Helga

DSC_0083

No farewell words were spoken, no time to say goodbye. You were gone before we knew it, and only God knows why.”  Unknown Author

I’ve puzzled over remembering her name, which is nothing short of shameful.  I know why though, she was difficult.  She was difficult in a very difficult class.  It was a wonder to me that so many slightly unhinged children had ended up in one place.  I taught them originally for English and then, the following year, for Drama.  This class bore evidence to the fact that testing is madness and tells us nothing (because all the power rests with the question maker) because in that class I ended up with 25 kids with special needs and 5 who were not, in one room.  (Interestingly, I made friends with one of them 20 years later on Facebook.  Biggest.  Mistake.  Of. My. Life.  Where once he’d been an annoying marginally cute peck of a child, he had turned into an obnoxious beer swilling misogynistic homophobe.  Unfriend.  Block.)

In that class there were 8 children on the lowest ability table all very pleasant but none of them able to read and write (they were 11).  Not one.  And this was in the day before teaching assistants so somehow I had to manage them, and the 5 bright kids, along with a very curious bag of behavioural problems.   I’d set up a task and then some minutes later, I’d emerge from the special needs table with none of them further on.  The names have escaped me but not the pain of having to get some words out of them.

Later, when they had grown a year, they became totally unmanageable.  People talked about some of those boys in the staffroom with hushed tones.  There was one boy in particular (I will not name him) who made most staff wish they’d chosen street cleaning as a profession (although I think he would have still sought them out and he’d have still made their life hell.)

I once looked on the internet (Friends Reunited – remember that?) only to discover that someone had actually married him and he seemed normal. The thing about most classes, even if they possess a couple of choice individuals they mostly rubbed along together, and they sort of gelled eventually.  This class – who I’ll call Class H for the want of not wanting to call them anything else – seemed, on the whole, to hate each other.

Drama with them was a kind of weekly battle.  They couldn’t sit still in the normal course of things, so imagine the total chaos that ensued when  all the desks were removed.  I recall – at my wit’s end of being unable to command them in anyway at all – putting each of them on a chair, one in front of the other across the length of the hall in a desperate attempt to gain some control.  It worked, but only for so long: minutes from memory.   I also remember using every single teacher phrase on them, “It’s your own time you’re wasting”, “I don’t have anything else to do,” and “Every single minute you waste will be added at the end.”  This class made me realise that detention meant only one thing – a punishment for yourself.

So, at Christmas I was surprised by the visitation of Kate, Helga and another child who I hadn’t even noticed was in the room.   Because the battle lines were so firmly drawn, it was impossible to see the good stuff.  Kate pushed out her hand, “Here’s a Christmas card,” she said, and then, Helga giggled, high-pitched and inexplicably needy, did the same.

“Thank you girls,” I said, insanely grateful that not all 30 hated me.

The others in the class would victimise these three scraps of children, often throwing out insults beneath their breath.  So, I’d go to battle on their behalf, even though all three girls: Kate, Helga and the other one had the capacity to drive me wild.  Helga just couldn’t sit still and she whined.  She always wanted attention (because she needed it, I expect.)  I was always keeping groups of boys back for saying stuff about Helga, unpleasant stuff I don’t wish to repeat because she was 12 and not any of the things they spoke of or suggested about her (although now that I have been on the planet 30 years more I think Helga was a victim of some serious kind of abuse, and I know that I’d be trying to get to the bottom of whatever was going on for her in a safeguarding sense.)

One Monday, Helga didn’t come into school.  It was no bad thing from my point of view.  One less of those mad kids and I might even manage to get them into a circle!  No such bloody luck but at least it was one complication that I didn’t need, one angle of bonkersness removed that meant I might survive until lunch time with all my limbs in tact.

I wasn’t with them when they got the news that Helga had been killed in a car crash, but I heard the stories of their reactions in the staffroom.

For a month or two, all the class’s fight had gone.  The boys fell silent: no smart remarks came through.  The  girls got on with their work except Kate and her single remaining friend who cried genuine painful, heart-rending tears.

The rest were sort of bewildered because they’d no affection for Helga at all.  Daily, they’d called her names, made her short life more unpleasant than it needed to be, and – in that moment that she died – they’d lost all hope of redemption.  As a collective they struggled to say, honestly, how much they’d missed her, if only as the butt of all their jokes and they hung their heads in shame – all the spirit went from them.   They cried because of what they’d done, the pain they’d meted out to her and not what had happened.

Those children were wounded, damaged by a tricky life’s lesson: you can’t like everyone and sometimes, you get no chance to take back some of the things you’ve said and done.  I played my Drama lesson’s with a straight bat, giving them a chance to work through their feelings.

They mostly recovered.  And I was pleased to not have to teach them at the end of the year.

 

 

 

 

 

Unassuming

DSC_0039

“Many homicidal lunatics are very quiet, unassuming people.  Delightful fellows.” Agatha Christie

The one thing I can say about Graham, without fear of contradiction, was that he was not a homicidal lunatic. He was, however, very unassuming: a man who you would walk past in the street. He mostly wore greys and blacks, and his hair had thinned so that his bald patch was the lion’s share of his head.  Graham wore his hair slightly longer than you’d expect for a man in his sixties and he seemed unfinished, slightly grubby.   This is not to cast aspersions on his character – he was a nice, decent man.

We encountered Graham when we lived in Rossendale.  He drove his white Granada up the unmade road past our house twice a day, and parked it in front of some disused garages.  He’d leave the car there, and then head on foot to the patch of land he rented off the Hardman Trust to feed his animals.  We too rented land off the Trust, a slightly under the radar operation that owned most of this part of Rossendale, including – one assumes – Hardman Drive that ran at the end of the unmade road, curling up to a dead-end and a field full of sheep.  Old Mr Hardman was in effect one of the founding fathers of Waterfoot, one of a few Victorian gentlemen who made money from the felt mills on the valley floor. The Trust carved up the space into various chunks and asked for a small amount of rental once a year – many people lived out their dreams of being small-holders on Hardman land.

In fact, most people who came to live in Waterfoot had come originally to work the mills and at their height they’d sent the woollen material across the world.  I don’t know the full history of Hardman (although a W. Hardman seems to have been some sort of Historian), but stone was also quarried in those parts and there was business in the town for a man who could make the most of it.  Indeed, Graham had done just that – although on a much smaller scale.

Before we moved into Waterfoot Graham had owned and run the sweet shop.  Tucked in just beside the pub, he’d made a good living from selling sweets: generations of children and young people from the Grammar school had doubtless seen it as the place to be directly after school filling up on Riley’s Chocolate Toffee Rolls, Licorice Allsorts, Turkish Delights and supplies of penny sweets of all kinds: milk bottles, chocolate logs, mojos and more.

I never saw inside the shop because it closed just as I was finding my way about the place.  For a while, the shopfront was a bit desolate, and the odd business moved in and then out without ever really making a go of it.  Finally, it was re-shaped into an Estate Agents and we all just walked past it and straight into the Co-Op for supplies.

