What follows is the first chapter of a new novel I’ve just started with the working title, A life turned. It’s based on a short story I wrote and published last year in an anthology, Life in four stories, see home page. In A life turned a man looks back on his troubled past and his unusual relationships with his parents to consider the impact on his life.
I can never be sure when my indifference to my mother started. When I’m irrational, I blame it on my birth: a bad forceps delivery, I’m told, that left me with birthmarks for the rest of my life, or so my vanity tells me. It wasn’t Mum’s fault, of that I’m sure, but somewhere, lodged deep in the temporal lobe of my brain is a negative, irrational memory that kicks in whenever I think of her. It’s not that I don’t love her, or that I think she doesn’t love me, only that from when I could first remember, she wasn’t much around. She’d dress me, give me breakfast, then rush out of the small apartment we lived in to go to work at the local supermarket, leaving me in the care of Sally, who I’ll always remember as being kind and fun. Mum came home to give me my tea, tuck me up in bed and dash back to the supermarket, where she’d fill shelves while I slept, watched over by a babysitter.
There were days with only bread and water to eat and drink, days when it was so bitterly cold we walked around our flat wearing coats, scarves, gloves and with several layers underneath and your breath almost froze in front of you. ‘It doesn’t work,’ Mum would say when I asked why we had no heating. Later, I realised we were poor, and she didn’t have enough money to turn the heating on.
I was under ten at the time – over twenty-five years ago – and most of my memories of that time are vague and hazy. But I remember those cold days and the hungry days, and the days when Mum would sit on one of the three rickety wooden chairs in the kitchen with a pile of bills on the table in front of her and cry. It could have been tiredness, the cold, hunger, or the miserable flat we lived in, a dismal dwelling above a corner shop in Hammersmith, London. But I guess it was money, or lack of it, that’d made her break down and cry. She worked so hard to make ends meet; those times when the pot was empty brought her to her knees.
Without my grandparents’ help – Mum’s parents – it’s difficult to understand how we would have survived those crushing times. Not always, but often, when Mum seemed broken, she’d call her parents, rushing to her bedroom to talk with them. When she reappeared, she’d be smiling, her face streaked with grey smudges where she’d wiped away her tears. ‘Fancy a pizza?’ she’d say, and shortly we’d be ordering a delivery. I can only guess my grandparents had giving her some money.
They were a cheery pair. Most weekends we’d spend at their small and comfortable home in Beaconsfield, an old market town twenty miles west of London, which I remember having a magnificent model village, built with intricate detail in 1920 and an attraction I was taken to often. We used to travel to Beaconsfield on the train, Granddad picking us up from the station. They lived in a three-bedroomed, two-hundred-year-old cottage in the old part of the town with a small garden that led onto to fields. The timber beams, low ceilings, and warmth gave the cottage a comfortable and cosy feel – a welcome retreat from our hobble in Hammersmith. I don’t think my grandparents were rich, both in their sixties back then, recently retired, but able to help Mum in a crisis. I remember Granddad being tall, fit looking, with a decent head of grey hair, and conservative in his dress. Gran was less of a conformist. She’d been a professional pianist in her time, performing with many of the UK’s and Europe’s well-known orchestras as well as playing in and organising her own string quartet. From what I remember, she had long grey hair, always wore long skirts that reached down to her feet, a matching-coloured top, and beads that hung down level with her waist. Never without them. She was small, trim and memorable, and a master at roast potatoes.
Many of the details and timings of my early life remain a blur, but there are times and moments I will never forget. One such one was when I asked my mother about my father for the first time. She looked at me, her eyes a little screwed up, and shrugged. ‘You don’t need to know about him,’ she said before turning away and continuing the cleaning. It was a Saturday morning. We were going to Mum’s parents for lunch, and she was trying to get the flat cleaned before we left.
Whether I’d burst into tears, become unusually quiet, sulked, or just looked sad, I can’t recall, but I do remember sitting facing Mum on one of the kitchen chairs, her on another one, holding my hands. She asked why I’d suddenly taken an interest in my father. In what I recall as a tearful exchange, I told her about the taunts at school; other kids saying, ‘Your dad’s in jail, your dad ran off with another woman, your dad’s dead.’ I said I wanted to know the truth; the taunts had made me upset.
That was the moment Mum became a warrior. Like a wild animal chasing its prey, a police officer pursuing a violent suspect, an Olympic athlete determined to win gold, she sought out the head teacher after school the next day and let him know I was not to be bullied or tormented ever again. I don’t know her approach with the head, or her exact words, but whatever she’d said or did was effective. Those who’d had it in for me went away, and I kept out of their way; sure they’d seek their revenge if I gave them the opportunity.
