Dive into this from the deep end.
With no way to measure.
No dates, no big or small,
or very tall.
Most of the adults from that era who had connection to our story are no longer alive. Believe it or not. Almost no one in my family can testify to those early years with my sister
without the clock
when time was
with little, or no foresight to what a past and future meant, we frequently forgot ourselves in reveries of an astonishing, magical, world.
What about the weather?
That morning, considering the day, we went to Mummy and Daddy to find out what word went with what object… COW… FORK… PENCIL… BELL… and so on. When they were alive, we turned to them for pointers, for reference. They put knowledge to facts, vocabulary to meaning. To be more precise, they had answers.
What year did we leave? Did I bring my bed? How old was I when we went to Cambridge to deliver bread, Daddy… the bread that you and Mummy made? Did I come from your tummy, Mummy? When you read your writing on the wireless Daddy, did you catch the train to London from Shepreth? What happened to that van? You know, the van with a crank handle, the one we went to France in? What sort of van was it? Snuggling Mummy was the best. I enjoyed delivering post with you, Daddy. Why did you decide to move? Was I born before my little sister? God, so many questions. Yes. A year and a bit before. Her name’s Sarah. What’s God Daddy? I don’t know. Ask your mother. Someone said Sarah and Matthew are in a passport. That’s funny, I thought we were Sarah and Math… what’s a passport, Daddy? A ticket to another world, son.
Before number crunching and healthy helpings of curiosity got the better of us, you’re there. When ideas and labels take precedence over alertness and wonder, you’re there too. We may not have held a hand to the articulate, or dabbled in dextrous commerce, but we’re with you, in attendance, spanning the mighty realm, just beyond words.
Who were we then?
In tongues, unable to clarify existence by verbal discourse, nobody knew who we were unless Mummy and Daddy told them.
Only when our name and country were called out, registered officially, did our appellation draw attention, take on weight. Prior to this certified inauguration I don’t think we held much sway with our names, or anyone else’s. This doesn’t mean we weren’t fully immersed in the milieu; with senses pertained to surroundings manicured by adult hands, character seemed clearly defined.
Jumped by the odd whizbang car, our lives are plants singing in key with wiggly creatures, sumptuous flowers, audacious weeds, and trees that bloomed everywhere. Of the few people we shyly encountered, echoes of other lives sweeping into the village brings colouring, another’s flavour, right to our doorstep.
Laden over seat rack and handlebars, a wealth of onion ties obscuring front and back wheels, biking in from where the sun comes up, his French vernacular booming out before him tells everyone the onion man’s arrived. Then there was a bicycle equipped with a special stand that kept the back wheel off the ground. Parked on the gravel near the backdoor our man on the saddle, dressed smart, flat-cap aloft, peddled tirelessly, turning a stone wheel, sharpening Mummy’s knives with a distinct whirring sound. There were sparks, and he never spoke a word. On one occasion, a suit-and-tie man was in the kitchen, with his suitcase full of brushes, persuading our mother she could do no wrong with another set of bristles. Don’t forget the monthly apparition of a Tizer drink’s lorry and the smoky fish and chip van… and magical ladies who gave us pressed leaves and sold pegs to Mummy.
Sarah and I sat in the middle of the floor. The cot I’d slept in before my sister, keeps the same place near the door. I think mum and dad called this room the nursery. I have a feeling it was Christmas eve. There is a window at the far end, which looks out over the front garden toward the road, and a soft orange glow permeating the room from outside suggests evening. There may have been a ceiling lamp above us, with a shade that made the periphery of the room blurry, undefined to my eye. Mummy and Daddy come into the room. There’s a serious feeling. Sarah gets the gravitas. I don’t think I do. They present us with a fully bound set of Beatrix Potter books regimented together on a wooden shelf with Peter Rabbit either painted or carved on the ends. Sarah got down to reading them studiously, or at least looking at the illustrations seriously. Benjamin Bunny up to mischief in Mr McGregor’s veg patch. I simply ripped the pages from the bindings and tore them up. Mummy and Daddy were mortified.
In the haze of adulthood, we were naïve, adaptable, defenceless… fully enrolled participants of a post-war baby boom that followed the demise of millions in the most fatal conflict in human history.
