Jun 21, 2022
Frances J. MacGregor
It was February and so far that winter had been one of the worst in living memory in this part of England, with the most cutting cold and the strongest, harshest winds ever. Here, not far from Humphrey Head on Morecambe Bay, they blew straight off the Irish Sea. Grandad Jack called them the lazy winds. He meant they wouldn’t bother going around you, just went straight on through.
That’s when it happened. When my mother turned into a lunatic. At least that’s what Granny said. That day, a Monday, was the first day of February Half-Term and we’d planned a trip to Bobbin Woods with a winter picnic to see one of the local sights – snowdrops, out in force. We knew they would already be showing their elegant green shoots and little white heads, brave as anything regardless of ice or snow and ganging up in large numbers to make a wonder of nature, at least in our eyes. Even when you’d seen it every year all your life, as I had, it was still brilliant and made you think of all kinds of magic things like new ideas for stories and new dreams and the spring probably shouting hello as it moved up country to visit us from somewhere South.
The weather promised to be fine they said, so my sister Molly and me were to go on our bikes and meet Grandad and Granny and Arthur there. They would go in Dad’s car, Grandad driving, whilst Dad and Mum would go to work to Barrow on the train. Grandad went to work usually but he’d taken some days off to be with us. Even if our parents weren’t at work though Mum wouldn’t come with us, probably, as she didn’t like to be out in the countryside that much. But we loved being out and about especially if we could get there on our bikes. In the summer we rode every minute that was given to us and sometimes that was a full day. We knew some special places and the best was a good ride out by bike to a little tarn up in the fells and we would take sandwiches and water for a picnic and we’d swim, just the two of us. We would ride away and on and on, sometimes with our friends who had bikes too and nobody thought of us being in any danger, least of all us. Those bikes were versatile too and they could be anything from horses to boats to trains to planes to space ships when our heroes were Flint McCullough and soldiers blowing up bridges or escaping from the enemy in the war and Amelia Earhart and Flash Gordon, hour after wonderful hour.
So that morning we were all up early so as to be ready to go out later and I was doing the sprouts with Granny. She was teaching me to cook so she wanted me to learn to use the sharp knife carefully and she was letting me chop the ends off and then peel the waste bits off the sprouts. They were for dinner really but I was hanging around in the kitchen and that’s the first thing she found for me to do. She said they would sit happily in a bowl of cold water till then. For some reason I really liked getting to see that pale green ball inside looking so fresh and perfectly lovely. I even liked them cooked, though my younger brother, Arthur, hated them. Molly hated them even more. I was in between the two of them, at that time he was 7, I was 10 and she was 14, and the grown-ups used to say the middle child can be a bit different you know. I had no idea what they meant but I was definitely different about sprouts.
Arthur was sitting at the kitchen table drawing something. We’d all been sleeping there that night because it was half term and to let Mum and Dad go to work without the bother of getting us up. We didn’t need an excuse, in fact it was quite normal for us to be there and we liked it very much. Molly was emptying the bin then she said she was going back to our house, which was only next door, to get her things. She was getting ready for exams and so she still had homework, even in the holidays. A couple of minutes later she was back.
‘Granny, quick… it’s Dad…’ she made a kind of squeak in a strange urgent voice with a terrible look on her face and so we could tell something was up, more up than usual.
‘What? He’s not gone to work?’ said Granny, wiping her hands and taking off her apron. Molly grabbed my hand and she shouted to Arthur to come with her, then she took us in the front room where Grandad was. She said in a stern voice, ‘Stay there both of you, with Grandad, don’t come out, I mean it.’ I went to the window but there was nothing to see. I looked at Grandad Jack, that’s what we called him sometimes, not that we’d ever even known our other Grandad. He was sitting at the piano writing music for the band, he always did this in the mornings then the young people from the band would come by one by one on Saturdays to learn it. Anyhow he raised his shoulders to me like he knew nothing at all. I put my ear to the door and heard them going out to next door.
I so wanted to do what Molly had said but I was scared about what was going on and only a minute or so passed when I decided to go for it and I opened the door. Grandad Jack started to speak but I put my finger on my lips and so he smiled and nodded, turned, said, ‘but don’t be a nuisance Vonnie dear,’ and carried on at the piano probably knowing that he’d find out soon enough if there was anything to worry about. Arthur just carried on in his own world.
As I crept in the door of our house I could hear Molly making a little crying sound and Granny saying in a weird urgent way, ‘Tom, no, no, stay with us.’ I peeped around the living room door. I could see my dad’s legs as if he was sleeping on the floor, but Granny was by him so I couldn’t see the rest of him. She seemed to be kneeling in something like dark syrup. She said ‘God help us’ and I pushed the door a bit more. It made a noise. She turned quickly, saw me and shouted ‘Go to the post office and get them to phone for an ambulance, fast, as fast as you can. And shout your Grandad to come.’
I don’t know how far it was but it seemed to take ages and I know I never pedalled as fast in my life. Mr Finch at the post office did the phoning then bundled my bike in the back of his van and me in the front and took me back. Grandad was in the room then too but Granny shouted to me, ‘Go back to our house.’ I must’ve looked a bit startled as Granny rarely raised her voice to us, she didn’t need to most of the time. ‘Now Vonnie! Stay with Arthur and keep him there.’ I knew this time that I had to do what they said. My mother wasn’t anywhere around.
Dad was in hospital for ages, at the beginning not even conscious they said and although Grandad or Granny went to see him a lot and sometimes took Molly, Arthur and me weren’t allowed to go. We were too young, they said. Day after day my mother wasn’t there and the three of us just stayed next door at Granny and Grandad’s. It was Mum’s birthday not long after she left and I made her a birthday card and got Arthur to sign it as well. Because I was sure she would come to see us that day. She didn’t. But sometimes at night I would wake up and get the feeling that she was in next door and I would hear little noises in the room through the wall as if she was going through cupboards and things and my hands would start shaking and I was sure I would wake Molly as she was over there in the other bed and then she’d shout at me and the others would wake, so I didn’t dare. But my bed in Granny’s was next to that wall and I would lean my face on it and ever so quietly call ‘Mum, Mum, Mum’ hoping she could hear me. I wished I could have had a secret code with her so that I could tap out a quiet message, telling her something, I don’t know what.
