It’s as if I woke in the children’s home. I didn’t know it was a children’s home. Light streamed through French windows making patterns on parquet flooring. Beyond the windows were sloping lawns. The room was huge and unfurnished. I was four years old. My two-year-old brother sat on the floor, bulky in his nappy, wailing. I wanted him to stop. I put my hands over my ears. Someone had told me I must look after my little brother. A stranger came, picked him up and carried him off through a panelled door. Everything before must have been a warm floatation of safety and senselessness.
It seemed as if one day I was lying beside my husband, dreaming of our sons’ bright futures, wondering how soon to try for a daughter, worried by which Laura Ashley wallpaper to choose; the next, he was gone. It was all the fault of Margaret Thatcher. Her and her bloody poll tax.
Perhaps my repair skills come from an interest in how things work. You have to be able to dismantle it all before you know how to restore well. That’s how I do it with the antique teddies. I unpick each thread around the teddy’s old paws, use them as a template, and carefully, minutely, stitch the new ones back in place. You have to use the right materials, or the restoration will shout ‘fake’.
It was our eldest son’s seventh birthday. My husband had been gone four weeks. I phoned him and asked if he would come to the party. ‘For his sake,’ I said.
My brother and I liked Airfix kits. They came in sections of shaped plastic. My windowsill was covered in galleons; my brother’s in tanks, and from the ceiling hung both our planes. Over the haze from an electric heater, they turned slowly on cotton threads. My first was a bi-plane – a Sopworth Camel. The glue was called cement. It was clear and smelt of acid-drops. Sometimes I’d taste it. Reacting with spit, it turned into a crisp of plastic. It worked by melting plastic together, so if you got it on a surface you didn’t want, it could ruin the model.
I made invites to family and friends – children to play with; and bought a birthday Spiderman cake. Cake-makers use apricot jam as glue. My husband arrived, and my heart was racing.
A bomb-hole in the woods had filled with water. We found it by chance in a clearing. I caught a green and brown speckled newt in it. I was frightened by how deep it might be. The edges were of clay, and I made coil pots, letting the sun bake them hard. I collect hand-made pottery, especially with signatures. It’s tactile, and honest, and its methods so ancient. I like newt colour glazes – and cobalt blue. Sometimes there’s a thumbprint in the clay. I once filled a crack in the yard with concrete. My big black dog left his print in it. I wonder if his mark’s still there, even though, in our different ways, we are both long gone. On the backdoor step of our cottage, my father had drawn his initials and the year.
My husband left our son’s party suddenly. I ran out in slippers and followed him in my car. I wanted him to come back. I found his car at the blonde woman’s house.
At the children’s home I had to sleep with three other children. We had two bunk beds. They couldn’t speak English, but I began to learn the meaning of their words. We talked after dark and passed a beetle in a matchbox between us. They were two brothers and a sister. Their parents had been killed in a crash, and I wondered with a pained thrill if mine had been killed too. I wondered where my brother was. When I woke in the morning, my bed was wet. I couldn’t understand why.
I drove home, back to the party, and screamed at my mother-in-law that her son was an adulterer. She slapped me across the face.
My father often brought antiques and curios home from London. Our cottage was packed like a mini museum. The hall had a collection of Chinoiserie. My favourite was a black lacquered cabinet inset with birds, cherry-blossom and butterflies in mother-of-pearl. There was a camphor-wood chest, decorated over with Chinese scenes – the carving so deep it was 3-D. On the tiled floor was a tiger’s skin. It’s skull was still inside its head, set with yellow glass eyes. His jaws were open in a permanent snarl directed at the front door. At the edge of his skin was a black felt frill. There was a small hole in one shoulder. I used to lie on top of him, and hold his fangs. He smelt of hay and mixed spices.
When I opened the front door the next morning, the coloured balloons I’d hung for the party were deflated and wrinkled. A few months later the blonde woman left her husband and two sons. My husband and she moved in together.
In the children’s home, I was made to line up in my underwear. I wriggled my toes on the cold flooring. It was winter and my breath came out in dragon puffs. Along the line were boys and girls of all sizes. I didn’t like to be in my underwear with strangers. A man in a white coat came along with a woman in a white apron. The man told me to open my mouth. He put the handle of a spoon down my throat. It was cold and tasted bitter. It made me retch. It made me indignant. There were pine trees all around our cottage. Pine sap is sticky. It’s pungent too.
Sometimes there was a message on the answering machine. A man’s growling voice, calling me ‘a fucking bitch’, saying he would take me ‘up the arse’. I told the Police, but they couldn’t help. BT put a device on the line to indentify callers’ numbers. I told a few friends, and the calls stopped.
Once, when I was eight and walking to the village on an errand, I glanced into a parked car. I don’t know why I glanced. There was a man sitting in it. He was cupping a blue-veined reddish thing in his lap. I don’t think I paused in my stride, but by the time I reached the shop, I realised what I’d seen. It was so different to my little brother’s. I kept repeating the shopping list: Half a pound of butter, Ajax, a loaf of Hovis and a jar of Virol. You can’t mend what you’ve seen, or what you’ve heard. I felt I was wrong to have looked in the car, so never told anyone.
I checked the locks twice every night, and hung cow-bells on the gate. In bed I’d listen so intently, I felt I could hear my pulse. I got a big black and tan dog. His white fangs were covered by a snuffley, soft muzzle. He was so big, my youngest son could ride him. At night he slept with his arms around the dog’s muscled, velvet shoulders.
