Could it be Falling Leaf Syndrome, doctor?

What is your earliest memory? Describe it in detail, and tell us why you think that experience was the one to stick with you.

It’s difficult to separate, sometimes, what you can remember, what somebody showed you a photograph of, or what you remember remembering but don’t remember directly now. If that makes sense? If not – it’s a getting old thing.

The first mental image I have of myself is from before I could walk. It’s from a black and white photograph. There I am, plonked down on the back garden path at Bedford Road. I am playing with a bucket – not one of those little plastic children’s buckets, no, but a full size cast-iron builder’s bucket. It is almost as big as me. I am wearing dungarees and a stupid sunhat. I look a bit fat, frankly – but then babies do. I am not smiling.

Bedford Road was an Edwardian(ish) terraced house in a long, long narrow road on the outskirts of a rather ghastly town. It’s still rather ghastly – famous for it, in fact – but hey, it’s a town. It has stuff like shops, and metalled roads, and railway stations, unlike here. I recently emailed Betty, my Godmother, to ask her what number we lived at. She’s older than Mum but still compos mentis – I knew she’d know. She told me. She lived next door to Mum and Dad at the time. She told me she used to come home from work at lunchtime and Mum would put me over the garden fence so that I could toddle up and down her garden path and chase the dog. She said she used to babysit me on a Friday so that Mum and Dad could attend Cycling Club meetings, and was always slightly worried in case I woke up as she was (still is) a single lady with no experience of babies. Mum never told me any of this, and now all her memories are gone. Details – like dead leaves, so fragile and so easily blown away.

The first proper, non-photograph, non-Betty memory I have of myself is when I was three. I thought this was pretty good, but Ex can recall lying in his cot as a baby and watching the model aeroplanes suspended from the ceiling spinning round. Possibly the start of a lifetime interest in aeroplanes. I wonder who made the models.

When I was three I was sitting on the closed seat of a brand new (disconnected, of course) toilet in the living room of the new bungalow Mum, Dad and Grandad were in the process of building. Mum’s still there now. So’s the toilet (connected, of course). Unfortunately Mum no longer recognises either the toilet or bathroom as real rooms. They have invaded them. They are In There Now. But I digress. I think we must have been having a tea-break. I vaguely remember Dad being there – so Mum must have been (she was never anywhere Dad wasn’t). How memories are layered. The same street, the same house, the same room and so many versions of your life lived out in it.

And now I am thinking of moving, and for some reason – maybe this is where Falling Leaf Syndrome kicks in – had an irresistible urge to set eyes on that house in Bedford Road again – the house where I was born. That must have been why I emailed Betty for the number – I didn’t realise it at the time. So, courtesy of Google Maps, I viewed it, and duly saved it to Favourites. Really, it looks just like thousands of other terraced houses – a narrow, mud-coloured sliver of downmarket real estate squashed into an endless vista of other, near-identical properties.

I can’t imagine myself actually living in the Bedford Road house – even if it was for sale – or in that town – can I? And yet I wish – I so wished – to be allowed to go inside and wander round, alone. For some reason I needed to know whether the stairs were on the left, as I remembered them, or on the right, as appears from the placement of the windows. And did the kitchen really did have a brown Belfast sink? I believe I wished to sit on that garden path (getting down there is a possibility, getting up again another matter) with bucket and stupid frilly hat if necessary – and become ‘me’ again, at the age when anything might have happened. Before it did happen, and went pear-shaped.

Falling leaves return to their roots. Chinese proverb, popularised by Adeline Yen Mah’s best-selling biography/autobiography: Falling Leaves (1998)


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