Monday, 24 August 2015

An Adventure

When my Mum and her cousin, Aunt Cecil were children and young women they often had the pleasure of staying with their Aunts Connie and Harry out on the flatlands which surround Rye. They had a holiday cottage there, in fact a couple of holiday cottages, tucked away by the river Rother, nestled amongst the fields where sheep nibbled their way over the land and cows ruminated in the long grass. These were pre and post war times, when milk was collected from the farm in a pail, and the cream pulled off the top of the milk as it settled in a wide flat pan; no pasteurisation, just lovely milk fresh from the cow. Connie and Harry, as mentioned before, were a lesbian couple, very daring for those days, who found refuge in this peaceful place and delight in having their two nieces and other family members to stay. My great grandmother Nanya certainly stayed there, she painted the view down the river in 1924

my grandmother Ganna and grandfather Gerald stayed there, and Gerald was woken one night by the sensation of his sheets being slowly pulled down the bed by some invisible force; no-one was actually there. The two girls, sometimes together and sometimes separately, might sleep out under the stars, be chased across the field by an enthusiastic cow, 

Letter from Mum dated May 1940
or visit the farmer when one of the dogs had puppies. They watched our aeroplanes battle the Germans high above the levels during the war; Cecil slipped into the river just as she was about to leave to go back home, muddying her best shoes and frock much to her Mum’s annoyance; one day when they had been out picking blackberries, the kitchen being out of bounds because their Aunts were holding a religious meeting there, they washed the sticky juice from their hands in the toilet pan! Health and Safety hadn’t been invented and they both seem to have survived.

The two cottages were called Sedges and Nirvana. Sedges was their first summer holiday home; Nirvana was built later by Harry, not literally you understand, but she organised the builders and had the materials brought up from Rye Harbour via the Rother.

Connie and Harry outside Nirvana

This was Connie and Harry’s happiest place named, perhaps, for the way it afforded them a refuge from society’s disapproval, release from the problems of the world, a space of sanctuary, where they could just be themselves. This was in the days when Radclyffe Hall’s novel The Well of Loneliness was declared obscene by a British court and ordered to be destroyed, so their relationship could have brought them a lot of censure.

Connie and Harry cycling across the fields

Both my Mum and Cecil always spoke of Nirvana as a place set apart from the world, where they could be cheerful children and young women, staying with their much loved aunts for a time, before being sent back to school or work. I have pictures of Mum there as late as the 1950s so it had a central place in their lives for a long time. The name was in my mind before I ever understood that it was related to Buddhist philosophy – Nirvana was in the summer lands where Mum and Cecil had been happy with Connie and Harry, I accepted it as part of the fabric of their lives.

Cecil had her 90th birthday last Monday and she and I went out for lunch together, and sat in the garden later, enjoying the sunshine and stroking the cats. However Jen, my lovely daughter, had wished to celebrate Cecil’s birthday as well, so it was agreed that we’d go out together on Saturday for fish and chips in Rye and a trip down memory lane to Iden Lock. We duly drove out to Rye and enjoyed our fish and chips, then travelled on through the town and out the other side. As we approached Iden Lock (completed in 1808) Cecil became more and more delighted. We got out of the car and decided to walk as far as she felt she could manage, on what was a very hot day. Nirvana is set well back from the road along a track that runs between the Rother and farmland. I had no expectation that we’d get very far, but wanted her at least to be able to look across the fields to the places she and Mum had been so happy. As we walked carefully along, Jen and I taking an arm each for support, I suddenly thought – there are no “Private” signs on this track, nothing to suggest that I shouldn’t bring the car along, and if we use the car, we can take her right to the end, to where Nirvana is.

Now the original Nirvana has recently been replaced by a rather lovely wooden property. Jen and I discovered this in June, as we had been out to remember Mum on the fifth anniversary of her death – we scattered her ashes in the river there in 2010, releasing her in the best place we could think of, to be absorbed back into the Earth. I’m sure that breaks some nonsense regulation somewhere, but our family has never been much for rules and regulations. We met a very nice lady there in June, who told us a bit about the new building, and to whom we related the history as we knew it. She was a friend of the owner and said she would let him know, I promised to get in touch as she was sure he'd be interested in our story. As the car wobbled its way down the track this time, I realised that there was someone standing just by the house. We drew to a halt and I approached him with apologies for disturbing his peace, explaining that Cecil was in the car, for he was the owner of this new Nirvana. I had hardly finished my apology before he said, with much enthusiasm, “oh, I’ve been hoping to meet her!” Making us welcome he invited us into his home and allowed Cecil to sit for a while as, between us, we told him what we could of the history as we understood it. Fierce cows and puppies were mentioned, wartime evacuation and collecting milk from the farm. Mums final resting place was offered as an explanation of our presence, along with those long ago days of summer happiness. The current owner was charming, despite the fact that his friends were arriving to have an afternoon picnic and swim in the river. I did my best to ensure that we didn’t outstay our welcome.

On our way home Cecil kept exclaiming, again and again, “oh I have had a lovely time”. She has a great capacity for enjoyment, but this was a special day for her and Jen and I were overwhelmed by how much better our trip had been than we might have imagined. Cecil will have no memory of what fun we had, her memory retains almost nothing for more than an hour or so, but we know that she had fun, and will always remember that we had a great adventure with her in these late years of her life. Thank you James for sharing Nirvana with us.

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