29 July 2011

Chocolate and moral philosophy in Stone Lane

A general guiding rule, for me, is "never go back". If the place (or person, on context) holds bad memories, why revisit them; if good memories, why risk spoiling them? It's a good rule, on the whole ...when I forget to follow it, I usually wish I hadn't. However ... I'm human and I do, sometimes, forget. So, finding myself not far from a seaside town on the south coast of England, where I spent many happy fragments of my childhood, I have allowed myself to be tempted into a wander down memory lane ... or, more accurately, Stone Lane: a long rural road running out from the town's margins into open countryside.

The seven or eight kilometres of Stone Lane held only six houses, then, all in one cluster. There are eight now; still in one cluster, several carrying the same names as half a century ago though most of them are modern rebuilds on the sites of those I remember.

This one, for instance. It bears the same name, "Stonevale Cottage", as did the house where my maternal grandfather lived ... but it's a completely different building, perhaps twenty years old at most. And that builder's merchant (part of a large national chain) behind it: that occupies the quarter hectare of what was his garden and my adventure playground.

Next door to my grandfather, on his right, lived the Goldman family. Mrs Goldman was round faced and jolly; so was her husband, though he was crippled by some degenerative illness and moved slowly, painfully on crutches. Their daughter Julie, six or seven years older than I, good naturedly took me under her wing whenever we visited. Julie didn't even disown me when Simon, her first boyfriend, with motorcycle, leathers and Teddyboy haircut, hinted strongly that three was a crowd. Mr Goldman welcomed me into his shed; I watched as, leaning on his crutches, he worked a miniature lathe to produce tiny, working steam locomotives or aeroplanes. Mrs Goldman fed me scones, home made lemonade and raspberry jam, clotted cream.

Beyond the Goldmans were Mr and Mrs Villiers. I saw Mr Villiers rarely; he worked in London, leaving early and returning late. On rare occasions when I did meet him, he was tall, balding, and seemed ill at ease with me. He would frown, hop from foot to foot, say “well... hello ... old chap ... well...”, hop some more, say “well...” a few more times, then disappear. Mrs Villiers was a different matter; though quite severely arthritic, she moved continually if slowly about her house and her half hectare of garden, chatting with me the whole time about what she was doing. The Villiers, like the Goldmans, had a daughter; unlike Julie Goldman, though, Angela Villiers was probably twenty years older than I, lived elsewhere and visited only occasionally. I probably met Angela only three or four times in my life. On one of those occasions, though, she took me into her bedroom and showed me her complete childhood collection of Biggles books - the aviation adventure stories of W E Johns. So long as I took only one at a time, took great care of it, and returned it as soon as I finished it, I could borrow them whenever I liked. Over subsequent visits, through the years, I worked my way through them all.

Beyond the Villiers were the Kitsons. I sometimes played or went swimming with their son, Simon, if he wasn't at school. Mr Kitson drove a taxi, and was rarely seen unless he offered us a lift to the swimming pool. Mrs Kitson was simply a person who smiled and waved at Simon as we disappeared to play.

There was nobody beyond the Kitsons.

Opposite the front of my grandfather's house, on the other side of the lane, was the Birds' House. The birds were not a family; this was my grandfather's name for a strip of woodland, about fifty metres wide, which stretched the length of Stone Lane. To the right, southward past the Kitsons', it extended a couple of kilometres to the Top Road which I was not allowed to cross. Northward on the left it ran about five kilometres or so until stopped by the village of Five Elms, pausing only briefly after a few hundred metres to enfold a derelict brick works which could, according to an imaginative child's need, be anything from the Alamo through the lost city of the Incas to a Mars colony.

On the other side of my grandfather's house, to the left, were the Cotters. Mr Cotter was the archetypical caricature of a countryman: weatherbeaten, all brown leathery skin and sinew, grey hair, eyes that squinted into the sun, wind and rain even when he was indoors. He was retired (from what, I don't know) but still managed to work a full seven day week as part time game warden for several local farmers, jobbing gardener, repairer of bridges, stiles, culverts, fences and dry stone walls. He too, like Julie Goldman, good naturedly allowed me to trail around after him; from him I acquired portions of a lifetime's landcraft, learned how to track wildlife, discovered how to tickle a trout, saw fox cubs in their lair. Mrs Cotter was bed ridden (again, with what I do not know); the house was home to at least twenty cats, of which a dozen or so were always to be found on or around her bed. As a child I was afraid of her illness but enjoyed her company in the small snug bedroom. Mr Cotter would bring up a tray with a pot of tea or mugs of cocoa, a barrel of biscuits or a plate piled high with thick sliced dense grained home baked bread, toasted on the open fire and topped with fresh churned butter; Mrs Cotter called him Tom, and he called her Alice, and the three of us ate and talked surrounded by cats.

And beyond the Cotters to the left, the last dwelling to disturb the timeless arboreal solitude of Stone Lane, was the house of Miss Baines.

I am ashamed to say that, for no reason that I can now identify, I didn't like Miss Baines. So far as I can remember, she was never anything but kind and friendly to me; yet I maintained my dislike over the dozen years of our visits to Stone Lane. This thoroughly unjust feeling was so strong that, when I wanted to go down the lane beyond the Cotters' front gate, I crossed over and entered the Birds' House to a depth of ten metres or so, went left through the trees for a hundred metres until out of Miss Baines' line of sight, and only then emerge onto the road again.

When I was about seven years old, Miss Baines presented me with the first moral dilemma I consciously remember having to confront. She gave me a packet of chocolate buttons.

What should I do with these chocolate buttons? Of course, I wanted to eat them. Of course, I felt distrust of them. But, beyond those selfish considerations, I also felt the prickings of conscience and guilt. Was it hypocritical (not that I knew that word; was it wrong) to eat a gift knowing that I felt so much dislike for the giver? Was it ungrateful (I knew that word) not to eat them? Was it wrong to not eat, and thereby waste, food when some people had none? On a practical note: if I didn’t eat them, what was I to do with them? The best solution seemed to be to give them to someone else, who would want to eat them; but who, in the small world of Stone Lane, would accept and eat them without asking questions and (despite my feelings, I had no wish to hurt hers) without risk of Miss Baines hearing about it?

Eventually, I went down to the bottom of my grandfather's long, sloping garden, beyond the shed, beyond the tall lines of runner beans and sweet peas, below the deep bank held up by old railway sleepers, out of view of the house and its neighbours. I burrowed deep into the thick privet hedge which separated the garden from a grazing dairy herd. There I dug a deep hole. Into the hole I counted out exactly half of the chocolate buttons, put back the displaced earth, then concealed the spot with scattered leaves and twigs. The other half of the packet I ate. Back in the house, I placed the empty wrapper in the kitchen rubbish bin.

In 1959 Miss Baines was, I estimate, somewhere in her sixties. She must, by now, be long past caring about the ungenerous spirit of a child to whom she caused no harm and tried to be friendly; but I shamefacedly apologise for it, anyway, to her memory.

No comments: