This is the fourth installment of my mother’s memories of her childhood in Lancashire. You can read the other chapters here:
By my third birthday, the memories begin to thicken, to gain some structure and sequence, although these are not always reliable. The night before it, my sisters lean over my bed to hear my prayers ….’Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray to God my soul to keep, and if I die before I wake, I pray to god my soul to take’, awesome thoughts for an about-to-be-three-year-old. In return, they chant the ritual promise for the night-before -Christmas, or Easter or birthdays … ‘the sooner you go to sleep, the sooner tomorrow will come …’ but I cannot go to sleep, no matter how hard I try. For what seems like hours I watch the faces that come and go in the flowered wallpaper and the shifting patterns on the nursery ceiling. Yet sleep I must at last, for suddenly I am awake and struggling up to awareness of sun streaming in at the window, the Atco stuttering over the lawns, the smell of oil and mown grass, to the dogs barking at the postman, the weight of parcels on my bed…. I remember only one of my presents (it still hangs by my bed) a holy-water stoop, topped by a sweet-faced, blue-robed, star-spangled virgin holding out her arms.
Later in the morning, when all my presents are opened, David and Anthony, six and four years older than I, whisper that there is another, enormous present for me, hidden in the engine-house; a name remaining from the days when electricity was generated there; now it houses the lawn-mowers, bicycles, hoops and the croquet set, mouldering bits of harness, the tennis nets and anything else which needs a home.
Laughing and cajoling, the little boys pull me into the engine house. There is, indeed an enormous parcel; something tall and angular, wrapped up in brown paper and tagged with a shiny linen label which is covered in bold black writing. The boys,squirming happily, pretend to read the label – ‘It says “Happy birthday to dear little Angela”..,,go on, open it, open it ’. I claw at the string, tear at the paper; there are glimpses of shining metal, gleaming green and red paint; I tear faster… at last, with all the string and all paper off and strewn over the stable-tiles, I am left staring at …. at what? It is not the longed-for tricycle, nor the pedal car for which I have begun to hope, not even the toy crane which, from the shape, I half-feared. The little boys are ecstatic … ‘Fooled you’, they yell.., ‘it’s the new marker for the tennis court, fooled you’. I cry, tears of disappointment. ‘Cry-baby’ they crow, ‘Cry baby, cry’, glorying in their deception, in seeing the usurper so gloriously, so successfully duped.
Ironically, some few years later, this ingenious machine provides one of my favourite occupations and my first taste of responsibility, the pleasures of a useful job well done. First the powdery white lime is measured into a bucket mixed with water and beaten with a stick until it resembles medium-thick cream. This is then poured carefully, for I am well aware that lime burns, into the small, square trough at the base of the marker. Off then, bumping over the granite setts in front of the engine house, across the crunchy gravel of the drive and trundling onwards to the tennis lawn,all the while keeping the marker titled back on two small rear wheels so that the larger nose-wheel at the front is kept clear of the ground to prevent it spreading the lime-wash where it is not wanted. The court has been marked out for me with string; I follow the lines faithfully, pushing the machine before me. The nose-wheel now rests on the grass and revolves through the lime-wash, miraculously releasing just enough of it to leave a two-inch white strip along the marked-out lines on the green grass.
Somewhere between three and four years of age, I have the Blood Dream for the first time; it comes many times again, each time longer and more exhausting than the last so that I come to dread it, but perhaps this first time is the most terrifying. I am always running; running away from someone, across fields, stumbling through hedges and over low stone walls. Everything is red – sky, trees, grass, hedges and walls, a dreadful, brownish-red, like old bloodstains. No matter how hard I try to run, my legs won’t work properly and the man, for I know by now that it is a man, is catching up with me. I try not to look, but he is right behind me, reaching out for me, holding up a long knife which drips with blood,but this time the red is fresh; bright and glistening. Just as he reaches out to me, I wake up, screaming and won’t go to sleep again until I am take into my parent’s bed.
There are other dreams that come regularly. In one, I am standing at the top of the stairs; a rug slips from under me and then I am falling … swooshing down the stairs, on my back and just above the
treads, coming to rest with a resounding thump on the little half-landing, at the foot of the tick-tocking, brass-faced Grandfather clock. Or then I am flying, not very high, but almost swimming, with a slow breast-stroke through the warm air perhaps some four or five feet above the ground. This dream is immensely pleasurable; I feel in complete control, an interested observer of the world below.
But mostly the evenings are comforting and the nights calm; for the first few years, my bath is taken in a painted and varnished papier-mâché bowl and, when I have outgrown that, a zinc tub. It is best in winter when the curtains are drawn and bath is placed in front of the nursery fireplace with thick towels set to warm on wooden clothes-horses around the it. Warm water pours from the bulbous enamel jug, the temperature is tested by a bared elbow and pronounced safe. I am lowered in to play for a while with celluloid ducks and a little wooden boat with cotton sails before being soaped. It feels very safe within the white-towelled tent. ‘Let’s catch the big fish’ …. too soon I am plucked from the suds and swaddled in towels, placed across a wide, aproned knee, creamed with Vinolia and dusted with Johnson’s baby powder. A be-ribboned woollen vest is pulled over my head; protesting arms and legs are pushed and pulled into the poppered night-suit. In my blue bedroom-slippers and blue dressing-gown, watching the flames tongue in and out of the glowing coals, I make the mug of warm Almata last as long as possible and, slowly as I dare, nibble at the two iced biscuits; one pink with a little white sailing-boat piped on it, the other white, piped with a pink bear. I do not want to clean my teeth; I want to keep the tastes of biscuit and icing in my mouth all night. The blue striped, bone-handled toothbrush is moistened and smeared with gritty pink tooth-powder. I clench my teeth and squeeze my mouth into a lipless line. ‘Open your mouth’. I shake my head; a finger is pushed between my lips, my teeth are opened,gently but firmly. The brush moves briskly, up and down, side to side; first at the back then at the front, and finally backwards and forwards along each cutting edge. The handle hurts my gums and the corners of my mouth. Rinse!’ … the Bakerlite tumbler, mottled and grey, is held to my lips; I take a gulp and swish the water round my teeth. ‘Don’t swallow , spit it out’. I swallow half and spit the rest of the crumb-filled water into the bath.
The nursery lights are turned out; on a table near my cot, one small lamp is left on, its battered shade draped with an thin silk scarf; pin-pricks of light spangle through the fraying strands of paisley. Owls call to each other in the surrounding woods.
‘Are you there, Enzel?’ cries the witch ….’ I smell hot silk and the powdery, ashes-of-violets scent of my mother. She leans back ,the neat marcel-waves of her hair fanned out a little against the propped-up pillows of my brother’s bed. She holds up the The Blue Fairy Book to the lamp
‘Quick, quick, my little stick, carry me over the stream … ’ a coal falls, the flames jump and send the shadows leaping across the room, the halo of light from the shaded lamp glows strikes a glint of gold from the wedding ring on her slim finger …the familiar, half-understood words mingle, blur and drift into my dreams.