India 1998: Ladakh Trek

At breakfast, taken in the beautiful garden of our Leh hotel before we began our trek, I discovered that some members of our group had taken preventative medicine for altitude sickness. I’d wondered why I’d been the sole sufferer of our group to have succumbed to this debilitating condition! But I had rallied and was now feeling up for a trek. We were used to vigorous exercise at home, being habitual daily runners.

This second tour group consisted of several couples [including ourselves], a couple with a teenage son and some singles; a couple of older, single women [one rather type-cast spinster and the other a charming widowed lady who I walked alongside for much of the route], a somewhat unfit looking, younger man who’d brought walking poles, a youngish woman. One half of a Welsh couple, Gareth had the most extreme eating phobia I’d ever witnessed [including the fussiness of my own children as toddlers] and seemed to exist solely on bread and chocolate, a tragedy in a country such as India. Despite this he was the fittest of all of us, with calf muscles like beer bottles and an ability to run up a mountain slope faster than a goat.

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While the mountain scenery was often stark and unmarked with vegetation in the higher levels there were stunning views as well as encounters along the way. On our first day we paused on meeting a group of schoolchildren making their way to school, an arduous hike they must make twice daily. They were cheerful and friendly, wanting to show us their exercise books, shaking our hands, their warmth shining from their smiling expressions.

Further along we caught up with a lady whose sheep had escaped and who’d clearly had to track the animal for miles across the peaks before capture, so some of our group [Husband included] gamely took turns to carry the sheep for her. The creature was extremely smelly, which resulted in a transfer of aroma to Husband, of course.

At the end of each day’s walk the bathing facilities on offer were a small bowl of warm water or a bathe in the snow-melt stream using eco-friendly mountain suds. Most chose the freezing water after a sweaty hike up and down slopes but it needed to be undertaken quickly while the sun was still up because, as is typical in mountain terrain the daytime temperature was hot, the nights cold. Toilet provision en route consisted of ‘behind the nearest large rock’ and in camp there would be a small tent over a hole in the ground, which was filled in on our departure.

Our tiny, 2-man ridge tents would be up and ready by the time we got to camp, also the the dinner table. The pack ponies would be set free of their loads and be enjoying a well-earned graze. Then we’d sit together at the long table and enjoy a meal prepared by our crew.

Exchange- not always Fair

The cross channel ferry, in this last week of summer term is full of excitable teenagers; two groups, seemingly, occupying every part of the ship, circulating round and round, galumphing through the bars and lounges, spreading over seating areas, thronging into the tiny shop, the games area and the restaurant, exclaiming, playing music, shrieking when they see each other. They rush past us in twos and threes. ‘I wanna buy something!’ ‘Let’s go outside!’ ‘What shall we do now?’
After coffee we descend to the salon with its recliner seats to catch up on some sleep, but it is full of adolescents, rucksacks, sweet wrappers. We are rushed at by their beleaguered teachers, whose dubious pleasure it is to shepherd their charges and bring them back unscathed.
Foreign exchanges were available when I was a schoolgirl, too; only as my parents were unwilling to pay for them, I’d be among the handful of girls who stayed behind and attended school. I can’t recall what we did, we leftovers. Revision, perhaps or some extra language study and conversation. I pity the poor teachers who were saddled with us, who had to find us something to do!
I offered my own offspring an exchange each, which was rejected by Offspring One, who harboured fears of being incarcerated with a strange family and having to eat a sensible, healthy diet. He chose to be a leftover. Offspring Two, however waited for the optimum moment to remind me I’d agreed to a French exchange, then when I enquired the destination, coolly told me ‘Canada’.
The exchangee came to us first. Catherine. She was not Canadian, but American, from Texas originally. She was tall, world-weary, unimpressed. She was an ocean away from my daughter. We served meals, attempted chat, remained polite while she chewed and made acerbic remarks.
Husband suggested a weekend trip to Paris. We packed our tiny Peugeot 5 and took a ferry across the English Channel then drove down, stopping on the outskirts of France’s capital in a budget hotel and taking two rooms. We got a double decker train into Paris to take in the sights: The Louvre, The Tuilleries, Notre Dame and The Tour Eiffel-sending the girls up and staying down ourselves to save money. They trudged after us as if dragged on leads. Next day we visited Fontainebleau and Versailles before heading home the way we’d come.
On the return ferry we bought meals from the self-service restaurant, where Catherine [and also Offspring, who followed suit] chose a meal and a desert. At the table our protégé ate one or two mouthfuls of the meal and pushed it away before tucking into the pudding.
‘Are we gonna eat again on the ferry?’ she drawled, chewing.
Husband frowned into his newspaper. ‘No’ he said, without looking up.
At last we arrived at Portsmouth. ‘That was cool!’ she suddenly said as the wheels rumbled down the ramp, showing enthusiasm for the first time. If we’d known she was to enjoy our descent from the gaping mouth of the ferry so much we could have saved ourselves a packet.
We did nothing else with Catherine, leaving entertainment to the school to provide. Offspring confided that Catherine had raved and boasted to her classmates about her French trip.
After she departed, Offspring prepared to make her own visit to the host family-Catherine’s own parents and sister. I sat down with her to share my hopes for her ambassadorial role, expressing my desire that she behave with impeccable manners, a desire that she asserted she understood very well. She went.
Catherine’s parents were charming to my daughter, taking her out and about, to Niagara, amongst other places. Offspring got on very well with Catherine’s younger sister as well as most of the Canadian schoolgirls and had a most enjoyable time.
And that was that; many lessons learned-and not only French!

