south coast of England, but have been known to travel to much of Europe; Croatia, Bosnia; even India, fulfilling a promise I made when I was four.

Mentally: mostly in several places at the one time, but always enjoying the ride.

Spiritually: an eclectic mix, essentially atheist but totally believing in the physics of persistent energy – everything that has ever existed is still out there in some form, or another. So, lets keep it positive folks.