Imagine the scene if you will; a leaden sky, a rain lashed pavement, shop awnings sagging under the weight of very British rain. My mother’s stockings, seamed, spattered with the muddied spray of passing car wheels.
An icy rivulet trickled down the back of my neck, seeped through my cardigan, inadequate protection against this sudden downpour. My toes squelched in the plastic beach shoes and the tin bucket decorated with starfish which I carried threatened to fill with water.
I don’t recollect my brother being there, on the pavement, but he must have been; he appears in all the photos of the holiday up until this day, the day we had to quickly gather up our towels and other belongings and make a quick get-away from the beach as the storm rolled in and the gentle waves in which we had paddled became crashing rollers capable of dashing a body against the rocks. A harle, they call it in Lincolnshire. “Theer’s an ‘arle coming in,” meaning a sea mist which descends suddenly, blown in by an easterly wind, turning a bright summer’s day into one of wetness and gloom.
I digress. My parents were walking a few paces ahead, hand in hand. My mother wore a white pac-a mac. Suddenly she turned and gripped my father around the waist before sinking to her knees, keeling over and hitting the ground with a thud. I thought that she was dead. My father reassured me that she had only fainted before dropping to his knees beside her. I remember him saying, “Claire,” then more urgently, “Claire, Claire, wake up.”
Someone appeared from inside the steamy windowed cafe, reassured my father that an ambulance had been called.
“She’s just fainted,” my father said hopefully. Someone place a rolled up coat beneath my mother’s head. At this point I recall my brother’s presence for we were led inside the cafe. I remember eating rich tea biscuits and peering through the misty glass at the knot of bystanders around my mother.
Eventually an ambulance arrived, a long -bonneted cream ambulance of yester-year with a flashing light and ringing bell. My mother was stretchered inside, the double doors closed with a bang. My father came into the steamy cafe, hair plastered flat to his head. By now my brother was crying, snot running over his top lip. My father took us both by the hand and in silenced we walk back to the boarding house, which smelt of boiled cabbage and liver.
The front door was locked. Whatever the vagaries of the British weather we were not supposed to return until dinner time at twelve thirty. My father rang the bell. The landlady opened the door with a frown. A hurried explanation and we were allowed entry to our room. My father hurriedly changed my brother’s wet clothes. I was old enough to pull off my own sopping shorts and tee shirt, exchanging them for a gingham skirt, white vest and hand knitted cardigan. We were told to be good, and not to leave the room. My father kissed us goodbye and left for the hospital.
How many games of I-spy does it take to pass a morning? Without our usual toys and books we were left to fall back on our own resources. There was a wash basin in our room which we filled with water in order to sail our boats, but it wasn’t nearly so much fun as the seafront boating lake.
At twelve thirty five – I remember the time exactly because I had only recently learnt how to read the clock and as a reward had been given a Timex with a red strap which I consulted regularly – the landlady brought us our dinner on a tray. We were clearly considered too young and irresponsible to enter the dining room without adult supervision. We sat on my single bed, trays balanced on our knees, and ate lamb stew with carrots and Smash potato followed by jam roly poly with custard. I hate jam roly poly to this day. Still the rain fell outside our window. Still our father remained away.
Since my brother’s birth my mother had been a worried, fragile soul. I knew nothing then of post natal depression. I only knew that the fun-loving mother who had played make believe and read stories aloud had departed and in her place was an anxious mother overly concerned that that the house was kept tidy and quiet and who was prone to tears for no apparent reason. I had been told on more than one occasion by my aunt that I had to be a good girl and not worry my mother because she was not well. Thus from an early age I learnt to amuse myself and more importantly keep my fears to myself. Did I blame my brother? I can’t remember, I don’t think so but who knows what goes on subconsciously in a child’s mind?
This particular afternoon, with the interminable rain and my parents absent, I knew that I had to keep him occupied. Bored with games of I-spy and sailing boats in the wash-basin we looked around for other diversions. Petey, that was his name, wanted to go outside but I knew that we shouldn’t; to keep him amused I pulled the pillows off the beds and built him a mountain to climb. When he tired of that I replaced the pillows and found the colouring books and crayons which I knew Mum had brought with her for some such rainy day.