I don’t remember my parents and their friends engaged in conversation about war. Nothing about a worldwide one. There were pointers, of course. That same child, in an ageing body now, can still visualise the ration book atop of the kitchen table in Shepreth. Once, Sarah and I snuck a look at a medal in Daddy’s draw. We touched a big curved blade encased in a leather sheath tucked away behind a door in their bedroom. Later, we found out they awarded Daddy the Military Cross for services to the Royal Artillery in Southeast Asia. And the blade, a kukri knife presented to him by the Gurkhas that served under him in Burma.
On the few occasions Ponji (John Paul) and Elizabeth came to Shepreth, it was always a treat. I’m sure years must have passed, before Sarah and I fully grasped they were Mummy’s offspring from a previous marriage. We certainly knew nothing of their father, a doctor, or implications of his being killed while serving his country overseas until much later. No idea that Lizzy and Ponji were doing well at school and living with Mummy’s oldest sister in a place called Cambridge. We just fully accepted them, as they did us into their lives. Lizzy was very good at drawing. She seemed playful and romantic. Ponji, athletic and adventurous, had immaculate writing. Look out for Mummy, and George (Daddy) he whispered, while he and a mate lit a cigarette in the pigsty. He needn’t have asked; we’d have kept guard any which way. Elizabeth came once to tell Mummy she was going to Germany to study dance. Mummy wasn’t too pleased.
As we grew, we learnt how lucky we were to be in a world that saw life above and beyond the sort of jingoism that costs the earth. For those who sacrificed their lives so that we might live. Whatever they were on, it energised our mum and dad. Fervent newlyweds, busy building a life that declares a new beginning in a ravaged country.
The UK was the last country involved in the war to stop rationing food. Bread, which had been freely available during the war, was rationed for two years from July 1946. Cheese, bacon, ham, meat, and fats as well as sugar also remained scarce. It took until mid1954 before rationing finally ended.
Sarah was born in May, four years after the war. The adults informed, and she learnt this was so as years went by. A time for grownups to rebuild the economic infrastructure into a democracy of peaceful optimism. For Sarah and me, it was a timeless time, spent together, before the wings of mind became self-conscious, bonded by blood as cherished soulmates. If I go by memory, I can hardly bear the pain… but when I pause for thought, there’s something afoot. A force of nature, perhaps, that flows through our prayers and meditations, transcends our tribal identity, and settles scores in the sacred.
Sarah’s astute gaze was warm and attentive, as if an unobtrusive energy were keeping a close eye on us and our environment.
Daddy said, we’ll do that when our ship comes in. Being economically stretched didn’t mean our parents weren’t spoilt for choice. As children, we came into mum and dad’s lives just this side of a silver spoon. We weren’t aware of that because we didn’t know that. Much later in life, we’d find out they had money enough to buy Docwra’s Manor outright. With records going back to the Middle Ages, this house bore the crown in the centre of Shepreth a village some eight miles from Cambridge, in the United Kingdom. Could have been hundreds of miles from Timbuktu, for all me and my sister knew.
History of Docwras may have been uncharted territory to us, but that didn’t stop a whisper of other lives lingering within the house and its boundary walls. Aside from rooms being a tad gloomy, I remember Docwras as an enchanting place to be. I loved outside especially trees. When my sister was old enough, she loved being with trees, too. Sarah was always more accepting of what was on offer. Occasionally, I picked up on things, a feeling maybe left behind by those who had come before. That might have spooked me. We didn’t put mouth to it. Just being near Sarah’s calm was enough to curtail any fears I might have harboured.
My sister is gone.
No grownups’ here to conjure up where’s and whys.
No one to ask if this or that was true.
No one to name the day, play the time, write a poem, swing the rhyme.
No one to ask how you catch a letter on a shooting star, take a fall and kiss it better on the crawl.
We hold it now and then
in the trickle of water,
a golden hour
among quicksilver minnow,
placid trout play a ruse,
won’t take the bait
please stay longer
don’t blow a fuse.
I’m running late
way behind you
please don’t go
there’s a hole in my shoe
my sister and I
well over due.
Where’s the hide,
this or that river?
On the other side.
That’s not an answer
tell us now
who do we pay?
what do we owe?
you’ll have your day
where did you go?
before the play
let’s meet in the middle
or at least halfway
at the penny fiddle
on the stairs
inside the hall
tickets in hand
we’ll have a ball…
Were they, now she, just making up a show?
