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Beginnings by Heather Gatley

The writer and her early affinity to words, the duality of being Welsh and English, the seeds of her nomadic existence and her ambivalent relationship with religion.

Heather Gatley
The author, left, with her mother and sister

I was born in Cyprus in 1956, when my father was in the Air Force, my mother being conveyed to hospital in an armoured car, during the middle of the Eoka crisis. My earliest memories are of my father’s Welsh village and my loving Nanna, and then the camp at RAF St. Athan, where I started school. Children were free to run around in those days. Even the railway embankments were not out of bounds. The primroses enticed in spring time, whilst the swallows lined the wires in autumn. I remember “Watch with Mother,” and Children’s songs: “The Big Ship Sailed Through the allee allee oo, on the last day of September “; “In and out the dusty bluebells, who will be my lover?” picnics with my mother; an outing to a garden where the snapdragons were at eye level, their throats open and soft. My brother in a gabardine. Snot-nosed kids at the bus stop. Often sickness: Mumps, Measles, Chicken Pox, German Measles. Once, we went for a treat to Bertrand Mills Circus. The high benches had no backs to them and I was terrified of falling through, and of the black cages they assembled before the lions came rushing in.The boy next door was called Robin. Like a bird. His dog bit me. I was a worrier. I used to sit up in bed, picking my toe nails as I heard the door slam and my brother going off to school. I agonised about when it would be my turn and what it would be like. I was so small I had to be lifted on and off the school bus. On my first day, Debbie Johns and I sat, arms folded, dressed in identical red plaid pleated skirts and navy blue round-necked cardigans with black patent leather shoes, the way the Queen and her sister are dressed in the old Pathe news footage. We were good little girls, whilst Alan Buck was not. He ran up the slide and out of his teachers’ clutches, into the corridor, screaming spectacularly for his mum.

The children sang harvest songs from a huge hymn sheet hanging from the ceiling. I couldn’t read yet. “Come ye thankful people come”; “All good giftsss uround us, are sent from heaven above”; “All things Bright and Beautiful”; “Let us with a gladsome mind”. This latter contained the delicious line: “The horn-ed moon that shines by night.” Once, I hid on the Catholic bus and went over to see what they were up to in their separate assembly.

The playground was terrifying. The children had a game which began with a chant, “All in together for cowboys and Indians.” The “cowboys” and “Indians” would stand in rows at either end, and at a given signal, would run towards each other, ululating madly, to clash in the middle. I was not yet five, dopey and oblivious, confused and lost, standing in the middle of the playground when the rush took place. The crowd ran right over me, and I fell backwards, hitting my head on the ground. I was taken to a teacher who sat me down and looked at me and said, “You’re ok.” Nowadays, parents would certainly have something to say if their four year-old were mown down at play time by the congregated masses of the rest of the school.

The dressing-up box soon gave way to sums, which I could never fathom. On Saturday we went to Cardiff, driving over the red road past stately buildings and parking, unbelievably, in the castle grounds. I begged my parents to find that maths book we were using at school so that I could attempt to unravel its mysteries at home, but they were as clueless as I was. I fared better at the library. A story about a tent soon came into focus, and although I struggled to pronounce the word, “determined”, always wanting to say “detterminded”, I was soon reading happily all about Janet and John and then winged Pegasus.

The school was close to the runway. One year, we made red, white and blue streamers which we attached to the end of sticks to wave to a series of black cars which drove past, bearing the Queen. I did not see her. The British were somehow important.

In the classroom sometimes, especially after the warm milk we were forced to drink at morning break, I would doze off. On one such occasion, when I had chewed my pencil so hard that my mouth was full of the acrid taste of lead, I awoke and found that I had pushed a soggy hole right through the paper where I had been writing my first sentence. When the teacher called us up to the desk to have our work marked, I stood in line trembling. She saw what I had done and to my utter shame, smacked me hard on the leg, just as my brother walked through the door.

In the winter of 1963, the snow came down in a blizzard and happy boys in inadequate clothing, joined my brother on home-made sledges. Images of stranded farms and livestock having hay dropped from helicopters filled the grainy black and white TV screen. My parents’ favourite song by Harry Bellafonte played on: “O Island in the Sun”, Cyprus long behind them.

15 Blackbird Road was near Curlew Crescent where a boy fell out of a tree and broke his leg. The road sloped and curled, like a curlew, surely. My brother had a wagon train of trolleys made from bits of wood and old pram wheels and led the way down it. He collected slow worms and let me have one of my own, the one with the end of its tail chopped off. We had a tortoise, but it disappeared, and my dad killed it with his spade, accidentally digging it up from its secret hibernation.

