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Autobiographical

Another Well by Colin Angwin

A few years ago, some sparky copywriter came up with use of the word “silver” as a euphonious euphemism for “elderly”, which is itself a euphemism for “aged”.   The usage has become widespread and a week ago last Sunday I attended a session on Creative Writing given as part of a series of events for oldies grouped under the title of “Silver Sunday”.

 

The tutor, Robert, mentioned a piece by one of his students who came from Eastern Europe, I think, and who recalled that in her childhood she had had to break the ice on the well in order to draw water.   Others from warmer climates had indeed had to use wells for water supplies, but not through the ice.

 

This reminded me of a well I came across as a child.   I must have been about 7 or 8 and I was with my parents in some remote part of India.   One day, as I wandered about the countryside, I saw a magnificent well-head.   It consisted of a huge horizontal wheel linked by a system of large cogs to an equally huge vertical wheel.   This type of irrigation apparatus was and probably still is widespread in Asia and the Middle East and I imagine it has been for centuries.

 

My eye was caught by the third component of the structure, a rope festooned with earthenware pots at regular intervals and looped loosely round the vertical wheel so that part of it trailed down into the well beneath.   An ox was lashed to the horizontal wheel and rotated it by plodding round in a never-ending circle.   This made the vertical wheel rotate in its turn, so that the pots came up out of the well filled with water which, as they passed the apex of their circuit, was tipped into a channel leading to the fields to be irrigated.

 

I picked up a stone and threw it at one of the pots which shattered satisfyingly, shedding its contents onto the dry earth.   I repeated the act with another stone, another pot.   My memory is that I hit a pot with every stone I threw, but my later experience on the cricket field showed that my hand and eye coordination is very shaky so that is unlikely.   It is, however, true that by the time I had finished my little game every pot was broken, and I headed for home well pleased with myself.

 

I dawdled on the way, so that the owner of the well got there well before me and was pouring out the story to my father, who took decisive action.   He paid the man for the damage done, more than generously I have no doubt, and he took a slipper to me, also quite generously.   This is the only beating that I remember his giving me.   I also remember his clear explanation of what the beating was for.   It was not for breaking the pots.   It was for not considering the effects of my action on the farmer, whose whole livelihood depended on the irrigation system I had destroyed.

 

Looking back on the episode many decades later, I also draw two other possibly unfashionable conclusions.   First, corporal punishment can be good – this slippering certainly impressed the desired lesson on me and did not in the least diminish my love and respect for my father.   Secondly, you could be one of the colonial rulers and still behave thoughtfully and fairly to the ruled.

 

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Away from the boys: Miss Bignolds by Yonita Fairfax

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Mask oil on canvas

A big thank you to Yonita Fairfax for sharing her wonderful piece of writing that evokes memories of childhood. It is a very vivid and inspiring piece – I love the ending!

Away from the boys: Miss Bignolds

My mother was highly amused when she had returned from  a visit to their friends, the Roadnights in Kent, who were my brother’s Godparents that their young daughter aged about seven on being asked what her interests were, had said ‘Boys, Mummy, Boys. The grown-ups had chuckled. My mother was unaware that I would not have answered in a similar vein: I imagine that parents generally know little of the trauma of their offspring’s childhoods. I heard very little about hers, except that she adored her father, and since he had been an engineer that they had travelled a great deal and that she had gone to various convents. Hence it was not without possibility that my first schooling, my nursery boarding school, was a Roman Catholic one. I was not aware of this at the time but on reflection have come to that conclusion. The school was a nursery school near Farnham in Kent to which my brother and I both went  during the war years which we still call ‘Miss Bignolds’. Although my mother used to tell of how she had been washed underneath a voluminous white shroud, and that she was kept  in the dining room until she had eaten her revolting food, which she did by discovering that she could tip it out of the window!- my experiences were somewhat different; did not involve washing or food, but the sleeping arrangements and the teasing by the boys who were there with me, one of them being my brother.

