My Auntie Muriel died this week.
Well, I call her my aunt but she was, in fact, our next-door neighbour for seven years, when my family moved from Cardiff, where I was born, to Newport.
I was four years old and was excited to have new friends, the children of Auntie Mew and Uncle Les: Tim, Jeff, and, after a couple of years, Lynette. Tim was the closest to my age, and we attached long planks of wood to square pieces, fitted them with elastic bands and pretended we were The Beatles.
When I was eight, I drove Auntie Mew and Uncle Les (who passed away three years ago) to distraction one Saturday morning, when I played the entire Sound of Music soundtrack eight times.
We kept in touch until the end of her life, and when I last saw her the Christmas before last, she was amused that I still had the towels she gave me when I went to university 35 years ago: two bath towels (one orange, one lime green) and two hand towels (pink and white).
It is her funeral tomorrow and I am feeling unbelievably sad. I saw Tim when he brought his mother to Cardiff but haven’t seen Jeff and Lynette for decades. It will be good to meet after so long, albeit on an occasion tinged with so much sadness.
It is doubtless nostalgia that has seen me, today, looking through my stuff for evidence of that era. In 1969, my dancing partner, Janette (Under 16s Juveniles were allowed to partner girls in ballroom dancing) won two trophies at the national championships in Butlin’s Minehead, and I find a book from my grandparents to celebrate the event.
“To dear Jacqueline,” it says. “With love from Grandma and Grandpa, on the occasion of winning the both trophies for dancing at Minehead, Sept. 1969.” The attention to punctuation moves me to tears.
It is called “A Book of Girls’ Stories”, and one highlight on the dust-jacket is Kathleen O’Farrell’s story “about Jenny – who did not get her eleven plus but found out that she had a special gift of her own.”
I turn to page 87 to find out what Jenny’s gift was. She was a girl with dreams, but someone who was put off from fulfilling them. “Perhaps . . . these other girls were right . . . If you didn’t dream dreams and make wonderful plans for the future, then you couldn’t be disappointed.”
Oh, dear. Page 93, and Jenny is already very, very depressed. I pray that she discovers her gift quickly. Phew. Page 94, having just passed a field, she is back on course: “No matter what happened, there would always be such things as lambs.”
Jenny takes Wuthering Heights out of the library for the second time (add masochism to that depressive streak) and arrives home to find that her mother has fallen down the stairs (please, please make her discover that gift quickly).
This gives Jenny the opportunity to write to her mother while she is recovering in hospital and, lo and behold, she discovers that she is, according to her mother “a born writer”.
She recalls Auntie Flo, who had been looking after the household after the accident: “It’s the door – the door Auntie Flo told me about – she said another door would open. And now it has.”
Well, let me tell you something, Jenny, old girl, publishing is in a dire state. The editor may love your book but then he or she will pass it to the 12 year-old people in marketing who know nothing and they will reject it. So you’d have been better off listening to your friends.
Then again, you could go down the path of Jenny in Barbara Ker Wilson’s Pony Mad, who finally abandons her donkey passion in favour of “dreams of becoming a world figure-skating champion”.
So many dreams – and for girls, too. Small wonder I thought big when I was growing up; small wonder I have been disappointed when life hasn’t delivered.
A Book of Girls’ Stories sits next to A Child’s Garden of Verses, Peter Pan and Wendy and, again, from my grandparents, for my 10th birthday, The Golden Treasury of Poetry. It was the book I turned to for a poem when I auditioned for the first National Youth Theatre of Wales in 1976, and, there it is, on page 30: A. A. Milne’s The Four Friends.
Ernest was an elephant, a great big fellow,
Leonard was a lion with a six-foot tail,
George was a goat, and his beard was yellow,
And James was a very small snail.”
I rehearsed it over and over in front of my mother in our kitchen in Bridgend, where we had moved in 1969. I was successful and, in the production Oh! What a Lovely War, sang I’ll Make a Man of Any One of You.
Between the books sits my stamp album. Like everything else from my childhood, I have priced it (8/6), in my eagerness to preserve order in every area of my life.
I note my strange obsession with Hungary, and the precision with which I have mounted my favourite stamps with photograph preservation corners.
I can’t stop crying today. Yesterday, Wales won the Triple Crown, and I was ecstatic, but wept uncontrollably all night. It was six years since my beloved cousin Sarah died at just 34, and with Auntie Mew’s funeral tomorrow, just the sight of my grandmother’s beautifully curved writing makes me long to be a child again.
A child like Jenny, full of dreams and hopes, eyes gleaming in the knowledge that she may have a future as a writer.
A child who knows nothing of death and the inevitable difficulties that life will throw in her path.
A child whose Auntie Flo points her to a door that opens on nothing but an endless future, full of possibilities.