This is Not About Me
My mother thought I was the menopause. She came to terms with the fact that I wasn’t in Buckreddan Maternity Home in Kilwinning, because that was where women went. In those days, the medical profession gave out the impression of no choice. Labour meant Buckreddan: QED. That the name maternity home suggested duress and distress was probably not intentional, but the suggestion was there nonetheless. I was sixteen before I found out what Buckreddan looked like, by catching sight of the name on a placard as I shot by on a bus. Red Victorian sandstone, almost a hotel. I had always imagined a poorhouse, women in rows in narrow single beds with thin sheets, the occasional nurse with an origami hat like Florence Nightingale. I had always imagined grey, cold, stern. Now I saw the real thing, it looked fine. I tried instead to picture its ranks of babies, me among them somewhere, but couldn’t. All I could muster was the sound of them, crying. I couldn’t picture the absurdly named delivery suites, since I had no idea what delivery was or what such a suite might contain. But I could imagine bottles. That was what we got then; we got powdered milk – formula – in bottles.
They tried to make us breastfeed, my mother said, and it was horrible. I told them I was too old, but the Sister didn’t care. It’s for baby, she said. Baby. As though you knew any different.
It was only when her attempts led to baby throwing up enough blood to coat her top sheets, twice, that she was let stop.
I told them, she said. You canny do that sort of thing when you’re forty. Anyway, you did fine on the bottle.
Speeding towards Troon on a corporation bus, I pictured the insipid green wards and the Big Ward Sister not taking no for an answer and the red Victorian sandstone that bound them in. I pictured my mother, a small head afloat on a sea of white cotton, a red tide of blood oozing towards her like lava. I pictured the ranks of bottles revolving on a metal trolley, fresh, white and full of reconstituted powder that had once been the produce of larger, abler animals. What I couldn’t picture was me, the little vampire in the midst of the melodrama, the source of all that worry. Nothing I did could conjure a creature as dependent and irretentive as a baby.
That’s how come you’ve a delicate stomach, my mother said. You had a Bad Start.
Every time she said this, there was a pause. Every time, I knew what was next.
If I’d known you were coming, she’d say eventually, if I’d found out. Things would have been different.
I had no reason to doubt her meaning or that her meaning was less than sincere. Things would have been different. Decades on, when my mother was delirious and thinking she was going to die, she let slip she’d miscarried at least another twice after me. There should have been, God help us, more. Maybe I’d put her on her guard, seized all the chances and left my found-out, flushed-out little siblings with none. Maybe, on the other hand, her body had made those decisions alone. It was never clear, never clarified, never referred to again. I was, as my sister reminded me every day of my childhood, bloody lucky to be there at all. If she’d kent you were coming, she’d say. Nobody needed to say the rest.
It is 1955. She is approaching forty and he is fifty.
There’s a wooden sideboard, a walk-in larder and a big Ulster sink. The smaller sink is in commission too because washing takes up lots of sinks. Lots of sinks and the wringer that needs fixing and too many buckets of water and the bloody leaky hose that’s perished down one side and the whole of Friday. She works in her husband’s shop on weekends and during the week when he can’t be bothered. She has a feeling it’s shut more often than not when her back is turned because it’s right next to Massie’s bar, which is no help to anybody. Women aren’t allowed in Massie’s and it makes her furious for no good reason. It’s not as though she wants to go in, it’s the prohibition. She goes to the Labour Club and the bowling club and it’s warm. People play accordions and sing. It’s company. Massie’s isn’t about company. It’s about men boozing their money away and making Davie Massie rich, nothing else. Going past it on the way to the train station, the stink of piss and spilled alcohol make her gag, so she crosses the road to avoid it and it chases her, like drain emissions. Even thinking about it now, she realizes, is making her queasy. Queasy or not, there’s the washing to do and it’s Friday. Outside it’s snowing, but that’s neither here nor there. Needs must and the devil is always bloody driving.