No one mentioned her, to me at least. I got to thinking that she was in the hospital as well and I asked Molly. She bit my head off. So I didn’t ask again. Then I began to think that Mum had been murdered. That someone had got into our house and had attacked Dad and kidnapped her. She hadn’t come back or been rescued or anything so either they were keeping her hostage or she’d been murdered. Murder was a rare thing then in our little world but at school one day in the playground someone had been talking about Jack the Ripper and all those women he killed and chopped up. And they never found him so he could still be out there somewhere, even if very old. So we asked Miss when we were in class and she said it was not something we should bother ourselves with. But as the days and weeks went on it seemed more and more that Mum had been murdered. And no one knew, or no one would tell us, because we shouldn’t bother ourselves with it.
Molly got into the habit of looking after Dad when he got home. Granny too, he was her son wasn’t he. Grandad Jack was still working down at Vickers then but would go in and have a chat with Dad every evening and take him a beer and sometimes walk with him down to the Grange prom. If he needed his oxygen Grandad would push it on a little trolley. They seemed to think it was important that he got some proper fresh air. He could walk slowly but all they told me was that he couldn’t to work as there was something wrong with his lung that they couldn’t mend and so he had trouble breathing. And the doctors told him he had to stop smoking, so Granny and Grandad stopped as well to support him, it wasn’t too hard they said because they were doing it for him. Arthur and me went to the Prom with them sometimes, especially if the Pool was open then we’d take our swim things and swim and play about. It was great there, we called it the Pool, but it was outdoor on the sea and so people would call it a Lido now. But then if Dad felt ok he’d sit with Grandad Jack and watch us swimming. But whenever I went in the house Dad was always coughing and he’d just smile through his choking and nod at me. There wasn’t room for him to move into Granny’s, but everything seemed ok as it was, and I never even thought about how the rent was paid. Or even if there was any rent.
A few months on and I must have been feeling brave because I asked Molly to tell me what had happened and where our mother had gone and when she’d be back. She said she’d tell me one day when I was old enough. I guessed that meant that she’d been murdered then. And no one wanted to bother me with it. Every few weeks I asked Granny as well, I didn’t think she’d want the question more often than that. Then one morning just when we broke up for the summer holidays I found out I was going up to the Grammar School in September. Molly already went there so it didn’t seem like anything special but I really wanted my mother to come back and know that I was going and smile at me in that way she had with her eyes and hug me and say ‘so well done Little Dear.’ She sometimes called me that, Little Dear, and Molly was Sweet Dear. More likely though she would be shouting, especially at me and Arthur, we were ‘pains in the neck’ and I never heard her call Arthur anything nice. But I thought she could help me to get my uniform and my gym kit and some nice shoes, if she would just open the door and walk in.
Instead, looking back, it must’ve been a marker for Granny because a few days later she made me sit in the kitchen with her and I knew right away that she had something bad to say. About her daughter-in-law, Joyce. My mother. It was a Saturday, quarter past two in the afternoon, and I remember that because I kept looking at the clock as if my watching would make it turn to the time when everything was back to normal. I was sure it would be, but only when Granny had told me that Mum had been murdered and they’d found her body and she was all dead and buried now. There was a drink and a piece of chocolate cake on the table for me.
Then she said, ‘Now try not to get too upset Vonnie. I don’t want to tell you this but you have to know sometime.’ Her voice cracked a bit and I thought for a moment that she was going to cry. But she sat up to get her back straight and made sure her hair was pinned up properly at the back and then without any more fuss she said, ‘She stabbed him. Your mother turned into a lunatic and stabbed your father right in the chest. That’s why he can hardly breathe and why he’ll never be able to work or be well again.’
I was silent. Granny was silent. And she had a very unusual look on her face that frightened me, her lips seemed to be drawn back tightly and I knew she was very angry.
‘She’s not been murdered?’ I asked, almost in shock.
‘No,’ said Granny, ‘Not that we know anyhow.’
‘She’s not been kidnapped?’
‘She did it to Dad?’ now I was getting afraid.
‘Yes, I’m sorry to say it,’ said Granny.
‘Is she in prison?’ I said.
‘The police have been trying to find her, it’s been in the papers, we haven’t shown them to you. But if they’d found her they would have told us. We would have had to go to Court.’
I was stunned, realising that Molly would have known this all along but not told me. They must have thought I was too young, that they were protecting me. But now it felt that someone had hit me over the head with something big and heavy. You know when you fall and bang your head and a zooming thing goes through you, like that.
Granny went on, ‘She should be in prison. No doubt she’s seen the papers and she knows your Dad’s not dead. But she hasn’t come forward. Prison or in a lunatic asylum.’ Her mouth went even harder as she said it and her face was firm, it was a look reserved for wrong-doers. She was the business-like no nonsense Judge who would have no qualms about sending my mother to prison if she could.
‘Where is she then? What if she’s dead herself?’
‘We don’t know anything about that. I think if she was dead then we may have been told. Unless she changed her name or something. They do have her as a missing person. Vonnie, I can’t talk about that but I can say she did a serious assault on your dad. It was wrong and then she couldn’t face up so she ran away. And she’s harmed you and Molly and Arthur as well as your dad. A very serious harm. I’ll never forgive her.’
‘Is she… is she coming back though?’ I had to ask, even if scared of the answer.
‘We don’t know, but I doubt it. She’ll be arrested if she does.’
I sat there for a few minutes, then I ran outside. My face turned wet with tears and, half choking and making odd little moaning sounds, I grabbed my bike from where it was standing outside the door and pedalled as if I would never stop. I went on and on not really sure where I was going but the bike seemed to arrive all by itself up at the lake where we were swimming only two weeks ago, where the path went right around but there were hidden paths on the side where there was a forest, where you could squeeze between the bushes and one of them was more hidden because Molly and me we used to put branches over so it didn’t look like a path and we would go down there with picnics and hide out on own little secret beach. It was tiny but covered in pine needles that were good to lie on and there was a flat rock which made a nice table for our things and to dry our swim stuff on. I remember thinking ‘Well I’ve made it to here and they won’t find me. Good.’
