My Emotional Support Rabbit

I want an Emotional Support Rabbit, I’ve decided. According to the BBC, anyway, such fabulous creatures are allowed to accompany those suffering from anxiety, depression and other mental health issues on to American aeroplanes. What a wonderful thing. There have apparently been Emotional Support Kangaroos, Emotional Support Turkeys, Emotional Support Cats and Dogs, even an Emotional Support Miniature Horse. (Presumably the turkeys would be excused flights home for Thanksgiving.) However, a Support Peacock by the name of Dexter was turned away because he was too big and heavy. The Support Miniature Horse was in fact smaller and lighter than the Support Peacock?

After the peacock incident United Airlines decided to ban a range of less usual creatures, including frogs, hedgehogs and goats, and are currently limiting it to cats, dogs, and of course miniature horses.

In Britain, of course, we are far more staid. Just tune in to a session of Parliament and watch the MPs discussing Brexit – bellowing, jeering, catcalling and even, fairly recently, making sheep noises – to be sure of this. (I am not sure if they ever tracked down that sheep-noise maker: they were certainly trying quite hard to.) So, British airlines, being far more staid, do not permit support animals for mental health conditions, though they do permit physical disability/guide dogs, and presumably those might be doubling as emotional support.

This reminds me of a Christmas Dinner I was once forced to attend with my colleagues at Poop, Stagger & Collapse, Solicitors (no, not really). We were sitting around long tables in a restaurant slightly more expensive than most of us would have normally been able to afford – draughty and underheated, with snowy-white tablecloths adding to the general chill. At the end of the food and quite a few bottles of wine, nearly all of the partners (or so it seemed) stood up to give a speech about the progress the firm had made in the past year and it’s plans for the one to come. The final, particularly long and rambling speech was interrupted by mysterious crowings – Cock-a-doodle-doooo, etc – from a novelty alarm clock. Everyone knew who it was, but since he was a Partner himself nothing was done.

Back to Emotional Support Creatures. Given the choice I would go for an Emotional Support Little Rabbit – just big enough to fit in my jacket pocket, with large brown eyes and twitchy little whiskers. Much as I love cats they are absolutely no good at emotional support. A cat will scratch you when you’re down, demand food when you’re stressed. Cats poop, piddle and vomit everywhere. Trying to persuade a cat not to perform three of his five Favourite Natural Functions just because it was on an aeroplane – nah! Taking a cat anywhere, even six miles in a motor car, leaves one a nervous wreck. Or nervous boat as a distance learning student once put it:

My postal course materials am stolen in the prison where I reside. Please, I am become a nervous boat.

It does seem to be a week for animal-themed posts. I follow an excellent WordPress blog called ‘English Language Thoughts’ and the question posed was;

Which would you choose – to be able to speak another language or to speak to the animals?

My Comment was that talking to the animals would be best. At my time of life and in my straitened circumstances I am hardly likely to need to speak to a foreign person in their own language. Unless Britain happens to be invaded by Foreign Persons in which case I shall sincerely wish I had learned that particular language and start scrabbling around for text books and studying by candle-light.

But how useful, to be able to ask your pet how it felt instead of hazarding a guess. Pets are notoriously ‘stoical’, ie they keep a poker face and disguise suffering as a defence against predators. How many trips to the vet could be saved if they could just tell you.

On the other hand – what if our beloved animals, no longer mute, chose to inform us stuff we didn’t want to hear – anything from I abhor this leopard-skin collar to Why exactly did you remove my reproductive organs when I was just a kitten? to What about vivisection!

I have always assumed my own cats to be super intelligent. Inside those furry little noddles they would have been composing Oscar Wilde-type witticisms or ruminating upon the meaning of life from a feline perspective. But it occurs to me that this ain’t necessarily so. Supposing they are really stupid? Supposing all they can chat about is Whiskas versus Felix? Supposing their political opinions can be summarised in one sentence: Well, there’s nothing I can do about anything in any case so I’m not even going to think about it.

Yes, someone actually said that to me. And she wasn’t a cat, either.

‘Went fishing with Sam. Day wasted.’

When I came across this story it was attributed to James Boswell in his Life of Samuel Johnson, purporting to be something the great man himself had confided.

