by Selina Walmsley-Craze
People say we don't remember much before five years old, except perhaps for the odd spectacular fall into a clump of stinging nettles, or a special day out in London with an indulging grandmother. In my case, however, my early years of living with my parents at Pont Creek stand out with sparkling clarity.
Perhaps sounds were the most vivid: summer days on the lawn outside the hut, the soothing rhythm of the wood pigeon's call; the far away humming of a plane, a tiny flint of silver steel in the blue sky.
'An AIR-roh-plane,' I would repeat studiously after my father. He never lost an opportunity to teach me some long, unpronounceable word, or important fact. He would take great pride in these infant achievements, swinging me high in the air with a laugh to my mother:
'Honey, it's just said photosynthesis!'
Another sound: the tap-tapping of the typewriter coming from the room into which one Must Never Go, where my father worked on his book of the moment every morning from 6am to 12pm. There would be the occasional 'Utterly blast and damn it!' that would punctuate the typing, followed by an admonishing 'Leo! Selina can hear you!' from my mother.
So many sounds, mingling and echoing the human ones: rain on leaves outside my bedroom window, an owl's hoot, the indignant squeal of a mouse.
The creaking of oars in their row-locks as we would venture daily in the boat on some important mission; shopping in town or a picnic on some isolated beach. I had made a sort of hideout for myself in the aft of Amanda, our motor boat with a one-third deck. Snuggled up in a nest of old blankets and my father's terracotta jerseys, I would pretend I was a great explorer.
'Are we going to Australia today, Daddy?'
'One day, baby, one day.'
Sooner or later the sound of the oars, or the chug of the engine blending with the soft slaps of water on wood sent me into blissful sleep, and the next thing I'd remember would be being gently set down on a beach, or a quay, stumbling a little and grasping my father's confident hand.
As I got older, I learned to study my father's face, which never failed to provide a source of endless fascination. No sooner than he had sat down wearily in his home-made wooden armchair, I would scramble onto his lap and begin an earnest scrutiny.
'You have hundreds and hundreds and thousands and thousands of lines, Daddy,' I would say, holding his head between my sticky paws. 'They look just like roads.'
Taking the rueful smile as encouragement, I would continue my running commentary until, no doubt, my father's self esteem was sufficiently demolished, and I was told to go and see what mummy was up to.
Despite my mother's attempts to make 'a pretty little girl' out of me, I was never happy with my frilly dresses and the curls she would force out of my unwilling hair. As soon as I was able, and with my father's full compliance, I would wrench off the hair curlers, pull on my dungarees and we would flee, partners-in-crime, down to the beach to watch the baby eels in the stream, or into the workshop to saw planks of wood or untangle fishing lines.
Smells... always so capable of evoking the crispest of memories. Sawdust, old rusty iron, a jacket fumed in wood smoke. I seemed oblivious to the smell of fish, and not fazed at all by the regular sight of gutted entrails spread across the kitchen surfaces. Sights that would have my mother phoning my grandmother:
'Really, mother, it's too much. It's like Billingsgate Market,' she would wail.
'Darling, come up to London and we'll have tea in Harrods,' would come the crackling reply
Touch, the smooth feel of the sun-warmed pebbles on the beach, the wide flat stones that my father and I would build 'houses' with. The rough twist of a painter in my hand as I patiently learned to tie knots. The river's edge was filled with seaweed that would graze softly against my arms and legs when I swam. Looking down into the water they looked like miniature trees growing upwards, and I would weave between them like a seal. Dry, the seaweed made an exciting 'pop!' when trodden on, or squeezed between fingers. (A prelude to the current craze for snapping bubble wrap!)
Despite my mother's concern that this was not an ideal setting for a young child, I never remember any yearning for smart toys, or even friends of my own age. This was Rudolph Steiner in action – I had all the multi-sensory experience with nature a child could want; no improvement necessary.
But clouds were slowly gathering in Arcadia, as they always do. I had developed alarming attacks of asthma, following a severe bout of measles. I never minded these attacks – children have the happy gift of living in the moment, unaffected by memory or fearful anticipation. The attacks just came – stayed a bit, then went and I was off adventuring again. But my mother was terrified. There was no road from Polruan to the hut, and the only access for doctors and ambulances was by the tidal creek.
My attacks were usually at night, and the local doctor finally put his foot down at the humiliation of being carried piggy-back by my father from the boat to the edge of our beach. It became inevitable that we would have to leave.
Although nothing was discussed, I knew by my father's expressions (new roads and furrows had appeared on his face and forehead) that something very sad was in the air.
For my mother this was also freedom from a life that didn't really suit her, I was to learn many years later. She craved society, parties and dancing. The stark reality of the cold lonely winters up the creek, her husband and child out fishing all day, and the ongoing financial uncertainties did not match her romantic ideal of the author in his rustic setting.
When it finally dawned on me we were really going, I was furious. I remember seeing the barge pulling up in front of our little beach, ready to take the furniture down the creek and across to the town. All day my father and various local fishermen friends struggled with boxes, wardrobes, beds, back and forth, lashing them on securely with ropes and nails. When no one was looking I would try and untie them again, but to no avail.
Then, on a blustery afternoon, the wind whipping the sea into angry little crests, we made the final journey. At one point, I crawled into a wardrobe as in denial of the situation; denial of my father's sad face, my mother's relieved one, and at the now unwelcome sounds of row-locks, oars and engines.
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