But are not all things beautiful?
I have a theory that we are each of us born an age which is our default real age our whole lives through. For example, I have known babies and toddlers like tiny old men and women and equally I have known consenting adults of several decades who are consistent in their infancy. My age, I am sure you are fascinated to know, is six.
At six years old I was taken on my first skiing holiday. We travelled on what used to be called ‘The Boat Train’ from London Victoria leaving at night, to Dover whence we boarded a ferry and then another train to take us across Europe.
I don’t remember much about the first train, I do remember my mother getting increasingly taut when my father refused to stop and ask directions despite having no clue where on earth he was going in a vast after dark London. I now know this is a cliché of male-female behavior but at six years old I merely thought it hugely entertaining that my mother was making hissing noises like a deflating bike tyre and gradually turning purple under her (entirely natural if you please) platinum blonde coiffeur, my father seemingly oblivious (which remained his constant default) to the combustable woman beside him. I suppose he must have found the station and parked the car and we must have taken the train to Dover but I don’t remember it at all. I remember a dead dog floating in the dock at Calais the following morning which instilled an unfair prejudice to the place that lasted over thirty years until I visited on a whim and found it to be not unpleasant at all.
We were greeted by our ‘courier‘ who was Austrian and called Ernst, had blonde hair, was very kind and thoughtful and whom I liked tremendously – in fact, if I close my eyes, I can still see him in his bright blue turtle neck which matched his eyes and jeans a shade or three darker. I imagine he was in his just-crowned twenties and so, to a six year old with an array of older male cousins, he fit nicely into a niche that I was comfortable with. For reasons I cannot discern I remained convinced that he was Norwegian for many years until, in my forties trotting out a memory or asking a vital and, til then dorment question or idly wondering if Ernst would still be waiting for me, I included this erroneous fact in my chatter and Mother corrected me. I admit to feeling momentarily crushed. I haven’t any idea why I thought he was Norwegian – I’m not even sure I really knew where Norway is. But he was so nice and smiling and friendly and he wore a large shiny badge loudly declaring the firm he worked for, all beguiling features to a six year old girl positively beyond effervescent with excitement. He ushered us onto the train and into our compartment which had, joy of joys, ‘couchettes’. This meant that at night we could turn the deep leather bench seats into bunk beds. Imagine the absolute heaven of that! I fancy we must also have slept on the ferry but sadly the shocking incident of the deceased dog at dawn eclipsed all else and I have no recollection at all of a cabin. After some while there was a mighty wheezing and blowing and the noise of metal being tapped upon metal and a scrunch and a lurch and off we groaned gradually, gradually gaining momentum. I can still remember the sound – not so much the rhythmic slide and clatter of the wheels on the rails but the chuff-puffing-puff-chuffing. Because we were being pulled by none other than a steam train.
I had only ever been conscious of one steam locomotive before (this was 1967) and that time we had been standing still and chill on the platform of our village railway station, my father, older brother, granny and I, solemly waiting with a crowd of others for Winston Churchill to pass on his final journey to burial after his funeral in London. He had died the day before my younger brother was born. I was four and even at that age I understood that this was momentous and I remember peeping through the steam and knowing the train was carrying a most important cargo and that it was extremely sad. Of course in my reality I was a very grown up six rather than the four any notional calender assumed me to be, which may account for this mature attitude to treating things with respectful gravity and deference.
This steam train, though had my now two year old brother aboard and he was extremely over-excited and equally over-tired. We were subjected to him repetitiously singing ‘I Did It My Way’ (not the whole song, just that line) having been so moved by Frank Sinatra, with whom my mother was smitten, singing on the television, at yet another final concert that wasn’t, when we were waiting in the night to get in the car and set off on our tremendous adventure. Bedtime at that age was six o’clock, except on Tuesday’s when I was allowed to watch ‘Bewitched’ meaning I retired at seven, so the fact that we were catching a night train in London meant we were up giddyingly late.
