Nana’s mind map

Saturday February 25

Freshwater

Looking back from Freshwater

Yesterday I tried to drive out to Freshwater to watch the sunset. Freshwater is a beautiful little town on the coast. A rugged road takes you there – to the place where Tennyson used to live.

It’s about 20 miles from where I’m staying and usually a stunning drive. But yesterday was grey and the mist grew heavier as I got closer to the town. In the end I turned back. I couldn’t see a few feet ahead, let alone the incredible view that I knew surrounded me.

Map of the Isle of Wight

I love this 1950s holiday map

Wherever I go here, my Nana’s state of mind is never far from my thoughts. The way it was when she died. The whole island could be a metaphor for that. I see maps of the island everywhere. On postcards, tourist leaflets, even a 3D version in a little paddling pool on Ventnor front. I keep imagining it is a picture of the human brain. Nana’s brain actually. All the little roads and towns are times in her life, trains of thoughts, events.

Freshwater

The road stretched out in front of me and my little car

Today I attempted the drive again. This time the sun was high and the view stretched out in front of me. On a day like this, I defy you not to lose your breath as you look out over Tennyson Downs and Freshwater Bay.

The landscape is rugged and wild; a far cry from the close-by seafront towns with modern arcades and faded attractions. Here, on this road, it seems the same as it always was. But as you go on, you notice bits of the road that are crumbling under the weight of time and a viewing point that has half slipped into the sea.

Sunset from the coast road

View of the sunset from the coast road

I stopped by the road to photograph the scene. The sun was dark orange as it set, like an egg yolk slowly being swallowed by the sea. It reflected on the water and offered atmospheric light to the inhabitants of the nearby rock pools. I wanted to stay there.

As it disappeared, I drove through the dusk to Tennyson’s town. There was a hazy light over the downs. Some boys were playing rugby on the grass, their silhouettes dancing against the last of the sunlight. Running and laughing where Tennyson once walked.

Freshwater bay

This would have been Tennyson's view

Some people have asked me why I love the Isle of Wight. Some who have actually been here but only seen a small part of it. When I tell them about the beauty of the landscape and the way the sun sets on the sea, they nod but seem cynical, as if I have a sentimental view of the place because I’ve spent so many happy times here. It reminds me of the way people used to talk about Nana. The doctors or the staff in the home she was in right at the end. I tried to tell them that she had been sparkly and intelligent and funny, hilarious sometimes. That she had seen a lot. They nodded and attempted to understand, but to them she was just another ill old lady with little hope. And I was just another granddaughter with sentimental views of her old Nana.

Freshwater

Just me

Driving back to Ventnor, it was pitch black. The view was shrouded in a blanket of darkness, lit only by a picturebook moon and lots of tiny bright stars. If I had just landed there, on that road at that moment, I wouldn’t have known that the sea was lapping at my heels or that lush green downs were sloping towards me.

It was difficult driving in the dark on such a windy road, hitting corners and having to slow right down. Sometimes another vehicle would appear up ahead, full beam headlights shining in my eyes, and I’d have to hold on tight and keep my nerve as I passed, my little car clinging to the crumbling road.

Nana with her sisters

Nana with her sisters

I remembered Nana, a couple of years before she died, when her memory was bad. We’d go and visit and make small talk about everything and nothing. Someone might tell her that her sister Lily had been asking after her and she’d say, ‘who?’ and look completely confused. They’d say, ‘Lily, your sister, you remember.’ She didn’t remember. And suddenly she’d look scared. Like she knew she should recall this person. She’d sit, rubbing her head, while everyone waited for a flicker of recognition or something that would suggest the reality wasn’t quite as bad as it seemed. It was like those bright headlights were being shone in her face. Eventually she’d say, ‘oh yes, Lily,’ and then she’d change the subject or break into a little song. I’m not sure what she remembered really. Lily was definitely there, somewhere, in her head. But she was probably a child, playing in their little family house, not an 89 year old woman with white hair and a nose just like Nana’s.

Nana in the old peopel's home

Nana in the old people's home on Valentine's 2010 - her memory was bad then but she always smiled for the camera

People say ‘focus on the good times’ and ‘take comfort in the memories’ and ‘it doesn’t do to dwell.’ The good times will always be there, for as long as my memory holds out. But at the moment, I don’t want to forget the Nana that was terrified of not knowing anymore. I played along when she pretended because I thought it helped her. To preserve her pride or something stupid like that. But I wonder if she wanted me to say, ‘I know, Nana. I know you are scared. I know you don’t remember who that person is. You don’t need to pretend. I am scared too.’

