Norma

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The street I grew up on had over a 100 houses, packed in tightly one beside the other.  By the 1970s this was a street in decline: all former seafaring folk, beside one, had long gone and as the 60s ticked over into the 70s it became increasingly ‘undesirable.’  In those days there were few cars so we were allowed to play outside. The acceptable area for our roaming extended from Coltman Street to the Boulevard which meant we had three streets of equal length to make mischief.

When I was 7, 8 and 9 we never really went much beyond King’s Bench Street, our street – apart from to the shops: Pawson’s and  Shepard’s where we went daily for some item or other.  I remember buying the 4oz of chopped pork, cut thin, for our packed lunches and having to watch to ensure that the assistant didn’t go beyond the wafer setting, or there wouldn’t be enough meat for the sandwiches the next day.  It was tricky having to complain if she did so…on the upside, this scrutiny sometimes paid off so that there were more slices than were needed in which case you could unpack the grease proof paper of the pork slowly down the alley at the top of the street and take the spare slice to eat on the way back home, careful to re-package the order so it didn’t look disturbed at all.

Some things come into focus slowly.  One such thing is the can of air freshener that sat by the till on the counter top of Pawson’s shop.  I didn’t really understand what this was for although it was always there, often with the lid removed ready for immediate use.  I was dallying by the magazines when the reason for its presence became clear.

The old lady came into the shop for something or other leaving outside the wrecked old pram she pushed about as a shopping trolley.  She was wearing a very grand looking coat, which had seen better days, with a stole of sorts around her neck, and a fur hat, held at a jaunty angle with a hatpin.  She was loud and bright, laughing with the shop ladies picking up and putting down various items and then buying one small thing before leaving in a flurry.  Her bright pink lipstick had missed her lips and glowed from her teeth.  I forget her name: but years later my sister and I when we were on the Cancer and Polio round (selling charity leaflets to donators) used to argue about who would take the leaflet up to this woman’s house on Coltman Street.  Being the younger sister, I usually lost the argument which meant that not only did I have to go up to the house, trailing up the steps, an effort in itself, I also had to go in because the lady invariably had misplaced her purse and you would be invited to wait until she found it.  This was a fate worse than death: she had dozens of cats and no urge to clean up.  This was when I discovered I could hold my breath for a long time.

The second she left Pawson’s the shop-ladies swung into action.

“Where did she touch?” they’d asked and then wipe down each item with a cloth, following up the whole procedure with a liberal spraying of the air freshener.

“I know it looks awful,” Betty said, “But we have our other customers to think of…”

There were a number of other families who the shop-ladies undertook this routine for and one of those was the Carters.  They lived about 10 doors down from us, and to my father’s utter chagrin had decided to paint their house bright orange and white which was a clear sign that the neighbourhood was going to the dogs.  We were very familiar with Mr Carter who we nick-named Popeye on account of his proclivity for wearing a vest (and only a vest) whatever the state of the weather.  He also was bald, short and stocky with an array of naval tattoos.  He had very few teeth.  I don’t remember if he ate spinach (I don’t remember if anyone did in those days) but I do remember him storming about the place spoiling for a fight. He once took on Horace, our next door neighbour, over some imagined (or real) sleight which was the first time I’d seen grown men really brawl: it was dramatic and short-lived.  Two punches and Horace retreated to his lair. There was a lot of blood.

Popeye did not have an Olive.  He did however have a wife: Alma as well as two daughters.  I only remember one of them by name: Norma. Alma and her daughters had achieved legendary status at the Church jumble sales.  When I was an older Guide I was strategically placed on the bric-a-brac stall (the most popular and therefore a job for youth) with clear instructions to watch out for thieves and the Carters.  They would barter down any price until you conceded that it was only worth what they thought it was worth.  They were not leery; just quietly determined.  It astounded me that they would haggle when the benefit of the sale was the church roof, but they did.  And hard.

They were also always first in the queue, waiting outside patiently before the church door opened at 10am.  They dressed old.  Out of step.  Not fashionable or with it.  Not in vogue with how young women in the 70s were beginning to find their feet, and self-expression with it. Those girls dressed like old women did, headscarves and heavy coats.  I didn’t mind the Carter women though: they just wanted to do the best they could – not what I wanted, or expected but their priorities were different.  They just wanted to buy rubbish stuff at a knock down price.  They were ahead of their time: that’s the basis of the consumer economy.

The most salient piece of learning I did as a young person was that no one knows what goes on behind closed doors even when people seem to be letting it all hang out: and the Carters were one of the first times I realised that.  When Popeye was on the rampage and out there doing his thing, it was easy to assume that was all he was- that what you saw was what you got.  It was easy too, to assume that Alma’s steely determination to get a bargain and her daughters’ quiet acquiescence in that situation meant this was all there was to know. Not true. Not, not true.

I have often wondered what made Norma do it. The shame of her crazy father? The embarrassment of her mother’s jumble sale antics? Her out-of-step clothes? Was it a mistake? A cry for help about something else altogether?

The first anyone knew anything was afoot was when Popeye spilled out on the street wailing like a wounded animal.  He hugged himself and walked rapidly up to the lamppost and back.  We watched him, but couldn’t guess at what was wrong. Back and forth he walked talking step after step, head down, arms taut, helpless – the noise coming from him like nothing I had heard before.

Then the siren.  We lived relatively close to the hospital but nothing prepared you for the sound of the siren as it bounced off the walls of terraced streets.  It was getting nearer and nearer to us and its magnetism brought people out, pulling them out of their houses to see who it was for: dozens and dozens of people. It stopped outside of the Carters.

The ambulance men came towards the Carter house and stopped.  Then a police car arrived.

Popeye said, “I can’t open the door!”

The party of emergency workers hesitated, and a policeman went back to retrieve an axe.

What was happening?  From inside the house you could hear banging.  Not desperate, but the slow steady beat of the axe on something that relinquished quickly.

We were polite enough as an audience, orderly in our waiting, watching.  An ambulance man came back for a wheeled stretcher.  He was in no hurry.  Had someone had a heart attack?  Had someone fallen the wrong side of a door?  Why was he walking so slowly? Things took a while to come into focus.

She came out of the house covered over, including her face.  There was only one reason for doing that:  Norma was dead. There was an audible whisper as the family followed, the women in their big coats, some item from the jumble sale, and Popeye with his vest stretched across his chest.   They climbed into the police car and that and the ambulance left.  The bright orange front door looked sadly on.

Norma had taken an overdose in the bathroom.  She was dead when the ambulance was called. No one ever told us why perhaps because no-one knew.

Soon after the family moved away.

My Pretend Cousin

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We were walking to my Aunt Joan’s house on a boiling hot day, each step an effort on an epic journey.  It was a long way, and my mother had a habit of saying, “Just around the jolly ‘orner” to entice us to run eagerly to the next corner, even though the next corner took us only fractionally closer.  It was on journeys of this type that I realised that my mother largely spoke in riddles or in found tales that rolled around each other concluding in one sad ending or another.  The abiding thing about my mother and her stories was that they required absolutely no audience at all. She would tell the tale whether we listened or not, to the bitter, bitter end.

