You come to this place, mid-life. You don’t know how you got here, but suddenly you’re staring fifty in the face. When you turn and look back down the years, you glimpse the ghosts of other lives you might have led; all houses are haunted. The wraiths and phantoms creep under your carpets and between the warp and weft of fabric, they lurk in wardrobes and lie flat under drawer-liners. You think of the children you might have had but didn’t. When the midwife says, ‘It’s a boy,’ where does the girl go? When you think you’re pregnant, and you’re not, what happens to the child that has already formed in your mind? You keep it filed in a drawer of your consciousness, like a short story that never worked after the opening lines.
The story of my own childhood is a complicated sentence that I am always trying to finish, to finish and put behind me. It resists finishing, and partly this is because words are not enough; my early world was synaesthesic, and I am haunted by the ghosts of my own sense impressions, which re-emerge when I try to write, and shiver between the lines.
This is the first thing I remember. I am sitting up in my pram. We are outside, in the park called Bankswood. My mother walks backwards. I hold out my arms because I don’t want her to go. She says she’s only going to take my picture. I don’t understand why she goes backwards, back and aslant, tacking to one side. The trees overhead make a noise of urgent conversation, too quick to catch; the leaves part, the sky moves, the sun peers down at me. Away and away she goes, till she comes to a halt. She raises her arm and partly hides her face. The sky and trees rush over my head. I feel dizzied. The entire world is sound, movement. She moves towards me, speaking. The memory ends.
This memory exists now in black and white, because when I was older I saw Bankswood pictures: this photograph or similar ones, perhaps taken that day, perhaps weeks earlier, or weeks later. In the 1950s photographs often didn’t come out at all, or were so fuzzy that they were thrown away. What remains as a memory, though the colour has bled away, is the fast scudding of clouds, and the rush of sound over my head, the wind in the trees: as if the waters of life have begun to flow.
Many years later, when there was a suspicion about my heart, I was sent to hospital for an echocardiogram. A woman rolled me with a big roller, as if she were flattening me to take spin. I heard the same sound, the vast, pulsing, universal roar: my own blood in my own veins. But for a time I didn’t know whether that sound came from inside me, or from the depth of the machines by my bed.
I learn to walk in the house, but don’t remember that. Outside the house, you turn left: I don’t know it’s left. Moving towards the next-door house: from my grandmother (56 Bankbottom Hadfield Nr Manchester) to her elder sister, at No. 58. Embedded in the stonework on the left of my grandmother’s door is a rusty iron ring. I always slip my finger into it, though I should not. Grandad says it is where they tied the monkey up, but I don’t think they really ever had one; all the same, he lurks in my mind, a small grey monkey with piteous eyes and a long active tail.
I have taken my finger from the ring, and tasted it for metal. I am looking down at the paving-stones beneath the window. I have to pass the length of that window before I arrive at No. 58. I keep my eyes on the narrow stones which form a kerb. One, two, and the third is a raised, blueish stone, the colour of a bruise, and on this stone, perhaps because it is the colour of a bruise, I will fall and howl.
At No. 58, for some years, the top of my head comes to the outermost curve of my great-aunt, Annie Connor. Her shape is like the full moon, her smile is beaming; the outer rim of her is covered by her pinny, woven with tiny flowers. It is soft from washing; her hands are hard and chapped; it is barely ten o’clock, and she is getting the cabbage on. ‘Hello, our Ilary,’ she says; my family have named me aspirationally, but aspiration doesn’t stretch to the ‘H’. Rather embarrassed for her, that she can’t pick who I am, I slip her my name of the day. I claim I’m an Indian brave. I claim I’m Sir Launcelot. I claim I’m the parish priest and she doesn’t quibble. I give her a blessing; she says: ‘Thank you, Father.’
I sit on the stairs, which are steep, box-like, dark. I think I am going to die. I have breathed in a house-fly, I think I have. The fly was in the room and my mouth open because I was putting into it a sweet. Then the fly was nowhere to be seen. It manifests now as a tickling and scraping on the inside of my throat, the side of my throat that’s nearest to the kitchen wall. I sit with my head down and my arms on my knees. Flies are universally condemned and said to be laden with filth, crawling with germs, therefore what more sure way to die than to swallow or inhale one? There is another possibility, which I turn and examine in my brain: perhaps the tickling in my throat is the sweet itself, which is a green sweet from a box of assorted candy called Weekend. Probably I shouldn’t have eaten this one, but a jelly kind or fudge, more suitable for a child, and if I had hesitated and said I want the green one someone would have said, ‘That’s bad for you,’ but now I’m on the stairs not knowing whether it’s green sweet or fly. The fear of death stirs slowly within my chest cavity, like a stewpot lazily bubbling. I feel sorrow; I am going to miss seeing my grandparents and everyone else I know. I wonder whether I should mention the fact that I am dying, either from a fly or a green sweet. I decide to keep it to myself, as there won’t be anything anyone can do. It will be kinder for them; but I feel lonely, here on the stairs with my future shortening. I curse the moment I opened my mouth, and let the fly in. There is a rasping, tickling sensation deep in my throat, which I think is the fly rubbing its hands together. I begin to wonder how long it will take to die . . .
After a while I am walking about in the room again. My resolve to die completely alone has faltered. I suppose it will take an hour or so, or I might live till evening. My head is still hanging. What’s the matter? I am asked. I don’t feel I can say. My original intention was not to raise the alarm; also, I feel there is shame in such a death. I would rather just fall over, and that’s about it. I feel queasy now. Something is tugging at my attention. Perhaps it is a sense of absurdity. The dry rasping in my throat persists, but now I don’t know if it is the original obstruction lodged there, or the memory of it, the imprint, which is not going to fade from my breathing flesh. For many years the word ‘marzipan’ affects me with its deathly hiss, the buzz in its syllables, a sepulchral fizz.