I should imagine the shop’s demise made Graham a little sad, but he never showed it.  Instead, he came, regular as clockwork to feed his chickens and his goats.  We’d wave and then the wave became a nod, and the nod a hello until we were on polite speaking terms.  It was Graham who let us know about where we could acquire rescue chickens, bringing us the first of them in a battered old box.

“They’re good layers,” he said.  And they were. Even though those rescue birds arrived without any feathers, and with their wing structure exposed, they never let us down.  They delivered an egg a day.  “It’s miserable where they’ve been, stuck in those laying sheds day after day, so it’s grand that you’re giving them a chance.”  Graham smiled, and with a wave was on his way.

It was difficult to age Graham – in part because he was a bit of an every man, and also because most Saturdays he would appear at his plot of land with a woman and two children in tow.  We thought at first that they were his grandchildren but as time span out we heard the odd, “Daddy.” We made the assumption that this was Graham’s wife – perhaps even a second wife.  She was a diffident woman, who generally kept her eyes down but her kids, their kids, were full of beans and Graham was delightful with them.  Some weekends, he just brought the kids and they had a whale of a time running around with the chickens and the goats.  Other times, Graham came alone and sat up in his shed whiling away the hours.

One day, when we walked the dog we noticed a police car parked where Graham’s car would normally have been.  I didn’t think anything of it – I’d seen them there before catching a sneaky fag, or having a brew.  In fact, that area also attracted a few ne’er do wells here and there some casting off rubbish from the back of rusting vans or young couples making out.

I’ve a feeling I was in the bathroom when the two women with adjacent plots came to tell us what had happened to Graham.   There was something strange about these practical women – Kay and Susan, Kay with string tying her coat together – marching towards our house with great purpose particularly as they were often at loggerheads and more than once we’d had to play peacemaker.

I didn’t answer the door, so never heard it first hand but apparently Graham had been found in his shed that morning having suffered a colossal heart attack.   A week later, we saw Kay, the scruffier of the two women, and she said, “They’re not sure how long he’d been there.  You know, because of his arrangements.”

“His arrangements?” I don’t know whether I asked the question or whether we asked it in unison.

“You know, having his wife and his lady friend…” she trailed off and I got the feeling we’d missed something significant about Graham.  We must have both looked aghast and clearly without the insider knowledge Kay was itching to tell us…

“Yeah – he lived with his wife, his grown up kids had flown the nest but he had this other family with a woman young enough to be his daughter, had them tucked away in a house on Edgeside.  You probably saw her here sometimes… with a couple of kids.  They were his.   He never hid it from anyone and somehow his wife managed to carry on up Newchurch by ignoring it.”

This was a lot of words for Kay.  She breathed deeply.  She was pin-thin and coughed the cough of a smoker.  You could tell there was something else she wanted to tell us…

We waited.  She looked around as if she was holding a state secret. She smiled.

“And the dirty old bugger had a stack of pornography up there in his shed.  Thought there was going to be something amazing in that locked box!”

We smiled.  Unassuming Graham – gosh, how many more revelations?

None.

But more sadness though.

My partner and Kay went to the funeral.  Up front sat Graham’s family that we’d never met or seen listening to a eulogy that did not mention the woman he also shared his life with or their children.

And then, at the back of the church, that woman shyly entered and sat quietly in a pew, leaving before the coffin made its final journey.

She said nothing to no-one.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Better Tomorrow?

FullSizeRender(5)

“Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today.” Malcolm X

To have a better tomorrow, we must educate our children.   It’s all too easy to leave it to chance so that children work it out for themselves without guidance.  Without guidance we run the risk of things getting worse, not better. Children don’t have to work it out for themselves.

-o0o-

The thing I remember most about David Senior was his shoes – his shoes were ripped apart by his feet.  They were cheap shoes, I expect, and David’s family was doubtless much like the rest of us: stony broke so that once the shoes were torn, there’d be no money for new ones until the following September, at the start of the school year.  For the whole year then, David had the indignity of walking about with his feet exposed to all the elements.  There might, conceivably, have been another pair if his feet had grown length-wise or a pair of plimsolls but beyond that he would have no choice but to wear what had been bought for him.

Not that David Senior could walk very well, he was too large.  I now know that he had Prader-Willi syndrome – a rare genetic condition with a range of problems including the constant desire to eat.  David’s sister often spat out at us, “he doesn’t eat any more than the rest of us”  when people were taunting him but everyone in the entire world knew it was untrue. David did eat more than the rest of us.  He was always eating. He never stopped.  And that was because he was constantly starving.  I now understand that a child with Prader-Willi can eat three to six times more than children of a similar age and still be hungry but we just thought he was overweight and indulged.

Considering how big David was, people didn’t pick on him too much even though our neighbourhood was  a hunting ground for bullies and hard-cases roaming around looking for trouble.  I think it was because David was a bit sad, and not clever enough to fight back and it was obvious that something wasn’t quite right.  If it’s a dog eat dog world perhaps you do kick those who are already down just to big yourself up a bit, and we were all guilty of that, I’m sure. David would blink through his thick rimmed glasses and then finish off eating whatever he had on the go.  It was as if he hadn’t noticed what people said, or didn’t care.  Taunts were not his priority – food was.

No one was surprised when he died young.  It was a wonder that he lasted as long as he did.

-o0o-

We didn’t really take any prisoners as children though, setting out our stall by getting our kick in first.   That’s what it was like with flame-haired Audrey who lived on Queensgate Street.  In fairness to us she was always trying to lord it over us because she had the trace of a Scottish accent and was a foot taller.  She was one of those girls who grew to their full size at 11 (with bosom) and then all of us spent the next five years catching up with.

Audrey made a rookie error.  She told us one of her inner most secrets.

Unlike the rest of us, she had actually been to a funeral.  It was her granddad’s.  And because she was an only child she went because there was no one to look after her.  As her grandfather was carried from the church in his coffin, they had sung Amazing Grace.  Audrey told us that every time she heard this, she found herself crying.

In our defence, KM (my sister) and myself were probably pretty needy sorts, the sorts who liked to have some kind of minor victories in what were often challenging days. Our mother could be difficult, and occasionally very difficult.

SO, whenever Flame-haired Audrey made an appearance, we would start to hum building to a crescendo as she got closer and closer. Sometimes we’d even sing,

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,

That saved a wretch like me

I once was lost, but now I’m found

Twas blind, but now I see…

The same thing happened every single time.  Audrey cried (even now I’m not convinced they were real tears, just a part of the exchange we’d created between us) and then she ran away.  This went on for months until she moved and our fun (and hers) was over. We would not have a laugh and Audrey would not get to cry again for us. We’d all liked the drama of exchange…

I do feel bad every time that I hear that song though and think of Audrey and her grandpa…

-o0o-

The school assembly was hushed.  It was normally very raucous.  When we sang Glory, Glory Hallelujah, for example, I can recall the waves of ‘the teacher hit me with the ruler’ emanating from the back rows as the headteacher smiled benignly on.  I was in my first year in junior school then and we all knew, even the youngest of us, that no one could put us all in detention if we sang the wrong words.  There was something joyous about the hymn singing.

