The North Wind doth blow and we shall have snow,
And what will poor robin do then, poor thing?
He’ll sit in a barn and keep himself warm
and hide his head under his wing, poor thing.
Our mum used to say that poem to me (and no doubt to Greer and Rich too) a lot when i was little. It’s one of the things, along with thumb outline dog faces and 3 intertwined fish drawings that i think of when i think of being a very little girl, in the substantial handful of clear memories that i have of being an only child. I was an only child for quite a while, Greer didn’t come along till i was a little older than Josie is now and i can remember lots of trips out in my mum’s white Mini, visits to my Nana’s ‘Flower House”, days where we picked mum up from a locum at Anderson’s the Chemist. I can remember being taken into London by my Dad on days when he needed to go back into Fleet Street, being shown Dick Whittington’s House, looking up at the huge grey buildings of the City and absorbing the rush. I remember finding my Wendy House on Christmas morning in a dining room neither of my siblings ever saw (Greer was only months old when we left), being late back to my nursery class because me and Glenn had been at the wrong end of the field when the bell went. I remember missing lots of that early nursery year at school with terrible earaches that kept me tucked up on the settee waiting for doctor visits. I remember my black plastic doctor bag and my white nurses case.
I can clearly recall finding my mum had left me at playgroup for the first time, i know my first ever stage role was as Red Riding Hoods Granny when i was perhaps only 2. I can perfectly recollect the tunnel of trees across a road near Chelmsford that was between my grandparents house and our home, the sight and smell of the stubble burning at the end of the summer and the signs that warned of deer (which we saw for real only once) along the kerbside. I can picture that Essex landscape perfectly as a tiny girl in that tiny car and i know that it from then i remember it, not from revisiting my grandparents later on. There is a scar on my arm from the day the 2 big girls (of oooh, nearly 10 years old perhaps) took me to the field at the back and i cut my arm on barbed wire. Those girls had rabbits; my baby blanket still has a tiny footprint on it from a mark left by a baby rabbit. Actually, it probably isn’t that at all, but that is what i attributed the mark to for 30 years, till just now.
We lived in a road called Stocksfield and it had a set of stocks at the end of the road, just as they had been since whenever they stopped being used. My mum used to put me in them for fun when we walked home. Sometimes we visited Mrs Barnes up the road; an old, old lady even then, who made me Blue Bunny and Barney Rabbit and other odds and sods too. My mum kept in touch with her; she only died a few years ago. My whole life just a flicker at the end of her long years. She was a wise lady, i know my mum had a huge amount of time for her although i am not quite sure why. I’m tempted, now i know what it is like to have secrets from my children that are hidden in my heart, to ask why. Mrs Barnes and the stocks seem now to be bathed in perpetual Essex, straw coloured sunlight; for years after we left, when i was 4, i thought of them every time i reread (with relish) my books on 16th and 17th century history and the barbarisms they laced into everyday life. In those brief 2 years or so i had freedoms that i don’t think my childhood ever had again; i was so little and yet i played in the Mews, out of site of my house, with a gang of other children; Sarah the tomboy, Stuart the Barbarian, Carol and Jayne (?) the ‘big girls’ and Vicky, my soul mate and the girl who was my first Buttercup-like friend. i don’t think i was seen for hours at a time, but i know i was safe and happy. We collected (and dissected) caterpillars, explored, fought, gamed and cuddled animals and it was bliss.
Odd, until now i’ve almost forgotten it.
Mum and i planted a willow tree in the garden that was all mine, because i loved them, just as Fran used to love them. It grew for a couple of years and then we moved. When we went back to visit the neighbours, i climbed their slide and saw that my willow had been dug up and taken away. It seemed a very rude thing to have done. It was, after all, my tree.
The for sale sign went up; i remember a big blue sign “For Sale by Sail” because i know that one used to be everywhere, but apparently they didn’t sell our house. It was 1977 and i must have already been able to read because i knew exactly what that sign said and i was furious because no one had told me we were moving. I blamed it on my new baby sister. I wasn’t keen on her at all. People tell the story of the ambulance and the midwife who brought mum and her home; the midwife held out a bundle of blankets and said “your baby sister’s in here somewhere!” and i can remember thinking “SO?!?!?!?!” I was cross because she had a Benjamin Bunny baby blanket that had been bought specially for her and it was the same size as my Creamy Blnket but i wanted it too. I kept stealing it out of the cupboard in my mum and dad’s room and eventually mum had to sew it into red flowery material with a yellow trim to dim it’s tantalising brightness.
