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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Divided

I was four when my mother, detained under ‘The Mental Health Act’, was taken to a secure facility for the insane. My brother was eleven. Nanna, who already lived with us, seemed to think it was our fault so I was sorry I’d ever been naughty. Routines continued as usual and we were fed and clothed at least.

My mother’s absence was almost total for two years, but one Christmas we were told there would be a visit home. Dad explained she would feel strange and that we shouldn’t be too forward with her. I worried. What did our mother look like? Would she remember us?

The visit was to see how she coped. She didn’t. She didn’t even look at me and when we were left together for a few minutes she started fumbling at the things on the sideboard, and making funny noises in her throat. Then, with a dash, she ran from the house screaming we were trying to kill her. She was wrong, but I could see she was scared. She ran to a neighbour’s. I followed, then went back for Dad. The ambulance took her from there.

Sometime afterwards, my brother was taken to see her at the asylum; a mistake Dad never spoke of, nor repeated. I was saved that trauma.

Later yet, when a combination of new drugs promised to tame her, our mother was moved to what Nanna called ‘a new-fangled clinic’. It was the early 1960s, I was eight and we had hope.

One evening after tea, Dad drove us in the old blue Austin Cambridge, to where our mother now stayed. The building lay hidden from the road, behind dark trees, but the twin entrance and exit gateways spoke of grandeur. He pulled the car into the crescent drive and there stood The Elms: Victorian, austere, huge. Bay-windows threatened from either side of the wide front door. Lights blazed from them in defiance: one room revealing perhaps forty community chairs pressed against its bare walls. Two ornate ceiling-roses seemed mocked, by lengths of dark flex from which dangled bare light-bulbs. The room was soulless with no people.

We waited on the stone steps, the sound of the doorbell echoing into the house. Then the door, heavy on its hinges, swung smoothly open and we were ushered in.

The grey haired nurse said, ‘I’ll tell the doctor you’re here,’ her starched uniform billowing as she walked away, and the sound of her shoes loud in the silence.

She took herself into a room where one wall had been replaced by glass, crisscrossed by wire. It reminded me of the cage I had for my rabbit. Everything here was strange.

The nurse had gone through, and beyond, another glass partition that led to an office. I could see two men there, in grey suits. One was seated and smoking a pipe, the other leaning towards him hands resting on a paper-ridden desk. They were talking and kept on doing so, despite the nurse’s presence. Book shelves flanked an unused fireplace.

Dad was sharp: ‘Don’t stare,’ he said.

I was sure he spoke more to Nanna than us, she was the nosy one, but I took his cue and looked down. The black and white hall tiles had been set diamond-fashion, so they looked more sophisticated and less like a chess board. My feet fitted perfectly across each diagonal and I couldn’t resist a few hops to scotch my boredom: whispering, ‘Don’t step on the cracks, or the devil will get you,’ as I jumped.

Nanna grabbed my arm saying, ‘Stop that,’ and I was made to stand still like my brother.

Brubby stood, in his school cap and gabardine mac, moving sometimes to pull up one of his long grey socks. He had new school shoes, but I still wore my summer ones that had little three-petalled patterns and dots cut out from the white leather. My socks were long ones too, but white with patterns knitted into the nylon. They were not as warm as my brother’s. I wore a blue serge skirt with straps that went under my jumper and which stopped it from slipping beyond my waist. That was Nanna’s idea. I looked around.

The hall was large, in keeping with the house, and a wide staircase with a curved wooden banister rose from it. You could smell the warmth of the beeswax someone had used to make the wood gleam. I wondered if my brother wanted to slide down it like I did. He was probably too grown up, so I pushed the idea away and imagined walking elegantly down the stairs instead. I would be wearing a long silk dress, which would swish against the gloriously carved newel-post, attracting the attention of guests at a summer ball. I was prone to make believe. Dad encouraged it, but Nanna didn’t approve of things that weren’t true – except when she told lies.

I looked beyond the stairs, where chipped cream paintwork sat in contrast. There were two doors firmly closed: one to the room we’d seen from outside and the other, further into the hall, on the right. I could hear voices murmuring from behind it.

Tugging Dad’s sleeve, I asked, ‘Is my Mum in there?’

‘Perhaps,’ he said, and left it at that. He looked tired.

Brubby pointed out a passageway just by the stairs. He was a few steps forward, so I joined him to see. There was a faint whiff of boiled cabbage. I wrinkled my nose at him. He nodded, doing it back.

Just down the passage, and set back, was a second stair, parallel to the main staircase and divided from it by a wall. This stair was narrow though, with no carpet. I was about to ask why it was there, when a man from the glass room appeared. He’d put on a white coat, but hadn’t bothered to do it up. I couldn’t remember if he was the one with the pipe, or the other one, but it hardly mattered.

‘Mr. __________?’ he asked.

He opened the door to the first room, the one with the chairs. It was cold in there and we weren’t invited to sit. I was glad because the chairs had no arms or homely cushions and I didn’t like their clashing colours: red and orange, grey and aquamarine, all mixed up one next to another. It was horrid.

Discounting us entirely, the man spoke only to Dad. He said he was a psychiatrist. He asked lots of questions and his tone was neither friendly nor respectful. I didn’t like him and I didn’t want to remember his name, so I didn’t fix it in my brain.

He asked, ‘Have there been others in the family with a nervous disposition?’

Dad said, ‘Not that I know of, but I assume you mean in her own family, not mine. Mrs _________ will know more about that.’

I was glad Dad was being snooty too, but it seemed strange to hear him give Nanna’s proper name.

‘Is that important?’ Nanna asked, then added, ‘My father may have committed suicide.’

I looked at Brubby. This was new to us. Nanna never talked about her father except, sometimes, to say he’d been a fool. We listened quite agog.

‘He drowned in an eel pond,’ she said. ‘What happened wasn’t really clear, but he’d taken off his watch and clothes and no-one in their right mind would want to swim with eels. Would they?’

I thought that part would be right, so this might not be lies.

The psychiatrist made a note then said, ‘Current thinking suggests your wife’s condition is hereditary, Mr ___________.’

It was the second jolt of the evening. What was he thinking to say it out like that? He might be forgiven not knowing this eight year old girl had a strong vocabulary, but my brother was fourteen and would certainly know what he’d meant. There were four of us to hear it, but not one spoke of it again: each letting the implications fester on in us. Shame on that man.

Dad used his quiet voice to ask, ‘Can the children see their mother?’

The reply was matter of fact. ‘That won’t be possible. Your wife has had electric shock treatment and is now recovering. It would be better if you came back alone in a few days.’

I was worried. Electricity was dangerous and I didn’t like the thought of someone using it to shock my mother. And what did that mean? But I wasn’t in a position to challenge this man. I hated him. Not only was our hope removed, but fear had now been added.

(to be continued.)

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.

Opening the Door

This blog is intended as an episodic memoir: piecing together, and reflecting on, the shards of my past. To me, the entries will be factual, although caution tells me my perspective cannot always be correct. I do not seek to offend, indeed most persons mentioned are no longer with us, but it should be noted the events and circumstances that created me, the consequential philosophies I’ve come to hold, do not sit easily in the normalised world.

It is written in conjunction with a PhD in Creative Writing, beginning 1st October, 2015 – born of a lifelong interest in literary representation: the projected outcomes being the creation of an abstracted novel, and the publishing of an academic treatise exploring both the research findings and the creative process.

I’d be privileged if you would join me on my journey.

AG