My life has been one of journeys and contrasts. Even as a young child it seemed I lived in two places, since – in Mum’s words – we were ‘going home’ whenever we took the bus from small-town Guiseley to York, the city where I was born. The smile on Mum’s face as we alighted by Micklegate Bar said it all – she was back, and she was happy. That made me happy too.
I loved York. It was a place of calm where nothing seemed to change. In York I could be myself. Even the two-hour journey from home was a pleasure.
Guiseley to Leeds had its views, but once we were through the city and had reached the far boundary everything changed. In the 1950s the village green at Seacroft made the kind of picture you’d see on birthday cards and calendars: a broad swathe of green, faced by the pub, the church, a row of cottages and a post office. On summer Saturdays there was often a cricket match going on, men in white posted strategically around the field, as though posing for a photo.
Nearby was an old windmill, long disused, and just beyond that another of my landmarks, a country inn called the Old Red Lion, white-painted, which, like the Fox & Grapes a little further on, always seemed to be waiting for a coach and horses to pull up. This was the point where Leeds and the industrial Aire Valley were behind us, where the small, stone-walled pastures of the Pennines gave way to the broad wheatlands of the Vale of York.
As the bus gathered speed I usually fell silent. ‘You’re quiet,’ my mother would say, but there was always too much to take in. If I talked I might miss something new, a detail I’d never noticed before. In winter, the pattern of plough-lines on a rolling hillside, like giant herringbone tweed; a rippling sea of green and gold crops in early summer, or the glint of sun on shorn fields at harvest-time. And poppies, blood-red poppies, edging the fields, bordering the road-side, splashes of scarlet that I longed to capture in my hands, if only the bus would stop for me, and wait…
I thought they were glorious, dancing in the breeze, but poppies made Mum sad. Poppies reminded her of Armistice Day, she said, and of her beloved father, who’d fought in the First World War. He’d survived the war but died when she was only 17. And as though one could not be mentioned without the other, she would tell me afresh about his brother, Will, who had gone off to Australia, then volunteered in August 1914 to come back and do his bit.
Will met his end in Flanders. ‘Poor lad – to go through all that – and then…’
She never completed the sentence. There was always the wistful look, the shake of the head, the sadness for her father’s missing brother. She’d never known him, and yet he’d been a constant presence in their lives.
In childhood innocence I imagined a neat bullet through the heart as per the Westerns we went to see at the cinema. But come the day I thought to ask, Mum didn’t hesitate. ‘Caught in the bombardment,’ she said. ‘Blown to bits.’
That was shocking. I’d seen explosions on newsreels, and pictured a huge blast, with him disappearing into nothingness, leaving just a dip in the earth where he’d been.
‘Nothing left to bury,’ she said, confirming my mental picture with a little sniff – of grief perhaps, or anger. ‘That’s why his name is on the Menin Gate.’
I didn’t know then what the Menin Gate was, but it seemed wrong not to have a proper grave like my grandfather’s in the old cemetery at York, where we often went with flowers. But Mum would pat my hand, and then, if we were sitting upstairs on the bus – and we generally were – she’d light a cigarette and lapse into silence, staring out, with me, at the rolling fields of the Vale of York. And the scarlet poppies, dancing in the breeze…