Not this day though – the room was completely sombre.  Row upon row of children with their heads bowed as the headteacher told us all about the Gaul.   It was 1974 and it had sunk with all 36 hands lost.  On every row a child was related to one of the dead. I remember one boy – as we bowed our heads to pray – refusing to do so and the tears streaming down his face.  He was in my sister’s class.

The weather had been particularly bad as the Gaul made its way across the seas but the crew had sent word that they had battened down the hatches to ride out the storm.  The trawler sank suddenly with no chance to send out an emergency signal, and no chance to attempt a rescue.  Suddenly, then. Many thought it suspicious.  The Hull Daily Mail ran the headline, “Another Marie Celeste?”

There has, in more recent years, been talk of submarines and spy missions, and the trawler taking an under water hit so that it suffered a catastrophic hole in it bow,  that meant it sank like a stone.  Many in Hull believed that this was very possible – a recognition that all trawlers sailing from the city at that time had a dual role as intelligence gatherers.  This has never been confirmed, but the rumour persists.  Some blamed the Russians, others said that trawlers were used as cover for our own submarines operating covert missions, the trawler providing a visible presence on sonar.   There has never been any official word on what happened to those men – only that they were lost.  Gone.

And in the end it did not matter to that boy in the assembly that day, now a fully grown man, I suppose.  Because his father had died, and he would never come back.  His tears continued as we sang,

“Eternal father strong to save,

Whose arm doth bind the restless wave,

Who biddst the mighty ocean deep

Its own appointed limits keep,

Oh hear us when we cry to Thee,

for those in peril on the sea.”

A hymn that speaks of Hull And I watched that boy fold in on himself whilst those around us left the assembly and just carried on.

-o0o-

Incidentally, and in an aside, yesterday was the 43rd anniversary of this.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Road Less Travelled…

FullSizeRender(5) copy 3

There is more than one way to die – more than one way to erase yourself from the picture. A physical body operates on an animal level and, whoever you are, it must be fed and watered, rested, kept warm and housed.  These are the very basics – as Maslow identified. But the mental side of a human being is a more complex country and although psychologists have made strides in understanding why people behave in the ways they do, not everything is explainable.

We should have seen the signs because they were certainly there, but in truth it was beyond our experience of the world.

Four women and three children lived together in a fine old Victorian House in Manchester.  A family: a rag bag and complex family, but a family nonetheless.  One woman, Jane, who was the birth mother of the children had – just about – held it together before Miriam moved in.  For Miriam it was an instinct thing – she saw the children and knew that she would need to be part of their lives.  She was also Jane’s best friend, and by her own admission, Jane was struggling to manage: manage the children, their personalities, their needs, her needs and the interpersonal mash-up of all their lives together.

Even early on Miriam noticed a peculiar habit Jane had – whatever Miriam said, when she shared her thoughts about the world, or love, or conflict, or whatever, Jane had a tendency to agree.  It was an odd thing but nothing to worry about.  Jane would always say, “I think that too.”

They made it work – sharing the load of the children’s lives – women came and went but Miriam and Jane stayed as the tight-knit core.  I moved in when the youngest child was 11 and the other two 14 and 16.  The house ticked over like any family home with domestic duties and work, TV and late night jaunts to the airport for fancy puddings in a restaurant, the children playing games in their own unique style: canasta, Scabble, Monoplogy, Pictionary like any other family.   A daily round of up for school, breakfast, home, supper, TV, bath and bed.  Weekends of long dog walks and swimming and excursions and down time.  The women, determined to make it work held house meetings to establish guidelines that took the pressure off, that helped the whole tick along.  Like any family, it didn’t always run smoothly: but it was well-meaning and there was a lot of love. That got everyone through – just about – unscathed.  And Jane was a very good breadwinner: she was a woman who could make things happen.  She could convince a funder to back her, she could generate work wherever she went.  Jane had the capacity to give people what they needed, say all the right things – she was very, very clever.

At 11, each child was given the opportunity to go away to school – although the world has changed now, at that time as ‘birth-right’ Quakers they were able to go to a Quaker boarding schools on assisted places.  All three children, for very different reasons leapt at the chance… the boy because it would give him a place to be himself away from the unresolved challenges he faced with his sister and a house full of women.  The second, a girl, because it met every single expectation that she’d imagined by reading The Chalet School books.  When the third child went – she was happy to follow in the footsteps of her sister.

Something happened to Jane when the last of her children went to boarding school.  Freed from their immediate daily needs, she began to focus in on herself.  She began to try to understand herself, peeling away layer after layer in the hope of gaining insight into why she struggled – she expressed the view that she could not be herself because she did not know who she was.  Jane was relentless in her pursuit of this self.  She went to endless therapeutic sessions, digging ever deeper into a bottomless place.  But still she remained a kind of psychic chameleon – able to be whatever anyone needed from her. It wasn’t until we compared notes that we realised that the Jane we got personally was not exactly the same Jane as the others – that the Jane we each got was our own version.  But we also knew that this was true for everyone: I knew we played a certain role with different people, sometimes nuanced, but often a version of our inner truth.  But with Jane it was different. She was a woman who had a honing device on what you needed as person and she gave you that, focused on you and not herself.  Only much later did we ask the questions, “Who is Jane then?  Which is the real one?”

Some days Jane was in a bad way.  She told of walking around with a razor blade in her shoe, ‘just in case’?  Just in case of what we asked?  “Just in case I need to escape,” she’d say, “slice out the real me through my veins.”  Other times, Jane stayed in her room for hours, sneaking out in the dark to put up signs.  One day, on the wall she’d drawn a picture of a woman with an umbrella announcing that her skin was thin and we’d need protection from her.

We held crisis meetings – asking Jane to come along.  Sometimes she did, sometimes she didn’t.  We spoke to doctors, and professionals where we could – particularly Miriam who drove hard towards resolving the situation because she loved her friend, we all did.  We didn’t know what to do for Jane, and we didn’t know what to do for us. Miriam tried to bring it to a head – none of us could go on like this, least of all Jane.  I remember a difficult incident where Miriam asked Jane to disagree with her, just once.  It got louder and more strained.  Jane could not.  She couldn’t.

Finally after weeks of seeking help a doctor came to the house.  He sat with the four of us (Miriam, myself, Jane and the fourth woman, N.)  He was very sympathetic to the situation we were in.  He said that Jane was in permanent flashback and we were all players in her drama.  That we were not who we were, we were who she needed us to be.  Jane sat in the room and nodded all the way through agreeing.  As she would. We would all need to be patient, to hold  it all together for Jane and perhaps, he said, and in return she might think about not doing any more therapy for a while?

The house was as quiet as a tomb once he’d gone.  We felt listened to – heard.  We felt like someone outside of the house had seen the strange slightly surreal world we were living in.  There was no point scoring, and we were not congratulatory.  We all wanted the best for Jane.  And we wanted the best for us, and the children. The way things stood, this was not a house they could return to in the summer.

