I arrive in Alison’s room with some urgency. ‘What are the chances of people meeting up again in the afterlife?’ I say as I sit down. ‘Does it ever happen?’
‘Whom are we talking about in particular?’ she says.
‘Oh, you know who I’m talking about. If you were really in love with someone, if they were the one true love you ever had, not just in this life – forever?’
She looks down at her papers and considers her answer. When she looks up there’s sympathy in her eyes – not obviously, but it’s there. Generally her face is fairly impassive but I know her a bit better now and it’s definitely there.
‘It’s very rare but it happens more often than one would expect by chance alone’ she says at last. ‘I don’t want to get your hopes up too much Gabriel. If it were down to pure coincidence the chances would be vanishingly small. The land of the afterlife is almost infinite as far as we can tell and the paths across it apparently innumerable. Some say it’s a vast globe, much bigger than any of the known planets, with a tiny sun in orbit. Anyway, one almost never encounters the same place twice – even if you try to retrace your steps. Being reunited seems hopeless, and yet, it happens.’
She can see the new hope in my face. It’s a small hope. I can deal with that, but I must have hope. Anyway, back to the story.
The next fragment that stands out covers a period from about a month before I started school to about two days after. I watched helplessly as my little self lived through it and hadn’t the faintest idea what was going on. I tried to comfort him but he was too far away. He just wasn’t listening.
We’d moved to Southwick about three months beforehand. I don’t remember much about that – I think I just carried on as usual as if this storm would pass and we’d get back to normal again soon. The worst thing was my mother being around so much – ordering us all about and stomping around as if she thought that if she didn’t personally supervise everything, nothing would happen. I resented her even then, as a small child. Hadn’t we all managed fine up until now? I watched my dad put up with it and my sisters – Justine especially, rush around trying to keep her happy. Amelia winked at me conspiratorially as she sneaked off for another fag.
I spent my time getting to know the new house. It was a huge old Victorian semi, high and echoing and not at all comfortable. Everywhere sounded of floorboards and smelled dry and powdery when I was used to everything being muffled with damp and mould. It seemed vast after the cottage. When we moved in it was bare of all furnishings and despite all the junk we’d brought with us we hardly had anything to put in it.
They gave me the small room at the back and my single bed took up almost all of it. It was a bigger room than at the farm and it had a tall window that looked out over the uncharted suburban territory beyond. I remember thinking it looked like a zoo out there, with fences and walls and buildings dividing it up. Those first few nights I lay there, getting used to the sound of the trains on the embankment and the lost, lonesome sound of the foghorn down at the harbour. The night sky, yellowed by street lamps, looked sick and suffocating.
It seems very strange now to think that this place with four bedrooms and a conservatory and about a third of an acre at the back was the only house my parents could afford but at the time it seems everyone else wanted modern bungalows.
The best thing for me was that it was big enough for me to disappear in. I could play on my own in my room or in the summer room as we called it (conservatory sounded too posh) where all the things we hadn’t found a home for yet were left – a piano, a lot of tools, bicycles, a pram and my old cot. I entertained myself as before with whatever was about – paper, boxes, sheets and old rugs, chairs and ornaments, and I made little hiding places. Now I felt the need of somewhere to get out of the way all the more. Mostly, I stayed in my room and played with my Britain’s zoo animals or my Lego and shut out the sounds of silence downstairs. I wasn’t used to that. My small self just went off into his own little world as before but he knew something was wrong. Nobody was really talking to one another, and those cosy evenings by the fire never happened again. I watched dad change – becoming moody and withdrawn.
It felt like we’d come to the end of the world.
And as before, when I felt bad I crept in among my sister’s things, both Amelia’s and Justine’s. I had a very clear sense that I shouldn’t be disloyal and honoured them equally with my presence, even though Justine’s belongings were always a little harder and more business-like and kept more neatly. She had the room next to mine looking out over the back garden. I sat in her room and looked at her books or played boats with her shoes. She was at college by then.
Amelia’s room was at the front and had a big bay window and was always in chaos. That’s where I went when I just wanted to curl up in a lot of soft, smelly feminine things. Sometimes, when things got really bad I spent whole days in her wardrobe, only coming out for food. She didn’t tell anyone.
Our parent’s room in the roof was ‘out of bounds’ but I sneaked up there anyway. There was a proper room up there, with proper floorboards and walls and a dormer window, but it had never been decorated and all there was was more things we hadn’t unpacked. Mum and dad’s bed lay like a plateau amidst a mountain range of boxes of papers and books and suitcases of old clothes. I found a bag full of nothing but shoes, and another full of coat hangers but there was no wardrobe to hang anything in. I got up on the window seat and looked out and found I could see even further – way beyond the garden through the leafless sycamores to the croquet lawns beyond. I ventured outside briefly. There was a sort of covered passage along the side of the house with the bicycles leaning against the fence, a washing line and a shed for coal at the end. I peered at the lawn but it seemed nasty and cold out there and I went back to my room. I started school in the January just before my fifth birthday.
