by Sue Hardy-Dawson
Motherliness arrived with my first child but even as my belly swelled, and his butterfly limbs flexed inside, I could not believe or imagine him. It crept in with his smallness; some indefinable grace touched me as he shifted in sleep, his eyes shivering beneath paper lids, and love and fear grew with his delicate life. Wrapped in a blue cotton blanket, anonymous in a ward full of infants, I felt his difference. This, his root within me, so painfully beautiful, that until I met him I’d never known true fear.
That having my son created a closer bond between myself and my parents is indisputable, but, more than that, it fashioned a commonness with their humanity. Mum, thirty years before, mini-skirted, slenderly blond, stares into the camera from a grey beach. Dad, his arms around her waist, peeps from behind her, smiling. I’m not there, not born or thought of. I remember my childish confusion at this. I couldn’t imagine a world that didn’t contain me and I had never before that moment considered the effect my arrival had had on my parents. They seemed so naturally part of me; demigods, all-knowing, all-powerful, but essentially made of granite. That they might’ve been terrified of taking on these roles never before occurred to me.
Childhood is a scrapbook of images; some merely grey foggy awareness of being, others vivid, hot with colour and sharply focused. The latter often surprise me with their intensity; long forgotten, they hover, waiting to be triggered by some chance circumstance. One is of walking along a mossy path at my great grandmother’s house near Whitby. There’s seaweed and salt in the air but I don’t hear the sea. I feel as if the gulls are screaming at me, like vast ships they sail above, sweeping away from the edge of the world. I pause before an old Belfast sink, it brims with slimy green water. I imagine swallowing it; the thought of its looming foulness sickens me. In the same house I stand supported by mum on a shiny butterscotch eiderdown. Sinking into its surface unsteadily, I attempt to bounce. Great-Nana sits dark against the window, trailing a stiff finger across an oak dressing table. I’m drawn to its fine lace cloth and fascination of opalescent-glass pots and bottles. The room is striped with shadow and smells faintly of lavender-water. Her face is unclear, just a hint of white curled hair framing her sadness the downward ark of her bottom lip. I remembered this sadness. It was all around her, in the fabric of her flowered smock and in the ticking of the clock over the grey tiled mantel piece, it filled the house completely, seeping into its fabric. I’ve visited other houses that await death and this feeling is as vivid to me as the paint on their walls.
I suppose the parent I became was fashioned from the scraps that mine had given me. This reflection of them solidified into who I must be. It felt a strange pretence, as if I wore a coat I’d never grow into. Knowing this, I secretly checked the house while my children slept, wandering in the darkness looking for ghosts and other more personal monsters.
Recently, in Knaresborough, I found myself wandering along the street where I grew up. It was a strange thing because my house was all wrong; its new door indifferently double-glazed, its once frilly windows bearing stiff disapproving blinds. In the garden was a small girl, perhaps three years old, her dark hair falling softly about her face. She could have been me in a dozen faded photos, pale frocked, white socked. Except this, when she looked up she had the wrong eyes. Nothing stays the same. How could it? But old friends remain as you leave them, until middle aged and looking like their parents they surprise you in town. It was the same with my house; a kind of bereavement that finds itself longing for the familiar and safe.
My old school rises from a narrow ginnel laced with horse chestnuts and sycamore. It is almost unchanged, the tiny houses edging its pathway reminding me of quaint fairy dwellings. Running my hands along their low stonewalls brings back a shimmering purple dress pulled from the school dressing-up-box. Held up, it floats in sunlight, dusty with chalk and powder paint. I need this dress in the way only a child can. I’m conscious of the hopelessness, of being jostled away by bulkier children with harder edges, I don’t ever get to hold it, which perhaps explains its mystery and impossible beauty. School was an uncomforting element. I was sensitive and therefore an attractive victim to both teachers and pupils. When there, I lived a kind of half-life of confused compliance, without any concept of how to make myself fit.
