When we first arrived from Canada in the early 1960’s my parents would take us, that is my two elder brothers and me to a farm on the road from Studland to Swanage called ‘Brook Farm’. The reason we went there was that my mother was born in Bournemouth in the 1920’s, was one of seven children and her parents would take the whole family to this very farm for their annual summer vacation.
We arrived in the family car on a very hot August afternoon in 1964 after a long drive down from Maidenhead in the days before motorways and dual carriageways threaded across the country. Dad drove the car through the gap in hedge leading to the farm. In front of us was a run-down ramshackle single story wooden building that looked like a part of it was going to disappear into Middle Earth. Before we even got out of the car my mum declared:
‘It hasn’t changed a bit’.
That short phrase gave me some comfort that this place would be alright for a holiday as if Mum was happy here then that would make the holiday fine. That crumb of comfort was destroyed instantly when what appeared to me to be a huge black and white dog came salivating and growling from the house. It completely ignored my two brothers, my parents and seemed to barrelling towards me. Just before he was going to make contact with me and after his saliva had a voice shouted from Middle Earth.
At which ‘Bob’ stopped coming towards me and started to circle me as if trying to separate me from the protection of my family.
From the door in the house where the voice had come from came a very elderly lady wearing a floral house coat tied around her waist to meet us.
She greeted my Mum with a hug and the usual pleasantries of how much she had grown up since her last holiday there in the 1940’s. Then she gave my Dad a warm hug followed by the same for my two brothers who towered over her. I was at the end of the reception line, as usual, and as she stood in front of me I was horrified. Not by her elderliness, or by the rollup cigarette attached magically to her top lip but by her left hand. It only had a thumb and forefinger. Perhaps the salivating and growling mongrel ‘Bob’ had tried human flesh already and was now lining me up as some sort of main course.
She pinched my cheek with her left thumb and forefinger and said something complimentary which I probably didn’t hear as by now I was traumatised by her hand and the dog.
‘Say something to Mrs Marshall’ my Mum urged me.
A shaky ‘hello’ was the best I could manage which under the circumstances I thought was a pretty good effort. That hand, that left hand; that left hand was so disturbing.
My brothers and I helped Mum and Dad move our holiday bags from the car into where our home would be for the next week. The section we were in sloped away from the main part of the building. Inside part of the floor sloped away in the room where my brothers and I would be sleeping. As a result our beds were wedged against the downside wall. This wasn’t just a slight slope. It was a huge slope that we used to race toy cars down in the evenings. It sloped so much so that when we went to bed we would be stretched out to our full length and in the morning we would all be crumpled into a semi foetal position wedged against the headboards. The beds were made up with soft thick quilts which swallowed the sleeper into valleys of down and comfort. At the end of a day in the fresh air on the beach they enveloped you in a cool cocoon that took the sun burn away.
‘Mum, I need the toilet. Where is it?’ I asked.
‘It’s the shed near the car, go on off you go before you have an accident, you’ll be fine’ Mum answered.
The ‘you’ll be fine’ echoed in my head as I started to make my way back towards the car and its neighbouring shed. Every step I took my senses heightened as I could hear ‘Bob’ stalking me. He might be under the building hiding in its damp shadows ready to leap at me. Or, there’s a noise from the hedge as a branch moves. It’s got to be Bob lining me up for a death lunge. I was in such a state that I nearly didn’t have to go to the privy. I arrived at the wooden door uneaten by the rabid and savage canine. At this point I thought that things could not get much worse but, oh how wrong I was.
I arrived at the wooden shed uneaten by the rabid salivating dog. I opened the door and was nearly knocked off my feet by a swarm of flies and the stench emanating from the darkness. My eyes adjusted to the semi darkness and before me was a wooden type bench with a hole. I had to look into the hole and down there it was dark. A couple of flies came out of the darkness and hit me in the face. Unfortunately the bench was too high for me to stand and complete my mission so I had to sit over the hole which I had just looked into. The hole felt too big for me so I pressed my hands hard on to the rim to stop myself slipping through. What if I fell through it? How would I escape? Would be drowned before anyone back at the house heard my screams? Oh come on hurry up. I was desperate to go when I got to the door and now nothing. Come on hurry up. I can’t keep this hold on the sides much longer. Phew, job done. Jump off the bench, up with the shorts and out.
Having completed my mission’s objective without being sucked through the hole into the festering pit below I felt both relieved and pleased with myself I then felt totally confident to face the walk back to the part of the house where the rest of my family were. Life was good again as I opened the door into the bright sunlight and started my walk. Less than three strides from that door and Bob came up behind entirely unannounced barking and spraying his warm saliva around my legs. If at the tender age of ten I had been aware of the word ‘bastard’ and its contextual setting I would have shouted if not screamed it at Bob.