The story goes that Samuel Johnson’s father took him out for a day’s fishing, and this was the first and only time it happened. Samuel was so very happy that day, he wrote in his diary that he had had the Best Day Ever. Many years later he came across his late father’s diary and couldn’t resist looking up the entry for that day. His father had written:

‘Went fishing with Sam. Day wasted.’

This little story had an immediate effect on me. I found myself back there, in that dusty loft or study or whatever, inhabiting the body of the young Samuel Johnson, feeling his sadness.

I suppose you automatically relate these things to your own experiences. I was linking the Samuel Johnson story to a tiny conversation I had with my mother, maybe ten years ago. We didn’t really realise then that she had dementia: one of the first things to go in her case was empathy – oh yes, and tact – but then the two are intertwined. It seemed safe enough, at this great distance in time, to say that I always assumed my youngest sister had been her favourite. I expect I was hoping she would say ‘Oh no, my dear, we loved all three of you the same.’

‘Yes, she was’, she said, ‘and your middle sister was your Dad’s favourite, always’. Why did she have to add that always? Salt in the wound.

This sort of thing is not supposed to matter as you get older, but of course it does. It just seemed to me that the equation didn’t balance, it was one short. There needed to have been three parents – one to favour each of my sisters and one to love only me. It occurs to me now that this could be one of the ground rules for Brave New World – precisely as many parents in a family as there are children.

Fishing around the internet a bit more (oh dear, a pun) I discovered the same fishing story was said to have happened to virtually every father-and-son combination including some 19th Century political chap called Charles Frances Adams and his son Brook Adams. I also found short stories purported to have been entirely imagined by not-very-good amateur writers. I think it may be one of those urban myths that everybody ‘remembers’ or swears to be true, or ‘knows someone who knows someone who knew the person it happened to’.

I was trying to think of some others. There used to be one about a poodle accidentally cooked in a microwave oven, and one about a man with a bloodstained axe lying low in the back of the car whose mad visage suddenly rears up and appears in the rear view mirror. The classic is the one about the hitchhiker, picked up on some dusty highway and then mysteriously vanishing, often while the car is still moving.

I also found some modern day computer-based ones. There are a whole lot of translations computers are supposed to have made of sayings and book titles. For example:

Angry Raisins (Grapes of Wrath)
Blind & Insane (Out of Sight, Out of Mind)
The Vodka was Good, but the Meat was Rotten (The Spirit is Willing, but the Flesh is Weak)

I suppose the thing is a good story is a good story, and why let it go to waste? Embellish it, change the names, pass it on and take the whole credit for it, why not? I expect that’s how the human race has been functioning since ever it first began to talk.

3: Send in the clowns

Continued from 2: Supping with the Devil (technically, posted on 6/7 – you might need to use the Search box)

It should have been funny, and it kind of was, looking back. Looking back, I can recall the struggles and contradictions of that afternoon as Mum and I listened to these two monolithic men droning on at one another about politics or whatever, beneath the ’70s artex ceiling and ghastly pine wall-covering, giant mugs of tea at the ready: exhilaration, a rather spiteful kind of satisfaction, sadness, anxiety and loss. Part of me knew that Ex had got to win, another part couldn’t bear for Dad to lose. Ridiculously, now, I am reminded of battling silverback gorillas and David Attenborough. (Who can picture a gorilla without David, whispering reverentially close by?) And I recall that last scene in The Railway Children – Daddy, my Daddy!

After twenty-three years or so I screwed up the courage to tell Ex I was leaving. He seemed unmoved, relieved as much as anything. Not long after that the lady I usually refer to as My Replacement came along – well, she’d been ‘along’ for quite some time, I just hadn’t really realised. That was probably the most painful bit.

On one particularly memorable occasion , which I now think of as my Send In The Clowns moment, I had driven across to the small town where Ex still lived. I had an appointment to get my hair cut at my old hairdressers. I had not anticipated that there would be a carnival procession going on, and so had to park some way out of town and walk back in. As I was walking along the road I realised that he – and she – were walking towards me in the far distance, hand in hand. I suppose they must have been out watching the carnival. There was no convenient side-road or alleyway to swerve into, and in any case they had already seen me. I just had to pin on a gruesome attempt at a smile and keep walking forwards on the pavement, one foot in front of the other – and so did they, of course. I found myself feeling sorry for them at the same time as I was feeling sorry for me. It seemed to take years, and he couldn’t exactly drop her hand. I can’t remember another thing about that day. That one memory was enough to last me for ever!

