Custard, Part 2

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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!

 

 

 

 

 

Custard, Part 1

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“Don’t stick your head above the wall,” Custard said. “I’ve had enough.” She was wearing a pink halter neck top, a short mini-skirt and had tried to style her hair, with limited success.

“It’s a bit stinky down here.”  I was not impressed.  “I don’t think Mrs Key is quite as thorough in her cleaning as my mother.”  I paused and the wave of rotting rubbish wafted over us, “And your mam is definitely calling you.”

“I’m not here.  She’ll get fed up soon.  She never sticks at anything.” Custard said.

But Janet, Custard’s mother, didn’t stop calling and I wondered just how long I could endure the stink of the drains and the slightly sour smell of Custard’s unwashed body.  We were a bit too close for comfort.

We’d been sat down that alley for a good 30 minutes already.  I hoped, against hope, that Mrs Key didn’t pop out and give the game away, revealing us two fugitives in an act of solidarity with all mothers which seemed to be universal and unspoken, a pact apparently entered into as as soon as mothers gave birth to their off-spring. Equally, I hoped that Mrs Key didn’t let Buster, her cross-breed, out for his evening constitutional.  That might not end well either.

“Why don’t you just go home?” I asked Custard but I didn’t expect an answer.  She was quick to laugh and joke around, take the blame for stuff, be cheeky and say things to boys that I only imagined saying in my wildest dreams but she did not always talk straight.  And I knew that whatever her reasons, it was probably complicated.

Custard shrugged, “You have met my mam and dad, right?” She said this as if no further explanation was required – and I completely understood. I had met them.  I’d lived next door to them for the full 14 years of my life.  Janet and Horace were definitely off-beat.

Janet couldn’t really read and write although I’d been to bingo with her and she was something close to a genius at that: she’d had 8 cards to my one, and still managed to identify the called numbers on her own and my card before I did. She was a little wiry woman and a bit of a character.  Plus she never had quite enough money to make ends meet. Regularly, Janet would roll into our kitchen, hitch up her bright orange corduroys (bought cheap at Boyes) to reveal her fluorescent pink socks, and say, “They’re his, he’ll never know I’ve borrowed them!” She was referring to Ossie (her husband Horace) but how he’d miss them I couldn’t imagine.  With a bit of squint, it’d be possible for an astronaut to see them from space!

On those hard-up days Janet would be armed with a plastic bag full of tins of garden peas, peach slices, mulligatawny soup, custard, mixed veg and new potatoes taken from Ossie’s Armageddon stores: his over-stocked pantry.

“He’ll never notice,” she said, as she slammed maybe 30 tins down on the kitchen unit.  “He thinks the world is going to end – probably in 1984, if not before, so he buys more and more each week.  We’ll never eat it all.”

It was true that their walk-in larder was like a mini-supermarket, each shelf packed high with tins of every sort.  Often, Custard would be out in the street, tucking into a tin of cold custard.  This was one of the reasons she’d got her name.  The other one was not very kind and was down to the fact that she didn’t get washed as much as the rest of us, or change her underwear.  I didn’t care that she was a bit smelly most of the time: she was okay.  Her real name was Yvonne.

“So,” Janet was saying, “You can have this bag of tins, and I’ll bring the tenner back in a couple of days when I get paid.  This is like interest.  I’ve nowt to smoke and the Tally man is coming later on.” (By paid, Janet meant getting her benefits.)

My mam would always feel bad for her (apart from the times she ran upstairs and told us to say she was out) and hand over her hard earned cash.  When the money was due, I’d be sent over to Janet’s to fetch it, a journey that necessitated the negotiation of their 6 unneutered Ginger toms, one of which like to mark his territory just as you walked through their back gate.

It was never a simple task of the money being handed over.  I’d have to hang around in their grubby parlour taking in their ornaments and their curious rainbow chairs, while Janet scurried around looking for cash.  Ossie would either be in the next room along building his submarine: a 12 foot replica that was an impressive feat of engineering or he’d be out hunting treasures on the local tip, which he’d sell on.  Horace was on the dole long before it was commonplace.  He was a curious looking man, sort of half finished.  He wore jeans rolled up to reveal his lime-green (or pink) socks and a pair of beetle-crushers. This was partnered with a bright shirt, usually red or pink, opened to his navel, and a leather jacket.  He had had some kind of DA (duck’s arse) in the past but his hair was thinning so instead it straggled apologetically down his back. He was a man who was concerned with either survival or bonfire night – the first a daily grind of finding illegitimate ways of earning money, the latter a four month long trawl for wood so that his fire would outstrip all for miles around.  It always did.