My grandad goes on to the Red Lamp to take a gill. He puts on his checked sports coat and I shout: ‘Grandad is wearing his beer jacket.’ He puts on his suede shoes and I shout: ‘Grandad has put on his beer shoes.’ He takes up the pitcher from the kitchen shelf and I shout: ‘Grandad is taking his beer jug.’ However mild his habits, however temperate, I can’t be stopped from chronicling his deeds.
The likes of a woman wouldn’t go in the Red Lamp.
My grandfather knows about English things such as Robin Hood and Harvest Festival; I sit on his knee as he hums ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’. My grandmother says: ‘George, teaching that child Protestant hymns!’ I dip my finger in his beer to taste it. For high days I have a thimble-sized glass to drink port. My grandmother says: ‘George, teaching that child to drink!’ Slowly, slowly, we are pulling away from hearth and home and into the real world. My grandfather is a railway man and has been to Palestine. The spellings he teaches me include trick far-off towns such as Worcester and Gloucester: I cannot write, but no matter. As a grandfather, he knows the wherefores of cotton production, not just the facts of working in the mill. He knows about the American slaves and the Confederacy; also of a giant, name of Gazonka, who lives on a hill outside Glossop. Grandad has ancestors; unlike Irish people, who don’t know our correct birthdays even. One of his ancestors suppressed a riot by laying low a man called Murphy, a thug at the head of a mob who was wielding a wire whip. For this feat, his ancestor was rewarded with the post of sanitary inspector.
From Liverpool he brings jelly animals and a strange kind of balloon with faces and ears, and cardboard feet you can tie on it, to make it stand up. As no one can tell me the name for this item in God’s creation, I name it ‘Fluke’. If you don’t know a word for something, you can just ask me to supply one, but I can’t blow up a balloon; I have not breath. When he’s not on his shift, Grandad’s always at home, he’s always in his parish. My grandmother’s brothers come from Hollingworth and places even further. They give the impression of wandering the roads: to me. They turn up unexpectedly; this is the time before telephones, or before anyone went anywhere, to be out when you called. They are indistinguishable elders in many woollen layers, who suck humbugs with loud slurps and sit on hard chairs with their caps still on: on hard chairs set each end of the sideboard, symmetrical, at the back of the room, as if an opera were about to burst out in front of the fireplace. My grandmother serves them a plate of ham and some Cheshire cheese. They cough long and wetly into their balled-up hankerchiefs, and even when they are not crying, their eyes seep.
When my grandmother wants her sister, she bangs on the wall. In other houses ghosts bang but here it’s only Annie Connor, banging back.
The household at 56 Bankbottom lives in co-operation with the household at No. 58. Here lives, besides Annie Connor, her daughter Maggie, who is my godmother and a widow, who has a brown raincoat and a checked woollen scarf. She does errands for people and is at their beck and call. Here lives Beryl, Maggie’s daughter, my heroine: a schoolgirl, dimpled and saucy. There is only one doll for which I ever care, and that one, in tribute to her, is called Beryl. She is a doll made of grubby green satin, with satin stumps for hands and feet, features inked onto a round of calico for her face, and her pointed head of grubby green satin also.
My grandfather has to be knight and commander to all these women. His possessions are a billy can, a notebook and pencil, his guard’s hat and his guard’s lamp. It is my ambition to be a railway guard.
In the desert my grandfather rode a camel. He commanded it with certain words in Egyptian, known only to camels, now imparted to me.
I am three. I sit on my grandmother’s knee eating sponge cake warm from the oven. The cake is pale yellow and so high that I don’t know whether to bite the bottom or the top; from deep experience I understand their different tastes. We are by the fireplace, but the fire is not lit. Sun is shining. Outside the window people pass on the pavement. The back door stands open.
From hooks below the shelf hang two jugs, each of which holds one pint (though not at this moment). One is a rich cream and the other is the palest pink. They curve fatly from their lips, and the light gilds the curve: one a milk-skin, one a shell. The table has fat, green, complicated legs. I go under the table to run my fingertip over their convolutions. The table’s top is scrubbed white wood. The knots are like glass. I am comforted to think that next door at No. 58, our dog Rex is under the table, just like me. Peas flick from their pods into a white enamel colander, which has a thin rim of navy blue. The scent of inner peapod rises around me. I count the peas. I tug the embryonic peas from the stalk, and count them as half, or quarter. My grandmother makes strawberry pie. A question people pose is: ‘How many beans make five?’
I used to be Irish but I’m not sure now. My grandmother was hitherto born on Valentine’s Day; my mother says that Annie Connor, being the eldest, gave out to her brothers and sisters the birthdays she thought they would like. But now someone has produced a piece of paper, and Grandma’s birthday’s got altered to the first of March. Everyone laughs at her. She laughs too, but she’s not happy to change. They say she used to be our Valentine, but now she’s a Mad March Hare.
My mother says: ‘Monday’s child is fair of face, Tuesday’s child is full of grace, Wednesday’s child is full of woe, Thursday’s child has far to go, Friday’s child works hard for a living, Saturday’s child is loving and giving, but the child that is born on the Sabbath day, is blithe and bonny, good and gay.’
I have various thoughts about this. I think my mother must be Monday’s child. I know I am born on Sunday but it would be complacent to dwell on it. Besides, I think any parent would prefer Saturday’s child. I ask, which day is my daddy? She doesn’t miss a beat. I think it must be Thursday, she says, because he has to go into town every day.
My father Henry is tall and thin, with a tweed sports jacket. His black hair is slicked back with a patent solution. He wears spectacles and looks very intelligent, in my opinion. He brings home the Manchester Evening News.
