This weekend we popped to a clothing store so I could pick up a new shirt and my wife could search out some comfortable shoes for her pained pregnancy feet. While we were there we perused the baby clothes section and bought a few items.
This is a new and developing habit we’ve got into so we can make sure we’re readily stocked when our child arrives. I quite enjoy it. We have a box at home into which we put whatever we’ve bought. The cat often sits guard over it.
Neither my wife or I is at all inclined to opt for baby clothes which display cheese-grating or knuckle-gnawing text on them. Band logos? Uh-huh, that’s happening. Pop culture? Yes, indeed. But we feel it’s vulgar to have ‘The New Baby In Town’ or ‘Mummy’s Little Treasure’ or ‘My Daddy Loves Me’ or ‘Sweet And Tender Angel’ or ‘Cute As A Button’ (or whatever) in big letters on the front.
‘I Am A Baby’. Ugh. Yes, we know you are!
We. Know. You. Are.
In fact, to double bluff these hated garments – these twee tabloid rags which give off the vibe of a chocolate box or a Christmas card from your Grandmother’s sister – the punk in me has been toying with the idea of having a couple of babygrows printed up, myself. The first would say ‘Mummy’s Little Fuck-Nugget’, and the second would quote Debra Morgan from the TV series Dexter: ‘Motherfuckin’ Roly-Poly Chubby Cheeked Shit Machine’.
As opposed to opting for things which say it so loud the clothing itself almost has its own social media account, as a rule my wife and I have been aiming for subtle. Not bland, not boring. Subtle. Pieces of clothing which have a modest, tidy and almost discrete style about them.
This time we chose some newborn-sized space-themed bodysuits (patterns of the moon, stars, rockets, planets), some socks, the tiniest cable-knit cardigan I have ever seen, and a blanket. This new wraparound is covered in a lovely and relatively soft ‘pencil drawing’ motif. Sketches and poses of a special and important character from deep in my past.
Repeated on the blanket is Dumbo, the baby elephant from the 1941 Disney film of the same name. My wife chose this particular item as a sort of conscious and knowing nod to a story from my life that I told her ages ago. I was very touched.
When I was young – four years old – my Mum and I moved to Cheltenham to live with my Uncle and his three year old daughter. My Aunt, who was Swedish, had died of breast cancer in her early twenties.
I have little memory of her, though I am told that she adored me and I adored her. I do recall visiting her in the hospital for the very last time. The fragments of picture in my head are flared by sunlight and a bit blurry. It’s all distant, but it’s there.
I remember sitting in the car. I remember that I was wearing shorts. I remember trees and lawns, and it being a really peaceful place. The people around me were calm and not crying, though it must have been an unbearably difficult experience for them to say goodbye to my Aunt. Perhaps for the adults it wasn’t quite goodbye? Perhaps there was another day on which their last moments together fell? Perhaps my presence was because she had asked to see me for a final time?
She lay in the bed and I sat beside her on it. I remember her generous affection. I remember a nodding dog toy somewhere nearby, varnished wood with wheels for legs and a red nose and long black ears. The last goodbye was as unassuming and absent of gravitas as you might expect when it involves a four-year who doesn’t have any grasp of the reality of the situation.
My Uncle was successful and in demand in his industry, and he worked away a lot. More and more so as he threw himself into his job. When my Aunt passed away childcare was suddenly a pressing issue.
Because my Mum was supply teaching and had not yet returned to work ‘properly’, it was thought somehow dutiful for her to step into the breach. She was sent to Cheltenham to ensure that my Uncle’s life – and his daughter’s life – wouldn’t disintegrate further. The idea seems to have been to provide my cousin with a practical substitute. A female figure and modest emotional continuity, of sorts, in difficult circumstance. Perhaps my Mum even volunteered to go? I really don’t know. I do know that she was truly heartbroken to lose her friend, and deeply saddened for my very small cousin.
Looking back now, though it was all undoubtedly well-intentioned and seemingly sensible or logical, rather neat and tidy, it does seem a bizarre or quite desperate decision all round. Cheltenham was almost two hundred miles from our own home. It could have been incredibly unsettling for all. It probably was.
