When I was a kid, still in primary school, I was diagnosed with pneumonia and taken out of school for a lengthy time – my memory tells me three months, though that seems a lot. My left lung collapsed and my mu would give me daily physio, and I was on antibiotics. I’ve had chest problems ever since, but that’s where it started.
That was in grade 6. I was about 10 years old with freckles and floppy, chestnut coloured hair. I remember once we thought I might be cured and I was allowed to go back to school, only to discover that I was still crook and should be home. Someone must have called the school to take me out of it, but we were on the verge of a small excursion to Eltham Lower Park where we were to try orienteering. I was given the choice: go home, or go with the PE teacher and help him set it up.
I think there was probably a part of me that refused to chicken out and go home at the first invitation, so I went with the PE teacher. I had a small, childish idolisation of the PE teacher, who represented much that a young boy would aspire to. As you would expect, he was tall and fit and exuded good health. He was good-looking too and had an easy, friendly nature. What I remember from that day was his kindness. I think he was sympathetic to me and wanted to make sure I had a good time. I wasn’t just some token tag-along. It was his decision to ask me in the first place and he made sure I was included in the fun of the day.
I remember it as a strangely intimate experience the two of us going through the park setting up points for the activities to come, him explaining things to me and asking me to help. At other times there was a companionable silence. I’m still grateful to him today for his good heart. I spent another month at home after that.
I remember that before I got sick that every day in class we would listen to an audiobook. There was a book we started which really captured me, but I never heard the end of it because I was taken out of school halfway through it.
It’s a funny thing, for years I’ve searched for that book, out of curiosity more than anything else, and perhaps from a sense of completeness. I didn’t know the name of the book or who wrote it or even how it ended, and for years I came up empty-handed.
This morning I happened by chance upon a book we read at school which had long lingered in my memory, The Owl Service, by Alan Garner. It’s quite a famous book and a great book for children. It made me remember the other book, and so once more I searched for the book I had never finished.
It was a children’s book set in the Swiss Alps. I remembered there was a character I quite identified with for some reason and was sympathetic towards. He was the unpopular kid who couldn’t help himself from being cruel, but he had a sensitive heart. I think that’s what drew me to him, not that I was anything like him except I was sensitive too, and perhaps deeper than I believed.
Even as the young boy I was capable of understanding that this kid was more complex than he first seemed. I could see his pain and how it made him act. He regretted his actions and was burdened by the unfriendly opinions of others that – no matter what he did – he couldn’t change. He retreated into himself, discovered a talent for wood carving, and what promised was a story of reconciliation and redemption – but I left before that played out.
Everyone’s a sucker for a good redemption tale, but me more than most for reasons I don’t understand. It’s the arc of my own fiction, though it’s more complex than that.
Long story short, I found it today. To the usual search terms, I added ‘tragedy’ and there it was: Treasures of the Snow, by Patricia St John.
As it turns out this is quite a famous book too, and the character I looked to was Lucien. I think I knew even as a boy that he would end up with the girl – Annette – if he did it right. Being fiction, you reckoned he would.
I now know how it ends and it’s roughly how I would have predicted, though even more rich and sentimental than I might have thought – perfect for a child’s imagination.
I’m very glad to have re-discovered this and am tempted to read it myself from the first word to last, even if it is a children’s book (as I might also The Owl Service).
Memories link and this connects a loop if not completely closing it. How nice it is to recall days of such innocence and love, simple and good. You need that sometimes.