The walk to school

Innocence requires only two things: The good fortune to possess happiness, and the foolishness to believe it will endure.

I met those conditions for the first seven years of my life. It was easy; I was a privileged child. We lived, then, in the former seat of some forgotten country squire, a grey stone house with rows of tall sash windows, its dull straight lines softened by a pediment over the front door, and offset by an adjoining miscellany of barns, sheds, and stables. The long, gravelled drive formed into a wide circle at the front, once to enable the elegant carriages, and later the fine cars, to turn with ease.

My father, when stressed by his work as a surgeon, found refuge in the velvet-curtained calm of his study at one end of the house. My mother, younger and a little bohemian, encamped in the conservatory and created fabric designs. But when they met in common areas, the combination was a delight. Guests found their way to us like ducks settling on water. I understood none of this, of course. I was accustomed to the peering-down, head- patting adults. I skipped and twirled my way past with girlish nonchalance, accepting life as it was. Surely, all children had homes and parents like these?

I had reason to remember the long dry summer of my eighth year. I was too young then to count the months, but it must have been late June when the heat set in, and it stayed until August. I recall especially the twice daily walk with my mother between home and school. In the mornings, when there was still freshness in the day, we crossed the country lane at the end of the drive, and passed through a wooden gate. A path, channelled by green hedgerows, led between fields of yellowing wheat. It fell gently down the chalk escarpment before finishing in a rush as it joined a road just short of the school. As we passed along, the hedges ahead rustled as unseen small animals scurried to the safety of the field. The wheat was rising as high as my chest. In the small gaps between the path and the hedgerow, the grass, grown tall and heavy headed, leaned in to stroke my thigh.

On those bright precious mornings we became two girls together, out on a walk in our cotton summer frocks. We giggled, sang, skipped, made secret promises over blown dandelions. For the return journey, at schoolday’s end, we walked uphill and into air that had been halted by the hours of heat. By that time the animals had left the hedgerow. Nothing moved, and there would be silence but for the trilling skylark, pinned to the cloudless sky. One day a small rain cloud brought a false end to the drought. We stood, laughing, and lifted our palms to greet the rain as it came down on us in splatters, almost sizzling on the chalk stones at our feet. The smell of damp, fecund earth rose to my nostrils.

Something began to change during the summer holidays, though I gave it little attention. There were few visitors. My mother went away for several days. I was in the drive when she returned, and I watched her lean into my father for support as he took her straight up to the bedroom, where she remained for a week.

By the end of the holidays we had acquired an au pair, Gertraud. My mother would stay late in bed in the mornings, and, from the first day of the new term, it was Gertraud who took me to school. She, mindful of her responsibilities, insisted we hold hands and walk at a sensible pace. That first day there was a dead frog on a stump at the side of the path, one leg somehow caught in a piece of fencing wire. Its puffy body, when first encountered, was still green and glistening. Gertraud pulled me on. In later days, though she always tried to hurry us past, I was able see the little corpse for long enough to observe it going brown, then grey and shrivelled, until it disconnected from the natural world and became strangely totemic, a portent.

By October my mother was usually in bed even when I got back home from school. And we had another addition to the household – a Mrs Smith, who said little to me and spent most of her time with my mother. She wore a blue uniform, and a watch pinned to her chest. I thought it might be her job to make sure my mother kept an eye on the time.

School had, by now, become the place where I was most happy, and I would often be impatient to set out with Gertraud. One morning in late November, my father appeared at the head of the stairs and called me back from the front door. He told me to come and kiss my mother goodbye. Even at the time it seemed odd, particularly as she was asleep; but my father and Mrs Smith were watching, and I did as I was told. I remember how pallid my mother’s cheek looked, how cold on my lips. That same day, when it was time to go home, the clouds were of the kind, so dark and low, they make you want to stoop. Gertraud, never one for frivolity, said nothing when she collected me. It started to rain as we began walking – the sort of nasty drizzle that wets faces and creeps inside raincoats. On the steep first section of the path I slipped on the wet chalk, muddying my knees. Gertraud, silent, hauled me back to my feet and pulled me on.

When we arrived at the house I saw from the cars that we had visitors. It was only the doctor, and the vicar. My father took me into his study and talked to me – a clumsy speech, too long prepared. He explained what I should have been told months earlier, and now too late. My mother had been ill. This was the day she had gone from us.

When my father was unable to say more, he pulled me close. With my cheek pressed against him, I could feel his chest heaving through the old wool of his cardigan, and sensed his grief before I knew my own. In that moment what I felt was shame for my foolishness and self- absorption. I should have known. That was what I thought then, and what the child in me still insists, for all the adult I have become may argue otherwise.

Two decades later, I am a mother. I am a fortunate and happy woman. Yet I notice myself, in late night conversations with my husband, sometimes pausing in case he wants to tell me he has met someone new. I look down on my two boys as they sleep, finding it remarkable that they have completed another day untouched by accident and evil. And I look in the bathroom mirror as I prepare for bed, so sceptical of the apparently healthy woman I see reflected, that I am all but impatient for the unscheduled bleeding, the unexpected lump.

Yes, I am happy; but I am not innocent. I will not be made a fool by fate again.

dead frog

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