A fortnight ago we had rather a frank discussion in therapy about where it was going and what we needed to do. I understand what happened in my childhood but haven’t got anywhere near being able to let go of it. I went away with that question to answer.
We also mentioned the fact that I talked best about the things I was happy to talk about, and not about the things I didn’t but needed to. So we decided to talk about my childhood and see what got left out.
Last week we talked about the first seven years, before we moved abroad.
We lived in a four bedroom semi-detached house with a large garden. We had two reception rooms, the smaller of which was an office for my father that I barely remember, so rarely must I have gone in it. We had a semi-outside toilet next to the kitchen that my mother at some point brightened up by painting it shocking pink and that is still very vivid to me. She also wall-papered, painted walls and sewed her own curtains.
Mine was a large twin room and I would share my room willingly with a visiting grandmother. No one else as far as I recall. 1sis’s room was a tip and I remember my mother standing on the threshold with a neat pile of clean clothing that she would just put on the floor which was knee deep in clothes and stuff that my sister collected. She’s gone through a few periods in her life when she’s been tidy but she is basically still the same messy hoarder. I do not remember 2 sis’s room at all. My parents’ room had a bolt on the inside which I had forgotten until 2sis reminded me some years later. I was allowed to join them on a Sunday morning on the bed (not in) to read the Sunday papers. My father would send me down the shop (did we not get them delivered?) and I would then be allowed to buy a Beano or Dandy which he would read before I could. He offered me the stuffy broadsheets while I waited. The only other time we would gather together on the bed would be at Christmas to open presents which were kept in a suitcase on top of the wardrobe.
The upstairs hall also had the bookcases for the cheap fiction. I remember will picking up my first adult book off those shelves. It was purple and called Five Little Pigs. I wondered what it was doing there and settled down to read it. It was nothing to do with pigs.
We ate in the kitchen, mostly my mother’s domain. When we left the house the mark of pancake was still on the ceiling where 1sis had tossed it too exuberantly and it had stuck. She would wave her fork about throwing bolognaise around the room. Occasionally we would have special meals when my father would make chips in the deep fat fryer and we would all watch. There would always be a performance if he contributed to the cooking (as later when he had BBQs). My mother later said we had potatoes with every meal as that was the only way she could afford to feed us. I remember food as plentiful if not always to my taste. If you didn’t like it you just ate it quicker. There were puddings.
I had a toy box in the sitting room, behind the sofa and a place where I could play quietly without interrupting the grown ups. I have absolutely no idea what was in the toy box. I always felt deprived of toys, never having Lego or Barbie, although several jigsaws which we would also do as a family. We sometimes played board games still but by the time I was old enough to really want to play them my sisters had grown up too far ahead to want to but we did in this house play Monopoly and Cluedo and Scrabble. I have never liked Scrabble and have no memory of playing it in this house and am told that my dad would cheat when playing with me and then gloat about winning, which is possibly why I don’t play it. I had a dolls’ house in my bedroom and a bigger sized cot with a doll in it. The dolls’ house had Keep Britain in Europe stickers all over it during the campaign that my parents clearly supported.
After that campaign my father ran for MP but withdrew before the election. We would spend our weekends visiting the constituency with me as the token child to parade alongside them. It was very boring but there were lots of fetes and a fireman’s lift from a real life fireman that I never forgot. I didn’t understand the campaign or the politics. He is not really suited to dealing with members of the public and I think that’s finally why he withdrew although he is quite evasive about that. My mother put her foot down about this on one of the few occasions she did.
I had one best friend, PG, whose mother shared my birthday. We would go round to each other’s houses and I think I remember sleepovers. I don’t remember much having other children round. I don’t actually remember having PG round. I’m aware of two other visits to children but nothing else. I quite enjoyed some aspects of school, but I was bored stiff in the early years as I could already read and they wouldn’t let me sit in the back and read whilst they flashed letter cards at the rest of the class. So early on I was set to clash with the school system. My mother put a lot of effort into getting changes for me but to no avail.There was Miss Plant and Miss Stern, who both got married into more boring surnames. Mrs Jordan in Year 4 didn’t believe me when I said I’d read a book in five minutes (3 lines per page, yes I could) and made me write it out, an injustice I can still feel. I learned to play the recorder at school, something that has stayed with me.
