Some things you remember are just too dark to write about. But they stick in the back of your brain. Templates are formed from them. And always after that your life is patterned. Your chance of freewheeling gone.
This is the tale of the Brown Books. I first wrote it down for the biography module of a creative writing course at the University of Kent. Sitting there one evening in one of their black-walled basement classrooms (I was told they recycled plans for a prison complex, when designing the University of Kent) amongst a selection of Yummy Mummies with Literary Leanings, I felt ill at ease, common and awkward. I had ventured into the borderlands of the Middle Classes. I wondered how they would react, whether they might feel what I felt when it happened, but didn’t hold out a great deal of hope. The telling required more skill and subtlety than I possessed at that time. Suspect it still does.
There was a whole bookcase full of them – big, thick hardbacks covered in brown paper, the titles written in my mother’s neat hand and underscored with her trademark wavy line. She was a very neat person. She made a lot of lists, and they were neat too. She never read those books but I did. They were my private horde; somewhere for my imagination to go.
I’ve forgotten most of them now. There was one for Housewives. The pictures were poor quality, grainy black and white on shiny paper. It featured ladies with stiff hairdos and white aprons, heads bent over their needlework. It told you things like how to make a petticoat out of parachute silk. There were crochet patterns for baby layettes, with instructions for threading the ribbon through; there were sections on keeping bees, making rose-water and unblocking chickens that were egg-bound.
There was one about Gregg shorthand. I suppose she must have studied it at school, or maybe was teaching herself. I tried it. It was beyond me, but I liked those Egyptian squiggles, the whole idea of there being a language made of shapes – that a language could be made of anything you wanted – maybe sounds, maybe colours, maybe numbers. There was one called The Science of Mind At seven years old I read about the Id and the Ego, picturing the one as a statue or an angel, the other as a black burr-thing, like the ones that got caught in your clothes when you walked across the field. Id and Ego floated just above my head, casting sideways glances at one another. There were photographs in that book too. There was one of a Congenital Idiot. I was glad I hadn’t come to earth as one of those.
There was a book about tropical fish. You could make out the spots and the stripes, the fanciful fins. You had to imagine the colours. I imbibed those fish names, recited them over and over on my way to school, like a charm or amulet, to drown out the bullies in my wake…
… Angelfish, Pufferfish, Guppy, Molly, Piranha…
One afternoon I came home from school and she was kneeling on the floor by the bookcase, her print skirt flounced out around her, pulling the brown books out and packing them into a cardboard box. I remember the flare of distress, the hot flare of rage, the welling-up of tears. ‘What are you doing with them?’ I asked.
‘Jumble Sale,’ she said.
‘She’s highly strung, that child,’ a neighbour once said in my hearing, ‘a regular Prima Donna.’ Afterwards I asked my mother what a Prima Donna was. She said an opera singer which made no sense. I couldn’t sing. But rage and sorrow would certainly rise up and overwhelm, like a storm, in seconds. On the outside I was small and dull, and nobody listened. On the inside I was Old, and engaged in listening to the universe. I would hear Her screaming; feel her fists hammering, on carpet, on wood, on people – on one occasion punching through a glass window. The Old One watched the purple blood blossoming out of her wrist like a fin.
And now the Old One observed and waited as she cried, cracked and undignified, her face swelling up. She had one of those faces, the Prima Donna: cry for a minute, red balloon for days. It is for that reason that I rarely allow myself to weep nowadays.
As she bawled and hiccupped and kicked the skirting board with her brown school shoes, the Old One looked on. It won’t work, it was telling her. Be calm. Listen to the universe.
‘Let me look after them in my room,’ she screeched. ‘Let me have them. Please, Mummy, please‘ – knowing all the time they would not fit into her room, which she shared with the airing cupboard, a chest of drawers and the larger of her two sisters.
‘Please, Mummy, please.’
She was very tidy, my Mum, and quite young herself. You tend to forget how young your parents were, when you were young. I doubt if she would remember the death of the Brown Books now; indeed, she has forgotten almost everything about those early years – almost everything about everything. But I find I still can’t manage to forgive her for the Brown Books – the ignoring – the ignorance – of what lay behind the tantrum. I was one of those who came after the War. All those other sons and daughters lost – we were their replacements, saplings planted in the gaps where others had been cut down. We were bred, like piglets, and I think we were not quite real to our parents in the way that children had been real, once upon a time, in the long, sunny days before Hitler.
Sometime after that I turned to stone. My face became a kind of mask, my voice ceased to work in any meaningful way. Behind the silence and the blank expression the Old One continues to observe and proffer advice and, I suppose, to commune with the universe. Although the universe feels further and further away as time goes on, its signals fainter. And with it, behind the mask, lives a seven year old Prima Donna, still spiky and black, still screaming. Still putting her wrist through the glass.