Thievery: Kick the Can and Rhododendron Perfume
This month I’m doing a mentoring special to celebrate all the talented and diverse writers I’ve been lucky enough to work with through WoMentoring. Today we have the talented and generally delightful Rebecca Smith.
First life lesson. When we were little we used to crush rhododendron flowers, add water and hey presto, rhody perfume. Roses worked better of course, but roses were precious. During the summer the gardens on the estate were open to the public so we would stand on a corner of the path and wait for the slow gait of old couples. They thought my brother and I were the sweetest things they had ever seen with our shorts, muddy white t-shirts and tiny perfume bottles. We sold them for a couple of pence, collecting the coins in an old jar. Mum laughed when we showed her our profits. But she said we couldn’t expand the business. The flowers weren’t ours. Our shop floor didn’t belong to us. And, frankly, we were coercing people to buy. Running a business is tricky.
Second life lesson. A winding, hilly road circled the estate. One day Mum let me take my bike to visit my friend who lived at the farm at the bottom of the hill. I fled down the road like my wings had been unclipped, the wind cold on my legs. Then I saw the car coming. Terrified, I pulled my breaks on so hard my bike stopped dead and I somersaulted over the handle bars. My body skidded to a halt on the tarmac road, a few metres away from the bike. The car slowed and the driver wound its window down. My mum, always close by, heard the scream from the garden and was already half way down the road. She carried me back to the house and called the doctor. I still have scars on my legs and my face. Always, always wear a helmet.
I only realised recently how much of an impact my childhood had on my writing, and subsequently my life. Mum and Dad have often joked ‘we’re sorry we’ve spoiled you’ and in some ways, they’re right.
I grew up in a house with no central heating, where on a January morning a thin layer of ice had spread across the glass on the inside of the window. We had to light the fire every morning just to have hot water for a bath (and it was an open fire at that, which meant the rug was peppered with burn marks from sparks and our clothes were scented with wood smoke). My Dad was the forester to the estate. It sounds posh. It wasn’t. We were part of the staff who were invited once a year at Christmas to have a sherry in the big house, the centuries old portraits staring down at my little brother and I. The nearest supermarket was 45 minutes away. The local pub was in the village, down four miles of dark winding roads. I never went trick or treating at Halloween. I never knew what a take-away was until I went to University. I had to ask mum for a lift everywhere (school, shops, cinema, to play at a friend’s house.)
But, I loved it. We were completely and utterly surrounded by nature. Ancient trees, forests with deer, fields full of lambs in spring. We had a couple of friendly pheasants and even a few regular summer snakes. I had a range of mountains framed by my bedroom window. When, on those property shows they say, ‘What a view’ I can’t help but scoff. I had a view. I truly have been spoiled. And I can’t help but feel the consequences of it. I can’t live in a city (too noisy, too many people, too built up). I find even the suburbs claustrophobic. I think I’ll only ever feel at home back in the middle of nowhere. Right now, due to circumstance, the suburbs will have to do, so I find when I write, the green of the fields, the sharp cold air and the sound of owls make their way out onto the paper. This is how ‘Kick the Can’ came out onto the page.
The bones of the story are real memories. We did try to sell flower perfume and make discos under the rhododendron bushes. Its so clichéd but we spent hours running about wild on the estate. Now, as an adult, I find I am mourning the idea that my son won’t have those experiences. But most adults feel like that. If you were lucky enough to love your childhood, then your own children’s upbringing will, probably, be unrecognisable. We all know how much the world has changed.
What hasn’t changed is the way that parents love their children. The way that that care and love fosters a future generation. I will be forever grateful that my parents both seemed to keep an eye on my brother and I but made us feel free at the same time. They never stopped us from doing anything but were always close by to pick up the pieces. They managed to strike that difficult, almost impossible, balance at giving me enough confidence to believe I can do anything without pushing me into what they thought was best.
I find it natural to write about where I grew up. I think I will always do that. But without knowing how or why, my writing also seems to gain a sense of that relationship, that love, that my parents instilled in me while deciding to bring me up somewhere that, ultimately, has spoiled my approach to life in the best way possible.
‘Kick the Can and Rhododendron Perfume’ can be read in full at Tales From the Forest.