That first school morning was surreal and disturbing. It was still dark out but I was told I had to get up and get dressed. Dad stood there until I had my feet on the floor and helped me on with my dressing gown. Then I stumbled down the bare wooden boards in the cold to the dining room where there was a little heat from a gas fire. I just sat there amongst my clothes, dazed. Mum was still about too which I wasn’t used to and she and dad were moving about in the kitchen, getting in each other’s way. I relaxed a bit when I heard her leave. Dad came through and helped me to get dressed in his usual silent way but I could tell something was wrong. The clothes were strange. Normally I’d have had something to talk about but I didn’t that day. He was going too quickly and I got mixed up with my buttons. I heard him mutter ‘Oh for God’s sake. What is wrong with you?’ and go into the kitchen.
Then he sat me at the table and brought in my cereal and some tea. I could hear Terry Wogan on Radio 2 in the kitchen. It was still quite dark out. I could hear rain on the summer room roof. I didn’t really know what was happening. We hadn’t really talked about it. I knew I was going to school but I didn’t really know what that meant. I knew there would be other children there but I couldn’t imagine what that would be like either, so I just put it out of my mind. My old self watched me do it. I thought – he hasn’t got a clue, poor little sod. He’d be more at home in a fish tank.
The walk to school was long and cold and wet but there was plenty to look at on the way – the Green with its ancient elms, the Square (an ugly 60s shopping centre), and then the recreation ground. The sound of too many children’s voices, loud enough to be heard from over the hedges, told me something big was coming. I had a sick feeling in my throat and tears behind my eyes but I didn’t cry. We walked, my hand in his, along the path from the rec, between the hedges and past the playgrounds to the big steel gates. I watched other children run past and yell at each other, all apparently bigger, faster, and much louder than I was. There was a smell of cooking but it wasn’t a pleasant smell. It wasn’t like home. Dad took me to meet my teacher in the bottom class as it was called then and left me there with her.
I see my small face, betraying no emotion, looking around as the teacher claps her hands and speaks loudly to the other children. He’s wondering if he should be doing something. The others seem to know what to do. He just stands there until eventually she takes him to a peg marked with a duck for him to hang his coat on and then points out a seat next to a girl called Beverley. Beverley seems to know what needs to be done but she won’t tell him.
I know now of course that the others had already been here for three months and they’d already made friends and they already knew what lessons were about. He didn’t know any of this and assumed there must be something wrong with him.
‘What do you think was going on with your parents?’ asks Alison after a long pause.
‘Oh I know exactly what it was.’
‘It was because we’d had to move. That cottage in the country and the garden was all my dad ever dreamed of. He admitted that to me later on, just before he died. He’d spent all his time working on the garden. Apparently the whole thing had been under briars and sycamore when we arrived and by the end we were nearly self-sufficient in veg, eggs and fruit.’
‘It sounds idyllic.’
‘It was. I mean I know he was always what you might call taciturn but I never felt it was because he was brooding or sulking or whatever. He just never felt the need to say much. I never had any sense that he was unhappy before the move, and I actually really enjoyed being around him. There was something very steadying about his workmanlike, calm, no nonsense approach to everything – cooking, gardening, making a fire or talking to neighbours. I never felt that he especially sought my company, but then I never felt that I was unwelcome either. I’d never felt uncomfortable with him before.’
‘Not until you moved.’
‘Well, actually a bit before that, because he’d stopped doing anything in the garden the previous summer because he knew there was no point.’
‘Did he ever say anything at the time?’
‘He just went really quiet. I suppose when people don’t communicate in the normal way you get very good at reading them in other ways – even little kids do. Even then I knew he didn’t really want me around any more.’
‘So why exactly did you move? I mean I can imagine. It all sounds very picturesque but it would have driven me nuts.’
‘Well, the story was that we’d need to live in town so that I could go to school, and Amelia was always complaining about living in the middle of nowhere, but the real reason was because of mum. I think dad had this idea that once the girls were grown up he was going to set up a nursery growing alpine plants but the thing is, it was his dream. I’m not sure Mum felt the same way.’
‘So... I’m not sure I understand. Are you saying that your mother used you as an excuse to get her way?’
I sit for a little while, not answering. ‘I can’t be sure. I don’t really know what happened between them, even now. All I know is, when I was old enough to go to school everything changed.’
‘Do you think your father blamed you?’
‘Not exactly, but it was because of me. They hadn’t planned me. There was something about my mother not being prepared to have an abortion. I think he wanted her to. To be honest he wasn’t a big thinker, my dad, but everything he’d dreamed of fell apart because of me. That was all.’
