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.
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.
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.
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.