My leg hurt but I wasn’t about to let on about this.  We’d left King’s Bench Street, our street, in good time and I was not going to be held responsible for holding the party back.  Already we had reached the hospital and on crossing the railway bridge on Argyle Street we headed past Diane Mulvana’s house (who my sister and I pretended to be cousins with even though she was very small and we were giants in comparison ). She was not out to wave to.

We had adopted this habit of pretend family from my mother.  She gave apparently random strangers ‘relative’ tags.  These included people she’d been at school with or who she had worked with or from streets she’d lived in. My mother swept up waifs and strays as though she didn’t have enough to do.  Auntie Barbara was one such pretend aunt.  She had no brothers and sisters and came to ours at Christmas.  She also snogged my dad down the ten-foot when he walked her home after the festivities had finished.  KM and I were sent to accompany them and  as spies but we never told.  She eventually married Ian (a pretend uncle I would rarely meet) and her daughter Victoria became our pretend cousin (and she was also one of the two children I abandoned along with my sister in this sorry tale.) Victoria and I had a ferocious argument about butter beans once.  She said they were made of potato which I knew was just plain stupid.

There was also Auntie Mavis who  lived in the States, another of my mother’s former colleagues.  She married a chap called Larry and had a child called Bubbles.  They once came to visit and I was intrigued and horrified in equal measure that her other boy, Adam, who was at least five, ate with his hands.  They were my distant pretend cousins who I liked to mention when I needed to be exotic.

Auntie Thelma held nothing of the same cache and was ordinary: much like my actual aunties.  Like my mother, Thelma had just had a baby, Donna and she and her brother Nigel and my pretend uncle Derek, lived just off Hessle Road. She and my mother had grown up on the same road.  Derek and Thelma were semi-permanent fixtures at family dos, until I began to think they were actual family – at least I did until Thelma was apparently caught with her hand in the till at the Beer-off* where she worked.  She denied this and as she wasn’t poor, I tended to think it might not be true.  I was sorry she was sacked because she’d offered me a veneer of protection from Gerard, the people who ran the Beer-off’s son, whose hands were covered in warts and who chased me around the school playground to infect me until I shouted that I would make sure Auntie Thelma knew…which held him off long enough for me to get away. For my mother this episode of being light fingered coloured her view of Thelma, although to this day, they speak week after week on the phone.

I walked behind my mam onto Prince’s Ave (which was commonly called Prinny Ave).  She pushed the pram with T in ahead of her.  We turned into Newland Ave, then Cranbrook Ave.  Sometimes we walked via Chanterlands Ave (more often known as Chants Ave).  Hull is the only place I know where every street name is shortened.  I’ve never heard anyone give these streets the more formal moniker of avenue.   Cranbrook Ave is the longest residential street in Hull and my legs could tell.  At that time, it was also largely dominated by university houses, door after door painted the same blue green colour.  They were interminably boring.

“Why don’t we count,” my mother said.

“Why don’t you shut up,” I thought.

“Great idea” my sister said and so we did, counting each door with all the joy of a funeral party.

My brother T a few months old, was oblivious to the ‘fun’ we were having and my older brother, K, seemed to have managed to avoid coming on this tortuous trip.  Had he feigned death?

I’d read you could fry eggs on the pavement on days as hot as this but when I suggested this to my mother she wasn’t having any of it. “If you think I’m wasting eggs on a whim, Mary, you’re sadly mistaken,” she said, firmly.  And the subject was closed.

By the time we got to Greenwood Ave we were in spitting distance of Auntie Joan’s – my mother’s actual sister, and not a made up one.  I tried to get to the bottom of this.

“Why do we have so many pretend Aunties.”

“Auntie Joan is my real sister,” my mother said.

“But why do we need more: like Auntie Barbara, Auntie Thelma and that?”

“It’s a nice thing to do isn’t it?”

“I suppose.”

“You’d rather have more than less of almost anything though?”  My mother’s reasoning defied logic: I wouldn’t want more boils or warts or farts.  We did get some advantages, it was true, like Christmas presents (Auntie B) and special treats (Auntie T) although given her later brush with being a tea-leaf maybe the origin of these was questionable. KM, my sister, lived the principle of more is more: she had always bought a quarter of sweets to my Mars bar, a box of Bics to my fountain pen and so forth.  Even in Aunties I had a sneaking suspicion, largely speaking, quality was better than quantity.  Not my mother though.

“Auntie Barbara is funny, isn’t she?”

“I don’t know?”  She didn’t seem all that funny to me, she just laughed hysterically at absolutely everything anyone ever said.

“And your Auntie Thelma she’s always bringing you broken biscuits, isn’t she?” I had a lingering question over Thelma and her motives. I just felt it.  At weddings, the unsayable would go unsaid: she was there for what she could get, food, company, comfort.

“Why are you asking about this for?” which was the cue from my mother for me to shut up. We sweated our way on.

When we arrived at Aunt Joan’s and after Uncle Gordon had done his weird playing with our knees and ears tickling thing (I knew this was strange that day when I was 6 years old.  By the time I got to 15 it made my skin crawl.)  He giggled.

“Gordon,” Joan said, and he smiled, “Have you made a cup of tea yet?  And got these kids an ice-pop?”

Gordon was a gopher and a bit simple.  His time was not his own.  “It’s too hot for tea,” my mam said.

“Let’s go to the drain.” Aunt Joan was decisive and having barely rested we were setting off again.

The Castle Hill drain was a few streets away as the crow flies, and crossing a field we made it to an open ditch of water that stretched to the River Humber in one direction and beyond Beverley in the other.  It was one of a number of open drains around Hull that captured the run off from the flat plains of the Wolds.  It was steep sided and slightly scary because if you fell in, you would not necessarily get out in a hurry although it had not rained for a while, and it was much less deep than usual.  Still, it made us feel cool just looking at it and gave us a dream of what sitting by the sea would be like if we could have afforded it.

I was not myself that day: that’s all I can say.  I was neither fully with it or firing on all cylinders and as we played KM, our cousins Michelle and Debbie, and me up and down the drain’s sides, I knew I would end up in the water.  And I did.

My stay in it was very brief: my mother, my super hero, sprung into action, grabbing my hand as I found myself being swept along by the stream of the water.  She pulled me out in one clean jab before the fear of being swept out to sea took me.

Everything was wet, all my clothes, every stitch.  Everything.  The indignity.  So, KM reluctantly gave me her dress which my mother and aunt fashioned into shorts (more akin to a nappy, in truth) kept in place by a belt and some safety pins.  My mother removed my vest.  (“Don’t want you catching your death”) and I spent the rest of the afternoon in abject misery.  My cousin Michelle, seeing me sad, gave me her cardigan to wear.  And that’s the difference between real cousins and pretend ones: you’re invited in and with the real ones you shared clothes, hopes, ambitions, and fantasies about the Osmonds.  But the pretend ones, you never really knew because you hardly ever saw them, or never saw them enough.