But I don’t remember feeling out of sorts. Regardless of anything else, my cousin and I bonded immediately. We took off as if we were natural brother and sister. The one or two surviving photographs from the era reveal us to have been as thick as thieves. Partners in crime. Pirates on a pirate ship. Close and happy and totally free. Safe and silly and dizzy. On the lawn or hiding in cupboards. Up to a little mischief or on the verge of big trouble.
I remember Mum taking us shopping in a huge department store in Cheltenham, or maybe Gloucester. We disappeared from her side and Mum panicked. We were found riding up and down the building in the lift, asking which floors people wanted, and pressing the buttons. Acting as a sort of duo of attendants for a parade of amused shoppers.
My Uncle has always been a man of discerning taste and intelligent mind. Though he’s now in his mid-eighties and frail, he is still a magnificent human being. My wife and I visited him during our honeymoon last year, at the Wiltshire farmhouse he shares with his second wife (who is also, notably, Swedish). He told us he was about to graduate from his latest university degree, his fifth or sixth. My own intellect is a mere flea riding his back. Though to this day a great deal of his aesthetic sense informs mine.
In Cheltenham he had an antique magic lantern. I think it was Victorian. An ornate and fragile flickering curio that he would sometimes ‘do a show’ with to delight us. I remember hundreds upon hundreds upon hundreds of books impressive on shelves around the house. G A Henty. H Rider Haggard. Edgar Rice Burroughs. Hemingway, Orwell, Greene. Some little tin footballers from the 1950s. Cigarette cards. A turquoise glass terrarium globe.
I remember sitting with him to watch Doctor Who on TV one Saturday teatime. Something with giant spiders and Jon Pertwee changing into Tom Baker. It was a shock, a revelation. It was my very first Kennedy assassination moment.
I always think of that eighteen months of my life – and of my cousin and Uncle – with great fondness. I have, though, barely seen my cousin since the late 1970s. On just two occasions, in fact. One Sunday in 1985, the day after Live Aid, at a gathered-family meal. Then she and I sat on the lawn in my Dad’s garden after his funeral twenty years ago. We talked very little of the past but there was still a bond and the makings of a double-act there.
Olden days. Golden days.
Years later, when my first wife and I happened to find ourselves quite near Cheltenham, I suggested we go into the city and see if we could find this Georgian terraced house so that I could look at it. Perhaps to check if it was actually real or that I did once live somewhere so beautiful.
Despite not having been to it for (at that time) thirty years, I was at one with my inner homing pigeon. It was a remarkable case of: “Left here, right there, left here, past this green, second right, around this roundabout, third exit, along this avenue, left turn here at the church, turn right there, all the way to the end near the trees. And it’s that one there”…
I wanted to move back in. I still do.
Here in the present day, my wife and I are looking for something not too taxing to watch on TV on this lazy Sunday afternoon after returning home from shopping. Bearing in mind the new baby blanket, I suggest Dumbo.
I’d felt compelled to buy the blu-ray when I found it in a second-hand shop a couple of years ago. The purchase was a sentimental nod to something that happened during those Cheltenham days, of course – but the disc has never actually been out of the box before now. My wife and I sit and watch. The animation is great, beautiful even, and it impresses her that I can remember every word of the song When I See An Elephant Fly.
Dumbo was the first film I ever saw ‘at the pictures’.
My Dad visited from up North one weekend, and he took me to the cinema in Cheltenham to see it. Like many of the older Disney films (Robin Hood, Pinocchio, Snow White) Dumbo had quite an afterlife, and was successfully re-run in picturehouses during the 1970s. Funny, when I think of it now, that the original UK release was in the year my Dad was born.
Anyway, there is a scene where Dumbo’s gentle mother protects her timid and trusting child from the ridicule and cruelty of others but is snatched away and forced into solitary confinement. Timothy Mouse, a kindly rodent, takes Dumbo to the place his mother is imprisoned. And for a few glorious moments, through bars, there is the happiest and most loving reunion.
This was all far too much for me, at five years old. My Dad had to remove me from the cinema as I was absolutely inconsolable. Ridiculously so. It became legend.
Sitting and watching Dumbo again, 45 years and more later, I feel sad that my Cheltenham days – so many of my days – are spent.
But this blanket… We will wrap our child in it. And when I hold my son or daughter in my arms, for a moment they will be back there with me in 1974 somehow. Safe and silly and dizzy, and laughing on a lawn in the sunshine. Close and happy and totally free.