Although most of me knows that leaving, even in middle age, was the right decision, some disconsolate little remnant continues to prowl around my house on sleepless nights mewling Where are you? Why did you stop looking after me? Why didn’t you come and find me?  Didn’t you love me? And I realise it is not just the lost wife crying, but the lost child looking for her father.

daddy

 

In the 1980s Canadian Sister, also ADD-ish, married a man who looked not so very different from Dad. He was very definite in his opinions, very clever, very competent, would brook no arguments, etc., etc., but they remained married until his death earlier this year. Now she rages at him, in his urn on the mantelpiece. He was supposed to be her shield and protector, and in return she knew she must do what she was told and never argue; she went where he wanted to go, watched whatever he wanted to watch on TV; pretended not to be embarrassed when he was rude to shopkeepers and Indian waiters, resisting the urge to apologise on his behalf. That was the clear bargain struck on a cold May day in a black old Northern church all those years ago, and he reneged on it by going and getting cancer.

I have been wondering what conclusion to draw, what ‘advice’, with the benefit of hindsight, I would give to my parents, or any new parents of an unconventional child. Of course I have no right to advise. If I had been able to have children or my own I’m sure I’d have got it just as wrong, and probably more so.

The fashionable motto is that all you really need to be is a Good Enough parent. I would extend that a bit – I think you can be a pretty bad parent and your child will still stand a chance or surviving, more or less, if only she can get what she needs from alternative sources. Which is an argument for old-fashioned rural communal parenting as opposed to the nuclear family, in which any evils are concentrated, hidden and likely to be perpetuated.

I was saved by Nan and Grandad who, by the most enormous stroke of luck, lived at the other end of our street. Nan walked along to see Mum most days, and I spent every Sunday from about the age of three along with Nan and Grandad. To start with this was because Mum and Dad were engaged in building their own house, with Grandad’s help, whilst expecting my sister at any moment. After that it just became a tradition.

Nan and Grandad had a huge garden with a cherry blossom tree, a swing suspended from an apple tree, a lawn full of daisies and buttercups, and all sorts of flowers and vegetables. They also had a smelly old golden Labrador, a roaring fire in winter, stacks of Woman’s Weekly and Carpenter & Joiner magazines, a bookcase full of pre-War hardback books, an etymological dictionary (my favourite) and a tiny black and white TV set.

Nan cooked great Sunday dinners. She washed my hair and I sat in front of the fire to dry it. I was included in whatever she was doing. We put down newspaper and polished a mountain of brass with Brasso and blackening yellow dusters; we picked mint for the mint sauce – she chopped it fine then I stirred it in a little pot with sugar and vinegar. We sat on the back step shelling peas into an enamel bowl whilst staring up at the sky.

Over the course of the years she told me about the recent War, and the War before that. She told me about my Great Grandmother Sarah and her own many sisters. She told me the facts of life, taught me how to darn a sock and sew on a button. She chatted to me unselfconsciously as if I was just another grown-up, or she was just another child. On those Sundays with Nan I was a relaxed, ‘normal’ human being, but as soon as I returned to the other end of the road I became once again the freaky “Prima Donna” or “You Little Bitch”.

In writing this it has occurred to me that Nan had the advantage of having finished bringing up Mum – who had many of the same traits as me – considerably more pronounced, some of them – less than six years before, since Mum married at nineteen. Mum hadn’t had that advantage.

See 4: Imagine

4: Imagine

Continued from 3: Send in the clowns

I was also saved by my imagination and, if you like, the weird alternative-brain thing itself. That was – and is – by far the strongest form of defence, less costly than human relationships, far more flexible/portable than a husband. I always had the ability to tune right out, and this happened automatically whenever I began to get bored or things got rough. When things got very rough indeed I used to practice Silent Singing, most often The Sun Has Got His Hat On. I had my own way of distributing my consciousness between several places at once. I disappeared into books and stories, daydreams and plans. Inside my head was something like the Holodeck on the Spaceship Enterprise – the entire range of alternate universes on demand – and I spent many aeons away on my holidays on distant planets.

