I have spent these last several days in Wiltshire as my mother has had a fall and broken her hip. Dad is not able to look after himself around the house so we are trying to patch things as best we can for a couple of weeks. She says her feet got muddled as she turned from the microwave and went down hard on one side. The ambulance (from Bath, in these days of centralised medical care) took an appalling 2 hours to reach her. She seems pretty well considering she’s in her 90s but now the ward has been closed to all visitors due to an outbreak of Novovirus in the hospital. I have an atavistic sense that muttering a few spells about her, in trying to describe her in younger more vigorous days might help her recovery (and it sort of helps me too).
I am lifted then strapped into the child’s seat on the rear carrier of Mum’s bike. I remember the simple folding mechanism: the two sides inwards, then the back-rest folding forwards on top. She opens it and settles me in while the bike leans in the Passage (the covered pathway along one side of the house, outside the back door). Then I am wheeled out, up the front garden path, a little bump up the step onto the public path, now right and out to the main road. My limbs vividly remember the sense of her scooting for a few feet, gathering speed, then a more violent wobble to either side as she kicks off, begins to balance, threading her right leg through the bike frame onto the peddle. Steadying now, speeding up, the sense of her wide hips beginning to roll there before my face as we start to bowl along, lean into the left hand corner into Horse Road, heading for Trowbridge.
Perhaps we go to the old market hall. I have the sensation of progressing through it, through the high wrought-iron ribbed roof of the echoing hall with stalls of all kinds around. Then Mum and I emerge into sunlight out of the rear door which overlooks the old cattle market which is suddenly right there, spread out beneath us. There are steps down to the lower level; all the sounds of animals and people welling up from below. It seems a huge and dizzying prospect, an image of a far wider and utterly unmanageable society to a child unused to such things.
I am moving or more likely being moved in a push chair or (again) on the back seat of Mum’s bike, in through the rectory gate that stands at the corner of Church Street, across from the main gate of St James’ Parish Church. Little more than a sensation of broad lawns with a grand old house beyond them and in the foreground a gathering of people – women mostly, with their high voices – around trestle tables at some sort of sale, perhaps cakes. Perhaps it has been organised by the Young Wives group that meets in the strange narrow gothic building – accessed by a worn flight of steps – across the road.
The Young Wives is more of a play group really. We go there each week and probably I have been there today but now I am being taken to the rectory, though whether we are going to buy or to help behind the stalls I don’t know. This is where the poet George Crabbe lived the last 18 years of his life as parish vicar, inspired to write whilst sitting under the mulberry tree in these rectory grounds. In one of the town’s earlier, spasmodic efforts at self-harm, the building was summarily demolished in 1964, only a year or two after this memory of the broad lawns of Crabbe’s old house.
There is a photograph of her around the same time. We must have walked across the main road, down the lane to Oatley’s farm and then on to where the Kennet and Avon canal crosses the flat landscape. Dad has carried a deck chair or perhaps two and set it down, rakishly on the lowest rung for his wife who reclines in her white blouse and flowered skirt. A grassy field stretches into the distance – the shape of a cow, the field edged by darker trees, a brick wall and the whitewashed gable end of a house.
The sky is white so there is really no distinction between the upper part of the picture and the thick white border of the print. I am on her lap. Her right hand is at my back, her left reaching towards me as I seem to be twisting away to look at something out of view. Her gaze is fixed on me, mine is fixed elsewhere. Perhaps Andrew is running too far off. Or a bee is buzzing too close in what must be the summer heat. My 1960s children’s top seems the same pure white as hers but in the instant of the shutter falling all my energies are directed beyond the invisible white frame.
There is knocking at the back door and Mum moves hurriedly, perhaps glancing a moment into the mirror on her way to open it. A figure blocks the light, wearing a brown overall or a working coat of some kind, over his right arm a huge wicker basket. Over his other shoulder, a worn leather money bag is slung. In the basket are loaves and rolls of all sorts. On a different day, a small grocer’s van is pulling up, its rear doors open and the smell of earthy potatoes spills out to where I stand, knuckles pressed to Mum’s skirt. Onions are like dusky suns, cabbages dripping with moisture and in the winter there are brussel sprouts, mushrooms still wrapped in the cold dark in which they grew. Other afternoons, a honking from the main road and the same flurry from Mum which – in hindsight – has something of a woman preparing to meet a lover about it. The callers are always men, punctuating her long days at home with the children, bringing gossip, simple treats, decisions to be made and a little flirting, merely oiling the wheels of commerce.
Tuesday it’s the Co-op van stopping right outside our house. A folding step or two up into the back of the van, a high counter flap, an array of colours I can barely see. This must also have been the van that brought the pink paraffin for the living-room heater that clanked resonantly when moved and emitted a harsh warmth and oily fumes when lit. More on my diminutive level, the paraffin for sale flowed from a large container into a can Mum brought with her from the outhouse – a pink ribbon twisting and glinting like pop, its acrid smell the only sign of its poisonous combustibility.
Her calm rooted in humility – despite her evident brains and the few brief opportunities to exercise them. Her fear of upsetting the balance of a greater world. Her reluctance, as she will often express it while we are children, of ‘saying boo to a goose’. Shy certainly – but her social background was always part of that baggage. Extraordinary that this worked in partnership with his restive nature. That in part due to the pressures of disappointed expectations. Yet also driven by his reluctance to remain too long in one place, to forestall unwelcome thoughts, questions that might slow the skittering across the surface of himself from one completed DIY job to the next.
And now without her presence and without the holdfast of his own memory he skitters more and more out of control. All families nurture and elaborate their own particular myths for the hard times ahead.