Trouble with a capital D.
Some people are born, not with a silver spoon in their mouths, but with a halo of goodness which stays with them until the day they expire. You know the kind, sailing through life without putting a foot wrong. If they do manage to upset someone or do something they shouldn’t, their previous goodness butters over it all.
Then you get the likes of me. Debbie Phillips.
As mother has repeated parrot fashion over the years, I was born trouble with a capital D.
"I knew you would be trouble. You weren’t even born before you caused me trouble. Making me so ill with morning sickness, oh I was so ill. Refusing to enter the world [probably knew in advance what I was in for, mother] and finally arriving over six weeks late, via forceps, causing me extreme pain and numerous stitches".
The umbilical cord had wrapped itself around my neck, and had tightened during my travel down the birth canal, so I guess it was rather traumatic for us all. Anyway, my first experience of life was an incubator for a couple of weeks being really poorly. As a result it was some days before mother saw the fruits of her hard work and instantly declared she’d given birth to a miniature Edward G. Robinson, an actor not noted for his good looks. On frequent occasions thereafter, she’d tell me I was an ugly duckling, but never mentioned my turning into a swan.
Probably because I never did.
For my first four years mother, father and I lived on a farm just over the yard from the big farmhouse, and to the left of the cattle sheds. Both my mother’s parents came from farming stock, and the various aunts, uncles and distant relations had farms in all the neighbouring villages. The one we lived on belonged to the Brandons, mother’s second cousins. I remember distinctly that home and life on the farm, even the day we left to go and live with Granny Talbots (Mother’s mum) when she became seriously ill.
From my perch on the wooden steps that led up to our door, I’d watch Mrs Brandon working in the scullery, wiping the newly collected eggs using a deft flick of the wrist in a twisting fashion, the corner of the blue cloth swishing her wrist each time. Or she’d be making butter and cheese, churning away in time to the songs she sung. Bored of watching I’d wander over on chubby legs and she’d turn to me with a smile cracking her rubicund face.
"Come to help have you, then?" And set me about watching the eggs closely.
"Now don’t take your eyes off them, they will run off cos they have little legs you see. No, it’s no use looking for them, they won’t show their legs until you aren’t looking."
Sometimes I’d help her gather the eggs, the wicker basket with the handles tied on with string, would slap against my legs as I wobbled along, leaning to one side to counter balance myself.
My favourite part was thrusting a hand under a sitting hen, feeling the scratchy warmth of her feathers, my fingers scrambling around for the smoothness of a shell, then withdrawing it oh so carefully and holding it aloft to show Mrs Brandon. During my later years, collecting eggs from my own hens, this pleasure never left me, and I’d always think back to that kindly old lady who had so much patience, even when I managed to drop a full basket of eggs smashing most of them.
‘Oh well. Never mind, plenty more to come. It’s no trouble, so hush the blarting now, come on let’s dry those beautiful big eyes of yours.’
My parent’s first real experience of what trouble their daughter could cause came when I was about eighteen months old. It seems I went out to play in the yard about ten o’clock one summer morning, and mother presumed I’d be in my usual place on the step. However, an hour or so later when she looked out to check on me, I wasn’t there and so she began to roam around the farmyard to find me.
"At first I wasn’t too worried, thinking there was no way you’d travel very far and the main road was miles off and not much traffic came up the lane in those days. Not like today. But could I find you? No. Me and Mrs B went to look in the orchard, and everywhere but no sign of you. I took everything out of my cupboards looking for you, you little terror. And poor Mrs B was crawling in hen houses and everywhere. My heart pounded until I thought it would burst from my chest and the more worried I got, the more my temper rose. Oh I was so going to spank your backside! Trouble, troublesome child!"
By now Mr Brandon and his workers had joined in the search, and all work stopped while the hunt for the missing toddler went on, the neighbouring houses were visited, and people had joined in to look for me. But farm animals needed feeding and Mr Brandon went into the sty to feed the sow who had only recently given birth. She was a miserable old sow and very protective of her babies, so he went armed with a stiff stick and a board to keep her from attacking him. As she wasn’t outside, he peered into the sty and did a double take, letting out a terrified yell. For there, fast asleep in the middle of the throng of sucking piglets, was the blonde haired child.
‘It took three men to get you out; the sow didn’t want them anywhere near you. And you were covered in pig lice and stinking to high heaven.’
Mother’s face will display signs of horror even now, and she will go on to tell how she had to stand me in a bowl of bleach water and scrub me down with a stiff brush, before spanking my little arse and putting me to bed with no tea.
The consensus seems to be that I suckled off the sow during my stay there as I never complained of being hungry or thirsty. I probably did, I’d eat anything as mother discovered when she caught me sharing the farm dogs’ dinner.
Whisky and Patty those dogs were called. Whisky was a Welsh corgi with a mean glint in his eye, renowned for inflicting damage on legs of those walking too close by. Patty, the Border collie, was no better but at least she gave notice of her intentions by barking first. Both lived outside and both were my best friends, allowing me to do anything with them. A favourite pastime was making daisy chains and decorating them both, much to the amusement of the farm men who left Patty’s flowery chain on when they took her off to work rounding up the cows. As she ran, snapping at the cows heels, flowers would be flying in a shower of white and green but there’d always be a few left stuck to her muck encrusted fur.
It was with these two accomplices that I disappeared a second time, some two years after the pig sty incident. This one I remember clearly, and even know why I did it.