‘But wasn’t he angry with your mother? Surely that was the place to lay the blame.’
‘It wasn’t like that. As far as he was concerned she could do no wrong. I can think of a few times when she did something really out of order and he just made up an excuse for her.’
‘So, how did he treat you?’
‘Well, a lot of the time it was just like he couldn’t be bothered with me, like I was just a nuisance, but then sometimes he’d take it into his head to try to do something with me but if anything that made it worse. Before I’d just happily tagged along and joined in with whatever he was doing whenever I felt like it. Now he’d take me aside and try to show me how to do things – games and housework and pointing things out in the garden and telling me about them, which sounds nice and fatherly but it wasn’t. It was kind of intense and frustrated, like he didn’t really feel he should have to. He had no patience for teaching, or for me. I didn’t understand and I’d get upset and then he’d really get frustrated and push even harder. It got to a point where I just couldn’t think any more and I just wanted to stop but he wouldn’t. He just thought I wasn’t trying hard enough and that if he kept on then one day I’d somehow have a eureka moment and that would be it – I’d be a proper son. He couldn’t see that he was just making it worse.’
‘And you didn’t feel you could say anything?’
‘Well I was only a kid.’
‘My kids never had any trouble telling me if they didn’t want to do things.’
‘Well, I suppose we weren’t like that...’
She gives me that look again. I know what she means, but there was just no point arguing in our house.
‘I started to avoid him. It was just easier that way’ I say.
There’s a memory that came up in my sleep recently – something I’d completely forgotten. We were in the lounge after dinner and dad had me standing on a chair (to bring me up to his height) and we had one of those foam balls about six inches across. He was trying (for the umpteenth time) to teach me to catch. He was always trying to teach me games and tricks but I just hated it. Mum was there too, in the kitchen, with the tea towel.
He looked at me and held it up, concentrating, willing me to succeed this time. Actually no, he was not willing me to succeed. He was willing me to not let him down. That was it. Mum stood in the doorway drying something and he was trying to get me, finally, to not embarrass him. He threw the ball and it bounced off my hands. He bent down and picked it up. I stood shaking slightly on the chair. I was afraid I might fall off. He threw again and I jerked and it passed my hands completely. I had to climb down and fetch it. I tossed it back. He threw it back and it bounced off my fingers and ended up over the other side of the room. He waited for me to get down and walk over to retrieve it, which I did and then went to hand it to him. He took it without a word. In fact he said nothing during the whole process. He threw it again and I missed it again. By now my eyes were filling with water but I stopped myself crying. He reached down and scooped it up and threw it and it hit me in the face quite hard. I mean it was only made of foam after all and it didn’t hurt but it was just like the last straw and the tears leaked out and I couldn’t concentrate and I could see the disgusted look on his face. He pointed at where the ball lay behind the chair and I had to get down and pick it up again. I wiped my nose on my sleeve as I did so and I heard mum say ‘Hankie Gabriel’ and go back to the sink shaking her head. He threw it a few more times with predictable results and I snivelled and tried even more feebly to catch it, and I had to get down and fetch it every time. Eventually he just stood and looked at me. His face was cold and blank. He dropped the ball and it bounced away. Then he came up to me and stood with his face inches from mine and whispered “Why the hell can’t you do this? It’s so simple. What the hell is wrong with you? Everybody else can do it.”
Then he turned and went down the garden. I heard him going on about it under his breath. He called me a complete f’king waste of space. I don’t think he thought I could hear. I went up to my room. No one said anything about it.
It’s not the worst thing in the world I know. At least he was trying I suppose. A lot of fathers don’t even do that. Anyway...
Alison sits and writes. I await her verdict.
‘Look’ I say to her ‘I’m not trying to argue that I had a terrible childhood – that it was a tragic tale of hardship and abuse because I know it wasn’t. My parents never broke up – they hardly even argued, or not openly anyway. They never interfered with me sexually or really hit me, and there was always plenty of food and clean clothes. Admittedly the old house was cold and a bit spooky and always fairly messy but I liked it that way. It was ok. And I know other kids go through hell, literally, and I’m not even trying to find someone to blame. I know they did what they could.’
Alison looks up at me, she still looks like she’s thinking. ‘You don’t have to convince me’ she says.
‘But doesn’t it just sound like a sob story?’
‘No. Actually there’s good evidence – from Finland I think, of a link between being an unwanted child and mental illness. Did you know that?’
‘I didn’t know that.’
‘A child is a huge investment, not only in time and money but also in emotion and care. How much harder must it be if the parent really wishes the child had never been born? And children, even very small children pick up on this. They may not remember the exact events as adults, but it is there, in their personalities. You really don’t have to justify yourself to me Gabriel. I wonder how many parents truly love their children as they say they do, and what this word “love” means to them anyway.’
