Squalls and sunshine; legions of broken clouds shunted westward by a pepper wind; double rainbows two days on the trot; a myriad of wild blooms reigned over by the poppies; the intoxicating beauty of Mother’s Garden as, brimming, I stare at one of life’s great milestones.
Am I really so old?
During the long month of April I have stood and sat in places – not Catalan but English places – that flood memories of childhood with the clarity of Holt Hills’ spring water, specifically my seventh year. Some formative things you never forget: These are mine.
Dad died on March 18. On April 5 we carried him into St Andrew’s Church, Holt, in the far East of England, in the green folds of north Norfolk, filling that crowded space with music and an ounce of mischief, just as he had done as a 12-year-old in 1932, straining to reach the pedals of the organ.
Earle Kirby was 91: A man of music and smiles, a composer of courtesy and comical raspberries, of immovable opinion and unerring loyalty to family and friends as strong as his allegiance to the bright side. “I won’t be beaten, boy,” he would say with a beautiful Norfolk lilt, and he never was.
He had been a one sock up, one sock down child, a free bird of those Spout Hills, devoted to his mum and dad, Tom and Ellen, of The Fairstead on the Cley Road, a boy and man wedded forever to his town. He had raced through its alleys and along its streets on his cycle with neither tyres nor seat, scrapped with other cubs under the long-gone water tower on Shirehall Plain, and he had marched home down the High Street after five years at war in North Africa and Italy.
A few days before his funeral I went home. I drove through dappled shade along the much diminished road where I had puddle-jumped in red wellies, been towed on a sledge behind a car and had considered in all security that the whole world was houses nestling in woods that ran to heath and endless sea.
I stood between gateposts, took a deep breath and knocked on the door of the house which Dad had designed and which I left when I was six. I sat again on the very same stair where I had said to myself, arms wrapped around my knees, “This is 1965 and I will never forget it”.
Within days of that moment my family was irrevocably broken. My equally dear mother took me and my sister to live in the neighbouring town of Sheringham, four miles away. In the dark corners of confusion and discord only one thing was clear to me. Dad was left behind.
In adulthood, long after the consecutive 500 Saturday afternoons and evenings we spent together after the separation – when every second counted and an unbreakable bond was gilded – came just one solitary mention of his then desperate struggle with suicidal thoughts.
But he would not be beaten. No.
That house in High Kelling, like the road, had shrunk, but I could remember every inch of it. Echoes bounced off the walls. How, when now I can barely recall what I did last week?
From there slowly on in to town, gliding past the seam of trees through which my mum would push me in a pram along a path long lost to undergrowth. Left into Grove Lane, hearing somewhere the whining gearbox of the old pale-green Ford Anglia Dad called Lilly, choosing at the last second not to stop at his bungalow home of 44 years but to press on past the flint wall of the old workhouse, to park and walk to the Hills.
There is another great sweep of flint wall there too, high and mighty on the bank above the spring pool, rising steadily from its beginnings at the entrance to Hill House beside Holt Methodist Church at the zenith of Letheringsett Hill. That towering curve of stone and brick would hold my impressionable eye every time we walked the vale, the greatest unexplained thing I had ever seen, filling me with wonder and foreboding as what could possibly lay beyond.
All scale is lost with years, but not feelings.
Fat oaks now stand where once we would scream down on sledges, sometimes into the brook that is full of reflections.
I never knew Tom and Ellen. They were gone before I was a year old and are buried in the cemetery on the Cley Road, just on from The Fairstead. I pointlessly sought shelter from rain under a hawthorn, then, protecting my gift of daffodils, dipped my shoulder and pressed on towards them, up the path the way Dad would run home from school, to stall at the back of the garden I have no memory of but now know so well. Water on my face I pulled photographs from my mind, all found in a box in the bottom of Dad’s wardrobe; My Nan in her deckchair by that door, a tray of tea on the grass, Dad holding his new cycle, Grand-dad beside the chicken coop. For whatever reason, perhaps unmanageable loss, Dad had never taken me there, never retraced those steps. I stood and tried to piece this part of me together. Maybe nothing ends if we remember.
I didn’t intend this blog to be so raw, but that is how life has been, and that does not mean bleak. It is the common crossroad, in my family’s case with the greatest blessing of a very long, fruitful life. There has been sun as well as rain (not least the phenomenal care of everyone at Sun Court Nursing Home in Sheringham), and just before Dad was laid to rest with my step-mother Eve it was so good to honour in my rambling epitaph his heart, humour and that refusal to be beaten. I even blew a raspberry.
When tests finally proved that this one-time Norwich cinema organist, Royal Artillery veteran, car paint specialist, music teacher, co-founder of the North Norfolk Aeromodellers and member of the Last of the Holt Summer Wine was unable to see where he was going and the DVLA took his beloved driving licence away there were no complaints.
His solution was an electric cycle that would do a hair-raising 25mph. I couldn’t watch and I certainly couldn’t argue. And when after an alarming couple of years the rapid onset of glaucoma meant even he decided it was all getting a bit risky for the good people of Holt there was a plan C.
“I’m goin’ into production, boy.”
“What do you mean Dad?”
“I’m goin’ to make bird tables.”
“I’ve bought a tabletop saw. Now stop your worryin’. I’ve thought it all out. I’ll do it by feel.”
He died of old age, by the way, with all his fingers attached.
FOOTNOTE: My apologies for the late arrival of this post but, perhaps, the reason is obvious. Watch this space for news of a different nature in the coming week. Best wishes to all, and thank you for reading. Martin.