A story from the past; a voice of today
The wind soughs soft under the carpet. It lifts the threadbare patches in humps and undulations; it stirs eddies of dust which float into the air. The mixed smells of stale dust and fresh breeze struggle for supremacy in the mucous membrane of my nose.
From where I sit, huddled in the corner of the stairs, I can see the jagged hole gaping in the french- windows and shards of glass scattered on the floor, gleaming in grey light. What a draught comes through that hole! It sets the perspex chandelier a-jingle, twitches crystal pendants to and fro in a frenzy of spasmodic tinkling. Through the open doorway I have a good view of the room. Background a dull putty colour, a few pieces of heavy, frowning furniture. Whoever designed the room wanted to give the walls “texture”, resulting in knobs and bumps that constantly gather grime. Along one wall I have stuck pictures from a calendar of famous paintings. They are my half-hearted attempt to give the room a bit of colour without too much effort. Corners droop where sellotape has lost its strength and yellowed with age.
Now I put up my hand to feel the wound on the side of my head and stare with a faint flicker of surprise at the blood on my fingers. With my other hand I tentatively touch my lips which are split and swollen, and carefully run my tongue along my teeth. Half of one seems to be missing, it always was a thin tooth. I feel strange, light headed – concussed I suppose. I can’t remember how I come to be sitting here on the stairs, calm, detached, almost weightless – except for my belly. Five months gone, it feels heavy as lead as if all emotion has congealed and sunk stone-like, welding itself to the unborn child.
I pull my nightdress tighter round my ankles and try to remember. Yesterday, yes, it must have been yesterday, an old friend out of the past had called on me, with her two children. My three and her two had got on so well that she coaxed me to let her take all of them back to the fancy place she and her husband were renting on the other side of town.
“It will give you a break,” she said.
Tea and games were proposed and a jolly, dossing, pyjama-party night. My children looked at me eagerly though with a hint of anxiety in their eyes; an unexpected, delightful treat. How could I refuse? Well, I let them go, what harm? They would be driven back the next day. Which means today! But not yet, no, not yet, it is too early surely, with that grey light. I could find out the time if I bothered to get up, but I don’t feel like moving. I always have liked sitting on stairs, poised between two worlds, the down and the up.
The chill wind blows and I pull my nightdress tighter round my knees and press the soles of my feet together. Tinkle, tinkle goes the chandelier, a ghostly sound in a ghostly room.
Now there’s another sound, the sound of a car, and I know the sound of that car.
Is there some way of becoming invisible? Have I read somewhere how to become invisible? Do you hold your breath or let it out? Do you visualise a grey mist round you? Surely that must be it.
A fumbling at the front door, a crash as it snaps back – in he comes, hat still on at a jaunty angle, a smile playing about his lips.
Where in God’s holy name, did he get those flowers? Miserable drooping articles! He must have snatched them out of someone’s garden as a peace offering – but he hasn’t seen me – not yet.
He goes straight to the sideboard in the living-room and pours himself a good three fingers of neat whiskey. He knocks that back and shouts my name in ringing tones. He is ready for a celebration for God’s sake! He has worked the devil out of himself and is in high good humour.
He shouts again, but I’m not inclined to answer.
Now’s the crunch, he’s coming up the stairs, he’ll see me now for sure! But that’s incredible! He passed me by! Can he be so pissed he can’t see me huddled in the corner of the stairs?
Perhaps I really have worked a spell. Perhaps I am invisible to him, I can see myself well enough.
Down he comes, passes me by. I can tell he is a bit disturbed at not finding me in the bed. Can’t he remember that I ran out into the garden, out into the night, with a fine sleet falling and the salt taste of blood filling my mouth?
Yes, he is fumbling at the catch of the french-windows, now. Why bother, he could get through that gash in the glass with a modicum of care.
He tosses the sad flowers down in a heap and steps outside. Still hardly believing my luck, I let out my breath.