It was clear my father hadn’t died, when he came to visit me in the home. He took me out in his big car. It smelt of tobacco and felt safe. As he drove, trees strobed the bonnet, dark – light, dark – light. He told me we were in Sevenoaks. ‘I know how it got its name,’ I chirped. ‘There are seven trees.’ And I counted them as we passed. Singing Ten Green Bottles had taught me counting. He’d come to visit for my fifth birthday. I don’t know how he answered my questions. Surely I asked them? Where is my mother… where is my brother… why can’t I be in our cottage? ‘…and if the last green bottle should accidentally fall…’
Business in my little shop was improving, but not enough for the piles of bills. I met a new friend. She repaired jewellery. We took it in turns – one would man the shop whilst the other looked after the children. She had five and was married to a Moslem. Our children bonded like brothers and sisters.
That summer in the children’s home, I longed for my father’s visits. Sometimes he didn’t come, but when he did, I sat on the padded leather passenger seat of his car, watched his hands on the varnished hoop of the steering wheel, loving the freedom of the open top, the breeze in my hair. I expect I chattered non-stop. I watched pink candyfloss spinning in a metal drum – vanilla ice cream melting down its cone, and at the fair, I cheated at apple-bobbing.
My husband didn’t give us maintenance. My brother-in-law said he’d help. He was a bachelor, older and steadier than my husband. I felt I loved him. He said he’d always loved me. But he made me promise to keep it secret, and said he’d marry me when his mother died.
Returning to our cottage came just as abruptly and without explanation as leaving it. My little brother had grown. I knelt on a kitchen stool while my father put photos in the drawer of a free-standing kitchen unit. It was pale blue, with a drop-down enamelled table. I asked him if my mother was dead. His answer was cryptic, and I used to wonder about it at night but knew I shouldn’t ask again. I couldn’t remember what she looked like, but if I saw Shirley Bassey on the TV, it made me think of my mother.
It seemed so simple – a side-step and all would be mended. And I didn’t want to lose my other brother and sister-in-laws. I loved to belong to their big family. But to wait until his mother was dead? I thought he was a coward.
Our cottage was next to riding stables. I loved horses. At school I’d gallop around the playground, snort, whinny and paw the ground. One day a group gathered around me and began to chant, ‘Horsey, horsey’. My best friend joined them, so I rushed at her, and bit her arm, because a few months before a pony had done the same to me. My father was summoned to come and get me. I had to say sorry. The next day my friend and I circled the playground arm in arm like nothing had happened. But the others never teased me again.
I went to my brother-in-law’s flat one morning when I should have been manning the shop. In his bed, sunken in the middle, with dirty sheets, I got my way. The bedroom was gloomy – the air stale. It was all wrong. He was thirty-seven – his first time ever.
Different women came to the cottage. I watched one as she lay on her back. She made cycling motions with her legs in the air. Her underwear was red, black and lacy. I thought she was pretty. On my sixth birthday my father demonstrated my new pink bike in the dairy yard up the lane. I stood in the middle and he rode around me in a circle, his knees nearly hitting his chin. It didn’t seem right to see my father so comically. My ears were filled with the cattle’s lowing, my nose with fermented grass and farm slurry. The lane to our cottage was bumpy with flints. A nurse mended the gash on my brow with butterfly clips.
We heard someone open the front door and call my brother-in-law’s name. He put his hand over my mouth and I thought I would suffocate. His friend’s voice called out. My brother-in-law began to shake and sweat as we heard his friend go to the kitchen, fill the kettle, and make a cup of tea. It seemed like hours, lying there in the unwashed bed, shaded by curtains that were never opened.
Near our cottage were ancient woods. In spring they had a carpet of blue. The sap of a bluebell is sticky and bitter. My brother and I found fallen gravestones deep in those woods. We brushed off the leaf-mould and combined our strength to lift them against trees. Moss had filled the chiselled names. Hero and Sonny and Blackie and Ginger. Our cottage had been a gatekeeper’s to a mansion. A white-painted gate spanned the lane. My brother and I rushed from the cottage if we heard a car. We’d ride the gate while it swung open, and back again to make it shut.
I didn’t go to his flat again. He still came to visit me, but that was our only time. He wasn’t as tall as his little brother, my husband, and had curlier hair. He wanted to be a sculptor, but made his money window-cleaning. He made his art from thin bamboo strips, glued together with a hot-melt gun.
My grandfather bought me a set of Children’s Encyclopaedias. At first I only looked at the pictures. My favourite was The Light of the World by Holman Hunt. I wanted to see beyond the overgrown garden gate. Tracing letters with my finger, I sounded out my first word. It happened suddenly, and I went on to read a sentence. My grandfather used to make me repeat, ‘Around the rugged rock the ragged ruffian ran.’ I had to say it, making a purring noise with my tongue on all the rs.
My brother-in-law still helped with money. He believed in God and urged me to pray. Kneeling with him, I tried to believe, but it wasn’t easy like superstition.
When I couldn’t sleep, I’d take my dog and walk through the dark streets. His paws trod soft and silent. His toes spread under his weight. He didn’t mind walking on cracks. My footsteps echoed in the empty streets. When it rained, the orange streetlights shimmered like sunsets on the wet tarmac. Sometimes my dog looked up in my face as if he wanted a question answered. It takes a light touch to mend things well.