My sister never really hooked on to that blanket, or any cuddly like i did. She tried, with a pink and white sheet of which there were actually two. I treated her with contempt for not having proper passion for one special thing. Sorry about that Greerie 🙂 I don’t think i quite forgave her for not at the very least loving that Benjamin Bunny blanket properly.
We moved and my mum started a job and a phD at Nottingham University and i went from a little school i liked to one where i was very unhappy – and Nottingham seemed to mainly be cold, grey and rainy – and there was this sister who kept getting bigger and in my space so i made her miserable by pushing her out of it. And mum got busier and was never a full time at home mum again (she went back to work when our brother was 2 weeks old!). There wasn’t so much time for poems or nursery rhymes and the phD turned into piles of paper on the kitchen worktop that cluttered all our space. And the exam papers and lecture preparation turned into long afternoons with my mum working by the living room fire in a living room with brown carpet and a tiny tv and a radiator to sit on in a big bay window. Everyone was busy and everyone seemed to have more fun that me; while i went to school, my brother and sister still seemed to be at home having fun with dad, going to playgroup and feeding the ducks and getting visits from “the egg man” who loved them. I had homework and a bully and a body i didn’t seem to fit inside and this weight of worry and sadness inside me that didn’t seem to go away. I never seemed to be good enough any more and all the sun and the freedom went away. I hid away in my bedroom, locked inside an imaginary world and shouted at the one person i could have relied on to be my friend. I feel bad about that now.
Inexorably, the pressure to pass those wretched 11+ exams mounted, with the entire fate of the family seeming to rest on what i did and how i performed; ultimately too in what choices i made. When i passed them all (and oh the pressure, hard to believe i was just Fran’s age), i chose Loughborough and we ALL moved. Mum worked in Leicester already so the family sold up, upped sticks and followed my choice, so ultimately i shaped everyone’s future in that one 10 year old’s decision, the fate of my parents and their future life choices and the schools, friends and lives of my siblings.
Our house now, the one we live in here, faces both North and South and sometimes has sun and sometimes has rain. The weather, mostly, seems to come from the south, running up the A1 and into our back window. I like it; we’re lucky to have open space and a panoramic view outside, lots of light and an ever changing scene. This week though, the wind has blown from the North and hail and wind and rain and snow has hurled itself down the channel of road in front of our house. I’ve been thinking, as it blew, that it is astonishing to look at a chain of events and see where they bring you. I drove passed this very spot several times a year, en route from Nottingham to Chelmsford, passed the sign for Normans Cross, passed a petrol station that looked like the Star Ship Enterprise, passed the sign for Barnack and Stilton and passed the sign for the village our local Post Office is now in. It always seemed to call out and now here i am, living here, in a house that was just a field at the time.
Had my mum not decided to better our lot and do that phD, had we not moved, i might not have been here. PNEU Springfield might have been a haven of friendship and happiness that PNEU Nottingham just never was; Stocksfield might have been my home till i was 18, when i went off and married an Essex boy. I might have grown up being taught to knit and sew and bake by Mrs Barnes and my Nan just down the road, i might never have had a brother. I might have had my babies in the hospital my sister was born in, i might be happily working in some theatre in London or shop in Brentwood.
Or would fate have blown me inexorably to Loughborough, as it seemed to be doing on the day when i suddenly felt the need to move back home and found myself meeting Max almost at once. Did the inadequacies of Peterborough Maternity Unit actually produce 4 babies that St James might have killed? Would a different bully have surfaced at my school in Essex to blight me, or would the one in Nottingham have turned on someone else and driven them deeper than she ever drove me? Would i be home educating, beadingmerrily and quietly letting my life choices consume me anyway?
I do hope, i truly do, that my children won’t remember me as someone always sad, always busy or always needing to do something else. I hope they know i adore being with them. The seem to have a more solid and compact relationship with each other than i let myself have with my sister and i’m grateful that that is so – i see now that it was very much my own failing. I do need my own space, always have, but there was no need to be mean about it. If nothing else, i hope i’ve corrected the balance in our life before it is too late, so even if they remember a harrassed, weepy, in-a-minute mummy when they were very young, they know she had been replaced by sunny, let’s-do-the-show-right-here mum by the time they were old enough to never forget it.