He brings home the smell on his coat of autumn cold, trains and cities. He has a travelling chess set, its leather cover worn, which folds up and slides into a pocket. The chessmen, red and white, fit into the boards by tiny pegs. I can play with them, but not the proper game. I am not old enough, wait till I am seven. (He might as well say, wait till you’re 45, for all that seven means to me.) With his good pen, Henry completes the crossword puzzle in the Manchester Evening News. I sit on his knee while this occurs. To help him, I hold his pen, and click the ballpoint in and out, so it won’t go effete and lazy between clues. I like to get close to people who are thinking, to glue myself to the warm, buzzy, sticky field of their concentration. Henry reads the racing page. It is horses who race. To aid him, I imagine the horses. He says their names. I picture them strenuously.
With my mother and my father Henry I go on the green electric train, the same colour as my raincoat; this coat I have picked specially, as blending in with the electric train; it has an industrial smell of rubber. When we step into the train, with its wide automatic doors, I take the hands of my mother and father and ensure that we all step in together, leading off with the same foot. I am afraid someone will get left behind, and I believe that once the doors have swooped closed you can’t open them again. Suppose one person stepped on first, and the doors closed, and that person was on the train alone, sent ahead: worst of all, suppose that person should be me?
We go to Manchester, to Mrs Ward, my father’s grandmother. My great-grandfather is still alive and sitting in the back room by the range, but nobody seems to take much notice of him. He has white hair and a black suit and a watch chain across his meagre belly; I designate him the trade of watchmaker. My Manchester great-grandmother is diminutive even by my standards, with a skull the size of an orange. She takes me upstairs and opens a chest, out of which she takes scraps of shiny, silky fabric. These are to dress my dolls, she explains. I am too polite to say I don’t dress dolls, or sew with stitches.
When my mother sees the scraps, she assumes a look of scorn. Scorn is a beautiful word. He curls his bearded lip in scorn. Bastion is a beautiful word, as are citadel, vaunt and joust. Anyone who hesitates near me, these days, has to read me a chapter of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. I am considering adding knight errant to the profession of railway guard. Knight errant means knight wanderer, but I also think it means knight who has made a mistake. Mistakes are made all the time; it is a human thing, in a knight, to slip up once in a while. I am waiting to change into a boy. When I am four this will occur.
I have a friend. It is Evelyn, a Protestant. I go down the yard to play with her. Evelyn’s mother is wrapped about and about in a big pinny. She is cheerful and talks in a Scottish way. My mother calls her Kath, which I think a melting name. She teaches me to say Kirkcudbrightshire. When she gives me my dinner she puts the salt already on it: Grandad has noticed that I don’t take salt, but she can’t know that. Her legs in thick dark stockings are the shape of bottles, so when anyone says ‘Stout’ I think of Evelyn’s mum.
The Aldouses’ house is darker than ours and has a more dumpling smell. Not being Catholics, they don’t have a piano, but as they are at the end of the common yard, they have a more tidy and well-arranged plot, with flowerbeds. My grandad has grubbed out a bed for nasturtiums, and trained them up a wall. He calls them storshions, and says you can pickle and eat the seeds, good in what they call a sallet, but I think, what a waste. My whole vision is filled with these pale leaves, these flowers. When I try to put names to their imperial colours, to the scarlet and striated amber, my chest seems dangerously to swell; I imagine them to be musical instruments, broadcasting stately and imperial melodies from their own hearts, because their shape is like that of gramophone horns, which I have seen in pictures. These flowers combine every virtue, the portentous groan of brass, the blackish sheen of crimson: to the eye, the crushable texture of velvet, but to the fingertip, the bruise of baby skin.
Evelyn’s dad, Arthur, grows geraniums. Their flowers are scarlet dots, their stems are bent and nodular. When Arthur comes in from work in his bib and brace, his sleeves are rolled up above his elbows, and I see the inside of his arms, the sinews and knotty veins. I think his arms are the stems of plants, that he is not human, perhaps an ogre. When I hear him at the front door I run out of the back door and run home.
I am aware, as time passes, that adults talk about this, and that it makes them laugh. He who laughs last, I think darkly. Evelyn’s father has sap, not blood. If they don’t know he’s sinister, so much the worse for them. Fear is nothing to be ashamed of, nor is running away, when the retreat is tactical and the enemy is a green man.
I am four. Four already! Ivy Compton-Burnett describes a child with ‘an ambition to continue in his infancy’, and I have that ambition. I am fat and happy. When I am asked if I would like to give up my cot for a sweet little bed, the answer is ‘No.’ Every day I am busy: guarding, knight errantry, camel training. Why should I want to move on in life?
At the back of the yard is a nursery school, a prefabricated building with a plaque on it, to say that it was opened by Lady Astor; I have someone read it out to me. My grandfather tells me the people from the nursery hang over the back wall, saying: ‘Can’t Ilary come to our school?’ But he says, he tells me, that he wants my company, and I am too useful about the place. Grandad and I have special food, at different times from other people. When he comes off his shift he eats alone, tripe, rabbit, distinctive food that is for men. Around noon each day I take a lamb chop, and a slice of bread and butter.
I spent time with my grandmother, time with her sister Annie. They sat by the fire on upright chairs, wooden and unforgiving; they were old, I thought, but sadly had no armchair. They talked and talked, in an interweaving pattern of old and interesting words, and the refrain was: ‘Kitty, we were born too soon. Oh, Kitty, Kitty. I wish I were ten years younger.’ ‘Oh Annie, we were, and so do I.’ Annie Connor says she hopes she will never hate anyone, but the thing she could not fail to hate is a Black and Tan. And for people of the Orange persuasion she can’t care. My grandmother simply doesn’t speak on the topic. I think if a Black and Tan came to the door looking peckish, she would probably feel sorry for him and make him a strawberry pie.
