I was sorting out a box of old photos the other day and came across this one of Jemima, Rebecca and myself, when we were at Drigg, long long ago. I sat and gazed at it for almost an hour as the memories it held came sweeping back. I was almost overwhelmed by the power of the emotions it evoked.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
We’d been looking forward to this special holiday for so long, and had made all sorts of plans for the exciting things we were going to do.
The idea had come – as these things so often do – from a chance remark, made on this occasion by Rebecca. Mama came up to the Nursery for tea as she always did whenever there were no visitors to keep her away, and we had been looking at some magazines she’d brought with her. Rebecca, who was five, had been especially taken by an unusual bungalow on the seashore and had said, ‘That would be a wonderful place for a holiday, can we go there Mama?’
Mama had explained that it belonged to the Carlisles and was far in the North-west of the country. ‘However, Great-Aunt Rosemary is a friend of the Dowager Lady Carlisle*, so it isn’t impossible that we might arrange to have a short holiday there when it isn’t going to be in use. What do you think, Belinda and Jemima?’
Jemima and I had a look at the picture, asked about the village and places nearby, and then agreed that it sounded as if we could have a very special holiday there.
‘In that case I will speak to Great-Aunt Rosemary and find out if she can make an arrangement for us.’
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
It was quite a long while later that we finally heard from Mama’s Great-Aunt, in all the excitement of Christmas we had almost forgotten our conversation back in September about a holiday in the North.
Again Mama came to have tea with us. ‘Well, girls,’ she said, drawing an envelope from her pocket, ‘I’ve finally heard from Great-Aunt Rosemary about the bungalow at Drigg up in Cumberland.’
‘What does she say?’ asked Rebecca, ‘Can we go?’
‘Yes, we can use it for three weeks in June when the Carlisles will be going to their villa in Nice.’ and Mama smiled at us in that special way she has when her whole face seems to light up and her eyes sparkle with fun.
When we had finished dancing around the Nursery, we sat down and had our tea, all the while making plans for picnics on the beach; drives to the nearby Lakes; explorations of anything of interest nearby, and a boat trip up the coast to the busy town of Whitehaven.
When tea was over Mama got down the school atlas of Britain and Bradshaw’s Railway timetable and guide. We spent a pleasant hour or two finding out how to get there. It seemed the best way would be to take the train to Carlisle, where we could spend a night in a hotel, and then travel down the coast. In the Guide we discovered the picturesque village of Ravenglass with its workers’ railway running up the valley, Muncaster Castle, Eskdale and its Roman Fort, and the Priory at St Bees. It seemed there would be plenty of things to see as well as all the walks along the beaches, the cliffs at St Bees, and, if the weather were kind, the possibility of paddling or even swimming.
‘Belinda and Jemima, you can take your pencils and paints,’ Mama said, ‘there will be lots of things to sketch. And Rebecca we’ll take some books about flowers and birds, so that we can learn about all the new things we will see. Great-Aunt Rosemary says there are many wading birds on the Esk Estuary, and we may even see buzzards or an eagle up on the mountains.’
‘It says here,’ I remarked, ‘that they don’t call them mountains, Mama. They’re Fells, because that’s what the Viking settlers called them.’
‘Yes, Belinda, you’re quite right. I had forgotten for a moment – I think we’re going to learn a lot of history too!’
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Over the next three months the plans went slowly forward, Jemima and I did quite a lot of reading about Cumberland, and Miss Johnston, our Governess, helped us to find out more.
It was at the beginning of May that the shadow first fell over us. We were woken by Miss Johnston one morning to be told that Mama was unwell and a doctor had been called. We spent most of the day upstairs trying to keep ourselves quietly occupied, but we were all distracted by our anxiety and couldn’t settle to anything.
As was normal in those days, we weren’t told anything either useful or specific, just ‘She must rest and keep quiet, children, so don’t bother her, and don’t make any noise near her room.’
She called us into her room in the evening, and attempted to reassure us, but she looked very pale, and I was not at all comforted by the vagueness of the promises.
‘Mama, will you be better for our holiday?’ Rebecca asked anxiously. Miss Johnston tried to hush her, but Mama smiled gently at us, and said ‘I certainly hope so, my dears. But in case I’m not perfectly well in time, I will still arrange for us to go. The change, the sea air and sunshine will be good for me, and you have been so good and worked so hard at all your lessons that you have thoroughly deserved it. Miss Johnston will go with us to help us, and Great-Aunt Rosemary will be there and arrange everything.’
The two younger ones were comforted by this, and believed everything would be well, but I remained sceptical.
Over the next few weeks we carried on as much of our normal routine as was possible, and saw Mama most days for a few moments, but there was no sign of improvement, and indeed she was losing weight fast and growing ever more wan.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
And so we came to the week at the end of which we should be travelling North, and it was just as I had feared – Mama was too weak for the journey, and would remain behind. Indeed, Miss Johnston confided to me, as the eldest, that she would be going down to a sanitorium in Malvern while we were away. They had hopes that some new treatments used there would be a help to her.
We, on the other hand would go North with Miss Johnston, Anna the nursery maid, and George the footman, and stay at Drigg with Mama’s Great-Aunt Rosemary for three weeks.
None of us was happy about this arrangement.
‘Mama,’ complained Jemima, ‘It’s so far away! We want to be near you. We’ll be ever so quiet and good, really we will! We’ll be no trouble to Anna or Miss Johnston, but we need to be here with you!’
‘I’m sure you would be quiet, darling,’ Mama murmured, ‘But I need to go to Malvern to see special doctors, and you couldn’t come there with me, so you can see, this works out well for all of us. By the time you come back I should be a lot stronger, and I’ll be longing to hear all about your adventures, see your sketches, and learn all the history you’re going to discover. Make sure you keep your journals so that I shan’t miss anything.
‘You’ll help me by going, my dears. I shall feel all the better knowing you’re having a good holiday at the bungalow, and not sitting around here worrying needlessly about me.’
Almost wordlessly we agreed, and on the morning of departure took a fond farewell of her. I couldn’t speak, but looked long into her eyes, and hoped and believed we understood each other.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
I won’t bore you with the details of the journey, or even of the holiday. Suffice it to say that everyone was very loving and took the greatest care of us. Every excursion and activity was meticulously planned, and there were moments when, despite myself, I was distracted into enjoyment. Rebecca did enjoy herself, and Jemima encouraged her to collect and press things for Mama to see, though I could tell she also had her doubts about the future.
It was Great-Aunt Rosemary who arranged for a photographer from Whitehaven to come down and take a photograph of us ‘For your dear Mama’ she said, though she almost stumbled over the words, and covered her slip with a bout of coughing.
Inevitably, it was that very morning that the news reached us of Mama’s death in the hospital at Malvern. There was not the remotest possibility of a cheerful picture of smiling children, but as the photographer had been hired, and would have to be paid, it was decided a picture would be taken anyway. And here we are, trying to look calm – the best we could be expected to manage – a picture of the inner devastation of our lives, our whole world. A day I need no picture of – a day seared forever into my memory.
And no, I’ve never been back to Drigg, or to Cumberland and all its wonderful places which Mama never saw.
* Mother-in-Law of the later somewhat notorious Lady Carlisle.
[The picture was brought to the Whitehaven Writers by one of our members who was researching the history of Drigg. The house did belong to the Carlisles, but everyone else in the story has been imagined by me. No one knows who the girls actually are.]