“You’re going on a little holiday. Just for a few days.”
Dad cajoled me towards the front of Uncle Jim’s car. With me between him and Aunt Edna on the long, leatherette seat, we could all just about fit.
“But why?” I could see my Mum looking weary, as she peered out at me from the front door of our house.
“You’ll have fun. And it will only be for a few days.” He gave me the third hug since we came outside.
I gave in to the ushering of my Aunt, unwedged my arms from between the two of them and, before I had time to resist any more, the journey began.
I had been in my Dad’s car many times, but Uncle Jim’s was different. I knew how to keep my feet away from the rusty hole in the floor of Dad’s car. Uncle Jim’s was so new, I could smell it. A smell I would recognise that one time I bought a new car of my own. I was transported back to that day when I was four, all those years later.
“Why are Mum and Dad not coming with us?” We were barely round the corner from our house before I managed to force out the question.
“They are going on a little holiday by themselves.” Her eyes said more than that as she looked across me at Uncle Jim.
“Your room is ready for you. I’ve made it especially nice.”
She shrugged off the conversation I wanted to have, right out of my reach.
The journey to their house in those days took about as long as it does today, poor roads and slower cars making up for the increase of traffic in more modern times. It was a trip I’d been on many times, so I knew we wouldn’t be long.
“You can go to the school with your Uncle tomorrow, if you like.”
My uncle was a caretaker at the little school around the corner from where they lived. I’d been there before and although I wasn’t yet old enough for school, his Saturday morning catch-up routine let me see what was coming to me soon. I would be able to play with all the toys without any other children present. I loved it! My excitement at this news kept me babbling away for the rest of the trip.
We arrived as night was falling fast and an Autumnal mist swirled. When we turned into the gloomy street, their little terraced house was thinly illuminated by weak sodium streetlights. I remembered I was not at home. Their dirty orange colour was different from ours, a brighter and altogether whiter light.
“Cup of cocoa?” My Aunt asked, as if to cheer me up.
“And afterwards, your Uncle will give you a donkey ride up the stairs for a bath.”
I liked this plan, as I took my coat off and began to settle in and think about bedrooms.
At home, I had a bedroom I loved. A perfect bed centred in the warm room, with a corner for toys to play with on a carpeted floor. My Mum insisted we tidy my room together for a few minutes before bed and when we finished, the choice of book to read would always be mine.
She spent hours with me reading stories; explaining the pictures and helping me understand the letters so that, when we sat down to play sometimes during the day, she would help me take the first tentative steps to writing letters for myself.
At my Aunt’s house, the bedroom for my ‘holiday’, raised many fears in me. It was so different to the one I had at home. At the top of the stairs, I hopped off my human/donkey transport and looked in.
A massive dark wood dresser filled the whole of one wall. On it stood two large glass vases and a troupe of elephants made from obsidian. This herd of beasts fascinated me, for the trunk of each elephant held the tail of the bigger one, next in line, until the first one, the largest, who was the leader. Frozen in time, looking after and protecting his family.
This stood central on the dresser, on an oval lace mat. A deep blue vase graced the left side, with a sort of Ribena red coloured one on the right, standing to attention to keep the elephants in good order.
Nothing for a little girl to play with. Indeed one of my fears was of breaking something, so I kept a wary distance. At the back of the dresser the upward tilt of a large oval mirror was of no interest to me, for all I could see was the deep green and cream patterned wallpaper behind and above me.
On the bedside table was something I had come to dread from previous visits to my Aunt and Uncle. Even though I hadn’t stayed before, just seeing it had haunted me in the same way that a rabbit might fear headlights. Obsessed to the point of utter fear, to me, it was brooding; waiting to erupt. And as soon as I saw it, I couldn’t take my eyes off it.
The alarm clock was of a sort rarely seen these days, except in retro stores or antique shops. Almost as large as my head, the face was overwhelmed by the two huge bells that sat either side of the handle on the top.
If those bells ever went off, I feared they would not only finish me off, but they would wake the whole town. Yet I had never experienced the sound they produced, for the alarm had not – at least until now – been either set, nor triggered in my presence.
And it had such a tick-tock sound, once heard it was all encompassing.
After my cocoa and a nice warm bath with plenty of bubbles, my Aunt took me in her arms and carried me into the bedroom. The bed was warmed by a large brown stone bottle. She had brought some of my favourite books with her from home and in her unfamiliar way, began to read.
At my pleading, she left a light on the landing outside my door. The luminous fingers of the clock enhanced its latent potential causing me to hide under the covers until I calmed down enough to fall into a troubled sleep.
At some unimaginable hour, when I awoke, the clock’s ticking seemed even louder. In the still, dead air it amplified and took over the whole room and with dread, I looked upwards, where the ceiling should be, but, as I already knew, it wasn’t.
For apart the weird clock and pervasive stink of mothballs – the smell of which takes me to that room every time I come across them – there was one more feature to the room to scare me even more.
The ceiling had, in its very centre, a roof light. With their bedtime, the landing light had been turned off, making everything even darker. Except for the stars I could now pick out.
They put the sky into my bedroom.
I heard the sound of the ticking clock. I smelt the unnerving chemical odour of the naphthalene in the as yet undiscovered mothballs and I could see the sky, way above me, too.
As a little girl, the sensations in the room went beyond perspective and I huddled beneath the cover again, for what seemed like forever. Every time I visited my Aunt and Uncle I had fun. With my until now loving parents deserting me for their holiday, this first time I stayed over made me so upset that my hair still stands on end at the thought of it, all these years later.