At No. 56, my grandfather only sat in an armchair, his cigarette between his fingers, his brass ashtray balanced on the chair arm. Women didn’t take their ease; when young, I thought, they ran about, and when old, they perched on upright chairs until they died, simply slumping to the linoleum, knocking their heads on the fireplace, and waiting to be carried away to the undertaker, Mr Worsley, who buried Catholics. Maggie, Annie Connor’s daughter, was neither old nor young. She never sat down. Neither did my mother; nor my cousin Beryl. My grandmother was so creased by anxiety that her face resembled a pleated skirt. Like her elder sister’s, her hands were fat, with cracked and harsh palms, and I thought she had got these from washing clothes with Fairy soap, from wiping the fireplace with Vim. Grandma was forever on hands and knees, mopping, towing a little flat black mat she called ‘me kneelin’ mat’. When someone came to the door and she didn’t know who it was, she would hide on the stairs. She never went out. Officially this was because of her bad leg but I knew there were other reasons and I was sorry for them: like a child, she was too shy to speak to strangers. When something made her laugh, tears sprang out of her eyes, and she swayed on her hard chair: swayed as much as her corsets allowed, and creaked. She and Annie Connor had the most terrible corsets, salmon-pink, like the Iron Maiden, from which their heads stuck out.
My mother would tell me, later, of her parents’ narrow and unimaginative nature. My grandmother had become a mill-worker when she was 12 years old; my mother herself was put into the mill at 14. She was of diminutive size and delicate health; she was pretty and clever and talented. Her school, by some clerical error, had failed to enter her for the scholarship exam that would, her parents permitting, have sent her to grammar school. But it didn’t matter, she said later, because they would not have permitted. It would have been just as it was for her father, a generation earlier, for George Clement Foster pounding the cobbled streets of Glossop: c.1905, he ran all the way home, shouting ‘I’ve passed, I’ve passed.’ But there was no money for uniform; anyway, it just wasn’t what you did, go to the grammar school. You accepted your place in life. My mother would have liked to go to art school, but on Bankbottom nobody had heard of such a thing. She applied for a clerical job by competitive exam, but it went to a girl called Muriel. ‘Poor Muriel, she got all the questions wrong,’ my mother said, ‘but you see her uncles had pull.’ Thwarted, unhappy, she stayed in the mill and earned, she said, a wage as good as a man’s. The work was hard and later took a painful toll on immature muscle and bone. She couldn’t guess that then. She danced and sang through her evenings, in amateur shows and pantomimes. Cinderella was her favourite part. Her favourite scene: the transformation. She asked herself, could she really be the child of her parents?
For the whole of my childhood I worried about the glass slipper. It is such a treacherous object to wear: splintering, and cutting the curved, tender sole of the dancing foot. The writer Emily Prager once said that she had rewritten, as a child, the second half of the story; Cinderella gets to the ball and breaks her leg. My own feelings were similar; the whole situation was too precarious, you were too dependent on irresponsible agents like pumpkins and mice, and always there was midnight, approaching, tick-tock, the minutes shaving away, the minutes before you were reduced to ashes and rags. I was relieved, as an adult, when I learned that the slipper was not of verre, but of vair: which is to say, ermine. The prince and his agents were ranging the kingdom with a tiny female organ in hand, his ideal bride in miniature. Never mind her face: he had not raised his eyes so far. All he knew was that the fit was tight.
Three, four, I am still four: I think I will be it for ever. I sit on the back doorstep to have my picture taken. Fair hair gushes from under my bonnet. My clothes are a pair of brown corduroy trousers, and a pink woolly cardigan with a zip; I call it a windjammer. I have another just the same but blue. I have a yellow knitted jacket, double-breasted, that I call a Prince Charles coat. Summer comes and I have a crisp white dress with blackberries on, which shows my dimpled knees. I have a pink and blue frock my mother doesn’t like so much, chosen by me because it’s longer; people of six, I think, have longer skirts, and I am beginning to see that youth cannot last for ever, and now hope to be taken for older than I am. The onset of boyhood has been postponed, so far. But patience is a virtue with me. We go to Blackpool to stay at Mrs Scott’s boarding-house, just the three of us, all together: my mother, my father, myself.
I insist that we stand before a mirror, all three. They are to pick me up and hold me between them, my fat arms across their shoulders, my hands gripping them tight. I call this picture ‘All Together’; I insist on its title. I know, now, that this tableau, this charade, must have caused them a dull, deep pain. We do it time and time again, I insist on it and I am good at insisting. As a knight I am used to arranging siege warfare, the investment of major fortresses, so the reluctance and distraction of a couple of parents isn’t going to stop me pulling life into the shape I want it to be.
Standing on the pier at Blackpool, I look down at the inky waves swirling. Again, the noise of nature, deeply conversational, too quick to catch; again the rushing movement, blue, deep, and far below. I look up at my mother and father. They are standing close together, talking over my head. A thought comes to me, so swift and strange that it feels like the first thought that I have ever had. It strikes with piercing intensity, like a needle in the eye. The thought is this: that I stop them from being happy. I, me, and only me. That my father will throw me down on the rocks, down into the sea. That perhaps he will not do it, but some impulse in his heart thinks he ought. For what am I, but a disposable, replaceable child? And without me they would have a chance in life.
The next thing is that I am in bed with a fever raging. My lungs are full to bursting. The water boils, frets, spumes. I am limp in the power of the current that tugs beneath the waves. To open my eyes I have to force off my eyelids the weight of water. I am trying to die and I am trying to live. I open my eyes and see my mother looking down at me. She is sitting swivelled towards me, her anxious face peering down. She has made a fence of Mrs Scott’s dining chairs, their backs to my bed, and behind this barrier she sits, watching me. Her wrists, crossed, rest on the backs of the chairs; her lady’s hands droop. For a minute or two I swim up from under the water: clawing. I think, how beautiful she is: Monday’s child. Her face frames a question. It is never spoken. My mother has brought her own bed-linen, from home, and below my hot cheek, chafing it, is a butterfly: spreading luxuriant wings, embroidered on the pillowcase by my mother’s own hand. I see it, recognise it, put out my hot fingers to fumble at its edges. If I am with this butterfly, I am not lost but found. But I can’t stay. I am too hot, too sick. I feel myself taken by the current, tugged away.
