We Noakes‑es tend to not cross each other on the stairs or walk on three drains. You'll find us eating biscuits in odd numbers (most often in threes, sometimes in sevens and very rarely only the one.)
Our core ritual is to not do our laundry on New Year's Day, otherwise, 'a member of the family will be washed away during the coming year.' My mother heard this from her mother, who in turn, heard it from her mother, and so on.
I asked my Grandmother if she knew where it came from. She didn't know ‑ only that it is a really old superstition. Then she said, 'but it isn't worth risking is it?'.
Valerie was twenty‑one when she first started playing tennis with Sheila in Barnstaple, Devon. Sheila was going steady with Alan, who suggested they play a round of doubles with his friend John. John was a man of twenty‑three with tight blonde curls and had landed his first teaching job in Eastbourne. He was home in Barnstaple for the Summer. ‘And that was it', my grandma said. The four of them spent the Summer going to dances and the pictures. Valerie and John married in April 1952.
Nine years earlier in the Spring of 1941, Edna (more commonly known as Eddie) met a young man called Grenville at Frindsbury Lawn Tennis Club. Grenville wasn't particularly good at tennis, he had a bad habit of 'slicing the ball' ‑ but Eddie was a pro. Her luck in tennis continued to grow after marrying Grenville. In 1950 she won a silver bell for being runner up in a championship in Bermuda. The bell sat pride of place on the mantel wherever they lived, and a toy for their son Michael, and then his two daughters Chris and Lucy (that’s me!).
To distract from the waves of travel sickness I’d listen to The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe on audio tape, Madonna’s Immaculate Collection or Blur. But I would always stop the tape and when these unusual and striking group of rocks appeared.
I recall us stopping to visit it once. but I don’t remember much. I wanted to touch the rocks but I couldn’t. I was confused by why something so part of a landscape needed to be behind rope.
Our Devon destination, was to visit the farm of family friends Brenda and Charles. At one point I was convinced that Charles was actually Prince Charles, as they both had a similar face, prominent ears and have a fondness for tweed caps and green wellies.
Being so close to an array of animals was absolute heaven for me. The farmhouse too, I’ve always loved kitsch things and it was full of them. Staffordshire dogs, cat shaped cushions, teapot cosy galore. I held a kitten by their aga, fed ducks in streams and hugged lambs.
As a committed vegetarian by the age of seven, I did sometimes have a run in with Charles. One instance involved me being very upset by his form of a scarecrow, which was an actual dead crow pinned to a wooden stick. It was clear that his animals were very important to him though. His sheep dog Susie, who outlived all the other sheepdogs was always by his side, apart from when she was looking for badgers. If you said ‘badgers’ to her she would immediately start looking in the hedge for them.
I haven’t visited the farm in a long time. Charles died last year and Brenda is 93. Despite no longer working on the farm her body clock is still on farm time. She wakes early and goes to bed early. She still grows vegetables and bakes Victoria Sponge. There are no animals in the farmhouse anymore, but the objects and house things remain.
And the rocks. The rocks still stand.
Da was patient and kind ‑ and contributed heavily to my happy childhood. Two of the biggest reasons for this was because a) he told wonderful stories and b) he spoke to animals. Together we would pick up and croak to frogs, and chirp and whistle to the birds. He struck up a particular friendship with a blackbird, who in time, started to sit on Da’s shoulder. He would visit everyday.
Then, when I was around 11, we noticed Da would repeat the same stories and forget where he left things. He had dementia and eventually needed to live in care. He died when I was 15.
Around this time Eddie, my Granny, developed Parkinson’s, which eventually left her bedridden. Her mind was sharp though, and I’d wager she would have beaten most people at Countdown.
On the way home from visiting Granny in care, my dad would always play the song The Highwayman. I didn’t listen to the lyrics until much later.
Many years later I wrote a children’s picture book. It tells the story of a young girl, her grandad and a blackbird. In time, her grandad dies but she finds herself comforted whenever she sees a blackbird, because she knows whenever she sees one ‑ her grandad is visiting her.
After reading my story, my dad put it down and said ‘well, it’s just like The Highwayman’. I was a little perplexed, until I listen to the song.
Here is my favourite section:
‘I fly a starship
Across the Universe divide
And when I reach the other side
I'll find a place to rest my spirit if I can
Perhaps I may become a highwayman again
Or I may simply be a single drop of rain
But I will remain
And I'll be back again, and again and again and again and again’
I take comfort that I will always have blackbirds ‑ and that my dad will always have The Highwayman.
I went to primary school when I was four years old and that's where I met Ella. Our first encounter of friendship was after I had an anxious episode. It was the day of Harvest festival, and I forgot to bring in any food to give away. In tears at the school gate, Ella's mum Wendy, offered to go halves on their Harvest box. And then through this act of kindness, we became friends. Wendy and my mum Sue did too.
Ella and I attended many after school classes together. Art club, recorder club, choir, ballet class, drama class. I was able to have a go at things with her at my side. Once, twenty minutes before ballet class, Ella sprained her ankle from us playing around on my parent's staircase. Realising that I was going to have to go to ballet class alone, I tried to hurt my ankle the same way. It didn't work.
Ella has always been a lot more adventurous than me. Her birthday parties consisted of go carting and ski slopes. Mine involved village halls and zoos. One holiday when we were seven, she was swimming underwater between her father's legs. I was swimming with armbands. Seeing her accomplish that though made me take off my bands and give swimming a try. I got to the other side! And that was the start of her inspiring me to give things a go on my own.
Thank you Ella. You've always been my cheerleader. I'm so glad I forgot to bring in those cans of beans.
Anyway, the dance story goes like this. My sister and her friend Sophie used to make up dance routines. They did this pretty much every weekend from the age of 12 until they discovered drinking in pubs.
For their routine to East 17's 'Let it Rain', each time they sang ‘Love! Let it rain’ Chris and Sophie did a squat. This happened 48 times. My sister had to have the next day off school due to not being able to walk down the stairs.
And then there was Elton John's Rocketman. After nearly twenty years of not dancing it together, Sophie and Chris performed it once more at Sophie's hen party, after a dose of peer pressure and several manhattans.
It was a hit and got mentioned in the wedding speeches. That evening Rocketman started playing on the dancefloor. Everyone looked at Sophie and my sister, cheering them on. I joined in as in the moment I forgot my sisterly duty of protecting Chris at all costs. It quickly became evident that Sophie's wedding dress was far too tight to do the dance to its full potential, with it's floorwork and serveral kicks, and so with time, the crowd dispersed. It was forgotten once Don McLean's American Pie came on.