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Once Upon a Childhood

"A true recollection from sixty three years ago"
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Read Time 20 min
Published 6 months ago

Completely true in every detail, I remember after all these years, how she sat, the little silver bracelet she wore on her left wrist – even the charm that hung off it – a small fish. I can describe her dress, her shoes…sIip-ons actually, smell her hair, hear her soft voice – tell you what the weather was like. I don’t have to imagine the tears which come to my eyes as I write this either. She was so ethereally beautiful and I would give anything to be able to go back to her and that time so long ago. I never ever wanted to grow up. It was the cruellest thing that ever happened to me.

Of course, having five children now, more than compensates for my lost childhood and I love them more than life itself, but Ruth was my first real experience and with all the limited knowledge of worldly things I possessed at thirteen, I loved her with every emotion that crowded in upon me. The incident is mentioned briefly in a companion autobiography I have published some years back, “Cool Among the Flames  – compiled mainly to shut my second eldest daughter up, as she kept demanding to know what I had been doing for the last fifty years. It does not however plumb the emotional and physical depths that I am about to relate to you. It is I admit, a very slow-to-develop recollection, nothing wondrous and impassioned should ever be rushed should it?

Living then in the county of Kent, just a couple of miles outside the Greater London border, I grew up cocooned in a world of Harry Potter-type kids all with their middle-class Brit accents. Ruth herself was so very like Emma Watson who plays Hermione in the HP films, right down to her hair, facial features and totally adroit Englishness. She was fourteen, just a few months older than Emma

Most years our family, of which I was an only child, would head-off to my Great Aunt’s farm, set in the wilds of the Yorkshire Dales. Only twenty minutes or so from the tiny village of Hawarth where Emily Bronte and her sisters lived and where Heathcliff wanders still his beloved Wuthering Heights. The nineteenth-century farmhouse where we stayed had neither sewerage nor electricity but no-one in 2021 even working with the most technologically advanced kitchen equipment available, could cook anything to compare taste-wise with what was served-up in that tiny farmhouse beneath a flickering gas-light. I lived for the next steam-train trip that would take me north to my closeted and remote little spiritual home.

Immediately adjacent to the farmhouse was a good-size barn in which my Uncle would feed and milk the cattle, daily occupations as far removed from my own experiential domesticity as Hans Solo and the Millennium Falcon might be adjudged so far as the Wright Brothers are concerned. Nevertheless, I slipped into “farm life” without the least parental urging.

The summer holidays then, some five months subsequent to my thirteenth birthday, saw us enjoying another farm visitation up there on the picturesque moors. It was a Friday. I recall this clearly because mom had promised to take me to the local movie-house, a decrepit but intimate old relic in a nearby township, some twenty-five minutes walk from the farm, alongside those old stone walls which separated field from field, property from property…and on those cold misty nights – legend from legend. That’s what one did in those days – walk! Films were only run there Saturday nights and I recall it was the following day!

Sometime around mid-afternoon that Friday, while chasing cows, sheep, chickens and poor old Dobbin - so ancient a sway-back, it was definitely a dead horse walking - around their own fields, I heard my dad call me from far-off. Scooting back up to the farmhouse, Mom, Dad and my Uncle were chatting to another family.

“Say, this is my son Noel,” said dad. I shook hands with the man and nodded to his wife. Evidently, they were staying for the week in the farm-house right across the way. The “way” being a road no more than twelve feet wide between the properties. I could have tossed a stone from my bedroom clear through their kitchen window……could probably have flicked it come to that.

“And this is their daughter Ruth,” Dad was continuing. I looked up at her and lost my power of speech. Nothing was working…..neither my arms, voicebox…or brain!

“Well say hello to Ruth, Noel,” said my mom, “She’s just fourteen – a bit older than you. Maybe you’d like to play with her? Show her over the farm maybe?”

I managed some strangled sound like “Y-oh”….a resulting cross between “Yes (mom)” and “Hello.” Ruth looked less than impressed but allowed me to direct her back the way I had just come.

“You two be back for tea in an hour or so!” called out dad. If I had been seventeen, I wouldn’t even have been back!