Normal for Now

I was sitting in the bar area of the Barfleur on its way into Cherbourg, reading Sally Rooney’s ‘Normal People’ when I glanced up as we were gliding past the Irish ferry, ‘W B Yeats’.

I’d just reached the part in the novel where Trinity student Connell gets totally wasted during his summer break and is lured back to the flat of his former secondary school teacher where she has the intention of ravishing him [until the excess of alcohol precludes the act].

I got to thinking, then that I’m pushed to recall the names of any of my secondary school teachers. I can remember my very first teacher, Miss Hunter, who I loved. I can almost   remember the name of my next teacher, in the juniors, Mrs  Someone. We moved. I know who my next teacher in the juniors was because it was my dad.

I passed the ’11 plus’ and had the dubious reward of going to Wisbech High School, where our newbie form was ruled over by an austere and frightening Scottish woman whose name escapes me, but might have been ‘Miss MacFarlane’. I was anxious the entire time, for two terms. Then we moved again and there was a plethora of remote characters who entered classrooms, delivered their notes and left.

In the sixth form, studying English literature, among other things W B Yeats was on the syllabus. I developed a lifelong dislike of W B Yeats’ work and to this day I shudder when I hear mention of ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’. We were never given a chance to explore and enjoy the work; never had the background explained or saw how it related to Irish history and politics-let alone to my own, teenage self.

‘Normal People’ explores a teenage love story from more contemporary times. In the story Connell connects much more to the texts he is studying. As students, he and Marianne drink, do drugs, party in much the same way that I did during my 70s student-dom in London. How long ago it all seems now-and it is!

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Now here we are in Avranches in the warm sunshine of an April evening, having driven off the ferry to travel hopefully and with the relief of the Brexit delay wrapped around us like a snug blanket-for now. It is pleasant enough to sit outside in the square with a beer and survey the elegant decadence that is commonplace in French architecture.

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When we pulled into the ‘aire’ there were already French motorhomes in place. We reversed back just as a couple were leaving to walk the few hundred metres into town. They turned, smiled and waved in greeting and I realised I was almost holding my breath until this moment. Maybe, just maybe we are still as welcome as ever in the places we love and will always love to go…