The next day, the doctor rang.  In a full about turn, he said we were not supporting Jane enough.  That she was struggling, and we were not there for her.

We were always there for her.

Her therapist had rung the doctor.  Who knew what the therapist and the patient shared?  But both had lost sight of the bigger picture. Jane had become unhinged.

The day after that, early in the morning – Jane was outside packing her belongings into the car.

Miriam threw open the window, “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” she yelled, furious.  It was clear what Jane was doing.  She was leaving.  She was leaving and she wasn’t coming back.  As she reversed from the drive, I cried.  Not for the loss of Jane but for the anger, the disappointment, the ruined friendship, the breaking up of our home, the frustration at the time we’d put in, the disloyalty and the irrationality.  We loved her.  We’d loved her for years and years and years but she did not see us or feel it.  Jane’s only route for survival was to run from us and to the self she had become that did not include us.

Some time later – and I am missing out many months of to-ing and fro-ing and negotiations about visiting children and looking after the house, many months of painful meetings and exchanges, many months of trauma, and pain for us all, many months of challenge – we received a letter.  It told us how Jane was gone, that she had splintered, and that what remained was a tribe of other personalities one of whom, a dominant one, was able to speak for them all.  Jane explained the purpose of each of the tribe, their roles.  She told us what she would like now to be called.

The Jane we’d known was gone.  She was gone physically but also she had erased that self from the earth. We saw the physical person occasionally after that, but hardly at all.  Then she disappeared.

We were not to be part of Jane’s future nor she of ours.

We are still a family – the girls and us, 20 years on.

 

 

 

 

 

The World Breaks Everyone…

FullSizeRender(5) copy 2

If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them.  The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.  But those that will not break it kills.  It kills the very good and the very gentle and very brave impartially.  If you are none of these you can be sure that it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.” Ernest Hemmingway

(This week a friend of mine was buried. ‘Friend’, such a loose term to describe so many relationships.  This woman was somewhere between a friend and a colleague.  At funder’s meetings it was us against the big boys: us taking a mocking pop at their privilege, laughing quietly as they wondered how they’d manage without X thousands, when we only had X thousands to lose.  And then, the company she’d developed from nothing lost all of its funding – which she found inexplicable – and so, she retired, gracefully.  She was in her late 50s then.  Without warning she disappeared off her social media channels and, in the way of these things, we discovered she’d had a terrible illness followed by an accident where she pulled a tray of hot fat from the oven onto her legs.  So a mate and I made a version of the badger video – a joke we shared about not sleeping and a misheard line about badges – which featured us instead of those little black and white critters, as a get well soon (though it’s hard to imagine now how we thought this would help!) She made a full recovery, in spite of our video, and then she returned full-throttle in the real and virtual worlds directing her vitriol on those who deserved it – her last Facebook post hours before she died poked fun at Trump and May.  She was witty and funny and clever and I will miss her.  She was never broken by life but it killed her all the same.)

The World Breaks Everyone

Lily was slight and, for want of a better word, shriveled.  She was curled up in the chair nearest the bay window in the house she shared with her sister Nelly, but did not speak beyond a whispered hello and once, “don’t touch that child.”  After that, she barely acknowledged our presence at all, largely, I suspect, because she did not know we were there.  The crocheted blanket made of bright squares seemed to trap her in place; she was neatly tucked in, held down.  She looked beyond the room as if she was remembering a time before she was confined to it.

Nelly, on the other hand, was robust.  She was 5′ 7 or 8″ and broad shouldered.  She had an air of practicality and, whenever we arrived, she seemed to go into hyper-drive.  It was my father – even Lily perked up when she heard his voice. They both loved him.  This love extended to us although it was rare for us to go to their house.  This was something my father did, on a Sunday.  When we did go, the table would be laden with large scones, cream and jam or cakes and orange squash. It was a challenge to balance all of these things on a lap under the scrutiny of Nelly, but we’d manage it.  When our refreshments were through, we’d go out in their garden to play…in the corner there was an Anderson shelter which was cool inside and pitch dark.  It doubled as a den.

Nelly and Lily were my father’s aunts – somewhere there was an uncle, Mark, and another aunt too – who’d married a semi-professional rugby player – but those two did not hold a place in my father’s heart in the same way.  The sisters – referred to by society at that time as ‘spinsters’ –  lived down Lomond Road off Springbank West, a hop and a skip from where dad had grown up and as a child I could not imagine why they’d mattered so much to him.  But there was a deep bond between them all, a co-dependency.  Lily and Nelly, I assumed, were the women left uncoupled by the war, with partners lost or in for a quick dalliance and then gone for good back to wives elsewhere.  They seemed sad, lost. I didn’t know. Nelly always seemed to me to be formidable – scary even, whilst the unconnected and unresponsive Lily, benign. I was wrong.

One time my grandfather, Ernie, related to the sisters by marriage to Florence, my grandmother, told me the truth.  Lily was a demon.  She was utterly unforgiving and very popular with men. And she knew it, he said.  She would cast a spell and entice them in and then, when they were hooked, she’d let them go: she was a woman before her time.  After that, I looked at her disbelievingly – how could this tiny, shrunken creature be as he described?  It taught me important lessons: things are not always as they seem and that there is a back-story to everyone that you’ll never truly know.  She could be harsh, cruel.  “I never really liked her,” Ernie said, “and she didn’t like me.  She broke the world as if it was a wild horse, which is fine, but then there should always be room to be kind.  Not Lily.  She got her kick in first. Every time.”

I was shocked by what seemed to be anger.  It spoke of something else – something disapproving which was ironic given Ernie’s history as the playboy of the western world. And Nelly?

“The sweetest woman in the world.  Always so giving and gentle,” Ernie said, “But the love of her life was taken from her grasp.  Too nice. Too, too nice.”  He lit a cigar and inhaled deeply and said nothing else. He’d tantalisingly left a door onto the past ajar, but nothing more…

And then I knew.  Lily.  Ernie never said and I didn’t ask. But I knew it was Lily.  It was what Lily would had done, this taking from her softer sister. And I imagined how she’d be with this dalliance, a plaything cast aside after she’d finished and lives broken with all trust gone. And Nelly was to never love again. Was she broken? In any case, Nelly picked up the pieces, practical, kind and decent and made the best of things. I often imagined what the conversations were like between them over all those years that they lived together in that tiny house or if they ever spoke of it again, but it was beyond my experience.

As they set towards middle-age, and Lily’s power waned, my father became a bigger and bigger part of their lives. He’d pop round, make himself useful, build shelves and mend things, generally looking out for them.  In return they fed him and loved him unconditionally.  Who wouldn’t thrive in that situation, and who wouldn’t return time and time again?  It was an escape for him – an escape from the step-father who was in his way and who he, naturally, hated for a time.

Then Lily died and no one really spoke much of her again.

Nelly soldiered on.  And dad, loyal to the very end, would go round taking one or two of us with him.  He’d sort her garden, fix her door, work out why a cupboard was sticking or decorate her living room. She’d smile and laugh and chat about the week that had gone.

