Certain moments, which may seem ordinary enough at the time, become graven on your memory with particular significance. A day in October many years ago had such an effect on me.
I had been accepted for a degree course by Sheffield University and duly set off to that city of which I still have many happy memories. It was the first time I had left home. I felt both excited and bewildered. Suddenly I had to look after myself and take decisions which had always been made for me.
My family had kitted me out for the great adventure. My mother decided I needed a good pair of shoes. Another relative proposed Veldtschoen so off we went to a department store and asked for them. They were shoes but they were built like military boots, heavy and, so it was alleged, completely weather proof. They were expensive and they had to be sent back to the factory to be resoled but they lasted me several years. They also rubbed my heels raw during the first weeks of wearing them. I was to say later that the shoes wore me in, not the other way about. I have an amusing memory of my landlady, a large lady, massaging the shoes with all her weight to try to soften them up and spare me some agony.
I reached Sheffield on a dry autumn day with a bracing bite in the air. I had been told to make my way up the hill towards Woodseats and to look for Millmount Road. Eventually, I found myself, luggage in hand, standing in front of the house where I was to lodge. The window sills and doorstep were freshly whited. The street was quiet and the house neat and trim.
Being a southerner, I marched up to the front door and knocked. No response. I tried again, several times. Still no response. At last a lady emerged from the house next door and said “They’ll be round t’back, luv. Through t’ginnel.”
I later learned that no one used the front door. It led straight into “t’room” (the best room where only visitors were taken) whereas the family stayed in “t’house”, a room that served the purpose of kitchen, living room and, with a curtain drawn across in front of the sink to provide minimal privacy, a place to wash. Between each pair of houses was a passageway or tunnel that ran under the upper floors and gave access to the back yard – the ginnel. In the yard, opposite each house was a sort of cupboard with a space at the top and bottom of the door: the privy.
I knocked on the back door and met the elderly couple I was to live with. The man had been a miner and was now retired. “Ah niver wanted students, tha knaws”, he confided encouragingly but we got on more or less.
Having been introduced to my room and having put my few possessions away, I was left with the problem of what to do next. I wasn’t due to register at the university until next day but was too excited and nervous to sit around. So I decided to go for a walk.
I set off down the main road which was on a hill with a panorama of the city below. There was nothing in the scene that you would not see in any other city – streets, houses, traffic, factories, the smoky skyline – but it was all somehow alien to a timid immigrant from the south, a youth away from home for the first time.
I clumped down the hill in my cruel Veldtschoen and felt the bracing chill in the air. That moment remains with me and whenever I step out into the first chill day of autumn the memory comes flooding back with all its emotions, now of course laced with nostalgia, a happy memory that cannot be invoked but comes unbidden when it will and is welcomed.
Many memories since then have found a niche in memory and pop up from time to time but this one – the memory of a boy on the brink of manhood, dressed in grey jeans, tatty black school blazer and heavy shoes, shivering with anticipation on the edge of a new life, remains one of my favourites.