So, I could completely understand why Custard didn’t want to go home on one level, because her folks were genuinely bonkers, but also I didn’t get it at all, because she could do what she wanted most of the time, and wasn’t confined by the litany of rules we had to live by.  I couldn’t quite figure out what she had had enough of.

As we sat in the alley, two teenage girls side by side: Dick the Dustman, a friend of Janet’s, cycled by.  Fortunately, he was looking where he was going so he didn’t see us, but I saw Custard pull herself into the shadows.

“Aren’t you hungry though?”  I asked.

“No,” she said, “Look, I’ll give you a Mars bar if you’ll just stay here for a bit longer.”

In truth, what I meant was that I was hungry and pretty soon, I’d have to get up and go because the consequences for not doing so would be too grave.

“I really just don’t want to go anymore.”

“Home?”

“No.”

“You mean to Dick’s?”  I asked not even remotely understanding the implication of this question beyond its face-value. I knew she stayed over there sometimes.  Everyone did.

“It’s boring,” she said, “And I don’t want to go anymore.”

“Okay.  Fair enough.  Can’t you just say no?”

“I am saying no.,” Custard was a bit cross.  She looked at me, “I’m saying it right now. I’ve just had enough.”

I looked at my newly acquired Snoopy watch – to that date, the best present I had ever had.

“Okay. I’m going to have to go in or I’ll be in bother,” I said.

“You haven’t seen me, okay?”

“You can’t stay down this alley forever Yvonne.”

“No but I can stay here until they get fed up…”

“Okay…” I said.

I rolled out of the alley, stood to my 5″8″ height and walked home, some thirty houses down the street.  Janet eyed me all the way.

“Have you see Yvonne?” she asked.

“Not lately,” I said, maintaining eye-contact.

“What were you doing down that alley?”

I looked at her square in the eye, and said, “Nowt!”

I walked on, saw into their parlour through their open front door.  And there was Dick the Dustman drumming his fingers on the arm of the rainbow chair, waiting for Custard.

But Custard never came.

(To be continued.)

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…)

 

Transformations

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“Hello Transformations, can I help you?”

“Have you got a stiletto in a size 12?  Red, if possible?”

“We’re a theatre company.  The number you need is…”

When I first met Jackie R, she often gave me the tally of calls she’d received that day from men seeking a transformative experience on their transvestite or transgender journey.  It surprised her, in the back water of Cheadle Hulme, that so many men called in.  It was particularly surprising since she was a mask based theatre company. Each time, she would patiently read out the number they actually needed.

I was a relatively young Head of Drama in a secondary school at the time and received countless offers of interventions from new and established theatre companies which arrived in the form of leaflets.  In truth, I was the worst responder to much excellent work, tied up as I was in the business of surviving each day.  So, when my burgeoning pigeon hole was full, I’d re-file the leaflets in the car.  Here they would stay until such times as I (or more likely someone else) removed them.

Snotty at that stage was studying on a course about community arts.  There was an expectation that individuals on the course would find their own placement.  Snotty rifled through my (by now) impressive flyer collection in the car, and by chance, selected Transformation Theatre Company. On such whimsy are life-time friendships made.

Jackie answered the phone – probably relieved that Snotty actually wanted to participate in her world and immediately agreed a placement.  It was an exciting time for Transformation – they had (basically through more competent teachers than me) managed to book a tour of the Seasons shows and they were looking for Winter.  Snotty got the part.

I met Jackie sometime later, when she’d wanted lots of hands to take part in mask making.  I went along for the fun of it. We hit it off straight away.  As I am tall, Jackie was small.  I like to tell jokes, Jackie liked to laugh at them. So we quickly became firm friends.

A few months later two significant life events took place.  I left teaching for a freelance life (without any idea of what that might look like) and Jackie got a job at Mid-Pennine Arts as an arts development officer.  It was an excellent coincidence and we began an enduring on/off working relationship over the next 20 years or so.  I know that without Jackie I would have had no career to speak of.