The journey passed as journeys do with cards and colouring and playing games that involved looking out of the window and spotting things to fit whatever theme my mother had invented in her desperation to keep us amused. Far too often, the bumptious brat would chime up with another chirpy chorus of ‘I Did It My Way’. At regular intervals, possibly to try and stem this vocal flow, Ernst would appear with refreshments in boxes or on trays depending on whether it was a cold or a hot repast. Having never eaten anything from a box before it was beyond exotic and things like cold chicken and salad took on a whole new allure that was positively glamourous to a six-year old. And those little packets of salt and pepper? Thrilling! I didn’t actually use them, you understand and I think I may have been thirty-five before I finally conceded that my little collection of identical squares was serving no useful purpose in my life. When they gave us warm croissants and other viennoisserie for breakfast a life-long and unquenchable obsession with pâtisserie was born.
Whenever the train stopped we were allowed to get off and walk around. I have no idea now where we stopped but it was quite often and it was quite fascinating … up until then I really had no notion that the French Miss Scrivener taught us at school was actually relevant, that people really spoke it. I had no idea that grown men might wear berets just like the one I had to wear to school. And all the while there was Ernst elegantly and seamlessly looking after us, making sure my nine-year old big brother who preferred not to be seen anywhere near his siblings didn’t wander off too far and that we were all back safely on the train in good time for the whistle to blow. I was certainly in love with him and convinced we would get married when I grew up by the time we got to what I imagine may have been Strasbourg. When it was night we slept, or tried to, with the increasingly bawdy toddler still shouting ‘I did it my way’ every time morpheous silently, smoothly snuck in with her soft arms ready for the fall. I decided that I positively did hate him and made a mental note to ask Daddy if it honestly was too late to send him back.
Eventually after what seemed like a month but was probably a day and a half, we reached Innsbruck where we had a break of some while before boarding our onward train. Looking back from the lofty position of having mothered several children, I imagine our mama must have been sleep-deprived and virtually desiccated by this point. Therefore, when she rattled into the cafeteria to extricate my father and I, he in the process of buying my first ever bar of Ritter Chocolate, a hallowed moment to be savoured, not interrupted, it is fair to say that brittle would be the word that described her mood best. She was shrill in her insistence that we were about to miss the train and dragging my older brother and carrying the tot she advanced purposefully towards it and, in fairness, it did indeed appear to be revving up for an imminent departure. My father didn’t question her (he knew his place) and we all boarded and sat neatly in rows. Even the blessèd bellowing boy was decorously calm and still. As the platform official raised his flag and puffed his whistle-blowing cheeks in readiness for the off, all hell let loose and suddenly there was the heroic Ernst banging on the window with one hand and yanking at the carriage door with the other. My mother stared at him glassily as though she had never seen him before in her life and my father didn’t notice at all. But I did notice. I noticed because, be reminded, this was my husband-to-be. I tugged coats and bounced and squeaked and eventually my parents collectively engaged their brains and peered at the apperition now almost glued to the window. He was mouthing something urgently. Father stood and pulled down the little openy bit of the window through which, if tall enough, or lifted by someone who was, you could wave to your adoring public on the platform as you departed. The now near hysterical Ernst managed to emit the word ‘Budapest’ before collapsing. My father gathered us all and shoved us through the door that had dangled Ernst, calling on all his skill as a one-time rugby player of some talent, before it slammed shut behind us, the platform official looked at this disgraceful tangle of gaping fools in disgust and blew his whistle, dropped his flag and the train departed for Hungary.
The actual train was barely a train. It was tiny and the seats were wooden slats but I was certain it had taken us to heaven. So high above the world, so clear the air, so blue the sky, so diamond sparkling the snow. Actually it took us up into the Tyrolienne Alps with which I fell in love as instantly and as deeply as I had with Ernst. The difference was that Ernst, I am ashamed to say, would be replaced many times over as my one object of undying love, but the mountains never will be. And neither will Ritter chocolate which remains a guilty pleasure to this day.
The picture was taken at Les Lacs Robert in the Alpes Belledonne, one of the three mountain ranges, two of them Alps, that surround Grenoble, where I live. We enjoy walking up there. The shot was taken in June. Today being January it is thick with snow and peppered with skiers. The Alps are relatively young mountains as you can tell from their sharp silouette, older mountains have been eroded more and are less craggy, more buxom in appearance. It was the Weekly Photo Challenge labelled ‘Weathered’ that prompted me to post the picture. The gallery is brimming with admirable entries, should you be minded to take a browse.