The next morning was a Saturday. As light dawned, I wandered along to my Aunt and Uncle’s room and stood there until they awoke. I may have had my thumb in my mouth and my favourite teddy under my arm as I waited and waited for them to wake.
It was an unusual sight, for I’d never seen them without spectacles, for both of them wore heavy duty eyewear. I did not want to wake them. So when, what seemed an age later and they finally stirred, I had become very cold indeed.
Looking kindly on me, they squeezed me in between their ample selves and, despite their squeals and mutterings at my ice-cold feet, warmed me as I snuggled in.
Against all the odds, I had survived the first night. But there were more fun and games yet to come that early morning.
My experience soon took another unexpected and rather unpleasant turn. As I clambered out of their bed, I put my foot into one of the chamber pots, which they both had concealed under the bed. Their home did not benefit from indoor plumbing and to avoid a cold and wet nocturnal trip outside, they had found a more portable solution, the kind of which I had never seen before.
At our house, we had indoor arrangements.
My first instinct was to get my foot out of what was still warm and wet. From their screams, it seemed that wiping my pee-soaked foot on the rug by the bed and upsetting the rest of the contents, was perhaps not the best option for me to have chosen. The loud exclamations from them had me running back to my own still scary bedroom and hiding myself – complete with wet foot – in my own bed, under the covers.
Once they realised how upset I was, they both smothered me with the best love childless adults can give to one in their care. A child for whom they had little experience in attending to their every needs, at all times.
A child they wanted so much for themselves.
As I recovered and my foot was soaped and cleaned, I then needed reassurance about my parents.
“When will my Mum and Dad come back?”
“Oh, they’ll just be a couple of days, when they are ready.”
That didn’t seem to be very clear to me and in their voices I could hear something that they weren’t telling me.
“Will I sleep here another night?”
They looked at each other before my Aunt answered.
My face must have shown a doomed expression, for she felt the need to reassure me.
“It will be better tonight, I promise.
“You’ll be going to the school later with your Uncle.”
He smiled at me. So I smiled back. Just a little.
“Would you like some breakfast?”
Food enlivened me, so we wandered down the steep, narrow stairs to a parlour which served as their living room and dining area. At that time of the morning, it would have been better described as a deep freeze, ready to preserve most perishables.
I watched with interest as my Uncle lit the coal fire using a gas poker contraption. We did not have gas at our house, so my Mum would start her fire with pieces of old newspaper tied in big, loose knots; sticks of kindling and on the very top, pieces of dried coal. In the years to come, this important responsibility would be delegated to me.
It still took some time to get anything like warm in the room and by the time my breath became invisible again, I had almost finished my breakfast.
At home, we just had Weetabix or Cornflakes, but my Aunt and Uncle had always been more traditional in their eating habits.
“Bacon and egg?” Two ingredients I didn’t hear often, and not at breakfast time. I agreed, for this would be such a treat. But, on this occasion, perhaps I should have stayed with what I knew.
It might have seemed churlish to them at the time, but the white of the egg being a little uncooked and the bacon having a lot more fat on it than meat, rather put me off.
I rejected both and, as I have now come to appreciate as an adult with children of my own, my rejection of my breakfast was ungrateful – even wilful – as children are apt to be.
With sulky and mumbled indirect criticism, they managed to find something more edible. My new breakfast consisted of toast and jam, for I also rejected the bitter marmalade offered.
Such a pampered, ungrateful child.
The day progressed as promised, with the morning spent at the uninhabited school, where I had the freedom to play with whatever I liked and the afternoon following my Uncle round a gardening job he had at the local working men’s club.
The late afternoon brought me a surprise, for my Dad reappeared.
“Hello, sweetheart. How are you?” I ran to him and jumped up for a familiar cuddle.
“Would you like to come home?”
I felt such joy in the moment he spoke those six little words.
“But what about your holiday?” I asked him, in my little-girl way, feeling guilty that they had been unable to enjoy themselves. Mum had been looking pale and tired for a while.
“We’re finished with that.” He looked over at my Aunt and Uncle with a smile on his face.
“It’s time for you to come home, if you like?”
I needed no second bidding with the invitation and squeezed him all the more.
“Oh, yes, Dad. Oh yes!”
“Let’s go then.
“But first, is there not something you’d like to say to Uncle Jim and Aunt Edna for looking after you?” I gave them both overwhelming hugs and kisses, unable to mask my hurry to get back to my father.
It took me but a moment to ask, “Where’s Mum?”
“Oh, I left her at home. She’s been a bit busy.
“But she’s looking forward to seeing you soon.” He’d seen my disappointment.
“In fact, she has a surprise for you. Quite a big surprise.”
The rusty old car was wonderful. I didn’t care about the hole in the floor or the clanky old motor. I had overcome the scary room with the big clock; the line of elephants and the hole in the ceiling. I would be able to sleep in my bedroom again.
When the car pulled up at the door, and before I even got out of the car I saw my Mum. She had an old bundle of clothes in her arms, though when I ran to hug her, she looked a bit afraid.
“Careful, darling. We have a surprise for you.”
She peeled back the bundle of old clothes as she stooped to greet me and as I looked, I saw something I did not expect at all.
“This is Julian.
“Your brand new brother.”
And there before me, was the tiniest thing you ever saw. A perfect little baby, all asleep and wrinkly and beautiful.
Perhaps they hadn’t been on a little holiday after all.