People sometimes ask if I remember my first day at primary school. I have a glimpse of a hazy picture of a dark room with rows of little seated figures in double desks. Windows took up most of one wall with flat, short grass as far as I could see, not like the paddock next to our house where cows twisted grass round their tongues and chewed it sideways. I was at that school for about a week. Our father got a wartime job and we had to move, miles away.
The next school was much the same; another long brick building, on a hill this time, with a view of sky instead of grass. I have a clear memory of coming home after that second first day. I was five, my sister six – almost seven. Our mother wasn’t there when the bell went for home time as had been promised. The nuns were surprised that we were walking home alone on our first day, but my sister, Fanny, said Mother trusted us to go straight home and not to play anywhere. A nun said it wasn’t suitable weather for playing and made sure the top buttons of our coats were done up, her beads rattling, her pale hands fussing.
We were soon two bedraggled waifs, struggling onward, I now imagine, like pictures we later saw of Scott and his mates. We wanted to be home but were yet to find, through the relentless, angled rain, the first corner to turn. Our feet were sloshing in water-filled shoes; our necks washed cold-wet where water dripped from our caps, our socks sagging. My hand clasped my sister’s as we tried whimpering songs, exhausted, alone. Our new school was further away from home than our other school.
At last – the crossroads. One way was straight ahead. That was wrong. Another side it was down a hill. Wrong again. On the other side a black road snaked up the hill into the mist: we remembered it from the morning. Crossing the road was tricky. Cars had their lights on it was so dark. I was beyond speech. My usual clear tones were reduced to stutters as we stumbled against each other. We pressed on, weaving up the long, slanting hill, passing streets we didn’t know, to the final corner. We waited, eyes squeezed, peeping for a chance to cross again as cars swished by, spraying showers. Once across we trudged on, shoes squelching in the gravel. At last we caught sight of the new yellow mailbox ahead, stared open-mouthed at each other, pointing at it. We had come the right way: almost home at last. We dropped hands and began jogging, side by side, singing ‘yes, yes, yes’, the rain gusting us forward.
At the mailbox we turned into the lane. We reached our driveway where the squat, two-roomed cottage sat, hiding the furniture that was still unpacked. We stopped – no car. Nothing parked by the door. Where was the car? It had carried our family of five, plus the dog and the caged budgie and bedding and stuff from the old house near the fields of cows, to this new town the day before. It was part of our family too; our father’s special toy, a constant in our lives. It wasn’t in its new place.
Fanny took my hand again. We slopped to the door. It was locked. No one home; no mother, no father, no little brother. I could hear the dog scratching and whining at the door from the inside and the budgie ringing its bell. We sat, little buttocks squeezed onto the step, backs to the door, shivering. Tears rolled down past the dribble from our noses, down quivering chins as we watched the stretched worms trying to slither away in the flooded drive. We soon slept, nestled together, the unceasing rain splashing up from the concrete pad in front of us onto our shoes.
A thrilling, familiar puttering stirred us; car lights shone us awake, before they were gone. A beaming father appeared from the gloom. He was relieved to see us. He told us we were good kids for coming straight home. He said he knew we would be able to work it out, find our way, wouldn’t get lost. He had news. We had another baby brother. Amazed, we stood to be enveloped in his arms as he crouched, holding us close. Our father told us about a phone call from the doctor that brought him home from his work. He had to go to the doctor’s place to take our mother to the nursing home. The baby wouldn’t be coming home yet. He was too small and had to be with his mother till they were both well. Our other brother, Daniel, was staying with a lady father met in the doctor’s surgery where our mother went about the baby. He told us he was sorry he had no time to come to school for us.
Our father had other news. We were to move to a new house. It would be a different one for the whole family. We would be comfy together, a new place to come home to at the end of the school day. Not the same school either; another new one, the third for me in a couple of weeks. He took us into the cottage away from the rain. The dog did laughing barks, excited springs and twirled giddy rounds after his too-short tail. The budgie rang its bell, chattering as he flipped from perch to perch. Father helped us out of our wet clothes then dried us, put on our pyjamas and gowns and slippers. We sat at the makeshift table, candles fluttering, a fire flickering to life in the grate. We watched – silent, unbelieving – as our father cut slices of white bread and buttered it to make spaghetti sandwiches for our tea.