Playing Host to the Beast

In what is clearly a gift to 24-hour news broadcasters, newspapers and weather people, ‘The Beast from the East’ has chosen to visit the UK. I’m sceptical. I’m inclined to think that this blanket of snow, ice and bitter winds has been engendered by the Russians [or to be clearer, Putin] in order to further de-stabilise poor, beleaguered Europe; to undermine the infra-structures, to disrupt our transport systems, to bring manufacturing to a halt.
Once all this has happened, Russia can flood our [and for the purposes of this post I’m considering we are part of Europe-mere wishful thinking on my part] markets with their own products. So along with the eventual thaw we can expect a deluge of potatoes, petrol, samovars, beetroot and nesting Russian dolls. This is fortunate for me, since I’m partial to beetroot and potatoes and have two small granddaughters, although there is a limit to the quantity of petrol our lawn mower can consume in one season.
Conspiracy theories apart, this late spell of winter sparks the usual flurry of journalistic activity, producing every kind of article from ‘how to care for the homeless’ to ‘what to wear in cold conditions’ to ‘what to carry in the boot of your car in the event of becoming stuck in snow’. This is all very useful and informative-to someone who has recently moved here from Death Valley, California or the Australian Outback. The rest of us are only too aware of what to put on [layers of woolly clothes], how to provide for the homeless [inviting them in to your spare bedroom, lobbying your local council/contributing to homeless charities/adding blankets and scarves to their belongings] and what we should put in our vehicles [hot drinks/blankets/spades].
I know I’m risking eye-rolling as I mention it, but anyone who was born before the 1960s and especially in a rural location will have experienced winter weather in a home without central heating and perhaps without a bathroom. Ice on the insides of windows and across the surface of the cess pit outside in the garden latrine was the norm. We did, of course have lovely, sooty coal fires to sit around and even to bath in front of.
As a child I loved snowy, icy days; loved splintering up the ice on a frozen puddle and making footprints in virgin snow. School playtimes were a riot of fun without any health and safety guidelines or gritting procedures as we worked together to manufacture the longest, smoothest, glassiest, most slippery ice slide imaginable in a diagonal strip that we queued up for whenever we were released from the classroom. We’d return to find our beautiful little, third-of-a-pint milk bottles were filled with lumps of ice so large they had pushed the foil lids up.
This morning we woke in our centrally heated house to find glassy ice had frosted all the windows, creating an interesting, bathroom-type effect; not the fancy, curly patterns I used to find on my bedroom windows as a child but at least this ice is on the outside, which is progress.

Speaking the Lingo and Talking the Talk-

A language cannot be hard to learn. A child can do it.

OK, although most linguistics experts agree that children are quicker and learn new languages with ease than adults.

Of course there are some notoriously difficult languages, such as Japanese and many of the obscure African languages that utilise clicks and other sounds that are not in our sound vocabulary, but where European languages are concerned I don’t believe there is anyone who cannot become familiar enough to understand and make themselves understood in a relatively short space of time. And while heavy work is made of conjugating verbs and swatting up vocabulary lists in schools it is only necessary to spend some time living, working or travelling in a country to learn the basics of that country’s language.

For some, however even the radical step of moving to a new country does not lead to language acquisition-you have only to visit some of the areas of the Spanish Mediterranean with large concentrations of British to see this. Many ex-pats remain solely English-speakers in spite of adopting a new land. Heaven knows what the Spanish think of this…

Our latest trip covered a number of countries and languages, prompting some challenging demands on my inconsistent language skills. As a schoolgirl I learned French, German, Latin and Spanish with varying degrees of success. That I had most success with French I attribute to long summer camping holidays in France with non-French-speaking parents. Like many I gave up on Latin early, seeing no point in continuing and I was a miserable failure at German, whose grammar mystified me [and still does]. The Spanish was an add-on to A-levels, and seemed easy for being similar to French.

We travelled across Northern France into Germany, then Austria. Unlike the French, Germans are not only excellent English speakers but are also happy to speak in English-particularly, at this time on the subject of Brexit. ‘We DO NOT understand the Brexit!’ they told us on more than one occasion. What are we to say? We could only agree that, no, neither could we. On then to Italy. Italian is a most beautiful and musical-sounding language, enough to make anyone want to learn it for the sheer pleasure of speaking it, but for anyone who has learned Spanish the similarity between the two languages leads to much initial confusion. I consistently muddled my ‘grazie’ with my ‘gracias’, my ‘due’ with my ‘duo’ and my ‘per favore’ with my ‘por favor’ etc. After a week or so I fared better and, armed with the ‘Lonely Planet Phrase Book’ was able to stumble through some phrases. I felt inordinately proud when my much practised ‘lavatrice giettone, per favore’ resulted in the swift handing over of a washing machine token, more so when ‘prego’ was the response to my ‘grazie’.