At five o’clock, Mrs Pretty, the landlady, brought us tea on tray. She looked around the room suspiciously as she came in, but seeing us quietly occupied with colouring books she nodded approvingly.
“I see you have been good children,” she said. “Your father has telephoned from the hospital. He’s staying there awhile longer. He says that you are to get into your pyjamas, brush your teeth and into bed at seven.” Her voice softened. “Eat your tea up now. Since you have been well behaved would you like to come down to my private sitting room when I have finished serving the evening meal? There is a nature programme on the television which you might enjoy.” We thanked her and tucked into our egg and cress sandwiches.
We did not have a television at home. I had once seen Crackerjack at a friend’s. We were
therefore enthralled by the grainy pictures. I recall that the nature programme was Zoo Quest, presented by a young David Atttenborough who held our anxiety at bay for a while as we accompanied him on his quest to find honey badgers in the Serengeti. Mrs Pretty, who we could hear throughout rattling crockery in the adjoining kitchen, bustled in as soon as the closing credits began to roll, declaring, “Time for bed now dears. Your father will be home before long I’m sure.”
She ushered us through the door, into the hallway, past the steps down to the basement dining room and up to our first floor room. “Goodnight dears,” she said. The door closed firmly and were alone. Petey began to cry.
“I want Mummy,” he sobbed.
“She’ll be here soon, Daddy will bring her back. Put these on quickly.” I threw his striped pyjamas across the room. While he struggled out of his shorts and tee shirt I quickly wriggled into my floor length nightdress, using it as a tent beneath which to remove my skirt and knickers. We brushed out teeth at the washbasin and then I escorted Petey to the lavatory along the landing. When he had peed and scooted back to the room, I did the same.
He was already in bed when I returned.
“Will you cuddle me?” he asked in a small voice. I climbed into the small bed pushed hard against the wall. Mine stood in the bay window. I put my arms around him. “It will be alright, don’t worry,” I assured him.
We must have both fallen into a deep sleep for we did not hear my father return. When the early morning sun fingered its way beneath the curtains casting it’s brightness across our faces we sat up to see our father humped under the covers of the double bed. Petey called out to him. Our father called us to him. His eyes were bloodshot. He struggled to a sitting position and leant against the pillows. We climbed up onto the high bed and sat either side of him. He put his arms around us and told us that our mother would not be returning home. We had arrived at the seaside a family of four and would be returning as a family of three.
My mother had died of a cerebral haemorrhage, I learnt later. I was allowed to attend her funeral, Petey, deemed too young, stayed with a neighbour.
Someone, whether my mother, or a Sunday school teacher, I don’t remember who, had once told me that after death a person goes to live with Jesus in heaven. My childish mind had therefore worked out that the coffin would be placed in the churchyard and we would witness it taken heavenward in a cloud, rather in the manner of Jesus’ ascension. When instead it was laid in a gaping hole and covered with earth I reasoned that if being taken up to Heaven was a lie then so was everything else I had been taught about Jesus.
It is true that children are resilient. Petey and I grieved for a while but we were loved, by my father and by our two aunts, my mother’s older sisters who lived together, having both lost their lovers in the war. In the fullness of time my father remarried; it would be dramatic to write of a wicked stepmother and resentment towards the fruits of that marriage, but the truth is my stepmother was kind. I grew to love her, and remain close to my two half-sisters.
And yet, I have never passed a milestone without wondering what my mother would have made of me, whether she would have been proud. Would she have delighted in my eleven plus success, my O and A level passes, my graduation? She missed my wedding, the birth of her grandchildren. What sort of grandmother would she have been? What sort of grandmother will I be? I was denied the opportunity to learn.
And despite the passing of half a century there is nothing which can arouse in me a despondency and sense of loss more than the smell of liver and boiled cabbage and a rain-lashed British seaside resort.