The Last School Holiday

by Mary Reed

Occasionally I find myself wondering if those eternal motion machines that are the young ever pause long enough to contemplate the enjoyable sight of the lengthy vista of days — nay, weeks — stretching out before them when the summer holidays finally begin.

Why, the time rolling out ahead seemed endless to us when school was at last out, with those menacing back-to-school sales so far away at the other end of the summer as to be easily ignored — and just as well since once they arrived we would have to get the number 4 bus into town to buy school supplies and new tennis shoes, which in turn meant that the new term was not far off and thus soon it would be time to drag ourselves off to the grey Victorian building in which we laboured, to again wrestle with French verbs, toil over geometry exercises, and try to recall the names of all the Hanoverian rulers in the correct order — all these tasks being carried in that strange chalk-and-old- books atmosphere that seemed to permeate every school in which I ever set foot.

Thinking on it now reminds me that my last school holiday was largely spent sprawled on my bed devouring cookers (cooking apples) so tart my teeth almost shrank from them as I chewed away while reading as many books as I could borrow from the library. It was a particularly hot summer that year and our fashionable frou-frou sponge-skirted petticoats ensured that those of us who considered ourselves trendy suffered mightily for the privilege. But the unaccustomed heat — for when it’s above 72 degrees in England, it’s inevitably described in the media as A Scorcher — made my shady room, the pile of green, shiny-skinned cookers and the even larger stack of books with covers of all colours even more attractive to one who was already a bookworm and fruit-lover. The noise of the neighbours’ children playing all over the roadway — despite living in houses with hanky-sized gardens that were nonetheless large enough to allow games of Traffic Lights or Statues or Tag without any risk of getting run over by the mobile fish and chip shop or a passing coal lorry — was easily ignored, even though our windows were wide open to whatever breeze might meander in, bringing with it the scent of the two small lilac trees growing by the corner of the house.

Because even if those kids had spent their entire summer practicing playing euphoniums outside our front door, I should have taken no notice at all — I had flown off on the magic carpet of books and would not be back until teatime. And so those long, golden afternoons unwound to the gentle rustle of pages turning and the piling up of apple gowks (cores my native dialect) until it was time for tea. And when the washing up was done, the tea-towel hung up to dry, and the plates and cups and cutlery put away again, there would still be time for a chapter or two or more to be read as shadows started to advance, shrouding the raspberry canes in the back garden and fingering the windows. Soon there would come that strange hush that creeps in between the time when workers arrive home for their evening meals and when they go out for the evening. Every night that quiet calm fell around the house like a kindly mantle and while it was true that, to the despair of my parents, I would probably be found in the kitchen at midnight frying up bacon and eggs, still I knew that tomorrow would proceed at the same slow pace, and the next day, and the day after that as well.

But it was recalling that this would be my last long summer holiday before I joined the work world that really added to its strange enchantment and, I think, to the sense that time was flying, bearing us all along willy-nilly faster and faster towards adulthood. It all seems dreamlike and far away now.

Mary Reed is the co-author of the John the Lord Chamberlain mysteries set in sixth century Byzantium. The current entry is Nine for the Devil.

You can also follow Mary on Twitter.

15 Responses to The Last School Holiday

  1. You had me at the word “euphonium.” My daughter played the euphonium when she was in middle school. Lovely instrument. Lovely post, too. Enjoyed your beautiful memories.

  2. Thank you for bringing me into your life again, Mary. And I mean the part long before the septic system; that where I feel like a kid again in summer. What a beautiful piece. But alas, a lass, it’s almost September :(.

    • Strange how we keep returning to septic tanks, Jeff! Up north we had a loo of Victorian vintage in the back yard and it was nippy of a winter night if one felt the need to visit. When the worst weather came we had an oil lamp on the bench-seat and the cistern was wrapped in dad’s old great coat. Thus dealing with a septic tank is quite novel for city gals like me.

    • Well, if I ever write a memoir, it’ll be a history of an ordinary working class family, none of your high jinks in high society! But it’s a thought….

  3. Thanks for sharing the memories, Mary. I’ve always thought that the year really should start September first, rather than January first. It is when life starts again. For kids it’s when school begins, filled with hopes that this year will be a good one. For adults, after a bit of holiday, if they were lucky enough to have one, the new working cycle starts. It’s all about cycles.

    • It’s a grand idea! Particularly as autum, my favourite time of year, is on the way in early September and glorious colours and last warm weather to be expected, making it a much better start to the year than frigid January. At least it’s frigid round these parts!

  4. Thanks for the kind words, Barbara. Memoirs of ordinary folk are real treasures, depositories of recollections of ways of life long gone — for example, the books on which All Creatures Great and Small are based. Already memories of early years in my own family sound quaint and historical!

  5. Mary, the more of your blogs I read, the more do I suspect there is an extended memoir waiting to be written. I have often wondered how it was you came to the U.S. and how you and Eric came to write your series. I suspect your are also a private person and perhaps would not want to “let it all hang out,” but you write beautifully and I think your descriptions are masterful (is that a politically incorrect term?)

    I have two friends who wrote memoirs and in both cases was amazed at how really compelling they were.

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