Of course most people understand a nod or a shake of the head and when one set of words doesn’t work another way of saying something often does. And we are yet to meet anyone who doesn’t understand a smile-

 

Not the Lover that Rhymes with Cover…

I’ve begun to notice interesting developments on social media recently. Some conversation threads have started to engage and pull in Facebook contacts from different spheres.

Take, for instance a news snippet concerning Lover. Lover [correctly pronounced Low-ver and rhyming with Dover] is a tiny satellite hamlet and part of a much smaller village called Redlynch, in the county of Wiltshire, England. For many years Lover post office has cashed in on its oft mis-pronounced name whenever Valentine’s Day became a distant speck on the horizon of February. Would-be beaux, belles and partners have made a habit of flocking to this backwater to post their cards and declarations of love in order to have ‘Lover’ stamped upon the outside of their envelopes.

In 1957, at the age of four I began school life in Lover, walking down through the village with my mother on the very first day only and after that having to accompany my brothers. There was no soft, part-time option, no lollipop person to see us across roads [there was no traffic either], no inside toilets-[a bucket under a wooden seat in a building across the playground sufficed], only two classes-infants and juniors-and thirty seven or so children altogether. We played all together in the playground [schoolyard], did country dancing to the accompaniment of a wind-up record player and played rounders on the field at the back which was shared by a farmer’s dairy herd. Anyone succeeding in attaining a rounder would have to run the gauntlet of cow deposits as well as fielders.

I loved my infant teacher, Miss Hunter with a devotion matched only by my fear of the head-teacher and junior class teacher, Mrs Reardon. Miss Hunter taught us fractions by bringing in a beautiful Battenburg cake that demonstrated halves and quarters. Mrs Reardon violated my fragile confidence by shaming me in front of the class for my ignorance in the mysteries of tracing. Miss Hunter took us for nature walks, holding hands with our partners in a long, snaking crocodile as we learned the names of trees and wild flowers. Mrs Reardon applied soap to the mouth of a small, swearing boy so that he ran around the playground crying and frothing at the lips.

I was in the junior class for a short period, probably no more than a year and yet I spent a good deal of it sitting by an older girl to help her with her grey, English workbook-mortifying for her and tedious for me. Distractions were provided by newts inserted into inkwells [we had to dip our pens into them, never managing to write without the inevitable blot] or someone’s misdemeanour prompting a few whacks across their palms. I laboured over sums involving pounds, shillings and pence or stones, pounds and ounces or yards, feet and inches.

At age seven my family moved to a different part of the country for my father to take up a promotion. There I attended another two-class primary school in a rural area-this time almost remote enough to be another country-but that is altogether another story…

The Horrors of Rentrer d’Ecole

My school friend, Paula Booth and I were much taken with everything French. My parents took us camping in the Vendee-a long strip of beach-laden coast devoted almost entirely to camp sites and all things holiday. These days very little has altered there from those sixties summers. Paula and I were earnest students of the French language, revelling in all opportunities to practise the discipline. Opportunities came thick and fast due to my parents’ knowledge of the language being confined to what could be written on the back of un timbre sur un carte postale.

We loved the department stores, spending hours wandering around ‘Monoprix’ or ‘Au Printemps’ searching for small gifts to take home and lusting after the clothes. Back then French clothing was expensive.

But even then one element of the shopping experience was tantamount to torture for us; there would always be large banners plastered over every window bearing the words: ‘Rentrer d’Ecole’. Horrors! No sooner had we escaped into our own summer adventure than we’d be dragged back to reality by this sinister reminder.

Becoming a teacher did little to assuage the ‘back to school’ syndrome. You’d flog your way through the last, painful weeks of the summer term buoyed only by the prospect of the long break. You would manage the last days, despatch the little charges to their disgruntled mamas, pack up everything, recycle the ‘best teacher’ mugs and the scented candles then set off in a haze of exhaustion and euphoria-only to drive past a plethora of shop signs bearing the hated exhortation to purchase the Autumn term’s necessities.

