Why is it that we mostly remember only the happiest moments of childhood? I am aware, of course, that for some children – those who suffer abuse or grow up surrounded by the effects of war or famine – there are no happy memories to take into adulthood. But for the rest of us, the fact is that childhood consists of a series of events which are capable of creating good and bad memories. Hugs and slaps, pleasure and pain, joy of desires fulfilled and disappointment at hopes dashed. In other words it is a sampling of the real life we will experience in adulthood.
My memories of my childhood in that cottage by the stream are mostly happy ones. But they are, I now realise, coloured by my mother’s response to the changes it represented in her own fortunes.
I imagine that in the first while there was a sense of relief. In part a continuation of the relief that must have accompanied her departure from London a year earlier. London, devastated by then by almost a year of nightly bombing raids by the Luftwaffe. She worked in Air Raid Precautions so would have seen first hand the destruction of homes, the loss of life and the injuries inflicted. She worked, too, in a clothing factory which was also destroyed in a raid.
In Herefordshire she was safe from all of that. And yet, life in other people’s homes would have presented its own problems, problems I tried to reflect in that imagined conversation with her mother as they climbed the hill. Now, at last, they had time and space to themselves. Time to look forward to the possibility, however remote, of peace.
I can’t help wondering at what point the stark reality of life with none of the facilities to which they must have been used sunk in and began to fester. Certainly life in London in the nineteen thirties would have been very different to city life today. But their home would have had electricity and piped water. There would have been cinemas, dance halls, libraries and theatres within easy reach. There were friends, work colleagues, uncles, aunts and cousins a bus ride away.
At the cottage there were none of these things. And, on top of all of that, there were the exigencies of war that effected everyone – shortages of almost everything and rationing of food and clothing.
For a child, however, the things you experience are taken to be normal even though to everyone else they might seem anything but. So for me our days, surrounded by meadows in which we were free to roam and play, often seem idyllic.
I remember making hay. In that place and time horses were still used for some aspects of farm work. Tractors were small, slow and simple, nothing like the monsters that speed around the lanes near my Irish home. Once cut, the mixture of grasses and herbs that grew in the meadows surrounding the cottage were left to dry, a process that might take a week. After two or three days the flat swathes would be tossed and turned manually, using two-pronged forks called pikes, an activity that my mother and I assisted with. This exposed the still green underside so that, too, could dry. Eventually these rows of dried grass were pulled into small piles, called “cocks” in the local dialect. Next a trailer was towed around the field and the cocks loaded to be carried to the Dutch barn. The smell of the new mown hay filled our nights, changing, as the days passed, from the sweetness of the first cut to the mellow dustiness of the final product.
There was, then, the annual pantomime as the mechanical hay rake arrived and had to be threaded through the gate into the meadow. The problem was that the rake, a contraption consisting of a row of metal tines bent into three quarters of a circle and housed between two huge metal wheels, was wider than the space between the walls of the cow shed and the former pig sty we used as a chicken house. The farmer, our landlord, and his son, perspiring in the heat of a July afternoon and accompanied by curses, manoeuvred this beast in a series of arcs, until the machine was translated from cobbled yard to hay meadow where it would be drawn around to gather up all the wisps of hay left behind.
The cattle would have been removed several weeks before, presumably sold to a local butcher. As soon as the sward recovered, a new set of young animals were brought to spend the autumn grazing and the winter consuming the hay.