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

Isn’t there a white knight upon a fiery steed?

It doesn’t seem to be fashionable – or perhaps I mean politically correct – anymore, for a lady to long for a hero. I suppose we threw that particular baby out with the feminist bathwater, along with expecting doors to be opened for us rather than slammed in our faces, and for seats to be given up for us on an omnibus.

In The Female Eunuch Germaine Greer makes passing mention of a husband – her only husband. She was married to him – I’m sure she said for a week. I don’t have a copy of the book now – I must get another – but seem to recall that his irresistible attraction had been something to do with that comfortingly tweedy masculine shoulder against which to bury one’s head.

I just checked it out. She was married in 1968 to an English graduate who was working as a builder. Perhaps it had given him broad shoulders and a suntan – that always helps. In true ’60s style they met outside a pub in the Portobello Road and, after a brief courtship, got married using a ring from a pawnshop. According to Wikipedia it only lasted ‘a few weeks’ and Ms Greer spent their wedding night in an armchair because her husband was drunk and would not allow her into bed.

The Female Eunuch actually came out in 1970 but in my provincial backwater I didn’t stumble across it until some years later: in W H Smith’s actually – fascinated and horrified in equal measure by a truly, shockingly, hideous cover – see below. I remember covering said item using brown paper and sellotape so that my parents wouldn’t be tempted to confiscate/immolate/jettison it. (My mother had form with book-throwing.)

female eunuch

I was twenty-one at the time and married as I was reading it. What a fool! If only I’d found it six months earlier I might have gathered my wits and relocated to Auchtermuchtie or possibly Muckanaghederdauhaulia, County Galway. And I married exactly that heroic sort of man – the comfortingly tweedy masculine shoulder, and so forth. He was even working on a building site and had the temporary broad shoulders/suntan.

What is it in us, though, that still pines for a hero? Even now when subjected – as one all too frequently is – to Bonnie Tyler’s cheesy 1980s bellow-fest Holding out for a Hero – I get that same little shiver. I know exactly what she means. Don’t you, other ladies?

Or if not a Hero, at least a Gentleman.

According to one website, these are the 23 behaviours of a Gentleman:

  1. He opens the door for a lady
  2. He walks closest to the curb
  3. He makes reservations (what does that mean – for a restaurant?)
  4. He gives her his jacket
  5. He is punctual
  6. He rises when she enters a room
  7. He gives compliments sincerely and often
  8. He helps her to be seated
  9. He gives up his seat
  10. He helps a lady on with her coat
  11. He says “please” and “thank you”
  12. He minds his table manners
  13. He is never rude to servers, bartenders or anyone else for that matter
  14. He pays
  15. He gets her safely to her door
  16. He listens
  17. He keeps his word and a secret
  18. He never hits a woman
  19. He shows initiative
  20. He pays attention to detail
  21. He asks her family’s blessing before proposing
  22. He is a jack of all trades – knows how to do things – the guy people look to in an emergency
  23. He goes out of his way to let her know he cares, every single day

Goodness, I’d forgotten about most of those. Ex scored well on 5, 18, 19 and 20 and ultra-highly on 22. I used to think that if we were ever to get stranded on one of those tiny cartoon desert islands together, with only a palm tree and a ball of string he of all men would have been able to whip up a watertight raft and guide us, using only the sun and stars, to South America or Finland or somewhere.

Perhaps what it all boils down to is that a Gentleman – or a Lady – earns that description by putting the other person at their ease. If you feel relaxed, happy and altogether better about yourself after an hour or two in someone’s company, you can probably award them Gentleman/Lady status.

However, no need to marry them.

And at least finish reading The Female Eunuch first.

due south

And another picture of Paul Gross, and, because there can never be enough, yet another:

paul gross 2

To tattoo or not to tattoo, that is the question

Yesterday I was trawling through some ancient Daily Post prompts* having rejected that day’s, which was about fashion-nostalgia – something else I don’t possess – and came across this one about tattoos. Specifically: If you were forced to get a (or another) tattoo, what would you get and where?

Hmmm…

dragon 2

Unlike most of the (televised) human race, it seems, I am totally untattooed. I have been amazed, recently, by the inkiness of everyone’s flesh. Even on Strictly Come Dancing – that treasure-chest of all that is glamorous and pristine – male dancers now seem to have tattoos hanging out under the sleeves of their powder-blue spangly tops – I mean, what is the world coming to?

