We fetch our summer buckets; gaily coloured, red, blue, yellow and green. In a while, the plastic pails will hold Autumn’s fruits. Dad holds hands with one or other of us, alternating as each child takes a turn to race ahead. We skip along, stopping to check the hedgerows, trying to spot the nests that are hidden there. And, when we do, a proud cry goes up.
‘I’ve found one!’
We count the eggs but do not touch. We have been warned. None of us wants to be responsible for the mother bird’s non-return. Dad’s previous instructions are always bidden; his wisdom heeded, if not always completely understood.
We examine the markings on the eggs and note their colour. Dad identifies them. Sometimes we are proud to remember their names from earlier lessons. We scan the skies for the parents and wait quietly some way off to see if any bird spotted will return to the nest while we watch.
‘They never go too far away,’ says Dad. ‘They protect their young.’
The air is fresh and there is a crispness that makes it pleasant to take deep breaths.
‘Breathe deeply,’ says Dad, ‘in through your nose and out through your mouth. It’s good for you.’
We all inhale deeply and the smell of manure sails down tubes to eager lungs. Two or three deep breaths render us dizzy. One of us starts to turn in circles, arms outstretched, going madly round; adding in a fun way to the light-headedness of the moment.
In a twirl of excitement, we reach the woods and our first activity is to retrieve our home-made swing; hidden in the undergrowth on a previous week. We always expect someone else to have found it. We are always pleased to discover that they have not.
Dad ties the long rope to one of our favourite trees. Legs astride the swing’s strong branch, we take turns. We throw our heads back laughing, shouting for a turn, laughing in turn. We swing back and forth and round and round; sometimes pushing, sometimes being pushed. We swing until the fun in doing so is exhausted. The moment of completeness coincides with Dad calling on us. It is time to light the fire.
Collecting twigs is a competition. Are they dry? Will they burn? I’ve brought most. Look at me. I’ve done well. Dad’s praises are limited, directed and precise.
He smokes his pipe and leans against a suitable-sized rock; his legs outstretched to the fire we are preparing. We place the kindling in the middle of the stones already selected and positioned in a neat circle. Dad has previously shown us how to light a fire. Little bits of dried grass catch the flame, while gentle blowing helps it along. Soon the twigs burn and the smell …….I remember it still.
Every time I smell wood burn, I think of Dad and those days up the braes. Childish feet walking to a known destination where freedom, fun and adventure unfolded under Dad’s sparse but timely advices.
How I wanted one of the penknives my brothers used, to whittle little twigs to pointed ends that then pierced the potatoes Dad always magicked from hidden pockets.
We roasted those potatoes on our little fire. The boys, who were older, were permitted to turn them with their pointed sticks while my sister and I enviously watched this grown-up activity and wondered when our moment would come.
The potatoes burned nicely on the outside while eventually softened enough inside to eat with tentative fingers. We slugged milk, bought for pennies from the nearby farm. Creamy milk and hot potatoes hit stomachs only aware of hunger pangs when the activity stopped. No thought was given to whether the milk had been pasteurised or not or whose germs we shared in the communal drinking.
Sometimes Dad brought his billy-can and we shared sips of his tea, made from boiling water pilfered from a cattle trough. I was afraid of the cows, sure that they resented my unsuccessful forays at their watering hole. On more than one occasion I had to be rescued by one brother or other. While I stood transfixed by a mucous-laden cow, one of them would fetch the water, patronisingly reassuring me that the cow would not hurt me.
Even after eating, the day was still not over. My brothers carved their names in a broken-down tree, alongside an earlier week’s initials. The tree was our friend and plaything. Lying on its side, from whatever disaster had befallen it; its roots were exposed in a spreading mass. Sufficient exertion on our parts raised its purpose to a magnificent see-saw. Living trees were forbidden us. Nothing else was. There was only one rule. Do not hurt anything. That one rule enfolded us and all of nature in a protective embrace. And so we played freely.
We jumped burns, found special stones and leaves and spread all our treasures out for Dad’s perusal and identification. We only partly took in his words; understanding to follow at another time.
We scattered soil onto the dwindled fire to completely extinguish its living flame. We hid the swing again. Penknives were already closed and we trod the homeward journey.
Now birds were warming eggs in nests already spotted and not. Our bramble buckets were half-empty, the contents already mostly consumed earlier in the day. Dessert before dinner. Etiquette unbound. No silly rules to be observed. Just one rule; respecting the natural order of life. And that one was strict.
Dad’s walks up the braes were an adventure, giving Mum a break with younger siblings only to be attended to. The dinner she had prepared was always eaten with less relish than her efforts deserved. Stomachs full of brambles, potatoes and milk could not enthuse. Eventually Mum learned to abandon the Sunday dinner rule on such days. A plate of home-made soup was more than sufficient.
Faces rosy. Hands dirty. Smiles wide. Sunday bath-time followed.