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


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.