A Childhood Memory

Son No.3 started his first ever job four days ago and is hating every second of his new 9-5 routine; mostly because he’s been used to three years’ worth of lengthy lie-ins. But then walking straight into a scarily unfamiliar workplace and its scarily unfamiliar people is not a piece of cake.  Whoever coined the phrase ‘daily grind’ hit the nail squarely on the head didn’t they?   The son has only been working a week and already he’s feeling like grist to the commercial mill.

Here’s an alarming description of the daily grind, written in 1906:

‘……to whom they are the grim and relentless realities of the daily grind, the chains upon their limbs, the lash upon their backs, the iron in their souls.’

These sentiments described heavy manual labour, but are a nice metaphor to your average 21st century day job too, as you sit there chained to rules and regulations; the whiplash effect as your boss hits you with an unreasonable amount of work set to an impossible deadline; the heavy feeling in your soul as you realise that life isn’t like a box of chocolates, it’s more like a never ending supply of those rock hard toffee ones that give you a serious case of jaw ache.

On a positive note, at least your average UK worker isn’t knocking up fashion items in sweat shops for the ungrateful West, or spending hours rummaging through gigantic piles of rubbish hoping to find something they can sell on for a pittance.

This pessimistic, negative blurb (I do realise that some people love their jobs and that you happen to be a very lucky graduate indeed if you’ve managed to land yourself gainful employment) is serving as an explanation for a piece of writing I found last night, whilst going through a box of old letters and diaries.  I’d been hunting for my own ancient thoughts on the first job I’d served time in and, in the process, discovered four pieces of paper, with holes punched down the sides; the kind of paper that used to flow from ancient computers in a never ending stream.  The papers were full of jumbled typed and hand written paragraphs.  I read them, mystified, to find it was a short account of my life, one New Year’s Eve night in 1975.  This night would have vanished without a trace had I not written it down.

My first job had been in the office of a building society – if I don’t count voluntary work delivering sack loads of animal feed with the brother, which I enjoyed very much indeed – outdoor, manual labour, Steve Wright in the Afternoon and never ending supplies of jaffa cakes are good for the soul.  But back in the office; we used to print out customer account stats on reams of the kind of paper I found in the box , which I now realise was an 80’s form of that present day occupation known as data analysis.  I must have typed the short excerpt from my life, aged 14, at work, probably during lunch breaks.  I’d changed my family’s names and written most of it in a ripped-off, convoluted, Dickensian style.  The writing is DIRE.  I hadn’t read it since typing it out in 1983, aged 22, and was surprised at the total recall and how much I’d noticed at that tender age. It also reflects my still obsessive preoccupations with the passing of time and the fact that I’m a lousy social butterfly. The ending reminded me how difficult the growing up/finding your way in life business is – as son No.3 is finding out.

I thought I’d put it on the blog that no one reads to give some permanence to those scrappy bits of paper and also to a certain point in my life.  If any family members read this (mother) let me know if you remember the events I’d written about in that office, long ago; or if I’d imagined it all.

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NEW YEAR’S EVE 1975

Tonight felt different.  The air was cold and sharp and the sky velvet black, studded with bright blue stars sparkling anticipation of magic to come.  At 14 I loved the company of adults.  Life made sense in the company of people who seemed to know everything and knew me only as a child; not as some uncool, slightly weird teenager.*  With these people I moved about freely on the outer edges of my confined life.  There was no need for the haunting fears and embarrassment of adolescence.

We were all dressed and ready to leave.  My parents, Tom, Anne and myself.  If only we could stay like this forever; a study in shared smiles and shared laughter,  our faces gleaming as we stood at the back door gently stamping our feet and rubbing our hands for the want of warmth.

My father drove us through the well-remembered and, because of this, well-loved roads and side streets until we reached our destination.  A house standing proudly in a row of similarly built yet individual turn of the century homes.  The house glowed warmly amber, signalling the promise of tables laden with rich, hot food.  I couldn’t remember when my parents had first taken me to the Turner’s New Year’s Eve party but now it was as important as Christmas day itself.

Mr and Mrs Turner had lived in this house for many years and now it was an extension of themselves; it was impossible to imagine them living anywhere else.  It was very cold in the car and I began complaining of this: ‘Oh do shut up Sophie,’ mother said.  My mother had little patience with complaints or changes of mood, she knew this was merely an outward sign of the initial apprehension I always felt about any party; it would pass.   My father parked the car between two poplars, in a long line of trees which marked the middle of the road.  We got out of the car and all cried as one when the cold air whipped into our faces.  I began shivering, secretly pleased at this opportunity to vent nervous feelings in an acceptable way.  Although I loved these parties I was always plagued by irrational fear, minutes before leaving the safety of the car and the comfortable silence, where there was no need of tiresome chit chat and friendly, but slightly frozen, smiles.