I never did. But I’m still not sure she would have wanted me to. Pretending helped her hold onto something, I think. And she was always Nana, right until the end.

Find out more about my Making Tracks project – Finding Nana.


Finding that feeling

Eastcliffe Promenade

Once there were eight - out on the promenade

The other night I went for a moonlight walk along the promenade. It is a hilly path, high up on the clifftop, that stretches from Shanklin Old Village to Hope Road. You can see the sea at all times.

Less light pollution and the fact you’re surrounded by the sea somehow makes the sky seem bigger and the stars brighter.

hotels

I like to think the hotels were watching and whispering as I walked by - 'haven't we seen her before?'

I walked slowly, past the clifftop hotels that have seen me a hundred times before. I almost stopped to show them photos and tell them stories of the old days. But they are just hotels. And they might not recognise me on my own. There used to be eight of us.

I walked on past the old lift that takes people from the beach to the clifftops. We used to catch it sometimes, in the evening, if we’d been to the arcades or playing bingo on the front.

Arcade in Shanklin

This is where we used to play bingo, and the 2p machines, and put 10p on the 'next great tram race' - but it didn't look like this

This wasn’t like Gala Bingo. It was these funny light-up cards on plastic stations. You’d sit on a stool, put 20p in for a game, and then the bingo caller would start reading the numbers. He did it all – funny voice into the mic – ‘Legs eleven’, (wolf whistle), ‘Maggie’s den, number 10’, (boo!). If you won, he ripped a few old-school fairground tickets from a roll and gave them to you. You could save up for anything in the cabinet. Electrical goods, tea services, cheap jewellery, pedal bins. I was impatient so always swapped my tickets pretty much immediately. Usually for a cheap little ornament that I’d then carry around with me all week.

the lift shanklin

The cliff lift in Shanklin - despite its concrete shell and blunt design, I think it's beautiful

The lift was also 20p. You queued up by a fence and then piled in, handing your ticket to an old man who cut a hole in it with a metal machine that hung round his neck and smelt of oil. He gave it back to you too. Not sure why. When we got home from our holiday, we’d find those little tickets in bags and pockets for weeks afterwards.

Once up on the clifftops, it was a short walk to The Mayfair. I remember it was always balmy as we meandered back. I’m sure it wasn’t. We could always see the moon and the stars and a calmness descended across us that we didn’t seem to have at home.

view from Eastcliffe

One of the views from Eastcliffe Promenade - sort of - that's Sandown pier in the distance

When I walked there the other night, that feeling came back to me. Contentment I guess. I didn’t actually feel it, I just remembered how it sits, deep in the pit of your stomach, almost like an ache. I think I realised, that night as I walked along the promenade, that although I thought I’d come back here to find Nana, I actually came to find that feeling. Or at least to work out how to get it back.

The next day I went for a drive through villages and out onto the coast road. As I passed one of many huge old houses I noticed a girl sitting on a fence stroking two funny little horses. There was something about her that was compelling. She had bright red hair scraped back into a bobble, a coat with a fur neck and white trousers, which I later realised were pyjamas. It wasn’t the way she looked that stopped me in my tracks, it was the way she was holding the horses and talking to them with pure abandonment. She was in the moment, completely, giving herself up to just being there.

Keri Hyland

I couldn't capture the way she looked as I have no idea how to use a camera

I drove on but I couldn’t stop thinking about her. She seemed to have that feeling I was looking for. If you’ve ever left someone without saying what you meant, or driven past a stunning sunset with your camera, or even just seen something in a shop that you really, really wanted but couldn’t afford, there is that time, those minutes immediately afterwards when it could go either way. The more the minutes pass, the less likely it is you’ll go back. Sometimes you shouldn’t go back. But that day, I did a U-turn on the country lane and drove to find her again, hoping hard that she’d still be there. She was. She looked up as I approached and smiled and immediately I was glad I stopped.

I asked if I could take her photograph and we spoke for a while. She was a musician, in her pyjamas because she was writing an album and rarely leaving the house. She’d come out for some air and to visit the horses in the field. It wasn’t her field, but she was bothered about them being lonely so she’d come out to ‘check on them.’ When she said that, she looked a little lost herself. She told me it was ‘stunning but lonely’ to live here. She had such a magnetic kindness about her that it was hard to leave. I asked if I could put her here, on this page, photo and words. She said ‘of course’ but to use my discretion when it came to the pictures because she had no make-up on and was in her pyjamas and hadn’t seen daylight for a few hours. She was beautiful.

