It’s an odd day, sunny yet chilly. I would say it has the feel of the first day of autumn, daft though that sounds in early July, yet that is the sense-memory that this combination of light and temperature evokes in me. It carries me back to Cornish holidays in childhood; it always felt slightly autumnal there, even in high summer there was that yellow intensity to the sun and that sharp odour in the air, and the heavy, heavy dewfall each night. I used to love being woken by the shipping forecast, and my father’s bubbling childlike excitement if it became clear that this was a day when we could take the boat out. Now in this autumnal Kernow light I’m haunted; I sit in the office and I keep expecting to catch a whiff of the rank small of wet bracken coming in through an open cottage window.
It is extraordinary to think how long ago that was. Dad rented a boat called “Demelza” from a little firm in Falmouth, a fifteen-foot skiff with brick-red sails. Every day the weather was decent we would drive the short but blissful ten miles or so of twisting lanes and sudden stunning views, from Tregolls, outside Stithians where my grand-stepmother lived, to Falmouth, and set off to sail around Carrick Roads, and up and down the myriad creeks that run down into the Fal estuary. I loved these sailing days – I’m lucky enough to be a good sailor, unlike my elder brother who was violently ill every time – and they remain some of my happiest childhood memories, and some of my happiest memories of my father. Dad was a difficult man in some ways, but he was at his very best in a boat.
I want to go back, whenever I think of it.
If now were then, I’d be getting excited by this point in the month, knowing that as soon as term ended I would be off on the first of my two summer holidays (there aren’t many other perks to having divorced parents both of whom are broke, btw), and the only extended period of time I got to spend with my dad each year. I loved Jane’s mum, Betty, and her wonderful granite cottage on a hillside above a dairy farm, with the outhouse converted into a sculpture studio, the big Rayburn stove, the vise attached permanently to the kitchen table, the proper open fire and the bookcases tucked into every corner; and the garden full of tangled attar roses, leggy marigolds, harts-tongue ferns, redcurrant bushes and rows of lettuces and beetroots. The view from the window of the room I slept in was a vast panorama of moorland and farmland, with grazing cattle, ripening wheatfields, and the roofs of the village in the distance. I remember it always with huge summer clouds like îles flottantes drifting by overhead, drawing their shadows after them. Even though we only ever spent the day on land if it was either raining hard or very wild and windy, we visited castles and stately homes and magnificent gardens, and wonderful prehistoric monuments like Chûn Quoit, Mên an Tol, and the Merry Maidens. I revelled in the atmosphere and the sense of the earth’s heartbeat so close under the soil, so intense in Cornwall. I want to go back, whenever I think of it…