The five of us crossed the road and my mother reminded me to put on a happy face and to try and enjoy myself.  My sister slipped comically on icy patches which surrounded the imposing gateway to the house and nobody laughed, not even Tom.  My mother reinforced the silence by whispering an unnecessary ‘Shhh’, as though breaking the cold silence would also break a spell and the house would vanish into thin air.

I rang the doorbell and Mrs Turner opened the door with a warm smile, her immediate surroundings pervaded by the smell of roses which seemed to issue from her chestnut, heavily lacquered hair.  ‘Och, come away,’ she cried, in the lilting Scots accent I loved.  She held a delicate glass of sherry in her right hand and her cheeks had turned a very becoming pink.  Mrs Turner was small and plump with a wrinkled, pleasant face and sparkling eyes.  She planted a kiss on my cheek; I blushed.  Then  she quickly turned her attention to my parents, then Tom and Anne.  They all received flamboyant kisses and stood in the hallway smiling, as she gently covered us all in a blanket of rose tinted perfume.  I began to relax and to sort of melt into the glowing atmosphere, drifting on the wave of perfume as I followed Mrs Turner into the kitchen where hot punch waited, simmering gently in a great metal pan on the stove.  ‘Do have some dear,’ cried Mrs Turner, as she ladelled a generous amount into a glass and proceeded to do the same for the rest of the family.  Tom, Anne and I exchanged smirking glances at the fact that we’d been given a ‘grown up’ drink.

The kitchen light glowed dimly, oddly making everything much clearer and somehow more real.  Many people I did not know filled the room and the lightning flash of chinking glasses danced around the walls and ceiling.  The steam from the punch enveloped Mrs Turner in a kind of mystical shroud until she looked like a benign white witch stirring potions over a gentle fire.  The white witch’s smile blinked into focus and out again as I glanced from face to face, and glass to glass, and back to Mrs Turner, who merrily filled each glass the moment it was proffered again by an eager hand.

I stood with Tom and Anne, huddled around a small kitchen table to the left side of the room and given over as a temporary bar, full of cut glass and sparkling blue crystal.  My parents were lost in conversation in one corner of the room and we moved closer together for safety, giggling in mild embarrassment.  Even though we had received individual invitations to this party we knew our places in this strange adult world.  They were all so certain of how to behave, looking happy and at ease.  It was like looking into a snow globe.  A fascinating, other worldly scene.  I was definitely on the outside looking in.

Mr Turner came through the open kitchen door.  I had already noticed his progress down a long hallway as he shook hands with the guests who lined his path, occasionally dropping splashes of sweet sherry from his glass as one or two of his handshakes became rather too energetic.  Mr Turner was about 58 and maintained the jaunty bearing of the ex-army Veterinarian he had been in a previous life.  His hair was a sort of sickly yellow – the kind of yellowing of the extremities that smokers get – and he wore a handlebar moustache which had always fascinated me as a very young child, but which now I found intensely irritating.

We were all too late to make an escape as he spied us from the doorway and came blundering in with a hearty ‘hello!’   I felt coarse tweed brush my face as he wrapped one arm around my neck and pulled me to him.  I flinched, trying not to let Mrs Turner see the expression on my face; still this part of the evening was always over quickly.  Anne was next and Tom received a slap on the back which nearly made him choke on his punch.  Mother walked over and was immediately subjected to the same fate. ‘Fine looking children,’ Mrs Grainger, ‘Glad to have ‘em along!’  He somehow managed to give the impression that we were all about to set off on safari.

I placed my empty glass on the table and Mrs Turner flashed her witch’s smile through a serving hatch from the kitchen to the dining room and told everyone that food was served.  Suddenly she materialised at my side.  ‘I thought you’d be too old to come to my wee parties now Sophie, I’m so pleased you came.’  She left when she heard a knock at the back door.  Her grandchildren had arrived – late as they were every year.  I walked to the dining room and filled a plate from a table full of food and then on through French doors into the lounge, sitting on a window seat at the far end of the room.  I heard the latch on the back door and the grandchildren were ushered into the room.