One time, I went round to Auntie Thelma’s house, maybe to collect money for the didalum** or something, maybe to take a gift.  Their house was red, I remember that much, and it had a big garden.  The back was not just grass, but had a den and toys left outside, something I was not allowed to do.  I was unutterably jealous of the freedom they seemed to enjoy.  I don’t remember meeting Donna, or her brother Nigel but I must have done.

Fast forward to February 2002. I phoned my mother.  Halfway through, her usual monologue she began what had become an all too familiar routine, “Do you remember…” she said. And I knew what was coming…

Over the years this happened a lot, adult people from the street I grew up in, unhealthy, on poor diet, smokers, fighters and drinkers would die with alarming regularity or else distant relatives I didn’t care about…  And she would get some kind of weird pleasure from the process, “You remember so and so,” she’d say, “His son used to go to Trinity School and he lived on the corner of Batchelor Street and Queen’s gate, next door but two to the Johnson’s.”  I rarely knew who she was talking about, but always answered “Yes?” “Well,” she’d say, “S/he is dead.” And I mourned silently for someone I didn’t remember or hardly knew.

Not this day though.

“It’s your cousin Donna,” she said.

I wracked my brain.  Saw in my mind’s eye, the red-fronted house and remembered the toys, a child’s toys in the garden: left by my pretend cousin Donna.

“What has happened?”

My mother was crying, real, heartfelt tears.

“Auntie Thelma’s in bits.”  My mother said.

My pretend Auntie Thelma who rocked up at weddings, christenings and funerals who was sacked from the Beer-off for stealing, something she swore she never did.

“She’s been found dead.”

My mind was not computing.

“In the Castle Hill Drain.  Naked.  Face down.  Murdered.”

I felt a pang of guilt at not knowing my pretend cousin Donna better and now her life was snuffed out at 30.  They did not know who’d done it though her husband was suspected.  No proof was forthcoming. My mother told the tale to the bitter, bitter end. Every detail but I’d stopped listening. She went to the funeral and cried for a girl I could not bring to mind.

A few months later they found Donna’s husband dead by his own hand and the case was closed.

*Beer-off – Off licence

**didalum – a Christmas money saving scheme

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fighting with the Humber Bridge

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“Oh do God, Oh do God, Oh do remember me – foreveeeeer”  My sister and I sang enthusiastically, standing on the top of the flyover – a position that passed for a hill in Hull which is generally flatter than a frying pan. We had learned the song that morning at church and fueled by the free biscuits and tea we’d gobbled down after the service, we were experimenting with being very good Christians indeed. If God could hear us singing we figured, we would be saved.

I wasn’t sure what we were being saved for, or from but I liked the idea of it.  I was concerned about KM though.  She was singing out of tune.

“Do you think God would mind if we don’t hit the proper notes?” I asked.

“God doesn’t care about such trivial matters,” KM said with such authority that I nearly believed her.  She was 16 months older than me so she often knew better or at least she thought she did. She had just had her 11th birthday.

It was a beautiful April Sunday and we were walking to our school some three miles away to go to a swimming gala.  I was going as an extra, with the chance of swimming if someone else didn’t turn up.  Also, I was my teacher, Mrs Johnson’s project: she was certain that swimming would heal the ills of the giant and ugly scar on my leg from my accident the summer before.

My sister and I walked companionably, KM pacing herself with my limp.  We were still in our church finery, including our best coats.  Mine was a turquoise mac, with neat pockets to the side, and a collar that in the height of 70s fashion, practically reached my lapels. The outfit was set off with an incongruous black and white string bag that was slung lazily over my shoulder and contained the remains of some meat paste sandwiches in grease proof paper and my hastily assembled towel and a cossie.  KM’s kit was, in comparison, neatly arranged. Her lunch remained uneaten.

When we arrived at school Mrs Johnson was there, and so too was Mrs Armstrong, the needlework teacher, and Mr Baker who was a secondary school teacher and the father of one of the swimmers. They were surrounded by a dozen eager kids in the bike sheds.  Their cars were parked  parallel to the dragon’s teeth: concrete posts that marked the edges of the playground.

Mrs Johnson was a typical PE teacher, practical and efficient; she was dressed in a blue tracksuit, with her dark hair pulled back in a ponytail. Mrs Armstrong represented a contrast; she wore a floaty Laura Ashley type dress with unruly curls of hair spilling all over her shoulders.  She was giving up her Sunday for the good of the children.  And we appreciated it. Mr Baker was reminiscent of a character from a Kestrel for a Knave: short and stocky, he wore white tennis shorts and a pair of sports socks with a blue and red stripe pulled up to his mid-calf.

We were allocated Mrs Armstrong’s car for the journey to South Hunsley School where the gala was to take place.  I sat behind the passenger seat, next to the child seat that carried Mrs Armstrong’s 3 year old daughter.  My sister was behind Mrs Armstrong. I forget who was in the front seat.

We set off to North Ferriby – a village on the foreshore of the River Humber. Mrs Armstrong was sketchy about the geography of the place we were headed (although she’d been before) and made the decision to, where possible, tailgate Mrs Johnson.  Mr Baker took up the rear of the convoy.

1974 was a time of change in and around Hessle Foreshore with infrastructure changes and the early stages of construction beginning for the Humber Bridge.  (When the bridge opened in 1981, it was the longest single suspension bridge  in the world but it has now been passed by 7 other bridges.  It sits proudly astride the Humber Estuary.) In 1974 the north tower of the bridge was nearing completion.  What this meant on the ground was that heavy and articulated Caterpillar Machinery carried gigantic pieces of concrete and metal about the place, and a series of temporary traffic lights controlled the movement of all other vehicles to accommodate them.

To be fair to Mrs Armstrong, there is no reason why she should have known any of this, or known that she needed to look out for changes.  Her focus was on getting there, on not losing sight of Mrs Johnson and on managing her raised anxiety at carrying children in her car who did not belong to her.

At least, I assume this is what she was thinking about when she jumped the traffic lights.

There was something oppressive about the atmosphere: it was muddy and the trees that had protected the foreshore for years were, in large part, being preserved meaning it was suddenly cooler and darker.  Mrs Armstrong was oblivious to the situation and continued to drive forwards.

I am not sure whether the Caterpillar vehicle saw us first, or whether Mrs Armstrong finally saw it heading towards us: to be honest it was pretty hard to miss – bright yellow and burdened with a piece of concrete the size of a small house. Both drivers jumped on their brakes simultaneously.  The only blessing was that Mrs Armstrong’s nervousness meant she was driving slowly.

We skidded but could not stop and swung 360 degrees hitting the Caterpillar smack bang on its side – exactly where I was sitting. I heard the glass smash. I bent my body to my legs and hoped for the best.  Out of the corner of my eye I saw that my sister had done the same.  The impact of the collision sent Mrs Armstrong’s car catapulting into the air and my stomach flipped as we left the ground, rolling over twice before we came to a resounding stand-still, upside down resting neatly alongside a crash barrier.

I don’t know who helped us out.  I do know that when I looked back  at the mangled car I saw two things that have stayed with me: firstly, where I had been sitting the car was squashed completely so that I couldn’t have sat up if I had wanted to and secondly, Mrs Armstrong’s daughter was screaming and dangling upside down still strapped in her car seat. I really don’t know what happened to her.