Last night, what had happened last night? He had gone beserk, that was it, because the children weren’t there. He had pursued me down the hall, belting me across the face. I ran into the living-room and slammed the door. There is an old fashioned hook and catch arrangement on it which I quickly fastened. That stalled him, but I knew it would not be strong enough, so I barricaded the door with furniture as he roared and thumped outside. Then silence –
I stood trembling hardly believing he could have given up so soon. Then something made me turn round. The french-windows were locked on the inside but the curtains were drawn back. The reflected images of the room on their shiny blackness were suddenly distorted and dispelled. Out of the dark he loomed, wild haired and face contorted. Above his head he held a rock.
I didn’t wait. I shoved aside the barricade, lifted the latch and ran. If he was coming in I was going out – out by the back door – out into the wide reaches of the night, with a mental curse at my bare feet and flimsy nightdress, caught napping as always.
Ah, here he comes, back from the garden. He looks ghastly. He can hardly stagger across the threshold. His hands tremble as he tries to dial the ‘phone, he gives up and collapses on a chair. Now he lays his head on the table and starts to sob, a gasping horrible noise.
Softly I get up – how quiet I seem, covered as I am by the chattering chandelier, the whoo, whoo of the wind, the wretched retching noises from the table.
The hat is off. Dear dark head! I nearly feel like caressing it. Instead I flick his ear with my finger. I even blow down his neck, and he takes no notice. Driven by impulse, I crouch and tie his shoelaces together. Glittering, I pirouette across the room. I nearly laugh out loud at the thought that if he jumps up to get me he will fall over his feet – fall the way I did last night in the garden, running in the rain, in the sleet, laughing – (a bit hysterically I admit) he looked so ridiculous holding his rock, clad only in a crooked, flapping shirt – scrawny, hairy shanks and a dangling dickie. I caught my foot in a hole in the rockery and came crashing down, laugh, I could have died laughing.
So what if I did? Is that what he found out there, a corpse, my other self, cool water from the fish pond filling my ears? My head rock-struck, my fleeing foot caught in the hole from which his rock was torn – my gateway to the Underworld.
I spin slowly like a top around the room, arms outstretched, centre of gravity steady in the weight of my womb.
Oh Death, thou shalt have no dominion, we will live together as friends, thou and I, and this whispering house will be my domain for ever!”
The above is a short story written by my Mum. She died last December at the grand old age of 88 and it was my Dad who died young, back in 1975 at the age of 48 or so.
My Mum was an angel in human form and also a poet, an astrologer, an aspiring Jungian psychotherapist, a Reiki mistress, a masseuse, a student of mythology, a seeker of holy sites and ancient wisdom.
My Dad, on the other hand, was alcoholic, violent, vitriolic and venomous. Also a doctor.
I never realised my Mum had written this story until a few days ago when I was going through her papers after clearing out her house.
The poetry – sure – all of us kids knew about that. We all wish that her voice could have reached more people, her poetry being in turns so heart-rending and uplifting – or both at once!
When I say “us kids” there’s only 4 of us left out of 7. Not a very good ratio and directly attributable to my Dad’s influence, to my mind. But, of course, what can you do? If it wasn’t for him, there wouldn’t be me – how to come to terms with that? I’m still, at 63, trying to do that.
Oh – about the story – it hit me so hard because it was a real incident in a chaotic and fear-filled childhood.
Far from being on some imaginary sleepover with friends, we were all in that living-room. I and my older sister helped Mum to jam the bookcase up against the door. The awful silence happened. The scramble to flee out the side door. I must have seen the awful apparition, the rock, the crashing of the glass but buried it as too traumatic to deal with. In later life, after I had found my own monster to try and fix, and after ten long years finally escaped, I was troubled by a recurring vision of him (my own monster) crashing through a glass window with a tomahawk in his hand. It wasn’t until Mum told me, recently, that we were in the room for the explosion, that I realised where that vision had come from.
The others in that room? I’ve mentioned my older sister, then an older brother and a younger one plus a baby brother in a cot upstairs.
We thought all of us had escaped through the side door but when we drew breath in the dark, cold laneway, we discovered it was just the women, the boys were still in there. Horror! What to do? We were too scared to go back indoors, we were too ashamed to ask for help. We stood there, shoeless, breathless, friendless, homeless.
We had a campervan that had to be parked down the road in the driveway of my ballet school as we lived on a narrow busy road. We made our way there – A miracle! It wasn’t locked! We crept in, folded out the skimpy mattress and fell asleep, huddled together in an anguish of worry for the ones left behind. I was 10 years old – 1966.
