We had to go for walks. These inevitably were in the park which was the only place where there were gardens and seats and a flat surface where a pram could be left safely and Mother or the lady help could sit down and watch us play. On these walks it was quite usual for me to have something to tow. This was a ship. It was not on wheels; it just jumped, bumped and clattered its way along gutters, pavements and roads on the end of a string.
It was no ordinary ship. It came to me first at Christmas time, its decks laden with chocolates wrapped in silver paper and tied with pink ribbon. The sail did not last long but the hull and metal keel left their mark on stone and dust as we slowly made our way to the ornamental garden which lay in front of the art gallery. If I was lucky we went down to the lake and here the ship would continue its progress on the end of the string but in an environment more suited to its construction.
The keel had to be removed at a later date, as it became sharp, rusty and jagged and therefore unsafe to take to bed. So it was carefully placed in the water and a tour of the lake would begin by the string getting entangled with some boys fishing. Then some ducks, always on the look out for breadcrumbs, would pounce on the thing and make off again when they found it was not edible. I looked back at my ship constantly and had to be careful not to fall in the water as there were some treacherous curves in the paving. On I went, past the first island where the swans reigned supreme. The wake of a rowing boat would make my craft bob up and down and dash it against the stonework but all was well and I approached the second island. This was the ducks’ home with ladders running up to their houses in the shade of the trees and shrubs.
There was a wire stretched across to the island to prevent rowing boats coming into a part of the lake reserved as a sanctuary for the ducks. It was rather dirty, with feathers and bits of paper floating on the surface.
Just round a short bend water gushed under the path from a waterfall which was set back among dirty shrubs and rocks. And so on I went, negotiating the second wire and back past the island again to where I started among the rowing boats, tied together like a fan, and the pale green boat-house with a pigeon hole where one bought tickets for a ride in the motor-launch. Self-driven mechanised toys never appealed to me and, if I was given a toy motor car, I always pushed it around; the same with trains. To push a train slowly on its line is much more satisfying than seeing the mad thing tearing round in a circle for a few seconds finally plunging off the rails and lying on its back, its clockwork running down with agonising noises.
A toy motor car with nothing inside but a huge spring where a seat should be destroys the illusion. I had a car with real rubber tyres, a steering wheel that worked and doors that opened and a seat inside the saloon body. I was glad it had no clockwork.
I once, for a brief moment, saw a boy with a most wonderful yacht by the lake. He was making adjustments to the steering gear and I noticed that there was actually a hatch with a lid that opened; one could really go inside. So often this important essential was missing.
A few years later, Father’s youngest brother came to stay with us as he was taking some examinations for the ministry. He had been a cabinet-maker apprentice and so readily fell in with the idea of making a yacht for me. I can to this day see in my mind every stage of the proceedings, from going to the timber yard and purchasing the block of wood to the visit to the tool shop to buy chisel, gauge, mallet and cramps, and then drawing the proportions on the block of wood. The most exciting part was the making of the keel where molten lead was pour into a mould erected on the wooden keel, two or three nails being driven in half way to hold the lead when it solidified, it being poured in till it came up to the nail heads. The only thing I did not see done was the making of the sails. Uncle Otto made them one night when I was in bed. I wondered later whether he had his doubts concerning his prowess with the sewing machine.
The day we launched the yacht was a red-letter day but something was never quite right about the balance. Perhaps, secretly, I was glad that it was not to be trusted to go off by itself. But I liked taking it for a walk all the same and often carried it to school as well.
The rowing boats on the lake all had names on the prow and on the back rest of the seat in the stern which had quite florid iron work as part of its construction. These boats were hired out mostly to young men and their girls. Girls did not row in those days but sat in the stern making an effort to understand the steering rudder and usually pulling the wrong strings in a crisis. Then they sulked and lay back dangling their hands in the water.
But the motor launch was a magnificent sight with flags flying at prow and stern. It had red cushions all the way round its seats. The brasswork was highly polished and it had an awning in hot weather. We were sometimes allowed to have a penny ride in the launch. The shape of the space inside between the wooden grids on the floor and the awning above with reflected light coming from the water on to our faces, and the unusual view of the landscape seen as a panorama passing and unfolding before our eyes, was enhancing and almost dreamlike. The lapping of the water against the sides and the gentle chugging of the motor in its mahogany cabinet made me drowsy as if in the South Sea Islands. But the dream was all too short and we found ourselves back again at the boathouse with more passengers waiting to embark. In the winter the boats were stored away; all looked sad, the leaves from the trees falling in the water which looked black and uninviting.
The culmination of the Lake Saga was a surprise. I must have been twelve years old and it was the last day of the summer holidays. I was to return to that hateful boarding the next day. Mother was always sympathetic and understood my feelings. She sometimes took me to the cinema if there was anything suitable on. These were the only times we went to the pictures and I remember it was on one of these occasions that I saw my first Charlie Chaplin film. It was fun while it lasted but coming out of the picture palace into daylight and seeing everything going on as usual and then remembering tomorrow, the reaction was almost unbearable.
But today for some reason Mother came for a walk with me and we went into the Art Gallery but even these pictures could not alleviate the gnawing pain at the back of my mind. It was then my Mother said, 'Let's go on the Park Lake!'
I was amazed. We walked round the Gallery and saw those grim doors at the back where pictures were taken in and out. We glanced up at the fossilised tree stump (that mysterious thing which demonstrated something almost incomprehensible about the real age of the world) and so down to the Lake, the boats lying there golden in the late summer sun. But now the great surprise took place. Mother booked tickets for a rowing boat not the motor launch! I kept wondering, 'Is this real? Am I dreaming?' I found myself carefully balancing as I got into the rowing seat. Mother looked so happy and almost mischievous in the stern. I fitted the oars into the rowlocks and then the boatman pushed us off. What a moment! I pushed my hands forward keeping my elbows well down and then dipped the oars in the water. The weight on the boat carried them gently back and I felt the delicate balance of the curved blades, raised them gently without splashing Mother and dipped again, pulling a bit this time, and that wonderful sound of water lapping against the bows came to my ears. I was in my element! I found to my astonishment that I could row quite naturally and even began turning my wrists so as to feather on the back stroke. Mother was delighted. I can see her in her straw hat with the flowers and cherries on it, smiling her approval and pleasure. Through a flash of inspiration on her part I was taking her out for a treat and in doing so had almost trespassed on manhood.
I had discovered I could do something with skill and judgement. Perhaps that was the nearest I came to going back to school happy. At any rate I would have something to tell the boys even if I might have to exaggerate the size of the boat, whip up a bit of a storm and perhaps give the idea that I was alone in my battle with the elements!