A Sixties Summer

I am very happy to tell you that my story, A Sixties Summer, was chosen as this year’s winner of Sutton Writers Apollo Prize. Hope you enjoy the read. Comments always welcome.

A Sixties Summer

My grandmother’s garden was a world away from the one I knew. Foxgloves and Lupins; Snapdragons and Sweet Peas – a fragrant world of flowers, raising their petaled heads to a perpetually blue sky in my memory of that Summer, and all growing up taller than the height of my own seven-year-old head.

As my grandmother pointedly told my father, when he dropped me and my little white suitcase off at her tiny end-of-terrace cottage, it wasn’t her job to teach her granddaughter. But by the Summer’s end, when I had fully recovered from my bout of pneumonia and returned home to books and homework, to ballet lessons and piano practice, my head was full of all those magical names from my grandmother’s garden: Tortoiseshell, Peacock and Painted Lady; Robin, Dunnock and House Martin; Quince, Crab Apple and Damson.

Not that I approved of all the names. Unlike my father who spoke only when he had something to say and encouraged those around him to do likewise, my grandmother talked to anyone, anything and nobody in particular. I soon learned I could do the same. ‘They shouldn’t just be called House Martins,’ I announced to my breakfast of boiled egg, bread and butter and glass of milk. I had grown fond of those dear little black-capped birds, with their comings and goings to their nests of spit and mud, as they fed their noisy broods in the eaves right outside my bedroom window. ‘They should be called House Martin and House Mary,’ I informed the large brown teapot that took up the centre of the table. ‘That so,’ my grandmother would say from time to time. More often she’d say nothing at all in direct response.

If I was often ignored in my grandmother’s house, or at least appeared to be, it was a pleasure I’d been denied as an only child in my father’s house and one I took advantage of. My father had always made a point of listening to everything I had the courage to say, correcting my grammar as necessary. Whereas my grandmother took little heed of the nonsense that I talked to her, to the teapot, to the birds and flowers as I drifted around in my convalescent state or lay on my back in the long grass watching the clouds for hours on end. The boundary between myself and the outside world felt thinner that summer. I absorbed something deep and nurturing from the soft air and sunshine, the dried grass and warm soil. If the birds and plants had decided to talk back to me I don’t think I would have been at all surprised.

From time to time one of my grandmother’s many brothers, my Great Uncles, would appear. To each I insisted on giving his full title. Great Uncle Tom played card games with me for old pennies from a jam jar after supper; with Great Uncle Jack I picked red currants, dyeing my hands, mouth and the front of my dress with streaks of red speckled with seeds. Perhaps my grandmother had not been entirely truthful about teaching me nothing, or at least she felt somebody should try. Her youngest brother, Great Uncle Jim, taught me a rhyme with which to recall the Kings and Queens of England, a speech by heart from Henry the fifth and my times tables right up to twelve twelves, all whilst throwing and catching an old tennis ball between us. He also helped me pen a postcard to my father each week, to which my grandmother always added the words, All’s well here.

But more useful than any formal skills or knowledge, at my grandmother’s I learned how to fit in, how to slip into the gaps in the casual but true affection that was offered without comment or cost. I learnt to make myself useful by stirring the batter for Toad-in-the-hole, to dress and wash myself without the fuss of home; to turn up for meals when called in from the garden; to kiss my grandmother’s lined cheek after supper and take myself up to my bed in the back bedroom, where I slept deeply in the furrow in the middle of the lumpy mattress and woke each morning to sunshine and House Martins.  

The village children were, however, a different matter. When my grandmother took me with her to one of the village shops – a useful pair of hands for an extra shopping bag – I was always stared at and sometimes questioned outright. ‘Why ain’t you at school?’ Here my grandmother’s habit of ignoring direct conversation was no help. The questioner would persist, more loudly now. ‘Why ain’t you?’ Despite having my edges softened at my grandmother’s, it was obvious to my questioner that I was not from the village. My smocked cotton dresses weren’t quite right and my soft leather sandals, though scuffed, were a bit too special. My cheeks would blaze but I wouldn’t, or couldn’t, answer and the most help my grandmother ever gave was to mutter, ‘Get lost now won’t you,’ to my persecutor when finally even she became irritated.

Then came the knifeman. He arrived on his bike in the early morning, tall and lanky in a shiny black suit with a long pale face above, looking to my child’s eyes like one of the long handled knives from my grandmother’s kitchen. He set up his bicycle on the front path of the cottage and began with the sharpening of the kitchen scissors, sitting astride the stationary bike and using the pedals to turn the grey stone grinding wheel that was attached between the handlebars. I stood transfixed by the strange process, but was roused by my grandmother. ‘Run and tell number 2!’ She gestured across the way. ‘The knifeman child, cottage number 2.’

And because there was no further discussion I found myself crossing the narrow lane and knocking on the door of number 2, which was opened to a whole family at breakfast. What was I to say? In the event I didn’t have to say anything. ‘Knifeman!’ the child at the door shouted, looking past me and across to my grandmother’s garden where the knifeman had by now taken up the garden shears. The whole family scraped back chairs and set to it, opening drawers and cupboards, as the child sprinted off to knock at the next house with the important news.

I returned to my grandmother’s cottage and took up my prime position, seated on an upturned bucket, both out of the way but with a perfect view of the knifeman at his work. By the time he had sharpened every metallic cutting surface in my grandmother’s house a long line of children was waiting outside the gate, each child wielding an implement to be sharpened in one hand and clutching a coin for payment in the other. There were carving knives and kitchen knives; filleting knives and penknives; embroidery scissors and dressmaking scissors; secateurs and shears; scythes and billhooks. I sat and watched all morning as these were sharpened by the knifeman to the perfect surface for cutting, trimming or shaping; filleting, slicing or slitting; slashing, snipping or shaving; incising or whittling.   

Quite why this mattered I didn’t know, but my status was so raised by this event that the next time I ventured out with my grandmother’s shopping bag I was asked, ‘What’s yer name then?’ Beneath my shyness I was not stupid. ‘Toni,’ I replied, knowing Antonia wouldn’t go down well. ‘That’s a boy’s name, ain’t it,’ was the reply. ‘Course not,’ I said.  I did not, it must be said, go on to make lifelong friends with the village children, but from then on I let go of my grandmother’s hand whilst out shopping. I swung the shopping bag with a jaunty confidence and was greeted by name if another child happened to be out in the lane or queuing to pay at the new till in the tiny village supermarket.  

When my father arrived in his car in late August he was greeted by a child browned in the sunshine, watered by the occasional soft spattering of summer rain and generally nurtured from the spindly seedling he had left behind in May to convalesce. If I hadn’t for a moment thought of the comforts of my modern sixties home, with its fitted carpets and television, I realised I had missed my father’s reassuring taciturn presence. For his part, if he was taken aback by the smiling child in a well-worn summer dress and bright cardigan it had taken my grandmother all summer to knit, he didn’t let it show. Although I would miss my grandmother dearly my father and I were happy to be once again in each other’s company. Maybe my father was not quite so ready for such a full and extensive account of my countryside stay on our long drive home, but he didn’t venture to say so. 

Miranda Lewis 2022

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