Wednesday 22 July 2009

down memory lane, Berwick

Yesterday Isabelle and I met up at a halfway point between our respective cities of Edinburgh and Newcastle. We travelled by train to Berwick upon Tweed. I have lived there several times, both in childhood and as an adult, returning often to visit my mother before she moved to live nearer to me, and I had warned Isabelle of the likely flood of reminiscences that might (and did) ensue. Poor soul, it must have been like visiting an elderly aunt who could remember the war and nothing much since, but she was patient and attentive, and without really aiming to do so, I gave a great deal of personal history.

And to my own surprise, so much of it was miserable! Twice we had lived in the Army transit camp while our soldier father was on active service abroad and we waited for our next posting. Supposedly for a few weeks, these stays had lasted for months and even over a year. Camp families were rather looked down on by the local population and it could be difficult to be a "camp child" although the camp itself, a straggle of wooden huts perched on top of the cliffs, with its residents consisting mainly of mothers and children, had been an idyllic and safe playground. Did I talk about that? About the freedom to run about outdoors in a virtually traffic-free zone minutes from the sea? Not at all. Instead, Isabelle heard "this was where we got flashed at by the naked man on our way home from school.... this was where the jeering Grammar School boys used to chase us.... the wind used to howl over the cliffs and blow our dustbins away".

Had there been more time, I might even have told her more dreadful tales, about our neighbour's attempt to kill herself by putting her head in the gas oven, and how her baby was looked after by my mother for several months - no Social Services in those days to regulate an unofficial fostering! And even her gentle questions about my family yielded
more details of bleak tragedy and long-lasting consequences. I had not been aware of this strange skill I seemed to possess yesterday: how to recount one's life history as a catalogue of sadness and regret!

We had planned to walk round the town walls, weather permitting, and so we did, talking all the way (yes, eventually Isabelle was graciously allowed a turn at talking). We walked and talked, stopped for lunch, plodded slowly back towards the station via a couple of little shops, and found that we still had time to spare in the now-pouring rain. And so we ended up in an amazing little bookstore that sold only used books. We became so engrossed in the shelves, searching, discussing and recommending, that by the time Isabelle had bought her six or seven and I had bought my four books, we ended up having to sprint to the station in the rain with moments to spare before our trains were due. But the kindly new operators (the Government?) of our benighted railways saw to it that Isabelle's train was delayed, so our puffing, panting, book-laden scuttle had not been necessary. My train was on time, but had to sit in a field just outside Newcastle for 30 minutes while some points problem was sorted out, the guard keeping us informed almost continuously of the fact that he had no information but was very very sorry.

I'd had a very nice day despite the horror story titled My Hard Life, although I felt we could have done with more time, especially having found that tempting little bookshop, and I very much hope we will meet up again. Meantime, here are some of my photos from the day. Note: the upstairs window where the naked man used to flash at small girls has not been photographed. Also note that the giggly small girls had been most amused by this experience, and had never thought to mention it to a grown up. Ever.

The clifftop holiday site, where once was a small cluster of wooden Army buildings: "the camp".

The road I would take to Mass before school, wind and weather permitting, during my ardently-religious phase, age 10.

Part of the Quay Walls, with its glorious Georgian houses with almost no privacy.

Next time, I shall either shut up and try to act normal, or if I must traipse down Memory Lane again, dredge up memories of the happier times I spent in Berwick: my beloved primary school teacher Sister Hilda, who, despite the possibility of our getting a posting at short notice, pushed me through the 11-plus exam, thereby opening a world of education that would never have been possible in Army boarding schools; going for afternoon tea with my mother to the Kenya Cafe, where little iced cakes on proper cake stands were served; many years later, spending hours on the beach and the cliff tops with my own little son... Kinder perhaps to just shut up and listen instead.

Thanks for suggesting our meeting, Isabelle! Let's do it again!


Linda said...

It's the tough times that form us, not the easy, pleasant living that is easily forgotten. There are facts about my childhood which explain aspects of my character, and it's only when people know that they start to 'get' me.
I think you had a meeting where you felt comfortable enough to share these memories, and we need this, from time to time.

Veronica said...

There's a certain kind of romance in all the tragic tales though. ;)

I would have liked to have heard Isabelle's side of the story, but the link doesn't work...

rachel said...

Sorry, have just sorted that link out.

Pam said...

Well, I had a simply lovely time with you, Rachel, and you told me lots of good things too!

And I certainly talked a lot as well.

I haven't had time to write my account of the trip because of spending all my time either socialising with other holidaying teacher chums or viewing flats with my darling daughter. (Oh the stress! Decisions, decisions! And I don't really want her to move out anyway...)

However, I shall do it soon.

But readers: Rachel is lovely and I felt I'd known her for years.

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