A couple of months ago we arranged a family get-together. We would travel 5 hours (took 7 in the end but that’s another story) from England’s South Coast, our son would travel 4 or so from the East and our daughter would travel any number of hours from wherever in the world she was at the time.
Her long-time friend was having a baby and was based in Liverpool. I was born about an hour away from there and had always wanted to return and it seemed that lots of birds were going to be bumped off with one well-aimed stone.
It was a storm weekend. I can’t actually remember where we had got in the alphabetical naming of storms but as the car rocked and bucked it’s way up the motorway, sheets of rain smashing into the windscreen, we did wonder what we had got ourselves into- the eye of the storm, it transpired.
We gathered in an Airbnb just outside Liverpool, so pleased to be together again and catch up and to huddle under the extra blankets until the heating kicked in.
I had decided that the following day we would go back to my birthplace of Lytham- St Annes, see what we could, hang out in fancy nearby Lytham and then at least, if the weather was too horrendous, we had done that.
We hurried down the streets, scurrying under the awnings and being blustered along the beachfront I can remember playing on as a child. We found where my house had been as as it was right on the beachfront, knocked down thirty years or more ago and turned into a rather ugly block of flats. Across from the flats was a duckpond and rockery which I remember well, especially as I had fallen through the ice one winter and couldn’t get out.
The following day, we put our still sodden coats back on and trudged out again. This time we were crossing the Mersey to visit my mum’s birthplace- Birkenhead. She had given me the address and we found the house she and my nana had lived in. The stadium for Tramere Rovers FC was just nearby and she had said she could hear the roar of the crowds on matchdays. I took a photo.
I was more intent though, on finding the rock.
A couple of weeks before, I was doing some research about the general area and realised that there was a park near to my mum’s house which, when we were visiting nana, would go to. I found Birkenhead Park- it had to be the one so I contacted them and asked the question- Was the rock with the slide still there?
A reply came back- there had been a slide some years back but had since been removed because court cases were expensive these days. There were still some volunteer staff who had been there fifty years ago and remembered it. Well them and me both……
I had remembered this rock was in a clearing, surrounded by trees and you had to climb up a ladder, crawl through quite a tight gap and then the only way out was to go down a terrifyingly high slide.
Mum had taken the three of us to the park that day and my brothers were scampering up the ladder and shooting out through the gap and down the slide. So was most of Birkenhead, it seemed to little me.
Off I went, one foot and then the other felt its way up each rung and into the cool, dark heart of stone. Above me was a gap where sunlight filtered down and where even more daring children would climb to peer down at the ones creeping along underneath, their mothers oblivious, cardigans draped round their shoulders, PallMall ciggies dangling from lacquered fingertips.
I stood in the exit at the top of the slide and was overcome. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t go down that terrifying gleaming steel tube. I couldn’t go back because there was already a queue of far braver children than me, waiting their turn.
I cried, I sobbed. I ventured into the opening over and over again, only to retreat back into the dark. I peered at the ladder. I couldn’t go down backwards. Even if I wasn’t terrified, no child, having queued up to this point was going to budge off their rung so I could creep down in shame and self-disgust.
In the end, after a couple of years it seemed to me, a young girl, probably no more than ten but in my eyes, my wise, bold and adult saviour, climbed up the outside of the rock, put her feet in their saddle shoes and frilly socks either side of it, learnt forward with her hands and pulled me out.
Some mothers, dimly aware that there seemed to be some kind of bottleneck, looked across at the slide but then resumed their chat when it suddenly started spewing children out again.
I cannot remember the rest, just the intense relief of being pulled free into the sunshine. My brothers had probably moved on to the swings and mum would have been relaxing on the bench, face turned to the sun, confident that all was well.
And now, over fifty years later, I was on the hunt. The staff on duty that day weren’t sure where it might have been but I found an area called The Rockery so that was a clue. It was very overgrown with a jumble of brambles and trees but I think I found the area. I could not find the rock, perhaps it was too buried under the dense vegetation. I was so determined to find it and to understand, that to return to a fear so huge in childhood memory, dwindles away with adult eyes.
I still am terrified of heights- the third rung of a ladder is good enough for me and I am quite claustrophobic. I have been known to spring up in the middle of the night in a tent and unzip it as I “can’t breathe”. I would have liked to face up to that childhood memory but it wasn’t to be.
My mum probably asked me if I had had a nice time and I would have nodded dumbly, clutching her hand and on a fast trot for the bus home.