Slightly dazed, my sister and I looked at each other.  We didn’t hug.  We were not a hugging family.  We did however empty out the glass from our pockets – it poured like water.  My lovely turquoise mac was ripped on the arm but aside from that, I was unscathed.

Mr Baker drew up in his car like the cavalry.  The police, who had appeared as if by magic, suggested we climb in and carry on our journey.  I sat in the back on someone’s knee, and off we went leaving Mrs Armstrong behind to pick up the pieces, later swimming in the gala as if nothing had happened.

So far as I know at school, no one ever spoke about the accident again and the only indication that it had even happened was that Mrs Armstrong arrived for work in a different car completely: a big black Standard Vanguard that belonged to her father.

My sister and I considered our good luck and for quite some time believed with absolute conviction that our  visit to the church followed by our singing on the flyover earlier that day had made all the difference. Do Lord Remember Me

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Big Impossible

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Michaela Tobin was my best friend.  She sat beside me at school and a week or so before I fell through the greenhouse, she disappeared.  She never came to see me.

It would be a lie to say she didn’t come to the hospital.  She was right there all the time.  Not that anyone ever told me. Even when I was in the very next ward, and a bit sad about her absence, no one thought to mention it.  No one thought to say anything at all.

That was the way it was in the 70s. 

For years, I fantasised that I could shift across time and space and change that outcome, that I could see her and tell her everything I needed to, but it’s the big impossible: you are either in the moment or you are nowhere at all. You exist neither in the past nor the future. But still I imagined I could go back and change it: not the falling through a greenhouse bit, I never sought that but over and over again I imagined ways to connect with Michaela, to speak to her, to say all that I’d meant to.

The fantasy often went like this: somehow I’d get wind of her illness or her dying.  Someone let it slip. And I’d make the trip to see her: alone or with Dawn, my other friend.  Somehow I’d be magicked to Michaela’s side.  It was improbable, a falsehood, but over and over I worked the story so that sometimes I even believed it was true.

Here it is:

The air was crowded with noise, pipping, buzzing and electronic sounds, and it was white, pure, pure white – a bit how I imagined heaven. I checked I was still breathing. Down the corridor there were a number of doors leading to rooms, some open to reveal patients attached by wires to machines, not moving. No flowers, no animated conversations just people looking sad at other people in beds. All patients looked the same: nearly dead or so fast asleep an earthquake wouldn’t shift them.   There were machines with accordion like actions, others with screens with information that must mean something to someone. I felt my breathing adjust to the rhythm of the place.

“Can I help you?” A tall, thin nurse looked down on us. She looked like she’d inhaled sherbet.

To be fair we must have looked a sight – two girls, one on crutches, and the other in big framed glassed wearing a ruck sack that she could have been folded into.

It was a good question though. Could she help us? Would she help us?

“You might be able to.” I said.

Was that cheeky? Dawn grinned.

The nurse crossed her arms. They were like snakes as they curled one over the other against her non-existent belly. She had fine white skin, a lot of freckles and ginger hair. “Well?” she said, finally.

“We’ve come to see our friend, Miss.” I said.

“Have you now? And who is your friend exactly?”

I wondered if there were so many children tied up to machines in this place that the nurse couldn’t guess who we belonged to.   How sad, I thought. How very, very sad. I looked round again. We were quite far onto the ward but wherever Michaela was she wasn’t visible. She’d been in my head so powerfully, but now I couldn’t hear her.

“That would be Michaela is it?” The nurse said. Green eyes – staring into us as though the neat sides of our real lives weren’t there. There would be no secrets in my life from now on, I thought, no secrets at all. Ever. I would always tell the truth, even if it wasn’t the smartest move.

“Yes,” Dawn said, “And Mary’s walked all the way on crutches and her leg hurts. And we’ve no sandwiches left. But we’ve got chocolate.”

“Are you hands sore, Mary?” The nurse asked.

“They’re okay.”

It’s not about me, I thought.

It was just Dawn and me in the corridor, just us and the nurse. I looked up and straight into those green eyes. Feel bad for me, I thought. I could have died. I could have been in these rooms. It could have been me you were looking after. I could have been Michaela. But for those two millimetres…that meant I avoided the main artery.

“Michaela can’t do visitors really.”

“We only want to see her, that’s all. We know she can’t talk.”

Should I cry? That sort of thing usually worked with grown ups.

The nurse looked behind us – did they have security? Was she about to call them?

“Are you sure that her mam said you could come?”

We did not speak.

“Because so far only her family have been and then really only her mam and dad.”

“I never asked,” I said.

“The thing is,” Dawn was saying, “We’re already in a lot of trouble and it would be a shame if we were grounded for the rest of our lives and we didn’t even see her.”

“Thank you,” the nurse said, “Thank you for telling the truth.”

“We’re her school friends. Mary sat next to her because they’re both clever but not quite as clever as Tracey though and I’m not that clever at all.”

“We are as clever as Tracey – just not suck ups like her. And you are clever Dawn Geraldine Matthews.”

“Not as clever as you.”

The door opened behind them.

“What in God’s name are you two doing here?”

The girls turned slowly as if to face a firing squad.

“We came to see Michaela.” Just the truth.  From now on, only that.

I thought for a minute that Mrs Tobin would cry. She looked so tied.

“She’s…not here.”

“I’ve been thinking about her all the time – because she didn’t come when I hurt my leg and then no one would say anything. And if I’d known she was here, I could have popped in. I had loads of spare time on the ward. I just had some rubbish colouring in and a jigsaw puzzle that didn’t fit on my table.”

“Say anything?” Mrs Tobin frowned. She was so beautiful – lovely black hair cascading down her back, her skin so pale it was almost see-through, light blue eyes.

“No one would talk about her.” I said then ran out of words.

“How did you know?” Mrs Tobin trailed off. She looked at the nurse, smiled weakly – then she stepped properly into the corridor. She knelt in front of me.

“How is your leg?” She asked.

“Getting better now.”

“I hear you were lucky.”

I didn’t feel it.

Mrs Tobin looked down. She shrugged, then with another smile she said,

“Michaela isn’t the same. She’s heavily sedated – she’s sleeping really. She might be able to hear us but we don’t know.”

“Sleeping all the time?”

“Yes…she’s…she’s…she’s got something called a brain tumour which means that something’s gone wrong in her head, and that it’s growing inside her and she’s not really with us now.”

“Where is she then?” It was Dawn.

“It’s a good question…I hope she’s making a path to another life.”

I looked at Mrs Tobin, “You mean she’s going to die?”

“Yes love, she is.”

I fought back the tears then, “When?”

“I don’t know love. All her body is still quite well.”

It was quiet now, apart from the beep and swoosh of machines – all four of us a tableaux of concentration.

“Please can we see her?” I asked. “There’s stuff we need to tell her.”

Mrs Tobin looked to the ceiling.

“Okay then,” she said.

Mrs Tobin swept past the nurse – and we followed on.

The room was clinical although she’d tried to make it look more like Michaela’s bedroom, with limited success. I recognised a teddy, and some other things: knick-knacks.

