A place like King’s Cove, Part 2
The King’s Cove of my stories is modelled on a place from a long distant time. In fact, when I came on the scene, it was already lost in a backwater of time, swirling in the gentle eddy of its early decades while the rest of the world barrelled into modernity. I remember it as a place that was designed entirely to feed the inner life of a small child. It was sunny, free from parental supervision, (have I mentioned how, in a mistake no one can adequately explain, I lit a fire in my crib?) and had plenty of cake. In one way, my early childhood home by Kootenay Lake was ideal… aside from being punctured by tetanus-laden nails or burned in piles of hot ashes, it was a remarkably safe place for any child who survived these early threats. I was welcomed at every house I turned up at by kindly old people who wanted to give me things to eat. And I turned up nearly every day, unless it was raining hard.
Every morning after my boiled egg and burned toast, I was let loose into the world. I took up my stick to whack at the bushes, and set off at a trot along the grassy paths of my community. I never remember wearing shoes at that age. Something that must have been remarked upon privately by our neighbours, because I remember sitting many times on the front porches of people’s houses with my feet in a tin basin of warm water. I expect it was the price of being allowed inside.
So there I’d be, looking in the screen door of our nearest neighbour the post mistress, my white blond hair floating, un-brushed around my head like a ragamuffin halo. “Come in, dear,” she’d say, and though she was already a venerable and elderly lady, she could always think of something amusing. Some days I would go into the unused sitting room and be allowed unsupervised to look and look. My favourite place was the glass cabinet full of tiny figures, thimbles, sepia photographs of laughing people from another world, tiny dishes and snuff boxes, buttons and medals, and hanging right down from the top to the bottom, a regimental sword with red tassels hanging off the guard. Once I was allowed into her bedroom, for a nap, and then taught how to use her nail buffer, because I wanted beautiful pearly nails like hers.
A favourite day was always the day she was bluing her hair. I would sit in her tiny kitchen and watch as she filled her sink with water and put a little brilliant deep sky blue cloth ball into it. The water would become a dazzling blue and she would rinse her hair and wrap it up in a towel, and then she would patiently explain, again, because I would ceremoniously ask her each time, that it was to keep her hair a brilliant white. The little ball of bluing always sat by her sink in a soap dish.
Pestering neighbours further afield was an afternoon’s work, though I am sure I didn’t bother knowing what the time was, there was a certainty that at the very time after lunch when I was beginning to get hungry, someone, somewhere, would be putting on the kettle. I couldn’t even say I favoured some houses over others. Everyone made scrummy cakes and cookies and no one got fat. Some homes had the amusement of chickens or berry picking to keep me occupied, and some had a bird, or old tractors and abandoned machinery covered in rust and sharp edges to play on.
It is very possible that my belief in my safety was entirely illusory. Several times when I was a little older and waiting at the bottom of the road for the school bus, cougars passed by. I believe that nowadays they generally try to eat children, but I never was troubled by them. And we certainly had bears. You could see them outside the window eating your apples right off the tree and then pooping on the lawn to show you who’s boss. When I was older and realized they might be a danger, I never went anywhere without a can of stones to rattle. Looking back, I wonder if a bear, annoyed at what she imagined was the profligate way I might be looking at her cubs, would have been at all impressed by my can of stones.
Every now and then there’d be a proper tea at the weekend. My best friend whose grandmother was one of my benefactors, would come out to stay, and I’d sleep over and on Sunday afternoon the table would come out onto the grass, and be covered in tiny sandwiches and chocolate and walnut cake, and we were allowed cups of tea with as much sugar as we’d like. The grown ups sat on rattan chairs and we lounged on blankets on the grass. And I’ll tell you something, having miraculously survived my early days, never was tea so fragrant or cake so good.
Now I have created King’s Cove, which like the Oxford of Pullman’s great trilogy, His Dark Materials, is a darker, fictional mirror image of the original, where I have borrowed some houses, and a few of the characteristics of people I loved the most, and filled the rest with unhappy invented people and a few dead bodies. I suppose, on reflection it is scant thanks for a place that provided me with so much excellent cake.
I spent a good part of beginning around the age of three, in a place just like King’s Cove. When my parents first came to this country they lived in mining camps. I spent my early years in these close communities. There were company teas and drinks parties, company swimming pool and the company store. You could not escape the company. And then my mother, a loner in her own right, must have tired of it. How she found the house in this tiny out of the way community along Kootenay Lake, I’ll never know.
For a child with a brother almost ten years older, it was a solitary life. There was one other family with children, all boys, the one closest to my age three years older than me, so I spent most of my time entertaining myself.
I would wake up to my mother’s sing-song ‘upsy upsy’, be given a nourishing breakfast of burnt toast from one of those flip side toasters, and a boiled egg and then I was shooed outside, and I was away onto the paths. There was a road that ran between each homestead, but more excitingly for a child, you could get from any place in the community to any other place on a network of paths. Up hills, through meadows or a stretch of forest, through an orchard or someone’s garden.
By the time I was five I already knew all the paths to the people nearest us. I think about children today, constantly overseen by an anxious adult, probably for good enough reasons, but if any of my adults was anxious, I never heard about it. My father was away and my mother wrote. My older brother disappeared somewhere every day on a horse, and, presaging his future as an academic, eventually moved into the barn to conduct science experiments…I assume…I was never allowed in, but it always smelled like he was boiling road kill in turpentine. Consequently, once I was out, time and the world were mine. I spent a millennia of my childhood hours on those paths. They were my ‘secret’ way of getting around.
There were paths that led to places that were already decayed and haunted. The collapsed remnants of the old school house, log cabins of distant early settlers who came, and must have struggled, and left again, trunks of books left behind, mildewed stacks of paper from the early 1900s on farming, and machinery, and sometimes music hall sheets. There were one or two houses, now abandoned and listing, still equipped with pots and spoons, old tins of salt or baking powder. Paths led to old garbage dumps, full of ancient rubble from the teens and twenties and thirties. For a five year old archaeologist, it was heaven. When I tired of wandering about outside, I would go to the cottage post office to sit on the porch overlooking the garden and eat cookies.
I was always barefoot, a fact that led to my two great childhood accidents. Once I walked into a beautiful, soft grey pile of ashes emptied out of a wood stove only to find they were an inferno of hot coals, and was burned badly enough to be rushed to the hospital thirty miles away, my feet wrapped in the burn gloves my father had kept from his war-time kit as a bomber pilot. Another time when I was visiting the chicken coops at house up the hill, I stepped full onto a board with a nail protruding that went right through my small foot. If that sort of thing happens today there’s a panicked trip to get tetanus shots, but all I was given to dry my tears was a home-made mint patty. I still have all my feet, so it must have worked. I can see now that couple of anxious adults would have come in handy during large parts of my youth, but I think people just thought life-threatening mishaps were the price of childhood. I think my mother just assumed we’d always turn up at dinner time. Lucky for her, we did. Lucky for us, she only made toast at breakfast.