Saturday, March 22, 2008

The Wonder Years...

It never occurred to me when I was a child that wheelbarrows didn’t all have names.

It’s not a great story, but I like the start, she said. Keep the first line.

And with that, my father took it no further. Sending to a publisher one idea (of hundreds) that he had and getting told that beyond the first line, his story didn’t work, was enough to put him off.

He was an ideas man. I don’t think I have a single memory of my dad where he wasn’t inventing, thinking, creating, discussing, dissecting, or dismantling something.

He was also a storyteller. The most dull stories in the world were lifted to the heights of captivation by his unique skill to describe the boring as spectacular. However, he also had a memory like a sieve (genius’s can’t be doing with such trivial things as remembering birthdays) so by the 19th time I had heard the story of the man he had bought his first car from, the glean had worn off.

But I adored him. No man I had ever met, at the time of writing, compared. No man had ever come close, and as the days of my life turned into years, I began to suspect that no man ever would.

I was the youngest of four, and as you may well imagine, growing up under the wing of an eccentric nutter like my father paved the way for a curious upbringing.

When I decided that my first book would be a homage to all the people I had ever loved, I knew the first chapter would have to be about my father. And it seemed fitting that what had been holding me off for so long was not being able to think of a starting sentence, and so borrowing my father’s most successful sentence would be right and proper and hell, it was the least I could do. The dear man deserved to see something in print, even if I had snatched it.

Not that he didn’t have anything published. Au contraire. In his world, he was a very successful writer. My father wrote racing rules books for the sailing world, and his word, I discovered as I grew up, was gospel. He had rules changed that people all over the world were using.

(I don't know why I am writing in the past tense. Dad is alive and well.)

He had a lot of people under his command. Most of my upbringing was spent in a 12 bedroomed Victorian mini mansion, from which Dad ran a sailing school for children.

Every week of every summer, a new batch of children would descend upon us. At the beginning of each week I was too shy to talk to anyone, by mid week I had just begun to brake the ice with these strangers living in my home, and by their last day I felt I had new sibling.

Then they would leave and two days later a new group would arrive.

It taught me how to talk to strangers but it also taught me that everyone you feel close to leaves, in the end. Hence my 'independent woman' exterior, hiding my longing for those people I like to stay more than a week.

We had a huge room which Dad named the Big Room, and in here the children could romp. There was a snooker table, dangerously close to a gaping hole in the floor which Dad never quite fixed, there was a table tennis table which Dad had made himself. Retrieving the ball from the net often resulted in injury as the tables were balancing on much smaller tables underneath, and as the unsuspecting child leaned forward, the table would flip towards them and usually land on top of them.

There was a sort of ‘common room’ attached to the edge of the Big Room, which I didn’t go in much, to my recollection. There might have been a TV in there, but we didn’t watch much TV in that house. There was too much to do. Byker Grove was banned, as was the other one... I can't remember it's name... and all computer games. I didn't know what Tetris was until I was 13.

And there was a bar. Looking back, I wish more than anything my Dad hadn’t had to sell that old house before I became a teenager, as I think I would have had a lot more friends if I could have invited them back for a game of pool and a drink at the bar.

But I don’t want to jump ahead to the sad day we said goodbye to Lisle Court, or I might cry before it’s necessary. There’s plenty of good stories to recall first.

Where was I. Ah yes, the Big Room. It was multi-functional. Dad organised two huge family reunions, a golden wedding anniversary for his parents, hosted a wedding reception and had many, many birthday parties for each of his children, in the Big Room, and for each it was transformed into a banquet hall. It was most accommodating to our needs.

It also served as a theatre for me when I was a show-off youngster intent on performing a different self-scribed play each night. How my Dad and step Mum, Marie Ann, mustered the energy to act enthused for each performance is beyond me now, but they managed it.

We had a huge Dressing Up Box in the bar, and in here, amongst many other weird items of clothing, lay my favourite. It was my sister’s bridesmaid dress, now too small for both her and me, but I still squeezed into it despite ripping it a little bit more every time I did. I loved it, it made me feel like a princess.

I didn’t have many clothes that made me feel like a princess. Nor did I ever experiment with make-up, and to this day I’m not quite sure what you are supposed to do with an eyeliner.

For which I will be eternally grateful to my father. I didn’t feel like I was missing out, I didn’t know what I was missing out on. Instead of makeup, my sister Pip and I would drag a mattress to the top of the stairs, climb aboard, hold hands and allow it to ripple down the enormous staircase, ensuring we made a ‘ahhhhhh’ sound all the way down so our reverberating lungs could be heard by each other. Arriving at the bottom we would have a little fit of giggles, agree that it was fun, and drag the mattress back to the top to do it again.

This was a slightly more mild playtime pastime than what my elder brother and sister, Jae and Tammi, would take on. Their fun required every single mattress from all of the 12 bedrooms, piled into a heap at the bottom of the balcony in the hallway. Then, from the top of the balcony, some 20 feet above, they would jump down.