And then, before too long, Nelly died too.  Dad packed up her house and the linen that they’d used became our linen, towels and sheets and so on.  Until very recently we still used Auntie Nelly’s stuff.   Her financial legacy got me through the first year at university – mostly I purchased LPs with it (I was not sure she would have approved.) But it was always Auntie Nelly’s this or that and never both: as though Lily came and left a trace, yes, a shrunken memory, but because she was neither very good nor very gentle nor brave her life was, mostly, erased whilst Nelly’s lived on.

 

 

 

Or Are You Just Very Small?

DSC_0017

Before beginning this week’s blog I feel compelled to make mention of the Grenfell Tower Fire.  and the terrible tragedy that happened there; at least 30 dead and 70 missing  overall (including the 30).  If this blog is about anything – aside from loss of one kind or another – it is about the working class neighbourhood of my childhood and youth, it is about people living together, striving together and struggling together as well as laughing and learning and growing.  It’s about camaraderie and love.  I feel that I was lucky to grow-up in such a neighbourhood: it has shaped my sense of shared purpose and given me an understanding of endeavour, graft and belonging that not everyone gets to encounter.  It was not perfect and I spent a part of my life afraid of who I might run into around any given corner and another part worried about what my middle class friends who I went to school with might think of me, perhaps even something close to shame about not being quite like them. That’s what a dominant narrative does to people – it keeps them in their place, and it makes them feel bad for not being the same as those who have privilege, and then offering tempting sign-posts and pathways that not everyone can take. And calling people failures when they miss the chance – perhaps a single chance – on offer to them. I have been lucky. I was lucky that when I fell through a greenhouse and nearly died, the NHS patched me up, I was lucky because although we were poor we had enough food and a house that was warm, and that was our own. I was lucky I had somewhere decent to live. I was lucky that I was educated in the 70s and 80s before we imposed a curriculum that stopped people thinking for themselves and I was lucky to be able to go to university on a grant and fees paid (and just as lucky to receive bursaries for my MA and PhD).  I was lucky to get a good job, and have a career. No one gets to be that lucky now. Working class people have been marginalised and demonised – and options are increasingly limited even if they are educated, even if they have a job, even if they have a sense of place and community. But fundamentally people need to be safe in their homes because none of those other things can happen if they are not. David Lamy had it right in this video. People need somewhere decent to live – that’s the first and last of it.  People were crammed into that tower block – families of five and six sometimes, in two bedroom flats that were just 75.5 metres squared.  Families with young children and older people on the 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th floors.  And higher still.  It beggars belief.  This was an accident waiting to happen and now that it has the only saving grace is that the community is angry and rising.  I hope they can translate that anger into real change so that this does not happen again.  So that political change will enable this working class community and others to expect a fair chance, and the power to effect positive outcomes in their own lives.

Or Are You Just Very Small?

Vera met her husband-to-be on a bus.  It was not the most romantic of venues and she was not the most romantic of people.  She thought she was on the shelf.  I asked her which shelf once, and she said, “The one at the back of the cupboard, where there’s all the stuff that you never really use.  Like tinned potatoes. And Spam.”

The reason she was on the bus was that she was a conductor.  They had to make a special cut of the uniform for her because she was short, very short (and not as slim as she might have been.)  It was grey and even with her child-bearing hips she looked dashing. And taller, elegant even. But she could climb up and down the stairs quicker than you could say Jack Robinson and never missed a fare.

“You’d always get folk trying it on, even in the good old days, but no-one passed me by.”  She would snap away the faces in her photographic mind and then whizz round each and everyone checking the fares. She enjoyed the power of her ticket machine.

Her husband was a bus driver and it was love at first sight.  Unfortunately, Alan was already married.  “He was unhappy, you see, Love.  He’d got married in the war, lots of people did and then lived to regret it.  Folk didn’t expect to live.  She was nice enough, but they weren’t well matched…but I’m bound to say that, aren’t I?”  Vera laughed.

Alan was more than 20 years her senior, almost in his 50s.  An old man really, by those standards, but she loved him anyway.  Right from the off – it was the way that he smiled.  Shyly.  He’d fought for his country – in the RAF – flying all sort of raids and was immediately a hero in her eyes.

They spent their dates dashing around on a motor-bike, Vera riding pillion.  “He used to go so fast, like a super-hero.  He was in my mind.  I could picture him in the bomber, flying low, battling…”

“Killing people, Vera?”  I smiled.

“Well, it’s alright for your generation,” she said, “Getting all moral about it.  You don’t know what it was like.  Hull was trashed.  Alan and his mates saved this city for such as thee and me.”

I shut up then.  Unlike most adults Vera had a habit of talking to you about everything and anything: she didn’t pull any punches.   We used to go together to the swimming pool to supervise the Cubs and Scouts who were doing swimming badges.  Not quite sure how I got dragged into that – must have been something to do with T, my brother, and my reputation for swimming with David Wilkie, I only did this once (on a sponsorship event) but you only needed to do something that often where I lived and then you were located there forever.  Mary Brearley, swimming sensation.  Not true.  I remember saying to Vera once, in the pool, “Are you kneeling, or are you just very small?” And she laughed a lot, and repeated it to anyone who’d listen.  “You’re funny, you,” Vera said. I wasn’t

I used to wait for T at the end of the Cub meetings where Celia Worley, the Akela*, seeing me, would make some disparaging comments about the Guides. I’d just smile. Mostly, I’d chat to Vera who was bringing her lad, Steven, to the Scouts.  The others used to tease him about the presence of his mam – but she liked to wrap him in cotton wool. And Steven didn’t mind.  He was a mummy’s boy.

“We never expected to have him.  But I was very careful until the divorce came through, and that took forever because she didn’t want to let Alan go, and you wouldn’t, would you?  I mean even now that he’s in his later 70s, he’s lovely isn’t he? So tall and handsome.”

It wasn’t a word I would use to describe him.  He just looked like an old man to me.  A bit like Michael Foot – the politician, thin as a pin and a shock of white hair.  I didn’t answer Vera, but she didn’t need me to, she’d just carried on.

“But eventually he came and we couldn’t love him more.” She smiled, and looked wistful.

They lived on the Boulevard and I used to be awestruck by the amount of Lego Steven had on the table in the front room.  I once asked what he was building and Vera just shrugged.

“That’s his dad’s department.  Sit in there for hours, they do, building away.  I don’t interfere – it’s important that he has time with his dad.”

There was a silence then, and I suspected that I was supposed to fill it but I didn’t know how to. I knew his dad was old. And that he might die soon. Steven was 13 going on 14 and people used to tease him for playing Lego with his dad.

“Alan won’t last forever, I know that.  I really do.  I knew that all along.  He wasn’t a mistake you know, even though I wasn’t a spring chicken by the time he came along – nearly 40.  But we love him.  Steven is the best thing that ever happened to us.” She paused, “We’ve talked about it.  He knows.  He knows his dad will die sooner rather than later.  And I know too.  It’s not like we’re prepared but it means that we take each day as it comes, and we love each other through every minute of it, because that’s all you can do.”