Keri Hyland with the horses

Beautiful lady

I am not a photographer. I had no idea how to capture what I saw. That scene on the fence. There is no abandonment in my picture. The magnetism is lost in the still.

It’s like that feeling. The one I was talking about before. It’s there. Somewhere. But it’s so hard to capture and keep.

Find out more about my Making Tracks project – Finding Nana.


Tour of the town

Wednesday February 22

Janie in shades

I got my white shades from a shop in the Old Village - I was pretty proud of them. And the chord.

Before I left Shanklin today, I took a little tour of the town. To see what had changed.

Some evenings in the summer, me and my family would walk into the Old Village together and have a look in the shops. Not very often, admittedly, because Mum and Dad couldn’t stand us begging for tat. To combat this sort of scene, when we were a bit older we were given spending money at the beginning of the fortnight and had to choose wisely what it went on. The deal was we weren’t allowed to ask for any more. ‘When it’s gone, it’s gone.’

I frittered mine away on ice creams, arcade machines and bits from the beach shop. Somehow, my brother Jono managed to save his until the very last day, when he would buy himself something special. A really nice football from Sporties, or this cuddly turtle toy from the card shop that we both wanted.

Sporties shop

Sporties is still there. Jono will be pleased to know.

I was always jealous as I clutched my shrapnel and watched him slowly selecting his purchase. I don’t know how he did it. I’m pretty sure old ladies who thought he was cute bought him Fabs and slipped him coppers for the 2p machine. I also remember that he rarely took his money to the beach and learnt phrases from the adults like ‘I don’t really want to break into a note’, which he often trotted out when we were standing at the ice cream hatch.

Whatever his secret, he always had a crisp tenner left as the last weekend approached. Usually curled up in one of those weird tubular purse things you used to wear round your neck at the seaside. The ones you could wear for swimming. I had one but I don’t think I ever wore it in the sea. I left it under my towel instead. People didn’t steal stuff in those days. Ha.

The Rock Shop

The brilliant Shanklin Rock Shop - you want a cooked breakfast modelled out of rock? Well look no further.

The town hasn’t changed that much, particularly the old part. There are still thatched roofs and quaint tea shops. The Rock Shop still stands proudly on the corner in all its retro glory and the pretty Crab Inn waits for customers as if it’s captured in time.

I walked through the Old Village to the newer part of town. Some of the shops are the same. Piggy Wiggies is a gift shop where I used to spend ages looking at shell animals, stick-on earrings, kaleidoscopes and snap bracelets. Once I recall finding an ornament of two skeletons having sex in a coffin – inane grins on their faces. With some urgency, I whispered across the shop to Jono, demanding he come and look at this magnificent find. I wonder how many they sold. My spending money wouldn’t stretch.

Piggy Wiggies

I have purchased many a gift item from Piggy Wiggies in my time

Sporties is still there too – Jono’s favourite. I once saved some of my money, like him, and bought a baseball. I wanted to get in the school rounders team so I paid £3.99 for the heavy white ball with red stitching and asked Dad to give me catching practice. It nearly broke my hands. Sporties wasn’t really a shop for me.

I carried on, past Shanklin Theatre where Frankenstein the Pantomime was playing, and down the quieter suburban street towards Hope Road. If I could choose any street in the world to live on it would be Hope Road, just for the name alone. I walked past houses that were there long before I came to visit. The same houses I have seen many times. Possibly the same owners. Past the little antique shop and round the corner to Wight News, the paper shop where I used to go each morning with Grandad before breakfast. My brother recently reminded me how Grandad would greet everyone he met on the way, and how he’d breathe the sea air deeply and say to us, ‘fill your lungs.’ You got the impression he was always grateful to be there. He never took that holiday for granted. None of us did I don’t think.

Grandad on Hope Beach

Grandad on Hope Beach - loving every minute

Wight News was an Aladdin’s cave of gifts, postcards, sticker albums, sweets, chocolate, rock, newspapers and magazines. In about 1989, one of the Red Tops was doing a special series on Neighbours. I bought the paper every day and sat in the beach hut cutting out pictures of Scott and Charlene for my specially crafted scrapbook (a load of old bits of paper, tied together with ribbon). I was in love with Charlene. Not so much Scott. And I had no principles regarding Red Tops then. I didn’t even know what they were. To me, red tops were what we got after a day on the beach.