[This is the point that elicits, from those in non-education related occupations a deluge of remarks about ‘easy life’ where the teaching community is concerned. ‘9-3’, ‘part-time job’, ‘nothing but holidays’-yes, yes. My one answer to all of those is ‘why aren’t you doing it, then?’]

And while the ‘taking them out of school’ debate rages on Husband and I are finally able to take advantage of the off-season benefits that others enjoy after careers of being stuck with peak season prices. I’m not launching into a diatribe this time about why children shouldn’t miss school, but it always seemed to me that it was the parents who wanted the Spanish beach or the Disney park. Frankly-most kids like nothing better than messing around in a rocky stream in wellie boots or riding round a camp site in a pack of bikes. Most parents of young children would agree that to be a success, adult and child holidays have to be centred on the children.

So if you want a holiday like you had pre-children your options are a] leave them behind with a doting relation or b] wait until they are grown up.

Since Husband and I are in our dotage we fall into the latter category. Not only can we holiday when we please but also where. Hooray! We are off to Europe!

 

 

 

The Death of the Pen

Who writes in longhand these days? Well-according to Google [such that it must be true] many famous writers prefer to apply themselves via pen and paper rather than keyboard and screen. In my ignorance I should confess to not having heard of all of these acclaimed authors but some I know of and some I’ve read, even. Neil Gaiman, Amy Tan, J K Rowling and Danielle Steele are some, as is Quentin Tarantino. Those who do prefer hand writing cite more romantic or abstract reasons for wanting to do it this way over practical concerns.

Since letter writing is a dying art, postcards are no longer sent and email and social networking are taking the place of paper communication the skill of making squiggly marks is slowly becoming redundant. How much longer will handwriting be taught in schools? When I began my teaching career in what was then a somewhat tempestuous area of Lambeth, London I learned that I could more or less guarantee a period of peace and calm by chalking something on the blackboard to be copied by all as ‘handwriting practise’.

As a young child in the 1950s I loved the act of writing. I adored all aspects of written work presentation. At school we entered competitions run by the Osmiroid fountain pen company, when a beautiful fountain pen would be the prize for copying a poem in curly cursive script and presenting it without blots or mistakes and surrounded by a hand-designed frame in coloured pencil.

At secondary school they cared little for coloured borders around the writing, wanting only swift note taking into a scruffy ‘rough’ book.

Later I learned calligraphy and produced a number of works as part of my A level art course using a calligraphy pen with a slanting nib and illuminating the first letter of each piece-the entire activity a satisfying kind of escapism that I’ve subsequently forgotten all about.

I am sorry to say that my handwriting, rather than improving with age has deteriorated due to lack of practice. Young members of my family are unlikely to receive cards and letters written in immaculate copperplate as I did from maiden aunts or grandparents on birthdays and at Christmas. Handwriting can be an indicator of age, becoming more wobbly and spidery with the writer’s advancing years so that you can imagine the knobbly, liver spotted, arthritic fingers that laboured over it.

Something strange and magical does happen though, when pen is put to paper. There have been occasions while away and deprived of internet when I’ve been obliged to take to scribbling in a notebook rather than tapping on a keyboard and it has had the wondrous effect of dragging me from the quicksand of writer’s block. Of course I’ve had to decipher the weird and incomprehensible scrawl once returned to the civilised environment of connectivity, but still…

Say What you Mean!

 

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It’s a rare day now if the news does not begin with some horrific atrocity having been visited upon innocent civilians somewhere in the world. Little wonder that authorities, civil agencies, police forces etc have become jumpy. But I had to laugh when I read the story, today of a young boy in Lancashire having to be questioned by police because he’s written that he lives in a ‘terrorist’ house.

What he’d meant to write was ‘terraced’; an easy mistake to make, although I expect the dreaded OFSTED terrorists would themselves have something to say regarding the spelling standards of the ten year olds at the school. The internet is littered with student howlers such as this, many of them hilarious: Q. Where was the American Declaration of Independence signed? A. At the bottom.

See what I mean? Most demonstrations of lack of understanding are amusing, at least. But I’d guess that this time, with the way people feel about terrorists the incident was less entertaining and rather more uncomfortable. In any case, the family of the child has complained at his having been interrogated.