A few months later, when I walked past their house on my paper-round, the curtains were tightly shut in the middle of the day.  Upstairs and downstairs: shut against the world. I knew what this code meant.  Alan must have gone – he must have died over night.  I had sort of half been looking out for it. I felt for Vera who loved him very much and Steven too.

Then the news came through. At four in the afternoon, the day before, Steven had made his way home from school.  Normally, his mum would have been loitering somewhere close but she hadn’t come.  No worries, he’d just taken himself home.  He’d opened the front door, calling her, and then his dad, and still nothing had alarmed him.  Maybe across his mind, he’d thought about his dad and that maybe something had happened but surely his mum would have come to school and told him? But it was Tuesday and on a Tuesday his dad visited an old friend who was ill.  Maybe his mum had got caught up at the shops?  She liked to chat, that was true.  Many an hour he’d stood beside her as she’d told a tale or two.  So Steven walked in.  Through the hallway, into the kitchen and there, half into the pantry was his mum, on the floor: dead.  Of a brain hemorrhage.

He didn’t know what to do.  He rang an ambulance.  He was numb.

Then his dad had come home, and he’d taken over.

I often asked about them in my phone calls home from Universtiy: Steven and Alan.  Within a year or two, before his 16th birthday in any case, Steven’s dad had died too. And he went to live with his mum’s sister in North Hull.

 

*Akela – my aunt Joan – once said to my mum when she was talking about Akela, “That’s weird J, because the woman who runs the Scouts round here is called Akela too.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Orange mortar and Scapegoats

lamorna

When one of the Clarke girls started going out with Jonny Weetabix it caused a bit of a scandal.  This was a measure of how far we’d come – the chat was about Jonny’s suitability and not Liz Clarke’s heritage.  When pushed, I’d characterise Jonny as above Baby Harry (a terrifying 8 year old who threatened anyone he could with his Alsatian dog and ruled the whole of Coltman Street) on a par with Peter Frame (who got expelled from school at 8, 10, 12 and possibly other times) and a good bit below David Petty (who was largely harmless but did cause me actual bodily harm when the dart he was throwing into the air somehow landed in my forehead about an inch from my eye.  I pulled it out, ran in crying and then went swimming – worrying that the hole in my head would let the water in. It didn’t.)

The Weetabixes – not their real name, obviously – lived behind our house and my mother said we shouldn’t hang out with them because they didn’t get washed properly and they were people who lacked ambition.

“Ambition?” I’d asked but only because my mother’s reasoning often defied any logic and I was in the mood for entertainment.

“Yes,” she said, “They eat Weetabix for breakfast, dinner and sometimes tea.  They share 2 fish between 8 of them and they don’t believe in reading. And they go out in the rain without their anoraks.” My mother held great store about anoraks which is why she almost killed my sister when she accidentally (on purpose?) lost her brand spanking new anorak a few months before somewhere under the flyover.  My mother hit her with a milk bottle that time (she was washing them out before putting them on the step at the time) and rhythmically beat out the phrase, “How could you lose it?” over and over on her legs.  KM couldn’t say.  And, if my mother had bothered to ask me, I couldn’t either, even though I was probably walking behind my sister.  As penance, KM had to wear my mother’s anorak which buried her and made her look like something the cat dragged in.

“Perhaps they don’t own anoraks?” I said.

“That tells you everything you need to know,” my mother smirked.

That was conclusive then.

I’d been in Jonny Weetabix’s house – and I was amazed how little furniture they had and the fact they could draw on the walls.  I thought he was mostly a bit stupid, the kind of boy that got the blame for things even when he hadn’t done them and who didn’t care either way: it was attention, and attention, even as life’s perpetual scapegoat, was better than no attention at all.

“One final thing,” my mther began again, “they’re trash.  They threw a dozen old shoes into our yard, which their mother denied – where else could they have come from?  And they chucked over a rat.  A dead rat.  What kind of people do that?”

“I don’t know,” I said, and I didn’t.

“Trashy people,” she said, “The Frames might be stupid, but they’re not trashy.”

“Stupid?”

“Yes. I told her my maiden name was Davies-Smith, Jackie Frame said – “Oh, we might be related, I’m a Davies.”  I said, “It’s Davies hyphen Smith.” And she said, “What’s a fucking hyphen?”

“Right,” I said, not being overly certain about hyphens myself.

“What’s Jonny been up to? He putting his hand up for stuff he hasn’t done again?”

“He’s going out with one of the Clarke girls, Liz I think.”

“I’m surprised Ernie would let that happen.  He loves those kids and wants the best for them.”

“Maybe it’ll bring Jonny up?”

“Mary, you cannot polish rubbish, love. Not even with Mr Sheen. Not now, not ever.”

One of the things I loved about my mother was her use of the English language.   If you said, “This is hot,” in relation to food, she’d say, “You sit with your arse in the oven, and you’d be hot too.”  If you wished for something that your friends had, and you said, “I wish I had…” She’d say, “Wish in one hand and shit in the other and see which gets fullest first.”

What I didn’t wish was to go out with Jonny Weetabix.  He smelled and the Clarke girls had style. The Clarke girls were beautiful, quiet, determined and self-contained.  Liz and Jonny seemed a very odd combination.

Ernie himself was a nice enough bloke as far as I knew.  He had a certain Caribbean swagger.  My dad was not massively impressed when he painted the bricks of his house a glossy white, with the mortar in citrus orange.  He thought it was bringing the street down.  Dad’s snobbery had a context: he worked at a paint factory where high quality paint was cheaply available and where he was on top of what was in vogue and what was not: orange mortar would never pass muster, except perhaps in St.  Kitts. But why should Ernie care about this?  At least it was clean.  At least Ernie looked after his house, even if it was not to the specifications of my father’s standards.

“He’s bringing the street down!” dad’d say, with a moribund despair.  By that stage, what with one thing and another, he would have preferred living almost anywhere.  Even the moon.

Ernie Clarke worked in the Hull Fish Meal factory down at the docks and this much at least impressed my dad.  Day after day, Ernie would walk to the top of the street, catch a bus and head off to work where all manner of fish bits that people couldn’t eat would be processed into fertiliser, or feed for cattle.  I don’t know what Ernie did there, but he was a hard worker.   In March 1979 he got made redundant.  It was the last months of the winter of discontent which saw multiple strikes and numbers of people became unemployed for the first time in generations. Mrs Thatcher was just about to come to power.

By July, Ernie Clarke had found himself another job. But he never took it up.

We’d got wind of something on the Tyne Tees news.  In June, a woman’s torso and her head had been found in a massive tank on the banks of the River Tyne.  The torso was in a plastic bag and the men who found her – who were cleaning the tank inside – didn’t hang around long enough to find her head which had been severed and wrapped like a parcel in canvas.