I looked out of the large window, my legs curled up on the seat, trying to get comfortable but the edge of the box seat kept cutting into my ankles.   A large evergreen tree at the bottom of the garden moved silently in the wind.  A tarmacked pathway echoed the glistening stars overhead in a light cover of frost.  The grass stood in stark, frozen clumps variously illuminated by moonlight high in the sky.  Looking further outwards I saw the roofs of many houses interspersed with black leafless trees.  Many orange lit windows spoke of comfort and easy passage into the New Year.  Grown up chatter seemed to echo from far away.

Tom and Anne were playing a dice game with the grandchildren.  I felt sleepy.  Tom, in his role as designated barman, periodically left the game as my father issued the order for more drink.  Round and round the glasses went and the talk became more voluble, phrases becoming more distinct.  ‘It really cost that much!’   Laugher increased, prolonged and more noticeable as the evening wore on.  I was content to watch and listen and remember.

It was somehow important to commit to memory every face, every piece of furniture; to hold back the new year.  In that same month I would be 15, aware that the world was beginning to change, to feel different.  There were exams, important exams next year. I’m supposed to know what I want to do with my life.  Fear of failure.  Being a teenager but not feeling like a teenager.  I don’t want to be an adult, I’m not old enough.  I looked across at my father.  I just don’t feel old enough, not yet.

He was standing alone at the mantelpiece, watching the TV, a Scottish New Year programme which Mrs Turner always switched on when it got close to midnight.  Mr Turner was no longer in the room.  I stood up from the seat.  Suddenly Big Ben struck midnight and my hand was clasped by a near neighbour and a circle formed as everyone sang Auld Lang Syne.  When the singing stopped my parents kissed us all one by one and suddenly a sound of great commotion came from the kitchen.  Mrs Turner ran from the room as a plate was heard crashing to the floor and, fantastically, I heard the sound of hooves in the hallway.

Mr Turner walked unsteadily through the lounge door leading a black pony.  ‘This’ll bring us luck,’ he cried as we all looked on in astonishment; astonishment because the custom was to bring in a lump of black coal.  Mrs Turner left the room with constrained anger in her eyes.  Mr Turner, however, was heartily pleased with his joke and we listened to the machinations of the plot he’d hatched weeks ago with Old Casey, a horseman, without his wife’s knowledge.

As if on cue, Old Casey walked into the room, none too sure of himself, looking a great deal at the floor.  ‘I had to come in,’ he said, ‘it was cold.  It’s a long wait outside trying to keep a pony calm and quiet.’ ‘A drink for Casey,’ Mr Turner ordered, whilst swiftly procuring one for himself.

The phone rang suddenly in the next room.  We all knew who the caller would be and a hush descended upon the room.  ‘Yes darling, Happy New Year!’  trilled Mrs Turner.  ‘John, John, it’s Lizzie, say Happy New Year!’  Mr Turner left the pony and went to speak to his daughter.  Mrs Turner appeared at the French doors, wiping a tear from her eye.

Old Casey led the pony back down the hallway and out through the kitchen.  Everyone followed its passage, laughing, delighted at this unexpected turn of events.  I left them all and walked back to the lounge.  Mr and Mrs Turner had finished their phone call and were now haranguing each other across the dining room table.  ‘Did you have to bring a pony into the house?’   Mrs Turner was utterly miserable, not so much I thought from the effects of this New Year escapade as a kind of weary acceptance that all such evenings would end like this, her husband drunk and unable to understand his wife’s longing for their domestic life, just once, to go all her way.  I paused at the doorway, feeling very young but also somehow older than these adults.  Why had I never noticed before that Mr Turner drank to excess; that he was a constant source of embarrassment to his nervous, but ever accommodating wife.  That these wonderful parties had never been quite as they seemed and that now, I realised, never would be.

The other guests returned from the kitchen and we all dispersed throughout the lounge reclaiming seats and left-off conversations.  Mrs Turner came through the French doors with obvious tears in her eyes and my mother went over to speak to her.

Gradually everyone realised that something was amiss.  Mr Turner appeared clutching a glass of scotch, laughing heartily at his wonderful joke.  He began denigrating his wife, his manner becoming more churlish and unbearable.  One by one the guests made their farewells and suddenly the room was empty.  The party was over.

We left and got in the car.  The night was colder.  A feeling of change and disorder refused to leave me.  Nothing was ever as it seemed.  Childhood would leave.  It would retreat as surely as a wave leaves the shore, leaving me stranded in its wake.  And it began here on this night.

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* still uncool and slightly weird.

I google mapped the house and it doesn’t look as large or as imposing as I remembered (but then I’m not 14 anymore) and the grassy row of trees in the middle of the road has gone.

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