Reflections on life

CHILDHOOD RE-VISITED, PART ONE.

1951 – I sit in the front row with the little ones, because I’m four. It’s a really big room, with windows so far up I can’t see out. There are some pictures on the wall of Jesus, and of animals, and a big map of the whole world, and there’s a really big blackboard, and it’s on little wheels.

Miss Thompson stands in front of us and she’s tall and thin, with grey hair and glasses, and she leans forward. She’s kind, but she doesn’t talk to us very much, she has to teach the big ones in the rows behind us because they will be leaving school soon. So she talks over our heads and we do our own work. I have a counting book and a pencil and there are tiny pictures of bottles in a line, and I count them and write down the number. There are lots of lines of things to count, but we have plenty of time. 

It’s play time and we rush out into the playground shouting, and across the lane into the little wood. We’re all building houses under the big fir trees with rows of stones from the stream, and mine has great big tree roots for some of the walls. The big boys help the older girls make their houses, carrying stones for them. Then Miss Thompson comes out onto the steps shaking a big bell, and we all have to go back in again. It’s my ABC book this time and I have to draw them.

Mummy comes when it’s time to go home, and she waits at the top of the hill and calls for me to come up. But I don’t, I’m playing in my house, and I want her to come down and see it, so I wait for her. Then we walk home, up the steep hill, past Mrs. Hall’s house and the big woolly dog who rushes out and wags his tail, along the main road a little bit, then through the fields to our house. I count the trees and the flowers and the sheep, and sometimes a car goes past.

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I’m sitting on Uncle Peter’s knee by the fire, leaning on his shoulder. He’s talking to Mummy and Daddy but sometimes he stops and puts his finger on one of the roses on my nightie and it turns into a penny! He can make them come out of anywhere, even my nose. The fire is just right now, no flames, red and hot, and Mummy swings the little shelf round from one side to the middle and puts the kettle on it to boil.

But it’s bed time for me, and she takes one of the lamps and holds it up so I can see the stairs, because I want to climb them myself. The steps are big and made of stone, and they’re cold, but I can do it. My room is small, with my bed and a chair, and a window. It’s dark when the lamp has gone, but I know in the morning when the light comes I can watch rabbits playing on the hill.

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My brother and I are walking through the woods with Mummy. The leaves are all browny colours and falling off the trees, and I like it where they are in heaps and you can run through them, kicking them up in the air. I like the beech trees the best. We’ve seen a fox, it was just his tail in the bracken, and squirrels, and lots of birds.

Mummy starts to sing and we join in because we sing it every time –

I love to go a wandering, along the mountain track,

I love to go a wandering, my knapsack on my back.

There’s a place where we come to a style in the wall, you climb up steps made of stones that stick out, and on the other side is the road. I don’t like roads and I don’t want to go that way, and I cry. But Mummy says come on, it’s only a little way until we’re home now, or we’d have to go all the way back through the woods. I want to.

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I’m sitting in the kitchen sink which is quite deep, waiting for my bath. Mummy lit the fire in the stove and there’s a big pan of water getting warm now so she can pour it over my tummy, which makes me laugh. 

Whilst she’s washing me I look out of the window and right down the hill to the river. It’s where we went with Uncle Tom to the big, deep pool that I can see, and I sat on his shoulders and he swam right across to the other side. I want to go swimming.

But Mummy says “clothes on please”, pulls on my liberty bodice and buttons it. I hate it, the buttons are rubber and smell funny and it feels tight. But Mummy doesn’t listen. She sits me on the edge of the kitchen table and lifts down the bottle of Cod Liver Oil from the shelf. I shut my mouth tight, but she makes me, then a spoonful of Orange Juice, before I can go out to play.

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Mummy’s not here, she’s in hospital, and Daddy’s getting breakfast for me and my brother. He hasn’t lit the fire in the stove so the milk on my weetabix is cold. I don’t like it. But he’s cross and just wants us to be quick and get to the bus stop then my brother can go to school. He takes me to the top of the hill, I can walk down, and says Mrs. Hall will come for me because he’ll be at the hospital, and she’ll stay with us.

Mrs. Hall is very big, she’s carrying a little bag, and it’s hard for her to walk up the hill after school. She’s very slow and her face gets red, but I skip for a while till she catches up. She makes tea for us when my brother comes home and she’s nearly as good at it as Mummy. Then it gets dark and bed time, and she comes upstairs with us, and I show her I can get undressed on my own. 

I’ve got my nightie on, and she’s taking her clothes off too. I get into bed, and she gets in next to me. She is really, really big and this is my bed, but she says “all girls together!” and it’s just for tonight whilst Daddy isn’t here. When she lies down and turns off the lamp I’m squashed between the wall and her back, and it’s like a mountain. And I don’t like it.

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Mummy’s busy so I go next door to see Lizzie, and she’s baking and says I can come and help. She puts a Tea towel round my waist and rolls up my sleeves and then brings a stool to the kitchen table for me to stand on. She’s making jam tarts because Ted likes them and she’s rolling out the pastry. She tears off a little piece for me and brings me a rolling pin and puts flour on the table in front of me. 