I sat down and leaned against the rock. Then I thought of something. When she was cross our mother was always telling us, me and Arthur, that she would leave us in the forest. She would shout and say she’d had enough and if we didn’t watch out that’s where we’d end up, in the forest and she’d leave us there and no one would find us. She used to scare us silly with it and we’d usually run out and go next door or down to the shore until we thought she’d calmed down. Well now I was here and I didn’t feel afraid. It was just like the story had come true, she’d had enough and that’s where I ended up without meaning to at all.
The pine needle bed was soft and safe and had that smell that it always had, like the candles at Christmas and the fire when we threw the cones on it. It was a black and white sort of a day but still I could see the bracken already beginning to go orange up on the fell and the deep still green of the pine trees making everything quiet and calm in that little nook. Some people were shouting and laughing over the other side but I couldn’t see them and they couldn’t see me. I don’t know how long I lay there. The pain had arrived in my stomach on the day my mother went, as if the one replaced the other. Yes, it was an unfair swap but now there was a pain in my chest too. I wondered if this was like the hurt that my father had, or was it the same as my mother’s pain? Did she hurt as well because she had to leave her children?
I must’ve been reluctant to put aside my own solution to her disappearance because I know I was lying there on that pine bed thinking, they may be wrong, perhaps she’s been kidnapped and murdered without them knowing. But they must have looked for her. So someone’s hidden her body. Or maybe she was thrown in the sea or maybe they even made her jump in and she would never be seen again except to be washed up in some other country and they would never know who she was. And then in a flash I knew the truth. It was my fault. If only I’d been in the house that night inside of always liking to be in Granny’s, if only I’d been there I could have woken up and screamed at the top of my voice and Granny and Grandad would have come running and they’d have sent for the Police and the Police would have saved them both. If only. And I only liked to go into Granny’s, I knew, because I was a pain to my mother and she was cross with me so much. All my fault.
Come back Mum I swear I’ll be a better daughter now. I know you’ve had enough of me but I’ll be different, I will. I don’t know what being different means, but you can tell me and I will be it, I promise. I’ll stay here where no one can find me Mum just like you wanted. It’s ok, my lost lunatic dead sad angry mother, if you’re alive I think you’ll be happier if I’m dead so I’ll lie here in the forest on the pine needles until I’m dead and then you’ll feel better and anyhow if you’re dead then I can find you in Heaven and you won’t be missing, and I won’t be missing… you.
The noises from across the water stopped and I knew it was nearly evening but it didn’t matter because I truly meant to stay there until I was dead. And I knew it could happen because Mrs Taylor’s son had broken up with his girlfriend and they found him up on the fell by a wall. Dead, just from sitting there, that’s what they told us. I saw this beetle and it kept wandering past me and back and I just watched it. I must have gone to sleep because suddenly it was somehow dark and I was hearing voices and people crashing through the path to me. I tried to get up, but I seemed stuck, nothing of me would move and my head hurt so bad. Someone was shining a light on me and I could see a policeman, then a policewoman appeared and Grandad and Molly too. She must have guessed I’d be here and come to show them the way. They put a blanket round me and the policeman carried me back to the road where they had their car and somebody brought my bike, I couldn’t see them but I could hear it rattling on the stones on the path somewhere behind.
On the journey Grandad Jack put his arm round me and Molly held my hand and by then I could speak so I said, ‘You found me.’ He nodded and smiled and squeezed my shoulders a little bit. I looked up at him and he had some tears on his cheeks. As quick as a flash he wiped them away with his other hand. They kept me in the hospital for the rest of that night. Adults couldn’t get to stay in the hospital with kids so much in those days but I was ok. Other kids who’d been in hospital used to tell me that it smelled like toilets and the food was horrible, but I didn’t notice any smell at all and though they brought me a sandwich, not a meal because it was quite late they said, I didn’t know if it was horrible because I didn’t eat it. I just went to sleep and when I woke up a nurse said, ‘Your Granny’s here, she’s talking to the Sister. She’ll only be a few minutes, luv.’
They gave me some breakfast, it was Weetabix and toast and jam. It was nice. A little girl with both her legs in plaster was having a screaming fit and I was allowed to go over to her and I got some paper off the nurse and I picked up her crayons and drew her a picture of an elephant. She shut up then and had me drawing all sorts. The nurses said if they could bottle what I just did their lives would be a whole lot easier.
Then Granny came in smiling and I ran to her. We sat together with the little girl and someone brought us a drink and I carried on drawing for her and Granny kept looking over at me and smiling and then watching all the clatter and hubble-bubble of the ward. After a while I had to go back on my bed whilst a doctor came to talk to Granny and me for a few minutes and later we got taken back home in a taxi and Grandad and Molly and Arthur rushed out of the door to meet us. And Dad was standing there at the door as well, he seemed like he was crying but then it was like he was laughing. Granny put me to bed with a hot water bottle although I didn’t really need one.
‘Come down in a little while darling, I’ve just got to sort a few things, stay in your dressing gown if you want or pop your clothes on if you feel ok,’ she said.
I smiled at her and snuggled down. My teddy, Bing, and my rag doll, May, were there too and they made me feel a bit better. Maybe I was too old for them but anyhow I’d never thrown them away and I was glad. I must’ve gone to sleep again as my little clock had jumped forwards. Then I got dressed and went down. I sat at the kitchen table and Grandad made me a cup of hot chocolate and then sat with me, stroking my hair and pushing it back from my face. Dad was there too and Arthur sat on the other side of me and he gave me a picture that he’d drawn. It was me swimming in the Pool, with a big smile on my face and all the people sat round on the benches with little round faces and their hands in the air. They were cheering he said.