After school, Debbie Johns’ mum swept her up in an embarrassing excited embrace and screamed, “We’re going to Singapore!” Meanwhile, my doll that my brother made my sister scribble on at Christmas, and its beautiful mauve pram, were packed into a huge black box and sent off to Germany. My brother was to go to boarding school, news told in mournful tones by my mother, who felt it to be a great tragedy. And then we weren’t going to Germany. It was cancelled. Months, seemed to have gone by before we got our things back, which were no longer of interest to me.

We moved instead to Rudloe Manor, a base in Wiltshire, where the house caused us to be ill with sore throats and then mumps. The previous wife was rumoured to have put her head in the gas oven of this house at 2 Teddar Avenue, and the damp and cold were oppressive in the empty countryside far from even an ugly city like Cardiff. The nearest town was Bath, its glory days long past, its famous Georgian Bath Stone soot-blackened and neglected. Next door lived a family of five girls with an Austrian mother who braided their long hair every morning and if you waited for them, you could be late for West Wells School. Once, we missed the bus, and dawdled our way through the nut strewn hedgerows, to be greeted kindly by plump Mrs Pulling. She used to wave a rolled newspaper around her head and tell stories of flying away on her magic helicopter. She didn’t really notice that I pretended to finish all the books in the library and had begun to cheat at maths.

In the summer of 1964, instead of Wales, we went to Butlins in Minehead. We slept in a chalet, which was little more than a hut, and probably not very clean. My mother took an immediate dislike to the whole affair. In the morning, piped music played, “Zipadee do dah, Zipadee day, my oh my it’s a wonderful day”. We had our meals in one of two communal restaurants. Breakfast was cornflakes, fried egg and white buttered bread cut diagonally. It was brought to the shared tables by lanky inept girls, one of whom my brother nicknamed “Stalky”.

For me, Butlins was exciting. There was a cafe where you could see into the swimming pool through glass windows and watch clever mermaid-like people floating. I longed to master the mystery of swimming. There was a concrete rink where you could hire roller skates and glide around to your heart’s content. There were outdoor pools, cold, but with turquoise painted fountains which women paraded past in a beauty pageant. There was entertainment from Redcoats at night. My mother loathed it. My brother was left in charge of me one morning, but we soon opted for separate rides. The fact that these were free and we could go over and over again on our favourites, was fascinating. I loved “The Caterpillar” which went up and down and round and round, and half way through the ride, you were covered up by an awning which put you in the dark and made the snaking carriages look just like a caterpillar. It must have been after one such ride that I realised I could no longer see my brother. I wandered for a long while, trying to find my way to our chalet, but they all looked the same. I became perturbed, but not enough to turn myself in to the Red or Bluecoats, the shame of which would have been mortifying as they would have called my name out over the tannoy to the whole camp. Heather, sounded just like, feather. “Heather the feather,” my brother used to tease. I hated it. I happened to pass a trampoline where children were queuing. Redcoats were helping them on and off. I nonchalantly joined the queue, figuring I might as well have an adventure if I was lost. I had a good bounce up and down, alighted, and said not a word to the adults who would have helped me find my parents. In the end, I grew hungry and could see that people were making their way toward the three canteens. Luckily I followed someone to the correct place where my frantic mother was waiting, sister in push chair and disgraced brother beside my father.

One of the daytime entertainments was a mother and daughter competition. I was very keen to enter this with my beautiful mother. My brother and father egged her on. When we got to the room where it was taking place, suddenly, a whole slew of professional mother/daughter entrants appeared, dressed in identical clothing, expertly made by the competitive veterans who had clearly been to Butlins many times. My mother, who already wore a look of thunder upon her face, was now fully humiliated. Her bitterness still burns my memory. I came across the black and white souvenir photograph of us both in our best summer dresses many times over the years, and marked her expression. She was a proud and sensitive woman who had lost her mother when she was eight, and couldn’t sew or cook; but she did know that she was better than Butlins and all of these trivial silly vain people who were parading up and down as if in a cattle market. To put the final lid on my mother’s displeasure, my sister caught the Measles. We sat in a doctor’s waiting room and I recall a girl who said she was the impossible age of eighteen and wore a pastel pink Alice band, her dark hair flicked up and her matching cardigan around her shoulders. I thought she was the epitome of elegance. It was the time of Susan Maugham and “Bye Bye Blackbird”. It was the time of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. It was post-war drabness and poverty on RAF camps. Butlins was meant to be great. But it was tawdry, crowded, cold, damp and wet, like all English summers, and there was no glamour anywhere in the world.I was seven.