Now, Wight News is broken down, locked and empty. An A4 piece of paper in the window reads ‘advertise here for just £1 a week.’ I feel sorry for the little shop, so far from its former glory, someone desperately, embarrassingly almost, trying to find a use for it.

Wight News now

Wight News now

There is something sadder about it standing there, broken and peeling, but harking back to what it was. I think it would be easier if it wasn’t there anymore. Just gone. So we could keep the memories and forget the reality. But life’s not like that, is it?

Find out more about my Making Tracks project – Finding Nana.


Leaving The Mayfair

Wednesday February 22

Mayfair steps

One last sit on the Mayfair steps

Today I leave The Mayfair. I remember exactly how this felt 20 years ago. The last night was always heartbreaking. Saying goodbye to everyone, hugging, promising to write. Usually, Dad and Grandad would request an early breakfast so we could leave in good time. This meant the dining room was empty except for a few of us. The usual morning bustle and anticipation was replaced with a sense of dread and sadness. For another year, it had come to an end.

I remember standing in the corridor, hearing the request, listening and begging silently that they would change their minds and say, ‘do you know what? It’s once a year. It doesn’t matter if we get stuck in traffic or back late. It’s worth it to have one last breakfast with everyone.’ But they never did. As a child you are powerless in a situation like that. You have to do what everyone else does. So we ate early and left.

carpark Mayfair

Noone waved me off today. I said goodbye to one of the builders who was painting a window frame but he was busy.

Usually everyone would gather in the car park anyway, after our breakfast and before theirs. Sometimes there were tears. I always cried when we got home, alone in my bed, Nana back in hers. The only comfort was that I had tacky souvenirs to give my friends. A full English breakfast made out of seaside rock or a pencil with a spooky smuggler clinging to it as if it was a mast. I’d usually take them out of my suitcase, lay them out and look at
them before going to sleep.

Although today is not the end of my trip, leaving The Mayfair still feels sad. Being here, alone, out of season has made me more emotional than I could have imagined. I feel guilty for leaving. I’m moving somewhere with space and peace. But I feel like I’m cheating on my family somehow, and on Nana.

corridor mayfair

Where are you Nana? When I took this outside Room 17, I was hoping she'd pop up behind me in the mirror.

Earlier, I asked if I could take one last look at Room 17. I wanted to write this in there. The owner told me it was occupied. Until today, I was the only guest. There are over 40 rooms. Why was Room 17 occupied? I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach. I had specifically requested that room and was told it was uninhabitable. Now someone else was taking our space. They were sleeping in our beds and taking our view for their own. They didn’t know what it meant. I considered asking how much it would be to buy Room 17. Forever.

I wanted to go and see who was in the room. To get a look at them. I started to imagine it was Nana in there. That she’d faked her long drawn out death so she could go and live in Room 17 and look out to sea, uninterrupted. I went up to the corridor, to use another room across the way, and I kept an ear out for the sound of the grey metal catch opening. I would orchestrate a ‘chance meeting’ with the new inhabitant of Room 17. Try to explain the situation. I don’t know what I was doing really. The door never opened. Noone came out.

Me and Nana in the sea

Me and Nana in the sea

It’s weird, because I came here looking for Nana as she was, back then. Nut brown, coated in oil, soaking up the sun, eating ice creams, laughing and singing, seemingly carefree. Actually I feel closer to the fragile old lady, with the furrowed brow and the lost look. I am here, where we were, but I can’t get to her. Everything is closed and empty. The mist is heavy and the roads are being mended for the summer season. I feel like she’s here, but trapped somehow. Rattling around this hotel. Watching it change but with no power to stop it. Afraid and alone.

Closed doors and corridors and small rooms make me think of her in that old people’s home. I’d arrive and find her walking the walls. Asking anyone who’d listen why she was there. Telling them that it was a mistake. I’d sign in and see her there, through the glass, in the corridor, bag over her arm, knees bent from the pressure of constant walking. She’d be angry at first. Why was I late? Why hadn’t I come earlier to get her? Then we’d sit in her room, have a sherry, do a crossword or look through a photo album, and she’d calm down. Usually.

