At this point, I think there are one or two things that need to be explained before we move along.
Firstly my current mental state. Believe it or not, I’m healthier now than I have been for many, many years! In spite of the bureaucratic cluster-fuck that has been my application for Permanent Leave to Remain here in Canada, I have not had a meltdown – barely so much as a minor tantrum, in fact. I’m not 100% cured – one is never “cured” of Borderline Personality Disorder – but I am currently well, calm and happy. I couldn’t have undertaken to write this blog if that were not the case.
Secondly , from the age of about six-months I have suffered from a form of eczema which is now known as “Atopic Eczema”. As far as I can gather, this means “We aren’t really sure what brings this on but we know that it’s there!” When I was young, it was referred to as “Nervous Eczema” because at times of stress, unhappiness or excitement sufferers would have major break-outs. Sometimes it’s brought on by allergic reactions, too, although in my case these have been far fewer since I reached adulthood.
For the first five years or so of my life I visited Great Ormond Street Hospital once or twice a week for consultations and/or treatment. Before cortico-steroids were available, there were some weird and wonderful treatments being used, too! Saline baths which made all the sore places sting like crazy; lanolin ointment which stained everything – including me – a very nasty shade of yellow and smelled like a barn full of sheep; potassium permanganate baths which combined with the lanolin ointment to make me look as though I was suffering from terminal jaundice and stained our enamel bathtub a very unattractive shade of brown; a weird thing called “emulsifying ointment” which was also added to the bathwater but was well-nigh impossible to dissolve – poor Mum used to hold it under the hot tap as the bath was running and whisk it with an old egg-whisk! When I had a bad outbreak I had to be bandaged during the day so that I couldn’t scratch at it (it itched like the devil!) and at night Mum sewed cotton gloves to the sleeves of my pyjamas so that I couldn’t scratch in my sleep. Sometimes I would get infections in the raw places and the lesions would weep and make the bandages stick to me. It was both nasty to experience and pretty hideous to look at.
Then the first hydrocortisones became available and the Doctors decided this would be the answer to my problems. They did relieve the eczema – but they brought me out in huge, painful boils from head to foot! However, once cortico-steroid treatments became available (when I was in my teens) I obtained lasting relief and only had outbreaks if I stupidly used something highly perfumed or when I was under extreme stress of some kind. I mention this now because it has relevance to the next part of my story.
Now, as well as loving language I have always been moved by music and I love to sing. One Christmas, a year or so into my attendance at the Selwyn Road School, I was given the role of Mary in the Nativity Play and this entailed me learning The Coventry Carol, which I was to sing solo as part of the performance. I was over the moon – I loved both the tune and the words of the Carol and wasn’t the least bit phased at the thought of having such a central role. I learned both my lines and my song with relative ease and was ready for my stage debut in plenty of time. I was looking forward to the play so much that the dreaded eczema reared its ugly head and I broke out in a decidedly incongruous, ugly rash from head to foot.
One afternoon a week or so before they play, I was about to leave and start the walk home, when my teacher said Mum was waiting for me at the office. This was puzzling – Mum NEVER met me from school as Angela and I invariably walked the mile or so home together. When I asked Mum what she was doing there she simply said she’d had to see the Headmistress about the play and that, I thought, was that. However, when we arrived home, Mum explained that the Headmistress had asked to see her because she wanted to withdraw me from the play. Apparently, she felt my appearance would be “too off-putting” for the other parents and guests, and I had been replaced by another girl. She thought the news would be better coming from Mum as she knew how much I was looking forward to the event.
Mum didn’t say much but I could tell that she was angry and upset on my behalf. Many years later when we spoke about it, she said it was the woman’s cowardice in not telling me herself which had most upset her and I must say I agree! Eczema was not well understood in those days and many people confused it with such unpleasant and contagious conditions as impetigo and scabies. There had been instances of ignorant parents not wishing their children to play with me, or invite me to their parties, “in case they caught something”. Some of the kids themselves could be pretty unpleasant about it, referring to me as “the leper” and mimicking ringing bells when they saw me coming.