There was a smell of baking and Granny went to the oven to see what was what. She turned and brought a pie to the table. A bit of steam came out of the holes in the middle. She’d made little pastry leaves to go around the edges and put sugar on the top and they were just browning. Some dark purple juice was seeping through here and there. I looked up at her with a question in my eyes. She smiled.
‘Yes, the whinberries are out,’ she smiled and said, ‘Grandad and Molly and Arthur went and picked some for you this morning. We’ve got custard or cream or you can have both.’
They never spoke to me in anger about the day I ran away. They just gathered some berries and made my favourite pie and they gave it to me without fuss without tears without recriminations without worry or pain or frustration or anger. Now and again my Granny would ask me if I was ok and try to reassure me that it would be better to talk. But through the rest of my childhood I never spoke about the day my mother left, and I never fully accepted that she’d stabbed Dad, always holding a little thought that she’d been kidnapped or murdered, or both. Not until years had passed. But right there and then I just took the memory and wrapped it up in foil so that it couldn’t leak out and locked it up safe somewhere in me. Then I painted a picture of that beautiful pie with the browning sugar and pastry leaves and the juice oozing out and maybe if you saw the picture you could even get something of the beautiful smell and the taste as well.
I still have the picture, framed but put away now in a memory box. I keep it to remind me that it doesn’t matter if someone tells you they love you or not, it’s what they do that counts. They’re always there for you even if not in the same house or the same town and they would walk a hundred miles to be with you if you needed someone. It’s in a bigger way than always being by your side because that’s not always necessary or even the best thing, but they make sure somehow that you know they care, and they make sure they know how you are, they worry if you’re hurt even if you don’t see it, then they bake pies to comfort you. Delicious, with tenderness, a pie like that shows not tells, it cares carefully, it meets your needs without words, it’s the look and the smell and the taste of love.
I have some nice memories of Mum, you know, in fact just a little bit before the time I told you about she’d started to tell us things. Especially if she was in the right mood and if Arthur was out playing with his friend down the road or in Granny’s cooking with her or learning to play the cornet with Grandad Jack. It wasn’t very often but usually on a Sunday morning when we’d come back from Church and Dad and Grandad would call in the pub for a pint they said and Granny would be in the other house making the Sunday dinner for us all. Because this was the one time every week when all the seven of us ate together. Meanwhile we would finish the cleaning with mum and she’d make us a drink of hot chocolate and we would have cake. She never went with us to Church though.
She didn’t say much about her own family. We asked plenty and she used to say her dad didn’t like her, he liked her brother better. We didn’t ask much about that until one day when Molly said, ’But why didn’t your dad like you?’
‘I don’t know. I just knew he didn’t.’
‘Did your mother like you though?’ That was me, chipping in.
‘No she didn’t, I think she had me down as our father’s favourite. And she was jealous.’
‘Gosh,’ I said.
‘She was jealous?’ Molly said, ‘Of her own daughter?’
‘Yes she was. And she used to say to me that she wished she’d sold me to the Baby Farmers.’
‘Who? The Baby Farmers?’
‘Oh just some people from my mum’s time, I didn’t know really but it was a thing that could happen to a baby that wasn’t wanted.’
‘Does that mean…’ Molly started but when she saw our Mum’s face there was no way she was going to finish that sentence.
‘I wasn’t his favourite anyhow,’ Mum said, ‘but he did buy me things when it wasn’t my birthday and he used to take me for walks.’
‘Where you lived, was it in the country?’
‘No, but there was a forest not too far away and that’s where he used to take me. Then he was horrible to me.’
‘What? He hurt you...?’ She stopped me with a look and I knew this talking was over. But it all sounded very confusing to me and it made me unhappy to hear her say those things, although I didn’t really know why at the time. She never said anything more about her dad, at least to me.
Sometimes when we were with mum on Sunday mornings we would ask her about her first marriage because we knew this was a safer subject, one she’d mentioned before without any problem. If she laughed then we knew it was a signal to carry on then we’d say things like, ‘tell us about your first husband mum,’ and ‘what did he look like?’ and ‘what was his name?’ and ‘was he nice?’ and ‘why isn’t he our dad?’ and so on. She would say that she was only eighteen and it didn’t last long and really she avoided telling us very much at all. But then one day she told us about a time when they went away together. To Jerusalem.
We were like three best friends. Grown up and important. Mum went into a kind of trance, as if she was still there, not really with us.
‘Martin Twining, no relation to tea. It was like being on a wild sea on a fierce wave, riding it with my husband. Surging and falling, through endless days.’
‘Gosh,’ Molly said, with a funny look on her face as though she was a bit daunted by the way mum was speaking and wondering what was coming next.
‘But waves are ever-changing aren’t they - never stopping to offer a girl a steady walk on firmer ground and sometimes they can knock you over with hardly any effort at all.’
‘Oh,’ I said, feeling like I’d heard the most profound thing in my life so far.
‘The wave went as quickly as it came, then we were both standing in the shallows. For months. I wanted that feeling back. I… got, I got… a bit wayward, so… young,’ she tailed off.
Molly and me just looked at her, wondering what she would say next. Although so far I wasn’t understanding much of it.
‘It was the first December after we were married, that’s when we went to Jerusalem, looking for a real Christmas. A lot had happened that year and like I said… well he was looking to make things feel better, probably. He was so ordered, so strictly controlled most of the time and I was sure by then he didn’t love me, so when he said let’s go away I thought we might be able to make it better after all. Maybe.’
She stopped. ‘Go on mum,’ said Molly. I felt a bit scared, as though I’d got a book off the wrong shelf and it was too old for me and I didn’t understand it but somebody might see.
‘It frightened me,’ she said, seeming to say what I was thinking, ‘and I didn’t know why but I thought it was his attitude. Just with that little edge. It made me feel like I was a child, with my father… but this time it made me feel loving as well. You know I was looking for love and closeness and I wanted the fear to go away so I thought that if I did the right things then it would.’
‘Did it go away mum?’ This was Molly, feeling bolder than me.