Later I started writing poems and stories. I found out how I felt through the poems and learned how I worked and what I thought through the stories. Together they became my Voice. I didn’t fret greatly that little I wrote was ever likely to get published – that wasn’t why I wrote. Much later I came to understand that a poem written (or a song sung, a painting painted, a love loved, an experience experienced) is engraved on the fabric of the universe, and will never be lost. You may have forgotten all the words or lost the old envelope it was scribbled on, but the poem is still there: all is taken in by the All That Is, which is constantly Becoming, in us and through us.

My parents were pretty bad until I left home. Almost as soon as I did they became pretty good. They did what they could to support me through the trials of what passed for my ‘adult’ life, though I never ceased to bewilder and exasperate them. I relied heavily on them for company as Ex seemed to be drifting further and further away, and when I found myself divorced, as a middle-aged ‘teenager’, basically – I had to learn how to change a light bulb and get petrol – I was glad of their support. I think they loved me. If only they could have told me so when I was young enough for it to have made a difference.

I would say to parents: even if you don’t understand what’s ‘wrong’ with your child – even if there is no medical word for it yet – even if (he or) she seems uncomfortably different to you or anybody else you have ever met – even if she is neither what you wanted nor what you anticipated – try to accept and love – or at least appear to love – what you did get. It works both ways. Your child has absolutely no choice but accept and love you, even as you shout abuse and raise your hand to strike.

When you are many years dead, do you really want your now elderly child to remember in technicolour what it felt like when you slammed her head into a door, trumping any good memories – like the day you taught her to swim; those Stanley Holloway monologues that made her laugh; the communal singing in the car?

If one approach fails, try and think of another. Watch and listen to your new child, as you would a new and exotic pet: work out what she needs. If you can’t work that out, talk to other people and be willing to ask for help. Be kind. Be gentle. Be creative. Think about what you are doing.

1: A house divided

It’s been a long time since I wrote something the low-tech way, ie sat down at a desk with a potful of sharpened pencils and made marks on paper. My usual technique – since I become more distracted and impatient with every day that passes – is to ‘splurge’, suddenly and electronically. I get a wisp of an idea, a little ghostly thought-ette or two, log in to WordPress and permit some primitive part of my brain, in conjunction with my touch-typist’s – though now somewhat stiffening – hands, to do their thing. Then I publish it, fondly believing I have proof-read it. Then I spend the next three years spotting all the mistakes.

I am writing ‘old-fashioned’ in this case because I have pages of notes that just wouldn’t stop coming to me yesterday evening, and the end result is likely to be at least three separate posts. I can’t hold a train of thought over multiple posts – I have to write it, edit it and subdivide it. Bah! So tedious!

When I get to read back what the hands/primitive-part-of-the-brain combo has typed I am often surprised – amazed, even – to discover what I must have been thinking, and what I appear to believe, sometimes quite passionately. I get to meet me in these posts, and the me in these posts seems to have some sort of recognisable personality. WordPress is our rendezvous point: without it the inside of my head would be a kind of darkish soup, with kind of floating bits, the odd, unidentifiable streak of this and that, peered into in vain.

I could not express any of the years of passing thoughts, ideas and reminiscences to be found in Latourabolie (transl: The Ruined Tower, in case anyone is still trying to fathom it out) to anybody face to face. I either say very little – to the many people I don’t like – or ramble joyously and incomprehensibly – to the few people I love or feel at ease with. Occasionally these serendipitous excursions into word-salad and verbal diarrhoea seem to amuse my friends. Sometimes they even laugh out loud in the course of one of my epic, multi-digressionary stories or reminiscences, at least parts of which may be true.

Often they laugh at bits I didn’t realise were funny – or at least not that funny. Maybe they are less amused by the tale itself than the sight of me struggling to bring it to a sensible conclusion, hauling myself back from digression after digression, to just stop. Where would we be without friends?

So, to the subject of this little run of posts – ADD or Attention Deficit Disorder. I leave the ‘H’ out because that stands for Hyperactive or Hyperactivity, and I definitely don’t have that bit. I was never one of those mind-bogglingly annoying little boys who jiggle their feet, jump up and down and cannot remain seated for more than two seconds. My cousin was one of those. Boy was that little boy annoying! He was absolutely unbearable to be around. You just wanted to bellow at him – keep still, you little tyke! You couldn’t, of course, because he was a cousin, and a visitor. I believe he is now a somewhat successful almost-retired something-in-electronics, and owns his own company. The last time I saw him was at English Sister’s wedding. English Sister was the same age as him. He was trying to chat her up, despite the bridal gown and her being his first cousin.