Corridor Mayfair
I used to think this corridor was so long

Now here I am, in a different corridor, trying to picture her in one of her handmade suits, whistling, scooping me up in my smart dinner clothes, dropping me on the bed next to hers. But somehow I can’t see her. Not today anyway. I wish I wasn’t going.

Find out more about my Making Tracks project – Finding Nana.


Ghosts and builders

Little me in Room 17

Little me in Room 17 - about 1986

Monday February 20

I’m in Room 17 again. A builder let me in. He told me to be aware of tools on the stairs and loose wires in the corridor. They are afraid of getting sued I guess. He left the door wide open as he left but I wanted to be locked in. So when he’d walked all the way back down the corridor, I closed the door quietly, sat down on my old bed and cried.

I woke up this morning to the deafening sound of a drill. I had a terrible headache and I felt low. I wanted to get out of here. It wasn’t what I thought. I wanted to feel nostalgia not annoyance. And I didn’t want to destroy my memories.

The woman who runs the place is nice but seems a bit suspicious. I would be too. With me walking around taking photos as they are working hard to refurbish the place. I emailed the next bed and breakfast, where I’m moving to on Wednesday, and asked if I could get in today. I considered just leaving here without saying anything. I don’t like conflict. I will complain but only if it’s comfortable. Otherwise I will take the hit cash-wise and just moan about it after. They emailed straight back and said I could move there today. But, as I started to pack, something held me back. Room 17. Before I accepted the offer to move, I went and asked the owner here if I could go and sit in my old room for a while. Just an hour or so. She sent the builder to let me in and four hours later, I am still here.

Jane on bed Room 17

Big me in Room 17 (now Room 16)

I came up here in old leggings and no make-up. I wanted to feel bare I think. Closer to me as a kid. Before I became hung-up on being fat and spotty and unlike the other kids who were happy to run around in swimsuits. I wore baggy t-shirts and tried to pretend it was my style. Really I just hated my body. Like a lot of teenagers do.

It’s weird in here, room 17, because even though the furniture has changed, it is still placed in exactly the same way. So the wardrobe where Nana and I used to hang all our smart clothes for dinner is still there by the window. And the little bedside table, where I’d arrange my dolls and Nana would set up her travel alarm clock, is still there, between the beds (where else would you put a bedside table, I hear you say). The bathroom is so strange. Exactly the same layout, although perhaps the suite has changed. I’m pretty sure it was pink, back in the day.

Nana's bed

Nana's bed in Room 17

And the ceiling is the same. That weird paint effect. Swirly. And there’s a crack. Above my bed. That was always there. I think the carpet’s the same too. If it is, we kneeled beside each other on this very carpet, Nana and I, to make fancy dress costumes. I got down on the carpet earlier and put my face to the floor. I realise this sounds like odd behaviour. I don’t mind.

The view from room 17

The view then

Nana used to wake me every morning by opening the curtains and making a cup of tea with powdered milk. I remembered that when I put the kettle on this morning. The loud whooshing noise of the boiling water cut through the room and I was back there, aged 10, stirring. Opening my eyes to see Nana in her dressing gown, standing at the window, hands on her hips or rubbing her back, looking out to sea, her small silhouette cast against the August sun streaming in through the window.

The view now

The view now

I wonder what she was thinking as she stared out at the boats. Perhaps she was imagining the day ahead, wondering whether she had any change in her purse for a paper, deciding what she might have for breakfast. Or maybe she was thinking about her husband who never really had a holiday with her and their children. Perhaps she was wondering what it would be like to share Room 17 with him. They went to Skegness, before my auntie was born. I know that. Maybe she was remembering that. If she was, she never said.

From my bed by the wall, I am looking past Nana’s silhouette to the calm sea. A boat is going by as I write this. I wonder if it can see me, here in Room 17. Up against the wall. Wondering what it’s all about.

One thing’s for sure. I’m staying here. At least until Wednesday.

Find out more about my Making Tracks project – Finding Nana.


Small Hope Beach

Small Hope Beach

Me playing it cool on Small Hope Beach

Sunday February 19

Today I feel like a ghost. Slipping through the places where we used to sit and dream. The future seemed so far away then. Nothing much mattered for those two weeks on the Island. It feels like everything matters now.

The beach is different. I already knew it was because I’ve seen it since we came here together. But I’ve never been so out of season. Its emptiness surprised me I suppose. There were people walking past, but none of them stopped to play cricket or build sandcastles. It doesn’t have to be hot for that.

