By Sheila Spear
The train wasn’t like the ones I remembered. Those thundering giants commanded respect, their brasses gleaming, wheels churning, steam venting on all sides, clouds of smoke streaming from the chimney, and the whistle giving off its curdling yodel as it approached a crossing nearby. This one was a sleek, quiet and infinitely less interesting, electric model which would turn no heads and cause little excitement. But it served the purpose so I climbed aboard.
On my way back to London from the Devonshire coast, I had been visiting childhood friends. I was on the train before it occurred to me that I had never traveled this route before. Strange, because I had grown up along side it many years earlier. With my siblings and friends I had often clambered up the embankment, through weeds and brambles, slipping and tripping on stones and debris of all kinds, to get a look at the trains close up. But I had never thought to visit the village since we moved, nor previously had any occasion to ride the train past the cottage.
I grew more and more nervous as I began to recognize familiar landscapes and peered closely at every landmark as it flashed by. I went to stand in the corridor by an open window, my camera at the ready, to take a photo of Rose Cottage as we passed. Long forgotten places came into view. The town of Chard where I would wait for my mother, sometimes for hours, as she attended District Council meetings. Wayford Manor, where every spring we would walk through the woods filled with blooming rhododendrons and camellias from around the world, and the manor house itself, which had the largest magnolia tree I had ever seen. The Hardy cottage, where, people said, Thomas Hardy was reputed to have lived and written for a while. Now we are really close, almost there.
I knew exactly what I was going to see. I had a clear picture in my mind of the view of the cottage from the railway line. The end house in a row of three thatched cottages, it lay across a narrow road and up a short gravel track. But suddenly – what was that? The speeding train didn’t hesitate. But I did… and missed it. Could that have been it? A rough squat building, thatched roof, tiny garden – yes. But … but … it was so close. I could almost have touched it. Did we really live that close to the railway line? What about that yawning distance that I remember so clearly?
Early memories may not lie, but they retain a child’s eye view, a view of the world from close to the ground. The different scale of my adult eye came as a shock – and with it a sense of loss, and of resistance. My mental picture was obliged, reluctantly, to move over, to give way and make room for the new. Discovering the disjuncture between what I remembered and what I saw set me off on a search for those memories. I had a new desire to make up for my neglect of decades, and wanted to recapture some of what I had left behind.
I set in motion a plan to visit the places where I had grown up the next time I was in England. In the meantime I could explore my father’s photo albums. An avid photographer, he had kept his albums meticulously, along with a leather-bound notebook in which he recorded date, place, and people in each and every photo.* And there was a photo of me in the tiny front garden, in a tin bath tub along with a rather large dog, naked as the day I was born – and blissfully ignoring a passing train a few yards behind me.
I have no memory of that moment, or of being that child. As I looked through the photos I realized they did not coincide with the moments I remembered. I vaguely recalled that dog, and certainly knew the cat in another photo, for she had a very special place in my mental album. But there were other moments, not in my father’s photos. As I wandered through the cottage in my mind, I found that almost every nook and cranny held a story, a snapshot, each tinged with some message, some episode that held a particular meaning for me and me alone.
* * *
*Since I was born during the second world war, a time of shortages of all kinds, there are not many of me as a baby. But once the war was over, Dad made up for this, and I found lots of a chubby little girl, evidently accustomed to running around outdoors with no clothes on.