She’s had heartburn since she got up, heartburn, sciatica and this other indigestion pain somewhere near her kidneys. Something they ate last night, maybe. Her head hurts under the scarf she tied like a turban to keep the perm crisp, and the heat in here doesn’t help. It’s racking. Under the lid of the tub, though, everything’s twisting together nicely, getting clean. She pokes a towel with a wooden stick she’s been told not to use because it might catch in the drum, but old habits and so on. And the steam comes up, a rush that flushes her face and all the way to the base of her neck, chasing an unexpected trail of sweat down her back. The pain is suddenly horrible, like a fist. Maybe she has a migraine coming. She closes her eyes, looks down as the flush of warmth drives right past her belly and opens them again to see the Hoover sign wavering. And water.
Her feet, now she moves her toes in the slippers, are wet. Her skirt, too; a brownish puddle on the lino, now she looks, seeping between the joins. This bloody machine. Again. There was something wrong with the damn thing from the first day. To be fair, he’d at least bought the thing. It was the only one in the street. Her eyes are watering now, the way they do more often these days. It’s the Change, her mother said. Change of Life. That’ll bloody sort you out. The thickening at her waistline, the weight in her chest. This was what happens. You turned into an older woman, and that was you, finished. Nobody had any time for you then.
The water keeping coming makes her not want to think any more. She bends to the pile of dirty stuff to fish out a towel, leans into wiping up the puddle, squelching in her stocking soles, and feels dizzy, helpless. The Change. She has twinges in her knees and ankles, flushing in her face, varicose veins and what were called restless legs? Restless legs sound like something people who spent too much time on their feet get, people who are always that bit out of breath from running to keep up with something they can’t quite pin down. Restless legs sound like just the kind of thing she would get. Snow changes to hail behind the window, makes a noise like rattling and suddenly it dawns on her. This water, this flood. It’s her. Dull-getting-worse pain rocks her back and belly, echoing around her like the rings of Saturn, a big stone thrown in slow motion into a deep, deep well. The water is, she begins to grasp it now, whether she wants to or not: the water is all hers.
It was too late. She was pushing forty, had a daughter who was pregnant herself. She had a nice house, a cat and a washing machine of sorts to care for. But it happened.
It was my fault she stayed, she said, but she had stayed for nearly nineteen years already so I never really took that one on. I know I was responsible for other things. For pain, certainly. For worry and increased fear of what staying with him might do. For things going wrong and her life turning into something so different she sometimes tried to end it. But her being with my father in the first place was not my fault. God knew what plans she had before her waters broke. Whatever, they were away. Gone with the tide and the tangle and the hissing razor shells. Not knowing what was hitting her till the last, through the rage of an unexpected, unpremeditated, unplanned and unwished-for labour, she was a mother all over again.
Late baby, winter baby. Mistake. At least their sex lives were in decent fettle.
She must have mopped up the puddle, taking her time. Nobody else would. Maybe she cried. The washing machine worked fine for another three years, no hitches. After that, we were somewhere else and she was back to wooden poles and boiling water, a scrubbing board, a brush.
If I’d kent, she’d say, her eyes narrowing. If I’d only bloody known.
This is my earliest memory. I am on the floor with my arms stretched out, trestle-style, rising from the rug. And out of nowhere, out of the order, there is nothing but fingers. My fingers, hurting. They buckle and sear like burning. When I turn towards the pain, I see half my hand, the rest disappearing under something black. It’s the heel of my father’s shoe. He’s standing on my hand. There is a sensation of rushing in my head then my mother howling, and the rustle of cloth too loud and too near. Someone says shhhh not like the sea. Shhhhh. Shhhhh. And awful screaming that must be me.
I have other memories, other pictures of my hands under my father’s shoes, the busting sensation all along the arm that went with it. But this is the earliest. Soon, I can add the surprise of random cigarette burns, falling unexpectedly, sudden shocks with no remembered cause. I remember hurrying under the table to get out of the way and something heavy landing above me, the sensation of never being entirely off-guard. And sunlight. Someone opening a curtain to let the sun come streaming, blinding, in.
My father, everyone knew it, was clumsy. Not all the time, but often enough for it to be a fact. As though we had poltergeists or Cornish pixies, our lives were full of accidents, things not attributable or admitted at all. Yet they happened. They happened all the time.
