A Small Act of Rebellion
I have no real memory of it, our combined fraternal rebellion, though I believe it really did happen. Or maybe it's just a story, a scrap of family mythology, a convenient fiction co-authored by my brother and me and held onto by us both as anchor? Like the legend of my falling from the bedroom window, and my brother, my putative protector and hero, aged eight or nine, running to fetch the galvanised bath to try to catch me. I do not remember the fall, or the appearance of a tin bath, but if fall I did, I survived it more or less unscathed. Unlike that other incident. That, I can picture as if it really did happen. But unlike other memories, it is not dynamic. It is more a snapshot, a static image of a moment, but that must have had a finite span - an incident in time that has remained as background to my life, simultaneously haunting and eluding me, in too many ways shaping what I am.
It is the first real memory I have of my mother. I was nine years old.
In an Inner Child Integration workshop a few years ago I was invited to try to project this event as a film on a screen in my head, to let it run, to edit and manipulate the sequence of events, the sounds, the movements, the dialogue, the reactions of the players, in any way I chose. I could not make it happen, as others in the workshop seemed able to do with the embedded images of their own pasts. I was unable to move it on or rewind it. It remained a single frame, a fixed story-board picture. I could envisage the setting - the hallway in the house, the built-in cupboards with sliding doors at the end of the hallway, the front door behind me, the door to the living room on my left, the kitchen to the right - but none of it in detail. Just planes and spaces, static figures, no movement, not a word being said. My recollections are always the same. I am standing closest to the front door (symbolically guarding it, preventing my mother’s flight?), my brother in front of me and to one side (complacent, defiant, inviting her escape?), my mother in front of us both. Is she angry, sad? Or just desperate? I cannot tell. The angle of sight is from above, as though I am looking down on this scene from over my own shoulder. A remote observer, but far from disinterested.
We had only recently moved into the house. It was my father’s pride and joy. It was on a small estate, a new bungalow, nothing exceptional, but the family story has it that it had been customised to his own design. A clean, comfortable modern home. He had a decorative wooden board made up and fixed to the wall beside the front door, the word “OLCOTE” and encircling foliage carved on it. “Our Little Corner Of The Earth”. He was proud too of this act of naming. My father the homebuilder. My father the optimistic sentimental fool. My mother, for reasons I have never been able to figure out, decided to smash our home, our snug little corner of the earth. The point of focus, the justification in her head for this act of destruction? When the door to the living room was closed a small cloud of smoke was drawn from the fireplace into the room. A minor problem of ventilation eventually easily resolved. Still sufficient cause or excuse though for my mother to poison my father’s dream. In the next house we lived in it would be the too loud television of the neighbours. In the next, the possibly non-existent (or naively encouraged?) advances of the male half of a couple who had been allowed, surprisingly, to become family friends, who lived across the street. A few small puffs of smoke became reason enough to hate the our new home, possibly too those who resided within it. In her resentment, my mother retreated to the solitude of her bedroom.
I have no memory of the inside of the house we had lived in before. I can picture the outside - the pear tree, too close to the house, that my brother and I helped my father cut down, the concrete driveway, the barn with the ladder slung in the rafters, my father’s work-bench and tools: the back garden where my brother and I made roads and tunnels in the soil to race our toy cars, trimmed the weeds to serve as trees and bushes; the tumbledown, dusty, spider-webbed greenhouse at the bottom of the garden, the smell of it even; the front garden where I sprained my instep jumping over the wooden boards edging my father's flower beds; the pebble-dashed walls of the house, its abrasive skin, against which I once badly scraped the back of my hand practising my cricket bowling action. These exterior things are all still vivid in my memory. The inside of the house is not. There was a front door, a door I never used. This was reserved for visitors, who rarely came. Ours was not a welcoming house. People were never invited. Perhaps my father felt he had something to hide, and I can see now that my mother could not have risked inviting others into her darkness. We, the family, always came and went through the door at the side of the house that led into the kitchen. Beyond that one room, the house remains for me a dark, empty, undefined space.
What happened in there to make me close it all out? What anguish did I suffer that was too great for me to recall? I know I had bad dreams there. Nightmares of trying to climb to a bright light ahead yet sliding helplessly down collapsing stairways into some frightening emptiness below. And once (thankfully, only once), of a giant spider falling on my face, suffocating me.