A few weeks later a police car arrived at the Clarke house, and Ernie looking lost, was bundled inside.  In the Hull Daily it said a Hull man was helping the police with their inquiries: a euphemism for arrest it turned out. Ernie was remanded in custody.

…To be continued…

Putty

FullSizeRender(1) copy

My mother was not cast in stone but something malleable and occasionally combustible. Some days she was the life and soul of the party, others the spectre at the feast.  She was benign one day, and a raging storm the next.  She once, in anger, hit my sister with a cucumber (the nearest thing to hand), and then hit her again because it broke. That was my mother in a nutshell.

I’d lie in bed in the morning listening for the signs of her mood for the day: the way she moved about the kitchen, the crash and bang of the utensils and the speed of her step as the breakfast cereal made its way to the table, the tone she used to rouse us, the swearing if inanimate objects refused to bend to her will. It sometimes helped, but often she could turn on a sixpence: a shrug of a shoulder from one of us, a misdirected sigh and wham, we were on a different track.  She was unpredictable.

One summer holiday day, my brother K, my sister KM and me were arranged in a police style line-up in the kitchen. The baby, T, was still in his pram – I honestly believe he’d have joined us if he had mastered standing.

“Who did it?” she asked.

We looked from one to the other – there was a dangerous silence.  No one wanted to say anything.  She walked in front of us, staring closely at each of us in turn as though she would need to identify us at a later stage. We were clearly guilty criminals.

“I know it was one of you,” she said.

We none of us spoke.  It was potentially fatal to jump before being pushed.  And besides, the exact nature of the accusation had not been revealed. I tried to look innocent.  I was innocent.

“That mark in the putty,” she began her walk in front of us again: up and down.

In turn, we each denied it.  At first, I didn’t even know what putty was.  And it didn’t seem a good time to ask.

“In the greenhouse window pane. The new one. A fingerprint.” My mother looked down the line-up. I looked at KM.  She looked steadfastly forwards. K seemed more nonchalant.

“It wasn’t me,” he said.

“Or me!” KM half shouted.

“Well?”  My mother said, leaning over towards me.  She should have been in the Gestapo.

“I didn’t do it.”  I hadn’t either.

“I suppose it was Mr Bloody Nobody, was it?”  There was not a hint of humour in her tone.

“I’ve had enough of you all,” she said with controlled contempt.  “I’m leaving.  And I’m not coming back.”  She paused.  “Tell them to look for me in St Andrew’s dock.”

Deliberately, she grabbed the baby’s pram and left the house.

I was seven I suppose, KM eight and K, ten.

“One of you two better own up when she gets back,” K said.

“I’m not owning up.  I didn’t do it.” KM spat back.

“I’ll make you.”

“You and whose army?”

“Stop it,” I said, before they started.  They were always trying to beat seven shades of shit out of each other.

“Mary, you admit it.  She’s always easy on you.”  KM looked at me, half pleading.

“It wasn’t me.” I said.

We stood there for another ten minutes.  I think we expected her to pop up and say, ‘gotcha!’ but she didn’t.

“She’ll be back,” K tried to sound confident. I wanted to know where St Andrew’s Dock was.

“She’ll definitely be back.”

But she wasn’t.  It was early morning when she left.  Dinner time came and went, and there was still no sign of her.  We walked around the house like ghosts. We didn’t play.  We didn’t speak. We didn’t watch television.  It was a beautiful sunny day but we didn’t leave the house. It felt cold. Every now and then K would say, “She’ll be on her way home now” each time less certain than he’d been before.

At teatime, KM ferreted about the cupboards and found some tins of soup.  Standing on a stool, she heated them up then poured them into bowls.  She carefully wiped up the drips, even rinsing off the dishcloth as she’d seen our mother do. The three of us ate in silence.

Dad was working late but I was beginning to wonder how we would explain what we hadn’t done to make our mother leave and not come back.  I felt hollow, empty.  I wanted to say it was me who’d done the putty, even though I couldn’t reach it.  I wanted to take the blame for everything, to make it all alright. I started to imagine the words I would say.  I suppose the other two were making up their story too, but I didn’t ask.  Waves of worry washed over me.  My stomach hurt.  It would be bedtime soon. I didn’t want to go to bed without my mother home. Where was St Andrew’s dock?  Should we ring the police?

And then the door opened, and she came in.  My mother pulled the pram, a great big Silver-cross thing up over the step, parked it in its usual place beside the table. Then, she carried on as if nothing had happened.

I suppose the demands of motherhood just got the better of her sometimes.  And that St Andrew’s Dock day was one of those days.

Fast forward 10 years and I am standing in a phone box in Sheffield, a week or so into my first term at university feeling wretched and alone.  I am the first person in my family to go to university and the burden is too great.  I hate it.  I hate it and I want to come home.  I am out of place, skewed. I want to work in a factory, marry a man, have babies and not be clever. There is no-one like me here, no-one like us apart from the halls of residence porter and the woman who cleans my room.  I have made friends with both: she gives me the only cerise pink duvet available and, when I’m feeling down, he teases me about Hull, about how it smells like fish.

I am phoning my parents. The week before I’d told them I want to leave and over egg and bacon in a greasy spoon my father weeps, big, wracking, silent tears dripping down his cheeks.  My mother says I can leave if I want to.  What am I to do?  It’s the first time I have ever seen dad cry. So I get back on the train and resolve never to mention how hard it is again.

The phone rings out.  And then again.  Five or six times that evening I stand in line.  Five or six times the phone rings out.  Where are they? They are always in.  My parents don’t go anywhere. I feel alone.  Empty.  Hollow. It’s like the putty incident all over again. I don’t sleep.  I rock around my room, walking its tight dimensions like a prison cell.

The next morning my dad answers.  He should be at work.

“Where’s me mam?” I ask.

“She’s in the hospital.”

“Do I need to come home?”

“No!” he says.

He’s so firm that I take him at his word.

“How are you?”

I offer some platitudes.

“Are you sure she’ll be okay?” I ask.

Yes he says, she’ll be home next week.

So the following week I ring, and there my mother is bright and breezy but I know she’s holding back, holding in.  Week after week, we speak but say nothing.

Finally, I arrive home for Christmas and it is then I find out she has cancer.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” I hold in my rage, my anger at not knowing about her pain, and at my exclusion.

“We didn’t want you to worry,” she says, “You’ve got enough on your plate.”

I can only return silence.  I want to say, ‘Please don’t do that again. Please tell me everything.’ But I can’t. I walk around like a ghost, too afraid to ask about her prognosis then finally pluck up the courage.

“I’m great,” she says, lying.  She has had a lump remove and the treatment is aggressive leaving her hair thin and her face grey.

“They’ve told me I’ll get better.”

And because there is nothing else I can do, I believe her. And we carry on as if nothing has happened.

Custard, Part 2

FullSizeRender copy

I’m not entirely sure where Custard got to that night, but she did not go home and she did not go to Dick the Dustman’s flat either.  In fact, she never went there again. By the morning, Janet was frantic with worry and having quizzed KM and myself about her daughter’s whereabouts, and visibly disappointed in our lack of knowledge, she left our kitchen a whirlwind of pain and grey to the gills. A big, fat penny had dropped.

