He is learning, well behind his desperate eyes
The epistemology of loss, how to stand up
Knowing what every man must one day know
And most know many days, how to stand up.

                                                                                                     The Ball Poem: John Berryman

A year or two after my brother was born we said goodbye to Scotland where I’d spent my formative years, gained a brother and a trike, started school and first understood what it felt like to lose someone, my friend Innes. My family was still intact, I had both parents and all four grandparents. This was by no means the norm. Many families had lost members and others had had those retuned to them wounded or damaged in other ways. My own father had been invalided out of the navy but was able to make a full recovery eventually, or at least that’s how it seemed. It took me a long time to realise that no-one ever fully recovers from the trauma of war.

We were moving to Wellington, Somerset where my father was to take up a new job. We had acquired a new car, new to us, that is. It was a 1938 model Ford 8, a small basic family car with no refinements whatsoever, not even a heater. The plan was for my mother and brother to travel by train to my grandparents’ house in Ashton-under-Lyne and we would drive down to join them. Then in a day or two we would all set off again, mother and brother by train while my father would drive with me down to rendezvous in Wellington at the flat they were renting in Mantle Street. I can only assume that we were leaving rented accommodation and moving into more rented accommodation. I don’t remember a removal van but there must have been one as my trike went with us. I do remember a very packed car, though. These must have been slow, tiring journeys but here’s now no-one left to ask about the circumstances.

My father started his new job, I settled into school and began to make friends. I went to school with a small mixed-race girl who lived across the road, whose name I don’t remember. Her mother took us so my mother could remain at home with my brother. Although we chatted on the way to and from school and I grew to like her, once at school she played with the other girls while I played with my friends. The one boy whose name I do remember was Ashley and he became my close friend. We spent time at each other’s houses but mostly at his where we played in the garden, we made camps. It was fun, I lived in a flat with no garden.

This was 1949, possibly 1950. Post-war austerity was still affecting the daily lives of most people. There was still rationing. Childhood diseases were commonplace and frequently serious and vaccination against these complaints was in its infancy. The MMR vaccine was not developed until 1963 or so. And there was polio, the one we all feared. At every school there were children in callipers. There were stories of children confined to iron lungs. Swimming pools were closed. Then one day, a day I wasn’t at school, an ambulance arrived at the house across the road and took someone away, I couldn’t quite see who. It wasn’t until the next day that I learned that it was my little friend, the girl who accompanied me to school, who had been taken away. It was polio. I never saw her again. Sometime during the following few days, she died. Apart from the feelings of sorrow and perplexity there was always fear. Could she have transmitted this terrible disease to those abut her? Her family? Her friends?

Not long after that I was moved to a new school. My father’s job was quite well paid, he’d moved into management and in keeping with their new found financial security my parents decided to send me to a small independent school, the Blackdown Hills Preparatory School. The uniform comprised grey flannel shorts and a cap and blazer in the brightest geranium red. I’m not sure how many pupils were on the school roll but it can’t have been many. It was housed in what had formerly been a Victorian or possibly Edwardian lodge just inside the gates of its rather better known neighbour, Wellington College. We had our school lunch in what was probably the original dining room along with the headmaster and his wife, who also taught there. I still saw my friend other Ashley, who had remained at our old school. We played together in the lighter evenings and during the school holidays. His house seemed quite large to me, it had a good sized garden, a drive with a high hedge separating their house from next door’s. One day Ashley showed me a caravan that was parked in his drive. He was excited and told me it had only just arrived and they would be going on holiday in it when school broke up for the summer.

A few days later I got the news. Ashley’s father had been practising manoeuvres with the caravan hitched to his car. He didn’t realise that his son was playing in the drive and he reversed over him trapping him under the caravan. He then drove forward to park on the road dragging Ashley’s body with him. Not yet 10 years old and had already lost three friends in tragic circumstances. Learning about loss is hard.

Not many of the events of my early childhood remain with me but these do. At around this time my brother, still a toddler, broke his collar bone. Apparently he struggled away from my mother who was changing his nappy on the table and rolled off onto the floor. He was clearly in pain and was distressed for days and difficult to comfort. Much concern in the home.

A few months later my parents told me that a baby girl would be coming to live with us. I have no idea why they felt this was necessary. We seemed like a complete family as far as I can remember. We had had, though, a refugee woman with her small baby to stay with us in our flat in Costorphine. This was before my brother was born and I only have vague memories of it but it seems the baby slept in our laundry basket. Then they were gone. To be re-settled I presume. I found out later that my parents thought they’d like to adopt a girl, a sister for my brother and me. I liked the idea of a little sister and she was sweet. But she didn’t settle well. She cried a lot and after a few weeks she was sent back. I no longer had a sister and I often wonder what happened to her. I think I still miss her.

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