I'm on my haunches with my hands splayed open on my legs just behind my knees. There is a row of dark - I'm not sure of colours yet - houses behind me. I'm willing myself to take off. I'm making an inner effort; clenching my body. I'm unaware of muscles; it's just me and my determination. Then I'm in the air surveying the sloping roofs of that row of dark houses. I'm flying. Somehow I've flown - levitated vertically, I know now - above my house and it was wonderful and easy. I explain this to other people my size, perhaps my slightly older sister, Reggie, perhaps Jane, the daughter of one of mum's friends and a regular visitor, maybe everyone in Sunday school. If they follow my instructions, they too can fly. I'm not yet three, but I can fly. Surely.
When you go back more than fifty years to try to sort out your memories you wonder whether something you imagine was a real memory actually was. Well, this is a real memory. Interestingly, I was younger than three when this happened. It was wonderful to be that age. It's also wonderful to know that I've kept that same consciousness throughout the rest of my life. She was me; my essential self and she is still in my head. Nothing bad had happened to that little girl who knew she could fly, even if she hadn't sorted out the difference between dreams and reality. She was happy, carefully dressed, well-fed and loved. I can see it in a few photos.
My first three years were lived in a double storey stone terrace house in Netheredge, Sheffield, in the north of England. In 2010, on my pilgrimage to Sheffield, a place I left because my parents sought and found another life in Australia, I returned to that house in Netheredge so I could see where I was born. In the front room. There was no one home or I would have knocked and asked to see inside. Perhaps I was lucky I didn't. I still have my memories.
This is my memory of the room I was born in. I used to think I could remember being born, but even I'm not that ridiculous. Both of my parents, especially mum, kept the stories alive. But this is me, less than three. I'm standing in the doorway and looking into a high-ceilinged light-filled room, with a fireplace to my left and a bay window to my right. The floor is covered in livid maroon felt. I know now it was a felt underlay. We didn't go into this room much. I can't remember there being any furniture in there. Certainly there was no longer a bed. Prior to my birth, it had been brought downstairs by my very pregnant mother and my father. She was already in labour, so the story goes, and they were awaiting the arrival of the midwife. According to family legend, when my mother was groaning in agony on the floor, dad had made her screw the legs into the bed, seeing as she was already down there.
The Netheredge house was narrow with steep stairs along the left wall as you walked in the front door. In this memory, I'm upstairs in my parents' bedroom. I'm in a cot because I can see, through bars - I trust it was a cot - my parents across the room, facing me in their double bed . I can't sleep. Every time I shut my eyes a frog bites my toes. I don't like it and I want to get in with them. I don't remember being comforted. Instead they seemed amused, surprised by my complaint. 'Don't be so silly,' they say. They're sitting up a little against the bedhead, or wall, mum clutching the bedclothes up over her chest. They must have had a light on. The frog keeps nipping my feet, scaring me, waking me up. Wonder what sort of stories I'd been read.
My dad is holding me in his arms. It's morning. 'Dry daddy,' I tell him. My nappy is dry. I'm proud of this accomplishment, for I know that it is, not that I had any control over it. I am the important one, held against his chest in his arms, my face close to his chin. It is a warm time as he shares the news with mum, who praises this achievement. This story is often repeated to me by my mother. My other first words, much acclaimed in subsequent stories were 'Daddy, slip-slips.' I needed my slippers before I could be put down. So there she is, that adored kid; in those instances, the total focus of her parents' attention.
Another light colourful room in that house is the kitchen. It is huge. On the far wall is a window that looks out into the back yard. There's an enamel sink below this set into benches. To the right of this bench is the back door. On the shelf below the sink is a ceramic mixing bowl, smooth white on the inside and with a woven sand coloured glaze on the outside. One day, Mum quickly fills it with hot water and pours in something that makes the water go cloudy. Reggie has just been run over by a young man on a pushbike. He'd sped into us as we got off the back of a double decker bus and knocked Reggie over. In the kitchen, Reggie is lifted onto the bench. I watch. Mum is comforting and efficient. She swabs and dresses Reggie's grazes.
Reggie found a box of matches in the sitting room around this time. Not on the same day. She wasn't that accident prone. She'd emptied the matches and gripped them in her left fist and struck them against the flinty strip of the match box. She'd probably watched dad doing this, with a single match of course, as he lit his pipe. She got burnt and that fixing bowl came out again. I don't know if I remember watching Reggie burn herself or whether I'd heard the story. It was a big deal and a huge warning to be careful with matches. Didn't stop me, in some involved match play, setting fire to a couple of back gardens some time later when we moved to our brand new house on an estate in Gleadless Valley. That new house was half of a duplex and a couple of wires separated our 'garden' from our conjoined neighbours'. Must have been a dry summer day because that fire took off so quickly it terrified me. Mum and a neighbour suddenly appeared to put it out before any real damage, apart from blackened grass, was done. Interestingly, I didn't get into much trouble, so clearly dad wasn't there. By that stage, he was an angry man of about thirty who scared the neighbourhood kids, and sometimes Reggie and I. That fire gave me a fright. No chance of pyromania for me.
In Netheredge, there's a cellar off the kitchen, just to the right as you enter. There's a closed door and behind that steps descend. The cellar is a bare, cold, storage place. There's an uncovered electric light globe swinging down into it. I haven't been down there much. Once or twice. I see it more from the top of its stairs. It didn't hold any horrors that I knew of but it's not a place to play.
It's tea time on another day and all four of us eat in the kitchen. I'm at my place along one edge of the square painted table. Dad is on my right, mum facing me, Reggie on my left. I look down at my food just as one of my cooked mushrooms changes into a slimy, slithering creature and starts inching towards me on my plate. 'It's coming after me,' I cry, terrified. My parents pause in their eating, cutlery stilled in their hands. They laugh. 'Don't be silly,' they chuckle, not unkindly. They are sure of their own rightness and my silliness. I'm not, but I look again at my plate and find, simply, cooked blackish mushrooms in a little heap. But I didn't trust those mushrooms and they remained uneaten.
I've seen tiny photos taken in the back yard of that terrace house. There's a black and white picture of a smiling baby, me, with light hair sitting happily in a huge black pram outside the kitchen window. The same pram feels perilous when I am tipped forward from it when Reggie is swinging on its handle at the front gate. Another snap catches a joyous me running down the backyard path towards whomever is holding the camera.
Mum and her friend are in the kitchen. Reggie, Jane and I are sitting on the backyard path deep in concentration. We have a tin of watercolour paints open on the ground, a jar of water, paper and paintbrushes. We are all three wearing white sandals with cross bars and closed toes. Our shoes have tooled cutouts and white stitching. We briefly confer about whether we'll get into trouble before deciding to do it anyway. We carefully paint our white sandals with swirls of watercolour. Jane and Reggie leave me and I continue to paint my shoes, one foot in front of me at a time because I'm still wearing them. Total absorption in a lovely creative activity. No consequences. Suppose the watercolour washed off easily enough.
Until 2010, that house was huge. It satisfied all the needs of my three year old self. The back yard was enormous. I've explored its space in my memory for years, trying to get even further into its depths. My actual visit revealed a narrow single fronted two storey row house; front door on the left, bay window on the right. I went to the front window and peered into the tiny room into which I was born. It could barely contain a chair, a couch and coffee table in front of the fireplace. The back yard was just that. There weren't any structural changes to the house but the yard had been paved and a barbecue sat just outside the kitchen window. I could have walked to the back door in four strides.
Copyright Judith Middlemarch 2017