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

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