Carnation Summer

I suppose I should start with feeling what seemed to be a cold hand in the small of my back, but which proved eventually to have been a chilly draught of air from our front door at 18, Huntley Avenue in Layton, Blackpool, as the ambulance men carried their patient past my slumbering form on the front room sofa.

I do not remember waking up, but the next clear memory of that morning is of being with my Auntie Connie on Talbot Road at its junction with Devonshire Road where The Brewery (Catterall & Swarbrick) stank of brewing malt behind a genteel Portland Stone edifice with a shop bow window on the northwest corner.

On the southwestern corner was what everyone still called The Fever Hospital where I had suffered simultaneous scarlet fever & measles at five, and escaped death narrowly, so they said.

Where we were, diagonally opposite by the traffic lights, there was a small patch of green grass in front of houses, and the brilliant blue of the sky contrasted strongly. I was told that we were walking because it was too early for us to catch a bus - no explanation for this very early-morning jaunt was asked for nor offered - if I was with Auntie Con, all must be okay.

The numerous childhood journeys by train we took to Southport all mingle into one - it was merely part of my growing up to visit my mother's sisters and their various families, and I cannot distinguish the journey on that day from all the others we took - train from Blackpool North (probably) to Preston - a trip under the tracks by pedestrian tunnel with white-tiled walls more fitting for a Gent's Toilet to the Southport trains platform; and a slow, slow local chuffer that seemed to stop at every halt or station along the way (and pre-Beeching, there were plenty).

But then we were at Auntie Phyll's and Uncle Laurie's, a much larger house with gardens than I was used to.

Birkdale was what my mother always called "a cut above" to indicate that its residents tended to think themselves rather better than the "ordinary run'o'the mill" folks - Uncle Laurie worked in an office in Preston, and seemed always to be suited and booted splendidly. His passion though was the two sandy patches he called gardens - lawn and flower beds at the front of the house, and gauzed off mainly vegetable patches at the rear, next to a dairy with delivery yard where churns dinged musically beyond a high, dense privet.

And there were two major pluses for me - Roger, a soft, fond old labrador, and my Cousin Maureen, who is perhaps ten years or so older than me, and was unconsciously breaking a succession of young men's hearts as she won beauty contests galore, and seemed to be unaware of the yearning looks she commanded.

So I embarked on what in later years I came to call The Carnation Summer.

One of Laurie's proudest achievements was his ability to grow stunningly lovely and heavenly-scented carnations, one of which I was allowed to wear as a buttonhole whenever I was taken into Southport itself - Lord Street in those days thought it had all the elegance of the Champs Elysee. I had my own room (the one Maureen had occupied as a girl) and in it she had filled the bookshelf with every Famous Five and Secret Seven book of Enid Blyton's which I devoured hungrily - Five Go To Smugglers' Top I still remember was my favourite.

The sun shone, Roger was great company, and when my aunts, uncles and cousins didn't find ways to entertain me, I dug and dug and dug at the bottom of Uncle Laurie's back garden - I was at that boyhood silliness when I believed that if I dug sufficiently, I could end up in Australia.

Until my mother arrived, and I could tell from her face that she was going to bring me news I would not want to hear. I should explain that all of our family like just about everyone else in Britain in the 1940s and 50s were "church-going folk", and my mother chose to put what she had to say in simple Sunday School terms.

"Jesus needs your Dad with him in Heaven. So He has taken him. Your Dad will be happy up there. Heaven is a wonderful place."
So that's what it had all been about. They'd whisked him away into the ambulance and up to Victoria Hospital while I had been slumbering on the sofa. This holiday at Auntie Phyll's had just been to keep me out of the way.

And I've never quite forgiven my family for not allowing me to say a proper goodbye to my Dad. Okay, in those days, children attending funerals was rather frowned on, and Mum knew that I had a morbid fear of cemeteries as where we lived, Layton, was rather over-provided with burial places: the cheery crack by bus drivers as their bus swung through Layton Square was "Layton - Dead Centre of Blackpool !".

But I still feel that I should have grown up less troubled if I had been able to see that he really was dead, and that he and I should never be able to enjoy being together again.

I'm sure we shall not deny that final farewell to Damian - at least he is past 40 now, and more than capable of dealing with loss.

 

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C.J. Heyworth

 

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