My father was in the British Armed Forces, for a spell among the 17th – 21st Lancers and later in the Royal Electrical Mechanical Engineers. Among both the ‘Death or Glory Boys’ (The 17/21st, famous for being part of the charge of the Light Brigade) and REME his labours somehow involved draughtsmanship and tanks. I’ve never made the connection.
He was too late for the charge of the Light Brigade, of course, and enlisted just a fraction too late – being too young – for World War 2. I fancy that he did not enter the forces until a year or two after the war had ended because by the time he was first posted to the British Army of Occupation in Germany the initial cornucopia of black marketeering had been stopped up. In one of my few contacts with him he did suggest that it was this which first rather pissed-off my mother, since he was not able to supply her with all the extras his and her predecessors in occupation had enjoyed. My mother, he was to allege – quietly, kindly and after many years of a successful second marriage – always had her eye upon what others possessed, was determined to be one of those Joneses with whom everybody else sought to keep up. It is not a perception that jars with my memory.
He was a handsome man and, by the time I met him, a sergeant. He liked dogs, as I do, drew and painted, loved photography and other creative endeavours, as I do. I loved him. In the sixty two years of my life I received one greetings card from my father, not counting anything that came from ‘Mum and Dad’ so long ago that I can’t remember, and that card arrived shortly after we first made real contact some thirty years after his departure. In terms of colour, message and design – in every way imaginable – it was precisely the card I would have chosen.
I was around ten years old when he left.
According to my mother she ‘sent him away’ because of the way he treated me. I was not, somehow, she said, the son he had wanted, the rumbustious, ‘normal’ boy my younger brother was. According to my father, he left after returning to a cold, empty home once too often whilst my mother was visiting a married man she had taken a fancy to and to whom she was constantly comparing my dad. Jim had a car and a nice house, a mouse of a wife and three daughters whom he raised – like Pip in Great Expectations – very much ‘by hand’. I never saw him as anything but a thug and a bully, but he was clearly in some particular way successful.
I never really questioned that we spent a lot of time at Jim’s house, but then I didn’t know that my father was coming home from work to our own and finding it empty.
Not seeing my father for long periods was something to which I was accustomed. He was a soldier, often posted away on tours of duty, was engaged in the ‘police actions’ in the Holy Land and in Cyprus. To the latter we went with him.
So I really saw my father perhaps five years out of the ten that he was officially part of my life.
A flame is flickering somewhere, I catch glimpses that are only glimpses of that past. I remember particular gifts – die-cast Dinky armoured vehicles, a fire engine with working hoses, a bazooka that fired ping-pong balls. I remember the bottle of coke and the bar of chocolate I would usually wake up to when mum and dad had spent the previous evening at the Sergeant’s Mess.
I remember an apartment in Germany, an apartment with a serving hatch. I seem to recall that the building formed a square with gardens in its centre, though that could be a mistake, but I do remember that you could get from the front of the building to the gardens by way of an underpass. It was shady there when the sun was out and the kids from the block collected there despite the smell of the garbage bins stored there.
I got into trouble there, though I don’t recall any serious consequences. I was found there, with a host of other children – probably between about 5 and 7 years of age – and we were all discovered naked. We were enjoying our skins, I know. I have no darker recollection of it and remember it, if anything, fondly.
I remember the barracks in Germany, a vast parade square full of tanks, tank transporters and bren-gun carriers, and I remember the last bugle call that would sound as the dark descended. I remember the parties, meeting St Nicholas, goody-bags of chocolate, nuts and fruit, and the day St Nick arrived in a sled that was really a much-decorated army Jeep, driven by my father.
England and civvy life would always pale in comparison.
My father decided to leave the army, ostensibly because of the difficulties he would face in developing his career since officer rank was unavailable to him. My mother, brother and I returned first to a house he had acquired, the only ‘through’ terrace house in a street of back-to-back cottages, set in an estate which, it transpired, was a byword for crime and criminality. I can’t say I noticed that much.
Our immediate next-door neighbours were an Irish immigrant family, comprising a very large mother, a father I cannot recall and three very well-grown sons. What they had for Sunday dinner, I was told, depended on the luck they’d had at the betting shop on Saturday, and not one of them could string three words together without an obscenity being one of them. I liked them.
Mother was not, I gather, best pleased at being dropped into this particular low-rent area.
