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.
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