Moving from our old house to Muswell Hill held no attractions for me. Why leave familiar rooms and streets for the unknown? I was happy at home and happy at school, but my mother was most anxious to go.
"All I want is my own front door and a garden", and then would follow the familiar story of the man downstairs who had refused to give her some soil for a pot of bulbs. He had dug a fish pond in his garden large enough to swim in so that the evacuated soil, rich and black, was piled in a slope all round the garden walls, yet he had refused her a pailful. Anyone else would have been glad to dispose of the surplus soil, but he had refused. Clearly there had been other differences over the years which had culminated in this ridiculous quarrel about a bucket of soil. My mother took earth resentfully from the front garden, which was no man's land, but the privet hedge had been exhausting the soil for fifty years so that it was now dry, grey and dusty. She dug out some with the coal shovel and planted her few bulbs, yet when they bloomed they were not a triumph, but a further excuse for returning to her anger.
To my father the new house was far less important: he was willing enough to move if it made my mother happy, yet his London was always to be the streets of the West End and the City, while Muswell Hill remained a dormitory. The other children in the family were too young to have any opinion on moving, leaving me alone in my love of the old house and the railway line behind, where I used to spend so much of my time. I climbed out of the window above the back addition, under my mother's careful eye, crawled down the slate roof to the garden wall, again neutral territory where the man downstairs had no power, and walked along the wall to the railway embankment. High above ran the branch line from Finsbury Park to Muswell Hill. This was my playground, a tiny copse of elderberry trees and cow parsley; an isolated world shared only with the boy next door, where nobody else came and as familiar to me as the living room carpet. Nobody else in the family knew how warmly I felt about this small patch of scrub.
There was also the mulberry tree in the garden on the other side, beyond the fish pond. Each year we could see the red and purple berries, tantalizingly delicious. Two old ladies lived in the house next door, but they did not pick the mulberries, which lay unheeded on the grass. When I was eight, the year before we moved, my mother came back from the shops with a message inviting me to pick the mulberries. The ladies would be happy for me to pick them, but I was not to go through their house to reach the garden. Nobody said why I should not go through the front door in the normal way. It was a decision made for me.