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We don’t remember rain in the summers of our childhood

Hilary Fannin: When I look back I see a cloudless blue sky above our suburban road

“It will be hotter than Lanzarote this afternoon, folks,” some enthusiast had prattled from the radio that morning. Photograph: Frank Miller

The heatwave a few weeks ago woke the teenage boys in my neighbourhood from their hooded slumber. They emerged from their fetid box bedrooms with their coconut heads half-shaved and swaggered around our estate, boom boxes under their skinny arms. They roved around the shopping centre, gangly and shorn, looking like a tribe of crispy bacon fries, vertical stripes of sunburn illuminating their shin bones. They congregated by the train station, where adolescent girls in tiny denim shorts swayed over to join them; with their beach towels and flip-flops, they were all taking the Dart to the littered beach.

I waited on the platform, watched the fragile young girls from under my prescription sunglasses. Some of them were sculpted from bone, others were soft, doughy and lovingly assembled. 

So little changes, I thought, and so much changes

One or two of the girls, their bodies slow to embrace maturity, hung back, their denim shorts clutching on to boyish hips, their padded bikini tops a weak disguise for bird-thin chests. They bit their small hands, tossed their hair about, scuffed the platform with plastic soles, defiant and angry and anxious and daring. 

I could remember, clear as day, sitting on a darkening beach as a skinny 15-year-old, watching the tide go out, while my more voluptuous mates folded themselves into the dunes, howling in mock-indignation at the temerity of the boys’ sunburned hands. So little changes, I thought, and so much changes.

Their train arrived, the sliding doors swallowing their pulsing beats, their bubblegum cruelties, their great heatwave-fuelled expectations.

I looked up at the sky. Clouds were gathering; a palm-sized raindrop fell on the station bench. The teenagers’ train left the platform; I sat waiting for mine, baptised by fat rain.

“It will be hotter than Lanzarote this afternoon, folks,” some enthusiast had prattled from the radio that morning. You could tell by his voice, by the dry tip of his disc-jockey tongue, that he was only dying to escape his underground studio and get home to his Bermuda shorts. And why wouldn’t he? A rarity, consecutive days of sunshine in this country.  

Broken summer

No matter how glowing, how optimistic the forecast, we don’t do unbroken summer, do we? Our weather is noncompliant. Shag the forecast; it’ll always have the last word. There will always be the touch of rancour, the bite of wind, the squall, the flurry of rain that blows up like an unforgotten hurt.

It was wonderful while it lasted, though. The heat, the stillness. During those balmy days I trailed along the seafront, watched the herons pick through the mudflats, walked the length of the beach to where a whole harem of seals lolled around in the blistering heat. They rolled over on their backs like big-bosomed matrons after a picnic of potted shrimp, gratified and slovenly and dusted with powdery sand. They were wary, though, one gimlet eye open to the unexpected. Get too close to them and they maul the sand with their flippers, slide into the water and submerge. There one minute, gone the next. 

Sometimes she lay on tinfoil to cook herself faster.

I watched them disappear under the water, then went home, dragged two kitchen chairs out to our small backyard, painted them goose grey, or maybe it was duck-egg blue, something avian and wintery and fragile. I left the pot and brush on the ground and went inside to make a cup of coffee. When I came back out, the tin was hot to touch, the brush sticky and knotted. 

In the long humid evenings before the solstice, I sat on the step by the back door, looked at my slapdash work against the dry, red geraniums, everything familiar made welcomingly strange by the unruffled night.

Virgin blue sky

It’s true what they say about our selective memories of childhood summers. We don’t remember rain. When I look back I see a cloudless Virgin Mary-blue sky rolled out above our suburban road. I see my mother in a red-polka-dot bathing suit, lying on the stubbled grass of our newly laid back garden, corpse-still for hours, slathered in pharmacy-bought olive oil. Sometimes she lay on tinfoil to cook herself faster.

Before I had left to catch the train, before watching the teenagers mill around the platform, their lives stretching out as long as the summer evening, I had asked my nonagenarian mother: “Do you think you could manage to get out to the garden?”

She turned to look out of her bedroom window, to where some of the other nursing-home residents sat in glinting wheelchairs or slept, iguana-still, on benches.

“Maybe tomorrow,” she said, closing her eyes against the roaring light. “Maybe the sun will still be out tomorrow.”