This was it, this was home, a concrete garage with bats wheeling and swooping in the darkening sky outside. I did not fully understand what moving to Cuckoo Lane would entail, or how it would affect our family. I just knew we were leaving the city. Leaving the grey streets: and hard concrete school yards of Bristol. Leaving all of that to live in an orchard, or so we were told. An orchard sounded fun.
I was frizzy haired, long legged and 11 years old when we moved. Paul, my brother, was four years younger.
My first sight of Cuckoo Lane was in the dusk, we turned off the highway onto a track, low grey stone walls surrounded the old houses opposite. One was a market garden. On the right was the property we now owned. Copper beech trees rustled as we drove in. Then all we could see were looming shapes, a dense orchard and a half built wall.
Dad lit kerosene lamps and we put the cat down and let the dog Bruce have a sniff around. I saw shadows rise and fall on the walls and spiders scuttled from view. This was certainly going to be different. No electric lights, no water, no cream tiled bathroom. The toilet was a hut under an apple tree.
The garage had been white washed and Dad had already moved in with a few rugs on the hard floor and a dark old table in the corner. The beds were made and the China replaced in an oak sideboard. The air smelled of dust and kerosene. We ate bacon sandwiches when Dad lit a fire, and we drank cocoa sitting on our beds in the far corner. There was a cooker leaning against a wall outside, with a gas bottle attached. The elegant cooking arrangements open to the sky.
The orchard seemed to me to be a living thing, closing around us as we slept, scratching its gnarled branches against the cobwebbed windows. Trying to reach me.
We got cold and wet in the stream that bordered the bottom of our garden, ate too many plums; then came home bramble-scratched from picking berries and being bitten by wasps and every insect in the trees, waiting for some new flesh to enjoy.
We met the gypsies next door, and I immediately fell in love with Henry. Henry hardly spoke and even now I am not sure he could. He had bleached blonde hair and knew how to kill birds with a sling. His silence was unchanging, yet he picked some violets for me once.
Mum was small with a full bust, she was used to speaking her mind; and she was an excellent cook. With her strong mothering instinct she would feed anyone, or anything, animals and birds flocked to our back door. If you came to our house you went away full of cake, jam tarts and hot tea, or at the very least with a parcel of goodies to eat later. We always had people visiting, gypsies, tramps, lost children, neighbours, family and assorted strays with two or four legs.
Mum had tight curly hair, we never quite knew her background, but I inherited the hair and it has driven me crazy over the years. She frequently lost the comb when preparing us for school, so she developed a habit of sticking the comb in the back of her mop, often going shopping with it still there. Her good skin tanned easily. She once told me that when she went on her honeymoon to Cornwall they both got so dark with the sun they were shunned as ‘foreigners’. Racial tolerance was not considered then.
The new home was to be built by Dad in his spare time. The recent owner of the land had died suddenly; leaving a building already begun. The man must have been remarkable, as he built three rooms underground using concrete blocks he made by hand. He also kept bees, had a grapevine and a peach tree in a greenhouse. The orchard was a refuge, for a dreamer like me, for my brother there was a stream to fall in, and an array of dangerous pastimes to explore.
There was fruit of every description falling to the ground, ripening on vines; hanging in clusters. The whole wild acre was like the set for The Darling Buds of May. Before school some days, I gathered peaches and strawberries for my breakfast.
Dad took a year and half to finish the house. It had seven rooms and a basement with three rooms for storage. We stayed five years. I met shy country boys, cycled and walked around the lanes and fields, loving it all. We left for a new building contract for Dad, and a smart new town house for Mum to enjoy. Reluctantly, I left Cuckoo Lane, and also my precious childhood behind.