‘Well, it’s this... he knew the city because his father had been there for years with the British Administration. It was such a new, strange experience. And exciting. Because he knew Jerusalem so well it helped us getting about and he knew all the places to go, from the Bible and more. Still, it was as if he owned it, like an honorary controller. But without warning I did something that he couldn’t control – I fell in love… with the old city. You should see it, it’s wonderful and maybe we’ll go there together one day, just the three of us. Easier now, now that you can fly there.’
‘And Dad and Arthur?’ I said.
She looked at me and said, ‘I’ll probably have taken Arthur to Walney Island and left him with the seals by then, he sounds just like them when he’s hollering away, or I’ll have found a forest to leave him in.’ And she smiled. Molly smirked. I looked down, I never seemed to get used to her saying things like that to Arthur and me and it made me feel funny. And scared. But she didn’t seem to bother, she just went on, ‘it’s the sense of time, like a destiny that lives in those walls and churches and the stone is all this beautiful pale honey colour. And the cobbles that you walk on, so huge and smooth, you get the feeling of the people who’ve walked on them, Holy people. And it feels like you’re walking on top of thousands of years of holiness. It’s got the Via Dolorosa and the Garden of Gethsemane and the Western Wall… and oh so much more.’ She stopped and her eyes went into the distance, into that trance again I suppose, as if she was somewhere else.
‘Is that the Wailing Wall?’
‘Ah, yes. It’s profound, being there. But you know they call it the Holy Land and you truly feel that it’s Holy when you’re there. I was smitten by everything and it seemed to make me think in new ways, ideas, how I could be better, I started wondering what I could do, what I should do, with my life. You could say it inspired me. I wish I could go back. Maybe things could be…’
She broke off and we looked at her without speaking. She seemed like a different person and we were a bit mesmerised.
‘Anyhow I knew my husband was jealous and we…’
She broke off again, like she was picking words so carefully but couldn’t quite find the right ones.
‘I realised he was jealous of anything, even a city, and he started to snarl at me and try to hurt me with words that seemed like a branding iron. He was teaching me a lesson - I must care only for him. Worship him really. I was supposed to like only what he wanted me to like, admire only what he wanted me to admire, gaze only where his finger pointed. Have no thoughts that he didn’t like. As if he owned me.’
‘Shall I make a drink mum?’ That was Molly needing a bit of a breather. Me too.
‘Yes ok, will you get some cake out then Little Dear?’
We all went off into the kitchen. It was a lovely feeling of closeness, just the three of us, getting our hot chocolate and cake and sitting round the kitchen table together.
‘Then one afternoon he said he was going back to the souk where he’d seen something he wanted to buy and thought it might be worth something. He said he’d be half an hour at most. I said I’d like to go with him he said no it was ok thanks he really just wanted to go quickly and come back. I was pleased enough to have a break by myself. We were staying in pilgrim rooms at one of the Churches, like a hotel, but basic like a monastery or something. You couldn’t do so much, but I walked around a bit and went in the Church and sat in this shady garden and read my book and wrote some postcards that I’d bought. Four hours later he came back. He shied away when I went to him and he hardly spoke and there was no telling where he’d been. But I knew he’d gone to a prostitute house.’
She lowered her eyes and her voice as she said it and looked sort of ashamed but I didn’t know what that was and when I asked Molly later she said something about the spoon dipping in the custard. I had even less idea then and she said she wasn’t allowed to tell me anymore. Even though our mum came right out with it.
Mum carried on. ‘But the next day he said we could walk the old city walls, that I might like it up there and sort of leaving it to me to decide for a change. It was as if I wanted now to please him and make him like me and I wanted to want what he said. To my mind he was letting me choose maybe as a way of being nice and I was doing what he suggested for the same reason. It seemed like a good start to the day.’
I don’t think I really understood what she was saying but I do remember the words because I wrote them down not that long afterwards.
Mum went on. ‘Well every step around the walls he followed behind me, until the open part where there’s a big drop that sort of screams, no safety whatsoever. They may have fenced it off now. He went to the inside, back against the wall, then gave me the camera and asked me to take his photo. I looped the camera strap over my neck as I didn’t want to drop it and had to stand with my back near to the edge to take the photo. I looked through the camera… and clicked. At that moment I felt his foot kick my shin. Then his hand shot out. He pushed me, full force, right in the chest.’
I made a little sound but I didn’t know how to ask the question without making myself cry. Molly held her hand over her mouth, just waiting.
‘There was no time, no choice, no stopping, nothing to grab only air. I woke up in hospital. My parents were there. But not Martin.’
I let out my breath and Molly said, ‘Oh no.’
‘It’s ok. Don’t worry. I’d broken my collar bone and my leg in two places. And I was unconscious for a while but no brain damage. I… was ok. And everything got fixed in time. But it was like falling into a new life then. He wasn’t there because he was locked up.’
‘He went to actual prison?’
‘Yes. Attempted murder. It was the photo. Evidence. It showed him with his foot coming towards me. And his hand coming up to push… and a horrible look on his face. An evil look.’
She was silent for a minute. And so were we.
‘They said it was a close call for me. The fall was high enough for a broken neck or fatal head injuries. So that’s why it was a short marriage. And then everything seemed calm and steady and safe. I was free of all that control and jealousy… and I was so careful with picking my boyfriends after that! Although the war came then and everything changed in any case.’
She stopped, lost in thought.
I knew I had to get out.
‘I think I want to ride over to Josey’s now,’ I said. Molly didn’t come with me so I don’t know if they carried on talking. I rode away, not to Josey’s, but up to the rocky part at Hampsfell and then pushed the bike the rest of the way to the top. I sat there and looked down at the bay and tried to think about something else to stop this feeling of my head racing and spinning and going places I didn’t want it to go.
Later on I got scared that in our pestering we’d made her say too much and that’s why she must’ve hated us. Probably just me thinking that, because I was a child, but it was easy to decide that she hated us, otherwise she wouldn’t have gone and not come back. For a long time though whenever I thought about that day or if I talked about it with Molly it made me nervous. But I thought that even though she didn’t really like anything about living here anymore, Dad or us in the end, it had seemed like she wanted to be our friend, time to time.