He came home any time of day with a stumble in his step, his voice awkward, his hands not able for his shoelaces. And when he did, afternoon or not, it was time for me to go to bed. He was in no fit state, my mother said. Off you pop.
In bed, there were no distractions. Even if I couldn’t hear them, I knew they were there, through the wall, arguing. Sooner or later, something would smash.
It broke, she’d say when I found pieces, untidied-up fragments, wondered what had happened. Watch you don’t cut your fingers.
That was it. Despite the prickle in the spine, like the cracked edge of crockery against tooth enamel, an instinct not all was as it should be, it was the stuff’s fault. It just broke. Butterfingers.
Nothing was permanent, nothing calm. He lost money, found strangers and brought them home, ruthlessly jovial in his own kitchen, men you never saw again yet who sat at the table and got me to fetch them a glass, a cigarette, matches; men who wanted to know if my mother was in. And when the noise got too much, she would appear, fully dressed because there was a guest of sorts whether she knew them or not, ready to scoop me up for bed as though the thought just occurred and she happened to be passing. But everyone knew it hadn’t. The men might look temporarily sheepish, but they didn’t shift. Who shifted was her. And it was when she shifted, turning to go out with me safe under one arm, that the sniping started.
We didny get you out your bed, eh? Me and my friends here? She kept walking. You’ll be wanting to get us something to eat?
As though a fight, a confrontation with her discomfort, was what he wanted more than anything else in the world before it slipped beyond his reach. Things, it was understood as we left the room, the laughter, the slink of glass, might get broken. Other times, come home without company, he’d spend ages sitting on the hall carpet with his back to the wall, letting my mother coax him to be. Take your shoes off, Eddie, let me loosen the laces. Come on, I’ll get your shoes off. You sit down and I’ll help you with these shoes. Eddie, Eddie, Eddie.
This was our family, our routine.
Shhh, she’d say. He’s asleep with his eyes open again. It was morning, her face shock-white from daylight as she opened the curtains. Don’t go in the living room yet and wake him up.
That was the important thing to bear in mind. Shhh.
I learned to stay by doors and windows, things that opened. I kept my eyes keen, watching for clues. But our chairs still broke and our picture frames cracked all the same. Once, he threw my trike against the outside wall, and my mother sat down next to it, its bashed mudguard and fallen-off screws, and just stared, not at him, but at the pieces, as though the trike had exploded of its own accord. It wasn’t him. It was things that did it. Things, and us, were in a conspiracy against him. That he tried now and then to be someone else, slipping his fingers behind my ears to find pennies, or stringing a little paper Charlie Chaplin doll between two chair backs to make it dance, made me nervous. Dance, Charlie, dance, he’d say, and the paper cane would turn, Charlie’s barely unfolded legs jerking in time. And he’d look at me. I knew why. I was supposed to smile. I was meant to show I was happy as a June bug with my life and everything in it. But it wasn’t true. I hated it but I did not hate him. I did not hate her. I did not hate anybody. I just wished it was different. Soon enough, it was.
It was a Friday night, late, and the stew wasn’t ready. I don’t know why we were eating at bedtime, but we were. I was in pyjamas, and outside was dark enough to make the windows act as mirrors. I remember getting off the settee, holding a spoon up to hide the reflection of my face in the glass, then heading down the hallway, following the smell of cooking to the kitchen. Stewing steak takes a long time, she said. You’ll not make it any quicker by looking at it. On you go and play at something. But there was nobody to play with and anyway, I wanted to be with her, in with the steam and the sense of something magic happening, a mess of different things turning into decent food. When it was ready, she was going to blow on it till it cooled and we’d eat together, up late just the two of us in our night things, conniving.
It’s not ready, she said. I told you already, you silly thing. Away and play. I must have gone back to the living room eventually, because that’s where I was when the front door opened. And in he came.
In my memory, it opens like a horror film, like a gun going off with smoke furling in its wake. Maybe it was foggy, maybe just his breath coming in from the cold. At any rate, the door opened and he lurched into the hall, leaving it bouncing on the hinges behind him, the whole of the dark outside rushing in like water. And there I was in my night things, holding a spoon, staring.