I was always far too scared to try this. I stuck to the stairs with Pip.

But not once do I remember having to put the mattresses away. I don’t know who did. It must have been Dad, but he never complained. He probably made it into a fun game where he timed us to put them back. Yes, that is probably what happened.

The stairs game with Pip was no mean feat considering my darling sister was born partially sighted. Pip had microcephaly, a rare condition resulting in severe learning difficulties, a small brain and, usually and in Pip’s case, epilespy. Her sight was an unfortunate addition to her problems.

But boy, was Pip fun. She had more balls than most people with sight. We used to rollerskate around the Big Room, cycle around the garden, swim, mud paddle, climb trees, you name it, she was right behind me.

And she was beautiful. Her tiny little button nose and thick black hair, her tiny frame and huddled manner… she was adorable. And, she was my plaything. I was horribly bossy to Pip, despite being four years her junior, it was always my decision which game we played.

There is a photograph in one of our family albums of Pip on her birthday, her cake alight and in front of her. And guess who’s blowing out the candles? Yes, me.

It makes me shudder to think it now, I’m so sorry Pip, but it’s ok, readers, she didn’t mind. We were best friends. For a long time we had the same mental age, as she was four years older, so it took me a few years to overtake her.

My elder brother and sister were a pair too. They went to the same schools, kissed each other’s friends and tried, years later, the same drugs. They didn’t much like me when we were growing up, as I was a Daddy’s girl.

But simultaneously, we were a very loving family. I put that down to two things. One was having Pip, a creature so sensitive to any ill feelings. She could tell you were crying the minute she entered a room, and she hated it.

We got on because it was important we were a team against any kind of prejudice we were going to face because of Pip. Like the time Marie Ann’s Christian father told us we had Pip because we had sinned in a previous life. What a load of old rubbish. We had Pip because we had very much been angels in previous lives and Pip was our present.

The second reason was because Dad was quite possibly the greatest father that ever lived. He lived to be a father.

He discussed parenting tactics with us from a young age, he treated us like adults and we made family rules as a family. Were we going to be the type of family that smacked each other? No, we were not. Were we going to be the type of family that were mean to each other? No, we were not.

I’ve never been too clear on the reasons why my Mum left, but the grapevine story is that she fell in love with another man, Frank (more on him later) and as my Dad was perhaps somewhat difficult to live with, she saw the greener grass and made a dash for it.

‘I’ll let you divorce me if you let me keep the kids,’ my dad tells me he told her. Which must have come as something of a relief to mum because although she was prepared to take four children with her as she embarked on this curious affair with Frank, it was better for her and far better suited him, if she could leave them behind.

And Dad and the house and the means to look after us. So we stayed.

And so the story goes, we didn’t even notice Mum had gone for a few weeks. Although I find that hard to believe now, I was only two so who am I to argue.

I can still remember every nook and cranny of Lisle Court. It was a rickety, old house that was falling down and was in every way as eccentric as Dad. I went to the local primary school and all my friends lived in normal sized houses with, if not both parents, then their mums. And here was I, the odd girl who couldn’t quite work out how to brush her hair, asking them to come back and play in the big old house on the creek. Quite what their mums thought of letting their children go and play with the girl who DIDN'T HAVE A MOTHER, (the horror) is beyond me, but I’m sure we were the talk of the coffee mornings.

But Dad knew how to impress. While my friends were having the bog standard birthday parties – pretty little dresses, pass the parcel and take-home party bags, my dad organised for me the most absurd parties. We would have to fight for our presents. Throughout the day you could collect tokens by various means - winning at games, being polite, showing signs of generosity and goodwill towards others, winning at games… and these could be exchanged towards the end of the party for treats.

The games were all invented by Dad. He rolled up newspapers and had us thrashing about playing a safer version of hockey with an old rolled up sock as the ball. This game was popular with young and old, however when the adults played it got a lot more violent.

Dad liked to modify well known games and rename them, so rounders became Lisle Court Rounders, card games had Willis Rules, and I didn’t even know my Dad didn’t invent pictionary until I was well into my teens.

He was the Games Master. As a professional rules advisor, he was incredibly impartial and was happier being the adjudicator than a team member.

After we’d played a few games, he’d load my friends up with life jackets and we’d set off for a treasure hunt in a nature reserve a few miles by boat from the house. This was by far the most exciting part of the trip as most of my friends, despite living on an island, had no relationship with the sea at all and so found it most novel.

On more than one occasion it all went horribly wrong and we were left stuck-in-the-mud, Dad and Marie Ann having to walk 20 under-tens the 4 miles back home to the by then sick with worry and fuming with anger parents waiting on our front lawn for their little darlings to return from the eccentric man’s boat trip.

Those were the days.


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