“I stood outside the Cross Keys feeling the way I imagine the Pope feels when he arrives in a new country and the first thing he does is go down on his kneeds and kiss the ground: humble and at the same time triumphant.”
Great writing about childhood can do much more than evoke a particular time and place; it can illuminate the universal experience of being a child in an adult’s world—up to the moment when the child crosses the line between innocence and experience. For Sylvie Haymon, that moment came at the age of ten, in the home of her nursemaid’s family, who lived opposite the Cross Keys pub in the tiny, staggeringly poor village of Salham St. Awdry, just four miles from her parents’ comfortable house in Norwich.
Sylvie had grown accustomed to living in two separate worlds—the respectable English home of her well-educated, well-behaved parents, who left the childrearing to a nursemaid named Maud Fenner, and the irresistibly dirty, undisciplined, and emotionally intense household where Maud’s family, along with their astonishing neighbour, Chicken, taught a “proper little snob” about real life. It was this second, more primitive, world that shone the brighter for Sylvie.
Opposite the Cross Keys is a rich and rewarding work—an honest, unsentimental, sometimes funny, and sometimes heartbreaking story that captures the wonder and terror of childhood and childhood’s end.
‘Robust and plain-speaking . . . Sylvia Haymon is exceptionally good at the half-understood overheard conversation of adults when we are children . . . We are in the presence of one of those runaway storytellers.’ Daily Telegraph