Now, I was hardly what you’d call a ‘smooth operator’ at thirteen. I had known from the first time my eyes fully focused shortly after birth that I liked girls! My best friend at junior high, who I had sat beside since day-one in primary school was most definitely a girl and I’d had a thing for my younger cousin since she was eight. Yet, as I helped Ruth over that first stile (a wooden ‘step’ arrangement, built to enable one to cross those old stone walls, between fields) and the briefest flash of underclothing as she climbed over…I knew instinctively that some up-till-now unutilised software was kicking-in.

One thing I did have going for me – I could hold a conversation and with Ruth, this was a ground-level entry requirement. Well read, intelligent, but equally (so I discovered) impulsive and adventurous, she was no wimpy arm decoration.

“This is such fun,” she called out to me, crossing her fourth stile. She wasn’t far off the mark either.

The extreme southern ends of the property were marked by the onset of the banks of the beautiful river Nidd. A timeless old waterway whose shallow but crystal-clear waters were stocked with enough trout to satisfy generations of retired Yorkshiremen. Linking my Great Aunt’s farm with the neighboring property across the river was a sturdy but none too steady ‘swing bridge.’ Only able to carry one abreast, it was aptly named, as Ruth found out.

“Oh Gosh!” she uttered, as almost mid-center, the bridge’s lateral motion caused her to slip backwards. She fell against me as I caught her. Just for a moment, I held her there and she turned as if to say something, her face but inches from mine. Even in that instant, I knew she was everything to me…completely nonsensical as that sounds and especially with the benefit of but thirty minutes relational co-existence.

Whatever awareness came to her at that second, she held-on to it, but from that moment on, existed an unspoken bond between us. Having wandered across a few neighboring fields, we returned to the farm property and I took the opportunity to demonstrate my prowess skimming stones downriver.

“Let me try that,” she said and promptly buried my best throw with a perfect flat trajectory that pulled in ten “bounces” before heading into some distant mud-flats. My highest had been eight! That was Ruth!

As feminine as they come, she knew all the tricks. The cutesy smile, hair tossed over her shoulders at strategic moments, eyes wide for effect, “helpless little girl” routine” (as if!) Fact is, the gulf, both physically and emotionally, between a thirteen-year-old boy and a fourteen-year-old girl is laughably distant.

Not that I was feeling out-matured or even out of my depth as such. I was enjoying every moment of her company. We sat there on that lush green riverbank and talked about just about everything. School to home-life, pasts and futures, likes and dislikes. At one stage I was just so enraptured, I must have been staring at her. She stopped and asked,

“What are you looking at?” I remember just saying simply, “You!”

She actually blushed and that made me feel self-conscious. Right about then, I heard my father calling-out and I knew we were way past our allotted hour or so. Playfully, and I suppose in some ways with a child’s enthusiasm, I grabbed her hand and pulled her to her feet as we took off across the fields. She didn’t let go of me until we reached the front gate.

After tea we played multiple games of “Concentration.” Just sitting on the floor with her, listening to her laugh when I forgot where the other ‘eight’ was…her hand brushing against mine as she leaned across to turn over the matching ‘King,’ her sharp little intake of breath and the way she would hold her hand to her chest when she made a pair. I see it all now as clearly as I did then. The absolute last thing I wanted to hear was mom saying,

“Noel, it’s nine o’clock, Ruth has to go back over the road now.” Dad walked her across, but not before I collected my shoes and went with them.

“Are you doing anything in the morning?” she asked sweetly.

If I had been due to collect the Nobel Peace prize, I would have cancelled it. I told her I wasn’t and dad, looking at me knowingly, smiled and said.

“Not really Ruth, would you like to come over and spend some time with Noel?….assuming it's OK with your parents?”

I really think I caught the faintest blush – I was having such trouble standing up I couldn’t really be sure.

I went to sleep that night just staring out my window across the roadway.

You will notice that aside from drawing a comparison with Emma Watson, I haven’t made any real attempt to described Ruth in detail. I will paint for your benefit right now the picture of a young girl that dad ushered into our tiny kitchen the following morning, just as I was finishing my breakfast cereal. Remember though this is a recalled image from a child’s memory, not an adult’s.

Poise…that’s the word for it. I didn’t know it then, but she had such poise. Her shoulder-length light brown hair – it must surely have just been washed, had a natural wave through it and framed her beautiful little face to perfection. She had it pulled back at either side with small mica clasps and her mother had either donated or bought her a simple but pretty pair of earrings that glinted when she turned her head. Ruth had that “just scrubbed” look and she smelled of fresh flowers and youthful promise.

