I live right on a railway line. The whole building shudders when the heavy freight goes by, and I can hear the echoing announcements from the platform when the wind blows the right way. Somehow I find it comforting. I always had a happy association with trains, even when I was little. They knew the way to mysterious exotic places like Brighton and Burgess Hill. Trains were harbingers of good fortune. They brought people I loved – my father from work, or other relations for family visits.
My very earliest memory is of a railway platform. I was eighteen months old when advertisements came out for a major exhibition in London. The image on the station wall beguiled me: a gigantic burial mask, two wide eyes in frames of kohl, a gentle smile of gold and a collar of precious stones. My father taught me to pronounce the name in grand, deliberate syllables. I had barely mastered the mechanics of walking, and a waddle was all anyone could have managed in underwear so heftily frilled and reinforced, but I was keen to share my word with anyone who would listen. Tottering towards an old lady, I thrust a newsreaderly “Tutankhamun,” and a pudgy pointed forefinger. I probably hoped more for a discourse on Egyptology than the start of silence she gave in response. I had yet to realise I was not an adult like everyone else.
We allowed extra time for getting anywhere, partly so I could button my own coat at an age when it would have been much faster for someone to do it for me. We also needed time to look at things along the way, and for me to request explanations. Everything, without exception, was important.
Animals fascinated me more than anything – in books and in the world – so my parents took me to London Zoo. Of all the creatures the emus are the only ones who lodged in my memory, because they taught me something permanent. Older children were gathering particular leaves and posting them under the barrier. The birds found them irresistible and unfolded their necks to receive them, much to the children’s delight. I did not see them eating leaves, I thought they were giving kisses, so I waddled over to join in and had my little pink fingers mistaken for greenery. I was quite sure I was about to be eaten whole, but once my mother had placated me and explained, I knew for good that blindly copying people is not wise. It is worth taking a moment to gather the facts (and leaves in this case), also to assess any risks particular to one’s own size and circumstances.
What are your earliest memories?