Returning to Boston is very uncomfortable. So much has changed there over the last twenty years that it is hard to find a single thing that still looks the same. With the inexorable beat of the developers’ drum, it has been reinvented several times over, with plenty of money changing hands each time. Even the historic parts, which somehow ought to stay the same, seem swept up in a kaleidoscope of memory and change.
But this is not about Boston. It’s only mentioned because it is in such stark contrast to the village in England where I landed at age 10-and-a-half after my life took a dramatic fork in the road. That place, Marsden, nr. Huddersfield, W. Yorkshire, England is a place that seems never to have changed.
Through the eye of Google earth, I can visit it again from my desk chair. I can virtually walk up Peel Street, past Pogson’s bakery where we used to buy “ham butties,” past the hardware store where I tried to buy elbow grease. I can turn left up Brougham Road towards my old school. There was a shop along there where we went regularly for fish and chips, wrapped in newsprint.
Those places are probably gone now, or changed hands or perhaps they’re sweet shops or hairdressers or a 99p shop. But the street itself is much the same, the bridge over the River Colne, the slumbering gray-green Pennines hemming in the horizon all around.
We lived at the bottom of Peel Street, where it meets Station Road, next door to The Swan, which used to be a pub, but is now a youth hostel apparently. The house, number 3, was called “Buckley Hill” — and that’s a how a letter would reach me– at “Buckley Hill, 3, Station Road, Marsden, nr. Huddersfield, W. Yorkshire, England.”
There were plenty of letters sent by my father, and other relatives left behind in the States, writing with news of dogs and the American Top 40 and the Connor kids up the street.
(Letters went the other way too, from the post-box in the wall in front of the house: the pony (Minty), my teacher, Mrs. Docker, was tired of me always writing about horses. She has silver-gray hair to her waist. Cadbury Flake is The Best!!!, but could you please send some Tootsie rolls?)
But this is not about any of that either. This instead is about Buckley Hill. In the spring of 1973, at age 11 and a half, I walked out the front door, got in the backseat of our grey Morris Minor, went to the Manchester airport, and left forever on a BOAC jet bound for JFK.
Yet, I remember the house with it’s tiny walled garden and its 300-year-old kitchen more clearly, more vividly than so many other things that have come and gone.
In Connecticut I’d had my own room, pink, in a rambling four-square on a corner. In Connecticut I’d been an only child.
Among the many changes that came with life in Marsden were the addition of a step-sister and step-brother, and the three of us shared a room. It was over the kitchen and the pipes that ran up from the AGA cooker warmed it. Casement windows looked out over a long narrow courtyard between us and the Congregational Church. It was there I set up a series of little hurdles to play “show jumping” in the long days between riding lessons.
Each night I slept in a little white metal bed. There was a nightstand, and a desk. It wasn’t unusual to stay up late reading with a flashlight under the covers: Swallows and Amazons, Enid Blyton, The Chronicles of Narnia. On the desk, there a portable record player in a tan-buckram case where I played my cherished collection of Beatles records until someone appeared at the door and said “Get to bed. Now.”
We always parked in front of the house, and came in through the gate. The drawing room had a line of chairs and a square grand piano. Up the right hand wall rose the staircase. My stepfather was the village physician and this room and the one directly above it were dedicated to that. Not much ever seem to happen in the room with the square piano, but you’d occasionally find strangers sitting there– women working on their knitting, men from the mill.
At the top of the stairs then was the domain of the staff– Peggy and Eileen and Dulcie. There were others. Typewriters and telephones and shelf after shelf of manila folders with the medical histories of every one in the village. Those rooms belonged to some other purpose and we were to steer clear of them.
There was one bathroom in the house, up the stairs and at the end of the hall, for staff and family alike. One long bathtub, big enough for two ten year old girls to bathe in at once. The toilet tank was up near the ceiling, and you pulled a long chain to make it flush. There were antiques in the bathroom. I’d never seen that before.
Downstairs, a door on a swinging hinge opened into the family sitting room. Most of the room was taken up by yet another grand piano, and leather arm chairs nestled around a coal grate. Those chairs, inexplicably, have managed to stay with us for more than 40 years, and sit in my mother’s living room in South Carolina. When you curled up in the chairs, it seemed that the piano was looking over your shoulder.
William, age six, used to sit on the piano bench and pick out delicate melodies along the keys. He’d been brain-damaged through an accident at birth: cerebral palsy, significantly reduced hearing and sight, cognitive deficits. If he wanted something he sang. “Would you like some tea?” meant that he was hungry.
The kitchen was the original room of the house, with stone walls and stone floors worn smooth. Milk was delivered each morning in pint bottles at the door, and was consumed immediately, which was just as well as the refrigerator was tiny, about 18″ square. My mother used to grouse that the room was so cold that the refrigerator was redundant anyway. There was a yellow box of Weetabix, William’s favorite.
William and Hannah and I ate tea in the afternoon, sometimes my mother made it, other times in was Jean Woods, the housekeeper. There was eggs and toast, Robertson’s jam with golliwog on the label. In the corner was near the AGA stove was a small black and white television on which we watched Coronation Street, Top of the Pops, Show Jumping.
For years I wore a triangular scar on the back of my wrist, where I’d been pushed against the AGA in the midst of an argument with Hannah. The AGA was always on, summer or winter. The scar has faded so much that nowt can’t find it anymore in the roadmap of my hands.
I don’t remember what the squabble was about. What to watch on the telly. The horrible smell of the fried bread she liked to make. That some boy liked her better than me. Who ate the last McVitie’s biscuit.
One afternoon in the kitchen– Hannah came back from the orthodontist in Manchester with new black and maroon platform shoes. I was livid and not at all gracious, as just a few weeks earlier I’d been made to get plain brown sensible oxfords. That was the difference between going shopping with Humphrey who would indulge such whimsies if it suited him, and my mother who thought that children shouldn’t dress like trollops.
They’d brought me a riding crop as a consolation prize, which only added to how much trouble I was in for being beastly about Hannah’s new shoes.
On Christmas day the town band crowded into the kitchen filling up the room. They played for the doctor a selection of carols of the season, and the the very last song was “My Old Kentucky Home,” especially for my mother and me, the Americans. How thrilled I was that they played a special song, an American song. It made me homesick, but in a nice way.