Ian McMillan: The caravan that really was too small

It must have been the mid-1960s, so I would have been nine or 10-years-old. We’d had a lovely family holiday in a caravan somewhere on the East Coast and memories from that holiday sometimes flicker into my head like old-style slides projected onto a wall: me and my dad running down the beach with a kite, trying our best to get it to fly; me accidentally dropping a Cornish pasty into a harbour and my mam giving me a clip round the ear; some Morris dancers dancing on the front and my dad, for some reason, laughing till he cried.

We were meant to go home on the Saturday but for some reason to do with dad’s work we were able to stay longer; the trouble was the caravan we were in was booked up, so we had to move to another one further down the site. The site owner would probably, in 2013, have described it as “boutique” or “compact”, but in the mid-1960s he told it like it was. I remember him saying to my dad, as we walked towards it, “It’s small, but you should just about fit in.” My brother and I exchanged glances. He was pretty tall. I was pretty chubby.

I can picture the caravan now, in the haunted wing of my memory. It was like a toy caravan that had been thrown away by its owner. It was like one of those caravans you sometimes see rusting away at the edges of fields in the flatter counties of England. It barely deserved the name “caravan”.

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We all squeezed in, five of us including the corpulent owner. It was like that scene in that Marx Brothers film where what feels like hundreds of people crowd into a cabin on a ship. “Cosy!” the owner said, his voice muffled because my dad’s shoulder was very close to his mouth as he spoke.

My dad was always optimistic; “I think we’ll manage,” he said. My mam wanted to look at what the owner had called the “mini-kitchenette” but we all had to turn round at once. The sink was like a sink in a doll’s house. “Where will we sleep?” my brother asked. He was a teenager, and sleep was his raison d’etre. The owner pointed to the wall and said that a couple of beds were folded into the space between the wardrobe and the door and they could be pulled down and us two lads could sleep in them. My mam asked if he could demonstrate how they worked and he said that he could but we’d all have to go out of the caravan first while he, in his words, “jerked the string.”

I guess at this point it became obvious that we wouldn’t be staying in the caravan because it was far too small, but somehow I’d set my heart on staying there just to prolong the holiday. My dad said, “We won’t bother, thanks,” and I had one of the biggest tantrums I’d ever had. I wept and wailed. I stamped my little chubby feet. I may have hit the caravan. My dad, in his kind way, walked to the camp shop as I was wailing and came back with a present to assuage my disappointment.

He gave it to me, smiling. It was a magnet, one of those horseshoe-shaped ones. I did an unforgivable thing. I put it next to his gentle forehead and said, “I’d like to magnetise your silly brains out!”

Sorry dad. You were right. That caravan really was far too small.