Small Hope Beach

Small Hope Beach today - February 19 2012

We were here whatever the weather. Mum and Dad loved the beach, hated packed day-trip places and didn’t have much money. So every day after breakfast they’d gather everyone together and we’d make the descent down the steep hill on Hope Road to our beach huts. Believe it or not, this was easier when we were babies. As I grew up and started needing a full face of make up before I could leave my room, their patience was tested and tempers were frayed. So I suppose things did matter then. I have just chosen to forget.

Beach huts Small Hope Beach
Us in front of our beach huts in about 1984

True to form, we always had the same beach huts too – numbers 20 and 21 were ours. On the first day, we’d pack them full with crockery, water carriers, brollies, windbreaks, lilos, buckets and spades, towels, a stove and deckchairs. We stocked up in case a storm blew in or it was so hot we frazzled. We were ready for anything.

I loved the beach huts. They were like our mini houses for the fortnight – and wow, were people house proud?! I often heard the adults complaining about the amount of sand building up on the wooden floors and we were made to clean our feet before entering. They were beach huts.

Me and my grandad wrote a poem together in our beach hut once. I entered it into a competition and won a book about a Christian monkey (the competition was run by a religious group on the beach. I loved the songs and games). I remember carrying that book back to where everyone sat, brimming with pride, passing it around but keeping a close eye on it at all times.

Walking to Small Hope Beach with Mum
Walking down to Small Hope Beach with Mum and Katie

I also started a little charity enterprise one year and it became a tradition. For one or two days in the first week, I would collect pebbles from the sea edge and sit painting them with felt tips. Just me at first. Then the other kids joined in until there was a little production line. In the second week, we’d lay out a towel, display our painted stones and passers-by would stop and give us 10p for them. Sometimes they’d give us money but not take a stone. We could never understand that. At the end of the day, Grandad and Grandma arranged for a representative from lifeboat charity RNLI to come and collect the money – usually about four pounds. He always shook my hand and gave me a little receipt. I saved those receipts for years.

There were about six families that went down the beach as well as lots of older couples. All in all there was probably about 30 of us. We played loads of games, all went in the sea together, one year we even had a beach Olympics organised by our friend’s dad. We tired ourselves out on that sand. We were never bored. We wandered around the rock pools for ages, read, swam, painted, pored over the shelves of the beach shop choosing what we’d spend our pound on at the end of the week (a cuddly ET was my personal favourite purchase).

I ce cream time on Hope Beach
Ice cream time on Small Hope Beach – this is a typical Len Upton photo – he’d have got them all off their deckchairs to pose. So glad he did.

It was all the generations together too, on the beach. We all played boules together, ate watermelon on the sand, meandered off for a game of crazy golf. It was all of us. One big party. For two weeks.

I’m in the pub now and there’s a family next to me. The children are shouting, kicking the seats and proclaiming that they don’t want food. Their mum is struggling to keep them under control and looks stressed. The beach is less than 10 minutes away. The sun is out. The kids are full of energy and the meal they’re about to play with will cost their mum about £40. I want to ask them if they’ll come and run in the sand with me. But I probably won’t. And actually they’d probably tell me that they’re exactly where they want to be and I should mind my own business. So I will.

Shame though. The sea is calling us.

Find out more about my Making Tracks project – Finding Nana


The Mayfair and Room 17

hotel

The entrance now

When I say Mayfair, I’m not talking about that very upmarket bit of London, made famous by Monopoly. I’m talking about the hotel we stayed in every year when I was growing up.

If you’ve been following this blog, you’ll know the memories The Mayfair holds for me and that I always used to stay in Room 17 with my nana. For this trip, the idea was that I would stay in that room again. To tap into some nostalgia and remember her.

Well. When I finally got through to The Mayfair a few weeks ago to book, the woman on the phone seemed puzzled that I would want Room 17. She offered me a bigger room with a sea view but I explained it had to be 17. No other room would do. After a long conversation, which ended with me persuading her to take my money, I was under the impression that Room 17 would be mine for four nights.

hotel

The entrance back in the day - I'm on the front row.

When I turned up today, I couldn’t believe my eyes. The place is being refurbished and it’s in disarray. There’s a mattress in the car park, a bulging skip out front and the pool’s been drained. Builders are banging around the place and it is devoid of guests. I am the only one.