I would guess my type is the ‘inattentive’ type, which tends to manifest more in girls. I did consider the possibility that I was somewhere on the autistic spectrum, preferably at the ‘high functioning’ end. We’d all like to think of ourselves as an Alan Turing manqué, wouldn’t we? I have, in the past, had the occasional full-blown meltdown when things got too much – usually, and appallingly, at work. I do have the dislike of interruptions to my ordered routine, and, to an extent, the obsessive interests – but it’s not enough I think, after exhaustive research, to make me properly autistic.

In any case, it is one of my ‘hunches’ that autism and ADD are  basically one and the same, which is why a lot of people diagnosed as autistic also appear to ‘suffer from’ ADD or ADHD. Much suffering is certainly involved, but these are not illnesses, or disorders. There is nothing wrong with us, we are simply not at all like you.  I predict that ADD will eventually be found to be an alternative manifestation of the same comprehensively different brain wiring that results in autism, the other side of the coin. Or – think of autism/ADD/ADHD as a giant pink cake, liberally sprinkled with ‘hundreds and thousands’ because, after all, it is a statistical kind of cake. ADD, ADHD and autism, both high-functioning and low-functioning, would be slices cut from different parts of the same cake, and sometimes somebody would happen to get two adjacent slices. If you think of it as circular rather than a stack of parallel lines, or spectra, it works better.

I have never been diagnosed and am never likely to be. A formal diagnosis would interest and cheer me immensely in that it would prove me right (See – told you so!) but it would do nothing to heal the distressing bits in my past. It wouldn’t provide me with thousands of pounds to sort out my bank account, make me young again or save me from my eventual fate, whatever that might be – so there’s not much point.

And I do believe – reluctantly – that limited diagnostic resources should be concentrated on children. Not that I like children all that much but they are the future, whether we like them or not. And a diagnosis could help a child make more of its life than I – old, undiagnosed and woefully misunderstood – have been able to do.

So, I have worked out from simple observation – may be wrong, of course – that ADD and  its annoying-little-boy variant, ADHD, both run in my family thus:

The ones in bold are or may be the ‘sufferers’, that awful word:

Maternal side:

Nan : Grandad

Air Force Uncle → annoying boy cousin plus two girl cousins

Mum : Dad

→ Me, Canadian Sister and English Sister

Paternal Side

Grandma: Grampa

Devon Aunt, one baby boy (deceased), Dad

I can’t exactly remember from school all that Mendelian stuff with the sweet peas and the colour combinations, but does this look like a possible pattern, geneticists? Quite probably, no geneticists read my blog.

This unseen (except by me), unrecognised (ditto) fault line in my family has been the cause of no end of problems.

See 2: Supping with the Devil

Romeo, Romeo, wherefore wert you…

There is a man playing an acoustic guitar on next door’s little patio, under the pergola, or whatever those overhead latticework things with greenery hanging off them are called. I am doing the ironing, now the day has cooled down a bit. As the iron moves to and fro I listen in, oddly pleased.

He’s teaching himself that Dire Straits one, ‘Sultans of Swing’ so he plays in fits and starts, a few bars here, a few bars there, a few muttered words sung along. Really, he should stick to the few muttered words because his voice isn’t up to his playing. When he has a go at the high bits he gets seriously out of tune, like karaoke. But it makes a change to hear real music played on a real instrument. It brings the hillside to life somehow.

It took me a while to locate the music since sounds echo most peculiarly in this village. Any loud-ish conversation can be heard by all, at least in part. Shouted phrases charge towards you, then are muffled, then return. Laughter sounds like someone’s laughing at the bottom of an invisible canyon. Sound swirls.

The guitar playing reminds me of Ex, which is sad, though not so terribly sad. He was always sitting around in empty rooms, at least in my memory – abstracted, growling away to himself or playing some complicated gigue or saraband in fits and starts. I’m not even sure if I’ve spelt those right.