I think this is something of how my father felt about his work. Certainly when he arrived home in the evenings, his face and overalls dusted with oil, we knew not to hug him because it seemed he could hardly bear to be touched, as if the heaviness of his day was upon him and he needed the peace of his cleansing ritual before greeting us. Thus scrubbed, he would venture upstairs and create a riot of horseplay spiced with the naughtiness of mum’s feigned disapproval. Still, the warm darkness takes me to evenings spent curled under his arm, the sandiness of his cheek on mine, his lively stories echoing under the soap flavoured, yellow bedspread.
Mum was all bustle and fresh air; practical and loving, she tidied and polished my brother and I, just as on washing days she organised the washing, sacrificing it to the shaking innards of the twin-tub. The steam laden air of our pink and orange kitchen called us home from our wanderings, for butter soaked bread, hot buns and syrupy jam or even our own dubious creations, their pastry grey with our assiduous enthusiasm.
Back then time seemed infinite; a Christmas or birthday’s eve an eternity spent waiting for the first creeping light to break the sky, but this innocence was clouded by a cruel reality coming closer, its details quickening, leaving a bad taste. Life, which had seemed so perfect, was tainted. Childhood couldn’t last forever and, accompanied by this growing knowledge, I began to look beyond the fences of comforting illusion.
With all the magic gone, night-time became a place of insecurity and doubt. I had discovered death, the euphemisms adults used for this shameful thing had deadened its scent for a while but I was too clever to be fooled for long. I had all the answers I had never wanted. And the imagination that had endowed childhood with such riches proved just as powerfully real in its pall of self-destruction.
I think of that time as ‘the waiting’, it is not unlike sitting in an empty station. Having fallen from the train you have ridden all your life, the next is nowhere in sight, but inevitably it arrives eventually. For me it was the first summer of boys, creatures completely unconnected to my father, alien gigglers and punchers who communicated through their friends. There was a kind of unspoken segregation in the seventies, unbreachable even years after puberty, which ensured a succession of embarrassed fumblings and toothy collisions.
Sadly the Great War had begun—the tearing of the root. Started by a rogue sniper, one day a voice just came out of me, braver and more reckless than I. Too stunned and ashamed to admit it, I built a wall to keep my parents out. Confused and hurt, they perpetuated the siege in a succession of revenge killings. No terms were agreed; the conflict just stretched into a long cold silence.
Nana’s death broke the cold war; the pain of loss poured an icy bucket over us. In her silent house were all the words we had wished to say. Her beans waited on the stove in her orderly kitchen. Her armchair still bearing needles and two rows of knitting and, as we walked in bewildered silence, the last piece of normality, a simple shopping list written in her hand, melted us. Suddenly mum and I were clinging together, while all about us the world indecently carried on. But this brought us back; it made us remember what little things had started the fight, and how precious was the love that must end it.
It’s hard to reconcile the child I was and the mother I became. Still fragile, self-conscious, it seems the myth of adulthood is always somewhere distant; my place in the world often more about how I’m perceived by others. I realise now that my parents lied to me, every day for a time, though less so later on. They lied so convincingly that I never guessed for a moment. In every briskly pulled curtain or cursory check under the bed, with every smile of carefully practiced deceit, they told me there was nothing to fear, that they could make everything better. I know they lied because I became them. It was the root battered and stretched. I love well because I’m loved and born of that is the fear that everything will not be alright. So they lied and lied and their lies created a sanctuary, a safe place to come home to, and oh, how I love them for that.
Sue Hardy-Dawson lives in the United Kingdom. She is a poet and illustrator and is widely published in children’s anthologies including, among others, A & C Black, Macmillan, Bloomsbury, Schofield and Sims and Oxford University Press. She has an Open First Class Honours degree in Creative Writing, Literature and Supporting Teaching and Learning. She has been commissioned to provide workshops for The Prince of Wales Foundation for Children and the Arts. As she is dyslexic she takes a special interest encouraging children with special educational needs.