So, where did this little story come from? Firstly I should say that I was not, as far as I can remember, abused in this way as a child. It came from many places, as stories tend to do. Firstly there was something that suddenly popped back into my mind whilst writing a previous post – that blind Devon Uncle (my Dad’s sister’s husband) had a tendency to put his hand on my knee, which I didn’t like. Also, that he would insist in blundering towards me, arms flailing, for a hug and I had embarrassed my parents at one point by ducking those outstretched arms. Now, I know Devon Uncle was not the abusing sort. He was a naïve, affectionate, childless man and I was a weird child of a type he had probably never encountered before, who couldn’t cope with being manhandled.
And that reminded me that I had another blind uncle, or rather blind great uncle, or possibly great, great uncle – someone can probably tell me – he was one of my grandmother’s brothers. This great or great-great uncle, whose real name wasn’t William by the way, had been blinded as a soldier in the First World War. Nan said little about him, apart from that he had been taught to weave seats for footstools as a kind of therapy, and possibly small source of income; that he lived with them and sat in a corner all day; that one of her sisters mocked him by putting a hair on his plate at dinner, and was ferociously told off by their mother, who saw her do it.
As a child I felt very sorry for Uncle William. I knew what it was like to be lonely, an outsider. I wondered if he was bored, weaving foot-stools all day. Did he live somewhere in his imagination? Had he been an intelligent man before blindness took away any individual identity? How did it feel to be left in a corner, and mocked by children? How did it feel to go away a young man and come back a blind man with no chance – in those days – of earning a man’s wage or being able to marry? I never met Uncle William but I always had it in mind to write a story about him – just not this one, in which he seems to have become the villain rather than the hero.
So I wasn’t abused by Uncle William either. Two innocent, disabled and long dead uncles have here been melded into one scary, sinister and rather modern creature. Writers are cruel.
But there was a story Mum once told me (and probably immediately wished she hadn’t) of something that happened to her as a child when she was evacuated to a cottage in some remote part of Wales, of how a miner had insisted on bouncing her on his knee, and that as he did so something horrible had happened…
And then there were Nan’s amber hatpins, which lived on the dressing table in a strange art deco object made of brass – a long, narrow tray intended for pens (the old-fashioned dip in sort) with an inkwell at the end upon which, entwined in brass creeper and vegetation, sat a little fairy. To open the inkwell, you grasped the fairy by her pointy hat and tipped her up. Amber held a special fascination for me. I had heard that sometimes flies or other small insects were found entombed in it; things that had been alive in prehistoric times. Amber held memories; clues to the past.
POOR, DEAR UNCLE WILLIAM
Part of me was relieved, because it seemed that I would not have to marry blind Uncle William after all, and part of me was enraged that all this distasteful bouncing on the knee, the inexplicable fondling, the private leer that crept across his face, had been for nothing. Soon, as he had just pointed out to me with a jolly, sneering laugh, I would become too much of a lump to bounce upon his knee and then he would have to look out for another little girl to have fun with.
At the same time part of me was angry that in some subtle sort of way he had deceived my parents. You see, I had been intended for Uncle William’s consolation. Out of thirteen children I was the gangling, ugly one; the one who would never otherwise find a husband. Uncle William would be happier if he had a wife to keep him warm on long winter nights. After all, he couldn’t see what I looked like so that wouldn’t trouble him. No need to look at the mantel when stoking the fire, as my father once remarked when he thought I wasn’t listening. Conversely, I would have had more of a husband than a disastrously plain young woman might have expected, after a four year war from which so few young men of marriageable age had returned. We would be trapped at home together, like flies in amber. I could take over from mother some of the burden of looking after him. I could look after my parents too, as they got older. I would be earning my keep at last.
I should mention that Uncle William was not a blood relation. The Bible forbids that sort of thing, doesn’t it? And rightly so, otherwise you end up with mutants. There’s a long list in the Bible – can’t remember exactly where – of people you are not permitted to marry. As I recall you can marry a cousin but not a second cousin: never really understood that. However, I could have married Uncle William because he was just someone we had adopted after the war, a soldier in my father’s regiment whom my father had brought home with him. That sort of thing happened in those days. Families were big and strays were taken in. It was not unknown, for example, for illegitimate babies to be adopted by their grandmothers or childless aunts. People kind of knew but nothing was ever said, just as nothing was ever said about the bouncing on the knee, the ill-stifled and increasingly heavy breathing, his occasional wheedling requests to have me share his narrow bed; the stains on the sheets in the morning.
And it had all been for nothing, this sacrifice of me. I could see the pair of us lingering on at home, unable to avoid each other – I the silent family drudge and he the blind uncle in his corner, leering sightlessly, weaving seats to cane footstools for little reward and groping for any female child that strayed within his reach. Mother’s apron was already on the rise. Nothing was ever said about such things but it was clear she was expecting her fourteenth; and since she was not yet forty there could, and probably would, be more. A woman in the next village had had seventeen infants, one for every year since her marriage. Then she had another. She named him Coronation Finisher, determined that he would be the last infant she ever had to have – he was in my class at school, was Finn. But he wasn’t the last. There was at least one more after that. In those days you had no choice. So, it was likely I would have to watch Uncle William start up his tricks all over again.
Then one day my father brought a newspaper home and left it lying on his chair, folded open at the article he happened to have been reading. It showed an engraving of a man in a cloth cap coming up behind a well-dressed woman in a fancy hat with feathers. He had laid his rough and sinister hands on her shoulders, but she was reaching up towards her hat. Underneath, in italics, it said The Hat Pin Defence.
It was then that I thought about my mother’s amber hatpins.