The lovely owner explained to me that Room 17 is noisy and basically uninhabitable, but if I wanted it, I could have it. She took me up to view the room that I had stayed in so many times. My stomach was tight with expectation as we climbed the well-trodden stairs, past the little bathroom on the landing with the same ‘toilet’ sign, past my Grandma and Grandad’s room, past the frosted glass with little boats blown into it, past the full-length mirror that I had admired my fancy dress costumes in every Thursday, and up to the room door. Only it said ‘16’ not ‘17’.

Room 17 now

The owner walked straight past to a little room right in the corner of the corridor. ‘No,’ I said, almost too fervently, ‘this is it! This is Room 17.’ ‘No,’ she said, ‘it’s the corner room.’ I told her that the room in front of us had always been 17. That sixteen years ago, when I packed my case for the final time, it had been in this very room.

She had prepared the beds in the new room 17. Not the beds where we used to sleep. But she told me I was welcome to look around. I was amazed how familiar it felt. It will be overhauled in a few weeks, but for the time being it looks almost the same.

room 17

Room 17 back in the day - don't I look smart with my pigtails?

She gave me a few moments alone to take in the smell, look out over the pool and sit in the bathroom. The bath is barely big enough for a gerbil. I had forgotten that.

I had a good look around and the owners kindly let me take some photos. I must point out that they are doing up the place. Getting it ready for the spring season. So it will probably be restored to its former glory. I took lots of pictures – too many to post here, but I’ve tried to fit a few in below. For now, I am in Room 2. With free rein to work in ‘Room 17’ should the urge arise. It might well do.

Swimming pool now (but it won't look like this in March)

Swimming pool back in the day - me pulling faces

room hotel

Room 2

bed

Room 10 back in the day - me and Nana went to visit Grandma, Grandad and Katie in their room

The journey

Mum said that when I was about 12, she asked me to go and pack my suitcase. I put everything I owned into it. I still have no idea how to pack.

I made it. To the Mayfair. I’m here now, writing this at an orange pine dresser with mug-ring marks and four sachets of Nescafe. More of that later.

This morning I woke up feeling excited and then suddenly very lonely. I was at Mum and Dad’s, getting ready to go to the Isle of Wight. It felt like they should be running around, packing their cases, arguing and checking the oil in their car. Actually Mum was calmly getting ready for yoga and Dad was sleeping in. I made my way around the house, gathering my last few bits. Mum left and said she wished I wasn’t going. Then I said goodbye to Dad four times before driving off in my little KA. I think something was holding me back a bit. Maybe the fear of how I might feel once I got here.

Nana's old house

The journey started on our old street – the first place I lived. I parked my car outside Nana’s old house and sat for a few moments thinking of those early August mornings when we used to wake up together and get ready for our holiday. I’d sleep in the Pink Room, so called because it had flowery pink wallpaper and pink flannelette sheets on the bed. Nana would sleep in her room, the back bedroom, where one of her lodgers once wandered in his sleep. She screamed. I’ll never forget that.

I got out of the car and walked down to our old house, Number 99. I used to think it was quite a walk, as a kid, but actually it is about two minutes on adult legs. Rudely, I peered into windows and considered layouts and decor. In one house, a little boy in pyjamas was dancing in front of a plasma. Further down the road, a little girl of about five waved at me from a huge bay window. I waved back and smiled and thought of me at that age in our home on that street.

Number 99

Number 99 and the '6' balloon

As I approached Number 99, I noticed the little bathroom window first. A tiny rectangle of glass in the old bricks. I remembered how we used to make Mum or Dad sit at the bottom of the stairs every time we went to the toilet. The bathroom was right at the end of the dark landing and it was scary. We’d shout down, mid wee, ‘are you still there?’ Sometimes Dad would stay quiet, to scare us. ‘Are you still there?’ we’d shout, more frantic this time. ‘Yes, still here,’ the answer would come.

When I got round the front of the house, I saw a big blue balloon in the front window in the shape of a six. It’s strange because I was six when we left Number 99. For a few minutes I entertained a romantic notion that the house remembered me and floated the balloon in honour of my visit. Ha.

Then I turned back. I didn’t walk on to the end of the road to where my grandma still lives. When I was a child I would have done. I would have rung the doorbell and said ‘please can Mum borrow a flask?’, or ‘Dad says can you fit anything else in your car?’ Today I turned around and walked back to Nana’s. I’m not sure why and I feel guilty about it. I think it’s because I knew Grandad wouldn’t be there. And I didn’t want to break my nostalgic trip by being faced with the real memory that some of our party is gone.