I am changed now. Not in that fever but in one of the series, one of those that follow it, my weight of hair is cut off. What remains is like a chicken’s hair, I think, fluff. I lose my baby fat. For another twenty-five years I will be frail. In my late twenties I have a narrow ribcage, a tiny waist, and a child’s twig-arms fuzzed with white-gold hair. At 29 I am cast as a ghost in a play: as Noël Coward’s blithe spirit, walking with noiseless slippered feet, a phantom of air and smoke. But then my life will change again, and I will find myself, like one of Candia McWilliam’s characters, ‘barded with a suit of fat’. I will be solid, set, grounded, grotesque: perpetually strange to myself, convoluted, mutated and beyond the pale.
All of us can change. All of us can change for the better, at any point. I believe this, but what is certainly true is that we can become foreign to ourselves, suddenly, by way of an illness, accident, misadventure or hormonal caprice. I am four, and my mother tells me this story about myself: that when I was born my hair was black and thick. At the age of five I mourn for it, constructing in my mind the ghost of a black plait that trails over my right shoulder. Once, I say to myself, I was a Red Indian. I have a feathered headdress and a teepee, bought for me in Manchester: so clear am I, about my new requirements, about my antecedents. The tepee is erected in the middle of my grandmother’s floor and in it I have a small chair and small table. People step around me. I take my meals in the teepee, and believe my hands are brown, as they wield the spoon. But already it feels like a game, whereas in some previous time, in another life, I believe I had a right to this kit. I know that there is no truth in this belief. But it has created in me a complex emotion; what I feel, for the first time, is nostalgia.
It is 1957. Davy Crockett is all the go. I get a fur hat with a tail. We sing a stupid song that says Davy, Davy Crockett, is king of the wild frontier. It makes me want to laugh but I’m not sure who the joke’s on. We sing he killed a bear when he was only three. Somehow I doubt it. Even I didn’t do that.
Where are the knights of the Round Table? In abeyance, while I get to grips with how the West was won. Now another thing occurs. I make a fuss! It is related to my role in life. When exactly do I become a boy?
My mother and father have been to Manchester, without me. We have brought you a present. What is it? Well, it is a cottage set. It is taken out, extracted from a long cardboard box which has a cellophane window to show its contents. It is a doll’s tea set, a teapot, milk jug and sugar bowl made to look like rustic cottages, with little doors and windows: though only the teapot has a roof, a thatched one. I am puzzled at first – what is the use of it or where is the amusement to be derived? Then they say, we have bought your cousin Christopher a shooting range! A shooting range? I open my mouth and bawl. Shooting range!
Well! I can hear them saying. She did make a fuss! We had to give it her!
The shooting range consisted of a metal bar, which you placed on the carpet. On this bar swung four crude animal shapes made of moulded plastic, painted in primary colours. I only remember the owl; perhaps it was the only one I recognised, or perhaps I knew that people don’t shoot owls. You were supplied with a tiny rifle, which shot out a cork. You had to lie on your belly, very close, if you were going to hit the animals; you knew you had hit them if you made them swing on their bar. That was all there was to it. I found the thing tame. I had thought ‘a shooting range’ would entail actual destruction. Slaughter.
Everyone is disappointed. Them, because they thought I was too mature for the shooting range; and it was true, I was. And me, because I can’t get to grips with this cottage set at all. They must have bought it for someone else. Some ideal daughter, that they don’t have. It hangs about the house though; the teapot, unused, sits in the china cabinet, looking silly, but my mother keeps hair grips in the doll’s cottage that is meant to be a sugar basin. Years pass. A dozen sets of crockery are smashed, but the cottage survives. Its tiny windowpanes accrete a rim of grime. And grimly, night after night, she studs the grips into my hair, trying to impart a curl. In time my shorn hair grows again: grey-blonde, straight, down to my waist and as flimsy as a veil. ‘The weight pulls the curl out,’ my mother protests. But the curl isn’t ever there, and nor is the weight.
I am only playing, inside the Indian’s teepee, and I know it. I have lost the warrior’s body I had before the fever. My bullet-like presence, my solidity, has vanished. Ambiguity has thinned my bones, made me light and washed me out, made me speechless and made me blonde. I realise – and carry the dull knowledge inside me, heavy in my chest – that I am never going to be a boy now. I don’t exactly know why. I sense that things have slid too far, from some ideal starting point.
I went to school, taking my knights – small, grey, plastic knights, in a bag. They were for a rainy day. My mother said this would be all right.
One had simply never seen so many children. It took me a few days to establish their complete ignorance. Evelyn I had got trained, to a degree, but no one here knew anything of the arts of war. Giant Gazonka? They didn’t know him. Machine-gunning? They simply looked blank. Suppose a camel came in, and they had to command him? They went around with their mouths hanging open, and their noses running, with silver trails from nostril to top lip: with their cardigans bagging and sagging, their toes coming out of their socks, their hair matted and their bleary eyes revolving anywhere but where they should look. When they came back after dinnertime, they stood in their places and looked at the blackboard. Thereon was the chalked word ‘Writing’. The children moaned in chorus: ‘Wri-i-i-ting’. After a few days of this, I thought it would be a mercy if I varied the performance by clapping my hands and singing it, to a syncopated rhythm: wri-ting wri-tingg! Mrs Simpson said: ‘Do you want me to hit you with this ruler?’ I made no answer to this. Obviously I didn’t, but I didn’t know either why she proposed it.
