The house where Paul used to live
Every August I take my little boy to stay with my parents in Kibworth, Leicestershire. This was the tiny village I grew up in before leaving for university at eighteen. After this it became a place to go back to rather than ‘Home’.
Tom loves to explore the village so when we visit we do a tour of all the children’s play areas. The swings and slides that I played on as a child have long since been replaced by 21st Century climbing frames, whirling wheels, ladybirds you can sit and rock on, and vinyl stepping stones. Rather than hard concrete, the ground is covered in a benign, soft matting that cradles the careless toddlers who climb too high or swing in too extreme an arc. But they are in the same location as the places we used to play in. The same trees blossom year on year and let fall their foliage once the autumn comes.
Only a short distance away is the railway bridge. The signal blinks from red to green and I hold Tom high so he can peep over as the trains whizz by underneath. Just as my Dad did for me when we walked the same path in the late seventies and early eighties. He cries ‘Again! Again!’ but I’m obviously not as patient or resilient as my Dad and I prize him away with the promise of sweets from the newsagent.
After Malteser’s and Smoothies we walk the length of Church Road- and come to St Wilfrid’s Church at the apex of the hill. Tom cranes his head to take in the lightening rod perched on top. I tell him it’s to protect the church from the harsh hands of thunder storms. He’s fascinated by this. ‘Thunder goes bang, bang!’ he yells again and again. I try to tempt him into the church but he refuses. Instead we wander amongst the gravestones, walking a haphazard circumference around the grounds. I’m disappointed he doesn’t want to go in. Inside is where I was christened. The day was opaque with heat and my Uncle Jock unwrapped me from my christening gown and took me home in a nappy and vest. It was in St Wilfrid’s where I played recorder at Harvest Festival time. Twenty nine-year-olds faced outwards from the knave and blew shrill tunes into the air: ‘Feed the Birds’, ‘Sky Boat Song’, ‘Earth Angel’. In front, our music teacher Mrs Powell conducting with a seriousness you did not question. Beyond her, the round, pleased faced of the parents, clutching programmes printed on orange sugar paper.
We turn left then and head up the cul-de-sac to my parent’s house. Before that, the little traffic island, anchored to the road by grand chestnut trees. Every autumn we’d race down here on our Raleigh bikes and harvest the conkers, polished to perfection inside their seed pods. The three of us (me, my brother John, my friend Paul) filled our pockets to perfection and carried what we could back home. So well stocked were we that the conker fights lasted into the dark nights of January. We’re not in the conker season so I can’t show Tom what I mean by ‘conker fight’. But his eyes spark at the idea of hard objects on the end of a string being bashed against one another. He’ll find out eventually that when a conker breaks the dark heart of the seed is exposed.
And just before my parent’s place we reach the house where Paul used to live. My best friend until the age of eleven. In the summer holidays we raced our chunky bikes around and around until our chains broke under the strain. We visited each other’s houses on the bright excitement of Christmas morning. His toys were my toys and vice versa. A communion of sharing. But at high school we slowly drifted away from one another. Suddenly our shared past became an embarrassment, a target of ridicule for scornful eleven-year-olds. I wondered (as we all must wonder) whether his memories of our shared childhood are full or fragmentary. Does he still remember turning the bright, heavy toys in his hands as I sometimes do? Does he remember the shrill laughter as we tried to mend a puncture in the front wheel of a bike (with a cheap repair kit not equal to the task)? Or has adulthood made these memories so distant, so far from what the mind’s eye can see, that they might as well have happened to someone else? I wonder.
A bored scuffling from Tom – he’s eager to get home to watch children’s television. I watch him for a moment scraping the dried mud from his shoes on the edge of the kerb. Then I take his small hand and round the final bend before my parent’s house. How many times have I rounded this corner in years gone by? Was I holding my Mum and Dad’s hand, jabbering about my day at school, or pushing my tired bike home after a day of messy play? These last few steps before home – as familiar to me as the colour of my eyes, the curving of an ear or the mute rhythms of my own heart.
Recently, and to my surprise, these memories have become more slender and less easy to conjure. This happy childhood, the memories of which I always kept close, is slipping from my grasp. Is it because, as you think less and less like a child would, as you become stiffened by the realities of adulthood, these memories see you as undeserving and take flight, denying you the harbour of recollection? I want Tom to feel the exquisite, untainted happiness you can only feel as a child. I want to make him tingle with the raw excitement and pleasure of it all before the march of years dim the sky and he enters the clumsy and confused world of adulthood.
One memory has been spared though, blessed in its definition. A Wednesday before Christmas, long, long ago, and the Kibworth Band make their way up our street. Snow is not falling but it will soon. At the sound of ‘Away in a Manger’ we climb the stairs to our parent’s bedroom, open the window, and let the carols of brass sift through the room. John is sitting on my Mum’s knee. I’m cradled by my Dad. For some unexplained reason my Dad turns off the light, perhaps to leave every sense tuned to the music? An amber street light on the curtain. Then ‘Silent Night’ begins. And I am held tight and feel love and happiness overpowering. And then snow begins to fall on the house where Paul still lives.
© 2012 Stephen Baker. All rights reserved.