Monday, 25 May 2020

Dead Rabbits and Conkers—part 2

Lord Semple's Folly

Castle Semple had none of the dark character or storytelling possibilities of Duntulm. In fact, in 1957, all that remained when Eve, Jim and I moved into a house along a dirt track from where the castle had once stood, were the shell of a church built by Lord Semple and a ‘temple folly’ on a nearby hill. The original castle was probably more interesting when it was built around 1492 when castles served a purpose, but it was rebuilt many times and in 1735, when castles were no longer of use, was torn down and replaced by a gothic-revival style mansion, which in its turn, when mansions were going out of style, conveniently burned down in 1924.
Like Milngavie, our stay near Castle Semple was a mere two years, but it is etched much more clearly in my memory. The house was small but that didn’t matter as my sisters had all left home by this time, and it seemed to me large, mainly because of the wonderful views across an open field that sloped down to the Glasgow to Ayr railway before the land rose to the hill where the folly stood. Across a yard large enough for me to exhaust myself on my red tricycle, stood a prodigious barn that provided a wonderful play area, especially after the farmer had filled it with hay bales to climb. 
Jim believed in a good hearty breakfast and so woke early to cook up the oatmeal that had been soaking overnight so that he could eat before leaving for work at Mechan’s. He kept a single shot .22 rifle in the cupboard in the kitchen and occasionally I would be woken to the sound of gunfire out the kitchen window and go through later to find a cleaned rabbit lying on the kitchen table. The skins of several of these unfortunate yet tasty creatures were nailed to dry on the barn door and made me a rather smelly but much loved Davey Crockett hat after I had been taken to the cinema in nearby Johnstone to see my first movie—Fess Parker and Buddy Ebsen getting the better of the bad guys in Davey Crockett and the River Pirates.
It was at Castle Semple that I was given pet replacements for the small zoo I had access to on Skye. First was a hamster called Henry who was given free run of the living room in the evening where he worked hard collecting stores of food inside the furniture against the hard time he must have been convinced were looming. 
Much more memorable was the arrival of a grey tabby kitten, perhaps unimaginatively called Tibby. I was thrilled, but the association did not begin well. Tibby was asleep one evening on my bed, obviously convinced that any human who doted on her as blatantly as I did, must be a good bet for a lasting relationship. Sadly, I didn’t look before jumping onto my bed and sat on Tibby. The poor beast screeched, leapt off the bed and shot through to the safety under the sideboard in the front room. I too leapt off the bed and burst into floods of tears, convinced that I had killed my new pet. Both Tibby and I were eventually calmed down and Jim told me later that it had actually been very funny when he turned at the noise to see a distinctly flat-looking cat shoot into the room and slide under the sideboard. Tibby and my relationship never recovered and it was always to someone else in the family that the assorted dead or dying small animals that she had stalked and caught in the field were proudly presented. Henry succumbed to old age but, somewhat oddly, I have no recollection of what became of Tibby. 
An Idyllic Memory?
The house and barn are in the background.
Castle Semple appears idyllic in my memory, possibly because it recreated the open spaces of Skye. I had free run of the field behind the house, all the way down to the railway line that Eve and I used to walk along eating wild strawberries and collecting lumps of coal that had fallen from the passing trains. I was friends with the girl who lived at the end of the road and had other friends, with whom I would sneak over the wall of a nearby estate to steal apples and chestnuts. To give our activity some added spice, we built up the owner of the house behind the wall as an angry old man who would chase kids with a stick. However, since we were not the most subtle of thieves and were never chased, I suspect that he was perfectly aware of our activities and was probably laughing behind a window somewhere.
The apples we collected for obvious reasons, but the chestnuts were special. The best of them, selected by each child’s private, arcane ranking system, were placed in a very low oven to harden, had a hole drilled in them and were suspended on a length of string. The point of this was to play ‘conkers’, a game where you took alternate shots at hitting the opponent’s conker until one broke. Conkers that had destroyed several others were treasured and I seem to recall becoming quite good at the crucial hardening process. 
I attended Howwood Primary school in the nearby village. It was about a two kilometre walk along a rural road, which in the early days my mother accompanied me on and later I was allowed to go on my own or with other kids. I had overcome my screaming horror of school, but was still not convinced it was a good idea.
The Road to School
I learned about social hierarchies at Howwood. After every break, we had to line up at the door when the bell went, boys in one line, girls in another. It was a status thing to stand at the front of the line and there was always a rush to get there. The largest boy in the school usually won. One day he was delayed with some activity and I found myself proudly at the head of the line. Unfortunately, the dominant male didn’t meekly go to the back of the line. He rushed forward and lunged to the head of the queue, knocking me aside into the school wall. I hit the back of my head and was taken bleeding and in tears to the school nurse who patched up what turned out to to be a minor scrape. I remember walking home in front of my mother in hopes that she would notice my ‘war wound’, but I had too much hair in those days
On another occasion, I recall getting into a fight with the same boy, although the reason for the altercation is lost. From my point of view, it didn’t end well but, since it was obvious that I wasn’t a very good fighter, I learned the benefit of conflict avoidance and gradually developed the skills necessary to remain as invisible as possible.
As a child, despite the government issue cod liver oil and orange juice, I was sick a lot. At Castle Semple, at least some of this was eventually diagnosed as tonsillitis. Back then, that involved the complete removal of the offending organs and a couple of days in hospital. I was sold on the idea by being told that, since my throat would hurt, all I would be given to eat would be ice cream. There were long conversations on which flavour and I think strawberry was finally decided upon. 
Very nervous, I went into hospital and had the operation. Upon recovery, I could barely wait for my first bowl of ice cream. The nurse eventually arrived with two pieces of dry toast. “Where’s my ice cream?” I asked plaintively.
“We always give toast,” she said unhelpfully. “Eat up, now.”
Disconsolately and painfully, I worked my way through the toast, not yet old enough to appreciate that much of life is being offered strawberry ice cream and being given dry toast.
A cycle path where the railway used to run.
Having been sensitized by the sudden death of my sister, Fiona, from polio, my mother was protective whenever I got sick and I soon discovered that if I played up the symptoms I could squeeze and extra day or two away from school. I did suffer from real illnesses, brutal colds and flu every winter, but it was the vaguer afflictions, like a sore tummy or a headache, that produced the best results. 
One day while walking with my mother into Howwood, I complained of a sore tummy. When asked where it hurt, I pointed to the lower right hand side of my stomach. It produced a surprising reaction and I was whisked into the doctor who poked and prodded and recommended keeping an eye on me as that was right where the appendix was. Without the faintest idea how much stress I must have been causing Eve, every sore tummy was located by me where the appendix was, so I was diagnosed with a “grumbling” appendix. Eventually, it was decided to remove what was then thought to be a completely useless vestigial organ. I had my second, week-long, visit to hospital and came home in pain but proudly sporting a four inch long scar. I didn’t have my appendix which Eelin had persuaded me to ask for in a bottle of spirits—the doctor had declined to grant my wish.
As the 1950s turned to the 1960s, there were major reshuffles in the dying heavy steel shipyards of Clydeside and Jim was laid off, not an enticing prospect for a fifty-four-year-old engineer with a background in steam engines and heavy steel. Certainly there was nothing anywhere close to Howwood or Castle Semple, so we moved into the city.

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