I suppose it’s part of getting older. Things strike you as odd and gratuitously new-fangled that younger people don’t even notice. I recall a story about a woman going with her mother to stay in a hotel, and her mother being kind of affronted that hotel room-keys were now pieces of plastic to be swiped rather than actual metal keys. The older woman was not so much upset by this new piece of technology as dreadfully wearied. It made her feel that she had lived too long.

I begin to can relate to that now. You do get to a point where you just don’t want to have to a) absorb and b) try to suss out the logic behind a new fashion or development. Sometimes there just seems no reason why things have changed. There seem no possible benefit, no sense of progress – just change for the sake of change. The old adage If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it has now been discarded in favour of If it’s getting boring, change it.

In my younger day, tattoos were only seen on tarts and sailors – or sailors’ tarts. They were only to be obtained in the back alleyways of certain ports. Mostly they were of mighty anchors with elaborate twists of rope, or luscious ladies wearing very little.

Re tarts – I have to say there were rather a lot of things that would get you called a tart in my younger day. Ankle bracelets, I remember. Bottle-blonde hair. Hankies stuffed in your bra to make you look more luscious-er. Too much back-combing. Skirts too short. When I was at school they measured your skirt: you had to kneel on the floor and a teacher would check to see that no knee was visible beneath your skirt-hem. Nail-varnish – even clear, or that weird clear-pink stuff: straight to the science lab where a sadistic lab technician would remove the evil decoration with industrial strength acetone from a stoppered glass bottle. Any little cut or hangnail – you’d find out about it. Stockings too sheer. Stockings were meant to be thick and orange/sludge coloured so that (gasp!) men a) couldn’t see your actual flesh through them and b) wouldn’t even be tempted to look. Even patent leather shoes. I have a feeling that was Germaine Greer in The Female Eunuch saying that the nuns at her convent school banned patent leather “Else men should see your underwear reflected in it”. Really?

The worst two things you could do (instant tarthood) was get pregnant without being married or get divorced. If you got pregnant, people hardly spoke of you except in whispers. They certainly wouldn’t talk to you. Or your parents. Or your auntie. Or your second cousin twice removed. And divorced – divorces were so rare they hit the headlines. Divorces were scandalous. A divorcee had failed. She knew she had failed. She had failed to hang on to her husband. She must have done something to make him beat her up or go with other women. A divorcee was no better than she ought to be. Women saw her as a threat. Men homed in on easy pickings.

And then there was the thing about hats. You daren’t go out in a red hat because it was well-known: Red Hat, No Drawers! Not that I would have done anyway as I loathe both hats and red. There were parts of every town that only tarts frequented. I remember wanting to buy a little bottle of Devon Violets perfume whilst visiting my aunt in Devon. Oh no! she said. You’ll smell like a lady of The Brook! The Brook in Chatham, now home to the Job Centre, a load of traffic and some very ugly buildings – had been, in her day, the place where prostitutes walked. Waiting for sailors. She seemed to have a thing about sailors. Well, Chatham was a dockyard town so hardly surprising. On one of her visits she remarked on how tall I had grown and that I would soon be spooning with a sailor in the front room. Spooning? In those days it just meant a romantic kind of cuddling. But a sailor? Where was I going to find a sailor? Couldn’t even find a boy.

So, it was easy to get yourself a ‘name’ – and a tattoo – well, that was a permanent name. A red hat can be taken off, bottle-blonde locks can be shorn, an ankle bracelet removed. But – in those days, at least – you were stuck with a tattoo. No one would have employed you to work in an office if you had such a disfigurement, though you might have got a job as a debt-collector or “door staff”. And people would automatically assume you’d been to prison.

But of course things have changed. Both my sister and niece have tattoos, in fairly discrete regions of themselves. I even – yes, I have to admit – at one point considered investing in one myself. I was thinking of intertwined dragons – one red and one blue – on my arm. There – I said it. I thought about it. Fortunately I didn’t do it.

The dragons – well, I was born in one of the Years of the Dragon so dragons have always felt like my totem animal. I like the look of dragons in old illustrations – their sinuous and elaborate nature. If I could draw I would draw fantasy dragons, like the ones you can find on the internet nowadays. Mega-dragons, all fire and nacreous scales. And the significance pink and blue intertwined? It was some sort of weirdo-psychological stuff I was going through at the time. Kept dreaming about dragons. Pink dragons, blue dragons…

And power-stations… and pebbly beaches… and men in long black coats who might have been my father…

Wonder what it all meant…

 

* Sorry, got that wrong. I mentioned, and linked to, a Daily Post prompt called Tattoo, You but the wording is slightly different. I’ve just stumbled across the one I actually used which is from the One Minute Writer blog.