Some of us had happy childhoods. Some of us not so much. But we all had one. Whether or not the happy/sad balance was askew, our childhoods remain very much a part of who we are and how
we came to be.
My own childhood was mostly spent in the UK, except for a three year stint in Massachusetts. I think of those three years fondly but, when I recall my small years, there is just one place where I belong. The place that features most heavily in my memory. A house that holds all of my secrets and stories and comes to me in my dreams, unchanged and beckoning me to sit there a while and remember how I grew and how those bricks and those gardens watched me and held me, regarding me with silent eyes.
We lived in a small town just on the corner of Berkshire, Surrey and Hampshire (postal nightmare!) on a long lane that wound all the way into Sandhurst, past the mechanical sewage works, past the Blackwater river and under the bridge. A curious mixture of nature and trudging machinery. Birds sitting atop the sewage plants, the silent river slipping under the road, full of green weeds that were both inviting and menacing at the same time in the deep black water.
At the bottom of the lane, tucked away behind a small stream of water and an imposing holly bush, there sat three houses. The Bungalow. Little Oaks and, our home in the far corner with Grandma's blossom tree, Hollybush House.
Hollybush House was big but not particularly beautiful in any remarkable way. It was built in the 1960s as a modest home, bought by us in 1987 and extended in 1992 after we returned from the States. It had a large front and back garden that encircled the house, punctuated on one side by an iron gate that we would lock our prisoners behind and, on the other side, by another creaky wooden door that loomed over our pet cemetery, where little crosses were placed in rows to commemorate those we had loved and lost.
Initially, my twin brother and I shared a room at the back of the house. We had bunk beds where I had the bottom and he had the top. However, as he had a few late night discrepancies that are typical of young children, and I had a savage reading addiction, we swapped so that he could twilight tinkle without causing grievance to me and I could read by the small light that my father kindly installed.
I remember when I was seven, we got the extension and I finally got my own room. Jonathan moved to the front of the house, my sister inherited our parents old bedroom and my Grandmother relocated downstairs into her own little annexe, where I often feared for her life as I had thrown an apple pip into the foundations as they were laying them and often imagined a staggering tree erupting through the floorboards while she slept.
We painted over the minty green chipwood walls in my room a pale shade of pink and placed the sofa under the large windows that overlooked our pretty garden where we all had our own little patches to tend. I remember when we had finished moving things around, I picked up my Pongo dog and sat on the sofa feeling so grown up for having such a big space all to myself.
It's almost as if, for me, this moment marked the times that were to come and a moment that flipped the future into motion. When I look back to this memory, it is like the calm before the storm. I can recall that feeling of sitting there peacefully and it is like I am watching myself, stalled in time before the seconds, minutes and hours began to whir and race away from me, leading me to the person who is typing this right now.
After that year, everything changed, the beginnings of reason and logic began to dawn and it's as if my memory has chosen to block out certain elements. I can remember, at the age of eight, turning up my new walkman to muffle the sounds of my parents arguing and being surprised by how loud the volume would go and I remember handing my father the property section of the paper with circles around the houses that I liked for him. I even went to the length of finding a red marker pen, because that's how they did it in the movies. The circles I drew were far too heavy and I frowned, wishing they had looked effortless rather than frumpy.
Apart from these tiny fragments, I have a lesser recollection of family affairs. Glancing back, my head is filled with memories of the house but no so much of interactions between my mother, my father and the man who became my second father, so to speak. And so when I cast my mind back to these times, I see myself in the garden, rubbing lemon mint between my fingers, making posies for school out of rosemary and sage because I was obsessed with the Tudors. I remember locking myself in the shed like a fugitive and then escaping through the window with a bamboo stick, lifting the padlock and breaking free. Then scuttling between the huge bushes and the tall garden fence with my friend, Bobbie, and writing our secrets on the damp wood with chalk, where they were protected from prying eyes. We would clamber to the top of those bushes branch by branch, until we could stick our heads out the top and catch sight of a scolding Grandma through the kitchen window, where little drooping snowdrops sat that I had picked for her on the way home.
On the grass where the shadows lay, we would pretend that they were the clouds that we lived upon and when we jumped into the light we would fall to earth to help people in need. Everything was magical. We could see something more in everything we touched. A vitamin tablet was a pill that gave you superhuman powers. A rose petal was a fairy's dress made of the finest silk and the shadows by the bed at night held monsters capable of total destruction and devastation.
At weekends, we would trot next door and offer to help our neighbours to clear the leaves or wash their cars and we watched wide-eyed as Nadine's belly grew big with little Richard- is it possible that she would burst? He turned up something like five days late, after all!
Hollybush House to me, was endlessly blooming green and full of adventure. The garage smelled of old oil, cut grass and damp and was full of old, rusty treasures. The borders of the garden had stepping stones that led to herb bushes and were framed by forget-me-nots. The bottom of the garden at night was inky black and was surely a meeting place for witches. I would peer at it from my window feeling a mixture of fear and fascination.
In my bedroom we would shimmy under the bed to scratch secret codes into the wooden planks. We would run around the outside of the house in circles trying to catch each other, the only safe haven being Grandma's blossom tree, where no one could touch you- if only you could reach it first, as it was closely guarded by the one we called 'it'. The grand ring of a bell would sound, a way of announcing that dinner was ready because a voice was never loud enough to seek us out. The bell signified a steaming plate of alphabet-shaped chips and other delicious fare.
Now that I have grown up and moved an infinite number of times, I find myself thinking about Hollybush House less and less but always feeling like it is there deep down inside me. Almost as if it is waiting for me to go back there someday and that nothing will have changed, although I know it has. Everything changes.
I remember the last few minutes I spent in the house before I left it at the age of 18. I went to my Grandmother's room, where I used to spend hours with my head resting on her tummy, watching afternoon tv and eating cornish wafers. I stood by the window, my arms folded, with the apple pip somewhere deep beneath my feet, and it felt like I wasn't just leaving the house behind but all of my childhood with it. I ran through all of the memories I have just shared with you and so many more and it felt as if I had fistfuls of sand running through my fingers and that the final grains were falling. When my hands were empty, I left the room. As I walked down the driveway, I turned around for one final look and I imagined that I could see my Grandmother there, standing in the window, one arm folded gently over her stomach and the other waving at me, something she used to do almost without fail every time I left the house. Only this time it was final. There was no going back. She smiled her crooked smile and so it was that in my heart she became the eternal guardian of our memories there, of our childhood and of Hollybush House. I left it all behind and walked forward.
I have you fast in my fortress,
And will not let you depart,
But put you down into the dungeon
In the round-tower of my heart.
And there will I keep you forever,
Yes, forever and a day,
Till the walls shall crumble to ruin,
And moulder in dust away.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow