Memories are funny things. They pop into one’s head at the most odd times and for no apparent reason. How wonderful the good ones can be though, and how they can make one smile.
As I trudge through the woods with the dogs this morning, the legacy of a night’s rain drip-dripping on my head from the overhanging branches, an early morning sun barely visible, I am glad of the wellington boots encasing my feet, rubber boots that squelch through the mud and wet. Heedless of the water-logged ground, I splish-splash on my way. The Duke of Wellington stumbled, quite literally, on a great idea when he modified the original 18th century, hessian boot. Apparently, he thought it hard-wearing enough for battle and comfortable enough for evening wear. I am not sure I would agree with the latter function.
As I ponder on the usefulness of the humble wellington, I am struck by the memory of some other boots, worn in another time, in another place…
Looking up, I can see the sun try valiantly to penetrate the branches, newly decked in emerald livery, made richer by the recent deluge. It looks a little magical … I remember the Magic Boots.
I am small, maybe six years old. My middle sister is not quite three years older. We will have travelled for over an hour in the cramped, back seat of the black Austen Morris, driven by my father. My baby brother sits on mother’s lap on the front passenger seat. It is 1963 .
We are visiting my aunt Rene. She lives alone in a ground floor flat within a small, two storey block. She has no garden to the rear, only a shared, concrete courtyard where she can hang her washing. The yard also serves as the car park, not that many of the residents have cars. Auntie Rene certainly doesn’t. She is a stone’s throw from the beach and says she does not need a garden either.
Auntie Rene is funny and quick-witted and has an obsession with food. Not with eating it, with recording it. Auntie Rene likes to go on organized coach trips around the country and carries a notebook with her in which she writes down every meal, in detail, that she has throughout the day. As she tells us about the places she has visited, she brings out the notebook and reels of the menus she has sampled. We pretend polite interest, yawning a little as we reach “day seven – lunchtime…”
We know we will be given chocolate fingers or penguins from the biscuit barrel, shaped like a pineapple, and orange squash from the kitchen cupboard. We will be allowed to watch the television when Children’s hour comes on. Meanwhile, we will sit politely and draw and read while the grown-ups talk but at some point, our patience at being indoors will falter. We will catch one another’s eye, my sister and I.
My sister looks at me, I jump up from the floor and ask if we can go outside and play. The grown-ups are mystified as always. What will we do out there?
Sometimes, we play Hopscotch but we must be careful to remove all trace of chalk afterwards. Sometimes we play ball, but we must be careful not to throw it too hard and break a window. Today, we do neither of these things, today we do what we love doing best – we put on our “Magic Boots”.
There is a knack to putting on the boots. You must not put them on before you are standing on our aunt’s front door step. The step is shared with her neighbour. We are careful not to stand on that side.
We each slip our feet inside the invisible boots and pull them on. I wriggle my toes to the very end and stamp up and down for effect. My sister does the same. As long as we are on the step, the boots will behave.
All around us, the concrete yard has turned into a swamp, filled with dangerous creatures into whose clutches we might fall. We take turns to decide what happens next.
Today, I let my sister speak first. I am wearing the boots. Even though no one can see them, I can feel them pinching my toes. I wait. My sister smirks,
“Walk backwards, Magic Boots!” she decides.
Obediently, I, and my Magic Boots, begin walking backwards. My sister does the same. We must continue walking backwards until we reach the safety of the backdoor step unless we are told otherwise. If we need to rest we are allowed to stop on the old tree stump by the wall, or on the drain cover in the centre of the yard. Both are ‘safe’.
My sister’s voice calls out,
“Hop on one leg!”
“Er, yes, backwards!”
We hop, backwards, all the way round the building, ignoring the tree stump and the drain, all the way to the backdoor step, barely making it without collapsing into giggles. We have crossed the swamp successfully.
Safe on the step, I must now remove the magic boots or continue to hop on the spot. I don’t mind hopping. It is my turn to speak.
“Magic Boots jump!” I yell.
Immediately, we are both jumping on the spot. Breathless, we jump off the step and feet together, jump, jump, jump across the swamp. We must not stop or we will sink.
We arrive on the front step together.
Those Magic Boots can make us do anything. At times they have us turning in circles, waving our arms in the air, at others they make us bunny-hop from one side of the car park to the next. If any of the other residents are watching, what must they think? We must present a strange sight, tip-toeing, skipping, jumping, sliding and striding with giant footsteps, backwards and forwards across the courtyard for no apparent reason.
Eventually, we are called in for tea and all too soon, it is time to say goodbye.
Back home, where skipping ropes and tricycles, dolls-prams and roller skates await us, we discard our Magic Boots until the next visit. We have tried playing the game at home from time to time but it lacks the excitement and magic it holds for us at Auntie Rene’s.
As we grow older and wiser, we hang up our Magic Boots and leave them in the land of make-believe that only children inhabit.
Still, now and then, just like today, I remember those Magic Boots and the memory still makes me smile. Memories of my sister, cart wheeling around the courtyard or spinning until she is dizzy, stay with me along with the memory of us standing on Auntie Rene’s doorstep, shivering in the cold or rain but refusing to go inside because our Magic Boots were waiting.
This morning was, indeed, a magical morning!