Michaela was totally still – is that what sedated meant? There were tubes going every which way, and the gentle pulse of the machines: it was a complex mix of things, none of which I understood. I imagined that Mrs Tobin would hear the noises forever, late at night when the world slept her mind would be invaded by a buzz and a pop and a whoosh.

I looked directly at Michaela.

Dawn stood beside me, all her challenge and bravery had stalled – she looked at her shoes, which were scuffed along the toes. She stayed beside the door, as I moved into the room, afraid to come closer in case she broke anything. She carried on wearing her rucksack.

“Will she wake up?” I asked Mrs Tobin.

“No love.” She looked away and I was sorry I’d asked a stupid question.

“Do they switch the lights off at night, Mrs Tobin?” I said aloud.

“No love. There isn’t really a night here. There’s just one time. All time. Just time, ticking through.” She paused.

“You can hold her hand love – she seems to like that. Perhaps you could tell her about school?”

“We’re not at school yet. There’s another week or so to go.”

Up close, Michaela seemed a bit fatter in the face than she had done – how was that? But her body was tiny, like a little bird curled up in its nest.

I picked up her hand and not knowing what to do, stroked it slowly. There was no sign that Michaela noticed, but I carried on.

I’m going to get in such mighty trouble for you, I thought and who knew that that was even possible? Michaela, the best-behaved girl ever, causing all this fuss.

“I’ve been talking to you – in my head. I’ve been hearing you, listening to you, waiting for you and now I don’t know what to say. Can you hear me? Can you?”

I closed my eyes. The skin of my friend’s hand was cool, but not cold. I remembered when we started school – reception class, waiting for dinners that we’d both  hated, hand in hand.

There were so many words.

“Mary and Dawn have come to see you,” Mrs Tobin said.

I took a deep breath and dived in.

“I’ve missed you mate,” I said, “although we haven’t done much because of my leg. I fell through a greenhouse. And Mrs Sweeney came to see me – after school – and she was wearing a lime green polo neck, you wouldn’t have liked it. Everyone’s been very nice though – even though I’ve been rubbish to them – even K. We had a whole conversation once. He does say I’ve got men’s blood though, because of the blood transfusion and that one day I’ll turn into a werewolf or something. But that’s his weird way of showing he loves me – at least I think that’s what that is. KM’s just been moody but that’s her age, me mam says.”

I stopped. Mrs Tobin smiled. So I started again.

“I’ve had to do all this physiotherapy with a woman called Julie and I think she quite likes causing pain. She says, “No pain, no going on the rowing machine.” I’m not that bothered by the machines but I do want to walk again. I have to go every other Wednesday now. I’m going to be the only girl who wears trousers in school – and that’s good innit? I’ll be able to climb.”

Mrs Tobin was wide-eyed.

“Well, maybe not climb – that might not be the best idea – right not….” I dried up then.

“It’s fine to say whatever you want Mary. I say all sorts. I tell her what we have for tea, stuff off the telly… all sorts. Mr Tobin thinks I’m mad. Yesterday I even told her the contents of my shopping list.”

So I started again, talking ten to the dozen about nothing very much – I talked until my mouth ran dry.

“She’s probably saying ‘for God’s sake Mary shut up!’ in her head! Won’t she think it’s a bit boring? ”

“Who knows love? I don’t know if she can hear – but if she can, hearing friendly voices has got to be better than this.” She gestured to the room.

The beeps kept coming whether we spoke a lot or a little, the machines kept working.

“How long will she be here, Mrs Tobin?”

“They can’t say. May be a day. May be a week. May be a month.”

“A month?”   It was the first thing Dawn had said. “You have to come every day?”

“I don’t have to love.”

“I don’t like it much,” Dawn said.

“Neither do I!”

“Sorry.” Dawn opened the door and stepped outside. There was a silence then.

“Should I say goodbye?”

“You could. Or you could do what the French do… They say au revoir. It means until we see each other again, goodbye for now.”

“I’ll say that then. Can I come another time and see her?”

“I don’t know love, may be. But if you say au revoir then it’s always possible, in this life or another one.”

“Do you believe in another one?”

“Sometimes.” Mrs Tobin said.

I moved closer to Michaela again. I looked at my friend but it was not my friend really. She was bloated in the head, like her skin was stretched, and she couldn’t smile. Her eyes were shut, she was still.

She wasn’t dead but I knew then that the essence of Michaela had already gone.

84 Stitches

FullSizeRenderThree days before the summer holiday when I was  nearly 9 years old I fell through a greenhouse and sliced my leg in two. A half moon red-faced chunk of a smile stared back at me when I looked down and some of my leg seemed to be missing. Quite a large bit of it, as it happens. I knew I was in trouble. Not just with Mr Cundill for messing up his greenhouse, and not just my mother – who would be furious with the state of my shorts – but really, really in trouble. Not being able to walk trouble. And if I couldn’t walk that meant I couldn’t run. Not running was trouble.

Tracey Cundill was mouthing words at me but I wasn’t catching them. I turned my head to the side and really stared. Was Tracey actually even speaking to me? Tracey pointed to me then the greenhouse and then my leg and then she screamed.

“I’m sorry about the greenhouse,” I said.

There was glass everywhere.  Really, a whole window of glass.  It was a mess and when I looked I noticed that there were spots of my blood all over Mr Cundill’s tomatoes.

They probably wouldn’t be able to eat them.

“I’m sorry about the tomatoes,” I said.

Tracey went through the same pointing and screaming routine at least twice more and then she left. It wasn’t like her to be so incoherent: she was one of the cleverest girls in my class.  It was, however, typical of Tracey to run away and just as typical that she was going to tell my mother that it wasn’t her fault that I’d come a cropper in her yard.  Neither Michaela nor Dawn, my other friends, would have done that to me. They’d have stuck with me through thick and thin, they’d have let me tell my mother my own story. They’d have at least tried to help me get home. Tracey always had an eye for the main chance.  She was a survivor.

I shifted my weight on to my good leg and then started to work out how I could drag the gaping one across Tracey’s yard, over the road and into my own yard. Once I got going it wasn’t as bad as I’d thought. Slow, but also not as sore as I thought a gaping hole should be. It didn’t hurt that much at all. Not that I could look at it any more – because the last time I did I saw yellowy cream bits in there and that scared me.

When I was halfway across the road I could hear Tracey shouting; “Mrs B, Mary has broken her leg!”

“Where is she love?” I heard my mam say.

“She’s walking across the road!”

And then I heard my mam laugh, a big belly laugh that echoed all round the street. At least she was in a good mood I thought. At least she wouldn’t actually kill me.

My mother stopped laughing as soon as she saw it. Her face crumpled like a dishcloth. She swore quite a bit too. I knew it was best to wait until she was through with all that before I spoke… Then the questions came thick and fast. There were lots of questions about what I’d done to myself and what I was playing at that I couldn’t answer. The blood had started to pool around my ankle and my sock which had been pristine white, was now red. My mother disappeared and I heard a call to the emergency services. She didn’t scream, which was a bonus.

“Why are you  standing out there for?” my mam said.