What are you looking at?
He was sweaty and slack-skinned. He snapped his fingers to make me look at his eyes and I wouldn’t, so he gave me up as a bad job and turned back up the hallway. There was always something more alluring elsewhere. Tonight, he could smell it. He thumped his shoulder on the hall-stand, trailing all four and a half yards to the kitchen, growling starting in the back of his throat. I realized she didn’t even know he was coming. When he reached the kitchen, I heard her O of surprise. There was the dry scuffle of hands, rubbing.
The questions were stuff I’d heard before. Why was she cooking at this time of night? Who was it for? They were the kinds of questions he asked when he was in this mood, the kind that didn’t want answers. Then he did the not-questions. She knew full well he didn’t want stew. Who told her to cook stew? It wasn’t for him so who was it for? He knew how much stewing steak cost. He was going like a train when she cut in.
Jesus Eddie, she said, don’t start. Don’t start.
Her voice hung alone for a moment before he made up his mind. He cranked up the volume and started the whole thing again.
It was me, not her, that chose what to do next. It was the crack in her voice, his pushing like a wall against it, that did it. I ran towards the kitchen light and my father inside it, filling the space. Not knowing what to do, I did something anyway. I spoke at his back.
Mum, I said. It sounded clean, like a triangle. My voice. Not his name, hers. Mum.
He looked over his shoulder, tilting off-beam just enough for me to see her face, for her to see mine. Seizing the chance, she pointed straight at me.
Look what you’re doing, she said. She was shaking. It’s for her.?Who do you bloody think it’s for?
Something shadowed his face, so brief it was almost not there at all. Then, light-switch sober and without stumbling, he went to the back door and clicked the latch. Night sucked into the warm room, a draught banging the front door, at the other end of the hallway, shut. Slowly, he crossed the kitchen and reached for the pot on the cooker, lifting it in one hand. It stayed there, balanced on the moment as though he was trying to guess its weight. Then he walked to the door with it, reached back, swung, and opened his hand. The pot lifted, turned on the air like a seagull and kept going, out of sight over the washing lines. We all watched the time it had taken to make and the money it cost to buy, the good thing it should have been, disappearing into space. There was a soft thud, like an animal, as it landed out somewhere in the tangle of weeds beyond the garden wall, and a whistling noise in my ears.
That was for us, she said. Us. Her voice was stuck in her throat. Not just you.
There was a long silence, dead slow, while things chose which way they would fall.
Well, he said. It’s not for fucking anybody now. Is it?
And he didn’t smile, exactly, but he looked okay. Calmer. Business concluded, he left the kitchen to the sound of his own feet on the lino and she tidied up. Nobody cried. I waited on at the open door, my toes freezing, looking out beyond next door’s garden. The stars were showing over the pigeon loft and our window was light-filled boxes on the grass. I was working something out as I stood there, nobody moving me on, my mouth hanging open wide enough to catch flies. He had done it on purpose. I thought about the pot, the food inside. He knew it was ours and he’d thrown it away. He had known full well.
Started, things slide fast. The tiniest of realizations can tip life sideways, serve up a last straw. I have a very clear memory indeed of ours.
She’s in front of the mirror, singing If I?were the only girl in the world and you were the only boy, and fetching stuff from the hall cupboard one piece at a time: a cardigan, a rainmate, a scarf. Going out takes time if it’s to be done right. And she does things right. Spare rainmate, purse, black nylon gloves. I’m put together already in a navy coat. Inside my gloves the finger spaces tug wavy knitting against my nails. Already it’s misty outside, the kind of weather that shows breath. A Garden of Eden just built for two. She snips up the lock and hums the rest. Only one more thing to fetch now and we’re off. Stay, she says. Just you wait right there and we’ll away to your granny’s. She wanted me to bring her—
But I don’t hear what it is my granny wanted us to bring, because she’s out of earshot already, veering into the kitchen to fetch it. Out of earshot for speaking, anyway. Wherever she is in the house, you can hear her singing.