I know who this chap is. He’s the husband, or rather, for relationships are so complicated nowadays, the former-husband-not-actually-remarried-but-fairly-frequently-present husband of the lady next door. Whereas Ex is my former-husband-basically-never- present, except once or twice a year over the phone. But that seems to be OK.  I suspect I disappear from his mind the instant he puts the phone down. A puff of white smoke, that’s me; what’s left over when you snuff out a candle.

I happened to be talking to Canadian Sister about this on the phone earlier this evening. She is going through another bad patch, the reality of widowhood seeming to have engulfed her all at once. She tells me she can’t abide being alone in the house, that she needs her dead husband to see or have seen what she is doing from one moment to the next. Everything she does she still seems to need to run past her husband first – He would have been interested in that, she says. He would have been proud of me for managing to do this. He wouldn’t have liked me doing this (manufacturing lopsided bright blue buddha candles in his newly-perfected kitchen).

I said when she had been alone for twenty-seven years she would probably find, as I had, that she had evolved in completely the opposite direction, and would find that she could no longer stand the idea of someone else in the house, observing everything she did. For many years after I first was on my own, I confided – casting around for something intelligent-yet-comforting to say and, as usual, failing – I carried Ex around with me in my head. Everywhere I went – maybe for the first ten years – this Miniature Grumpy Hypercritical Ex would be inside my head, providing a running commentary.

You’ve made a complete Dog’s Breakfast of that, haven’t you! Why don’t you do something worthwhile with your life? Have you got the map upside down again? Don’t put apple cores on the windowsill! What you need is a hobby, something to take your mind off things. Etc.

I would hold long, self-pitying, angry conversations with him in my head. But if I asked this apparition its advice, mentally, it would go completely silent on me. Nowadays he is little more than the occasional little cloud of black smoke, a drifting whiff, a kind of Bonfire Night residue. My head is completely empty most of the time. Echoing. Tumbleweed…

… so you see, I said, in my best transatlantic psychotherapist voice, in another twenty-seven years or so you’ll be seeing things through the prism of yourself and not through the prism of your lost husband.

I am likely to be dead in another twenty-seven years, she reminded me.

I must admit I hadn’t thought of that.

2: Supping with the Devil

Continued from 1: A house divided (technically, published on 29/7. You might need to use the Search box)

It’s a hopeless task, really, trying to explain how an alternative brain-wiring scheme works. I don’t know what it feels like to be inside a different kind of brain. Each of us has either the one experience or the other, so in what terms can I describe my experience?

Dad used to hit me. I think maybe later in life he realised he could be fond of me, but not in those early days. I soon learned not to meet his eye, not to answer back, not to say anything, but he didn’t like that either. He knew I was afraid and he just couldn’t resist the challenge. It would start off in the third person: She’s not saying much – what’s up with her? Then it would go to the first: Cat got your tongue, has it? Hey, you, I’m talking to you. He used to taunt me until I rose to the bait, until I snapped, answered back, pleaded or cried. And then he used to hit me.

I remember crouching once against the front door, with its bobbled glass panels. My head was against the lowest row of glass panels, my left arm covering my head. I remember the fancy sculpted shape of the wooden bits that divided the glass and the rough texture of the cocoanut doormat through the thin cotton of my school dress. I remember waking covered in vomit (the bedroom wall was the background that time) because I had cried myself to sleep. I remember rocking, rocking and howling, and saying over and over to myself for hours, or so it seemed: I will never, never have children. I will never, never do this to them. Sometimes I wonder if that was why. If on that one day, rocking and howling, at the age of eleven I actually killed off all those little eggs.

He used to get off his bike and wheel it round the side and into the garage. I would be listening to his heavy footfall and the sound of his bicycle wheels slowly click-clicking by his side. A monster, a giant was about to burst through the back door. There would be the urgent, whispered conversation between the two of them, before the door was even closed – that was me being reported on. A quick look in my direction, that frown, and then he would hit me. Or maybe he would just send me to my room; or sometimes, for variety, grab me by the collar and drag me to my room. If I resisted he might drag me by the hair along the polished passage floor to my room, blubbering. I would be in there for hours, until I wrote a note apologising in general terms – since in specific terms I didn’t actually know what I had done – crept out and pushed it under the kitchen door.

Whether Dad’s bullying had anything to do with me being odd I will never know. It was beyond my limited understanding. Another thing I didn’t understand at the time was why Mum never stood up for me. Knowing the consequences, why hadn’t she dealt with my crimes herself, before he got home? As it was, the minute he got in from work he was faced with a whispered, unfavourable report. She expected him to ‘do’ something to stop her being upset. And he certainly did.