Three weeks after telling us about her trip to Jerusalem, she was gone.
I’d visited the Grammar School before of course, when Molly was in a school play or something and me and Arthur would be taken to see her, so it wasn’t a strange place for me. But it did have a strange smell, a sort of mixture of wood, vegetables and that dye you could use to make shoes into a different colour. There was a lot of wood, some of the walls and all the floors were this thick wood and the caretaker use to sweep up every morning before Assembly then once a week he would polish the whole floor. And there was probably a lot of shoe dye because everyone had to wear black shoes with their uniform. I knew a few girls already from the Junior School and some were in my form so that was good.
One day in the English class the teacher Miss Mulrooney must have felt like getting to know us and asked us what we wanted to be when we grew up. We could put our hands up if we wanted to say. I definitely didn’t but in that year Sandra Mather sat next to me and she put her hand up.
‘Yes Sandra?’ said Miss Mulrooney.
‘When I grow up I want to be a writer,’ Sandra said it in her best please-the-teacher voice. My head whirled round to her of its own accord and she might even have been a bit scared if she could have seen the look on my face. Because she didn’t want to be a writer at all, that was me and I’d whispered it to her.
‘Well Sandra,’ said Miss Mulrooney, ‘that’s a very good aim. We know of some wonderful writers don’t we, especially if you’ve already started on the reading list? Now then, one thing to remember, if you want to be a writer you’ll do well to keep a diary. Or at the very least keep a notebook for your ideas and thoughts.’ She looked at Sandra with such kind intent and so certain that Sandra was telling her the truth that I felt guilty that I’d ever said anything. It was like Sandra was making a fool of her and it was my fault.
‘Yes Miss Mulrooney, I do that already,’ said Sandra.
‘Good, do you have any ideas for stories?’
‘Yes Miss Mulrooney.’
‘Very good, then perhaps for the next class you can write something about one of your story ideas and the characters in it and then tell us about it.’
Sandra’s face fell.
‘Yes I will Miss Mulrooney.’
I wrote a note that I could pass across the desk to her when we weren’t being watched.
‘Sandra! You don’t want to be a writer and you don’t keep a notebook! Why did you steal my wish?’
When she read it she grimaced, then shrugged her shoulders. She looked as though she wished she’d never even met me. I decided I’d probably never tell anyone about wanting to be a writer again, even if she had got her comeuppance. But I did tell my friend Christine and then she told me that Sandra was her cousin and the little brother had died in March this year. So we decided we’d make up a story for the next English class and we’d give it to Sandra to use as if it was one of hers. It was about some kids who got stuck in a cave and then found some treasure. In the end Sandra was too scared and so stayed off sick that day and Miss Mulrooney never mentioned it again.
But that’s when I asked my dad if I could have some money to get a book to write in from the post office. I was going to ask for one at Christmas but I decided I couldn’t wait. He gave me the change out of his pocket and I got a lovely blue book with a shiny cover. Then I started to write in it about some things that puzzled me or made me sad or angry or anything different really or things that would go in an actual diary. Or things that I remembered, like my mother’s story about Jerusalem. I called it The Book of Veronica, a Dark Haired Girl, because that’s the thing people most said to me about me. When I met people I didn’t know, like if family came to visit, they would say things like ‘gosh you’ve got such lovely dark hair Veronica’ and ‘your hair is just like your Granny Eleanor’s used to be and you’re lovely and tall like her as well’ and ‘Molly’s like your mother but you don’t look like anything like her do you Veronica, especially the hair?’ I didn’t know whether I wanted to look like my mother or not but I knew that to them I was ‘Veronica, the dark haired one’.
From the Book of Veronica, a Dark Haired Girl
Today it’s nine months since our mother wasn’t there anymore.
That’s exactly as long as she held me inside her tummy in 1951 and 1952 without seeing or really knowing me. So for the same length of time I’ve held her inside me, without seeing or really knowing her.
Was she murdered? They say not but I don’t know.
If she left us, why did she? I don’t know.
And where did she go? I don’t know.
Is she alive? I don’t know.
I do know –
That I can’t write poems or stories anymore. For English I’m supposed to write things. But I can’t.
I can’t draw any more.
I don’t feel right. I have a pain. It never goes away and no one knows. Not even Granny or Molly.
For English homework this weekend just gone Miss Mulrooney wrote something out on the blackboard and I wrote it in my homework notebook. ‘Write at least two pages about a real event in your life. Use as much description as you like. Try to show one of the characters in this event in ways that are to do with one or more of the five senses.’
Tried the Real Event. And I tried to make up an unreal event. I even thought about using an event that happened to Molly or Arthur. Obviously not the Real Event, so there is nothing else. I asked Granny and Grandad about something in their childhood, but it’s all to do with India or the First World War and I don’t think I can make any of that into my life.
I’m going to be off sick tomorrow. Trust me.
19th November 1963
I told them I have a stomach ache (true) and that I feel sick (not true) and that I have a
headache that thumps (not true). I’m in bed for a while.
22nd November 1963
Another day for putting in English homework and I’m off sick again.
Auntie May is arriving later on today. From Africa. I would feel excited but I don’t think
23rd November 1963
Everyone’s sad, they seem shocked, Granny was even crying. Because yesterday evening, just about an hour after Auntie May got here, it was on the tv that the President of America was murdered.
Auntie May was especially sad, she said she’d been to Washington for something with the Foreign Office and she’d seen him at a big convention or something. She’d been introduced to him and he’d smiled at her and said how he loved Great Britain and particularly Ireland.
25th November 1963
Today we were all in Assembly and the Head Teacher made a speech and we said prayers for Mr Kennedy and sang some hymns.
27th November 1963
Molly’s birthday, she’s 15. I gave her some soap and some chocolates but she felt
too miserable to have much fun. So did me and Arthur, we were just the same on our birthdays, without our mother. Auntie May and Granny and Grandad did their best with us.
6th December 1963
English homework again, the writing parts.