For some weeks Mum and I became closer. She’d rearranged her hours to be able to pick me up from school, and every day on the bus home, we’d chat about my school day. After I’d told her how my classes had gone, moaned on about the unpalatable school lunch, and updated her on new friends, she’d always, without fail, turn to me, her eyes screwed up, a penetrating look that said don’t you dare lie, and say, ‘Those thugs, have they been anywhere near you.’ Every day I told her they hadn’t; the following day she’d repeat the same question.
About four weeks into this routine, we arrived home, closed the front door, and Mum said she wanted to have a little chat with me. Sally was there and started preparing our meal while Mum and I made for our tiny living room, no more than about ten foot wide and fifteen foot long: damp, cold, and not regularly heated. Mum turned the radiator on and came to sit next to me on the small sofa. Turning to look at me, she said, ‘I want to tell you about your father.’
At the time, aged ten, I known Granddad was Mum’s father and he’d told me on one of our walks one day that because Gran and he loved each other Mum had grown in Gran’s stomach, and after nine months had ‘popped out’ as a baby. I’d overhead the older boys at school talk about sex and conception, but most of it had gone over my head. That fathers were the other parent for many of the kids in my class, I understood, but I had a very vague concept of what a father was. Mum was about to tell me about mine, and I remember being eager to find out.
‘I hardly knew him. He was twenty years older than me; I was only twenty when I met him.’ Mum stopped and looked at me. She looked concerned. ‘We knew each other for one night only. After that, I never heard from him again. I don’t know where he is. All I do know is that he was Italian, and nine months after meeting him, you were born.’
And that, as far as I can remember, was it. I was left confused, feeling my father was a mysterious person which my mother’s few words had done little to clear up. How did I get into Mum’s tummy? Why did my mother and father spend so little time together? And why Italian?
Sally, who I think I spoke to me more than Mum, and who was around and more accessible, tried to explain to me a little later the basics of conception, giving me a simplistic version of how babies are made, something like when people cuddle a seed is sown in the woman’s tummy which turns into a baby, which, even to a pre-pubescent ten-year-old, seemed like a fairy tale.
I had no idea my grandfather had cancer. I had never been told, and he showed no signs, well not to me. A few weeks after my thirteenth birthday, he was taken into hospital with terminal lung cancer and died three weeks later. Mum told me she knew he was ill but hadn’t expected his death to come so soon. She was grief stricken, and I remember a deep pall of sadness descended on our flat.
Through our loss and grief came light. After Granddad’s funeral we moved in with Grandma. I remember a bigger bedroom, a better shower, a seemingly huge living room with a large TV, and a new shiny kitchen. Mum cut down her hours and was home by six pm and didn’t return to work until the next day. But sadly, Sally left. Mum and I stayed in contact with her, and she called in often. Nevertheless, her going was like losing a brother or sister who was also a best friend.
If Granddad’s death was an unexpected shock to me, leaving me sad and bewildered, what occurred in our lives a year later was a trauma of titanic proportion. I was fourteen, walking home from school on my own, turning into our road, spurred on to walk faster by the sight of Grandma’s house and the thought of having a chat with her over a mug of tea and a slice of her coffee sponge, without doubt the best coffee sponge in the world. I slid my key in the latch, turned it, pushed the door back and saw her lying on her back on the kitchen floor. She was seventy, a year older than Grandad if he’d still been alive, fit, and I’d been told by Mum would live for ever.
Breathing, but unconscious. I stroked her face, no response. I called her name, no response. I reached for my phone and called 999…
‘What service do you need?’ a voice said.
‘My Gran’s lying on the floor, her eyes are closed.’
‘Is she breathing?’
‘I think so. I can see her chest moving.’
‘Does she respond when you call her name.’
They asked for my address, and then the woman from the ambulance service said, ‘There’s an ambulance on the way, love. Try to stay calm and call us again if you want to.’ A call I’ll never forget.
The two paramedics suspected she’d had either a seizure or a brain haemorrhage and would have to go to hospital. Startled by what I remember as tubes like vermicelli attached to or inserted into parts of her body, I watched as the paramedics started to slide Gran onto a stretcher. I asked if I could go with them, but they wouldn’t allow me and one of them called Mum from my phone. She didn’t answer, so the female paramedic called their base to send a carer to be with me. Then she contacted Mum’s supermarket, who said they’d put Mum in a taxi and send her home immediately. The carer came, and Gran went to hospital. Mum turned up with Sally, minutes later. Mum went off to the hospital in the same taxi, and Sally stayed with me, doing everything she could to console me.
Gran died in the ambulance – she’d suffered a massive brain haemorrhage which, I’m told, could have happened to anyone at any stage in their life, fit or unfit. We buried her next to Granddad.
I’m not sure, really, if my early life made an impression that was lasting. But I do recall, after Gran’s death, I longed for a tranquil future. I had some time to wait.