The reason why I felt that it was a Roman Catholic nursery school was that every night without fail we used to climb up the dark wooden staircase as silently as possible  and tiptoe round what seemed like a huge bed in which lay a very old wrinkled lady. We said ‘good night’ in hushed tones, one by one. Above her head on the wall hung a crucifix. Then equally silently we climbed down again and dutifully lay down on our mattresses which were placed under the slope of the stairs. We went to sleep with our gas masks next to us. They were such a very weird shape and quite heavy for little children.  We had a practice run of how to put this thing on and how to take it off, like they do now in aeroplanes but the tight feeling it gave reminds me more of underwater goggles. Then the mask would be handed over every morning, and we watched how it was neatly packed away into the cupboard on the right hand wall next to the class room. It was solemnly done and we never played with them. I distinctly remember this although I must have been only about five years old at the time.

During the first years of the war, many parents sent their children out of London for their safety, little knowing that as the war progressed, bombs that were destined for London which did not hit their mark, often fell in Kent, so it became quite a dangerous place to be! Perhaps that is why we slept with our masks near us. It seems that gas was even more feared than the bombs. Masks of various sorts have been a good theme for artists throughout the ages but my painting of a gas mask refers to man’s inhumanity to man and dates from this period of my life.

This time of my life at Miss Bignolds was probably full of unexpected terror. We might also have been out for an innocent school walk, ambling along a narrow country lane when an army convoy came roaring down on us, which forced a sudden scramble out of the way; the only way out, being up a steep muddy bank, clutching at tree roots myself flattened against the earth, and the recipient of a heavy scolding for getting my dress dirty.

I have a lasting impression  that  on one occasion we were taken right up to the edge to peer down a huge deep round hole, rather like a volcanic crater, but here no doubt, a bomb’s crater. A bomb had probably fallen nearby. It could even have been on the property which was fairly extensive. What a silly thing to do, or perhaps the visit  was to explain what was going on. It meant that for many years I had a very vivid re-occurring dream of being pulled up and out of just such a place, up just such a slippery slope, almost like being pulled up from Plato’s well. Perhaps during a rough game I did fall into the crater, in which case I should be thankful to the boys at the school, that they pulled me out.

But what has most stayed with me, the effect which has been the most lasting, is that  I learnt to defend myself from the vicious and unpleasant teasing that I had from the boys.  I do not remember any girls. Perhaps I was the only girl, and hence ripe for teasing.  I am sure I would have ganged up with another girl against those rough boys if there had been one, and remembered her- instead I had to fight it out alone.

The continual self-defence must have made me strong physically, or I drew on an internal strength; or one could say that unfortunately this is when I learnt to rise to a bait, a challenge, -that I could only be pushed so far before retaliating in my own defence. On this occasion, I had been locked into the rusty corrugated iron shed on the grounds and was being  jeered at from the outside. There was no other way.  I managed to lift up high what was for me, who was a thin smaller than average child, a very heavy boulder which I balanced on the opening where the window would have been. Did I warn them? If I had, would ‘they’ of the voices have taken any notice? I let it go. It fell onto the voices beneath the window.

As it turned out the boulder fell on to my brother’s big toe. He lost his toenail. I am lucky that his toe was not broken. I am lucky it was not another child’s toenail. I distinctly remember once we had gone back home to London for our holidays, that my mother painted the area with this red mercurichrome. She developed quite a ritual. ‘You  naughty girl’ my mother would invariably say as she carefully painted the red on to the area of the missing  toenail. I was always there watching this ‘happening’: fascinated by the way the wrinkled pale flesh gradually became red again. My brother was not in pain but with a quick but friendly teasing face, sticking his tongue out at me behind her back, as she bent down carefully to apply the red liquid, as she did not want any to spill, he also made sure that I would remember the incident, and I have.

My mother had not been put into the picture that I had acted in self-defence, and I felt that I had no support from her. Her favourite phrase was ‘comparisons are odious’. With that one phrase she would shut one up if one tried to complain or say something in one’s own defence.

Once we were back in London for our holidays, unknown to our parents my brother and I certainly jumped around as if on a beach amongst the rocks created by a nearby bombed house. We must have been very agile. I shall always remember how the cellulite light switch with its protruding knob hung in the middle of the empty house and the fun was being able to turn it on and off without being ticked off for wasting electricity. It was strange how the staircase   still hung precariously in mid air. With a ladder we could have got on to it, but we did not have a ladder, and neither of us was tall enough to reach the bottom step.