I kept my bounce for a week or two, my cheerful pre-school resilience; I was a small, pale girl, post-Blackpool, but I had a head stuffed full of chivalric epigrams, and the self-confidence that comes from a thorough knowledge of horsemanship and swordplay. I knew, also, so many people who were old, so many people who were dead: I belonged to their company and lineage, not to this, and I began to want to rejoin them, without the interruptions now imposed. I couldn’t read, but neither could any of the other children, and it was a wearisome uphill trail in the company of Dick and Dora, Dick and Dora’s dog and cat, who were called Nip and Fluff, Dick and Dora’s Mum-my, and Dick and Dora’s gar-den. Sometimes Dad-dy put in an appearance, and if my memory serves he was balding and tweedy. It was dull stuff, all of it, and as my head was already full of words, whole sagas which I knew by heart, I was not convinced that it was necessary. Before I was entrusted with paper I was given chalk and a slate, but the slate was so old and thick and shiny that the letters slipped off as I tried to chalk them. At the end of the morning I could only show letters up to D. Mrs Simpson expressed surprise and disappointment. She didn’t threaten violence. I was given plasticine to work the letters in. Instead of making them flat on the table I wanted to make them stand up, so by the time the bell rang I was, once again, only up to D. I was giving a fair impression of a child who was slow and stupid. I was both too old and too young for the place I had arrived at. My best days were behind me.
One of my difficulties was that I had not understood school was compulsory. I thought that you could just give it a try and that if you didn’t like it you were free to revert to your former habits. To me, it was getting in the way of the vital assistance I gave my grandad, and wasting hours of my time every day. But then it was broken to me that you had to go. Not to go, my mother said, was against the law. But what if I didn’t, I asked, what would occur? She supposed, said my mother, we would be summonsed. I said, is that like sued? I had heard the word ‘sued’. It sounded to me like the long, stinking hiss emitted when a tap was turned on the gas cooker, before the match was applied. Sued, gas: the words had a lower hiss than ‘marzipan’, and long after they were spoken their trail lingered on the air, invisible and dangerous.
So there was no choice about going to St Charles, I learned. And somehow I confused its compulsory nature with its permanent nature. One day, I thought, my mother would fail to collect me. She would ‘forget’ and, tactfully, no one would remind her. I would be left at school and have to live there. My grandad would want to get me but a grandad is not in charge; he never comes to school. Even if my mother was on her way for me, she would be prevented by some accident, some stroke of fate. Thinking of this, my eyes began to leak tears which blurred my vision. Sometimes I yelled out with exasperation and fear of abandonment. Mrs Simpson took off her tiny gold watch, and showed it to me. When the big hand, she said, and when the little hand, your mother will be here. She put her watch on her teacher’s desk. The big girls and boys, who were already five, were allowed to bring me up and show it to me. I so hated their hands, their arms weighing down my neck, that I tried to cry silently, but a boy called Harry, who had blazing red hair, would call out, ‘she is crying, she is crying,’ whenever he saw tears leaking from my closed lids.
I thought I should be abandoned for ever, in the Palace of Silly Questions. Do you want me to hit you with this ruler?
The children’s favourite game was called ‘water’. At the close of each afternoon, games were given out – paper, paints, crayons – and the most favoured child of the day was called forward to the washbasin, which stood in the corner of the classroom. The pleasure of ‘water’ consisted of filling the basin and floating plastic ducks on it.
I got home and my handkerchief was damp. ‘Did you drop it down the toilet?’ my mother said. She wasn’t angry, which was a relief; these days I seemed to magnetise wrath. ‘No,’ I said. My voice was faint. ‘I had water.’ How could she know the stultifying horror of those two yellow plastic ducks? Of thirty minutes in the company of said ducks? And that this was supposed to be a prize, a favour, an honour that made the children fume with envy, the unseen children at your back? Never turn your back on the enemy: any knight knows it. Worse, how could my mother think, how could she ever imagine, that I would use the school lavatories? A near-approach had been enough for me, to those stinking closets under the shadow of a high wall, the ground running from the pipes that burst every winter, the wood of their doors rotting as if a giant rat had gnawed them from the ground up. We had an outside one at home, shared with No. 54: but excuse me, this? I had to go to what was called ‘the babies’ lavatory’, which was half-size. The trouble with the babies was, they were so very approximate in their arrangements; they didn’t know the lavatory bowl from the floor.
So did she not know everything, my mother? I thought that was the set-up, between mother and child. I understood a fair percentage of other people’s thoughts, or at least the thoughts of the people to whom I was related, the people with whom I lived on Bankbottom; I understood outlying uncles who wheezed in, and could predict with a fair degree of success what they would say next. I assumed that these arrangements were reciprocal. I understood my mother to understand me. I was devastated that the mere fact of being a mile up the road meant she didn’t know what was going on the infants’ classroom.
I can’t say I learned nothing, at St Charles Borromeo. I learned bladder control; which is good for women, useful in later life. The second thing I learned was that I had got everything terribly wrong.
‘Missis Simpson,’ Harry called out. ‘Ilary is crying again!’
If you stand at the end of our yard at Bankbottom, and look uphill, you can see the place where they’re building the flats. They are two-storey, with pebbledash on the outside. They are a novelty, and novelty is suspect; few people in Hadfield have thought of living without stairs. There are council houses at the upper end of the settlement, built for people from Manchester who had been displaced by the war. ‘She comes from the council houses, you know,’ is the phrase used; which means, roughly, lock up your spoons. I guess the council houses have superior sanitation – indoor lavatories, hot water, baths perhaps – and the Hadfield people are always anxious to sneer at anyone who they think might be going soft.
My mother lights up with indignation when she speaks of the new flats, and her incandescent hair glows around her head. ‘It’s scandalous! It’s ridiculous! They’re moving them in before the light fittings have been put up! No curtain rails between the lot of them.’
I take Evelyn down to the end of the yard. I lead her in a game, called ‘Talking about the New Flats’. We put our hands on our hips. We stare furiously over the wall. We shout: ‘It’s scandalous. It’s ridiculous!’
