More Life Writing: When I Was Four

Of course, I don’t wear the anorak all the time. It’s for special occasions.

My piece a couple of weeks ago about my auntie, Zonya, has inspired me to share more of my life writing. Life writing is a form of non-fiction we often call memoir or diary writing.  I did a module of life writing when I was studying, and although I’m a fiction writer at heart, I do love to reminisce, so here’s another life writing piece. It’s called When I Was Four. (Sorry, it’s a bit long!)

When I Was Four

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 I felt, 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’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. The school-age kids weren’t there all the time, just during the school holidays, and when they weren’t there, life was a bit boring, to be honest.

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, the way you do many, many years later. I remember how we kids roamed around in a big bunch, chasing one another, and hiding and climbing and running. I don’t remember any fights or bullying, I remember laughing a lot. I remember one of the big kids pulling me out of the river when I fell in. (I fell in a lot actually, water and I always seem to want to come together.) 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. I was inconsolable. My mum was furious.

Yes, the river. Bodies of water have always seemed to draw me—perhaps a link to my Cornish seafaring ancestors?—and between the ages of 4 and around 17, I fell in pretty much every body of water I ever went near. I spent many hours sitting in the sunshine, and even in the cold of a January day, waiting for my clothes to dry so I wouldn’t get into trouble when I got home.

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, exciting and truly 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, plus falling into rivers of course, but I never stopped loving my jeans. I still wear them almost every day.

Of course, for the hottest part of the year, there were shorts. And I did love my shorts, even to the point of insisting on 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. A few years later, to get my head around the misery of wearing skirts, I used to pretend I was Jamie from Dr Who – he was Scottish and wore a kilt. Thank you, Frazer Hines.

Footwear was again a choice of two 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, with an anorak, if needed. What was 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.

A caravan.

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, we’d pretend the dust that rose was smoke from the embers of our stories. 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, to me, 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 devotion 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.

***

 

Uncle Harry

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When I was a little girl, in the 1960s in Tunbridge Wells, it was I think pretty normal for elderly close friends of the family to be referred to by children as Uncle and Auntie.  I had a couple of Uncles and Aunties who weren’t really family but were friends.  I have written quite a lot about Auntie Zonya, a unique soul and wonderful woman, an enigma.

But living in our grand old house in Tunbridge Wells, there were others.  In the room next door there were two hairdressers, two men, who went ‘professionally’ by French names – deemed more ‘suitable’ for hairdressers.  One called himself Rene (or Rennie as we used to say), I can’t remember what the other one called himself.  They were very ‘artistic’.   Of course now I look back and realise they were a gay couple, but in those days they were simply glamorous, artistic people, who lived together for convenience and to save money.  None of us living in the house had much of that.  It was a house full of similar people – no estate, no money, not much of anything.  There was an artist who made me a cat mask.  On the top floor was the elderly lady who owned the whole house, Miss Lilian, she had snow-white hair and almost never went out.  I was a bit scared of her.  We were a strange little community.

And in the room next door but one, on our floor, was an elderly man who lived alone.  His English was good but heavily accented.  He was from a exotic-sounding place I had never heard of – Yugoslavia – and he had come over during the second world war, and had never been able to return.  He was all alone.  Family left behind, unheard of, out of touch, maybe dead.

I don’t know what his name was really, but I called him Uncle Harry.  Perhaps he really was called Harald something.  I used to scamper into his room once or twice a week, sometimes with a story book, sometimes with paper and crayons.  He used to tell me stories.  He used to tell me about his little girl.

He always used to give me a little glass dish of tinned fruit with tinned cream poured on top, and he used to sprinkle sugar on the cream.  He kept the tins for me, in his little cupboard.  He used to tell me to run and ask my mum if it was okay for me to have it.  She always said yes, and told me to say thank you.  My mother could rarely afford such a treat.  I didn’t get much pampering (neither of us did) and I hadn’t much experience of father figures.

But Uncle Harry was gentle and indulgent.  He was softly spoken and kind.  He never told me off.  He let me chatter.  He told me stories.  He gave me pudding!

Whenever I have a dessert with cream, even now, 50 years later, I sneak a bit of sugar on top.  And when I am sad, or worried or bored, sweet things are what I crave.  Especially dairy products.

I remember sitting at his dining-table, my legs dangling, unable to reach the floor.  I felt safe.  I felt loved.  I had an uncle-figure, an older man, wiser, who had weathered storms to make his home in a bedsit in Kent.  He added hope to my life.  I wish we hadn’t moved away, I would have liked to know him when I was older.