I like squeezing the pastry into a ball, really hard, then I roll it and roll it until it’s really thin. Lizzie lets me cut the round shapes to go into the little hollows in the tin, and she spoons in the jam. Whilst they are in the oven we clean up the table and talk, and then she takes them out. She puts mine on a plate to take home, and Daddy says they’re very good indeed. 

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We walk up through the fields to the road and wait for the bus, it’s red, and Ted’s driving it. And it follows the river all the way to the lake, and then goes over the bridge and into the village. We’re shopping, and I like watching. We go to Mr. Asplin’s, up two steps into the white shop where there is a pretend pig’s head on the wall.

He’s very big and wears a white coat with a blue and white striped apron over it and a white hat. His face is fat and red, and he talks to everybody, but I think he likes Mummy best because when it’s her turn he’s more smiley. She takes the big knife wrapped in a tea towel out of her shopping bag and he holds it next to a metal stick and then swishes them backwards and forwards so fast I can’t see them. Mummy says it makes it sharp, and I’m never ever to touch it.

She asks for pork chops and sausages, and he opens a big door behind him and brings out some meat, and then chops off four pieces with a little axe. Then when everything is packed into Mummy’s bag he says “that’ll feed you nicely, Doris, cheerio.” I like cheerio. When we’re going down the two steps out of the shop I say “Mr. Asplin looks like the pig on the wall doesn’t he.” Mummy says that’s very rude, and I’m naughty. But I know I’m not, because it’s true.

At the Co-op my favourite is watching Mr. Cooper make parcels. Mummy wants currants. There are little shiny things in a line on the counter, from very small to quite big, and he takes one from the middle and puts it on one side of the big weighing scales so it goes down. Then he takes a big jar of currants from the shelf behind him and pours them onto the other side, until that goes down a bit, but they look the same.

He turns to the big roll of brown paper behind him, pulls a piece out and tears it off. Putting it on the counter he folds and folds, really fast, until it’s a like an ice cream cone. Then he pours the currants into it, folds the top over, and ties it with brown string. And it’s so quick, Mummy says he’s like a magician. He does it for all the things in the jars, and the big tins of tea, and he makes a handle with the string on one of our parcels so that I can carry it.

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Mummy pushes her hand behind the cushion and pulls out a little orange coloured box with silver stripes on it. She lifts the lid and inside there’s a row of little white sticks. She puts one in her mouth, lights a match, and puts the other end in the flame. Then she takes the stick out of her mouth and blows, and a lot of smoke comes out. 

I want to try. When she’s gone I put my hand behind the cushion, pull out the box and take one of the sticks. It’s quite soft. I push the box back, reach up for the matches and run out into the garden to sit under the damson tree. I light a match and put the stick in my mouth and hold it as still as I can in the flame, and then blow like Mummy did. There’s a bit of smoke, but nothing much happens, and the end of it doesn’t taste very nice. So I throw it into a bush and run inside to put the matches back. Nobody sees.

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Mummy’s talking to a lady who’s come to the door holding a tin in her hand that has a string round it and pictures of children on the sides. It’s for collecting money for children who have no parents or toys or anything. She thinks Mummy might go to the houses near here and ask people, and I say I will. Mummy says that’ll be good because it’s the holidays and it’s something for me to do.

So I walk to the Misses Morris, because they like me and are nice. They are very old and have a big sitting room with lots of things in it to look at, and they always open the glass case and take out the beautiful wooden camel for me to hold. And they put some money in my tin and say good luck.

Then I walk on to Park Farm, and up the long hill to Colwith, right at the top. The houses aren’t near each other, it’s a long way from each one to the next one, but I know where they are because we go in the jeep with Daddy sometimes. I don’t do it all on one day, because I have lots of days before school starts. 

Nearly every house has a lady who puts some money in my tin. But at one house, where there’s a pretty window in the front door with coloured flowers in the glass, the lady says “is it for animals?” I say, no, it’s for children. She says “no thank you, I just do animals”. I stare at her, and my face gets hot, but I don’t know what to say.

My tin gets heavy and the lady is pleased when she comes for it. After a while Mummy tells me there was three pounds five shillings and tenpence in it, and they are very pleased with me because the other lady who used to do it only collected nine shillings. But I think it won’t be enough for all the children.

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Mummy and I are walking down a long drive with big trees over us and it feels dark. Then we come out into the sunshine and there’s a really big house made of grey stone, with a lot of windows, and a lady is waiting for us at the front door, and smiling. She has a green and white striped skirt on and a green jacket, and her hair is black and pulled back tight. 

She’s Miss Gregson and she’s very pleased I’m here, because now I’m five it’s time for proper school. I like her very much and we go straight inside. She’s taking me to my class room, because there are lots, and we’re walking down a big hall. I tell her that we’re moving to a new house soon too, and it’s right by the river. She thinks that will be lovely. So do I.

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