I’m in a line of shut doors. A dark hump moves in the bottom corner of the mirror and I know it’s me. I reach up on the tips of my shoes to try and see a whole face, and I do. Right behind me, the energy of him suddenly everywhere, my father comes through the front door. Only a glimpse of her emerges from the kitchen before I’m tipping sideways and before I know it, I’m not waiting in the hall any more, I’m in the living room and the key is turning out there, shutting me in.
Eddie, she says, from the other side. The handle rattles and stops suddenly. Eddie. We’re just going to my mother’s. Open this door.
Then the whole thing goes too fast. There’s thudding, which means he is out there with her, and my mother raising her voice, saying no. The handle slips against the wool of my glove when I try it from my side, but it doesn’t budge. Only two things are clear: I am not leaving and she is not getting in. Her voice escalates but he is silent. He says nothing at all. The gloves are tied at the cuff and tight, so hard to shift I hardly try, and there’s nothing to do but watch the shutness of the door, listen to the noises behind it, things I can’t see, changing. A few dull thumps and her saying no, and a single roar. His. The front door batters shut and there’s silence for a whole moment. Then he comes in, alone. He’s in a suit, the tie squint and crushed, his eyes not fixed on any one thing. He glances out of the window, shuts the living-room door behind him and locks us both inside. I watch the key turn, the string through its eye slipping inside the blackness of his pocket, and wait.
Mummy’s away out, he says.
Her footsteps, the points of her heels, like running or walking on the spot, click over outside.
You’ve to stay in with me. I watch the place where the key went. You’ve to stay with me and play a game. He takes his jacket off, straightening the tie, pulling himself, piece by piece, together. Sit, he says. He says it the way you talk to a dog you didn’t trust. We’re playing a game while she’s away.
My coat is still buttoned to the neck. We were going out and now we’re not and these clothes are not right for inside. His face isn’t right either. I only know my eyes have drifted to the door when he catches it, snaps his fingers.
There’s nothing out there, he says. Now sit. Sit there when I tell you. He points at the settee. Just bloody sit.
So I sit. I sit right on the edge and my feet leave the floor and nothing feels solid. Nothing feels safe. He waits staring right at me till he’s sure, then walks slowly to the tallboy and rummages in the bottom drawer just as the noise starts. Like a wall falling, the suddenness of it a shock right down to the bone. It takes a moment to realize it’s the window, shuddering fit to break. Over the top edge of the settee, her hands come into view, making marks on the glass. My mother is outside her own home, battering her fists against the window so hard the frame flakes paint. But he doesn’t turn round. He doesn’t even look up, just goes on fishing in the drawer. I look at her face, at his.
Open the door. She’s just a wean, Eddie. Open the door.
It’s as much a howl as anything, her eyes melted into black creases and that’s all I see because he snaps his fingers again, knowing I’ll turn away from her, that I’ll turn towards him. And there he is, my father, laying out a chequered board on the side table. He picks up a stack of counters in one hand, letting them fit snug. Then slowly, one after another, he sets them down in their rightful places. The set of his body and face say nothing unusual is happening in the room or the space around us at all. But she’s still behind me, still getting louder. It makes no sense he can’t see. Whether he can or not, he doesn’t. And for now, for this moment, I know something. There is what is real and what people can force you to pretend is real, and pretending is the wrong one. I don’t know that in as many words, but I know it in my fingers. They’re stiff, rusted up with refusal. Not for long, though, nothing that can’t be undone. And he knows how. He looks up, puts one last red button dead centre in its square, and stares. The window rattles and she shouts his name, his name like nails down a blackboard, his name. He doesn’t even flicker, just keeps looking. And what he’s looking at is me. We have the same eyes. Everybody says so. Just the same. They lock now, point to point, and the look wants to break me clean down the middle.
Me first, he says. He slides the playing piece back and forth, playing, while she shouts one last time. Then there’s a slithering noise, something heavy slumping hard down on to the path. We both hear it but what he does is he makes his move. One square. And pushes the board towards me.
Now you, he says, calm, clear. I do nothing. We’re playing, he says, you and me. See? Now it’s you.