At the weekend mother, dad, and I would make the trip up town to visit dad’s parents. They lived in Stoke, in the heart of the Midlands, in a dark terraced house on a cobbled street. Granddad Phillips was a retired Sergeant Major who couldn’t stop being in the Army and who ruled his house, and family, with an iron fist. When Granddad said move, you moved double quick. Grandma was the complete opposite, a tall, gentle hearted lady with a meek manner. You could breathe when there was only granny in.
This particular day, it must have been a Spring or early Summer day, mother dressed me up all nice and clean in a crisp new frock, white ankle socks and sandals. My long hair had been washed and brushed until it shone like a newly minted thrupenny bit, and put into two pony tails bound with dazzling white ribbon, whose ends were carefully cut into an inverted V-shape. I was then told to go and sit to wait in the car, while mother and dad finished getting ready.
Now, in my defence I have to say the idea of going to town used to fill me with horror. Not only did I not like the stifled, smoke ridden air of the place, I detested my Granddad - he was no fun! So what happened between my leaving the home door and getting to the car can be excused, I reckon. For some reason, my scrubbed up legs took me towards Whisky and Patty and from there to the farm gate, the one that the led to the cow pastures. Dogs trotting behind I lifted the latch and, without a second thought, slipped through. I remember looking down and realising that my socks and sandals were going to get rather grubby, so tried to tip toe over the oozing mess of poached earth and cow muck. Of course, the more I tried to be careful, the more I made mistakes (something that still happens to me in my old age), and it wasn’t long before I felt the softness of mud between my toes. A final clumsy jump and I was in the lush grass and running in the manner of a horse put out to field after a long spell in the stable.
Off I went, arms flailing, sometimes skipping, sometimes jumping, and enjoying the feel of my dress dancing round my legs. Then shaking my head up and down, side to side, feeling my pony tails whip with each movement. I really disliked ribbons in my hair, and when they whacked my eyes a few times, I came to a halt and tugged them out, tucking them in the waistband of my knickers for safekeeping. Even at that young age I knew enough not to incur mother’s wrath and she was so fond of ribbons and other girly gewgaws; rather sad that her daughter was such a tomboy and remained so until she had children of her own. But I left the pony tails in; I liked them because I thought they made me resemble the farm horses with their long luscious tails.
There was a copse in the next field, and that was where I was going. Getting there involved a scramble under barbed wire, and a squeezing through some brambles. The dogs made the crossing look easy so I followed suit, but dogs don’t wear dresses and at some point I got entangled in both barbed wire and brambles. Nothing that a quick yank couldn’t solve; the fact my brand new dress was torn in a few places never bothered me in the slightest. After such an adventure and having by now reached the copse, throwing myself down under a big horse chestnut tree, I relaxed by holding blades of grass between my two thumbs and blowing to produce a farting noise. I must have blown too hard at some point, as the sharp edge of grass cut my bottom lip which was rubbed free of blood with the hem of my dress.
It wasn’t long before I decided to climb a tree, finding the right one became the uppermost thing on my mind. How about this one? No, I can’t reach the lowest branch. This one? Oops, branch not strong enough I discovered as I fell back to earth with a wallop. The dogs took advantage of me being flat on my back and pounced on me, slobbering their sticky, gooey kisses on any bit of flesh they could find. No doubt I giggled, and rolled, and giggled some more, as both dogs decorated my dress with paw marks.
And then I saw it.
I had a way of moving when I was looking at things, creeping along half crouched, head jutted forward to peer closely at a baby bird in the nest, or a butterfly drinking in the sun on a flower. Aunt Sheila described my movement as ‘A ballet dancer with bad piles.’ And it is this way I moved now to peer closely at my new found treasure.
A large hole tucked behind a fringe of long, straggly grass, in the side of a steep dip in the ground. Loose soil and a scattering of pebbles lay strewn before the opening like a welcome doormat, and for added effect posies of dandelions each side. A fairy’s house, and what’s more, the door was open inviting me in. How could any child resist?
Tucking my dress into my knickers, on all fours I stuck my head in the hole, but only got as far as my shoulders. No matter how much I wriggled and squirmed, my chubby body wouldn’t fit. Sitting back up again, swotting the dogs out the way as their noses prompted them to explore, I decided to try feet first. A little more success this time, but only as far as my shoulders again. The darkness in the hole felt warm against my legs as they did a kicking swimming stroke. I lay there, arms stretched out above my head, watching clouds sailing across the sky. The fairies weren’t at home, that was for sure. Dog drool, cold and glutinous, fell on my cheek, bringing me back to earth, and it was at that point I remembered mother.
"One moment you were there, the next you’d vanished. I asked your father where was she? But he’s as bad as you, in bloody cuckoo land. I thought to myself, why couldn’t I have a normal child? But you have to go and take after your father don’t you, couldn’t be like us Talbotses. Oh no, had to be a Phillips through and through. Anyway, we looked all over, shouting and bawling your name, but no sign. Then just as your father was off down the lane to see if you were there, you came strolling through the field gate, in such a bloody mess. Only been down a badger hole, hadn’t you. Never seen anything like it. That lovely new dress in tatters it was. Oh I went mad! I didn’t half slap your arse. I grabbed your ear and frogmarched you home, had to strip you off and scrub you all over, put clean clothes on again. And you had the cheek to smile at me when you sat in the car. Trouble. Trouble with a capital D!"
It would be nice to say that as I grew older the troubles lessened, but not so. There is one thing though, one thing I console myself with - I might have got into a lot of trouble, but by gum, I had a barrel load of fun.
A very young Debbie with her uncle Ray. Standing on the front step of granny Talbot's house.