PS: The title comes from Jerome K Jerome, he who is best known for his wonderful ‘Three Men In A Boat’. This is taken from a short story, ‘The Passing Of The Third Floor Back’, a slightly strange and whimsy tale told with his usual acute eye for characterisation and wry humour. I recommend it if you have an idle half hour – it isn’t arduous nor long. In it, the main character, referred to throughout as ‘The Stranger’ says ‘Nothing, so it seems to me, is more beautiful than the love that has weathered the storms of life, the sweet tender blossom that flowers in the hearts of the young, that too is beautiful. The love of the young for the young, that is the beginning of life. But the love of the old for the old, that is the beginning of – of things longer’. Miss Devine responds ‘‘But are not all things beautiful?’ I find the observation of the stranger quite lovely and something one can only hope one is fortunate enough to attain.
To square the circle, when I saw that very first steam train taking the greatest of men to his final rest, I was on the station platform of the same village in which Jerome’s Three Men noted that ‘the reaches woo one for a sunny sail or for a moonlight row, and the country round about is full of beauty’. And there, I shall always be six.
I enjoyed reading this so much, Fiona! What a wonderful journey with so many lovely memories! That first Ritter bar is indeed something one never forgets – my grandma gave me mine at about four I think and being an only child I had it all to myself!! (And the stomach cramps afterwards too 😂)
I absolutely love Three Men in a Boat! (Which gets even better when you take off the last letter! 😉) xxxxxxxxxx
Hahaha …. take the T off boat – love this!!! So happy that you enjoyed the post and I knew you would enjoy the reference to Ritter 😉 xxxxxxxxxxx
I love your theory about our default age…you made me ponder..what’s mine?…i honestly don’t know..but i’ll get back ro you..🤗🤗🤗
I’ll wait to hear …. I’ll bet you have one and when you pinpoint it many things will fall into place!
So funny!! You are such a good writer! I can’t believe you can remember so much when you were 6 years old. I also used to watch bewitched, in fact I was named after the lovely witch Samantha 🙂 wish I had her nose twitching powers though. Myself and Jon are heading out to Austria tomorrow snowboarding so hope the snow is good 🙂
Elizabeth Montgomery no less. Very pretty, but didn’t make it to my shortlist of crushes way back then!
Don’t go to Salem MA then, Elizabeth is celebrated with a wonderful statue on account of the fact that when a fire shut down the Bewitched sound stage, they decamped and shot several episodes there.
The Alps are doing really well for snow this year so you should have a fabulous time! I would have been SO jealous of your name when I was six (and of course I practiced the nose-twitch in vain incessantly). I have my mother to thank for my memory but of course, I am a writer which means that I reserve the right to fill in the gaps 😉 x
😂😂 had fab snow & a great holiday x
Go to Salem every time we visit MA. Wife insists…
So glad I caught up with this, however belatedly. Love the childhood memories in all their stark naïveté. My default age must be 11, as that is when we upped sticks from Canada north or the border to Minnesota, confusing me geographically for the rest of my life. Like you, it led to an appreciation of the eye of the observer. Very much doubt I could do justice to any memories of that time that are on par with Ernst, though. What a crush! By the way, your abiding love of the Alps aside, did you ever make it to Budapest?
Thank you …. I’m glad you enjoyed it. That must have been difficult – 11 is an age when we want to feel in control rather than out of water and trying to fit into an established culture, I think. Ernst and I remain unrequited …. it’s quite the tragedy. I’ve not made Budapest yet but watch this space … it appears to be raising its pretty head all of a sudden 😊
Thank you so much – that is a very kind thing to say and I am glad you enjoyed the post 🙂
I am shocked that I read this whole post and felt like I wrote a comment! I think your precise (photographic) memory is wonderful, Fiona! It holds delight and such fun. The young crush reminds me of one I had around six years old but it was for a boy of six and a half! (Brian)
The trip sounds fantastic! You should write a children’s book from your own eyes, point of view. Your mother sounds a little frustrated, how I imagine mine on trips with 3 kids born in 4 years. hugs to you, dear friend. I wish you could find my story and response I wrote (possibly in my dreamy state and forgot to press “send.”) 🌈 💞 Take care and have a wonderful week!
Ha! I imagine I have written things all the time, like I imagine I have done other things – in this country the expression is ‘dans la lune’ which literally means in the moon but translates to head in the clouds in English vernacular. I get along just fine with those that vie dans la lune! Anyway, I am touched by your compliments. Some things remain clear through our lives, some cloudier and of course, I am a storyteller so I do take a little artistic licence 😉