A few hours later, apparently none the worse for wear, Custard rolled up neither smiling nor proud of her absence but steely and determined.

“Wish me luck,” she said as she went in.  She was still wearing her halter neck top and her hair shot off in all angles from where she’d slept.

At about lunch time Janet appeared in our kitchen again.  She didn’t have a bag of tins as usual and she wasn’t full of fun or stories.  She was gloomy, miserable and flatter than I remembered seeing her before; like she’d lost a fiver and found a penny. Or worse. My mother took one look at her, and then ushered KM and me from the room with a, “Don’t you two have something better to do?” which we didn’t although it would not have been a smart move to argue.

And so my sister and I stood in the living room bouncing from foot to foot, waiting for a sign that we could re-join the conversation: in the past Janet and my mother had competed to tell the funniest story, each rolling over the other in an elaborate game of Top Trumps.  Not now though – I instinctively knew those days were gone.

The sign to re-join the conversation never came.  Later my mother, a mass of contradictions herself, would say that she knew immediately what to do, and she did it, without a moment’s hesitation.

And the truth was, if not complicated, than somehow not straight-forward even though on paper it was exactly that.  We don’t live our lives on paper, neither by a manual where the right thing to do is followed by the next right thing and the next: rather we muddle through and drift and sometimes those drifts take us off course.  Janet had believed it was okay mostly because she’d turned a blind eye or never even looked.  She hadn’t thought it through.  She was short of cash and Dick the Dustman seemed like a good source of additional income.  And why shouldn’t he want to support Custard and why wouldn’t he want to pay for her to stay over in his flat, and Custard had seemed fine with the arrangement and she’d got extra pocket money and other stuff?  But it was wrong.  It was so, so wrong, she’d told my mother, so, so wrong.

It’s easy to reflect with modern sensibilities and assume there was never any kind of defence for what Janet had done, and yet as a young person I felt some sympathy for her because I liked her.  We all liked her.  Janet was unformed, child-like; she was impulsive, uproariously funny and because of all of that she didn’t  think about the consequences.  She hadn’t even considered Custard beyond a fleeting second.

The first I knew about the gravity of the situation was seeing my mother in the hallway, holding the telephone – the phone half the neighbourhood paid 10p to use.

“Is that the police?”  I heard her say and then she said, “My neighbour has just told me that she is selling her 14 year old daughter for sex, and erm, I thought you would want to know that…”

They did want to know that.

The cars started to arrive within the hour: first the police in marked and unmarked vehicles and then the social workers swishing about in Laura Ashley dresses and corduroy slacks.  Janet and Ossie were taken away in separate police cars, and then Custard’s two younger sisters were helped into an estate.  Finally, Custard, who was wearing a pink fluffy jumper by this point and her favourite pair of wedge shoes, climbed into a detective’s car.  Not one person smiled.

Janet did not return.  We heard later, when Ossie rolled back into the street that all of the girls had been taken into care.

My mother was in some kind of shock – after all, she had made the call that had precipitated the police and social work intervention – and so she gathered around her the neighbourhood women ‘to do something’.

These women were Jenky (Lena Jenky who lived next door the other way, and who always seemed to have smoked fish cooking on the hob), Alice (distinguished only by her Jersey accent and her preponderance for pronouncing burgundy by emphasising the ‘gun’ bit) and Thelma Boast (not my pretend Auntie) who lived five doors down and was considered a good egg.

My mother, and these women, were outraged.  First, by Janet and what she’d done, and then by the authorities that had whipped the girls into care and that had ripped the family apart.  So, they set about campaigning to get the girls back.  Apart from being completely inadequate in every regard, what had Ossie done?  For all that pile of nothing, he didn’t deserve this (or so my mother and those women said.)

They felt also that they had been deceived.  They had liked Janet, even though they hated what she’d done.  And they felt that they had let those children down.  Because they should have known – they should have listened to their instincts. They shouldn’t have looked the other way.

“She was just a bit simple,” my mother said, in a reductionist moment, “Can you understand that?  She didn’t think it through.”  We nodded.

A few days later we went to visit Custard in a children’s home in Hessle: one of four imposing buildings in a row.  “It’s not that bad,” Custard said, “Like being in a big family.” Her sisters were fostered.

“I didn’t sleep with him, you know,” she said, only once and we nodded not because we believed her but because we didn’t know what else to do.

Two further pieces of news came out after that.  Ossie, obsessed as he was with his submarine building and his bonfire, claimed to have no knowledge of what was going on – and the police believed him.  Janet exonerated him too.  She apparently said, “He was too stupid to know any better.”  Ossie literally thought nothing of Custard sleeping at Dick the Dustman’s.  Nothing. Now, he just wanted his kids back.  That’s what he said when anyone would listen, and, oddly, “She was still a virgin, you know.”

Which we thought she wasn’t because KM and I knew about the favours she’d given the speedway riders, and the encouragement she’d given us both (since she was the living, breathing expert on such matters) to roll around in the grass with some boys on the way back from swimming.  And beside, the truth came out in court.  Custard had had to endure a pretty undignified procedure at the police station…

So the informal coterie of neighbourhood women, led by my mother, started to campaign hard for the return of Ossie’s kids.  This was tied up with a concern that those outside of our street would somehow see us all as complicit if they didn’t take a stand, take a side.  So Ossie, who had always been seen as completely ridiculous and vainglorious in the street and beyond suddenly had the greater good on his side…

The younger two girls came home straight away, and later, after the trial Custard made an appearance.

“You back then, are you?”  I asked.

“Yeah,” she said.  And we never spoke of the matter again.

Soon after that she met a boy called Gordon (who wasn’t a moron, actually) and they are still married today.  And at some point in the last 30+ years Custard also won a substantial sum on the lottery, which I like to think is Karma balancing things out.

Dick the Dustman and Janet were both sent to prison.  When I tried to imagine what this was like I found myself picturing Janet slopping out with Myra Hindley, who was the only other woman I’d ever heard of being sent to prison at that time, but that was the extent of my imaginative power.

I saw Janet again, just once, when she was allowed a supervised visit with her children.  She mostly looked herself, and from across the street, tried to be all hail fellow well met.  But something had changed: she could never return and pick up the life she had once had.  She couldn’t joke around, take the mick out of Ossie and make people laugh.  It was as if she was shell-shocked.

A police car arrived early one morning at Custard’s house.  My mother went next door.  When she returned, her face was ashen.  We were just eating breakfast.

“Janet’s been found dead,” she said, flatly.

We all stopped eating and looked at her.  “She was found on the tip,” she said, “And she meant it to happen.  There was an empty bottle of pills in her hand, and she’d been drinking.”  We looked at each other, unsure what to do, our spoons hovering over our cornflakes, then my mother said, “She didn’t deserve that,” which was debatable, and added, “though I’m not sure what else could have happened.”

The first part of Custard is here!

 

 

 

 

 

My Pretend Cousin

FullSizeRender copy 2

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