Standing on the sitting room sofa and staring into the mirror over the mantelpiece, I contemplated death. My Uncle Jim had finally died, having malingered since the Great War, where he’d been gassed. We used to visit him at the house in Sevenoaks, its deep grey Wilton carpets, brass bedsteads and early internal heating, the copper pipes a sign of some wealth, but there were no children for he and Hope. They had brought my mother up from the age of eight.We would often visit “Namayo”, the strangely named semi-detached 30’s house up the quiet tree-lined lane opposite the thatched bus stop. The close-cut bank of grass and neat flower beds in front of the house, and the paved rose garden and high hedges at the back, were so pretty and alluring. The dining room was small but snug, with a bay window that looked out onto the roses. We dined from blue and white china, the peas and potatoes being placed first in graceful tureens. Hope had no patience with children. She used to tell me off for fidgeting, and for the poor handwriting I had used on the reluctantly written thank you letter for gifts at Christmas. My mother always got the comb out just before we arrived at the house.

Sometimes we stayed overnight and I shared Hope’s bedroom, sleeping under the soft eiderdown in the high brass bedstead. She showed me the china doll that her sister, my grandmother Freda, had owned. At night, she let down her hair which she kept swept neatly in a bun. It was soft and long and grey and she told of how you had to brush it one hundred times every night. She had been brought up to believe that, “Children should be seen and not heard.” She had some spiteful jokes, such as when you asked what was for afters, she would say, “Bread and pull it.” My grandfather had a picture of Hope in his little brown suitcase. She must have been around ten years old and was sitting bolt upright in a hard backed chair. She told me that they used to put a broomstick down your back to make sure you learned how to sit up straight. The Victorians were cruel to their children. The elegant sitting room with its thick carpet was cold and silent, save for the loud ticking of the clock. It was the place of Jim’s final suffering, the high bed and shocking oxygen canisters. There were glass book cases filled with hard back works of Dickens, and other Sunday school literary prizes from when Hope was a child, admonishing Alicia, or whichever little girl needed a lesson on good behaviour. When my mother told me that Jim had died, I gazed long and puzzled into the mirror. What did it mean, to die? I asked. “It’s just like falling asleep, only you don’t wake up again.”

Every summer we would visit my Nanna in Wales, tumbling around in the back of my dad’s van, feeling sick on the cigarette smoke coming from the front, sitting in traffic through the stinking steel town of Port Talbot before the motorway was built. We stopped once at a small café where the juke box was blaring, “Do wa diddy diddy dum diddy day” and you could buy tiny glass animal ornaments. Nanna was in charge of looking after “The Dell” after the old lady had died. There was a long garden with small beds of roses cut into the vast lawn which she mowed with a hand mower. She took us into the house. Just inside, above the door, were two crossed ceremonial swords. In the musty sitting room, at eye level, on the mantelpiece, was a bell jar which contained a stuffed rat on its hind legs. The teeth were long and yellow and had continued growing after death. Upstairs, in the attic, were many books in huge trunks. “The Dell” remained empty for the next thirty-five years. The garden took over the house and trees grew through the floors, as snakes and rodents spread amongst the briars.

Of the brief Wiltshire country-posting to Rudloe Manor and my attending West Wells School, I remember: high, exuberant wind, far fields for games and PE, fog, horses, stone walls, whirly birds and conkers. Sherry Gardener lived next door and had a sister called Joy with very bad teeth. She was learning something called her Creed. “I believe in God, Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth.” If you were Catholic, you went to Confession. What did you confess? Why should you confess anything to anyone? I didn’t even confess to Redcoats when I was lost. They were going to Singapore. I was going to have her bicycle. And then I wasn’t. We were going to Singapore. And so, maybe that is where it began.


Heather Gatley
The author revisiting Singapore

Heather Gatley was born in Cyprus to British parents and has lived and worked all over the world as an English teacher. She has had poetry, prose and photographs published in Proximity Magazine, Scarlet Leaf Review, Ariel Chart, Centered on Taipei, the Carmarthen Journal and Memoirist. Her three chapbooks of poems, entitled “Indigo Sky”, “Tombs of Gold” and “Last Boat to Brienzersee” are available on Amazon.


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