“I’m not messing up your floor, mam.” I felt brave, superhuman.

“I don’t care about the floor,” she said.

She did care about the floor though; and the towel, that we threw between us for a while.

“Use the towel love, to stem the flow.”

“No.” I said.  This was the most defiant I had ever been.

We were still passing the towel between us when the ambulance men arrived.

“Blimey – got a bit of a scratch have you darling?”

“Always been the master of understatement Dave,” his mate said in the direction of my mother.

Dave started to bandage my leg.  It felt tight.

“You’d better get your stuff love… and some night clothes for Flossie Teacake here.”

“I’m called Mary,” I said.

When we got into the street a crowd had gathered around the blue flashing lights of the ambulance. There was a traffic jam of people. Me – in a wheelchair now – waved to everyone. It was like being a celebrity and I knew as we drew away I would be the talk of the neighbourhood. Everyone would know the story by the end of the day and those who didn’t would make up the details. By the end of the week no doubt I would have had my leg amputated three times and re-attached – or I’d have had a leg transplant and would have one leg permanently longer than the other.

There was some kerfuffle when we finally arrived in A and E.  Firstly, I’d had sweets which meant that I couldn’t be put to sleep.  Secondly, and inexplicably, I told my mother that I wanted my dad.  I knew this had wounded her, but I had no idea just how deeply this had hit her until years and years later, when she confessed it to me when she thought that she might die of cancer.  She didn’t, and I spent the 30 years following that feeling like an utter moron for saying such a thing.  I was 8.  I was weak. And I was a daddy’s girl.

The details were bad but I had been lucky. The doctors said I’d missed the main artery by two millimetres. I didn’t really know what a main artery was but I could tell by the way the doctor looked at me a bit ashen and downbeat that it was a good thing I’d missed it. I stared back and forth between my mam and dad, who looked as though they hadn’t slept for a week and they smiled weakly. I was alive.  I’d never noticed my mam’s grey hair until then or the lines on my dad’s face particularly around his eyes.

At about midnight, I was deemed fit enough to go down to theatre.  My mother and my father had gone home, and I recall the tribe of doctors and nurses who steered the trolley I was on down the corridor.  The taste of the rubber from the mask is a distinct but thankfully distant memory: I was told to count myself to sleep. When I awoke, I’d had 84 stitches.  61 inside and 23 outside.  If this doesn’t seem that many think of the average 8 year old’s leg. I was very lucky.

The next day my brother and sister had arrived.

“You’re alive then,” my brother, K said, “I had to clean up the blood with Laurie next door. It was everywhere.”

My sister, KM brought me a comic. And didn’t say very much.

“There was flesh and stuff. Up the walls. Everywhere. Wouldn’t go down the drain. Everywhere. You know you’ve had a blood transfusion – that means you’ve got someone else’s blood in you. It could be an evil murderer. Or a Zombie.” K was excited.

“You’re only jealous,” I looked at KM. “Are you okay?”

“I should have been looking after you,” she said. “I’m supposed to keep my eye on you.”

“It could be a vampire’s. Or a werewolf’s. You’ll probably howl at the moon from now on whenever it’s full. It could be a crazed lunatic’s or a Druid or something.”

“It’s probably just the butcher’s,” I said.

Tracey and Dawn visited that evening. Their parents were very good – and Mr Cundill didn’t shout at me for messing up his greenhouse. He said that he’d given my mother some beetroot and would be taking the rest of the greenhouse down. “I didn’t know it was dangerous,” he said apologetically as he and Dawn’s mam retreated to the waiting room to give the us girls ‘space.’

“It’s only dangerous if you’re standing on it.” I said.

“He’s really upset.” Tracey looked around. “It smells a bit funny in here.”

“Probably thought he was going to be sued.” Dawn said. Tracey frowned as if to say he didn’t but didn’t speak.

“Can I see your scar?” Dawn was not backwards in coming forwards.

“It’s wrapped up. I haven’t seen it meself yet.”

“Me mam said you’d had 84 stitches. She said that’s more than you cast on for a jumper!”

“Where’s Michaela?”

I noticed a slight waver in Tracey’s stare. I looked at her, but she did not waver again.

“She’s not very well.” Dawn said. “Got a headache.”

“Is she going to come up to see me?”

They didn’t answer and talked about school instead – about the excitement of the last day of the year coming up, that I would miss.

A succession of people did come up to the hospital to see me – Uncle John and Aunt Vi brought me ten bars of chocolate which my mam said I would have to share with K and KM (which wasn’t fair), my teacher – Mrs Sweeney – gave me a jigsaw. Aunt Vic sent me a bundle of colouring stuff bought cheap off the market (“Probably fall to bits in a matter of seconds,” my mam said, curtly). Mrs Binchy from next door bought me some fruit, and my mam didn’t say I would need to share that! Loads of people came, but Michaela never did.

There was a very good reason for this, of course…

(To be continued…)

 

Taken

FullSizeRenderMy most impressive achievement as a young person was the Queen’s Guide Award.  Not many girls managed this and fewer still from the neck of the woods that I was from: there was no precedent for it, and I gained it by sheer force of will and a ton of support from Guiders who came in all shapes and sizes, and who taught me a whole bundle of stuff about women and their power.  There were police officers, nurses, high-powered educators, administrators in the NHS, probation officers – determined women who did not take the world lying down. I can remember their names: Audrey Lord, Carol Selwyn Jones, Kay Button, Bev Smith, Pat Sugden, Mrs Tansey and the Scout leader, Celia Worley.  Those women, and others, taught me how to be myself. I would have been lost without them: working in a factory packing peas or making ends meet between low-paid and unskilled jobs.  This sounds like an exaggeration – it isn’t.

I sucked up the brilliance and madness of this world of women from 1975 to 1981 against the backdrop of a sinister force that gave an entirely different message – one that forced women off the streets, and that questioned our rights to take up space.  One that made us all just a little bit more frightened.

The sequence of attacks began in 1969, but the first murder came in October 1975.  I had just flown up to the Guides leaving the toadstool of the Brownies behind, and was battling my mother for a uniform (she was convinced I wouldn’t stick at it, and made me wear a blue shirt that was not the right colour and made me stand out like a sore thumb; not a position I enjoyed.)

Wilma McCann, a known prostitute, was stabbed in the neck, chest and abdomen multiple times and twice hit over the head with a hammer – her body was left in Chapletown, Leeds.  It barely created a ripple in the news, and I was more concerned with the Christmas Carole concert and singing the descant (badly).

I was bored initially by Guide activities so me and my mate Dawn took it upon ourselves to write Swallow on all of our patrol’s equipment.  Then, we’d try to.  We’d try to swallow the pencil.  We tried to swallow the notebook.  We even tried to swallow the kit box which was bigger than both of us and weighed as much as a grown man.  The Captain told us our antics were ridiculous. We protested: it clearly said swallow notebook, didn’t it?  It clearly said swallow rubber? The Captain was not impressed… we laughed like drains!

Meanwhile, murder number two took place: Emily Jackson, 42. Struggling to make ends meet, she was eking out her slim income by turning tricks. She was also killed in Leeds.