Evelyn tires of the game. She wants to play ballet school. I stay on, shouting. I wonder if, really, my mother would like one of the flats. But no Catholics can get them; that is generally known.
A few weeks on, a little girl comes to our yard and says she is from the flats and wants to play. Her name is Heather. She is pretty and respectable, but what sort of name is that? A little boy comes. He is weedy and small. He begs to play with us. How can we refuse him, Evelyn asks passionately; his age is six and three-quarters! His age does not impress me. I walk away. He runs after me and cries, and says if he can play with us he will do anything, we can hide and he will permanently seek. He will give us a penny if he can play with us: threepence. The more he raises the sum the more disdainful I appear. In the end I turn my back and walk away. Two women are standing on their back doorsteps and marvel at my hard sectarian heart. I say to Evelyn, over my shoulder: You play with him, if you want! I don’t play with boys.
Boys are what I have to fight at school. If you can’t join them, beat them. I am out of the babies’ class and released from the stinking stone pen beside the latrines, out into the broad playground under the dripping trees. I come home and say: ‘Grandad, a big boy hit me.’ He says: ‘Lovie, now I’ll teach you how to fight.’ He teaches fair tactics. But when the next fight comes, I walk away with a different result. It’s too easy! Punch to solar plexus, big boy folds. His head is within range. As you please now, Grandad says: keep it easy, no need to make a fist. Try a big slap across the chops. I do it. Tears spring from the eyes of the big boy. He reels, clutching his waist, away from the railings. Oh Miss, she hit me, she hit me!
I am amazed: less by my performance, than by his. I don’t want to do this again unless I have to, I decide. In only a year I will have to go to Confession and learn to examine my conscience. What I am experiencing is the beginning of compunction; but is it the awakening of a sense of sin, or is it the beginning of femininity? Do boys have compunction? I don’t think so. Knights errant? They have compunction for all the weak and oppressed. Shame is somewhere among my feelings about this incident. I don’t know who it belongs to: to me, or the boy I’ve beaten, or some ghostly, fading boy I still carry inside.
Overexcited is bad, fidget is bad; obedient is good. Mr and Mrs Aldous have a television set. I go down to watch the children’s serial. It is The Secret Garden. The curtains are pulled, so the black and white picture stands out more; we lie on the rug, chins on our hands, like children in picture books, like illustrations of ourselves. We don’t fidget at all, but I live in terror that Mr Aldous will come home before the end of the episode, will grow in from the street with his nodular, fibrous arms. At the end of many weeks I have saved up the entire story. I go home and announce it to my mother: The Secret Garden, here is that story. It spools out and out of my mouth, narrative, dialogue and commentary. She looks stunned. We are in the kitchen, but not the kitchen at Bankbottom. This is Brosscroft, another house entirely.
After the business of the flats, my mother says: ‘I’m getting us a house!’ She goes to the District Bank for her savings. We go uphill to Brosscroft. My mother says: this is the house I have got.
So far only one bedroom is habitable. The baby’s cot stands against the window wall, the double bed occupies the centre of the room, my small cream-painted bed is nearest the door. I lie under a tartan rug and my fingers twist and plait its fringe; plait, untwist, plait again: the wool is rough against my fingertips. I will myself into dreaming; I think about Red Indians and about Jesus, because Jesus is a thing I am exhorted to think about and I try, I do try. I think about my teepee, my tomahawk, my stocky bay horse who is standing even now, a striped blanket thrown over his back, ready to gallop me over the plains, into the red and dusty West. Then I think about how, downstairs perhaps even at this moment, my mother is putting on her coat.
I believe she will leave in the night, abandon us. My father puts the baby to bed; this hour, when he is upstairs, seems like the time she would go. I think that, although it will almost kill me, I can bear it if I know the moment she goes: if I hear the front door bang.
So I lie awake, listening, long after my father has crept downstairs, listening by the glow of the nightlight to the sounds of the house. In the morning I am too tired to get up, but I must go to school or else I will be sued. My arms and legs ache with a singing pain. The doctor says it is growing pains. One day I find I cannot breathe. The doctor says if I didn’t think about breathing I’d be able to do it. Frankly, he’s sick of being asked what’s wrong with me. He calls me Little Miss Neverwell. I am angry. I don’t like being given a name. It’s too much like power over me.
Persons shouldn’t name you. Rumpelstiltskin.
Jack comes to visit us. He comes for his tea. These teas seem to be separate extra meals, in the big kitchen when the lights are on and the wild gardens fade into a dark bloom. We cook strange, frivolous dishes: dip eggs suddenly into bubbling fat, so that they fizz up like sea-creatures, puff into pearls with translucent whitish legs. Is Jack coming for his tea, I say? Oh good. I am looking for someone to marry. It’s a business I want to get settled up. I hope Jack might do, though it is a pity he is not my relative. He is just someone we know.
One day Jack comes for his tea and doesn’t go home again. ‘Is he never going home?’ I say. Night falls, on this new dispensation; it falls and falls on me. In subsequent weeks I become enraged. Jack and my mother sit in the kitchen. I jump at the kitchen window and make faces at them. They draw the curtains and laugh. I try to crash the back door, but they have bolted it.
I stamp and rage, outside in the cold. Rumpelstiltskin is my name.
This is the worst time in my life: days of despair. I am back on the pier at Blackpool, with the screaming gulls and the wind, looking down into the boiling sea. Words swirl over my head, words of loathing and contempt. A hand lifts me; it is the hand of the law. I am dropped on the rocks and smashed.
What happens now? We are talked about in the street. Some rules have been broken. A darkness closes about our house. The air becomes jaundiced and clotted, and hangs in gaseous clouds over the rooms. I see them so thickly that I think I am going to bump my head on them.
