© Copyright 2021 by Valerie Byron
The days of my childhood, although lacking in some respects, were magical in many ways. I had freedoms not allowed other children because my mother was withdrawn and did not pay attention. There was no father to discipline me, and basically I ran wild. My childhood memories are filled with the smell of newly cut grass, stepping in dog dirt, rolling around in the cornfield behind my house, trying to make a small home for myself in abandoned buildings or shacks, hanging around with workmen in newly constructed housing at the end of our street, eating fruit from the orchards, and feeling the sting of an orange as it dripped juice on my face on a cold winter’s day. I stole many a box of “Puck” matches from the kitchen cupboard to light fires in the local empty lots, stamping them out when they threatened to get out of control. I always had a special feeling of invincibility when I managed to sneak the matches into my pocket, as though I wore an invisible armour.
I remember the sounds of the rag-and-bone man, clip-clopping down the street in his horse-drawn cart. “Rag and bones, Rag and bones,” he would cry, and neighbours would rush out of their houses with donations of old clothes or household goods in their arms.
The Second World War had not been over for long, and we still had gas masks stored in our garage. They were great to play with, and many of us children would stomp around with the rubber masks over our faces, running up and down the steps of bomb shelters that had been erected in neighboring back yards.
I “borrowed” my older brother’s air gun, which made me feel strong and unafraid, although there was hell to pay when he found out I had taken it, even though it was too stiff for me to press down and shoot. I staggered down our street in home-made stilts, made by my kind neighbor, Mr. Kesterton, rode my sled in the snow, and played hopscotch for hours. It was magical to wake up on a cold winter’s morning to see snow outside, covering every tree and house. The winter of 1947 had been particularly bad and the streets were filled with snow for weeks. Snow-ploughs cleared the roadway but left great mounds of snow on the pavements. I made a huge snowman in the pile outside our house and would check it out every day until it all melted. Looking out the same bedroom window in the spring to see flowering pink and white cherry blossoms on the trees was just as thrilling, although real cherries never did grow.
I spent hours on my bicycle, riding to unknown towns throughout the green countryside, often with neighborhood children. I remember one summer convincing Elizabeth Robinson, from next door, to accompany me on a bike ride. We decided to put a picnic in our bike baskets, and have an adventure. It was a warm day, and Elizabeth and I both took off our tops, letting the breeze swirl around our upper bodies. We were both young, and had not yet developed, although I noticed tiny buds growing on Elizabeth’s chest. I threw my top in the air as we rode, feeling free and quite daring.
Sleeping overnight at neighboring houses was always a treat. There were plenty of children to play with, and my mother was friendly with all of their parents. It was a time of pure childhood – dressing up, playing games, imagination running riot, and experiencing second hand what it was like to live with a father and mother when I spent overnights with my friends, something I had never had.
A strange young man came home for the holidays, my brother, and I was jealous. He was eight years older than me, and seemed quite grown up He had a funny smell – that of an adolescent boy – which fascinated and repelled me at the same time.
I would jump into my mother’s lap, crying “My Mummy, not yours,” ignoring his look of distaste and anger. Later, I learned how much he hated me for this, and was envious because I was allowed to live at home, while he had to suffer at boarding school. He had a diabolical sense of humor and took great delight in tormenting me. On one occasion I had eaten some green apples and had a terrible stomach ache.
“Did you eat the core?” he asked slyly.
“Yes,” I replied. “Oh, dear, you will certainly die, then,” he responded with glee.
I spent the rest of the afternoon in tears, waiting for my imminent death.
On another occasion, my mother sent the pair of us to a holiday camp at St. Leonard’s-on-Sea. He ignored me the entire time we were there, except for one occasion when I came to him with the terrible news that I had swallowed my chewing gum.
“What kind was it?” he inquired. “Beechnut,” I replied.
“Oh dear, Beechnut? You will definitely die,” he said with an evil leer. Of course, I spent the night in bed, tossing and turning, fearful I would die in my sleep.
Although Alan, or “Jack” as he was known then, often tormented me, apparently the letters signed by “Fairy Fay” that sometimes appeared by my bed in the morning were written by him. He had a perfect right to dislike me for I was a self-centered, needy child, and didn’t make life easy for him. My mother had to pay him to put his hand on my shoulder when a family photograph was being shot, and he also had to be paid to take me to the pictures. I was introduced to such movies as “The Invisible Man” and other such horror films because my brother loved them.
Taking his sister on the bus to the movies was a real chore for Alan. Invariably, I wanted to go to the toilet at a crucial moment in the film, and never could hold my water on the way home. I would race down Sandown Drive, pee dribbling down my legs, until I finally made it to the outside lavatory. This seemed to be a family trait, because I often laughed at my mother walking cross-legged as she tried to get to the bathroom in time.
I awoke one Christmas morning, startled to hear the house burning down. I opened my eyes to see my brother’s hateful grin. He stood above me, holding cellophane paper, which he had been crackling in his hands so that it sounded like a fire.
“Father Christmas didn’t bring you anything this year,” he taunted me.
I ran to my bedroom door, opened it, and there was nothing. The usual pillow case filled with presents was gone.
“Mummy,” I cried. “Where are my presents?” “Didn’t Father Christmas come?”
Running down the carpeted stairs, and into the lounge, I was relieved to see a small Christmas tree, with presents piled underneath. Among other gifts, my brother and I both received almost identical paint boxes. However, the plastic cover of his was black and mine was brown. Each individual “paint” square could be removed, and I was eager to play with mine. It only took a day before I had messed mine up by mixing the colors with water. I slyly went over to Alan’s paint box and replaced all my removable paint "squares" with his, thinking he wouldn’t notice.
“Mum, she’s wrecked my paints,” was the roar I heard when Alan discovered what I had done.
In retaliation for my evil deed, Alan proceeded to go outside into the street, and persuade every child to call me “it” whenever they saw me. He pretended to befriend me one afternoon while I was playing with a crowd of children. He tipped over a huge empty coal bunker, made of metal, and invited each child to get inside, alone, and we would throw bricks at it. The idea was to stay inside for a minute, listen to the bricks being hurled against the bunker, and then be released.
My turn eventually came, and I got inside. It was dark and scary inside the coal bunker, and my usual claustrophobia kicked in. Wanting to appear grown up, and happy to have my brother's attention I tried to control the fear filling my body. I heard the bricks hit the metal, and then silence. I waited and waited, and then started to panic, calling out hysterically for someone to come and let me out. Alan had urged all the children to leave, and I was left alone for a good ten minutes. Needless to say, I was thrilled when he returned to school and I had the house to myself again. He never lived with us again.
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