This is the BBC Home Service.
Welcome to Children’s Hour.
Now it’s time to Listen with Mother…
are you sitting comfortably?
Then I’ll begin.
My sister and I were close, very close. Heck, we even use the same nappies, after Mummy washed and hanged them out to dry of course. Love for the person who I later knew as Sarah didn’t really equate to a name, or what we wore, or what we did. Some unexplainable thing. Awareness unencumbered by syntax and exposition, perhaps? Check it out. Our age of the wireless, from this little person’s perspective, wasn’t about how shrewd or clever we were. Sentient beings, within a celestial form where consciousness makes the total of all things significant… all creatures great and small. A way of perceiving, from a wholly open innocent vantage that adults emanate when they’re born, before rigours of adulthood get deployed.
The embodiment of this innocence, which seems out of reach to us elders, so often ends with us trying to recoup the child in recovery. By that I mean, we yearn to befriend that person lost in adulthood, the one who wobbles and falls, got hurt, and withdrew into some finality of words. So loud is the yearning we hark back, want the child to come out of hiding; for light to fulfil our hearts again.
But what of those of us in fear of the return?
We viewed that inner turmoil as a weakness, shackled our heart in chains, locked them away, deep inside a fortress of words and commerce. Reinforced by doctrine, ad infinitum.
If the whisperer is skilled, they will ease any reproach our darling child might hold.
Sarah’s essence, her innocence was near the surface. To be in her company in this preschool era was to be in the presence of someone who radiated a crystalline lightness. If you need to pin words to matter, she permeates the aura of an angel. Like most of us down the line, I suspect, as children we got corralled into some kind of status, and the weight we carried made us fractious, certainly from my side of things, overbearing. Fortunately, that incorrigible impact didn’t destroy the pith of our being. And in Sarah, the pure joy of that little girl was never far away. Training aside, I’m sure that’s why she became a celebrated teacher and mother who could put young children at ease without rocking the boat.
Mummy and Daddy encouraging us to wander off on our own might seem neglectful nowadays. Yet spilling with the rough and tumble, losing ourselves in an infinite biosphere, a vast unknown tested our mettle, gave us more than we could ever imagine.
Some claim they know what or who makes up the sum-total of the universe we spin in. Maybe a child of God, or avatar, can presume such placing. Yes, and many of us dismiss such a deity of wonder as hearsay, theological hogwash. I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure anyone can define that which binds us to other worlds, holds us together, so to speak.
What’s God Mummy? I don’t know, ask Daddy. Hang out on the forest floor though, and it’s not long before you’ll realise patterns in nature plying the same DNA that ebb and flow in us.
Birth and death.
Life, unfettered by the extraordinary vigour and clamour of thinking.
bigger than anything we can apprehend…
That time and place with my sister may have passed, but when the voices fade awhile, we’re standing together close to the water’s edge. There in the rustling wind, the rolling tide speaks. While your light guided by stars pulls in the dusk, a shimmering swell sends in a kiss of foam, teasing our feet in the sand. We’re bound by a sense of unfathomable motion moving in from the great beyond. She rides and rises to such a height, teeters on the brink, then cascades into wild roaring falls, reaches down, down, down, licking our faces in salty surprise, swirls and gushes back out to an all-pervading stillness, heralding the return.
Sarah contains her excitement on the trike, as I push her out across the sea toward the island opposite the house in Shepreth….
Lost for words?
I was six years old and Sarah was five when we left Shepreth for Cambridge.
Before the move our sister Lucy flew into our midst, a forest sprite landing lively on the detritus. Polly was born on the cusp of arriving in the revered city, a nymph beloved by Turkish gods who sent love letters and sang rousing songs in honour of her company. Some years in, a bolt from the blue. Sophie shot into our lives, skimmed the valley floor before she could walk and talk, from one fairy to the other, while these visions did appear.
My sister Sarah died in St Luke’s Hospice Sheffield. She leaves a brilliant legacy by her children Jack, Ella and Alice, her daughter-in-law Becky and grandchildren Wilf, Jocelyn, and Ivo.
Sarah Grenville, nee Scurfield 1949 – 2023.