Angie and I frequently went swimming together on a Saturday morning. The chlorine in the water used to make the rash look very red and angry and I was once unceremoniously evicted from the pool by an equally ignorant attendant, who thought I was contaminating the water! After that, I obtained a letter from the family Doctor, which was carried with me at all times, explaining that I was in no way contagious and there was no logical reason why I should be denied the use of the pool. These things were hurtful but Mum and Dad told me it was just ignorance and there was definitely no immediate cure for that! I became accustomed to explaining my condition to people, with varying degrees of success, and believed that I was “over it”, as they say nowadays.
In retrospect, I think it had a greater effect on me than I knew. For much of my life I projected an extrovert, party-girl personality while the real me was quaking with insecurity and fear of rejection. When my outer shell was penetrated I would have both outbreaks of dreadful eczema and mental breakdowns into the bargain.
It was while I was a pupil at Selwyn Road School that Mum almost died. She had been having “trouble with her innards” (resulting from adhesions which grew around her intestines following an operation for peritonitis when she was a teenager) for many years. One Christmas Mum, Dad and I went up to spend the holiday with Grandma & Grandpa Parkinson in Birstall, West Yorkshire. Over the course of the holiday, Mum became more and more ill until one night she collapsed in the bathroom and was found to have been vomiting stools. The adhesions had somehow twisted and blocked off her intestines completely.
She was rushed to hospital in the middle of the night, operated on there and then, and was very gravely ill. In those days children were not welcome on hospital wards and at the hospital where Mum was treated I was allowed to see her only once in all the time she remained there. Apparently, I was making myself ill “carrying on” because I couldn’t go to visit her and so a special dispensation was obtained for me to see her once she was out of intensive care and back on the main ward. The visit was a disaster! The skeletally thin, paper-white woman lying in that bed with tubes seemingly in and out of every orifice couldn’t possibly be my Mum. I screamed the place down and didn’t see Mum again until she was allowed home to Grandma’s to convalesce.
I have no idea how long Mum was in hospital – or indeed, how long we stayed at Grandma’s house while she convalesced – but to my 6½ year old self it seemed a very long time. Ironically, one of my Christmas presents that year had been a Nurse’s uniform, complete with medical bag and stethoscope. Naturally, as soon as Mum came home I wanted to “nurse” her and was both angry and miserable when people seemed to be doing their utmost to keep me away from her. Well, they were indeed trying to stop me from tiring her out and/or upsetting her, but in those days you didn’t explain things to children the way parents nowadays do. You laid down the law and expected them to get on with it!
Dad had to return to his work in London once Mum was deemed to be out of danger, and so it was left to Grandma, Grandpa and Auntie Ida both to nurse my Mum and try to keep this irritatingly clingy and determined child from sending her into a relapse. Once again, in retrospect it is clear what everyone was trying to do, but at the time I felt excluded, unwanted and utterly confused. Whether I would have understood what was required of me had they tried to explain it is debatable and whether I could have given Mum the peace and quiet she needed as a result, more debatable still! Nevertheless, my memories of that time are a seething cauldron of resentment and I harboured a sneaking grudge against Grandma Parkinson, the strict disciplinarian (and, let’s face it, the mother trying to protect her daughter!), for many years thereafter.
When Mum and I returned home to Highams Park and I returned to school, life didn’t quite return to normal. Mum was still painfully thin and her immune system was badly compromised so that she caught every bug that the walking bio-hazard which was me brought home. She seemed unable to put on any weight and was forced to drink ‘Complan’, a nutritional drink designed to help her gain weight, which she disliked intensely. I remember an occasion when she and I were walking down Walthamstow’s High Street market and a woman with a toddler and a baby ran her pushchair into Mum’s totally fleshless shins. Mum let out a yelp and the woman, without even looking round, muttered “Sorry” and carried on. My gentle and totally non-confrontational Mum was in such pain that she said, quite audibly and with heavy sarcasm, “Yes, you look it!”. The woman rounded on her and yelled “Well, why doncher keep yer stupid sticks out the way, then?!” We never forgot the incident – and the woman’s unflattering description of Mum’s poor legs was spot on!
Unbeknownst to me, it was around about this time when Mum discovered for certain that Dad had inherited his own Dad’s roving eye and had taken to “playing away”, as they say. She had had her suspicions as far back as when we lived at the Police Flats (hence her preoccupation at the time of the Mrs Davies incident) but it was while we lived at Highams Park that her worst fears were realised. I, of course, remained blissfully ignorant of the turmoil going on around me for a long time to come.