My mother was a good woman. An intelligent woman, though denied the opportunity to be educated in any enabling or fulfilling way. She had won a scholarship to go to a higher school, but her father, in his chauvinistic hubris and ignorance, would not let her go. Left to herself, with my father working all day, and my brother and I at school, with no family or friends or distractions, that intelligence turned in on itself, gorged itself to unmanageable proportions on the troubled things it discovered in her soul. And so she ended up lonely, confused and frightened. Perhaps she did love me in her own way. It was just that, having never known love herself, she did not know how to show it. Instead she suffered, or more often, put on a show of suffering, to try to coerce my father, my brother and me into showing that we cared. All it did was alienate us, and ultimately, after the umpteenth medical false alarm, pushed us further away.
I believe I know now why my mother tried so hard to destroy all the comfortable and safe places my father tried to build for us. For all his failings, my father was a good man too. He wanted only the best for his family, but then he made a bad decision, although at the time he probably believed it was the right thing to do. For her, for himself. For his children. My mother hated her father. Hate is always a strong word to use, but it is probably the appropriate one for what she felt for him. The only person my mother ever truly loved was her own mother. And that was the mistake my father made. He took my mother away from the only thing she loved. The one who no doubt had protected her as best she could from the darkness in my grandfather’s soul. Who offered her a simulacrum of safety. In my own memories of him, her father was larger than life, a source of fascination and wonder to the village boy I was then. He paid me to catch flies, told me stories with made-up languages that were in reality no more than duck-talk gibberish. But now, as an adult, I have come to understand that he was not the amusing, loving man I thought of him as then, that he was instead selfish and narrow minded, and overly assured of his patriarchal position and rights. My mother was an attractive young woman (my father was a handsome young man); there were probably sexual improprieties, though to what degree I will never know. To my knowledge my grandfather was not a drinker, and despite the negative image they portrayed of him, my parents never accused him of being a violent man. Later, after we had moved away, when I stayed with my grandparents in the summer I was never threatened with a corrective lesson from the thick leather belt he wore. My mother never said much about the reasons why she felt the way she did. All I know is that she hated him, passionately, and - perhaps as a corollary, or perhaps not, and such an interpretation is simply a product of my own seeking for explanation - that she was uncomfortable with her own sexuality. My brothers concurs with the conclusions I have drawn.
For the first seven years of my life we lived next door to my mother’s parents. My grandfather owned a terrace of four cottages in a small country village. We lived in one of those cottages - two bedrooms, a living room and a scullery, an attic for storage; no central heating or hot and cold running water; the toilet a hole in a plank above a foetid pit in a shared brick out-house at the bottom of the garden, the legendary bath hanging on a nail in the coal-shed, waiting to catch falling infants, or more normally, to be brought in and filled with water heated on the coal stove and shared by all - children first, then mother, then father - once a week. My father’s youngest brother lived in a house next door to the end of the terrace. One of their sisters lived across the street; another lived on a small holding at the end of the village, about ten minutes walk away. There were other aunts and uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews, including on my mother’s side, who lived in surrounding villages. We lived amongst family, amongst good people who cared. Still there was the demonised father living next door.
It is probably safe to infer that my father was ashamed of his father-in-law, of the family he had married into. His own family was law-abiding, respected, god-fearing. My recollection of his mother is of a stern and sober woman, deep-voiced and straight-backed, sitting in darkened rooms, the curtains half drawn, the air smelling of liniment and mothballs. His father, a devout Presbyterian, had been thought of as a saint in the village, equally stern, but a good and charitable man. My mother’s family, by contrast were of coarser farm labouring stock. Another part of the family myth is that my maternal great-grandfather blinded his wife by pushing out her eyes with his thumbs, and that he may have murdered someone in his native Northampton, necessitating his move to the area where I grew up. My mother’s oldest brother was what was then politically incorrectly, if accurately in his case, called “simple”. Her father, contrary to my early, naïve impressions of him, was at best a scoundrel, a self-professed poacher, a man who could neither read nor write, and who had probably not set foot inside a church since the day he had wed. Perhaps he was a drinker too, and I was too young to have seen or understood this. He was a blasphemer, a cussing man certainly. I can imagine my father wanted nothing more than to take his vulnerable and attractive wife, his impressionable children away from the influence of such a man.