The weekends for for going out as a family on walks which is what we did for holidays as well when we had the joys of family camping added on. My dad was a fast walker; my mum had learned to keep up. As a small person I learned to keep up or enjoy getting lost in my own head and staying on my own. I resented these walks but we weren’t given a choice and I learned to enjoy the scenery and get what I could out of them. They weren’t as horrible as I think they were. At rests my dad would carefully give us each a square of chocolate. A walk would often end in a pub and my sisters and I would sit outside sharing a packet of crisps while our parents enjoyed a few pints inside on their own. We tramped around Hampstead Heath a lot too. There were more pubs and fewer wine bars then.
My mother had family relatively nearby, in Finchley I think. They moved around more and I remember noticing they were less well off than us, even then. My mother’s older brother and his wife with two children who I later discovered were adopted. There was always a strain about a visit to/from them which I didn’t get. They had dogs and liked animals, later running an animal shop. My aunt was warm and cuddly with a laugh I can still hear. My father didn’t like them. He didn’t like dogs and would kick animals that came too close to him. My uncle played the piano and had/has a keen ear for classical music, ending up with a vast collection of CDs that almost rivals my father’s book collection. There was a clash of personalities. Whether it was ever anything more I don’t know.
I used to go into work with my father on a Saturday. He worked on a Sunday paper so he was busy and dumped me on a graphics artist, RC, who used to draw pictures for me (which are possibly up in the attic, or possibly not) that I kept for a long time. I would try and copy his work and was fascinated with the photocopier, which of course I’d never seen. Dad would often tell me bedtime stories, about his childhood or National Service, or just bad bad jokes. After we moved that stopped and I missed that closeness.
My mother took me out a lot. There is scarcely a museum in London that I haven’t visited as a child and I’m not exaggerating. We went to Shakespeare in the open, at Kenwood House and elsewhere. We both started doing amateur theatrics which was fun. I do remember getting picked on by one of the cast members during my first play and not knowing how to deal with it. My father’s cultural contribution was to take us all en famille to the newest James Bond. I was very lucky that my mother transferred her love for the theatre and films to me at a young age. I’ve always loved Shakespeare despite hating studying any play or book to destruction in school.
There was a moment once with 1sis and her boyfriend. We’d gone to the fair together and we walked back through a car park and something happened. He said something or did something, in a moment, that I then blanked out, other than knowing that I never wanted to be near him again. It was years later that I learned he had got my teenage sister pregnant and my parents had debated bringing up the baby but didn’t appreciate the boyfriend any more than I did. So she had an abortion.
What I’m hearing and feeling from writing all this is a sense of loss. As a child I spent a lot of time on my own, in my own little world. My memories are of solitary play with my toys or in the garden, with very little interaction with others but I don’t remember that being a problem. I’d started making friends with other children; I was enjoying playing the piano, my garden, my swing; my red bag that got lost in the move. There was stability and routine and a sense of foundation. My father paid me less attention after we moved. My mother was more stressed learning the customs of another country. 1sis had already moved abroad before we did and 2sis got lost in her settling into a new country.
I think whatever stability and happiness we had changed dramatically after the move. There are normal stresses and strains to any family when they move house but we moved to a different country. My father didn’t have a home at first and went over on his own while finding us somewhere. Everything was new and different and we had retained no links with the past. All family routines were up in the air and I had new school routines to learn as well as a new language. I was no longer ahead in reading.
I was never asked (aged 7, why would I?) whether I wanted to move. I was told it would be wonderful and we would live in a manor. I learned a bit of French at school before moving but little of it was useful. It was a huge adventure but at the time there was nothing in it for me. I gained nothing other than a sense that everything had changed. Yes I do resent it, despite all the gains that I have learned to take from it. I am angry that no one thought about the consequences for me. My father argued for schooling for 2sis as she was about to start her A levels so she went to a British School for her last two years that work paid for. 1sis was done with school so didn’t enter into and it was just assumed that I could be chucked into a local school and I’d be fine, I would/could cope. Today’s schools are much better at dealing with immigrant children who don’t speak the local language. I wasn’t fine.