He lifts the hand I know is mine, pulls the ties and slips off my glove in one easy move. Carefully, he places my fingertips firmly on the nearest piece, a dead ivory circle.
Now, he says. Play.
Outside, my mother moans like a seal. His eyes rivet on the board so he can’t see mine filling up, making the whole room quiver. Even so, the piece starts to shift.
I’m warning you, he says. His jaw clicks.
And I choose. Knowing this is the wrong thing, that this is all the wrong thing, I play.
I don’t remember what happened after that. She must have given up and walked to her mother’s with no bag, no key, not sure if she’d get back in the same night, the next, ever. But she did. She would have needed to knock, but he would have let her in. Eventually.
Three days later, all the stock in the outhouse behind the shop burned down. The shop nearly went up with it. He’d gone in drunk and dropped a fag on the floor. It was autumn and the place was full of fireworks. Only little boxes, but still. My mother saw the display it made, pretty golden sparks over the roofs of other houses, not knowing what it was as she came back home off a bus from Kitty’s.
Every bloody penny, she said, snapping her fingers, bang.
Nothing was insured, of course. He didn’t believe in insurance. He said insurance was for mugs. Instead, he took what was left of the housekeeping from the tin in the pantry and consoled himself as he saw best fit. Given time to herself, my mother made a decision. We all found out what it was soon enough.
I have no memory of the move. It occurred to me years later that maybe he had sensed it coming, that fear was why he had shut us together. That he was clinging, trying to terrify one or other of us into stasis, obedience, God help us, affection. On the other hand, maybe not. Whatever the intention, if there was any at all, all he had done was make things pressing. She might have gone to her mother’s, her sister’s, to all sorts of places if it hadn’t been for me. I am under no illusion it was a choice. There was nowhere to take us, but we had to be together. There was nowhere to take us, but we had to go.
She must have gone round, asking. Maybe she went to the doctor to ask for pills for nerves, as people did then, and her situation had emerged. Maybe she cried. More likely she didn’t. She did not cry easily. But however the conversation turned, Dr Hart, normally a smug and self-contained bastard, said the surgery had a box room. It was over the very building in which they sat and it would keep the rain off. It cost next to nothing, which was more than she had at the time, but she could, he supposed, clean the surgery instead. Work, thank God. Work. She’d been a domestic and a clippie and a shop- keeper’s assistant. She’d had a washing machine of her own. Now she got a box room and tuppence to get by on and she took it with open arms. If she wept at all, it would have been then, but she’d have waited till she was outside. She’d have held her back stiff and got out with her face intact as far as she could. The revelation of weakness, in her experience, could do terrible, terrible things.
Over the heads of Dr Hart, Dr Caroll and Dr Deans, then; over the heads of the sniffing, spitting, gurgling, limping, seeping hordes downstairs in the dungeon of the waiting room, we waited too. And when they were gone, when the big outside door was shut over, she came into her own. Fag ash, fallen hair and cast-off tissues, kidney bowls and carpets and big glass jars. Racks of jars. She had to promise to keep me quiet, of course, especially during surgery hours. But I was good at being quiet. It was something at which I excelled. We could get by.
In some ways the move was easy: just clothes and toys enough for one case. Not so much as a kettle. Rose said Eddie wasn’t well and needed looking after and she was a bad wife for letting him down, but she knew that already. It was a horrible choice, certainly, but not a hard one. She’d put in twenty-two years already. After all that time, it must have seemed unlikely that more would make anything any better. Rose was his sister, doing what a sister would. Or maybe she just resented being dumped with his care.
Maybe she can do a better job, my mother said. Maybe she can just do the bloody looking after herself.
Nobody got the address to begin with, just in case, and even I knew why. We lost the trike. Some time between Christmas and the New Year, we lost a lot of things. What we acquired was a box room above the doctor’s surgery, a two-ring hob and a sink behind a curtain, a divan settee, no toilet. My mother stood at the window of the attic and wept, then chose to look on the bright side.
Oh well, she said. Things can always get worse, she said. We’re not dead yet. I remember her stretching her neck, her hand lifting to cross her chest as though checking a heartbeat. Just to check.