…Or How My Parents Could Have Killed Me.
Talking to a pal yesterday, the subject of siblings and childhood came up and I mentioned that my little brother and I have always got on well – probably because, in our earliest years, we bonded through adversity.
On holidays, trips to the shops, trips to visit relatives, we’d sit together in the back of whatever family car dad had at the time – the Riley was the sickiest, with leather seats and claustrophobically low roof – feeling green as grass and very often looking it.
In the front of the car 20-a-day mumsie and 40-a-day dad were chain-smoking cigarettes with only a nod to clean air by winding the passenger window down two inches.
Mumsie was the more considerate of the two, holding her cigarette up to the open window intending the smoke to exit but in fact it blew straight into my face in the back of the car so I smelled her exhaled breath with the smoke.
Car journeys were spent in a traffic-light state of green (for nauseous) changing to amber for so sick I had to have the window down fully and red which was indicated by a subdued warning “I’m going to be sick!”
When chunder-con red was reached, mum would instruct dad to stop the car – to just pull in anywhere for godsssake!
He would reply testily that he couldn’t just “pull in” because there was a car behind.. so he’d have to find a gateway or a turnoff or a small recreational area… by which time, mum was reaching around to open my door and I would lean over and expel what I needed to expel from a moving car.
These were the days when there were no seat belts back then so any following cars would have seen a car slow to about 15mph, the rear door open and a small child’s head leaning out to be as sick as a dog.
Sometimes my brother was sick too but nothing like as often as me. I was known as a “bilious child” whereas my bro was made of slightly sterner stuff.
I’ve written before about the way music fuses with memories and the two become inextricable. It’s the same with bad memories and explains why both my brother and I can’t listen to Green Tambourine (the Lemon Pipers – fortunately not played on the radio these days) without being overwhelmed with nausea.
For long journeys on the kind of summer holidays where Dad anticipated we’d be held up on the Okehampton by-pass (en route to Cornwall) or at the infamous Wareham bottleneck (we always seemed to be in stationary traffic approaching a railway bridge) on the way to Swanage and the Dorset coast I had to take Quells, for travel sickness. Actually taking them made me feel queasy so it wasn’t a good start.
The only good thing was that I never actually admonished for being sick. Both parents realised it was an inconvenient force of nature – although dad would chide me for not holding it until he found somewhere to stop the car – which might take a lot longer than the average emetic reflex.
It never really occurred to them not to smoke. The smoking was an inherent part of the day off, the picnic, the holiday. Occasionally mater used to appeal to dad’s better nature and ask him to just try and cut down a bit in the car because “our Jan” was already feeling sick. Dad’s view was that “our Jan” could shut up and put up because the attitude back then was that kids were seen and not heard – and certainly not given any consideration when it came to the parental choice to shorten one’s life considerably by smoking.
A pal of mine agreed. She remembers how her parents used to bundle her and her brother into the car to drive to a pub, where they would leave the kids in the car with a coke and a packet of crisps each while the parents went off and had a leisurely drink in the pub.
“They were the days when people just didn’t have alcohol at home, so if you wanted a drink you went to the pub – where children weren’t allowed. It’s so weird looking back. I’d never have done that with my own kids – just abandoned them in the car park.”
It was the same story with going out to play. We were sent out to play after dinner and not expected to be seen until tea time. We certainly weren’t expected to be hanging around the house – in fact that was actively discouraged because my dad was a shift-worker who often slept in the day. We were expected to be playing outside with friends. As long as mumsie had a rough idea of which friends, the rest was up to me.
That age of innocence seems worlds away from the scene today where most parents seem terrified of allowing the kids out of play, chauffeur them around in cars the whole time and are happy for them to spend many hours in front of a screen away from natural sunlight.
So in a way, although my parents could have killed me – (..and might yet for who knows the state of my lungs?) from the effects of passive smoking they did me and my brother two huge favours.
Firstly they put us both off *ever* even touching a cigarette or inhaling anything you light with a match apart from passive use of scented candles and secondly, they gave us both a free childhood where we could go and do what we wanted.
My brother remembers meeting up with friends and wandering down to the Horsbere Brook in Brockworth to paddle, try and catch tiddlers, build dams. He remembers footie on the playing field and then he got all caught up with cycling, which took him all over the country.
For me, it was doing forward rolls and modest acrobatics over the bars near the bus shelter, roller-skating, playing kick the can, hide and seek, cricket and rounders (all, except one, of the other kids in my road were boys) or walking through the fields to the Roman villa at Witcombe, marveling at the shards of broken pots, lazing around on the skeletal walls of what was once a beautiful Roman farm set in the bowl of the hills, watching beetles and woodlice and hoping to catch slow worms.
So perhaps the passive smoking, the “Go on out to play and don’t come back for four hours” was all for the best.