Auntie May is nice. She’s sleeping at Dad’s next door for now in what used to be Arthur’s room in there. They’re having the attic done up here in Granny’s for Arthur and then Auntie May will be sleeping here in the other bedroom. Molly will stay with Dad next door as usual. She says she wants to. I’m a bit jealous of Arthur getting the attic, but at least I’ll still be near the wall where my mother might have been on the other side, those nights in the weeks after she left and I whispered to her just in case she could hear me.
Auntie May isn’t working in this area yet although she does go down to London sometimes for a few days to do stuff. I don’t know what stuff but she’s just been up to talk to me in my bedroom. Where I am instead of going to school.
She suddenly appeared and it was too late to hide my arms and she saw them.
She’s too clever.
She talked to Bing the teddy and to May the rag doll. She found out that Bing is named after Bing Crosby and May is named for her. She asked them more questions.
I couldn’t resist her. I told her everything. I told her about hurting myself. Not with knives or anything but how my skin itches so much, so bad, and how I scratch my arms from my wrists to my elbows till they bleed and every time any of it is healing I scratch it again. I keep them covered up because there’s always something healing or bleeding all over the top surface of both arms. I never let anything heal properly. I sort of like the blood, it seems like tears. Like it’s my body crying. I make notes for the gym class pretending they’re from Granny so I don’t have to undress and they must feel sorry for me, because they never say anything, week after week. I hate myself for doing it. Then I do it more.
I told her I’ve been making this on my arms since about March and I’ve kept it hidden from Grandad and Granny and it wasn’t really hard to hide it because everything had long sleeves until the summer. But it wasn’t too bad then, it just looked like a little rash and so when it was the day I ran away and ended up in the hospital that’s what I was going to tell them if they asked me but they didn’t ask. After that day that’s when it went worse, really bad. Then I had to work hard to keep it away from them like keeping my cardigan on even if I was roasting. Because I didn’t want to hurt their feelings. Molly sees my arms when we go for a swim in the tarn or the Pool but I think she doesn’t care anymore. Arthur comes with us to the Pool too but he never says anything about anything.
Auntie May says she must tell Granny now but they will solve it, she and Granny together.
She said she’ll help me to get the writing back. She says if it was there then it won’t have gone away for good probably, maybe it just needed a rest and to hide for a bit. She promised to do her very best. I told her about the diary and she said it might be good to write more, anything, memories, thoughts, any words that come to me. Put them all in the diary, happy, sad, whatever. Try for one word a day as an excellent minimum. I said, yes, ok.
The Book helps me remember the day I told all that to Auntie May but I remember for other reasons as well. It was my dad’s 40th the next day. I was worried because I hadn’t done his birthday card and I was knitting him a scarf but I hadn’t finished it. Molly said I was so selfish it wasn’t true and she said I should pull myself together but she must’ve taken pity on me because she helped me to finish the scarf and brought me some paper to wrap it.
When it was all done and ready Molly left me and I read my book for a bit but I couldn’t keep my mind on it. Then I was getting more and more uncomfortable and more and more worried and my tummy was hurting and my feet had pins and needles. I couldn’t go to sleep and my arms were burning and my head was burning but then I got scared about the dream so it was best to stay awake. But I didn’t.
My mother… is inside me and there’s someone trying to stab her but instead they get me and the knife keeps slashing and cutting me and I keep trying to scream and no sound will come out and no one will come to help me and no one will ever know that I am bleeding to death on my own bed. And my mother won’t get out of me and she keeps turning away and hiding from the stabbing and she doesn’t care that they’re getting me instead. My father’s voice is screaming again and again but no one hears him either. He’s trying to grab me but he can’t get near enough and he’s trying to save me but he never can.
The dream was always more or less like this. But then I would get up and go to school or out to play or something as if nothing was the matter. I think I must have been quite good at that time about doing my life in sectors. Ones that didn’t interfere with one another that much. So there was school where I was not too popular but I had my friend Christine and now even her cousin Sandra and things went along ok. I had a home life, in two houses, where there was my sick father, my grandparents and my brother and sister. Then of course nearly the first Christmas after the leaving day, there was Auntie May. We all got on with things, eventually.
But there was the other sector, my inside place, where the foil-wrapped memories sat on a little shelf. Where other stuff jumbled about.
It was as if I could see a message written on the wall and I would just follow it and do things that seemed the only obvious action, but I gave them no thought at all, as if I didn’t know how to choose what was right or wrong. One day a few months after I’d started my periods, the curse they said, I heard about ‘Tampax’ and I didn’t know about them so I bought some with my pocket money from a chemist that was near school and I decided you could wee with it inside you and I put one in me whilst I was looking in the mirror in my Granny’s bedroom. It hurt actually, but I stood on this beautiful silky pale green rug she had with long smooth pile and when you lay on it and stroked it you’d feel so warm and happy and special somehow. So that’s it. I just let the wee go right there and then and the hot liquid seared its way down my leg and my socks got wet as well and so I found out the thing didn’t work like that but I thought nothing about it as if it didn’t matter at all like the wee would be soaked up from the rug and whisked away by magic and there would be no sign. Something like a voice said why not, but not quite a voice, more of a decision I was not making myself. No one ever mentioned it to me.
I was horrible to my sister I know that now, at least I never thought about her always helping dad and me just doing nothing. And sometimes I ignored my dad. Horribly. But I used to go in and if he was asleep I’d pick up his trousers off the chair to see if he had any change in his pockets so that I could go and get sweets. Sometimes he’d wake up and he let me have the money anyhow. I knew that was more or less horrible.
And then I would stop speaking to people. Just like that. I wasn’t in control. Something else ruled here in this secret place where the rules were no talking and no comforts, no frills, no friends to keep, no manners to mind, no kindness, no pity and where I paid no attention to anyone and so they wouldn’t pay any to me, I thought. In time that place got shut down. It took me a long time to figure out that Auntie May had been the one to make that happen, although I didn’t know at the time. But in the event it was not demolished, just closed, meaning that it could reopen any time it chose.
