Thursday, December 29, 2005

Memoirs of a Fisherman's Son - Part 1, Chapter 4


Early Childhood Memories

My earliest memory is of my sister's arrival in '113' on 13th December 1919 when I was 2 years and 2 months old. How I resented the intrusion into my way of life of a sister who was to share the love and affection of my parents!

I suppose I had become 'spoilt' but that wasn't my fault! Because I had been born in their home Charlie and Mrs Ratcliffe doted on me and treated me like a grandson; indeed they continued to do so until in due course they passed away.

From the time I could walk I used to visit my dear 'Granny' Ratcliffe. She pandered to my love of cheese - no doubt encouraged by Charlie - and it was wonderful to be handed a piece of what she called 'chookie' especially if it was gorgonzola or blue stilton along with one of her home made oat cakes smothered in butter! She had several large boxes brought home from India in which she kept blankets: when the lid of one was opened the exciting smell of camphor filled the room. I loved lifting those lids! She also had two wooden vessels shaped like very large egg-cups which were made of quinine wood. Whenever, as a small boy, I appeared to be 'starting' a cold, she used to fill up one of those cups with water and make me drink it! Whether it helped me or not I do not know, but my Mother did not object - so it must have been considered to be beneficial. The taste was quite awful!

When my little sister arrived I told Mrs Ratcliffe that her name was to be Elspet Ralph (after my Nairn Granny) but was told 'there are already too many Elsies so you will call her 'Sis', and this I have always done.

The Ratcliffes had a son Robin, who had joined the Army as a Private like his father before him. They had good reason to be proud of Robin for he rose through the ranks to be commissioned and at the commencement of the second world war held the rank of Lieutenant - Colonel and soon after became a Brigadier. From the outposts of Empire he brought back to his parents exotic gifts of a kind which, for me as a small boy, were exciting in the extreme e.g. ivory tusks, camel hair brushes, spears, knives, flags, pressed flowers, spices from the Orient, Kukries, flags, drums, wooden chests and others. The house was like a museum! He was often held up to me "as one whose example I should follow".

I must have been about three years of age when my old Grandfather brought to the house a 'clock and alphabet' board. It measured about 2ft x 1 ft, and was made of thick cardboard. The clock hands were movable. Although he himself could not write, he could read and tell the time so he must have been determined that I should have pre-school training in telling the time and reciting the alphabet. The result was that before I ever went to school at the age of 5 I could tell the time to the exact minute and could recite the alphabet. The first mentioned ability greatly pleased my teacher Miss Percy Gray: for the first two years in school I was sent out every school day soon after 10 am and 2pm to find out the time from the station clock! Fort George station was more or less across the road: I would run there and back to tell the teacher that it was, for example "ten and a half minutes past ten, Miss". But the alphabet was a disaster as I had learnt to say it backwards! Moreover the old boy had taught me the 'adult' sound of each letter but Miss Gray used strange sounds which I was to discover later were called 'phonetic' sounds: a lesson for parents who think they should give school lessons to their children before the children are of school age!

As a small child I became very friendly with a boy, David John Main, of my own age: we were devoted to one another and played together almost every day. Sadly at this time in my life I experienced tragedy. One day when David John and I were playing on a swing tied to the branch of a tree he fell off when one of the ropes snapped and lay motionless on the ground. I have forgotten the details but do remember being told that he was 'now in heaven'. This I could not understand and to add to my anguish at the loss of my friend his mother, as was, I gather, the custom in those days, took me to see him in his coffin and made me touch his forehead. This shook me devastatingly! I remember running away to my mother. Later - some years later -she told me how she had reprimanded David's mother.

How happy are my memories of journeys to Nairn to see Granny Ralph, Auntie Elsie and her husband Willie Storm and Auntie Anne and Uncle John. In addition my mother would take Sis and myself to see 'just for a few minutes' one or other of her several cousins, second cousins and friends in the fishertown of Nairn. All of them were blessed with the 'gift of the gab' and our only solace was the sure knowledge that we would be given a 'sweetie' at the slightest sign of impatience to be moving on. That knowledge brought rich rewards, sometimes even a penny as well as a 'sweetie'.

The train journeys to and from Nairn were always exciting. We joined the train at Fort George Station (beside the school) and proceeded to Gollanfield junction where we had to 'change'. I was taught to 'watch the signal' for when it was 'up' that indicated that the train from Inverness was coming and we must keep well back out of harms way. For a small boy the sight of a great engine pulling into the station with smoke belching from its funnel and steam from all sorts of places was exhilarating. At Nairn station we could have the added thrill of standing on the bridge to watch the train pass right under and to be enveloped in smoke from the engine. I think the last mentioned experience must have come later! At certain times the Fort George - Gollanfield train, affectionately known as the 'puggy', was off, no doubt for maintenance, and when this occurred one had to travel to Gollanfield in a 'Gharry' (the Indian name for a horse drawn passenger carrying vehicle). The gharry, if I remember correctly, carried up to eight passengers. As it was open to the elements one enjoyed a breath of fresh air during the 1 1/2 mile long journey!

No comments: