The company of cigarettes August 2008

‘I’d just bought my Times newspaper and as I was early I sat on the bench in the sun and had a cigarette. It was after I’d crossed the road to catch the bus that I saw the cherries, reached for my wallet and it was gone. Oh my God. The bus arrived. No time to check. The kind driver must have recognised me and let me take the ride for free. It’s got everything inside of it’,

So my cousin Julia arrived that morning. Harriet, the universally capable, loving daughter of Julia and mother herself, with three year old Lalaki on her hip, making banana cake out of ripe-black bananas, telephoned the newsagent (with no joy), then cancelled Julia’s cards. Outside, Julia enjoyed another cigarette.

Her spirit was undaunted. From the start she was game for the adventure down my memory lane, and at times, I saw, even more emotionally effected than I was. Forty years ago I’d last been here in Dorset. North Hayes Farm, Motcombe, was where my mother and I spent every summer holiday. While Easter was in Hull with her family, Christmas was in Essex with my Godfather,  Summer was for us, with no family, no duties, but unadulterated pleasure, at North Hayes Farm.

It was the poodle that started it all. I both loved, as a child loves, and felt ashamed, as a child does, of our dog, a poodle, and one named Mandy.

Before I consciously existed, the dogs met on the Dereham golf course, so my mother told me. At the end of their leads, Barabara and Ross, my mother and father, and at the end of the other, Vicky and Johnny. I imagine their dog was something substantial like a Labrador. Clearly dogs do not exert such caste prejudice as humans and they no doubt enjoyed a good sensory sniff, while the humans exchanged and found a linking chain: both women were pregnant, Barbara with me, and Vicky with Sally. The parallel paths affirmed, the friendship was undiminished over uprooting geography when the Randall’s moved from Norfolk cross country to Dorset, I think soon after Johnny was diagnoised with Parkinsons, he quit the engineering company he worked for up here (Metamix?), and they bought North Hayes, a Veal farm close to Johnny’s sister and family already lived down near Shafestbury.

Now nearing 50, the last few years I’d made some effort to find them, but addresses were long gone, and Sally’s last Christmas card said she was  immigrating to New Zealand, so I didn’t hold up much hope. I’d googled North Hayes and printed out directions, which I had in my hand with Julie beside me, saying, ‘Gosh this is exciting, and you know the way’.

I could not remember Shaftesbury from my past, but when we turned down an oak cannopied small road ‘Unsuitable for Heavy Vehicles’ signposted Motcombe, the first clear memory arrived. Vicky turning off the engine of her Sunbeam, and us free-wheeling down the  hill, shouting, daring Vicky ‘Don’t break!’ to see how far we could go before we had to cut the engine in (in second gear of course). Vicky trumpeting in glee all the way.

Julia and I found the farm, refreshingly not manicured but still rough at the edges. No one answered the door although clearly a family were in situ (children’s clothes on washing line). We walked around. Seeing a car return, we guiltily hastened back to the front door like naughty children and rang the bell. Yes, she knew Vicky, and said Jamie lived down the road in Motcombe, but she wasn’t sure exactly where.

Jamie Randal, identified as the owner of a Golf convertible, bungalow with wild garden, opened his front door, towel wrapped around his waist, comfortably in transition between something and something else.

‘Jamie Randal. You look the same,’ I challenged. His eyes searched then found, with or without the prompting of a bursting Julia beside me.

‘How extraordinary!’ she exclaimed, and became even happier to see a packet of Silk Cut on the table. We settled down in the wild garden drinking coffee. I gave in and joined in with a celebratory cigarette. Jamie telephoned Vicky, who’d just got in from a game of bridge.
‘I’ll be there in 10 minutes’, she said
All that energy that I so loved then, I did now.

‘I’ll leave the girls I the car, I don’t travel anywhere without them’, Her girls her dogs. ‘Gosh you haven’t changed’, she said taking me in.

‘Tell me, Vicky, how did it all begin? Why did you move to Dorset from Norfolk? And did you know anything about farming?’

‘Let me see. Jamie was born in 61. They all dropped out. All three of them. I wanted five, but couldn’t have any more in Johnny’s condition.’
Yes, I remember this phrase, ‘Johny’s condition’.
‘He was diagnosed with Parkinsons just after Jamie was born. His shaking did not give confidence to the business men he was consulting. No we knew nothing about farming’, she laughed.

‘Haven’t I met you somewhere before?’ Vicky inquired of Julia.
‘Yes, at the Muschamps. Outside having a cigarette. I phoned up afterwards and asked who you were’, recognised Julia.

As the day passed we moved from coffee in Jamie’s garden to a near by restaurant where naturally we sat outside so we could all smoke, and with this gift we could look across a landscape which was dreamily familiar, eating terrible Mexican food and it didn’t matter.

Vicky and that farm was my open window to the brave future, the foot off the breaks, free wheeling into a life beyond now. My worried mother visibly relaxed here. She altered. I have a memory of her with a whisky in her hand, sitting in a deck chair and laughing. They named two pigs after them: Vicky and Barbara. I learned to kill a chicken outside the dining room window by first directing its vision along a straight line to hypnotise it. Oh the abundance of it all, after our family of just two, came this proper family, with meals at a long table. Visits to Cash and Carry, where Vicky had a trade card permitting her to buy boxes of Mars Bars – I’d never seen such a quantity. Bathing in the same bath as Sally, her warm contagious laugh, her thorough cleaning of her body, unashamed, she taught me this ease with nakedness, and my lovers since have no doubt been grateful. I looked up to her easy open confidence, her long legs, her lack of conceit. She loved my mother and got on her with far better than I.

