We have all had days like this. Days that loom ahead. The days that we do not want to happen. But inevitably those days roll up.
As signal days or red letter days they are inevitable. They are unstoppable. They are the opposite of celebration days. Alec Kendall in his song about the coming of age talks about getting “the key of the door”. The purpose of this day’s journey – both unwanted and unwonted – is to return that key. Well, the three keys really.
I remember, I remember the house where I was born
It is true that the tree is living yet – but in my case, only just. Miss Peakome had died and my parents’ new back-doors neighbour turned out to be extremely territorial and after doubling the floorspace of his home, set about the garden. My father, hating quarrels, declined to discuss the minute movement of the fence which had been the boundary since 1910 and let it move towards his own home.
However, Daddy was not really cooperative when Mr and Mrs Pimple (or Wart) (or was it Festering?) (perhaps even Arsefeatures?) wanted to cut the trees down. The sycamores were their problem anyway (they were, after all in their own garden) and we had put up with their mess and shade since 1955. As Daddy said:- “if they really want a closer view of our washing, then fine. Have it and welcome”.
My father had been a soldier. Slight in build and permanently polite, he had devastating verbal power and acuity. He could fell executives in companies as easily as he bowled us all out at cricket. He did not play, he Played. But I never knew him lose.
“Touch the Rowan,” he told Mr Shitpot (or was it Mr Vomit?) “and I will come hunting”. I mean, you just did not mess with Daddy in this mood. He meant every word.
Thus, the Rowan survived. The sycamores went the way of all flesh and as predicted, my mother’s knickers and my father’s underpants became the view from Mr and Mrs Turdlet’s living room.
They ought to have thought it through better.
So, the tree is living.
Yet I wonder about that tree.
It came home in 1967 in a tiny pot. “It’s a Mountain Ash” said Daddy. He had grown it from seed, under the watchful eye of three very capable men at the Parrs Wood Centre on the outskirts of Manchester. These men, Alf Cheshire and Joe Cheshire and Charlie Westley, were the sort of gardeners that we rarely see nowadays. They never made it on to the Television Shows, and although it would be my hope that they lived on in lots of memories, I think that they might be all but forgotten. But they taught Daddy and his Inner-city students how to grow things and enjoy the benefits of gardening. The perennials that they grew still adorn the garden. Daddy was particularly and permanently pleased with a beautiful tree which is also living yet – Acer Palmatum Dissectum Atropupurium. They grew that together and it came home too. We were threatened within an inch of our lives, should a football come anywhere near it. It never did. We respected our Dad and also, by extension, Messrs Cheshire, Cheshire and Westley.
Those gentlemen also made us a miniature garden, complete with bonsaid Fir Tree, which made a fine Christmas Display. We had annuals and biennials and yearly hyacinths in transparent hydroponic pots from them too. They made our home and the garden look fantastical.
It was really Daddy’s garden.
But it was also our Garden.
And before Mr and Mrs Pisspot (or was it Gongscourer?) went to live back doors, we played there and enjoyed the watchful eye and silent laughs and raised eyebrows of kinder people who had seen a bit more life and who had the living spirit of indulgence of children. Indeed, in our bit of suburban heaven, we were treated to grow up with people who understood that children need space; that they need to have the joy of learning as well as to learn the mores of civility and sociability via play; and that invention is as neccessary in garden play just as it is in play in a Play Street.
As for our neighbours of that recent past, it would be wrong at this time to name them, because some of them might still be around – or at least their relatives. Needless to say, we invented names for them all, some of them kind, some of them less-so, but we were children then and our lives were not privy to the niggles of adulthood and we paid no bills or taxes. Ours was an idyllic time where we were even able to choose what we ate sometimes.
When our parents were both dead, we were at a loss over our former family home. It had to be dismantled and sold, yet it was only then that we found that our parents had kept every piece of paper since 1938. We found in the loft complete sets of engineer’s tools; Lancaster bomber switches; second world war radio sets; valves of every description; our pictures, our comics, our annuals, even some of our clothes and blankets. Then there were also the thousands of photographic negatives and hundreds of printed images never shown to us before.
We emptied and scrapped and gave away, we put out with the rubbish and we took away to keep for our own use. Time went on. We went back again and again and again. But it would come to an end. (Nana had prepared us for that years before). Then, we should have to hand in our keys a la “Friends”. But unlike Chandler, Joey, Monica, Ross, Rachel, Phoebe, we would all hand our keys in separately and alone.
Arriving midday that last day, it was raining or at least, it was dull. I went in for the last time. It still smelled like home, just as ever. I heard the boards creak in the time honoured way, I felt the old wallpaper as before. I touched the walls, the carpets, the light switches. I went upstairs holding the rail; I looked out of the windows. Then I heard all the voices again, my sister and brother playing, shouting but no arguing. I heard my mother shout us for tea. I heard my mother shout my father. I saw my grandmother sitting in the kitchen. I heard her voice again. I heard her cooking in the kitchen. I was not sad. It was not a sad occasion. It was though, a leaving. Something to be left there.
But I had felt odd that we had been left to take things away; things that really should have been variously distributed by the people who had owned them. What had happened was that their age and infirmity had conspired to render them overcome by what they had once valued. Dad at least knew this and when he was ready to go, he gave the precious keys to his car to my brother, with the instruction “Sell it.” Mum was less lucky and after years of devotion love and care from my elder sister, had needed to be placed in the safety of more secure accommodation.
I had known about this taking leave and thought about this day many times and had tried to be prepared for it. So it was that I removed one brick from one wall (my father had taken it out years before anyway) and in the cavity of the wall, I left a bar of lavender soap, which was the only scent that my mother appreciated, and I left my father one of his old handkerchieves – clean of course, and ironed to perfection, but one nevertheless that we had all borrowed at one time but that had been bought by my mother. I replaced the brick and it closed the chapter. I went out the front door for the last time and left.
In the end and in a way, they had both came back there. And, I wanted to let them know that, should their souls ever wake in that place, we had done what we should properly and carefully.
I doubt now if I shall ever go back in. But I may sometimes pass the door if I want to without stopping. Yet I will look up. For, my mother told me always, “If I don’t see you through the week, I’ll see you through the window.”
I expect that my father would agree.
By Carolina Oliphant, (Lady Nairne)
Oh! rowan tree, oh! rowan tree,
Thou’lt aye be dear to me,
En twin’d thou art wi’ mony ties
O’ hame and infancy.
Thy leaves were aye the first o’ spring,
Thy flow’rs the simmer’s pride;
There was na sic a bonnie tree
In a’ the countrie side.
Oh! rowan tree.
How fair wert thou in simmer time,
Wi’ a’ thy clusters white,
How rich and gay thy autumn dress,
Wi’ berries red and bright.
On thy fair stem were mony names,
Which now nae mair I see;
But thy’re engraven on my heart,
Forgot they ne’er can be.
Oh! rowan tree.
We sat aneath thy spreading shade,
The bairnies round thee ran,
They pu’d thy bonnie berries red,
And necklaces they strang;
My mither, oh! I see her still,
She smiled our sports to see,
Wi’ little Jeanie on her lap,
And Jamie on her knee.
Oh!, rowan tree.
Oh! there arose my father’s prayer
In holy evening’s calm;
How sweet was then my mother’s voice
In the Martyr’s psalm!
Now a’are gane! We meet nae mair
Aneath the rowan tree,
But hallowed thoughts around thee
Turn o’hame and infancy.
Oh! rowan tree.