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From Florida to Fowey: remembering the laughter

In June 1988 we went to Florida for three months. We lived about as far west of Fort Lauderdale as you could get at that time, in Plantation Acres, with the British artist Barry Leighton-Jones and his family.

Painting on the terrace.
During the day Tony painted on the terrace, taking on board Barry’s suggestions for editing and improving his composition or palette, and I made my first attempts at writing, thanks to the discovery of Natalie Goldberg’s book, Writing Down the Bones in a local bookstore, Books Etc. As inspired as I was by her words and encouragement you wouldn’t have been able to identify that from the first entry I ever made into a little spiral notebook not much bigger than a mobile phone: The birds were tweeting. I kid you not.  

At the end of most days, Barry’s wife, Andrea and I set out wine, jumbo shrimp and dip, and the four of us sat on the terrace and chatted while the kids jumped in and out of the pool with Ginger, a barmy red setter.

It was a summer of discovery and friendship, a summer of generosity, even if, when we first arrived, I was anxious at the thought of being 24/7 in the company of four kids aged 5, 7, 9 and 12. And there must have been moments when my tolerance was stretched but my over-riding memory of that time is one of laughter. And of mealtimes together.

Before we arrived dinner was often a fractured affair: the kids grazing, Barry eating his statutory beef and potatoes, Andrea making herself a snack. But with our arrival, and the creation of an extended family, dinner became a celebration of the day. We laid the table with silverware and napkins each night, placed that night’s meal in the centre of the glass oval table – spinach and ricotta cannelloni, or crumbed chicken, or a spiral ham from the Deli at Publix, with salad and potatoes and big hunks of Floridian French bread – and we crammed ourselves around it and ate together and told jokes and stories and laughed.

Twenty three years later we are driving to Fowey in Cornwall for Barry’s funeral. So much has happened to their family in the intervening years – court cases, debts, teenage pregnancy, separations, emigration, divorce – events that can break people, events that can turn people away from one another, but within days of Barry’s death the whole family were together again.

There has been dissent between us too: anger, disappointment and recrimination. But we’ll be there with them all on Monday. And we'll eat together again too, food prepared by Barry's youngest son who is now a chef in London.

When the kids talk about that summer in Plantation Acres, they still say ‘the two-storey house’. Before that they’d always lived in ranch-style houses and the stairs in this one were a novelty. In the 1990s they moved to Helen, Georgia where, for a short while, they lived in a three-storey house, but they never talk about that one in the same way. Life had changed by then and not for the better.

'the two-storey house'
The summer of ’88 in the two-storey house with its orange and grapefruit trees. With a field of cows next door where Ginger would roll in cow-shit the moment after you’d given her a bath. The house with ceiling fans and a TV in every room. The house where I found the beginnings of a voice that would change my life. Where we laughed and loved. The house all of us will always remember.

Barry Leighton-Jones at Plantation Acres, Florida 1988
In memory 1932 - 2011

Hungry Writing Prompts
  1.  Write about something you did one summer.
  2. Write about a dog.
  3.  Write about someone you have lost contact with.
  4. Write about a staircase you remember from your childhood.
  5. Write a eulogy to someone.

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