I was stuck on the top of a seesaw. It was yellow and red and a woman with a learning disability, some 15 stone at a rough estimate was at the other end of it. The seesaw was not see-sawing. I was 9. I was also trying to explain – with an increasing sense of alarm why her stepping off the seesaw would be a really bad idea. I was envisaging myself catapulted halfway across Hull. I tried shouting, “No!” and that provided a temporary stay of execution. My hand signals after that were somewhat inadequate. The lady sitting on the other end smiled benignly. “Please,” I said, “Get off gently.” She didn’t speak, and began stepping off again. Only No! did the job. So, I shouted again.
My hero, as it turned out, was a 50 year old man with Down’s Syndrome. At least, he looked 50. Rushing towards us, he seemed to have devised a way of communicating with the lady. Then, putting his not inconsiderable weight to the matter, he balanced the seesaw between us. My feet dangled tantalisingly close to the ground. He leant my way. Smiled. My feet touched. Now my new friends were in danger of coming a cropper but as I made to get off, he shifted his weight as a counterbalance.
“Fuck me!” he said with absolute clarity. I looked up. It had been easy to assume that these adult people were very large children, surrounded as we were by primary coloured equipment, but he had made a lie of that. He smiled again as I stepped off fully and then helped soften his friend’s fall. “You should have gone on the swings Maggie,” he said.
It had been a very confusing day. Firstly, my mam was unusually tense as we took three buses to get to Tilworth Grange. (In Hull, two buses is considered a very long way!) I wasn’t sure why her mood was so tense, but as this was a journey that she normally took on her own, I could only assume that my presence (I had been to the hospital for an appointment prior to this expedition) was either
a) cramping her style OR
b) giving her additional concern in a stressful situation.
It became quickly apparent when we entered the building where her concerns lay. As we walked down the corridor,she swiftly manoeuvred me out of the way of a bloke in the corner who appeared to be vibrating.
At that point, and unlike her, she made a classic parent error, commanding that I didn’t look. I was really uncertain of what was happening, but now I realise that the dark haired guy was wanking to his heart’s content.
And why not?
It was dull at Tilworth Grange. If playground stuff was not your thing, there was precious little else to do. A man needed to find his own stimulation.
The second thing was meeting Aunty June. She was leaning up in bed and her head was truly enormous. I really had seen nothing like her before: she was something of a miracle. Her large head was the result of hydrocephalus before draining the water was feasible. Oddly, she looked like my mother only tiny (her spindly arms stuck out of her cardigan) and her forehead was excessively large.
“Your Aunty June can read,” My mother said.
This was patently untrue given that the Beano annual (my Beano annual) that she was reading was upside down. This flight of fancy was very out of character for my mother.
“But…” I began, only to receive one of those if looks could kill looks. My mother’s shit eye surpasses all known human communications. I was silenced.
It was then I’d spied the slide outdoors and seeing my keenness to be elsewhere, I was ushered outside. I’d been lonely until my seesaw companion had arrived. And then, distressed.
Tilworth Grange was full of people who had learning disabilities in an age when such people were housed away from the family home. This wasn’t entirely true because Billy who also had Down’s lived down our street, but I think that was because his mother bucked the trend: she was young, and Billy was her first born. Later, as a teen when I did my paper round and delivered my final Hull Daily Mail in St Pancras Crescent, Coltman Street there was a guy who liked to hang around the landing without his pants on. Billy later died tragically on a mini-bus on the way back from a trip for the want of a seat belt, and his family have spent years campaigning to make seat belts compulsory law.
The thing about Tilworth Grange though was it was full of people who were either abandoned or too disabled to be cared for at home.
“You know that the Beatles raised money for your Aunty June’s pram, don’t you?” My mother told me. Of course I knew this, it was one of those family stories that got re-told ad nauseum – they had a concert, and the proceeds went towards June’s pram and a number of other things. I was fascinated by the pram because she couldn’t stand/sit up properly and in other visits June was pushed outside in it. It was the 70s and the 70s were not like the 80s, 90s, or 00s. People weren’t hidden but the understanding about capacity and capability was quite different. It was somewhere were people were housed – not provided with activities or occupation.
Aunty June was very disabled but her sisters: my mother, Janice and Joan, and at that stage my grandmother too – were inordinately caring and loving towards her visiting on a weekly basis, taking a pretty arduous journey in my mother’s case. My grandfather never went: it broke his heart that his little girl was afflicted, never somehow forgiving himself that she wasn’t perfect.
Retrospectively, it’s clear it was an inadequate place in many ways. Adult people should not have been playing on equipment designed for children, or wanking in corridors for the want of something better to do.
The standards of cleanliness and food hygiene left much to be desired too. In 1976, after a spate of food poisoning, June died. At her funeral, she was given a commemorative urn with a legend written on it expressing Tilworth Grange’s sorrow at her loss, which, when the next person died (a week later) was moved on. A dozen people died in quick succession and I imagine that urn’s criss-cross journey across the cemetery.
In those days, people were not litigious and there was no comeuppance for this sorry state of affairs. In truth, I don’t even remember my mother’s grief. I don’t know what that says about me, or if, in fact, she didn’t have any.