Yes, of course, I would remember that

For Gransnet, July 31st 2014

I am walking home beside my sister and she is pushing her twisted bicycle, crying, limping. There is blood weeping from her red-raw, gravelled knee. I too am crying – even though it didn’t happen to me. She is six years old and I am five.

It is, I think, my earliest memory.

But why is that, I wonder? Why has this remained with me when all else has been lost? After all, there was nothing so very unusual here. There would have been countless other childhood scrapes, other falls; certainly there were plenty of other tears.

I remember remarkably little of those growing-up years – perhaps because mine was something of a fractured childhood of eight house moves and seven schools – but this and the few other scraps of later memory that have somehow survived are sharp, vivid, precious. And they have retained – or perhaps they have acquired? – the most extraordinary power.

So it is then that fifty five years on, not only am I able to see it like yesterday, I can feel it too. I can remember how I felt as I walked small and creamy-haired along that Margate street: fearful, shaken, helpless. My sister had always looked after me. She wasn’t meant to limp and cry.

Other fragments: an Easter egg shaped like a rocket glimpsed in a shop window from the top front seat of a double-decker bus; the fizz of a sparkler as my father emerged from the darkness, cursing a Catherine wheel that refused to light; the comfy lumpy feel of the worn leather seats of my mother’s Austin Seven; the crash of a crate dropped from a milk float, the white spill across the road.

I know that what is true of me is true of others. We all carry these tiny splinters of memory; sights, sounds, smells. And they are mysterious, miraculous, intact. Potent.

And because there is no story to go with them, because they are too small to share, we hold them close, keep them to ourselves, treasure them. They matter to no-one else but us.

There are, I think, three kinds of childhood memories. First there are these jewel-like fragments. Then there are the false memories – those that you have pieced together from family stories. And finally there are those things that, of course, you would remember.

My foot slipping as I climbed the plank in the builder’s yard; the nail going through; the dash to hospital. Of course, I would remember that.

So too this.

One summer’s day in 1961, when I was seven years old, my family left our home. Suddenly. We simply drove away.

My older sister and I were in the back seat of the car, my younger sister – little more than a toddler – was with my mother in the front. My father was dark and silent behind the wheel.

I don’t know how long we drove but I remember sleeping and then waking to find ourselves parked on a country lane next to a field that bordered a wood. In the middle of the field, squatting low in long grass, was a small grey-white caravan.

That caravan was where we lived for a month or more.

Towards the end of that time, I returned with my father to the house we had left so abruptly. It had been stripped bare of all our possessions. What had not been taken had been left smashed on the bare floorboards. To this day, I can still feel the crunch of a broken plastic toy beneath my feet.

Yes, of course, I would remember that.

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