The following is an excerpt from the book I am currently writing titled: It’s Been A Long Time Coming
Rooks nesting in the elm trees soar in the wind above me as I roam freely round the farm. My Dad reaches me across the fields as he whistles his favourite tunes while he works. There is the familiar sound of a steam train puffing past two fields away, as they do half a dozen times a day, answering the sign to “whistle” as they shoot under the road bridge to warn the next station of their imminent arrival. Sometimes my sister and I walk or cycle down our lane, out onto the road and a short way along so we can stand on the bridge to watch a train go shooting past under our feet. Clouds of steam and coal smoke stinging our noses with its pungent smell.
A chicken that my dad dispatched with his farmer’s efficient dispassion, hangs by its feet in our pantry. My mum takes it down and sits outside the backdoor to pluck it. She tells me how she doesn’t like handling feathery things and hates this job, though it has to be done. Then I watch with fascination as she guts it, plunging her bare hand inside its back end and explaining the innards to my enquiring mind. All the preparations for a Sunday roast.
Saliva flows in my mouth as the sweet smell of Mum’s cooking wafts through the kitchen door to where I sit on the hall floor with paper and pencils drawing horses. I am obsessed with horses, trying to draw them mostly; repeating my attempts over and over to try to capture their elegant and graceful shapes. Never quite feeling satisfied with what is a very difficult subject for a child artist. But it keeps me absorbed for a good many hours on rainy days.
I love assembling round the family table to eat the produce from our land, with laughter that turns order and formality into family fun. We visit our grandparents often. Pop Swat, as we call him, never speaks much. He sits in his armchair with a cigarette hanging from his lower lip, while Nona (she didn’t like being called grandma), will be busy in the kitchen until we all sit down to eat roast beef with vegetables from her kitchen garden. Even the horseradish sauce is homemade from the roots she has dug up, washed and prepared before we arrived. Her leathery hands and dirty fingernails are proof of her many hours in her beloved garden. A farmer’s daughter, she always seems healthy and strong, her cheeks flushed and her forehead tanned from hours in the fresh air. Every time we visit there seems to be some new treat in stall for us. Fresh picked peas in their pods, or strawberries in season or hot fruit pie and custard, with apples from her Bramley tree.
I am sculpting tunnels and hills in my sandpit; the innocent joy of absorption as imaginary worlds unfold in every moment of play. I surround myself with toys on my bedroom floor, and with a bit of input from Mum, my sister and I play monopoly or card games like cribbage, that our other granny taught us. But more than anything I love to create dens built in ditches or hedges, for hiding from grown-ups or other imaginary threats; spying from my treehouse in the secret shady boughs of the yew tree that oversees the vegetable garden.
All this held in nature’s generous tapestry or in the holding boundary of our home. Even those boredom times when nothing captures my interest..
I remember cycling to the country village with sixpence in my pocket for those colourful sweets stored in big glass jars on high shelves above the soup tins and cigarettes. The impossible choice whether to risk something new or to stick with penny chews and sherbet lemons that are my favourites. Sugary treats all served with patience by the aproned lady behind the wooden counter.
Tottering about on Christmas roller skates with my sister. Laughter and bruises. Taking her for granted as my mentor and sometimes my tormentor too. She is willing and kind towards her younger brother, but sometimes I do test her patience so that games turn into arguments or occasional tussles over the ownership of toys; but nothing serious that our mother can’t help us resolve.
Stormy nights with rain spattering the glass and wind that creeps through the leaky casement windows, shifting the curtains to raise my fears of the dark where danger lurks, driving me deeper under the weight and safety of those all woollen blankets in my own familiar bed next to the paper-patterned wall.
And when sleep won’t come the grandfather clock in the hall cuts the stillness of those lonely small hours with its quarterly call for attention, groaning its tired mechanism to life with chimes that reach up the stairs, counting my family safely through the night.
My sister and I spend hours playing in the small river that borders our farm; not that it seems small to us. Being born a Pisces fish, water is my element and I can lose myself for hours, building pebble dams in the shallows, fishing with jam jars for sticklebacks or floating the raft I made with two oil drums and some wooden planks.
I often wake early to the sound of Dad banging the back door shut for the first milking of the day. Cows wait their turn in line, swollen udders bulge and swing as they shuffle into place for their twice daily routine. I dress myself and go out to move among them with confidence, dwarfed by their gentle heaving shapes; steam rising in the early morning air; hot grassy breath spilling from their wet noses.
I am standing quietly in the corner of one of the cow sheds watching the birth of new life as my dad hauls on two slimy legs that are sticking out of the back end of a very fat cow. I am in mild shock as he pulls and sends verbal encouragement to the mum. A limp body slowly emerges and then flops on to the soft straw in a heap. My Dad pokes a strand of straw up its nostrils and what seemed inert miraculously comes to life with a jerk. We stand back as the mother turns instinctively to lick and massage her calf. Within a few minutes the newborn struggles up onto its spindly legs and lurches forward looking for a teat for its first drink of colostrum.
My feelings turn from disgust to wonder, witnessing the start of a new cycle of life, something timeless, universal and yet so intimate. It’s an early taste of what will be a pivotal point in my life when my own daughter is born, twenty five years later. Not much is said. My Dad is relieved at the safe arrival of the new calf and happy that his job is done. It’s all part of farm work and the farming year, which I take for granted on one level, as it is the only reality I know.
Ruth, a friend of our Mum’s, lives in a cottage up the road. She and mum met at teacher training college and having no children of her own, Ruth invites us to visit for the day sometimes. I sense her mystical nature, she is creative and artistic, introducing us to things beyond the world I know at home.
One birthday she gives me a little homemade booklet depicting the story of St Francis in words and pictures she has put together herself out of her own love for the saint. This is my first conscious memory of connecting religion and the sacred with nature. I find it very inspiring and have kept the booklet all through my life as a treasured memento of how Ruth opened me to the divine.
There were other things Ruth taught me, and I don’t know if she ever realised how much she influenced my early development. When she discovered I was crazy about boats, (more on this later) she gave me a stamp collection, comprising two meticulously presented albums that she had inherited from her uncle. He had been a sailor in the merchant navy and had specialised in stamps depicting ships and sailing boats, mostly from Caribbean Islands, Cape Verde, Mauritius; the exotic places he had travelled to, no doubt. I loved these little images of beautiful schooners and other merchant ships in full sail. So exciting and romantic to my young mind.
When I was in my early teens Ruth gave me a thick hardback volume she must have found second hand; five hundred pages depicting traditional art and crafts from all the countries of Asia. What a gift! I fell in love with oriental art and particularly Japanese woodcut prints which I would later study in more depth at art college. Recalling all this now, I am realising Ruth’s generosity and foresight. She was always poor of pocket and poor in health, humble in her wisdom, an amateur astrologer, primary school teacher, nature lover, hedge-witch in the best sense of the word, spiritually imbued and a good friend to my mother, who loved to be stretched by Ruth’s depth and wisdom, but who could never quite hold those qualities in her own being.
I feel very sad looking back that I rarely visited Ruth in my adult years. I never showed her the appreciation she deserved before hearing one day from mum that she had died and it was too late to let her know how much she had gifted me. One of many regrets that I began to see as I got older and more aware of my shortcomings. I have my explanation for becoming numb and disconnected when I had to live through experiences which blunted my ability to empathise and express gratitude for the gifts of those early years.
So many early experiences that wove my childhood world together with stitches of safety and security, but then suddenly was whisked from under me to become just memories; images in my mind that I sought to cling to from far away at english boarding school where feelings were out of bounds and homesickness was a thing of shame to hide and struggle through in silent misery…..