Tuesday, 19 May 2020

Dead Rabbits and Conkers—part 1

Party Time!

After Skye we lived for two years in Milngavie on the north side of Glasgow. I remember nothing about the house other than there being an alcove bed in the kitchen and frames upon which laundry was hung to dry before being hauled up out of the way near the high ceiling.
Eve was in hospital for a spell when we lived in Milngavie and I remember going with Jim to visit her. We travelled through the countryside on the bottom floor of a double-decker bus. At one point, a woman was coming down the twisting stairs at the back of the bus when she slipped and fell onto the platform at the bottom. Everyone turned to look and I asked Jim in a loud voice, “Is she dead?” She wasn’t and everybody laughed. I couldn’t understand why. It seemed like a perfectly reasonable question.
The fortress that may or may not have terrified me.
In my memory the most significant event from that time is my first day of school. It was 1956, I had just turned five and my sister was given the unenviable task of taking me along the road to Milngavie Primary. Having very little experience of interacting with groups of other children, the idea of school horrified me. On top of that, the school was an imposing red sandstone building and, probably because of stories of Duntulm Castle, I was convinced it was some kind of prison where I was to be locked away forever, perhaps in a dungeon like the unfortunate Hugh Macdonald. I had to be dragged screaming and in floods of tears along the road. I suspect without total confidence, the teacher told my sister that this sobbing mess in front of her would be fine and it would be easier (for whom?) if my sister left.
She did and when when she returned with a certain trepidation that afternoon, I was happy and cheerfully skipped along the road beside her. 
“So we won’t have any nonsense like that again tomorrow morning,” she said.
I stopped dead in my tracks. Tomorrow morning? It wasn’t just one day. I hadn’t survived this hideous experience. It was to go on another day, another year, forever? The first of life’s disillusionments.
Eelin telling me a story.
Or perhaps it didn’t happen that way at all. My memory is that it was my oldest sister, Eelin, who dragged me there that morning and much of my memory is based on what she told me later. However, Eelin lived in Newcastle when I lived in Milngavie, so it was unlikely that she would have been available to escort me to school. My sister, Dorothy was away at art college in London, and so it wasn’t her. This leaves my youngest sister, Susan, she of the Duntulm Castle stories. Susan was attending Jordan Hill Teachers Training College in Glasgow and used to come home to Milngavie on weekends (when, incidentally, I was removed from my bed to give her a place to sleep). She also came to look after Jim and I when Eve was in hospital for a spell. During that time, she took me to museums and on my first tram ride and, because my sister Fiona had made such a fuss on her first day of school, Susan was given the task of taking me. As she remembers it, I went happily with no fuss at all and the the only stress was her worry at the looks she, still a teenager, got from the other children’s mothers.
So my memory of my first day of school is false, in fact, the opposite happened. The false memory grew up through misconceptions, misinterpretations, confusions with later bad days at school, a conflation in family lore of my and Fiona’s first days at school, and just plain exaggeration by Eelin to improve a story. And yet I believed for most of my life that it had happened exactly that way. As such, it influenced and helped shape my perspectives as I grew up. In a small way, the fiction became a part of who I am. The story is not verifiable, definitive truth, but it is my truth.
Me, almost 5, scrubbed up and missing teeth
with my three sisters at Eelin's wedding
I have a photograph of me taken on July 23, 1956. I am scrubbed and resplendent in short-sleeved white shirt, sandals and pressed shorts, standing with my sisters at Eelin’s wedding in Edinburgh. Eelin’s husband, Frank, was my first brother-in-law and, since my sister was twenty years older than me and Frank was seventeen years older than her, he seemed incredibly old to the almost-five-year-old me. 
Eelin came back from university occasionally and after she married Frank, they moved down to Newcastle, but when she came home or I went to visit her and Frank, she told me stories that broadened my horizons beyond the dark deeds of the Macdonald clan. Before I was allowed to go to the movies, I knew the exciting tales of Shane and 3:10 to Yuma. Before I could read the originals, I knew the terrifying narratives of Dracula and Frankenstein. My internal life was getting richer.
Also in Milngavie, I began to make friends. There are four other small boys with me in a snapshot of my fifth birthday party. We all have cups of juice in front of us and a large chocolate cake that is obviously the focus of attention. But the Milngavie experience was brief, by age six we had moved once more.

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