Last week I talked about world-building. I was talking about making any setting of your work of fiction real for the reader. It’s not just about how it looks, how you describe the setting for the reader, it’s also about an authentic emotional reaction. When I was trying to capture a sense of setting as part of a course many years ago, I wrote this piece called, simply, ‘When I was four’, it’s based on my childhood memory of roaming blissfully through meadowland in Kent, in the south of England. It is rather long – sorry about that.
More than anything, all those years ago, I remember the buttercups. I was—what? Four years old? And standing in the gently sloping field, I remember the delight, the astonishment of being surrounded by all these tall flowers—almost shoulder high, and I looked about me in wonder at the bright golden flower heads, interwoven with ox-eye daisies and other, unknown meadow flowers. All were almost as tall as I was, and I felt I had strayed into a magic kingdom. I felt like a princess. I’ve been trying to recapture that feeling all my life.
There were bees, and butterflies. I don’t remember much else about that time really, except for two things, the river and the caravan.
All the mothers who worked on the farm brought their kids with them during the holidays. Some of us, the littler ones, were there all the time, too young to go to school. The group of children ranged in age from toddler to pre-teen, or possibly teenage. I remember the big boys seemed very big, but they may have been just 10 or 12. While our mothers worked in the fields, planting or earthing up or digging up potatoes, or cutting cabbages, or training beans or hops or picking them, or laying straw beneath the strawberry plants or – joyous task! – picking the strawberries, we kids roamed the countryside freely, day in, day out, while the long days of the school holidays lasted, and then the big kids went back to school and there was just me and a couple of babies.
We may have been bored much of the time, but I don’t remember it. We may have squabbled and fought, but again, I can’t remember it now. And very likely it rained, but I only recall days of sunshine and warm soft breezes, of laughter and happiness and freedom. I remember how we kids roamed around in a big bunch, chasing and hiding and climbing and running. I remember one of the big kids pulling me out of the river when I fell in. I remember standing on the little bridge and staring down at the water, and that my Dalek, from Woolworths, fell in and it was borne away a short distance before disappearing from my sight and I was inconsolable.
Yes, the river. Bodies of water have always seemed to draw me – perhaps a link to a seafaring ancestor? – and between the ages of 4 and around 17, I fell in pretty much every body of water I went near. I spent many hours sitting in the sunshine waiting for my clothes to dry.
I don’t remember the clothes I first wore when we used to go ‘to the fields’ – but after a short while – or maybe after payday – my Mum bought me something new and exciting and wonderful – my first jeans. I remember the waist was elasticated and that the broad stretchy band was soft and fuzzy on the inside and I loved the feel of it. I doubt the new jeans stayed stiff and dark blue for long, what with scrambling up trees and over stiles and gates, crawling through dirt and up and rolling down hills, but I never stopped loving my jeans.
Of course, for the hottest part of the year, there were shorts. And I did love my shorts, even to the point of wearing them at Christmas, with long socks and a jumper and my knees turning blue with cold. I hated skirts and dresses and girly stuff.
Footwear was again a choice of 2 simple pleasures – red T-bar sandals for the summer and black wellies for the winter. I loved both of these. I’m fairly sure I tried to wear my new wellies to bed once, though that may have been one of my cousins.
So, it was stripy t-shirt, shorts and sandals by day during the summer, my dark hair done up in one long fat plait down my back. And for the winter it was a hand-knitted jumper, jeans and wellies – what was there not to love?
As I’ve said, the river used to draw us kids, and we enjoyed the countryside, chasing, climbing, hiding, but the best, most amazing thing about this part of the farm was what lay at the top of a sloping field. Something I had never seen before, something that seemed at once magical, yet homely.
An old gypsy caravan, it had been parked there, I suppose, as a refuge from the weather for workers or whomever. We kids found endless hours of amusement in it. The girls particularly, were keen to play house and furnish the bare walls and floor from their imaginations.
The caravan had been completely stripped of all the colourful and ingenious fittings that normally make a caravan a home. And I don’t remember if it was brightly painted outside or not.
I can remember how much I loved the echoey noise my feet made as I clomped up and down the bare boards, and how we used to put dusty soil into the abandoned grate and as we stirred it up with sticks, pretend the dust that rose was smoke from the embers. And I enjoyed sitting on the top step looking out across the fields.
I wasn’t brave or adventurous like some of the other, bigger kids, and they could never persuade me to jump from the top step as they did, it was scary-high. But I managed to jump from the bottom step and the middle step.
There was a handsome young man called Roy. He wasn’t one of the kids. At sixteen he was one of the grown-ups and he worked on the farm, driving the tractor. He always waved to me, and would often stop and talk to me. I – of course – followed him around with the worshipful attitude of a small puppy. He used to stop the big kids picking on me, so there must have been squabbles and rivalries after all, and I still remember his kindness to a little kid with gratitude.
But looking back to that time, the overwhelmingly pervasive memory of those days for me is that of standing shoulder-deep amongst a crowd of buttercups and feeling as though I were part of something magical and beautiful. I’m still trying to recapture that moment when I was four.