Perhaps the boulder incident  was the last time those rough boys  teased me in that way, as my other memories are calm ones, of another type of self assertion. I found a place to hide. I remember that I could steal away, disappear by walking close to some bushes that must have made an uphill boundary on the right hand side  to the school property. I often re-visit this journey in my dreams.

No one ever found me in my secret hiding place into which I would crawl, nor did they come looking. It was a place for myself far away from those rough boys. The evergreen branches of a wild  prickly tree were interwoven above me like a canopy. Through them came some patches  of light into this tent so that I could read safely away from their teasing. My brother remembers our parents saying: ‘Look at your sister, she is always reading. Reading became a refuge from the world as I then knew it’.

That way I practised invisibility. It was the only way I knew how to protect myself without entering into the defensive/attack mode. Once on a desultory Sunday afternoon, as a grown up when we were doing one of those quiz style analysis exercises you find in newspapers, and I was asked ‘what animal would you be’, I found myself surprised that I had chosen a white leopard, which  blended in so well with its background, invisible against the white snow. I feel sure that it came from this time of hiding into my tented overgrowth to protect myself, away from the boys.

© Yonita Fairfax

Playing Summer by Cornelia J. Glynn

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A big thank you to Open Age member Cornelia J. Glynn for sharing her wonderful piece of writing in which she recalls fond memories of her childhood play during summertime. Just what we need to warm us up on this chilly winter day!

PLAYING SUMMER

It was a cold December day. The sky was grey and heavy with snow, with flakes waiting to fall and cover everything in a white shimmering blanket.  Outside, people were tightening the collars of their coats and holding on to them with one hand, while keeping the other in their pocket as they were hastening along the street. Inside our apartment it was cosy and warm and  the drops of condensation on the window panes were slowly tricking down the glass onto the glossy white wooden frames and then onto the wide polished marbled ledge.

My parents had gone to the shops, leaving the door wide open so that my Godmother, who lived opposite and whose door was also left wide open, could look in on my sister and me (she was five and I was 3). Alternatively, we were able to just wander in, usually carrying a selection of toys which we would scatter all over her floor where we would crouch and play for a while and listen to a never ending flow of fairy tales my Godmother would tell us. I adored my godmother. A woman, whom I sadly never got to know that well, her green eyes twinkled and she was kind and calm, and also frequently delighted us with chocolate flavoured boiled sweets. Where she managed to find them is still a mystery to me. It was in the early Fifties and living in Russian occupied East Germany luxury foods such as sweets were not commonly for sale in the shops.

Anyway, on that particular day unbeknown to her, we obviously got bored with our dolls and teddy bears and having a vivid imagination as children do, we designed a game of our own. We did that sometimes and would rummage in our parents’ wardrobes, trying on our mother’s clothes and shoes or our father’s jackets and ties. To complete our attire, we would apply some of my mother’s lipstick onto our cheeks and lips before we stuck an unlit cigarette in our mouths to look like “proper” adults. Then we would pose in front of the mirror and act as if we were grown-ups. However, that’s not what we did on that day, no. The game we played was quite different and when my parents returned home, they were surprised to find a group of spectators gathered outside the house we lived in, looking up at the building, some amused and smiling, others dismayed and disapprovingly.

My parents were curious as to what everyone was looking at and as they cast their eyes up, they stopped at our bay window in disbelief at what they saw: two little girls covered in brown shoe polish and wearing nothing but sun glasses, prancing about happily on the inside ledge, laughing and waving and blowing kisses at the people below. Suffice it to say, that the two little girls were my sister and me.

My parents quickly left the scene, rushed into the house and up the stairs. My father came in first, followed by my mother and godmother, whose cheeks were somewhat flushed presumably because my mother had had words with her for leaving us unsupervised for too long. Consequently she hadn’t had a clue what we had got up to. Still giggling as we were having so much fun on our make-belief beach with our pretend suntans and enjoying the public attention, we greeted them happily. They didn’t exactly share our sentiment.   “What are you doing up on the window ledge and why are you naked? And why have you smeared shoe polish all over yourselves?” my father asked us with a stern look on his face and firmly ordered us to come down at once.  My sister and I beamed at him and then at our mother and godmother, who both seemed to have been lost for words. “We were playing summer!” we answered in unison, before we climbed down onto the chair we had put in front of the window ledge. The three of them couldn’t but burst out laughing.  Then my mother ushered us to the bathroom, trying to wash the shoe polish off our bodies. She didn’t quite manage it and the pale brown stains were a reminder of our “Playing Summer” game on a miserable winter’s day and amused us all for weeks to come.