It had its eccentricities. The only through house (having both a back and a front door) as I have mentioned, Number 3 Beech Grove did not have a bathroom. Eventually we had a gas-geyser water heater installed, along with a bath, in the front living kitchen. I can’t see it in my head, sadly, though I could position most of the furniture even if it is now invisible. The increasingly ubiquitous ‘telly’ was there, the inevitable arm chair and sofa adjusted to keep it in view.
The absence of a toilet in the house was its biggest bugbear. Beech Grove was a cul-de-sac, the tarmac street flanked on both sides by straight rows of flat fronted houses and closed off at the end by a brick wall surmounted with shards of glass embedded in cement. Walking straight up that street would bring one to the last house in the terrace and, just around the corner, a row of wooden- doored privvies. There were gaps between the bottom of the door and the ground, and knot-holes enough in the doors to make one fearful of someone watching, especially at night. Permanently in the shade of the gable ends of the terraces, the row of lavatories was always pitch-dark at night.
I hated the walk to the lavatory. One passed every doorway, every front window, and anyone and everyone who saw you therefore knew where you were going – a thing I found intensely embarrassing by that time. When it snowed the street became treacherous, when it rained the walk necessitated a drenching. When it was dark it was terrifying to the child I was.
A star shell bursts. I remember. It was from that house that my father departed. It was from that house that I went to the first school I remember going to. It was in that house that nightmares really began to invade my sleep.
The son of Adam that I believed myself then to be, though I could never understand why my Father in Heaven seemed to pay no heed to my prayers, I had learned that I was naked and had learned to be ashamed.
I know there was one occasion long before Beech Grove when, too young, too inexperienced even, and travelling too far, I crapped myself on the way home. A glancing, sideways-striking shiver in my shoulder tells me as clearly as any visual memory what my mother’s reaction was to that.
I remember being home alone at Beech Grove one evening and too terrified of the lonely darkness to walk up the street to the lavatory without knowing there was someone nearby and when my mother returned she saw a dark spot – a tiny spot – of urine on my grey pants which my fear-compressed bladder had not managed to retain. I do not remember what she said, but the eviscerating, contemptuous, despising tone makes me shudder a little even in recollection.
We were at Granny’s house – my father’s mother’s house – when I rushed forward one evening to greet my mother as she came home from Heaven-knows-where. My brother and I were in Pjs, the striped flannel pyjamas of the time which tied at the waist and had no ‘fly’. As I reached out to her, it seems, the pyjamas gaped.
“You’re too old for that, now. That’s disgusting. I don’t ever want to see that again.”
That may or may not be a verbatim quote, but it is near enough. I discovered there was a part of me to add to the functions in me of which I should be ashamed. Odd, now, that the flame flickers and I seem to think that my shame pre-dated this event. We were in Cyprus, which must have been before that, when my tonsils erupted and – the security situation being dangerous – I was transported with my mother in the back of an army ten-tonner and under armed guard to hospital to have the tonsils removed. The nurse stood me on the bed to undress me and my embarrassment was boundless.
In Cyprus, too, a bomb was thrown through our kitchen window. Deliberately or not, it was thrown when we were out, but it was an anti-personnel device which makes it kind of personal.
I was around ten years old, as I said, when my father walked out of Beech Grove for the last time. Having, as she subsequently said, ‘sent him away’, it seems a little odd now that she should also recall going to his mother to ask her to intervene and send him home. Allegedly Granny responded; “Well if he’s not welcome with you, he knows where he is welcome.”
It was around this time that I first recall having a bed-wetting problem. Eneuresis is the medical term, in English. The name scarcely matters. Sodden sheets mattered, even more especially if and when the bed was not your own, and more still if you were not the only occupant.
It would cause me problems at school, but perhaps I will save school for the next time, should there be one. It’s around this time, however, that I remember the nightmares. In one I was chased by a giant, blue-spotted white dog, in another I walked into a school lavatory and found nooses hanging everywhere. In one in particular I would find myself hanging from a cliff top by my finger tips in a howling gale, crying out for help to my father who stood some distance away and who did not hear me.
It’s around this time that my mother found us a ‘council flat’ and despatched me to visit my father so that he could sign the papers that would secure the property for us. It seems it was my task, age ten or so, to go to my now hostile granny’s home and get my father’s signature to validate, in a sense, the break up of our family.
It was many years later that I discovered that it was that particular day on which I first made an attempt on my own life.