In my parents’ bungalow the door-handles were made of Bakelite. Indeed, in those far-off days almost everything was made of this hideous proto-plastic – radios, telephones, pipe-stems, toys…
Bakelite was always brown, at least in my experience, and there was something threatening about it. That was why my little sister believed me when I informed her in a scary kind of hiss that all the handles in the passage were actually radios, and if you touched one you would almost certainly be electrocuted, or else the handle/radio would send a signal to spies to come and get you. For a long time she would sit crying under one or other of the seven Bakelite door-handles in the passage, unable to let herself in, even to her own bedroom. Eventually, of course, she blabbed to Mum and I got punished – that time by Mum rather than Dad.
I was always getting punished by Dad. I got punished for things I had done to my three-year-old sister – like telling her the passage was also full of dragons. Ragonies, she would bleat, tearfully. Ragonies in the passage!
Yes, I would say, GREAT BIG RAGONIES. The red ones breathe fire and scorch you to bits, the blue ones just EAT you…
I was horrible to her. I hit her when no one was looking. I dragged her along the passage (the passage seemed to feature in most of our episodes) by her long hair. I laughed when she made a mess eating her food and had to have her face wiped with a flannel. That chubby, innocent little face irritated the bejesus out of me. I just wanted to… I just wanted to…
And yet I loved her, and she loved me, and she’s now all I have left in the way of family, emotionally if not in fact.
Later in life, having digested far too many self-help paperbacks and psychology manuals, I have come to understand why I was such a Beastly Big Sister – possibly.
I think it may have been the thing with Dad – unless I was just born spiteful, which is also a possibility. I was his first child and I was weird – long, sulky silences alternating with day-long howling tantrums. I would barricade myself in my bedroom – or the toilet, if he was chased me. This annoyed everyone, since there was only one toilet in the bungalow and I could be in there for a day at a time, huddled on the floor, hiccupping, drying my eyes, crying again, hiccupping… I remember thinking, I have no food and I have no water but I can spend a penny if I want to, and blow my nose on the loo-paper. Though it was Izal in those days. A sheet of Izal was akin to a sheet of glass as far as bottoms, or sensitive, swollen noses, were concerned.
He punished me with slaps – ferocious slaps around the face and legs and any other bit of me he could happen to reach – because his father had punished him that way, and probably the Army or Air Force or whatever it was he was forcibly conscripted into had also treated him that way, for years. He had a knack for backing me into small corners, against a wall or a door, say, thus combining the slaps with bangs to the head.
The wrong thing might be contradicting him (because he was wrong – I was a persistently, foolishly argumentative and logical child) or answering back (because he was wrong).
A bad thing might be elbows on the table at mealtimes, and reading (which he did all the time, but apparently this was a rule only for children – illogical).
A bad thing might be my sister spraying the living room wallpaper (every single wall) with ink from a fountain-pen but since I was the oldest I should have stopped her. She and I were both clumsy and disaster-prone.
A bad thing might be picking up a cactus and getting a palm-full of prickles or falling on a glass shelf and breaking it.
A bad thing might be throwing an apple through a window, in one of my rages.
A bad thing might be putting my own fist through the garage window, where he had locked me for some earlier misdemeanour, and cutting my wrist in the process.
Trouble was, I had a goldfish-like short term memory. By the time he had found out and worked up a head of steam to come after me, I had forgotten.
He also had a way with words. Anger seemed to release this gift in him and I would be on the receiving end of a stream of steaming vitriol. He knew me so well that he could take me to pieces. And he did take me to pieces. I swiftly forgot/forgave the slaps and the bangs on the head but I never did forgive the words.
And so I suppose, when you are a child you don’t know why you’re being Beastly. Nobody’s yet explained to you about Kicking the Cat. You only know you’re angry and you want to oppress someone. I inherited his height, his physical power, his intelligence and his verbal facility and I did what he did with those thing – I hurt a helpless child; I used words to make pretty lies, and monsters to scare her. Because I could.
In a drawer in my kitchen cabinet I have a treasured possession. It’s a dark green wooden coaster, a gift from my little sister, who now lives in Canada. She has probably forgotten it. A worn away label on the back says Cedar Mountain… something, Salt Spring Island, B.C., Canada. It says: