Childhood memories: Playing in nature and befriending local cats

Judith Barrie from SWit’CH writers, based in Swinton at Critchley Community Hub has recalled her memories playing out, discovering plants and making friends with local cats. 

My earliest memories were mostly times of discovery, the kind of discovery that only a small child can make: their first sight of a scuttling beetle, a jar of sticklebacks proudly displayed by the boy next door, a book with colourful pictures of fairy princesses and pixies, the iridescent glory of a butterfly. But the most beautiful things for me were flowers: the improbable faces of pansies; the first time my mother showed me a bee finding the secret door in a snapdragon; the simple magic of the first primrose I ever saw, growing wild on the ‘top field’.

In a lot of ways, I had a magical childhood. Even though there were no other children of my age in our street, I have always been contented to amuse myself alone, and I don’t ever remember being bored; as now, I never seemed to have enough time. We lived in Wardley, which at that time was a row of four short streets off the A6. At the top of the street was a patch of rough ground with (what seemed at the time) a large pond and beyond that, farmers’ fields that stretched back forever.

So the ‘top field’ was where I spent most of my days. Even the smallest children were allowed to play out unattended and without fear at that time, so kitted out in my tiny wellies and clutching a hopeful jam jar I trotted off up the street to the pond, where I was enchanted by the teeming pond life, trying, thankfully without a great deal of success, to capture darting newts or little silverfish or water bugs. I would stay up there for hours, wading in from the edge, a little bit further and a little bit further, until the pond water surged over the top of my wellies, and I knew I would be in big trouble – again – when I got home. And, sure enough, I would be plonked on the draining board where the squelching wellies were dragged off, then the soaking, slightly muddy socks, accompanied by much ‘chunnering’ by my mother. But the pond was a magnet and I never learned to resist it.

I was blessed to live in a house where there were always books and I was given, very early on, the precious gift of a set of Flower Fairy books which I pored over for hours, quickly learning that the flowers growing so freely on the top field had such beautiful names as rose-bay-willow-herb, tansy, toadflax, herb Robert, vetch, and the astoundingly-named bird’s-foot-trefoil, although I never found the scarlet spire of berries of a lords-and-ladies plant. Specimens were duly collected and put into cups of water when I got home. In my memory, it was always summer and every day was full of sunshine and pleasure.

But my most joyful memory was the day when I arrived home from school to find a kitten. My mother had never been very fond of cats but she had come down into the kitchen one morning to find that a frying-pan, left on the top of the stove and containing a substantial layer of bacon dripping, was criss-crossed by the patter of tiny feet. It was more than obvious that some brave mouse pioneer had discovered this tasty treat and gone back to fetch the rest of the family. It didn’t take much to horrify my mother at the best of times, so there was quite a kerfuffle at this discovery.

A kitten was swiftly procured, although I recall no discussion of it at the time, so it was with total surprise and amazement that I discovered this enchanting creature, as wide-eyed with wonder as I was, peeping up from a cardboard box. The innocent joy of realising that this exquisite creature had come to live with us was never quite surpassed.

I swept it up into my arms, its baby blue eyes looking into my face with astonishment. On finding out that it was a boy, I promptly named him Tibby and I spent the next few years completely in his thrall. He soon discarded the cardboard box and took over the sofa for his bed. He would tear around the house, light as a feather, running up the curtains with ease, darting along the back of a chair, spitting in his excitement, performing acrobatics with a piece of string, then suddenly his saucer eyes would droop closed, his little head would flop and he would be fast asleep, giving me ample leisure to examine his tiny shell-pink paw pads, bordered with deadly curved needles; the delightful design of his moist little nose where it joined onto his mouth with its set of miniature shark’s teeth; the downy hair lining his perfect ears; his tiny tail like a piece of fluffy string.

His clumsy attempts to wash his face sent us all into paroxysms of delight. Tibby was a fawn-coloured tiger-stripy cat, a bit like a ginger tom who had been through the wash a few times too many and he was a small bundle of pure joy.

He never became cross, however much I cuddled and fussed over him and even my mother became enamoured when he discovered that she had the comfiest knee in the house and she spent hours combing his fur while he purred like a train, kneading her legs with his growing claws. He eventually became so big that, as a five-year old, I could hardly pick him up, but pick him up I did, sometimes tucking him into my doll’s pram and taking him for a walk down the street. He took it all so good-naturedly, only drawing the line when I put my doll’s bonnet on his head. But he enjoyed being wheeled out in the pram and the only time he ever jumped out was when I had put my doll’s matinee jacket on him.

It fitted quite well – dolls at that time were often large, pot affairs made to look like real babies, and Pauline – as mine was called – had quite an array of home-made clothes. Tibby was fine for a while, then suddenly leapt out of the pram and off he went up the street, his front legs encased in the sleeves of the matinee jacket, trotting awkwardly, but at a faster pace than I could muster, and it was a good hour before he returned home, minus jacket, demanding a late lunch. We never found out how he had freed himself of the offending vestment and he flatly refused to tell us, but after that his pram-pushed days were over.

But the mice never reappeared and I adored Tibby until he was very sadly run over and killed four years later. And, although I was never quite on a par with Gerald Durrell, my love of nature gave me an enchanted childhood, and stays with me to this very day as I sit out in my garden, locked down with the rest of the world.

I realise my great good fortune that I am surrounded by flowers and trees, as so many are not, and this adds a layer of sadness to the joy that I still feel watching the tadpoles swishing around my pond, the wonder of watching a robin and a goldfinch drinking together in my birdbath and the bees disappear through that secret door in a snap-dragon.

This story is taken from the writing group’s most recent anthology Memories Unlocked, which is available from Amazon and good book shops around the world.

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