To this day, there is one thing which is calculated to make me fly off the handle in spectacular fashion and without much in the way of warning. (It may be occurring to you that I am not an easy person to live with and you would be right!) To be disbelieved or to be thought dishonest in any way – however trivial the issue – turns me into a raging harpy! Where the issue is important and I am not believed, I have, in the past, been known to self-harm in a variety of ways.
I clearly remember – and for most of my life bore a grudge against Mum because of it – a trivial childhood dispute which escalated out of control when another child was dishonest and I was the one who was disbelieved! Looking back, I can see that the only person harmed by this apparently limitless capacity to hold on to issues and bear grudges was myself. But it took me years of therapy to figure this out for myself and to begin letting these millstones go!
The incident in question was always headlined in my mind as “The Affair of the Doll’s Hat” – which shows you exactly how important it actually was, doesn’t it? Anyway – Angie and I were both quite “girly” girls who loved to play with dolls. One day, we decided to take two of our babies out in push-chairs, so we dressed them in their best outdoor clothes and we were all set. The outfit in which I dressed my doll (she was called ‘Jill’, I remember) was a blue and white coat and pleated skirt, with matching Tam o’ Shanter, an ensemble knitted for her by my Mum’s best friend whom I called ‘Auntie Margaret’.
In the course of our meanderings, we kept crossing the path of a girl named Martha who was younger than we were – the youngest of a family of six daughters who lived in one of the side streets running off Hale End Road, where Angie and I lived. Now Martha was not among our circle of friends, quite the reverse. She was a spiteful child who took great pleasure in causing trouble wherever she went and then running to her big sisters for support, which was always forthcoming!
Every we time we passed her (and her little coterie of local urchins) she hooted with derision at our dolls in their push-chairs, and would dart at us as if to snatch one or other of them. Eventually, we shook her off and spent a happy morning walking our ‘babies’. On the way home, I suddenly realised that Jill’s hat was missing. It meant a lot to me, because Auntie Margaret had made it for me, so we retraced our steps, searching for it all the way. Of course, once again we kept tripping over Martha and her friends, who appeared delighted to see that we were looking for something and were giggling and pointing at us in a thoroughly conspiratorial manner. “Ah-ha!” we thought, “Martha has found Jill’s hat!” and we set off after them to retrieve it. At that point, Martha’s mother was heard calling her in for her lunch and she pelted off home, still grinning like the Cheshire Cat. Even now, in my mind’s eye, she has a small, blue and white object in her grubby little hand as she disappears up the path and into her house.
Angie and I hesitated … would she come out again after lunch and if so how long would we have to wait? We were both very hungry and when you’re 9 years old, lunch is not something you want to wait too long for! So I screwed up my courage to the sticking place, marched with trembling knees up her front path and knocked on the door. The reason my knees were trembling was that as well as five very fierce older sisters, Martha had a mother whose Irish temper was legendary! It was her mother who answered the door and glaring at me rapped out “Yes?” I mumbled something about Martha having found my doll’s hat and could I please have it back so I could go home for my lunch? She left me waiting on the step and disappeared within the house, returning a few minutes later with the information that Martha didn’t have the hat. By now, I was really upset – I was SURE that Martha had the hat and I said so, adding that I was going home to tell my mother what had happened and I would ask her to call and see Martha’s mum after lunch. So saying, I stomped back down the path to where Angie was waiting and we went home for lunch.
When I got home, Mum was entertaining Mrs Midgeley, our next-door neighbour, to lunch, so Angie and I took ours up to my bedroom, and I resolved to tell Mum the story as soon as Mrs Midgeley went home. But it was not to be! We had just nicely finished our lunch when the doorbell rang and who should be standing seething on the step but Martha’s mother, with Jill’s hat in her hand. She launched into the story according to Martha, at full volume, and came out with some fiction about me having threatened to call the police!! Apparently, Martha had gone out after her lunch and come back moments later with the hat which she said she had just found. Her mother then worked herself up into one of her notorious rages and came storming down to our house.
Mrs Midgeley hastily beat a retreat to her own house and Mum unceremoniously turfed Angie out. She wouldn’t listen to my side of the story because in Mum’s world, young children and their mothers simply didn’t tell lies. Try as I might to explain what had actually happened, she wouldn’t believe me. I must have accused Martha of ‘stealing’ the hat and threatened to call the police, purely because Martha’s mum said I had done so! I was both furious and heart-broken. Furious, because Mum wouldn’t so much as listen to my side of the story, and heart-broken because she could more easily believe that I would tell lies than that Martha and her mother would do so. Our parents mostly bring us up to believe in fair play and that the world is, by and large, a fair place. They do us no service thereby! When we learn the truth for ourselves, at whatever age, the shock reverberates down the years.
Not long after this, we moved house again. Not very far – indeed as the crow flies less than a mile from our house in Hale End Road – to the glamorous sounding Hollywood Way, which was over the boundary between London E4 and the county of Essex, in Woodford Green. This was the home of Mum’s dreams, a semi-detached 1930s Art Deco home which she subsequently turned into a little palace. It had a long back garden which contained, among other things, some old apple trees (Worcester Pearmains – still my favourite apple) rose bushes and a secluded shrubbery at the far end away from the house. Above all it was spacious both outside and in.
Angie and I were able to maintain our friendship as we were still quite close by, and for me, at least, things looked up quite considerably. Mum and Dad’s relationship was still on the rocky side but I didn’t really know too much about it until I joined a local Youth Group. It was church organised and run by some young adults under the supervision of the venerable Mr Humm. The youth leader I knew best was a young man called Roger. He was very likeable and seemed to take both Angie and me under his wing, to some extent. One evening, he pointed out another of the youth leaders and said:
“Carol who?” I asked.
“She’s your Dad’s girlfriend” he replied, as if this were the most normal thing in the world to tell a ten and a half year old.
I said nothing to anyone about this revelation – I instinctively knew that to do so would be somehow catastrophic. But from that time onwards I began to be aware of the nuances of Mum and Dad’s behaviour towards each other and the frequent “atmospheres” in the home. I didn’t understand it all – but I knew that something wasn’t as it should be.
We seemed barely to have settled in our new home when it was time for me to sit the Eleven Plus examination, which in those days determined the whole of the rest of one’s academic career. I wasn’t in the least bit worried about the exam as I had always been at or near the top of my class in Junior School. My numeracy wasn’t what you would call A+ but apart from that I sailed through school work and had no reason to suppose that I wouldn’t sail equally easily through the Eleven Plus.
I later discovered that one of the main reasons for the move to Hollywood Way had been that an address in Woodford Green would render me eligible, should I pass the exam, to attend Woodford County High School. This was what Mum and Dad had set their heart on as it was academically the best Grammar School in the area. Well, I did indeed pass the Eleven Plus with ease but unfortunately my marks were just not quite high enough for me to be accepted at Woodford, which apparently had a massive uptake in 1964. Instead, I was enrolled at Walthamstow Girls’ High School, which had a good academic record but a much “rougher” catchment area – the very thing Mum and Dad had hoped to avoid by the move.
I was both excited and apprehensive at the thought of starting High School. With the sound advice of both my parents and my teachers at Selwyn Road ringing in my ears “Remember – at Junior School you were the top of the class but when you get to Walthamstow, everyone will be as clever as you are or probably much more clever. You will have to work hard to be top of the class there!” I donned my new green and gold uniform and strode forward into the next big stage of my life.