My brother was a peace baby. I was a war baby, born in an air raid.
My brother was the first-born, angelic, blonde-haired, blue-eyed, musical, clever.
I was a difficult baby. Well, those were difficult times. Coupons, scarcities, Cow & Gate milk. Which made babies fat.
My mother did her best. She smocked exquisite dresses, she put bows in my wispy hair. When you were born, she said, you had black hair and violet eyes, and I thought you might be a pretty little girl. Then your hair went mousey and your eyes went mud-coloured… It was a family joke.
She did her best, of course she did. She found a perfect way to bring up a baby in these modern times. The Truby King method. No spoiling, no fussing, no hanging around baby worrying about what it wanted! No hanging around baby at all – 4-hourly feeds then tucked out of sight and hearing, enjoying the benefit of the fresh air. Bedtime is bedtime, no visits in the night to lift or feed. Potty training? I taught you what you had to do in two weeks, my mother said proudly.
But for some reason my mother couldn’t bond with me, and it seemed I couldn’t bond with anyone. Not my clever older brother, now busy excelling at his posh public school. Not with the other girls at my local primary, with their South London accents and plimmies and cub-like playground games which didn’t need a podgy girl in lace-ups on the team. I was in awe of their casual happiness, their confidence, their lives. Why does Jean’s daddy bring her comics and sweets on Thursdays? I asked my mother, and she told me Because Jean’s father is on a wage-packet and your father is on a salary.
I stopped asking Jean to my house to play, not just because we had no television but because my mother mimicked her accent scornfully as soon as she had gone.
My mother despised the voices of the suburb where we lived but never used the Devonish accent of her own childhood. She taught herself to speak like the ladies on the radio, with cut glass precision and long vowels. My brother learnt to speak like the upper class boys at Dulwich College. I didn’t learn to speak at all – I muttered.
I didn’t do it on purpose. Everything about me seemed to atrophy instead of developing as I grew. My mouth didn’t work properly. I couldn’t sing – didn’t know how others made their voices go up and down at will. I couldn’t dance, run, jump, catch a ball. When the call went out Places! I was the child who didn’t know where to go. I was frozen in the headlamps of my own life, paralysed by the glare of the ordinary world. I was a wretch. Wretched is a good word.
Words were my friends. In stories – the Secret Garden was my favourite – I read of wretched children empowered, I read of naughty children like Just William forgiven, I read of quiet heroes like Biggles. I read, that’s what I did. Once I heard my mother boast She’s read The Forsythe Saga already, and she’s only 9.
I learned much from my avid reading. I knew now where I could find love. Not the comforting love of a mother or the proud love of a father, an unchildish passion which sounded perverse and exciting.
So I did that. Racing to parties illicitly on the back of a black motorcycle, dancing all night; making love in other people's bedsits, in back alleys, and once on the desk of my student lover's tutor, sending a possibly-priceless Venetian glass paperweight crashing to the floor where it smashed in a thousand shivers. Such moments, like when I pinched my plump arms till the skin punctured, made me feel alive.
Just before I left to go to university, and the house gave a sigh of relief at shaking me from its pallid skirting boards, my mother gave a sherry party for her friends. She said I could come, as long as I didn’t wear my dreadful denims – a pity you’re not trim like me, or you could have borrowed one of my frocks, she said. But I had a dress of my own, an emerald green dress, simple and straight. I put my hair up in what I imagined was a French pleat, wiped the black kohl from my eyes, and came downstairs
to join the ladies for an hour.
Next day my mother told me I thought you would like to know that in the general opinion of my friends, the Ugly Ducking has turned into a Swan.
My mother gave me these words as if a precious gift.
I wish I had said, Mother, I was always a cygnet - couldn’t you see that? We could have been swans together.
And we would have hugged, and eighteen years would melt away, and the siren could sound, and the war would be over.