I think too, given his patrimony, even though his own father had died when he was only seven - a delayed victim of the First World War - my father would have felt the responsibility to make something of himself, to provide for his own family. When the opportunity arose - a good job, a house he could afford to buy - he took us to live in another village about ten miles away.
Ten miles was a long way in the days when a car was a luxury and buses were few and far between.
What words were said in that stilled hallway? I have no idea. The script that has been swapped, workshopped and handed down between myself and my brother is that my mother first asked him, the eldest, to go up into the loft to get a suitcase so she could leave, and that when he refused, she asked me to do the same. Taking courage from his example, I too refused. My father found her a few hours later walking along the railway line. She was committed to a mental hospital where she remained for several weeks receiving electro-shock treatment and medical sedation. When she came home you could see some spark inside of her had been irretrievably dulled.
I have often asked myself why this tangibly painful event should be the only solid memory of my mother I retain from my early childhood. The rest is largely a blank, both of my parents little more than a presence, neither of them solid and functioning human agents. The most reasonable answer I have found is that because my brother was asked first, because he refused first, then it was not about me. It was not something I had done, some failing in me that was driving my mother away. There are no attendant feelings of guilt, or of culpability attached to the memory, as there must have been with the less blatant rejections I experienced from my self-absorbed mother at other times, and that must have been so painful I have blocked them from my memory. That first house we moved to, the one I cannot remember inside, it is obvious to me now that the pain of rejection I must have experienced there as my mother started to withdraw inexorably into herself, filled that house, its every space and corner with a deep and impenetrable darkness.
The child I was must have been confronted with an uncomfortable choice that day. To help my mother, the person I most loved and whose love I craved - to be the redeeming child hero; to save her, to help her, even though such help would simultaneously deny me the one thing I most wanted, her love. Or to rebel, to deny her what she asked, to fail to demonstrate my love for her, to keep her there with me. What a terrible choice for a child to have to make.
So what did prompt my small act of rebellion? That my brother had rebelled too; that he had instigated in effect a combined insurrection, thereby giving me permission? I have no real recollection of the anguish I must have felt then, of the pain and confusion my choice must have caused me. That much I have erased from my memory. Only my static, monochrome image has remained fixed indelibly on my internal film.
When I tried to re-script the scene in the workshop, I was unable to animate myself or my brother as pro-active, empowered players, or compel us to mouth words that might have altered the denouement of the scene. What high words could we have said anyway? What feelings could we have expressed at our young age to console my mother, to persuade her that the love she craved was to be found there in our sad little corner of the earth? Such language, such abstract thoughts and reasoning, and perhaps more importantly, the requisite belief in such a homely script, none of these were available to us. The world, our home, our family, had by then already become for us all a far from safe or consoling place.
The only editorialising I was able to do was focus more closely on the image of my mother. Previously, my efforts had all been in trying to understand my own part in the drama, my own thoughts and reactions. Now I found I was able to focus on her, though her image still remained fixed, locked in her own act of rebellion against the imagined tyranny of my father - a projection no doubt of her troubled relationship with her own father. A projection that my father did not deserve.
What I saw when I looked at her, what I see now when I look at photographs of my mother as a young woman, is a confused and frightened child, uncertain how to be a woman, a mother, fearful of everything that such states entail.
Is this understanding sufficient for acceptance of what happened? For forgiveness? Sadly, I still do not know.
The only thing I can remember my mother ever saying to me was that I would always find a worm in the apple. It was not a deep, insightful observation - I am often beset with doubt, wrestle always between a dozen shades of grey, in discussions frequently play devil's advocate to my own position. Deny myself, with abstract reasons and excuses, the things I want to do. But if I could have that conversation with her again I would point out the thing that seems obvious to me now: the worm is hers, not mine.
About the Creator
I write and publish historical novels, set in various periods, as Ian Pateman. After many near misses, still looking for that one chance to break through to a wider audience. Any support or input greatly welcome.