I recently returned from my fourth holiday in England in the last forty-two years. Although I doubt the word ‘holiday’ does justice to the emotional journey of a returning emigrant. But my first stop was Spain, home to my brother and his wife who were celebrating a 50th wedding anniversary. My sister arrived from Liverpool, a brother and wife from Cheshire, another brother and wife from Portugal and yet another brother from California. Wrinkles, grey-hair, bellies. It was fun. Missing through illness, a brother who lives in Australia. Death had claimed both my parents, one brother and one sister. But present were the children and grandchildren, a gathering of the clan that included two old neighbours from the street where we all grew up. More of that later.
To England and once again walking that street where I was born. Fifty-two council houses. We knew the names of every family but were closest to our four immediate neighbours. Incredible as it now seems, between the Horans’, Dorans’, Swarbricks’, Dickmans’ and Murphys’ there were thirty-nine children. Fortunately there was a spread of age groups. As children we often wandered far afield from morning till night but the street was our major playground.
Our parents had been born in the slums of Liverpool around the turn of the century. They were re-housed on our comparatively modern estate in the thirties. After the war there was work for everyone and, although still poor, they’d never had it so good.
Eventually almost all the young people moved on and the old people died. Only Teddy Swarbrick remained to inhabit the house he was born in more than seventy years ago. He had red hair and a military set to his shoulders in the early sixties. When I called on him I found a bald, shrunken but dignified old man. I shudder to think what changes he saw in me. However, it was a good visit, one that left us both with a deep sense of satisfaction and much to savour.
On another day my sister, the last of our family still living in Liverpool, took me to visit one of the Dorans. They lived no more than ten minutes walk from our old street, in a council house they had purchased and renovated. Albie and his wife, Pat, were delighted to see us. When I mentioned to Albie that I remembered how keen he’d been on his pigeons, he took me “out the back” to his impressive pigeon coop and showed me the champion birds he was still racing.
In the meantime Pat had been on the phone to Albie’s brother, Alan, who lived a couple of miles away. I was still still admiring the pigeons when he showed up with a huge grin on a face, a little fatter than it used to be. Alan took us to where his sister, Eunice, lived. Apart from her hair, once red and now grey, she had hardly changed. This was a wonderful reunion for us all since my sister had not seen Eunice since we were teenagers. Then on to Alan’s house and his wife, Flo.’ After a few drinks Flo’ got the wedding album out. I had been their best man yet this was the first time I had seen the photos. I had probably moved to London before the film was developed. It was a lovely surprise. Ah, yes. Nostalgia!
I had planned to visit one of the Murphy girls who lived close by but only a week earlier she had suffered a stroke and was not yet up to seeing anyone. I kicked myself for not seeing her on an earlier visit. But I did see one of the Dickman girls, now in her seventies and still living in the district. I had seen her brother, Richie, my closest childhood friend, earlier in Spain, where he lives not far from my brother. Richie got back in touch with me more than ten years ago. Each year since he has visited me to tramp and yarn and enjoy a wonderful enduring friendship. On his last visit he was with Kath Swarbrick. After an internet re-union followed by romance they married two years ago, in Wanaka.
A sociologist would have a field day.