But it makes me wonder what proportion of the world’s problems are caused by communication difficulties. I’d say most of them [that is if you interpret communication loosely and include body language and cultural customs as well as written and verbal communication]. Then there is a further complication in the explosion of technical means of communication-email, texting and social networking; so many ways that misunderstandings begin. And once a misunderstanding has begun the difficulties can escalate in the tap of a key. I’m not suggesting a terrorist wearing a suicide belt can be talked out of their ‘mission’ here, but I’m guessing that the circumstances that have lead to extremism may have begun with communication mismatches.

I’ve just experienced this with members of my own family whilst attempting to set up a meeting from our spread out locations. I’m guessing the email I sent expressing my own thoughts was interpreted in a negative way that was not meant, resulting in an entire cancellation of said meeting. Ho hum…

For anyone who is interested in writing [anything] all this misinterpretation teaches a strong lesson in how to use language. We should be clear and concise. We should have an unambiguous, unmistakeable image in our own mind before we set finger to keyboard. Our understanding and knowledge of spelling and grammar should be comprehensive.

Verbal interactions involve their own difficulties, don’t they? We evolved using both sound and body language in our dealings, making a phone call more of a tricky action than we imagine. I ‘m sure the blind must become adept at hearing every nuance, double entendre and omission in a conversation but most of the rest of us will not have developed this skill.

Perhaps we should all revert to our most basic ways of showing others what we think or feel. After crying, the first thing a baby learns is to smile. We can’t smile in emails, texts or phone calls but hey-help is at hand with emoticons. There you go! Forget Esperanto. Use the new universal language.

 

Fiction Month 4. Caught [part 2]

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                 Caught [part 2]

                  Next morning a stiff breeze has sprung up as I stroll up to the village store on the Copseway to buy a newspaper and a pint of milk. On the way I search for the old butcher’s shop that was Ernie Brabrook’s, but almost all the buildings that housed businesses have been converted to dwellings, either having been demolished and rebuilt or their big front windows bricked in and I no longer recall the exact location of Ernie’s place. All I remember is standing inside while my father waited for his order to be prepared, the sawdust floor dusty beneath my feet and the cold, raw carcasses dangling, white on their metal hooks, an odour of chill sweetness and the resonant thwack of the butcher’s cleaver as he prepared chops or steaks.

The store assistant is solicitous. My father will be missed by the community, she says, and how am I getting on with clearing up the house? Feeling heartened by her concern I ask if she knows anything about Imberton Dance Band and the various members. She nods as she packs my purchases into a bag.

“My parents used to go dancing every Saturday. A girl called Mavis used to come and babysit us.”

I take the photo from my pocket and place it on to the counter. She looks closely before shaking her head.

“I can see that’s your Dad, in his young days, and that was his brother. But I don’t know the others I’m afraid. I’d have been too young, I suppose.”

When I mention Dick Abbott a look of recognition springs to her face.

“I was in the same class as June at school. We were a fair bit older than you and your brother I think, so we’d have left to go to the secondary by the time you two were in the juniors’ class. She was sweet, but she was a bit soft, if you know what I mean; not the brightest, but always kind and smiling. It was awful, what happened to her.”

“I heard she died. What was it, illness?”

She purses her lips, looking grave.

“No, nothing like that; she drowned in the brook that runs along the bottom of the field behind the house. ‘Accidental death’ they said it was, although no one knew how she came to be there. She was in her night clothes when they found her; all a long time ago now.”

I take a diversion back to the bungalow, down an old, overgrown footpath that leads to the narrow rivulet behind what was Abbott’s shop, with a dwelling at the rear. We’d dangled jam jars on strings into the stream to catch tiny stickleback, bearing them home triumphantly then being made to return them by our stern parents. The brook is no longer the rushing torrent of my memory, rather a thin trickle, banks overgrown with tall, bushy nettles. I wonder how she could have drowned, here in the shallows where the water is inches deep and the gravel of the stream bed ruffles the flow. Further up the sloping field the back of the house is just visible, changed now; refurbished. A new wire fence provides a barrier before the brook, where none was before. Perhaps she sleepwalked down to the stream and fell, found herself tangled in the undergrowth or mired in some mud. I’ve an image now of her night clad body lying cold in the water under the moonlight, her dark hair loose and mingling with the eddying current, but surely she’d have called for help?