Grandad drove me to the Isle of Wight every year. He was a very careful driver. We were never allowed music on, he always stayed in the left hand lane of the motorway, and we always stopped at the same services no matter what. I tried to stop there today, in memory, but I couldn’t find it. I was desperate for a coffee and saw many places to stop, but I kept driving, trying to find the exact spot. Alas, it was not to be.

As a child, I never questioned our route or why we stopped at the same services. I was just content to be in the back with Nana stroking my hair, Grandma and Grandad up front, and the bubbling, fizzing feeling in my stomach, knowing I’d be on the beach tomorrow, whatever the weather. As I grew into a teenager, Grandad’s careful driving annoyed me. I once asked if we could listen to my Spin Doctors tape. I plucked up the courage by about Oxford I think. But it wasn’t happening. I’m ashamed now, how easily I was annoyed.

Grandad rode in a tank in the desert during World War II. Sadly, I can’t remember the exact story but he either swapped tanks with a comrade or the vehicles went out of formation. Either way, the tank that he was meant to be in was blown up in front of his eyes. His friends died, while he survived. Grandad knew a lot more than me about dangerous driving.

Old school neighbours

Still a sense of community on the street

This morning, I didn’t go to Grandma and Grandad’s house. I walked back to Nana’s and noticed the next-door neighbours had four pairs of wellies and some coats hanging outside their house. Just like people did in the old days. We knew everyone around us on that street. We had water fights and ramshackle garden parties for all the kids and we set up a silly fairground where you needed to pick a leaf from our hedge to pay for a ride on our swing or see-saw.

Once back at Nana’s, I took one last look at her front gate, got back in my car, turned the engine on and headed for the M1 with the handwritten route that Dad had done for me. No sat nav today.

On the passenger seat I’d strewn a few of Nana’s old CDs. Frank Sinatra and West Side Story among them. I put on Frankie and headed for the ferry with music filling the car.

Sorry Grandad; Nana’s request.

Find out more about my Making Tracks project – Finding Nana.


Butterflies and hope

Nana and Zoe

Nana with my niece Zoe in 2008

It’s close to midnight and I am sitting in my childhood bedroom. With butterflies. Tomorrow I take my trip to the Isle of Wight. To write and reflect and find my Nana.

I lost her last year. In a haze of horrible scenes where she drifted in and out of some weird world she was inhabiting. She never stopped recognising me. Not even in the last few days when I held her hand in the home while people wandered in and out of her room looking for their garden or Gregory Peck or just someone to talk to. She probably couldn’t have told you my name, but the flicker of recognition that crossed her face when I entered the room was enough for me to believe she knew.

She was only there in that room for a few days. To die I suppose. All hope was left in the hospital and a haunting few days followed. She gripped my hand so tightly. Pulled on it as if she was trying to stay in the world. She was always so full of life before her stroke. I can imagine her putting up a fight when she saw the light. She probably tried to get the Grim Reaper to join in on an old music hall number. I doubt she would have ever been ready to go.

Jasmine Louise Upton

Jasmine Louise was born this week

On Wednesday this week, my brother and his girlfriend had their first baby. You’d expect me to say it, but she really is beautiful. Perfectly soft skin, tiny little finger nails, that strangely addictive smell you’ll know if you’ve ever held a baby before it’s been washed for the very first time. Her name is Jasmine and her mere presence is exciting, uplifting and full of hope. It’s strange that Nana will never hold her or sing to her or play cards with her over a mug of milky coffee. Jasmine is the first baby in the family since Nana died. She will never meet her great grandmother, but she will hear all about her.

Yesterday, when I woke up and knew I’d be seeing my new niece later that evening, I picked out a skirt I’d never worn. I chose it because it reminded me of Nana and I wanted to take her with me. Calf-length, pleated, with a high waist, it was exactly the sort of skirt Nana would have owned. I bought it from a charity shop at Christmas for that very reason. A few times during the day, as I sat at my desk in that skirt, I thought about Nana and how much she would have loved to meet Jasmine. How she always made children the centre of attention and was never too busy to turn off the TV or put down her book and play with them instead. Jasmine would have loved her. Everybody did.

Jane and Jasmine

Me and my niece

That night, when I sat on the floor with my tiny niece for the first time, I laid her across my skirt. And something inside me made believe that Jasmine and Nana were saying hello. Stupid really, it wasn’t even Nana’s skirt.

But it made me smile.

Find out more about my Making Tracks project – Finding Nana.