Two Summers

What a pig of a summer! Cold, wind and rain. The worst New Zealand summer I can remember. It won’t give me my worst memory of summer weather, though. That still belongs to 1950.

That year, my parents, my younger sister and I went on holiday to Lee-On-Solent in the south of England. We stayed in a rented caravan in a caravan park. It rained. My father, who was managing a small building firm in north west London, kept having to go back to the city to on business. The rest of us huddled in the caravan. At least, my mother and sister huddled. After a while, I decided to do what I usually did on holiday. I went off wandering by myself. My mother was probably glad to get at least one of her kids from under her feet and let me go.

My usual holiday explorations were in search of railway engines or butterflies but the railway was too far off and the butterflies were all tucked away somewhere safe like everyone else so I made my way down to sea. There was a roadway with a row of houses on one side and a strip of grass on the other. Beyond the grass was the beach – not sand exactly, more like fine pieces of gravel or crushed shell, white and yellow with a few specks of dark brown. It crunched underfoot and was hard to walk through.

In the middle of July, even on a beach like that, you would have expected deckchairs and towels and people lying around or fooling about but there was no one. The whole beach, from end to end, was empty and windswept, except for me, a lone, shivering figure, huddled in my gabardine raincoat. Every few yards, spaced out along the line of the mid-tide mark, were big blocks of weathered concrete half buried in the gravel at odd angles. I knew them as ‘tank traps’ – part of some wartime defence system against a Nazi invasion.

The sea was grey-blue-green, lumpy and cold. The waves turned over with a dull, scraping sound, surging white up the shingle and swirling round the tank traps, where they sucked and bubbled at the rough edges of the concrete. I stood and watched, shivering in the wind, with the salt-spray whipping into my face. I had my bucket and spade with me, of course, but there was little incentive to do anything with them. I wonder now what I must have looked like to anyone brave enough to take a stroll along the esplanade – a small, dark, lonely, figure on an otherwise empty beach, gazing at the sea beside a mouldering lump of concrete, a juvenile parody of Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer, perhaps. There was only one consolation. I found a crab and a good one, too – about as big as the palm of my hand. I took it back to the caravan in my bucket. No doubt to my mother’s delight.

My father died about nine months after this holiday and the family was suddenly short of money. Despite the financial difficulties, my mother insisted that we should continue going away each year. We went once to Blackpool and a couple of other times to Hi-de-Hi type holiday camps, one in Prestatyn in North Wales and another near Lowestoft. The best, though, was our trip to the Isle of Wight in the summer of 1952.

We stayed at East Dene, a house near the village of Bonchurch, which had once been the boyhood home of the poet Swinburne. The building itself was delicate rather than imposing, with narrow pointed gables that gave it the feel of a Gothic church. In front there was a wide, rolling lawn which opened out into a view of the sea. Inside the rooms had been divided up with modern, strictly functional panelling to accommodate the holiday makers. It was all cream walls and brown linoleum, except that now and again you would find part of an ornate plaster ceiling or a toilet bowel decorated with flowers, inside and out.

That year the weather was warm. I soon found the flower gardens down the side of the building. There was a greenhouse and two or three long, raised beds full of lavender and other blooms. These attracted a riot of insects – butterflies and day-flying moths, in particular. As always, the sight of them filled me with wonder. The variety and the richness of the colours and the patterns on their wings were the first things to which I ever had an aesthetic response. When I first became interested I used to want to catch them and keep them but I had lost interest in that. All they did was flutter themselves to death in the jars. These days I was happy to just stand and watch and identify what was there.

There were the usual species – peacocks, tortoiseshells and red admirals, large and small whites – as well as some that were less common: blues and coppers from the downs and a fritillary or two. The ones that interested me most, though, were the hummingbird hawk moths, which I had read about but never seen before. They were orange-brown with a wingspan of two or three inches and they got there name from their habit of hovering while they fed. A furious blur of wings kept them airborne while they sucked at the flowers with a long, curving black proboscis. I tried to catch one in my hands but they were too quick, zooming away with a speed and a directness that was more like a bee or a fly than any other butterfly or moth I knew.

A few days into the holiday, I made my daily visit to the flower garden and found I had company, a girl of about my age. She was slim and serious looking, with straight brown hair and a pale blue dress dotted with little flowers. Her name was Dawn. We got to talking and found we liked one another – two introverted souls, perhaps, sharing the warmth of a summer day. I identified the butterflies and moths for her. Maybe she was interested. Maybe she was impressed by my knowledge. Maybe she was just already adept at the female trick of letting the bloke rattle on about his enthusiasms. Something clicked, though. We were in love.

We spent a lot of time together over that holiday. I don’t remember what we did or what we said to one another. All that comes back to me now is the strength of that emotion – innocent as perhaps all love is in some sense innocent at its core because it is simple and unqualified. Dawn introduced me to her family – her parents and her terrifyingly attractive older sister, who was probably about thirteen. They met my mother and my sister, too. What the adults said to one another, I can’t recall, but their conversation had an air that, looking back, seems surprisingly respectful of the feelings Dawn and I had for one another. Or perhaps I just missed the irony.

At the end of the holiday, Dawn and I exchanged addresses. We promised to write. Of course, we never did.

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