Mrs Clutterbuck's class: sometime in the early 'eighties. The door opens onto rows of single desks, side on, and there's a window seat across the room. The school used to be a grand home but the furniture's changed and there are dry-erase white boards in place of artwork. There's an impressive entry with a marble slab stairwell clinging to the walls, taking it's time to meander past large stone windows, down to the iron studded double oak doors. Beyond Mrs Clutterbuck's class is the stairwell. We never use it, of course. We come in through the cloakroom at the back. Past the dining rooms, eyes on the black and red floor tiles, and up the back stairs. Homework is to find out what our first words were.
'Cow', I discover, and write it proudly on my piece of paper. Cow. I learn that my brother said 'Clower' and I imagine my mum pushing him in the purple Silver Cross pram and pointing out the primroses and snowdrops as they emerged from the hedgerows. Or maybe it was later, May perhaps, and the lane was full of cow parsley and campions. By the time I arrived, my brother would have just been toddling at my mum's side. You didn't have to walk very far before reaching the crooked iron gates and seeing the cows. Damp pink noses pushing through the bars, whiskers as tough as fishing line. The farmer left giant bricks of salt by the water troughs which they'd lick like eroded sandstone, before pushing their vast sandpaper tongues up a nostril. My brother's gaze, by now, had shifted from flowers to cows and I was the beneficiary. 'Cow' would be my entry into language, my stepping stone. How often did we walk up the lane? Twice daily, with the dog? A single track, muddied tarmac, with gravel smoothed in two neat grooves from the wear of car tyres. I can only imagine those walks but they are sealed forever in a part of me with the knowledge of my first word. I remember the later walks, using my doll's bonnet to stash wild strawberries only to find out that I had stained the soft blond flannel with a gash of red that looked forever like a head injury. I was not a 'girly girl'; I had called the doll 'floppy legs', but it still shocked me. And later again, home from boarding school, walking with my camera, taking pictures of those noses, or of black and white hide pulled tight over angular haunches. Then the walking became running the loop; up the lane in one direction, zig-zaging to the end, a left and right, up the hill, past Treswallen and Creed Lane, hugging the hedge on the way down the other side, over the bridge and back home.
What is a first word? Must it be accompanied by a pointed finger? 'Look, a cow!' Or is it a mother's memory; 'You loved the cows, we walked the lane so often to look at them.' Our youngest has, in the past few weeks, put his first word on the slate of his emerging history. Though he mimiced 'apple' beautifully several times he hasn't quite aligned the softly spoken syllables to the fruit in the bowl. What he does say frequently and what is all too clearly understood is 'Nee new', copied from his brothers' 'I need you!' He must have worked out that 'Nee new', in this house, is the equivalent of dialing a first responder. What picture will this third child draw for himself when he is asked by his teacher to find out his first word? Mine, after all, could have come from a picture book.