The Irish Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney once described his early years as being lived in a “space that was separate.” The firstborn of a family living on a rural farm surrounded by adult companions, the sense of separateness must have run deep.
Heaney’s recall of life on a forty acre farm in Co Derry seemed not so different from life on a farm in rural Somerset in the early 1960s. My grandfather still worked with a horse until the mid-60s. I remember riding on the back of Dinah, the big black cart horse as she pulled a hoe up and down between rows of mangold wurzels.
The sense of the farm being a separate space was strong and the attachment to the handful of adults was strong, particularly to my father, who died in March of this year.
There was a time, maybe in 1964 maybe 1965, certainly before school had cast its dark shadow over the days of innocence, when my father was posted to an RAF station on the far side of England, instead of his daily journeys to and from the naval air station at Yeovilton he was sent to work at a place called Manby in Lincolnshire, a place so distant it might have been overseas. Years later the name of the place had the power to evoke a sense of bewilderment. On one occasion he returned to the farm on leave and I believed he had returned forever from the time of exile, only to be told that the leave would soon end. The night before he was due to return to Manby, I stood in the house in tears and he suggested we go for a walk. Putting on Wellington boots, we walked through the barton and through a gate into a field that lay above the farm. A Frisian cow stood with a calf that had been tethered to a fence post and we stood and looked at them. The mud near the gateway was deep, each footprint threatening to retain the boots of a small boy. As if a few hours past, the sense of pain and desolation of that moment remains fresh; holding onto my father’s hand and pleading that he not return to Manby.
Perhaps it was the same year, perhaps it was the year after, I developed measles and seemed to spend weeks in bed. Feverish at times, my father seemed to drift in and out, all the time there was the fear that he might not return.
The sense of being in a space that was separate in those years remains. Not just the physical isolation, but of being in a world that was beyond the comprehension of a pre-school child, being in a space that was separate was a choice I would never have made.