As it was quite a warm morning, she was wearing the simplest of little short-sleeved cream-colored tops with just a couple of buttons at the neck. I remember now, the pretty white lace-edging around the sleeves. Obviously planning on some serious cross-field hiking she had on a pair of dark blue girl’s pants and matching-color running shoes.

She must have had the most beautiful youthful figure but I had as much knowledge, interest and experience in sexual matters then as I did in current affairs. What I did have an interest in, was getting out of that farmhouse with her at the first available second!

“No more than a couple of hours,” said mom, as we hightailed it out through the main gate. “Three is close enough,” I was thinking!

Both Middlesmoor and Nidderdale are sight-seeing valleys within commutable distance of the farm and both offer magnificent wind-swept views of the moors. We lit out for Middlesmoor, being slightly nearer. Some of the more elevated stiles I spent double the time necessary helping Ruth over – I’m sure she noticed! I think she even took her time climbing them.

It was the most balmy of English summer mornings, non-penetrative heat and the occasional light breeze being the order of the day. Successfully negotiating our two hundredth field so it seemed, the heights of Middlesmoor stretched before us. Acres of wind-swept heather leading the way and lending to the casual traveller a gentle if not rather exhilarating scent. Ruth and I hadn’t shared much in the way of conversation mainly on account of the fact this was all so new to her and she was completely taken up with the experience. I of course had walked this way so many times with mom.

“It’s just so beautiful up here isn’t it?” she said to me, sitting on a huge rock that had been there long before Moses came down off Mount Ararat. The wind at that moment was blowing her hair across her face and she looked like an angel…one that Michaelangelo would have liked to sculpt. I sat beside her and without any thought for the consequences, turned my head to her and just kissed her.

It was only the briefest of contact – and I was so shocked at my own forward behavior I had no idea what to say as a follow-up. I think I stood up and muttered “sorry” or something equally inane. Half expecting a slap across the face, I was primed for anything except what happened. She just whispered “Come here,” and pulling me back down beside her, returning the most wonderful kiss flush on my sadly inexperienced lips.

In hindsight, over the years I have experienced several electrical discharges. Light sockets, frayed wires – even taken a full charge direct off the spark plug of a V8 Falcon. That one put me on my back for the count. But the sensation that arced through me that second as she kissed me, ran out first place let me tell you!

It was, as far as lip to lip duration goes, brief - not much longer than mine but if I had gotten up from that rock I would have been unable to balance properly.

“You are so sweet,” she said, hands folded neatly in her lap now.

“You don’t have to apologize for kissing me,” she added giggling

“Can I do it again then?” I asked hopefully.

“Later maybe,” she replied, teasing me unmercifully.

“C’mon,” she said, “let's walk the rest of the way.” She took my hand….I felt such a child!

As we walked, I was aware of a nagging irritation. It bothered me to such an extent I half-whispered to her as we negotiated another stone wall,

“Ruth, have you kissed any other boys?” I desperately wanted to hear her denial.

She stopped, turned and still holding my hand said,

“Oh, that is such a funny question,” but seeing as I wasn’t laughing, she added, “Well actually….no, I haven’t – never met a boy I ever wanted to kiss me. You’re the first – honestly!” I knew it was the truth.

“So you wanted me to kiss you?” I teased.

“I didn’t say that,” she retorted, slipping effortlessly into a demure, “I’m much more grown-up than you” mode….which she was!

“You did kinda….” I replied, trying to get full mileage out of my deductive brilliance. She just flashed me a pretty smile and the subject I knew, was at an end.

No sooner did we make the summit of Middlesmoor than it was time to head back and even then the three-hour time allotment was looking iffy. We saw so much….the old Roman ruins atop Scanlon’s Ridge, the tiny bus-stop in Summerbridge called “New York,” the caverns where a family of black panthers was said to have made a home for themselves.

None of them though came close to watching Ruth. Crouching down smelling the heather, brushing her beautiful hair out of her eyes after the wind had taken liberties with it, hugging herself as she sat down occasionally to take in the view.

As the old farm came into distant focus, I felt the magic unravelling - my most acute pleasure up for imminent termination. I held her hand ever tighter, I never wanted to let her go.

Riding out the inevitable “Didn’t I tell you just two hours Noel?” cross-examination, after we had winged-it across the last couple of fields to the gate, mom relented and in just one sentence, restored my faith in miracles. Turning to Ruth she said,

“Would you like to come to the cinema tonight with us?”