In retrospect I think Mum was like me, or maybe mildly autistic. Dad was her prop and her shield against the world and she knew she couldn’t – or didn’t want to – cope without him. If he could burn off most of his frustration on me, he would be closer to her. Nothing would be her fault and she would keep him on her side, at her side whatever the cost, no competition. I suppose that’s scapegoating. She fed me to him, that’s what I feel.

Godmother has been around since I was just a bump. She babysat for Mum and Dad in the early days, when they had weekly meetings at the Cycling Club. Recently I asked her about some of this stuff, half expecting that she would say no, it wasn’t like that, you misunderstood – but she had seen it too. She said my father probably shouldn’t have got married and had children. I said maybe he would have been happier staying single, having serial girlfriends, going out on his bike whenever he wanted, not having to work so hard to support all those great lanky girls. He was a handsome enough chap, after all. But she said he probably couldn’t have got away with that. In the 50s marriage and children were the norm.

What that ’50s childhood taught me was that I wasn’t going to win. An unnatural, un-cuddly sort of baby – according to Mum – morphed into a fractious, defensive child, an automatic arguer and questioner of authority; an impulsive blurter-outer; a foolish answerer-back of people much larger and stronger than herself; a raging, hysterical demander of impossible justice. I learned that I was fatally flawed and that my Achilles’ heel was a combination of femaleness and my difference. I realised that I would not be able to get through life without some sort of bodyguard, and bodyguards were usually husbands.

My mother married my father in 1949 or thereabouts. He was six foot four inches tall, athletic and seven years older than her. He could be charming. He had a sense of humour, plenty of funny stories, a few silly songs and poems. He was at ease talking to  strangers when she was definitely not. He could tell her what to think and what to do. She never once voted a different way, she had no friends but their joint friends. At one point they were both agnostics, and then they were both humanists. They’d sent for all the pamphlets and signed all the forms. It was impossible to talk to one of them independently of the other or even catch one in a different room to the other. Especially towards the end they seemed to have merged into a single being. They stayed happily married until his death, after which Mum got increasingly deaf, then distressingly psychotic, finally settling into a less dramatic kind of dementia.

In ’70s I married a man nine years older than me. He looked like Dad and – guess what – was very definite in his opinions and would brook no argument. On one ‘courting’ visit he won an argument with Dad, and it was at that precise moment that I knew I had found the one. Later on I realised that he talked all the time – droned on, in fact – and since he never paused for breath everyone had to listen to him. In any case, since he was very clever and pretty gifted in several different fields, people admired him. It was as if they were in the presence of royalty. In the pub they would gather round in a circle and gawp at him open-mouthed as he held forth on art, music, model engineering or whatever. I used to watch them sometimes; their expressions. They never noticed because their eyes were glued to him. I didn’t need to join in, couldn’t have done if I had wanted to, and nobody expected me to. When we were alone he barely spoke. This suited me well enough for the first fifteen years or so, although I knew within the first week that it wasn’t going to be joyful.

That seems to be the thing with ‘shield’ relationships. The stronger one shields the weaker, but the power they use to shield you they are draining from you. In the presence of Ex, I would not have dared make a joke. I couldn’t have launched into one of my interminable ‘tales’. I couldn’t have showed off or spoken up, contradicted, criticised, interrupted, sung, recited a poem or laughed. An overbearing husband can hide you from the world, but will also hide you from yourself. Gradually, from behind the shield of his loud voice, broad shoulders, manly tweeds (Germaine Greer’s expression) or whatever, you find yourself fading away. You merge into the wallpaper and turn into a living ghost.

It’s a cliché, isn’t it, escaping your father by marrying someone just like him. On one of his alternate weekend ‘courting’ visit to my family (he used to camp in the living room at mine, I was installed in the spare room at his) he won an argument with my father. He didn’t shout – well, neither of them shouted – but there was this tense, gruff, masculine thing going on. They both just continued ‘reasoning’ at one another, going round and round in circles. Mum and I cringed quietly in our armchairs, waiting for all the windows to shatter and bricks and mortar start crumbling around us. No one contradicted Dad. Except, it seemed, Ex.

See 3: Send in the clowns