‘You can’t just blame the parents though can you?’
‘Why not? Seems like a perfectly fair place to start.’
We sit and look at each other for a while – a staring match almost. She looks away.
‘Did they ever actually physically hurt you Gabriel?’ she says after a while.
‘I don’t think so. Not deliberately. There were quite a few times I’d get in the way and get trampled on or elbowed. Dad used to get very “brisk” I suppose you’d call it. “Getting things done”. I remember once when we’d been out to the garden centre he put the car boot down on my head and made it bleed quite badly. I think I’d have been about twelve at the time. I was trying to be helpful and I remember him looking at me with that withering look of his and saying “Did I ask you to stand there? Was that what I asked you to do? What made you think that would be a useful thing to do? Why did you think that would be useful? Hmm?” and on and on like that and then he just walked away. He didn’t even check my head to see if it needed attention. Luckily it was just a small cut but he didn’t know that. The blood was running down my neck (you know how head wounds bleed) and I felt dizzy and sick for a while. I didn’t say anything. He certainly never apologised.’
Alison looks around the room, at the ceiling, at the door, at the carpet. She seems to be composing herself.
‘And what was your mother doing all this time?’ she says at last.
‘She mostly left us alone. Occasionally she made a big deal of trying to get me to come down and “join in”. Usually if I was downstairs at the weekend she’d be trying to get me to go out and play with the other kids in the street, or join a club or something. She didn’t think anything was worth doing unless you got a certificate or a badge for it.’ I try to make it sound like it’s amusing – all their funny little ways, but actually I feel embarrassed going on about this, like it’s such a tragedy, but she observes me patiently from her seat across the room, waiting for me to go on.
‘I remember her saying one Saturday morning, “Why can’t you just be normal for a change, go out and make friends?” but I just couldn’t face it. School was bad enough. I needed time off from having to deal with children. I just couldn’t cope with all that fighting and crying and name-calling and all the pathetic squabbles about whose friend was whose. They were just so cruel and selfish.’
‘And your parents never made the connection to your Kasper Hauser infancy?’
‘How do you mean? I mean I know who Kasper Hauser was. Didn’t he just appear from nowhere in a village in Germany? I saw the film.’
‘It is thought his parents kept him locked in a woodshed until he was a teenager. Oh I know I’m rather exaggerating but you catch my drift. Basically your parents kept you away from the outside world for the first five years of your life and then wondered why you couldn’t cope when you were confronted with it. And then...’ She shakes her head in disbelief, a stiff, ironic smile on her face. ‘And then, then they blamed you for not being “normal”. Hah!’
‘But I was only five. I don’t even remember really...’
‘That’s totally irrelevant. Seriously Gabriel, you must have come across two year olds since then? They’re fully social human beings, running around meeting people, communicating, arguing, testing the boundaries, clowning around. I mean, sure, there’s a lot of details for them to pick up, but that basic template – introvert or extravert, adventurous or timid, imaginative or practical, sensitive or aggressive – it’s all there at two years of age, and it’s hard to change without some serious therapy, even for an adult. You should know.’
I don’t know what to think about all this. If she’s right then they severely fucked me up, my mum and dad but then I suppose that’s just so obvious it’s become a cliché.
‘I suppose it’s useful to know how they fucked me up, specifically’ I say.
She leans forward and looks at me seriously. ‘Don’t dismiss this’ she says. ‘All parents make mistakes, of course they do, but I don’t think we should let yours off the hook so lightly.’
She sits back and leafs through the papers, looking for a piece of evidence. She huffs and flicks through again, looks about the room for inspiration, chewing the inside of her cheek. I wait.
‘A story like yours... Stories like yours...’ she begins, turning pages. ‘Homeless, unemployable... periods in psychiatric care... suicide... People think there’s going to be some big climax – some titillating tale of parental neglect that explains it all, in all its creepy detail, and then the alcohol and the drugs and the sexual abuse... People love reading that stuff - flies off the shelves. Literary prizes. Headlines. But it’s not like that, nine times out of ten. In my experience it’s just an unwanted pregnancy, unhappy marriage, money worries... No patience. No energy. No insight. That’s all it takes.’
She takes a deep breath – more a sigh really and tamps my notes into a neater pile. She stands up. It’s time to stop for today.
She says ‘I believe it is incumbent upon every adult to think seriously about what they are doing when they bring a child into the world, whether deliberately or by mistake. Ok, of course there are much worse things you can do to a child but there’s no excuse.’
I return her stare. I’ve seen this anger before. Maybe I will finally be able to accept that it wasn’t all my fault after all. I need to think about it.