There’s going to be a choir at school, and then lots of practice for The Mary Wakefield Competition. We all have to be tested to see if we’ll be in it. Mum laughs and says I can’t sing, so it won’t be me. Miss Carver puts us in groups of six at a time and plays the piano whilst we sing. But I don’t, I mime the words without any sound, just a happy face. And I’m in the choir.
It’s the day we’re in the competition, we have our blue and white striped school summer dresses on, and we have to sit still on the bus and not get untidy. The hall is really big and full of people and there are such a lot of choirs arriving it takes ages. We’re queuing up in a line on one side of the stage, waiting whilst another choir is singing, and then we walk on, Miss Carver stands in from of us smiling, and we begin –
“Down by the Salley Gardens My love and I did meet,
She passed the Salley Gardens with little snow-white feet…”
My mouth makes the shape of all the words and I watch Miss Carver every second, looking as lively as I can. When we finish the clapping is really loud and it feels exciting. We don’t win a prize, but it doesn’t matter. I did it. I was in the choir.
I get off the bus from school, run up the drive and there are already people on the terrace in front of the house. The afternoon tea crowd Mum calls them, people on walks, some of them with dogs and children. I throw my satchel in the back kitchen, tie on an apron and Mum says “big table, for four, careful it’s hot, come back for the cakes”. I take out the tray of tea, say hello, and lay out the cups for them, then run back in for the scones, sponge cake and plates.
It’s busy, I clear each table as soon as they go so we’re ready for the next. I’m stacking up my tray after a family have gone and find a sixpence under a plate. Mum says I can keep it. As the last ones are leaving we wash up so she can get on with dinners for the guests, then I’m finished, and I can go to the river. This is the last summer for The Old Mill Guest House, then it’s going to be our proper home with no visitors, because a baby’s coming.
We’re going on a nature walk so I’m in the cloakroom getting my things on. I put my foot into one of my wellies and suddenly it’s cold and wet, my boot is half full of water. I know it’s Diana, she does lots of things she calls jokes, and I shout at her – it’s you isn’t it! She giggles and points her finger at me as if I’m silly. I empty both my boots, but I have to put them back on for the walk. Heather sees me, and when I tell her it was Diana she shouts for her to come outside.
They stand in front of each other and stare, and then Heather rushes at her and grabs her shoulders, pushing, and Diana pushes back, and they’re really fighting. The others come and we’re watching and I don’t know what to do, it’s frightening, they’re pulling hair and screaming and rolling about on the ground. Then they just stop, Heather sits up, and they grin at each other, as if it was a game. It’s over, they stand up, and as they pull their coats straight Miss Tennant comes out to take us on the walk. She doesn’t know, and nobody says anything. But I don’t like it.
I’m standing right on the edge of a cliff. A long way down below there are rocks and the sea. My legs won’t move backwards, and under my feet the ground is crumbling and falling away. I lift one foot and then the other and try to step back but it doesn’t work, and all I can do is stretch out my arms and try to keep my balance. When I look down I know I’m going to fall… Daddy! Daddy!… and I hear my voice, I’m shouting really loud, and I’m in bed, and he’s there, and I’m crying and telling him it came again, the dream came again, please don’t let it come any more…
Mum and I are doing the walk. Every night after supper we go up the path that runs by the river to the waterfall, and then through the fields for as far as she can manage. Her tummy is really big now and she can only go slowly, but she needs to do it because it helps her to sleep. She has a stick and we stop sometimes for her to lean against a wall and have a rest.
It’s cold, we have our big coats on, the sky is clear and it’s getting dark. I have a torch and I shine it in front of her feet. She thinks it must be a boy because it kicks so hard. Then she stops and says that’s enough for tonight so we turn round. I say – let me carry it for a bit, and I stretch my arms and hands under her tummy and lift up a little. It’s heavy. We stand still for a moment, I can see the moon over her shoulder, and I’m holding the baby.
When I come home from school the pram is outside on the terrace by the big rock, with the dog sitting next to it. The baby has a harness on and at each side it clips onto the inside of the pram so he’s held safe. He’s quite big and strong now, fat and smiley with beautiful white hair in curls, and I like coming home to bath him.
Walking across the terrace I can’t see him until I get near. Somehow he’s undone one of the clips on his harness and now he’s hanging over the side of the pram swinging from the other one, laughing, whilst the dog licks his face.
Dad wakes me up, shouting “get your coat on, now! Put your shoes on! Hurry, as fast as you can!” Then he runs out, and I climb out of bed and follow, I don’t know what’s happening. My bedroom door opens onto a long passage from one end of the upstairs to the other. There’s a noise, crackling, the passage is full of flames, and they’re moving towards me. I pull on my school shoes and grab my mac and run out again. The fire is nearer. Dad’s helping Mum and the baby downstairs, we have to get out.
