Boxes in the attic
I used to imagine my brain as an attic containing carefully labelled boxes, which I could open when I wished to retrieve a memory. Now the labels have come off and been reattached to the wrong box, or become smudged and illegible. When looking for a word that I know well, but have temporarily mislaid, I rummage in the wrong box and find a quite different memory from the one I was seeking. This is one of them:
Box 2: The black cushions
I was born in January 1939, the last of three sisters. We lived with our mother in Bermuda until after the war was over. At age ten I was sent to a girls’ boarding school where I spent the worst five years of my life. After leaving, I went to Art School, which was very healing. At seventeen I met Robin and we married when I was twenty. We moved to Scotland after a year, and have three wonderful children who gave us three lovely children- in- law, and three amazing grandchildren. We always have cats.
We didn’t often have visitors to our little house in Bermuda. Bermuda was where my family spent most of the war years while my father, who had originally been stationed there, was now at Faslane. My two sisters had friends who would come and join them in the next door pool, or accompany them on kayak trips, but Mother was disinclined to have guests for herself. This might be just as well, as my sister Jane was inclined to invite them for a little jaunt in her leaky rowboat. I’ve no doubt mother protested, but Jane would assure her that the leak had been mended since last time. Not only was Jane adventurous, but also resourceful. I don’t suppose many people have thought of waterproofing their dinghy with nail varnish.
It didn’t prove to be a very effective form of caulking, invariably Jane and visitor would return swimming with their cardigans and skirts swirling around them in the sea, towing the dinghy, now full of water, between them.
On one of the few occasions that my mother invited anyone to join us for tea I was probably sent off to play by myself in another part of the garden, so as not to cause any embarrassment. I don’t think I’m especially sensitive to atmosphere, but even at age five, on creeping back I somehow became aware of an awkward ambience, where my mother, my two sisters and the wife of some high-ranking officer from the US navy were having tea. It wasn’t a physical discomfort, as they were all comfortably ensconced on big black leather cushions, that exactly fitted the dimensions of the deckchairs. I later asked my sister Jane about it. Jane always treated me as a human being, even an acceptable human being, so it was to her I always went with queries. I asked her what had gone wrong, and she told me there had been an awkward moment when the visiting officer’s wife had commented on the lovely black deckchair cushions. What was wrong with that? Well, they had come off some American flying boats, moored in the harbour. Knowing the flying boats were about to be scuppered, and thinking it a waste, Jane had paddled out in the kayak and rescued the cushions from a watery extinction.
It wasn’t till a couple of years ago, and some seventy-five years after the event, I reminded Jane of this incident.
‘Oh, of course they weren’t going to be scuppered,’ she told me, ‘I just fancied them and stole them’. And you can see why it might have caused a little embarrassment at tea, since this visitor’s husband’s responsibilities included the flying boats, and he had probably told his wife that the cushions had mysteriously disappeared!