My father’s modest house, the pride and joy of his later life seems diminished now that his furniture and effects are packed up to be distributed or disposed of. The rooms are strewn with cartons of bric-a-brac, books or bin bags full of clothing ready to be taken to charity shops. The walls bear the ghostly shapes of the pictures and mirrors that hung against them. His upright piano awaits collection. This is all that remains of his life. We humans spend a lifetime accumulating objects only to leave them all behind us for another to discard.

I make tea in the ancient ceramic teapot my parents always used. It is lined with a crust of brown stain but to succumb to dunking tea bags into cups feels a betrayal here in their kitchen. While I’m waiting for the tea to brew I ring my wife to tell her I’m almost done with the clearance and I’ll be returning home tomorrow.

I’m about to pour the tea when I catch sight of Arnold Goodridge unlatching the front gate and labouring up the path towards the front door and I think he must have smelt the tea to have timed his arrival like this. He settles into the worn settee with the ease of one who has sat there, in that same spot on many occasions, leaning his walking stick against the arm and placing a bulging manila envelope on the seat beside him. He glances around the room at the bare walls and loaded cartons as he sips the tea, nodding in sage acknowledgement, his chest still heaving with the exertion of his walk.

“Going up for sale, is it?”

“I’m afraid it is, Arnold. The family is too far flung to keep it. I’m hoping to drop the keys with the agent tomorrow, on my way home.”

He puts his cup and saucer on the coffee table and opens the envelope to pass me a few photos. I move to sit next him while he describes each scene. There are more pictures of the band, of course, but also snaps depicting charabanc outings to the seaside, village fetes and family parties, many showing my parents and their friends, the most striking aspect their smiles as they face the camera. It would be easy to assume that their lives were one long holiday on which the sun never failed to shine.

I pore over one shot of the beach, where my parents and another couple, all dressed in their Sunday best, are installed in deck chairs on the sand behind a number of children of varying ages playing with buckets and spades. Amongst the offspring is a young girl of about eleven, with soft, dark eyes, clad in a typically substantial swimming costume of the era, her arm around a sturdy child who I recognise as my brother. He is looking into her face with an adoring smile.

“There’s June,” Arnold offers. “She always did love the littl’uns. She’d have made a good mum if she’d had the chance.”

“Arnold, how did it happen? How come she drowned in the brook? There’s so little water. And why was she wearing night clothes?”

He gazes at the photo as he begins to talk.

“It was like I said. When Dick started stepping out with Mae they was only young, so it weren’t really serious, if you see what I mean. Then she fell pregnant with June and it was all Hell let loose. In them days it was like the end of the world. It weren’t long before that a young couple had drowned themselves in the lake from the shame of it and the fear of being found out. There weren’t any choice for them. Dick had to marry her quick, so when the baby came they could just say it was a bit early, like.

They lived with Mae’s parents to start with. It must have been hard for Dick. He was always a bit of a one for partying, had an eye for the girls. He could of taken his pick of ‘em, too if he’d wanted. But he was stuck with Mae then, and didn’t he know it! She never forgive him for landing her with a baby so young and I don’t think she ever thought he was good enough for her neither.”

“But she must have loved the baby when she came along. June was so pretty and so sweet!”

“She were. She were a cracker! But she were never the brightest, if you get my meaning. She weren’t going to get to college or anything like that.”

“Is that why she ended up helping in the shop when she left school?”

He nodded.

“Mae hated the shop, like everything else. She thought it was beneath her to work behind a counter; didn’t think she should work at all. ‘Course the shop folded in the sixties and Dick retired then. It had never made much money. Customers preferred the stores up on the Copseway and you could see why. Mae drove them all off, with her spiteful tongue and her nasty ways.”

“So what did June do, when the shop closed down?”