I can feel the 35 years ago childish delight in pottering around the farm, the safeness of wandering and exploring (except for firm instructions to keep away from the silo), around the overgrown Spanish garden, full of brambles and potential adders, the sheds, the young calves, feeding them milk from the buckets, their warm rough tongues sucking my hand coated in milk.

Then came the hormones. Dances at Pitt House. Silver Machine playing, I had my first cigarette upstairs on the springless sofa with Geoff, smoking and spooning. James Odelle, the perfect clean-boy match, unsubtly approved of by my mother, did not have a chance once I’d tasted the raw roughness of Geoff, red rag to a convent girl.

I hated leaving at the end of the summer,  just as things where heating up.  Afterwards, I’d day dream of these days, as if they were a movie. Mandy obediently subserviently settled in the basket in the car.

‘Alright Doll’ Vicky still said. ‘You haven’t changed. You remind me much of Barbara. But you’re better now. You didn’t laugh so much then. You used to pick your hair, which would drive Barbara crazy. You remind me much of Barbara. ‘‘I’m dieing Vicky’ she said to me. ‘But someone told me I am beautiful today, I don’t know who that was.” she said.

We talked of progress. ‘I’ve watched children working in Bangladesh back streets, I see some freedom in their constraint. Our mind centered learning extols university, but street and work is knowledge all the same, the university of life.’

‘History, I love history’, said Vicky. Jamie was teaching Geography at Port Regis school. Unhindered by marriage he is loved by his children, his computer hard disk was jam packed with their photographs.

I am full to bursting with the memories and adjustments of years. Time to leave. As I drive Julia back to Shaftesbury, I say: ‘It’s not surprising that I have no memory of these towns and villages around, for our life was so compete on the farm. Just that freewheeling hill and going to see a James Bond film.  James Bond and  Shirley Basey singing Live and Let Die are hard wired in to me.

As we entered Julia’s house, I picked up a letter and a wallet. A boy had found the wallet on the bench where Julia sat that morning, and finding the address inside hand delivered it through the letter box.

To celebrate we drank a warming whisky, and talked of families. 



12 Raneleigh Road, Winchester

I cannot remember what causes and conditions came together to bring me to Winchester back in 1976. A course in Drama to cure a hindering stammer? As far away from Norfolk as I could make it? A place that accepted me?

Raneleigh road was never so busy. Surely it was a quiet back street. It was my first grown up home as an adult.

That front room, Victorian bay window. In there I willingly lost my virginity. After a false start with Michael Owen, Phil de flowered me in that front room, mattress on the floor. He’d gone out for a pee, and returned to find me naked. It felt the most natural thing in the world.

Phil worked for the Railway in the modest Tourist Information booth. He loved to travel and had an eye for the freedom he got from British Rail. With him I travelled Inter-rail to Athens, yes, he took my travelling virginity too. Tom, who lived upstairs, worked in a butchers and gave us cheep cuts of bloody meat. Tom was dating Annabelle, who was doing the same as me, a posh girl loving something completely different and wild and rough. My mentors, however, were Stuart and Lou. They lived downstairs in the basement. Unlike us they were self contained. Lou, bright coloured tights over shapely legs and short pom-pom shirts. Stu, tall, thick glasses. Lou had danced a fertility ecstatic dance on the hill of the White Horse! Oh glorious day, when they moved out we moved into their self contained basement flat, and I hoped I would become them.

The Queens Head, run by Alan, was our local. Shove Happeny we’d play, or when Phils mum was up from Leigh Park (murder a week territory near Portsmouth), I learned the fruit machine, drinking Port and Lemon.

St Catherine’s Hill. Did I see how beautiful it was then?
With clear unhindered sight
Now crutched with glasses, looking out to setting sun
casting long shadows of English Oak across timeless water meadows or boys cut playing fields?

Nearby nestling in verdant trees, the stone of St Cross, and ancient alms house still operating, where cheekily the story went, they would not refuse you ale and bread. Giggling then, I did not have the nerve to try it out.

Stuart, Lou and Phil and I up here. I doubt I came alone like now. Divers and jivers into life they unfolded the mythology with awe:

The maze was supposedly laboriously carved one summer holiday by a Winchester boy gated for some misdemeanour, and in the centre, the job done, he hung himself. The grass has never grown back, they said.

I found the cunning track and danced in and out. Descending grass over chalk to swift flowing Iken, full arched trees, asking strangers directions, dog walkers, runners, college tutors (no rapists). I descended to St Cross, passed a disinterested bull, and walked beside watercress. Did I ever walk these water meadows then, that I campaigned so fervently to protect against the proposed extension of the M3? Were those the seeds of my campaigning? Words learned then: An Act Appertaining to 1654 – appertaining. Wanting to sound so convincing. Did I walk those silent then watermeadows?

Back in the town, the usual culprits deck the shopping street. The tabaconist is gone. His wooden troughs, wood panelled Dickensian shop dark but smelling sweetly with wild diversity of leaf. It was here I learned to roll cigarettes, in sweet liquorish paper.

My mother came visiting, and bought Yvonne with her for moral support I learned later. I’d announced i’d moved in with Phil, and she came to inspect. The two women decended the narrow steps to the basement front door. A hall way kitchen with a belling two ring cooker. A living room papered with Silver foil, images cut out from Sunday Times magazine.

“And this is our bedroom” I announced with the dominant double mattress on the floor.

“A nice view from the window” said Yvonne, practically distracting. My mother loved telling this story later.

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