This is another one of those prompts, this time a non-fiction one. The actual prompt is:
The place where you felt happiest or safest…so I’ll go for safest.
Which only leads me to wonder whether I have ever felt safe anywhere, which sounds rather dramatic. Which in turn reminds me of something novelist Pamela Frankau once wrote about writing:
The number of people who have said to me since I was nineteen, ‘I imagine one can only write when one feels like it’ merely sets me wondering whether I have ever felt like it. Discipline alone makes the hand with the pen move; keeps it moving; sees to it that the snail-pace of the morning accelerates by afternoon.
You can tell it was the 1960s. One doesn’t tend to say ‘one’ anymore, does one? And who writes with a pen? But she was right, whatever she wrote with, and even with ‘ones’ sprinkled around like fairy-dust.
I’m avoiding the subject. Safest.
I suppose I must have felt safe with Mum and Dad at times. I just wonder why I can’t remember any of those times. I mostly felt nail-bitingly anxious, particularly around my father whose moods were erratic. I was afraid of my father: of his coming home from work; of his strong-jawed face and blue-grey eyes; of his towering height; of his booming, sarcastic voice; of the things he said or was capable of saying; of the things he did or was capable of doing; of his casting his eye upon me and finding me – aggravating.
He was good with words, my Dad. He would wind me up and then verbally demolish me. And I knew I had the ability to do that too, to someone else, if I lost control. I had all his words at the tip of my tongue, that same streak of cruelty. As soon as I heard his footsteps coming round the side of house, although I plodded on methodically at whatever I had been doing, I would be cataloguing the minor and major crimes I had committed in his absence, and of which he would at any moment be informed. I schooled myself to say as little as possible when he was at home, not letting him catch my eye, but the more distant I became the more he baited me. Then one day when I was fourteen and he was trying to drag me away from the sink where I was washing my hair, I turned round and hit him back. It was a clumsy, soggy, ineffectual kind of hitting back but it shocked us both.
But years later, finding myself in a hospital A&E Department after a car accident, nauseated, confused, semi-conscious – after what felt like hours of being left bleeding on a trolley waiting for some nurse or doctor or someone to get round to doing something about me – I caught sight of Dad’s face, floating like a balloon between me and the ceiling. The hospital had telephoned my parents and they had jumped in the car and driven down to find me. And everything was all right then. I was five years old; my Daddy was here for me now, and he would look after me. Until that day I had not known how much it meant just having a father, in spite of everything, and how much I loved him. I suppose that moment was safety.
So I always felt safest when invisible, but it was difficult to be invisible because I was not that small. Having a 6 foot 4 inch father, you’re never going to be easily stowed away. I towered over the children in my infant’s school class. At eleven, mercifully, I stopped getting any taller giving my classmates a chance to catch up. But still, I would try to hide. In hockey, for example, I would shrink into the back of the goal (where they always put me) and, staring poetically into the middle distance, jump lightly over the ball if and when it came my way, closely followed by a horde of sweaty, screeching, stick-wielding amazons. The two team captains used to argue over me in loud whispers:
It’s your turn to have her this time.
I had her last time and I’m not having her again.
But as you get older disappearing gets easier. It gets so that you can put it on like a cloak, something J K Rowling also knew. Supermarkets are good – everybody’s looking at the shelves, wondering where the baked beans have got to, trying to work out whether this packet cereal is 5p cheaper than that one, or only seems to be. And I like railway stations, particularly the out-of-the-way rural kind where there’s one train an hour and you could sit all day if you wanted to, pretending to read, listening to the crickets in the hedgerows, the birds in the trees and the faint ringing in the rails when a train is on its way. And I like motorway service stations. But that’s the thing with any kind of travelling: in between places you are in between identities – not so much no one as anyone – anyone you want to be. I believe such in-between zones are known to anthropologists as liminal spaces. And when you write – fiction, at any rate – the place you write from is another liminal space. I feel it as a kind of forest, separating this land and that land.
And then there were Nan and Grandad, balancing the scales. I spent most of every Sunday with them, and they were the best refuge any child might hope for. There I got my Sunday Dinner – an excellent feast – and my Sunday Tea, which involved a whole head of celery in a jug, thin buttered bread, shrimps from the shrimp man and toasting crumpets in front of the fire with Grandad.
There I got my hair washed, and dried it in front of the same fire.
There a fat old Labrador snored and Grandad’s pipe filled the room with choking, scented smoke.
There I read Woman’s Weekly, The Carpenter and Joiner and whatever I could dig out of the bookcase – dictionaries, Pilgrim’s Progress, outmoded novels, anthologies of children’s verse, encyclopaedias. Nan and Grandad’s was where I was whisked away to in the middle of the night while my mother was giving birth to my sister, and where I sat upright under the slippery counterpane in their spare bedroom, my feet resting on one of their stone hot water bottles (wrapped in a jumper to save is burning my feet) singing Once in Royal David’s City over and over and over. It felt Christmassy, somehow, rather than my sister’s zero birthday.
There I watched Pinky & Perky on a tiny TV with a dodgy vertical hold, and Sooty and Sweep, and the divers Armand and Michaela Denis conducting bubbly undersea investigations in black and white.
There I watched Grandad planting potatoes in the garden, pulling up carrots by their green topknots, or out in his Lodge making tables and sideboards.
There in the kitchen I was in charge of stirring the gravy for Nan while Grandad stropped his razor on the leather strap hanging from the cupboard and covered his face with foam from an enamel cup, ready for shaving. I marvelled at the complicated loops and buttons that held his trousers up and his braces down.
There I asked for, and was told, the facts of life.
There I learned to darn a sock, sew on a button, polish brass and mix mint sauce.
There I helped to make jam and bottle fruit.
There I watched the washing being boiled in the copper, hauled steaming into a tin bath on a bleached white stick, rinsed, starched and “blued” in the sink and pushed through a wrought-iron mangle.
There I examined Nan’s wide pink corsets hanging on the line, and wondered how hard it was to get the whalebones in.
There I did forward-rolls in the grass and made buttercup chains, and swung from the apple-tree swing that Grandad had made.
There I was told about foxgloves, known to some as dead man’s bells or witch’s gloves, that a poison called digitalis could be made from them, and that an Ancient Greek had once been forced to poison himself with it.
There I saw a bisque doll’s head stuck on the branch of a tree.
There I heard about the War, and how we had to eat horsemeat and paint lines up the backs of our legs to look like stocking seams, and about how a baby slept in its crib unharmed while a bomb reduced the house to rubble all round him; and about how the lady next door collected aprons and wore them one on top of another; and about how the woman down the road lost her drawers in the High Street but kept her composure – ‘I just picked them up and put them in my bag’ – and about how that bleached blonde floosy from over the road was No Better Than She Ought To Be, went about Done Up Like a Dog’s Dinner, and all sorts of other stuff.
That, once a week, was my childhood, and once a week I was safe. It was as if I had been given more than other children, all crammed into Sunday, to make up for the rest.