Five out of the seven of us that night are now dead and gone. My Dad first, then my older sister, then my baby brother. Then the discovery that my younger brother, long since disappeared, had been the first of the kids to die. We only discovered last year about his lonely, miserable, impoverished demise in a flop house in New York in 1989. A journalist got in touch and it all came out.
So – a bit of a list to get it straight?
Dad – died 1975 of pancreatic cancer plus effects of 30 odd years of hard drinking.
A brother – died 1989 of a heroin overdose in New York. Lost boy in a strange world.
A sister -died 1994 of a brain aneurism, highly functioning addict- librarian and libertine.
A Brother – died 2018 of a heart attack. Schizophrenic, heavy smoker, genius derailed.
Mum – died 2019 of cancer. Too good for this world, too forgiving, too kind.
And then there were four…….
Myself, my older brother and two younger sisters.
Anyway, I meant this to be about a sudden insight I had just recently and not a litany of sad stories to give me some sort of catharsis. I feel it may help someone else trying to come to terms with the long-term outcomes of parental abuse. I’m not a psychologist, by any means, but I hope it helps someone-
I often find myself mulling over the past, primarily because my eldest daughter has cut herself off from me. I haven’t seen or heard from her for seventeen years. She left my life taking her son, my grandson, to who knows where. She had plenty of money and a boyfriend and I can only hope and pray that she’s happy and safe. Remember my own monster I mentioned earlier? Well, my poor Elanor suffered along with me under his rule. She was 4 years old when I took her with me to enter into subjugation- I knew no better, literally. I was only 21, I’d had Elly when I was just shy of my seventeenth birthday.
That’s why my childhood and picking at the sores is still such a big part of my thinking – the pattern of pain is still being impressed on me although now I have a wonderful husband and 4 more wonderful children.
I am often struck by the memory of that shame – you often hear it- the shame children feel when none of the awfulness is their fault, the shame I felt when standing in that dark laneway with my Mum and my sister. Where does it come from?
Sure, some of it is embarrassment. The carefully constructed, thin veneer of normality ; trying to act like normal people, normal families. But why the crippling shame?
I can remember back to when I didn’t realise or understand my place in the world. I didn’t understand my lack of agency; didn’t know what age I was, or was I every age and none?
A very small child doesn’t think “What could I have done? I was just a kid…” They don’t have that sort of self-awareness.
There’s a marvellous piece in a Mary Poppins book where Mary is talking to a new baby, telepathically I suppose, and the baby is asking “Why don’t they understand me? I have all the knowledge of the ages within me but they don’t seem to hear me?” Mary soothes the baby, telling it that it’s just the way of the world and there’s nothing to be done.
It suddenly struck me that the shame comes from one’s allowing the injustice and fear to bow down one’s ageless self. I was ashamed of myself for allowing the pain to enter. Then hard on the heels of that comes the Inner Voice of Criticism – IVOC for short!
The IVOC says straight away – You deserve this, after all you’re a snivelling, snotty, smelly, trembling excuse for a person – you must deserve this, otherwise why would it be happening? And so the downward spiral of self criticism, self-disgust, self- abnegation, begins.
I was just reading a scholarly article –
Self-Awareness, Affect Regulation, and Relatedness
Differential Sequels of Childhood Versus Adult Victimization Experiences –
because I wanted to find out whether anyone is studying the effects of very early trauma on a person’s psyche. Apparently they are, but it’s a new area of interest. The article gave me a few words to describe the after effects of the above that I feel I suffer from –“ problems in one’s ability to access and maintain a stable sense of identity or self (identity disturbance)”. Sound familiar?
Well, now that I’ve realised that the primary shame comes from a completely guilt-free incapability of changing my circumstances – basically there was nothing I could do and it wasn’t my fault – I’ve found that the IVOC doesn’t have the same sting at all. I’ve realised that it really hasn’t got a leg to stand on! Begone you old foe! I no longer need you to explain to me why I should feel ashamed! I just need to go back to my baby-self and care for baby-me with caring and compassion just like Mary Poppins did!
I hope this will be a help to someone out there.
PS: Love to all the hurting grown-up babies.