‘BOB! DOWN! LEAVE!’ Mrs Marshall shouted from her kitchen door.
Bob backed off with his teeth still bared and emitting a guttural growl that his owner probably could not hear.
A few paces further on and Bob was still in menacing attendance. As I got closer to Mrs Marshall I could not help thinking about her damaged hand and I couldn’t avoid seeing it as somehow she managed to hold a rolled cigarette near her mouth between its remaining two digits.
‘Want to earn threepence young man?’ she asked.
I thought about the offer for a couple of seconds. Threepence would buy a bag of crisps with a blue bag of salt at the beach kiosk tomorrow but what would I have to do?
‘I need some help with your dinner….can’t carry as much as I used to since I lost my fingers in the harvester’ Mrs Marshall said.
That did alleviate some of my anxiety about Bob. He was not a flesh eating canine and by now he was lying down beside me. And Mrs Marshall must have known that seeing what was left of her hand was disturbing for me.
‘Bob won’t hurt you…….he barks a lot……need that when I am here by myself……won’t bite….here Bob’.
Bob got up and went to her side. Mrs Marshall found a tennis ball in the pocket of her housecoat.
‘Fetch’ as she threw the ball.
Bob went off chasing the bouncing ball across the lawn and returned.
Bob dropped the ball and Mrs Marshall asked if I could play with Bob while she finished getting the dinner ready. I wasn’t too sure about Bob at this stage of our relationship until after a few throws I had to wrestle the ball from his mouth in a grunting tug of war which I eventually won.
‘He likes you now he knows you’ Mrs Marshall said from her kitchen doorway ‘Dinner’s ready so you can carry thee plates and knives and forks. There’s your threepence’.
I went into the kitchen with the coin in my pocket to pick up the plates and cutlery.
‘We’ll need some water’ Mrs Marshall said.
I looked at the sink but there were no taps just a black cylindrical thing with a handle and spout over the sink.
‘That’s a pump….don’t have running water here’.
I pumped as best I could as the handle probably weighed more than me until there was a flow of crystal clear water going into the glass pitcher. The water was so cold the jug was soon covered with condensation.
The crockery, cutlery and water jug fitted only just on the tray Mrs Marshall gave me and it weighed so much I could hardly carry it but I did. Mrs Marshall then produced one of those huge willow pattern meat platters with the most enormous piece of beef on it that I had ever seen surrounded by roast potatoes and vegetables.
We walked around to where we were staying and there my parents and brothers were already seated ready for dinner. Mum watched us walk in.
‘I hope he hasn’t been a nuisance Mrs Marshall?’ my Mum said looking at me with my huge laden tray which I managed to place on the table just before my shaking arms gave way.
‘No, Alan has been a great help getting dinner ready. He kept Bob from under my feet, sorted out the cutlery and plates and filled the water jug all by himself. I could do with him around helping if he doesn’t mind’.
The beef was not like Mum cooked. It was pink in the middle instead of a uniform grey. The roast potatoes were crisp, the vegetables sharp green for the runner beans and vibrant orange carrots and the gravy washing over the willow pattern on the dinner plates. While my brothers and parents talked I looked for stories in the pattern on the plate with the bridge, the temple and the birds all in blue shining through Mrs Marshall’s sepia gravy.
This was going to be a good holiday.
What was even better was that I did not have to go the privy again that first night as anxiety had aided retention. Over the next few days I worked out a schedule of what to do when and where to minimise exposure to that gaping hole over the festering pit and by day three had a routine of using the public toilets on the beach at Studland, the ocean while swimming which was not so much swimming as preventing myself from drowning and a strategically timed call of nature near a thick hedge just outside Studland village. Every afternoon when we came home from the beach Bob would be waiting for me in the drive with his ball. My brothers tried to pick up the ball to throw for him but got the bare teeth and salivating growl every day. Every evening when Bob and I finished playing I would carry the tray laden with the cutlery, crockery and water jug while Mrs Marshall carried a platter with lamb one night, roast pork the next and chicken.
Every day on that holiday was sunny. Every day was hot. Every day I would get back to Brook Farm with that fresh air sun burnt tingle. Every dinner was a banquet. Every night I went to sleep stretched out under the enveloping down quilt and every morning I would wake up crumpled against the wall of the sloping bedroom.
Yes, it was a good holiday.