“Something’s not right here,” my dad said, “Don’t you go wandering around at night, you two.”

“Don’t be soft,” my mam threw out, “You’ll frighten them.”

I looked at my sister who looked at me, and then we went to Tuesday club.  We liked it at Coltman Street mission where the Tuesday Club took place because they had a better class of biscuit than the Church of our Guide Company.  It was January, perishing cold.  A woman would need to be desperate to go out on a night like this to be paid for sexual favours.  “Don’t go down the tenfoot*,” our mother yelled after us.  I didn’t like going through there in the daytime and never would at night. One of the Mainprizes once chased me with a Rubber Johnny** on a stick making me divert down the tenfoot, which practically scarred me for life.

In 1977, four more women were killed: Irene Richardson, Tina Atkinson, Jane McDonald (who was just 16 and not a prostitute) and Jean Jordan.  Each of the women were hideously mutilated, and getting careless, the killer had left a boot mark on one woman’s sheets and a crisp new fiver for her services on another, that could only have been in 8000 people’s wage packets: the police interviewed 5000 men in relation to this including the killer.  Still the police could not find The Yorkshire Ripper (as he was now dubbed in the press even though Jean Jordan was killed at Hough End, Manchester, where years later, I often walked my dog.)

1977 also happened to be the Queen’s Silver Jubilee.  There was much talk, as I recall, about the killing of Jane McDonald who was just a few years older than all of us, and like us: just walking home from a night out.  She could have been us.  We had to travel in twos: not wander off on our own. I raced my sister home after Guides to watch Cagney and Lacey, which by a country mile, was the best thing on TV. A street away, women were keeping the wolf from the door by prostituting themselves. I worried for them.

At Guide Camp, that year, the fancy dress theme was ‘I’m backing Briton’.  I can’t remember what my sister did, although it was something to do with arguing about ‘back in’ and ‘backing’ when she proposed to wear her clothes on the wrong way and that would definitely win a prize, but she made me cry.  Our Captain, who was the Quarter Master at the camp, noted this – I saw her watch the scene play out, and a steely determination took hold of her. Later, she said to me, “I was the younger sister, too.”

As 1977 folded into 1978 and bored out of our tiny brainboxes my sister, me and our friends Alison and Dawn wrote “This is crap” and “Wash me!” all over the Captain’s old estate  car.  For good measure, Dawn and I also shoved an old exhaust we’d found up the back of the vehicle to give the Captain a bit of a jolt when she saw it.  This was just high-spirits but a few days later when  Audrey, the Captain, was driving up to Scotland, her actual exhaust fell off.  Of course, this could have been a coincidence but she was a practical woman who would not believe it.

She rang up our mother who listened patiently to a list of complaints about us.  Hanging our heads in shame, that Friday we walked up to the Church Hall.  We began the evening in a circle, and the Captain called us to attention.  She spoke quietly saying that my sister and Alison would be banned for life for their antics, without any hope of return, and Dawn – who she’d never liked – would be suspended for three weeks.  “You,” she said, “Will have your stripes removed.”

I tried to open my mouth to explain that it was me that had actually put the old exhaust up the back of the car, along with Dawn, but she would not hear of it.  In a moment of great pomposity she said, “The older ones should take responsibility.  They should know better!”  I knew this wasn’t fair, but I just stood and looked on sadly as my three co-conspirators left the hall.  “I’m sweeping clean with a new broom,” Audrey said, “I’m making room.”

Meanwhile, two further killings had happened: Yvonne Pearson and Helen Rytka, both young girls, both street workers.  Helen was only 18 years old. As I read the circumstances around her death in the Daily Mail on my paper round, I wondered how a girl barely out of school had found this was the only thing she could do to survive.  I knew nothing of the world of drugs and although we were as poor as church mice (I knew this because of what we didn’t have compared to my peers, and compared to the girls from the better off Guide Companies who enjoyed activities I had never heard of: wind-surfing and rock-climbing and sailing), it was not the grinding poverty of those who have no options at all.

Within weeks, the Captain had restored my stripes and began subtly introducing me to the steps I’d need to take to reach greatness (in her eyes).  I should volunteer at a Garden Party she’d suggested.  So I did. I sold raffle tickets.  And I also bought some too.  And won the main prize, much to my acute embarrassment.

It was more than a year before the Ripper killed again. By this time, he was killing any woman who dared to venture into the night.  His 10th killing was a young woman called Joanne Whittaker who was only 19 and worked in a building society.  His 11th was a student – Barbara Leach.  She was just 20.

By now, everyone was talking about the Ripper – about how he didn’t care who or what you were, that he would kill you if you stayed out late: we were worried, but not in a coherent way.  We learned our lesson well – women needed to watch out. There was a pervasive message right there: girls should not be out at night.

There was extensive coverage of a tape allegedly made by the Ripper, sent by a bloke with a Wearside accent, that tormented the detective in charge of the case and his inability to catch him.  This man – who sent the investigation in the wrong direction – was never caught.

I was coming on in leaps and bounds – something about the responsibility I’d been given suited me.  One Sunday every month, I was responsible for church parade and often carried the colours or the union flag.  I enjoyed this.  And the badges kept on coming: I had an armful.  The Captain said, “We’ll get you that Queen’s Guide Award.” I undertook long-term volunteering.  I cleaned the church brasses.  I wrote, I swam, I cooked, I knitted, I collected, I looked after children, I orienteered, I saved lives, I prevented accidents, I was a backwoodsman, I knew all about the commonwealth. I ticked each badge off in turn.

Two days before my 15th birthday, Marguerite Walls, a 47 year old was killed and three months later the Ripper committed his final murder, that of Jacqueline Hill, 20: another student, this time of Leeds University, on 17th November, 1980.  I vividly remember her mother: the anguish, the anger, how articulate she was in her grief.  (Years later the poet Rosie Garland, who I was briefly in a theatre company with, read a poem about Jacqueline Hill, a girl she shared a regular tutorial with.  Rosie – who is now a novelist and long time member of the band The March Violets, could have been that 13th woman whose life was snuffed out but she hadn’t attended the tutorial that night. It could have been her.  Easily.  On such a small axis of chance do we survive, sometimes. All that potential and promise, all those lives gone and still others who he attacked but who did not die, whose lives where nonetheless destroyed. All those who lived a half life because of what he did: the victims’ mothers and fathers, their children.  Sisters.  Brothers.  Cousins. Friends: the pain rolling out in circles, crashing over whole neighbourhoods.)

By May 1981, I had completed the collection of all the badges I needed to be awarded the Queen’s Guide.  I received a certificate from the Queen.  I was chuffed as mint balls. This was a big enough deal to warrant my picture being taken by the local paper. It was very exciting for me and my family.  The photographer came to the church and he stood me underneath a tree.  I beamed. I would appear a week later. I looked forward to everyone seeing me.

