In this photo, which I’ve used in a previous post, I am sitting in my highchair, aged eighteen months. Behind me you can see the door to the shed where my father kept his gardening tools, especially the lawnmower, along with some of the army debris he brought back with him when he was demobbed, his collapsible canvas camp bed, for example. There were boxes containing spares for his motorcycle, spark plugs, replacement lamps for his headlights. His Wellington boots always stood just inside the door and I would often take them out and totter around the garden wearing them even though they came up to my thighs. The shed has lots of memories. It was lit by a single bare electric light and it was always damp inside. It had been built in 1947, at the same time as the house we lived in, but the builders had rushed the shed and forgotten to put in a damp course which meant that humidity rose up through the bricks and the door frame was rotting and hinges were rusting. The shed window consisted of four panes of glass, two of which on the part of the window that opened, were cracked ever since I could remember, and were never replaced.
The flowerpots on the sill are testimony to my father’s abiding passion, which was cultivating his garden. He grew vegetables, beans, tomatoes, as well as roses and a whole variety of seasonal and perennial flowers. He loved to sit in his garden at the end of a long day and smoke his pipe in silence contemplating the handiwork of his green fingers. Gradually, over the years, the garden evolved, as the family’s financial circumstances improved, but he never stopped adding new features, a watercourse, a greenhouse, new varieties of rose. It was his principal relaxation.
You can barely see it, but behind the pram on the left of the photo there is a door to another part of the shed, which was a separate storage area. It had several wooden shelves inside and there my father would store the apples from our many fruit trees and which we would consume in the course of the cold winter months. The most productive tree was a Bramley which bore beautiful, huge, slightly tart apples which were ideal for apple pies and crumbles, two of my father’s favourite desserts and which my mother cooked to perfection.
The pram itself is interesting: if I was eighteen months old, my brother Michael would have been a baby and was therefore somewhere in the house in his cot at the time of the photo. When we shopped with my mother I would sit in the pram with Michael and she would wheel two miles up Gravel Hill to the nearest shops in Bexleyheath. We went there to buy cheese and meat which was still rationed after the end of the Second World War until rationing was finally abolished in 1954. There was also a sort of community hall behind Christ Church, an Anglican church on the Broadway, where families with young children went to collect their free concentrated orange juice. When Mark, my second brother was born, my mother would sometimes take all three of us in the pram, but eventually I was big enough to walk by her side, holding on to the pram handle. Large-wheeled, well-sprung prams went out of fashion when the Maclaren stroller or foldable buggy was invented in the mid-1960s, but nowadays fashion has changed and these beautiful, sturdy, hand-built wooden prams are once again in demand. When Mark was a baby he would often sleep in the living room in the pram during the day and when he woke he would find a way to rock the pram so that it travelled the length of the living room and back. I can remember the living room walls were deeply scored by the knobs on the side of the pram.
When I was a little older I would often keep tabs on my father who at certain times of the year would disappear into the shed for hours. One evening in mid-December, I put a chair outside the shed window so that I could climb up and peer in. There I saw my father working away at a wooden fort or stockade that he was building for my brother Mark as a Christmas present; it was his own design, the pieces of which he had shaped with a tenon saw before gluing them together. When he noticed me, he called me into the shed and made me promise not to say a word to my brother. The next time I saw the fort it was being unwrapped on Christmas morning.
The photo I always use as wallpaper on all my computer screens was taken by my father, one summer’s day when he decided we would all have a picnic outside instead of eating in the dining room. I’m sitting in a high chair close to a table where my three sisters are patiently waiting for their lunch. In the background, the old brick shed and the old pram which saw such good service, there being six of us children in total. I must have been eighteen months old at the time, as you can probably tell from my lack of hair. Looking a little fed up and probably hungry, Shevaun is sitting on the side of the table closest to me, and opposite her, smiling, are my two other sisters, Annette, the eldest, and Mary. Mary is in the foreground, closest of all of us to the photographer. She is wearing a short summer dress, undoubtedly home-made, and she has turned in her chair to look straight at my father. For me this picture is particularly poignant, given Mary’s eager posture: she is the only one of my siblings to have already died, and it is almost as though she is leaning slightly forward to say bravely, “I will go first into that unknown country.” I keep this wallpaper so that every day I will remember her and she will know she is loved and missed now as much as ever. Although my father always treated us equally, Mary, his youngest daughter, was probably the apple of his eye.
The photo is also important to me because it captures the first real and vivid memory of my childhood. My father was standing at the bottom of some steps, which led up to the space where he had laid out the table, and then to the right, the garden beyond. Behind him was the back door into the kitchen where my mother was preparing lunch. The table had been made by my father. He found the legs somewhere and a large rectangular piece of flat wood to make a top; you can tell this simply by looking, because the colour of the surface is different from the stained legs. There is a cloth on the table, which heightens the suggestion of a picnic. We rarely ate outdoors, but this was an exceptionally warm day. So there is novelty in the situation, an improvised gesture of parental creativity which was typical of my father, his trademark in fact.
On that day I clearly remember my father disappearing after telling my mother he wanted to take a picture, and when I heard this I began to get upset. I’m sure I bawled out something like: “No time for photos, I want my dinner.” But probably my words were far less articulate than that and more strident. My right hand is hidden by Shevaun’s head but in it I was holding my spoon and I kept banging the spoon on the tray of the high-chair as I shouted out, demanding that my dinner be served. We always used the word dinner for lunch when we were small. My father returned shortly after, brandishing his Kodak, and with a broad grin, told me to calm down and to sit still for the photo. “It’ll only take a minute, John. Lunch won’t be long.” I was not easily appeased in those days, I remember, not where food was concerned.
But that cherished minute has long gone! Only the photo remains.