In the garden it’s just getting light and people are shouting and running about. They keep saying the fire brigade will be here in a minute, but it doesn’t come. The fire is moving from one end of the building towards the other. It roars, things fall down, glass smashes. But some of the people go in and run out again with anything they can find, chairs, cushions, pots and pans. And Stan from the cottages comes with a ladder and goes up into the bedrooms at the end that the fire hasn’t reached. He comes back down with bundles of clothes, and Mum’s white hat on his head.
Dad sends us to Stan’s house and Edie puts Mum and the baby in their bed, because she says Mum’s in shock, and she sits with her. But I can’t stay there, and I run back to the house, just as the fire engine comes racing up the drive with its bell ringing. Men jump off, pull hoses out, run to the river and start spraying the house all over. One of them moves the people back, there are so many now, and they’re watching and talking.
Suddenly I’m angry. Why are all these people staring, this is my house, I don’t want them to watch it burning. I want them all to go away, I don’t like them all talking about it. This is where I live, it’s not their house. I want to shout at them, but I’m crying, the words won’t come out, and they can’t hear me anyway, there are too many of them, and there’s too much noise. Nobody sees me.
Later, when everyone has gone and it’s quiet I go back by myself. Half of the house is there. Most of the roof is wide open. There are some walls, enough of the stairs to climb up, and half of the corridor so I can get to my room. There isn’t much left, but I can step from beam to beam where there’s no floor between them.
Something fell on my Swiss chalet musical box and it’s smashed. Everything’s wet and smells of smoke. But there’s a little part of one wall that’s alright and my castanets are still hanging there. They’re white with tiny paintings of men on horseback on them, and red string and tassels, Mum and Dad brought them back from Spain. I hop across the beams, lift them down and slip them in my pocket.
There’s nothing else that I can recognise, but it doesn’t make me cry because it isn’t our home any more, that’s gone. I don’t know where we live now.
Everything moved pretty fast after that. Dad rented a house for us nearby, a few weeks later I turned thirteen, and shortly after I left for boarding school. Childhood was well and truly over. My parents bought a rather grand house away from Dad’s business and moved up in the world. I was only there for school and then college holidays and it never really felt like home.
Life changed so suddenly that memories of the fire were short lived, and as a family we never spoke about it once the smell of smoke and ashes had been cleaned from the household possessions that were saved. It’s only now, sixty years later, that in writing this I’ve re-lived it, and grieved for the loss of home. And little habits have come to light that connect.
I’ve spent a lifetime being particular about making wherever I’ve lived feel as much like home as I can. From student flats onwards, counting them all now, I find I’m about to move into my twentieth home since I left school. Every one took time and care to become particular to me, so that I belonged to it, even if only for a few months. Even in hotel rooms I do my best to hide my suitcase, put everything away, and conceal what feels temporary. I like to feel at home.
But it went beyond the house itself, which was re-built and became part of the business and the place I worked for many years. It was the river that was my deepest connection, where I ran wild in my natural element, wonderfully unaware that wild would not be allowed for much longer. I’m grateful I had such unrestrained freedom to create my own worlds, and though they lay dormant for many years they never left me.
A few things strike me now after re-reading all three pieces I’ve written about childhood. Amongst adults, so much remained unexplained. Events happened, people did things, no one talked about it. It was the number one unwritten rule of our family, nothing “difficult”, i.e. emotional, will be discussed. For me such silence was uneasy, uncomfortable, unsafe, and probably had a lot to do with the recurring nightmare of standing on a cliff edge. I was full of questions, and speculation that was probably a long way wide of the mark. I think I over compensated for many years by becoming an obsessive explainer.
Not knowing was coupled with not feeling heard. I noticed how many times in my recollections it would come to me – they didn’t hear me, or they weren’t listening. Adults understandably tend to think they are the ones who know and can teach, and of course they want to guide their young. But I think it really matters just as much to listen. I read something recently that stayed with me – let your children know you’re listening when they tell you about the small things, and they’ll tell you the big ones, because for them they’re both the same.
Sometimes children see right to the heart of things, and just say it like it is in ways that we’ve forgotten. And that’s a gift.
At this distance I also have far more understanding of my parents lives and how hard they worked. They both started their own businesses from scratch, with no experience, no google or grants, and learned everything from week to week on their feet. They must have been stretched to the limit at times, and it’s maybe not surprising that the stress spilled over into family friction. They were certainly a tough act to follow.
All of these things have shaped who I am, but the phrase that I kept hearing the most as I was remembering, was – I did it. Whether it was as unorthodox as getting into the choir by not singing, or daring myself to ride down hill on my bike without brakes, I set myself to do things, and I did it. I still am.