Putty

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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.

Shadows

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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