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

George and the Imaginary Dragon

George was a bully, no doubt about that. Looking back I can see it quite clearly but at the time… At the time Georgina was much admired, by many. After Lights Out she held forth on many subjects, albeit in whispers, and nobody contradicted her.  A hefty girl, with early-sprouting breasts, she assigned tasks and issued orders to the rest of us, her dorm-mate foot-soldiers, with the confidence of a Napoleon or a Nelson.

She didn’t like new girls, George, and she didn’t like small people. Unfortunately Arabella was both. She came from a background several notches above George’s – you could tell by her accent. She had a pony, in a paddock, at home. His name was Randolph. Foolishly, she mentioned this in George’s hearing. George – as we all knew – had neither paddock nor pony. George’s parents came from Eastbourne and had made their money from a bed and breakfast establishment.

Arabella was easily spooked. If you crept up behind her she would inevitably jump or scream. This made George laugh. Arabella was a sensitive and imaginative child. On all these counts she was grist to George’s mill: the perfect victim.

It started with the stories. After lights out,  George began to refer, casually, to the dragon that lived in the box room. The box room was at the end of our corridor. It was used to store suitcases, and the wooden sea-chests belonging to girls whose parents had packed them off “home” from overseas – from the Empire, as we said in those days.

George did not address her dragon tales to Arabella, but made sure she would overhear them. It was not a Loud Roaring dragon, she explained, but one of the Silent Types which are so much worse. Its scales were sometimes blue and sometimes green – iridescent, like mother-of-pearl. It was not a terribly big dragon, she said – but quite big enough to swallow a small child. Whole – she said – a child of, say, Arabella’s size – in one gulp.

Anaconda-like, for at least a week after feeding the Silent dragon would have a bump in the middle, said George. That, of course, was the child, still alive and in the process of being digested by its stomach juices. If you were foolish enough to creep up and lay your head on that dragon’s belly, said George, you would hear it gurgling disgustingly. Those were its juices at work. You might even hear a faint gasp or scream if what was left of the trapped child were to sense you there.

Then she started on the dares. She dared any one of us to go, at midnight, along the corridor to the box room. We could take a torch, she conceded. “Any one of you,” she said “can confirm that I am telling the truth. Who will be brave enough?” Nobody volunteered. This charade went on for several nights until George decided enough was enough – someone jolly well had to verify her story and she would select a volunteer. “Arabella,” she said, in a brisk, condescending tone. Off you go. You’d be about the right size to fit inside a dragon.”

She handed Arabella the torch. We couldn’t see the poor child’s face in the darkness but could guess ‘the colour had drained out of it’ as they say, in ghost stories. Then, twisting the handle silently, she opened the dormitory door and tiptoed out.

I don’t think George had really expected her to go. I suspect the idea was for Arabella to refuse, in terror, giving George a chance to mock, or maybe punish her. George could be inventive, when it came to punishments. We waited, in silence, for a minute or two.

“She must have reached the box room by now,” said George. “Unless she’s run away. Silly little squirt.”

“Maybe you should check, George,” I said. “As our leader.”

There may have been a smidgeon of malice behind this suggestion. I didn’t like George.

Arabella returned a little later, with Matron. She had gone straight to Matron’s quarters and spun her some tale… or maybe just told the truth. At any rate, she had snitched on George. Snitching was entirely infra dig, of course, but for some reason Arabella’s popularity was increased rather than decreased by this particular transgression.

But of George, no trace. She went to the box room. She did not come back. A search was made of the school, and of course of the room itself. There was nothing to be seen in there of anything but sea-chests and suitcases.

The excitement of the night before had rather upset my digestion. Rising from my bed in the cold morning light I tied my dressing-gown tightly around me and shuffled to the bathroom. The door of the box-room was ajar, and there, on the threshold was something rather large, blue and iridescent. I bent to pick it up.  It appeared to be a scale, even tapering to a point. Part of some tessellated pattern. I tested it with my finger. It was needle-sharp. I secreted it in my dressing-gown pocket and when the hols came round I took it home with me for safe-keeping. I collect… interesting objects. Have done so all my life.

And yes, my dear, here it is in my cabinet. Strange, is it not – how the glow has never dimmed…?