A man I know on the intertubes named Sir Marc of Jolt has a blog. Over the past few months he’s posted a few pieces describing memories from his childhood. Most recently a tale about butterflies that is at once both tragic, monstrous and terribly touching. It is in essence, childhood crystallised into words. All of these stories paint a picture of a joyful childhood, I like to think it’s done in watercolours; slightly washed out and made indistinct and fuzzy by the passage of years.
It got me thinking about my own childhood. On reflection there’s so very little I truly remember. My childhood to me is a series of snapshot images, distinct smells and the odd lingering feeling; all without any real context. Most of it seems very distant and impersonal, as if it happened to someone else. But these images and smells, these odd collections of feelings that I do have stand out so vividly in my mind. Whether they actually ever occurred or whether they’ve been modified by experience and events since seems utterly irrelevant. They are very much cornerstones of my life and how I define myself.
There’s a musty, earthy smell with a creamy undercurrent. An odd amalgam of dung, hay, cattle feed and powdered milk all cast over a canvas of the close, hot air of a shed rank with animal sweat. Even now I occasionally catch it on the wind or walking through places so utterly divorced from the farm life of my youth that I think I must have imagined it. In the instant that I smell it I always stop, my mind briefly flashing back twenty years and I simply utter quietly to myself: “Cows”
There was a railway line that ran past our small pebble-dashed cottage that in my mind’s eye I forever see as being at the top of a rise nearly twenty feet high. Everything seemed so much bigger as a child. In my adult years when I revisited the farm I discovered the rise was barely two feet high. I was certain that someone had been very busy with a digger and stood with stunned disbelief as my mum told me that it had always been like that.
The clearest image I have from my childhood comes from no particular event, but a stitched together patchwork of days throughout my childhood years. It’s of my mum. She’s wearing a quilted vest tartaned in navy blues and dark greens. I think it’s a Barbour. It’s the sort of piece of clothing that most people don’t think exists in the real world. They think it exists only to be worn by farmers on television, in programmes like Emmerdale and Last of the Summer Wine. It’s a vest that I haven’t seen her wear for over a decade. I know she still has it. It’s a garment which, even now, is stamped on my brain when I think of her. It’s something so old and venerable that I swear that it will always exists. From my perspective she had it long before I was born, for me it’s taken on a kind of relic like immortality. Something which just is, and always will be. The vest is accompanied by a plain white cotton shirt, the sort which has buttons half way up the sleeves so that you can hold your rolled-up cuffs in place. She’s also wearing a pair of dungarees made of a blue denim so washed out that it’s a slate-grey in colour. She’s towering over me like a benevolent giant and I’m looking up at a bespectacled face framed by a short shock of wiry chocolate-brown hair. We’re in one of the fields. I know the cottage can’t be more than a quarter of a mile away but as far as the memory is concerned we may as well be a thousand miles from anywhere. She’s holding my hand and I know that everything’s going to be all right.
Thinking about it makes me both happy and sad in equal measure. Sad because those times have long since passed. It was a much simpler time, I didn’t need to worry about trivial things like work or when to eat. Nor the terrifying concept of mortality. As a child you lived in the moment; a thousand strung together moments like this one. It brings me happiness because I experienced it and that no matter what horrors may have come afterwards I will always have that image. And that image makes me who I am.