She had an innate belief in me to make theatre or to make work with any difficult or challenging young person anywhere across the Mid-Pennine district and to always take a can-do approach.  Without doubt, a person thrives with that kind of investment and belief.

Before too long, Jackie moved on to an exciting new position and became the first paid worker at BYT (Burnley Youth Theatre – a place that twisted and turned between us for the next 15/20 years or so).  I was invited over to talk about some project or other and was surprised to find a blue hut in an old disused quarry, with a portacabin next door.  This was her office. That day, I also met Alan D.  Initially, I thought he was just walking his dogs – a couple of lassie type critters – but he was actually coming in for the day to work as a volunteer.  Alan was one of what I later came to know as the 3 amigos and although he didn’t know me from Adam, he immediately made a beeline for me.  That was the beauty of that place: if you were in, you were in and you were welcome.  Alan, Moira and Andrew were three key players who gave hours of their time for free at BYT to build a youth theatre like no other in the country: each in different ways, but each intensely. It might have been a blue hut in a field but those three had plans for it – those three wanted to transform the place into the single most important youth theatre anywhere in the UK.  I don’t know where that vision came from, but they each gave up their free time year on year to see it through to an impressive conclusion.

Alan had been the arts development manager at Burnley Council but had left.  I do not know why although rumour had it that he had always liked to take a drink, and sometimes this got in the way of his productivity. I don’t know the truth of this…but I do know that he worked day after day on bids for the youth theatre, putting in hours of time to raise money for a new building.  He spoke with a gentle Scottish burr and wore what can only be describe as a Greek Fisherman’s hat, and always looked a little like Captain Bird’s Eye.  He laughed heartily.  I always passed the time of day with him, and he reciprocated, offering me an insight into whatever weird or wonderful thing was in his mind that day.  He smiled often.

There is something strange between paid workers and volunteers: something that has to be negotiated.  Alan took up a lot of space, and sometimes, because of his history and his former job, chipped in when his thoughts weren’t welcome. Jackie tolerated this as well as anyone could be expected to – but it can’t have been easy.  It got better as BYT began to flex its muscles and become a bigger organisation, taking on new staff each year: a marketing person, an outreach person, a caretaker and, finally, a general manager.  Jackie became Artistic Director.  All this time, young people came to the youth theatre to do sessions, and shows, and a whole lot more.  All this time young people grew, changed, fledged and left.

In the early 2000s the 3 amigos and Jackie got perilously close to achieving their ambition of receiving grant aid to build the youth theatre.   They were invited down to London to be told of their success only on arriving to be ushered into a room and told there was no money left.  No one give up hope.  They dusted themselves off and started the long, arduous process of fundraising again. That place was special – generation on generation of children came and went often moving on to other bigger and better things, always giving a really clear sense of the impact of their stay.

Finally in 2003 (or maybe 2004) success came.  It was a momentous time: all celebrated this extraordinary thing that had happened.  Building work started straight away… and out of the disused quarry sprang the most extraordinary building.  It was designed to look like a building that belonged in a the footprint of the forest of Burnley, and it did, clad with beech that aged over time.

The building was completed in 2005 – an extraordinary achievement by Jackie and the 3 amigos.  Soon after, Jackie wanted to move on: she had, she felt, completed what she’d set out to do – created the biggest youth theatre space in the country and it was someone else’s turn to take it to the next level.

A new Artistic Director came in and – as is often the case after a successful tenure – he struggled to make an impact.  This was compounded by the early (and unexpected) death of Alan D: instrumental in changing the outcomes for so many young people and still committed to bid writing, he allegedly fell down the stairs of his home having had too much to drink.  I don’t know if this was salacious gossip or truth: I do know he was a massive loss to the organisation.

To honour him, and early in the new building’s life, Alan’s funeral took place in the main studio.  He had been so instrumental in its creation.  It was a strange and sombre affair: his coffin on the stage area, as if it wasn’t really happening at all.  His children and his wife players in this performance that no one wanted to see took their parts, his daughter delivering an extraordinary powerful eulogy.  No one applauded as he left the building, no curtains closed – there was no curtain call and, when it was over, the foyer was full of arts people dressed awkwardly in black who drifted off with few words.

Afterwards, the studio was named for Alan, a fitting tribute. Beneath his name it reads: “Anything can happen, if you don’t care who gets the credit” his favourite homily.  And something worth remembering in the business of making a difference, in transforming lives. Something I’ve taken with me.