Ruth looked as happy as my heartbeat was suddenly irregular.

“I spoke to your mom and dad,” she was continuing, “They said it's fine with them if you’d like to come.”

As it happened, they were screening Disney’s Peter Pan that night. It may as well have been “A Political Discourse On the Causes of the Indo-China war,” for all the attention I was paying the screen. I took every opportunity to glance at her sweet little profile, hoping she wouldn’t see. Occasionally she turned and caught me looking at her but just smiled at me. She let me hold her hand right through the session and more than once I saw Dad glance downwards. If it were possible to see a replay of it all now, I think you would sense his unspoken encouragement.

“Hold-on tight son, angels like her don’t drop-by all that often.”

Last thing that evening she permitted me a further goodnight kiss. I was still slumped against the window-sill when I woke up the next morning.

I think by now, Ruth’s parents were resigned to the fact they wouldn’t be seeing too much of their daughter until they got home. Had it been my choice, they’d have to have been content with the odd postcard!

It was the next day that my up-till-then sublimely uncomplicated life was to be hijacked, re-formatted and dragged screaming into pleasurably near adulthood.

The weather had done a complete one-eighty, as the Brit climate is well known to do….especially during the summer vacation. Caught mid-field by a drenching little shower, Ruth and I scurried like drowned rats to the safety of the barn. Mom, dad and Ruth’s parents had gone to Harrogate City together for the day – some twenty miles or so distant. Since I couldn’t interest her in a handful of oats, we shinned up the ladder to the hayloft.

As luck would have it, Ruth had slipped on a new summer dress that morning, a simple yellowish cotton affair with a neat little black belt – I remember that well for reasons that will become obvious. The whole dress was pretty wet and she was sitting on a hay bale holding it out before her and lamenting its rapid absorption rate. Her hair even was quite damp and curling up around the edges. I was in no drier a state. We decided to wait it out and to dry off a bit. Following the last few days quite hot weather, it was very warm up in that loft and we figured our clothes would soon dry.

What is it with hay? Maybe it just looks inviting to toss people in …especially girls! Whatever, we were ragging about, acting like a couple of dumbo schoolkids and while I was teasing her and holding her wrists, she slipped out of my grip and fell on her back in the hay. I saw my chance to overpower her and kneeling there, pinioned her arms above her head. She may have been more mature and definitely way prettier, but I was stronger!

At what stage exactly something tapped me on the shoulder and said “Time to grow up kid,” I couldn’t say, but something in her expression pressed buttons somewhere and as I moved my face close to hers I saw the ‘welcome sign’ flash on. This kiss was way less juvenile….longer too. That isn’t to say I had the least idea what I was either doing or starting. What I do remember, she didn’t pull away, she simply jerked her hands-free and placed them round my neck. For the first time, I think I became aware of her femininity and the effect her closeness was having on me.

Ruth still had her arms around my neck as we continued kissing like laughably outright amateurs I imagine. Oh, but how wonderful was it?

The sound of a car pulling into the driveway saw action of a different sort. So mortified was I, I put my shoes on the wrong feet. We were buttoned-up though and down that ladder before they had the motor off.

We had three more wonderful days together and didn’t miss a solitary opportunity. It was during that time also that I learned the wonders of a self-help program and how to handle my own affairs if you get my drift! I figure Ruth already knew.

The day that Ruth had to leave and her family lived some two hundred miles from Kent, remains the most emotionally desolate moment of my life. Even with the promise that she would come and stay a week with us at our home at the end of term, was small consolation.

Barely able to hold myself in check as they sped off down the roadway that afternoon, I watched gutted, as my beautiful Ruth waved to me from that small back window. Once out of sight and completely blinded by tears, I climbed that ladder back up to the hayloft and sat there in wretched misery replaying all that we had done together, all that she had taught me and wishing hopelessly that she would come back to me.

Now however I realise she never really left me. I see her in my own daughters’ eyes occasionally, especially when they are being cheeky and manipulative. She is forever fourteen as I am eternally just a few months younger than her.

But I know if I ever go back to that desolate and romantic moor, she will be sitting on that rock waiting for me - even now. The wind will be blowing her lovely hair across her face and she will look up and smile as I approach. She will let me hold her hand and then take me where I want to go.

I am still such a child.

 


 

 

 

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