© Cornelia J. Glynn

 

Yellow Cucumbers by Cornelia J. Glynn

A big thank you to Cornelia J. Glynn for sharing her wonderful story inspired by Christmas and childhood memories…

Yellow Cucumbers

I was not even four years old when my family and I had to flee from Russian occupied East Germany at a nano second’s notice with only the clothes we were wearing. It was the 23rd of December and I had so been looking forward to getting my annual orange. The choice of food available was very limited and I truly believed that we got only one orange a year.

So there we were, my father and I in his friend’s car, driving to West Berlin, where we caught a plane to Frankfurt and then hopped on a train to a mining town in North Rhein Westfalia where I was to meet my Grandfather (my father’s side) for the very first time. It had been a very traumatic experience to leave behind my mother, who made her way to Frankfurt on her own and my sister, who had been visiting my Grandmother in another town so couldn’t join us until a few months later. However, the mere thought of meeting my Grandpa kept my hunger at bay (we had no money to buy a sandwich although a kind lady on the train later fed us) and made me forget about the orange I so cherished at Christmas time. I liked its colour and aroma as well as its texture and taste and would not eat it for days, gently stroking it’s dimpled skin and smelling it in total amazement.

But this story isn’t about oranges, or my grandfather even, and yes, I loved him instantly, as I did my Grandma, which was a good thing because I wouldn’t see my parents again for another year until we received news that my father had finally been granted asylum in the West, and had found work in Frankfurt, where we would live for five or six years.

Living with my grandparents were also my Aunt Mia and her (rather ghastly) husband, whose name I don’t care to utter even and his son, my cousin, who was a few years my senior.

Auntie Mia was a wonderful woman and our bond was immediate. Since I had nothing to wear, she made me dresses out of old curtains, the idea of which horrified me when she mentioned it to my Dad.

Still, she was a great seamstress and as it happened, they were my favourite dresses and I felt good in them.

But this story isn’t about my favourite dresses either, or about Aunt or my bad tempered uncle, or my cousin. Although, it kind of is about her because one day, as a special treat she brought home a big bunch of bananas.

Until then, I had noticed that there was lot more produce in the shops and I was astonished to learn that I could have more than one orange not only at Christmas, but also at other times of the year. As for bananas, they were alien to me. I had never heard of them, or seen them so when Auntie Mia broke one off the bunch and handed it to me with a warm smile on her face, I eyed it suspiciously, before holding it in my hands and then to my nose to check what it smelt like. I wondered if it was a weird type of orange but neither its shape nor its smell resembled that of an orange and I was baffled.

“What is it?” I asked her.

“It’s a banana, Cornelia. It comes by ship from a hot country far, far away and is delicious” she replied.

I turned it around a few times and shifted it from one hand to another, intrigued by its strange shape and colour. “Well, what is a banana and what do you do with it?” was my next question.

My aunt let out a little laugh. “It’s a fruit and you eat it.”

“You eat it?”

“Yes, you eat it.”

Why anyone would want to eat such an extraordinary looking thing, was beyond me. Nevertheless, I bit into the bit where it had been separated from the bunch.  It was hard and sharp and scraped the roof of my mouth and I was not impressed by its taste.

Now my aunt laughed out aloud. “No, no, darling. The banana is inside.”

“Ohhh. But how do you get to it?”

“You peel it.” she explained whereupon I inspected the banana more closely before having to ask “How do I do that?” She gently took it from my hand, removed half of the skin and made the banana look like it was wearing a skirt.

Unconvinced, I took a big bite and chewed it a little, before spitting it out, disgusted and declaring “I don’t like these yellow cucumbers”.

Funny to think that these yellow cucumbers would become a staple part of my diet in later years, when I would eat several a day, but then, aged four, I could not have possibly imagined that.

© Cornelia J. Glynn

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