The question mark is important. As on my blog title leaving it out changes the whole meaning significantly.
My mother was tall. At nearly six foot, she struggled to find clothes to fit her and mostly shopped by post through a catalogue for Tall Girls. She enjoyed her monthly magazines. Not for her the likes of Woman’s Own though. She read She and then later a new magazine, Nova I think it was. Glossy and fashionable, the thinking woman’s Vogue.
I write in the past tense because my mother died when I was nineteen. Still, nineteen years of knowing her should give me plenty to write about, comment on, anecdotes to relate, family stories to tell. But I know more about her reading habits than I do about her.
Most of what I know of my mother I have gleaned from relatives and friends. A loving woman who enjoyed life, was good to her parents and loved her daughter very much. She must have done: she was a hero to keep me, her child born out of wedlock without a man on the scene. And this was the 1950s. Episodes of Call the Midwife have made me realise just what she must have gone through: the shame, the gossip, the turned backs.
She had to work to keep me. Financially I mean. I don’t know what if any arguments she had with her parents or whether she considered adoption – my great-auntie Grace wanted to adopt me I know. So she worked five days a week as personal secretary to the General Manager of South Wales Transport and was highly thought of by everyone. When she died we had letters of condolence from ex-directors and top executives. At her funeral flower tributes lined the long path to my grandparents’ home. One, a pretty posy, was sent from a woman who worked in the company canteen. On the card she wrote, ‘Goodnight, sweet lady. Sleep tight.’ It seems most people knew her better than I did.
No doubt that was partly because of the circumstances. Her long working days meant I was raised primarily by my slightly ferocious and very domineering grandmother but maybe she had to be after her daughter gave birth to a bastard child.
But facts. My mother was born in Mumbles to Jack and Gladys, and a few years later she was joined by John. As Gladys was the eldest of eight my mother had aunts and uncles who were roughly the same age as her and she was much loved by all. So I’m told.
I intended to keep me out of this. I’ve written plenty in the past, either fact or fiction, loosely based on how I felt as a child so I wanted this to be about my mother, but I’m finding it impossible. I am part of her and she is part of me. I am a key constituent in this tale. Or am I just giving myself the starring role in another’s story?
I remember waking in the night and calling, my mother coming and me weeping, ‘Nobody loves me.’ My mother shocked, hurt, eventually cross: this had happened before. ‘How can you say that when you know we all love you?’
And they did.
My mother wasn’t young having me. She was in her thirties not a foolish young girl carried away on drink or a romantic notion. She’d served in the forces, the WAAF, spending time in Egypt during the war, where, incidentally she lost an air plane propeller – the only story I’ve heard of her time there. And I don’t even know if she ever found it. Before that she lived in London briefly for nurse’s training but, as her grand-daughter would do sixty years later, she dropped out of big city life to return home.
The Christmas before she died she bought me a sheepskin jacket. She was so proud of it, making me put it on to show visitors. It must have taken her ages to save or pay it off and she really believed I too would be thrilled. I tried to be but compared to my cousin in her pale well-fitted sheepskin I looked and felt like a chubby dumpling in my dark, less shapely version. My mother couldn’t even get the colour right. What I’d really wanted of course, like my cousin again, was a car. A ridiculous pipe dream; I knew that. There was no money spare. And, anyway, we were bus people.
We definitely weren’t horse people. But a childhood of reading books where the heroine had or longed for and finally got her own pony left its mark. I’d never even ridden a horse. If I’d got close to one I’d probably have been scared. But that didn’t stop me dreaming and secretly hoping.
That year my Christmas present was a statuette of a mare and foal. The next best thing. No, not the next best, not even the fiftieth best.
So maybe she knew almost as little about me as I knew about her.
If the situation had been reversed and it had been me who’d died would I have become the paragon of virtue that is described to me? The perfect daughter, although no-one really knew me.
She called me to her one day and showed me a tiny snapshot of a group of people. She pointed at a man in the photo. ‘That’s your father,’ she said before she added hurriedly, ‘and it was only ever him, you know.’
I don’t remember what I did then but the photo was put away and we never mentioned it or my father again. Now when I look at the photo – I’m not even sure it’s the right one – I guess to remember which man she pointing at.
I was maybe ten or eleven at the time. An innocent ten for all that this was the swinging sixties. An innocent who’d never doubted or questioned the story that her parents had separated and her father was working in India. And I remember thinking, ‘Everyone knows. Everyone except me.’
But maybe those lies helped me survive, to get through life in an unforgiving, morally upright – in public at least – world.
So my mother was tall.
My mother lied to me.
My mother didn’t know me.
She came to my bedroom one evening and sat on the bed. ‘How would you like to live in Africa?’ Her voice said this was an exciting opportunity. Her voice said we could live a new life, create another story. ‘We would have servants.’ She’d been offered a job there she said.
Selfish to the last I cried, ‘No, I don’t want to go.’ Didn’t want to leave everything that was familiar and safe.
Maybe she hadn’t really wanted to go but she didn’t push it. She didn’t mention it again. Sometimes I wondered if it were really a job she’d been offered or was it a relationship? Did she turn down a chance of happiness for me?
So many things I don’t know. My uncle tells me that she lost a man she loved during the war. I don’t know; she didn’t tell me.
She did tell me some things. She told me to be careful of strange men on buses especially if they began fiddling with their trousers. But she never told me of her hopes or dreams. Maybe she would have had she lived, had we got to know each other. As she played with her grandchildren maybe she’d have told me how hard it had been to walk to the bus stop in those early days, to hold her head up, to not deny the truth. To not regret.
She was brave. She was vivacious. She did her best.
I’d watch her socialising, talking, laughing with people and wonder how I, her daughter, could be so different. How indeed I could be so different from everyone else in the extended family. Or how does a child get an idea that she is unloved?
The last night I was asleep in bed when I was woken by a thud from the bathroom next door. I heard my grandmother rushing in, saying, ‘Marg? Are you all right? Marg!’ I clambered out of bed and in the bathroom saw my mother lying, unconscious, on the floor by the sink, a small pool of blood next to her mouth. ‘Quick,’ my grandmother said, ‘get dressed and go and call the doctor.’
I pulled on clothes and ran down the road to the telephone box outside the Post Office. Somehow through my garbled explanation, ‘my mother, she’s sort of collapsed, she’s lying on the floor,’ the doctor had the sense to realise the seriousness and called an ambulance.
Over the next week or so she had two operations to clear the blood still fuzzing her brain. The night before the second operation my cousin’s girlfriend, Anne, drove my grandmother, my great-aunt (the one who had wanted to adopt me) and me to visit. While we were there my mother said to me, ‘You look familiar. Are you Peter?’ Anne squeezed my hand sympathetically.
On the way home from visiting we were involved in a fatal accident. The insurance claim covered professional cleaning for my sheepskin coat, to remove the blood from it. ‘You could claim for a replacement,’ they said.
‘No, I’ll keep this. This is fine.’