I was born on the 11th of July 1996. Coincidentally, the 11th of July is World Population Day. My mother, Joan, had been marvelling at the content of the Fresh Produce section of Didsbrook’s brand new Coop when her waters broke. Legend has it, my Father, George, with the help of the store manager, bundled her into a trolley and wheeled her across the cobbled market place to the Didsbrook Cottage Hospital. Shortly after they wheeled her in, I popped out. The World Population counter flipped over to add Lucy Fothergill, and the population of Didsbrook rose to 651.
Growing up in the pastoral beauty surrounding Didsbrook was idyllic. My older brother, Thomas, and I were like a pair of feral kittens, scampering over the unblemished countryside, climbing trees and falling over, returning home with scuffed knees. The only other children of our ages living nearby were Betty Hargreaves the butcher’s daughter, who was in the same year as Thomas, and Kevin Harper, who was my age. Kevin was an odd child, awkward at school, rarely interacting with our peers. So, although Thomas was happy to include Betty in our adventures, we always tried to give Kevin the slip, which wasn’t hard to do. He was overweight, and we knew we could out-jog him, so when we sprinted, we became specs on his horizon within seconds.
Didsbrook was always considered to be a safe place to live which, I imagine, is why I have no recollection of either of our parents laying down any rules about what we could or couldn’t do, or where we could or couldn’t go. The reality was that the only other living souls we ever bumped into, were four-legged. Sheep, the odd pig, but mostly cows, as Didsbrook’s primary industry in those days was dairy farming. So the most awkward encounter we were ever likely to have, would have been to find ourselves in the same field as the Holstein-Friesian bull from Frogs Bottom Farm. We did discuss such an eventually, but agreed, with the build of a Friesian Sumo wrestler, we were confident we could outsprint him, just like we always did with Kevin. Fortunately, our theory never had to be put to the test.
As long as we rocked up for tea at around 6.00 o’clock, we could always rely on my Mother to be there to dish it up. While we were eating, she would give us an animated account of her day on the yoghurt production line at Elsmere Dairy, where my Father was Plant Manager, before rushing out for a rehearsal of the Didsbrook Amateur Dramatic Society.
In the summer holidays, we would disappear for most of the day exploring the woods and the South Downs beyond, my Mother blissfully unaware that we had gone anywhere. We never asked the Robertshaws if we could swim in the trout lake at Didsbrook Manor, but it was looking so inviting during one particularly hot day in the summer holidays. We had stripped to our knickers. Mine were pink, with a teddy bear motif on the front and Tom’s were green, adorned with racing cars. We were about to throw ourselves in when we were caught red-handed.
‘One doesn’t mind you swimming in one’s trout lake, as long as you don’t drown in it.’ It was my first-ever meeting with Jocelyn Robertshaw, who emerged from her writing space, a summerhouse called Mandalay, which overlooked the lake.
She looked a little dishevelled as she strode towards us, adjusting the waistband of her jodhpurs. Even as a child, I had sharp observational skills. I knew Jocelyn hadn’t been reading her work-in-progress to Peter, as she so often did because on that afternoon the man standing in the doorway of Mandalay pulling on his shirt wasn’t Peter.