I come and go, eating my morning toast at Brosscroft, having my midday dinner at Bankbottom with grandma, and at the end of the school day, swaying and fatigued, climbing the hill to have my tea in the Brosscroft kitchen, listening out for the front door, for the sound of my father sliding in, for the squeak of the handbrake as Jack’s car pulls up on the hill outside. No one quarrels, no one cries – only me; no words are exchanged; the situation remains unspoken, indefinite. My godmother brings the meat and the loaves, because my mother no longer goes to the butcher or the baker; she makes do with the Brosscroft corner shop, where the proprietor is kind. She no longer goes to Mass on Sunday, or indeed anywhere at all. In the evening she and Jack occupy the big kitchen, my father the room at the front; but mostly the men seem to time their comings and goings to miss each other. At the weekend Jack goes out and hacks savagely at the undergrowth of the garden. When the weather is wet, he strips off wallpaper and burns away layers of paint. He works in a fury, his sallow muscular body dripping with sweat.
But the spirits gather thickly in the half-finished house, falling from their places in the glass-fronted cupboards to the right of the fireplace, waking and stretching from their sooty slumbers behind the demolished range. They discharge from the burnt walls in puffs, they are scraped into slivers as the old wallpaper peels away, and lie curled on the floors, mocking the bristle brush. Our daily life is hushed, driven into corners. We move in a rush between the house’s safe areas, and the ones less safe, where, as you enter a room, you get the impression that someone is waiting for you.
Outside the house, what passes for life goes on. I am seven, I have reached the age of reason. Like every other little Catholic body, I must take the sacraments, Confession and Holy Communion. No problem! I am great in theology.
I had begun practising as a parish priest at five years old. I used to walk with measured tread the length of the backyard, my eyes cast down, my hand folded over my heart, and I would tap sadly at Annie Connor’s back door, and say: ‘Mrs Connor, now, I’m here for your Confession. I believe there’s something you’re very sorry for, and I’m just here now to forgive you.’
‘Oh come in Father,’ she would say. ‘Would you like a chocolate biscuit?’ Then, rolling her eyes in penitence, ‘Oh, Father, I have been swearing!’
‘Now that’s very well, Mrs Connor,’ I would say, ‘but didn’t you say the same last month?’
‘I did, I did,’ she would admit. ‘But Father, don’t be too hard, for I’ve a lot to make me swear.’
The doctrine of transubstantiation caused me no headache. I was not surprised to find that a round wafer was the body of Christ. I’d been saying for years that things like this occurred, if people would only notice. Man and plant fused their nature: look at Mr Aldous, his milky stalks for arms. Girl could change to boy: though this had not happened to me, and I knew now it never would.
When the day of Holy Communion came, I was amazed at how the body of Christ pasted itself to my front teeth and furred my hard palate. It was like eating smog. St Catherine of Siena said that when she took the host into her mouth she could feel the bones of Jesus crunching between her teeth. She must have been a very imaginative sort of nun.
Winter: it is dark by half past four, and the curtains are drawn in the front room at Brosscroft. The evening is silent; Jack has gone to night-school, my father Henry is somewhere else, at the jazz club or the library. By the light of the low-slumbering fire the brothers are undressed, and taken upstairs to bed. Sometimes when they have gone, I sit gently on their rocking horse, which is really a springing horse, which bounces on a metal frame; I am too old for this toy, and the thought that I might be seen riding it brings a blush to my cheeks.
I listen; above I hear ponderous footsteps, I know the boys are not in bed yet. Cautiously, I let out my breath; I let the horse spring, beneath me: I trot it for a quarter of a mile. My fingers brush its reins and bridle, most unconvincingly rendered in painted metal. I raise my eyes, and they rest on the drawn curtains of our front room at No. 20 Brosscroft. Against a background of silver grey, the curtains have a repeating design of – windows.
They are Mediterranean windows, with gay blinds and plants spilling from pots and wrought iron baskets. I appraise them; my cold northern soul flips, traitorously, in my chest. I want to live behind those windows and to be warm. Many years later, quite recently in fact, I asked my mother if she remembered the Brosscroft curtains, the ones with the windows on. I used to imagine, I said, that I lived there, behind the shutters and balconies, that I owned those pots with the spilling scarlet flowers. My mother turned away, so that I couldn’t see her face. She whispered: ‘And I, oh so did I.’
Those were cold years for her. Love doesn’t light the meagre fire in the grate or fill the children’s bellies. And childhood was a sort of gulag for me; I was cut off, adrift. Conditions changed from year to year; sometimes I moved to another camp, where I waited to see if the regime would be better or worse, more or less survivable, and where I scrambled quickly to learn the rules. It wasn’t particularly anyone’s fault. Few people acted with malice towards me. It was just that I was unsuited to being a child.
When the day of the eleven-plus results came, I was at home as usual, sick. I had no expectation that I would earn a grammar-school place, and no particular hope of it. It seemed out of my hands – as it had been for Grandad, whose parents couldn’t afford the uniform: as it had been for my mother, whose teachers had simply forgotten to enter her for the exam.
Just after four o’clock my friend Sandra came to the door. I went to open it. She stood squarely on the front step and looked me up and down. ‘Ye’ve passed,’ she said, unsmiling.
I fell back into the house, my hands across my heart. ‘And you?’
Soberly, she nodded. Perhaps she was in shock.
‘Give Sandra some orange juice,’ my mother said.
I went into the dim pantry with the deep stone shelves. The ghosts rolled under them, sucking their teeth in envy and malice. My hand trembled, the neck of the bottle knocked against the rim of the glass. Passed. Who would have thought it? Passed. So I can have a life, I thought.
Within a few weeks we were moving house: myself, not my father, my mother, Jack, the two little brothers and the dog. By the end of the summer we would be gone. We would be gone to another town. We would have a semi-detached house. It would have a lawn. It would have a rockery; it would have an apple tree. We would have new carpets and another name. We would be gone so fast that by September, when the new school year began, we would be a scorched trail on the air.
My childhood ended, so, in this occluded way: darkened by the smoke from my mother’s burning boats.