Peter Sutcliffe’s trial began on the 5th May 1981 and lasted two weeks.  He was found guilty of 13 murders and 7 attempted murders and was sentenced to 20 concurrent life sentences.  This verdict set newspapers into a frenzy: he had tried to say he’d heard the voice of God and this had compelled him to act.  Page after page of coverage of this man and what he’d done, then, at the very right-hand edge on page 5 me, a sliver of space, smiling, with my certificate on show. And beside my beaming face, the headline in bold, filling the rest of the page from left to right but for my small triumph, ‘Ripper Victim talks…’  And that was when I really thought: it could have been me.

It could have been any of us.

*tenfoot = an alley, ten foot wide

**Rubber Johnny = a condom

I used facts about the Ripper’s Victims from the Wikipedia entry for Peter Sutcliffe.  You can read the whole thing here

I have written about Audrey before here

Shadows

FullSizeRender

Still reeling from a drama I didn’t fully understand which featured my normally (at least outside the house) mild-mannered mother yelling uncontrollably at the head teacher about the shame caused by the label pinned to my jumper on my first day at school: ‘has fits’, I made my way innocently to the toilets.

Neither did I fully understand the nuance of what my mother had been yelling but I’d picked up something about public humiliation, something about discretion being the better part of valour (or Valerie – which my father always said), and something about how my mother assumed that the other children could actually read, this being a school where education occasionally happened?

“It’s probably already too late!  You’ve probably made a laughing stock of my child.” I’d looked at my mother in awe: I didn’t remember her standing up for me in quite this fashion before although I was concerned that she was making the kind of first impression that wouldn’t serve me well in the long-term.

I was thinking this as I entered the toilets.  This was 1970, and Constable Street Primary School was an old Victorian building with a few utilitarian 1960s additions.  The main feature of the playground was the wall wrapped around the infant building. Babbapapa and Babbamama had been painted on one wall in garish pinks and black.  Also, the entrance to the toilets was outside: built in stone, it curved round, and, from memory, a single light served half a dozen stalls. It was cold.  And it was not a place for the faint hearted: the shadows danced along the walls.

I have an older brother and an older sister so I did possess a general awareness of threat: when you’re the youngest (as I was then) you tend to keep your eyes peeled, have a sense of something imminent that follows you around, a menance,  and you tend to be on the lookout for the demands coming down the line to you (I had, cleverly, adopted two tactics to avoid doing things: pretend I couldn’t do it OR cry and run away.  I had major successes with both approaches.)

It was dark in the toilets and I knew, immediately, that I was in trouble.  Three girls appeared.  One was a girl called Wiggy: I didn’t know that then, I just knew she was wearing a blue knitted bonnet that was really too small for her head which from the angle I was looking at her, made it seem unnaturally shrunken.   There was not a trace of hair on her head. She was also very tall. The other two were Hilton girls: one of them, Kim, was stocky – and I knew instinctively, as birds know the moments before the sun rises, that she was to be feared, that she was to be avoided. Like the plague.

“Now then,” Kim said.  I think the older girl was probably her sister.  She was taller, but otherwise indistinguishable.  The only thing I knew about the Hilton clan was that there had been 24 of them – 24 children in one family.  I’d given this a passing thought: we struggled to get into the bathroom in a morning, so how they managed it was anyone’s business.

“Now then,” Kim said again.  “You’ve got fits?”  This was phrased as a question but I sensed that she was not expecting an answer.  I thought about crying.  I thought about running away. I thought about how this might be my only way out of the situation.  I looked from one girl to the other to try and see what the right answer might be.  Kim smiled: if I’d had teeth like hers, bright white, I’d have smiled all day.  Kim Hilton did not smile all day, her default position was simmering rage.

“Have one then,” she said.  Kim was not making a joke. Kim did not make jokes.

The thing about having fits, from what I can remember, is you have no idea what happens or what it looks like because you’re busy having a fit not observing it from a distance for a later date when someone commands you do it on demand.

So, I lay down on the cold concrete, and started to shake.  Vigorously.

At that point, my sister came in. My sister who did often hate me hanging around all the time and who generally got fed up of me said, “What’s going on?”

“She’s having a fit,” Kim Hilton said, matter of factly.

“I think that’s enough now.” My sister said.

Miraculously I made a full recovery. My performance had been enough to satisfy them for the moment.  “Alright” Kim said, and walked away. Wiggy and the other Hilton girl followed. Kim would hover at the edge of my playtime daily, waiting for me to go into the toilets.  I did not make the same mistake twice.

I often saw Kim Hilton out and about around Chomley Street and down the Boulevard where her family lived.  She and Wiggy were often companions, and, when I did see them, I did invariably find something really interesting to look at in the opposite direction.  Lots of members of the family had a reputation for hitting first and then – if the mood took them – considering later.

My next serious encounter with Kim was not one of my finest moments.  A couple of years later, when I was about 7, my sister and I were looking after two smaller children.  Kim, for no better reason than she fancied a bit of sport, swaggered towards us.  Words passed between my sister and Kim, and possibly me, that quickly escalated into World War 3.  I did what any self-respecting survivor would do: I ran away.  Yes, I left my sister with two small children and ran.  This is not something I’m especially proud of, and I accept I did not cover myself in glory but it taught me an important lesson… flight is a legitimate tactic even if it appears selfish, even if your sister reminds you of it for the next 150 years.

One  time, one of the Hilton children was knocked over in the street, a pure accident – cars were infrequent at that time, and there was much less need for speed.  The child had simply stepped into the road.  This was not how the Hiltons saw it. They were totally committed to each other, a tight-knit clan who were fiercely loyal, and would do anything if that commitment was questioned or challenged, who would do anything if something (or someone) came between them.   Clearly, I did not match that level of loyalty. I was too frightened for that.  Too cowardly. After the ambulance had taken the child to the hospital, the family turned on the car driver, 20 of them rocking his vehicle from side to side, as the guilty man, Mr  Fairhead, sat inside it, terrified for his life.  This level of threat cloaked them like an aura, like a veil – they had an undercurrent of hostility that rested among them like legionella, invisible but lethal.

That anger never left Kim Hilton.  Years later, I saw her rugby tackled by a police officer after she had allegedly stolen a few packets of biscuits from the shopping centre on Bransholme housing estate.  The police roughed her up unnecessarily, and in my student inspired hopes for a better world, I was outraged by the brutality that she was subject to. She swore black was blue as a knee in her back held her flat to the floor.

Brutality was a world Kim understood.  She was often angry and provocative. And that, in part, contributed to her death. On that particular day, Kim and her then girlfriend began drinking strong lager at lunch time.  The drunker they got, the more Kim’s partner convinced herself that Kim was having an affair. The argument raged on and off all day, with Kim being punched, and then, later each viciously shouting at the other in the street, before going their separate ways.

At midnight, or thereabouts, the partner, Andrea, returned with an iron bar as a weapon and managed to get herself into Kim’s flat.  All those years of fight, had stood the test of time, and Kim was never going to do the coward’s thing, and run away.  Instead, she fronted up and disarmed Andrea, taking the weapon she’d brought to smack her, and placing it out of harm’s way.  But the fight did not end there. Neighbours shouted for the women to shut up…and then silence came – still in a rage, Andrea grabbed a knife and stabbed Kim Hilton through the heart.  She died straight away, her rage fading away with her shadow.