Alison and I resume next day.
She has that sceptical look on her face already as I arrive.
‘What about friends?’ she says. ‘Other children...’
I smile a little and shake my head, take a sip of water.
She gives me a bemused smile, as if I’m perhaps just being dramatic or trying for a little pity, or just didn’t understand the question.
‘Not at all? No little playmates?’
‘Nope.’ I shake my head and smile, then shrug for good measure.
‘Surely your parents must have realised this wasn’t normal?’
‘I know.’ I say. ‘It seems very strange now but I honestly don’t think I met another child until I went to school. That was when I was about five years old. I didn’t believe it myself when I realised but it explains a lot. All my parent’s friends and family had grown up children, and the next generation didn’t start until well after I was born. The closest was my cousin’s son Matthew and I was already three when he came along so we had very little in common. There was one time I was left with a couple who had a little girl. (I think dad had to go to the hospital – nothing serious – varicose veins I think.) but I wouldn’t have anything to do with her. I’d never come across a girl before.’
‘No child minders, nursery school, that kind of thing?’
‘I don’t think it ever occurred to them.’
And the truth is, it never seemed important. Dad or the girls were always around, and they just didn’t worry about whether I had anyone to play with. I didn’t know any different. In any case, I was very good at entertaining myself. I had pencils and paper and plasticine, and a lot of books and cast-off cuddly toys to keep me quiet, as well as all the dogs and ducks and rabbits on the farm – plus all the wildlife to make friends with. There were silverfish in the fireplaces at night, and mice in the scullery and a toad in the wood shed. The jackdaws grew on me but I was never entirely sure they wouldn’t break in one day. Anyway, I was never bored.
I loved the garden too – I was out there in all weathers – quite often in nothing but my pants and vest even in winter. I loved crawling about under the raspberry briars and sitting in there watching the world. Or I’d be hunting frogs or slow-worms or making ponds or burrows.
‘I was quite feral actually’ I say, to sum up.
‘You must have been absolutely filthy.’
‘Oh Dad just made me strip off at the back door and put me in the bath.’
I was often left to fend for myself when dad was in the garden, I just went where I felt like. One fragment I have is of my dad calling for me outside. He didn’t sound too worried. This happened a lot. I was in the lean-to greenhouse under the staging. I could see out from my bed of hessian sacks, over the clay pots to the back wall of the greenhouse. I was watching the shadow of some string whirling about in a draught in the cold autumn sun. The whitewash was peeling away and a tiny fern had managed to root into the exposed brickwork. Below, flakes of lime and crumbs of plaster lay on the tiled floor. I could hear the wind outside and dad’s voice lost in it. I remember looking around at my nest with all the debris from the summer – curly brown geranium leaves and mouldy dried up grapes and the sheets of grey silk the long-legged spiders had made. I was getting cold but I didn’t want to go in. There was a small triangle of glass an inch from my toe. I knew what it was but I wasn’t afraid of it. I had been warned about broken glass and I was always careful. A moth flapped uselessly on a silk thread but no spider came to finish it off. I released it and it flew away and flapped against the glass instead.
I let my old soul look about. I’d loved this greenhouse – the smell of the tomatoes and geraniums and the hot soil in summer. I’d made little places to hide everywhere. I don’t know why. I wasn’t afraid or in need of privacy. I just liked finding little places I could be and call my own. The fragment ends with dad coming in and crouching down and saying ‘Bath time Gabriel’ in his firm business-like voice. He never got angry back then. It must have been that last autumn before we moved.
Then there was another time I remember being in Amelia’s wardrobe and she had some friends round. I was watching them get ready to go out, hidden among the shoes and boxes and other bits and pieces. She knew I was there but she didn’t tell anyone. She was always wandering around in her knickers and bra (unless mum was in) and later I had a bit of an obsession with hanging around, hoping to catch a glimpse of boob. I suppose a lot of little boys do. Anyway, I watched them fixing their stockings and lacquering their hair and sticking their false eyelashes on. After they’d gone I stood in the middle of the room, listening to a car’s doors open and close and the sound of excited female voices, and then my dad’s voice, low and steady. He had a certain authority – even with my sister’s boyfriends. I heard the car drive away and the back door close and I looked around at the room, recently emptied of young female life and now full of shadows leaning in on me from the corners and from between the wardrobe and the chimney-breast. The warm rich scent of my sister became cold and sharp and the colours of her clothes turned to grey. I hopped up onto the bed to avoid the shadows gathering around its fringes and slipped under the covers - the smell of her body wrapping me up tight, still warm from where they’d sat doing their toes. I think this was the evening she came back late, crying and crying and wouldn’t speak to anyone about what had happened. She collapsed into the bed without turning the light on and almost crushed me. She let me stay although she didn’t really want company. Dad was outside the door for ages going ‘Please tell me what’s wrong love. I won’t be angry’ over and over. I never found out what happened. In the morning everything carried on as normal.
‘She’d probably just been dumped by her boyfriend.’
‘Probably. Like I say, I never found out.’
One other fragment I really remember well involves an adventure outside the garden wall on my own. This wasn’t unusual. Any number of times the neighbours (and at least once a complete stranger) brought me back to the house from where they’d found me, out in the fields or along the lane, strolling along, cheerfully chatting away to myself. Nobody would let their kids out like that nowadays.
On this occasion I must have been about three. I had the farmer’s old collie for company – hanging on to her collar when necessary. I’d actually got as far as the edge of the woods up on Steyning Bowl, which must have been a good quarter of a mile away from the garden boundary. The fragment begins with me on all fours among the travellers’ joy and the woodbine, in nothing but a pair of pants, turning over lumps of green stained chalk and flint looking for ground beetles, which were my latest obsession. I look up and see the farm below across the field. There’s no one in sight. The dog has gone home. It’s a bright, warm day and the sunbeams dance merrily on the woodland floor as the branches of the beech heave to and fro above. Everything is green. It’s like being underwater in a very clear pure stream. I watch a fly pass, come back and land in front of my foot (I’ve got no shoes on as usual). There’s moss and last autumn’s leaves by my toes and a centipede. I hear a cuckoo and a woodpigeon.
As a child I could sit for what seemed like hours and watch leaves glowing in the sun. I looked at the view and giggled at how far from home I was and at the same time, as an old soul, marvelled at how I’d come home from so long away. That day I leaned back against a stump of elder and lived in two lives at once – the child spellbound by the daylight, and the old soul, captivated by the child.