On the wall by the stairs there’s a photo in a frame, it’s of me and Arthur and my Auntie May. I think Granny took it one day with her box Brownie when we were out probably because she was pleased to see me smiling and happy. Auntie May was a special person for me. The first clear memory I have of her was very soon after she came to live with us and she was reading a poem one Friday when we sat around the fire, Molly, Arthur, and me, toasting bread on the coals. We did the toast every Friday, but only in winter because that’s when the fire was lit. We had a toasting fork that my dad had made before he got sick and it was perfect, it had three prongs and was so long that you didn’t have to get your hand red whilst you were holding it. We put the butter dish on the hearth so that it would spread nice and easy and honestly we could eat a whole loaf between us. The thing about Auntie May was that she didn’t moan or stop us like you’d expect, in fact she always ate as much as us… and then the last crust, she loved that.
Anyhow I can’t remember which poem it was that night but it was just after she came to us and before Christmas 1963. Auntie May had been away at Oxford and then Africa and all over the place even America. She was with the Foreign Office since I was tiny so I didn’t know her but it was easy to love her. And she loved us, of course no one said that then, you just knew.
But I also knew that she loved poetry, Auntie May. She was always making us think of rhymes and words that she said went together in their best order and it didn’t always matter about the spaces and the words could be like water joining together to make a stream or a lake or a sea or like cobbles jammed together for a path. But one thing about poems, she said, they always want to be read aloud. And we loved to listen to her telling poems, even if we couldn’t understand them you could get the message from the way she moved her body the look on her face and the rise and fall of her voice. I even know a poem I wrote for her one time that’s right here in The Book of Veronica. This is it.
Well anyhow it was something that was supposed to be a poem. She liked it, I remember that. The widely reading bit was from her. She knew of course that I wanted to be a writer and she used to say, ‘no use reinventing the wheel, read widely, find how out it’s done Vonnie dearest.’ My real name was Veronica May, after her and my Auntie Vonnie, my dad’s two sisters. I never knew Auntie Vonnie as she died in India when she was a small child, but I loved getting her name. And her nickname.
I didn’t read widely at first though. I read lots but it was Famous Five and Secret Seven starting at one end of the shelf and going all through them just to start over again. My favourite was the Ring O’Bells Mystery, my greatest hero the boy with the cornflower blue eyes. He lived rough I suppose, but in an Enid Blyton romantic kind of way, no deprivation or degradation in sight. No idea how she explained that. Then Miss Mulrooney got fed up of book reviews that raved on about George and Julian and crossly told me to try the Reading List, or grow up and read something proper. I suppose she said it in a posher way than that, everyone seemed posh there, except me. Oh, and Christine Evans. We were the naughtiest girls in the whole school. Somehow this was exactly because we weren’t posh, but we never figured out why at the time.
So the next day I went in the library and decided I’d get the first book I saw that was on the Reading List. I had the list and five minutes of looking gave me nothing. Then I was up to the H shelf and was a bit scared of finding Hemingway in case I had to run away and fight in the Spanish Civil War or something. Because of that girl called Joy in the 5th Form who gave a talk in Assembly one day about her auntie who went to this school before the war and had gone away to Spain, she’d mentioned Hemingway more than once. But luckily I found two others right away. Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, then skipping over the other Hs it was Aldous Huxley’s Eyeless in Gaza. I sat down in the Library to start there and then with the Huxley one because it had a weird title. I couldn’t really understand what it was talking about so I just put it back on the shelf and thought I’d try another day.
That night though I curled up in the chair by the fire to read Tess and got stuck right in.
‘Vonnie, time for bed.’
‘One more chapter Granny.’
‘One more, that’s it then.’
Several chapters later and I was in danger of having it taken away till morning. Couldn’t risk that, because now Molly wasn’t in my bedroom no one ever knew how long I read for.
That night it was hours. And Hardy had me feeling like I was just about learning to swim and then being thrown off the diving rock in Acapulco Bay. Waves of all sorts of things shuddered through me, I could hardly breathe - here and there I thought I would drown in this sea of wild emotion. After that I’m sure I hardly slept at all.
In the morning I decided it was a trick. This was a Girls Grammar School and they had high moral standards. We were the crème de la crème they used to say and you had to be always thinking of yourself that way like you were going to run the country one day or something. And what we knew was that within their walls you had to be outstanding in your goodness so much that even your thoughts had to be pure or you were a sinner and therefore worthless. Tess was quite clearly not pure so it must be a set up. I wrote the book review and denounced her as evil. Get thee from our library shelves I said, between the lines.
Big error. It was like sticking a hat pin in the teacher somewhere very tender with a great deal of force. It seemed there was a kind of bond between Miss Mulrooney and Tess and so I had blundered again. She gave me hell. Christine Evans and me, we decided she’d been in love with someone who’d given her a baby and the baby was probably being brought up by her old nanny and the man had gone off with her best friend and she was there in our English class every week slowly dying of lovesickness. Miss Mulswooney, we said.
Not that we knew how either Tess or Miss Mulswooney would have got the baby. Auntie May told us all about love and all that, but not about sex. I knew how boys were equipped because of Arthur when he was a baby but Christine had no brothers so she had less idea than me. I described it to her though and then we used to try to figure out how such a funny little thing would be able to get in to your tummy and make a baby. Perhaps the woman had to do handstands and the man would kind of prise the thing in. We did something about chickens in biology but I don’t remember that helping at all.
But anyhow Aunty May was in love with a soldier, a Captain she said. She’d left Africa to be married here but he’d been sent away again and hadn’t got back yet. She showed us his photo and read us some of the poems he’d written her. She wouldn’t read the ones that made her eyes smile but she did read the ones about India and Burma and China and all. Some of the ones she sent to him she would read out too. But not all of them. His name was Captain William Holliday and she was planning to marry him when he came back. Mostly everything was ready, even the dress, she used to try it on and show me. She said we would be the bridesmaids, Molly and me, but our dresses would have to wait because we were growing up and she would have to get the fit just right.
Then Granny and Grandad Jack had to travel to India and