“She took up hairdressing, somewhere down Hardwick way I believe it was. Of course she favoured her Dad for looks, so she weren’t short of a few admirers. I think she did do a bit of courting, while her Dad was still alive but nothing serious. Then Dick passed away, a bit sudden. After his funeral no one hardly saw Mae. She stayed indoors, kept herself to herself, and June stayed looking after her. There weren’t no more gentlemen callers because Mae wasn’t having it. She were too scared June would up and get married and leave her. Thing was, with Dick gone she only had her daughter and they used to say in the village that were when June changed, stopped smiling, like. Some said it were because of losing her Dad, but I reckon there were more to it than that. That bitter old witch made her life Hell, that’s the sum of it. She tormented her and bullied her until her life weren’t worth living. And June, she were caught, like in a trap. She’d nowhere to go and couldn’t leave her mother. It got so she couldn’t stand no more. So she took the only way out she could. There were more to the stream in them days, but most folks don’t need a lot of water if they’re determined to drown their selves. You know the rest.”

He puts the photo on the coffee table before looking up. When he catches my expression he puts his hand on my arm, his face softening.

“I shouldn’t of probably told you all that, what with your Dad and all. Not exactly a cheerful story, is it? But you got to remember it were all a long time ago.”

“No, I’m glad you did. And I’ve enjoyed looking at the photos and hearing all the other stories.”

On his way out Arnold stops on the path to button up his jacket.

“Know what I reckon?” There is a mischievous gleam in his eye as he adjusts the stick in his grip. I shake my head.

“Them lot in the band, they’ve been up there waiting for your Dad to join them. Now he’s got there they’ll be making heaven jump to the beat with all their tunes!”

Though I don’t share his conviction, the image is so pleasing I have to smile as I thank him again.

 

I wake to an overcast sky, feeling moved to make haste with loading my car and starting on the long drive home. There is little of any monetary value amongst the house contents and nothing of use or ornament to us, the next generation, for whom tastes have changed. I have wrapped and packed the few items my brother and I decided upon as keepsakes; one or two first editions, leather bound, a hand painted tea set, a couple of prints and the box of photographs, which I have volunteered to sort and annotate. Everything else will be removed by a clearance company, leaving the empty shell of the house ready for viewing by prospective buyers. Once I have locked up and pulled the front door shut behind me I know I will not be returning. I pocket the house keys in readiness for the estate agent.

Before leaving the village I pull into the lay by outside the churchyard. I want to spend a few minutes alone by my parents’ grave, an action I doubt my busy life will allow in future. The new plot, freshly piled with earth stands out like a brown scar among the neat, green mounds surrounding it. Soon the simple headstone will bear the addition of my father’s name informing the reader he is ‘reunited at last’ with my mother. There are, as he requested, no bouquets wilting on the soil, donations having been made, instead, to the hospice that cared for my mother. He’d been pragmatic to the last, made all his wishes clear; his only desire to be laid to rest here in the rustic setting of the village churchyard next to his deceased wife.

I have no faith in an afterlife. I believe that our allotted span above the earth is what we get. I know that my parents are not here, under the soil in this country graveyard, nor do they exist anywhere except, for a short passage of time, in my memory. But the shady, green space with its gentle hummocks, vases of chrysanthemums and trailing ivy is a peaceful spot for contemplation and remembrance. I wind my way through the graves, stopping here and there to read a name and a date where they are visible, not obliterated by algae and age. As I round the corner by the low stone wall I halt as my attention is caught by a simple, marble, upright slab with the inscription, ‘June Elisabeth Abbott, 1945-1978, ‘Resting where no shadows fall’.

I perch nearby on a neighbouring slab. Her plot is overgrown, a joyous carpet of daisies and dusky pink autumn crocuses. A light mist of drizzle has begun to drift down, lifting a rich, earthy aroma from the vegetation. Somewhere close by a robin begins to trill a jaunty song. Then, at last I feel the tears well up and course down my face in hot, salty tracks until I drop my face into my hands and I’m howling, there in the secluded churchyard with the ghosts of my past for company.

After a while, when the tears have drained away I stand and brush the moss from my clothing before walking back through the grassy mounds and ancient stones to the gate. In the car I pick up my phone and call my wife. She asks if I’m alright. I tell her I’ve missed them all; that I love them and I’m ready to come home now. I start the car. When I get home I want to hold them, my wife and children; catch them in my heart and never let them go.