It was 1966 and I was a carefree teenager with a boyfriend, a job in an art gallery, long hair and short skirts. I’d taken a good few steps into the world of politics and culture, all of them fun and enjoyable (the swinging ‘sixties made sure of that) and art and pleasure and the overturning of society seemed to be a unity then – because we – youth – were changing the world just by being. (Actually we were changing the world just by being serious economic contributors towards it… but I don’t think we thought of ourselves as useful tools of capitalism with our open purses then). And of course, along with my crowd of friends, I knew everything.
But then came those BBC wonderful, shocking Wednesday plays (1964-1970) which showed the darker, less pretty side of our Brave New World of Youth. And out of those plays, along came the trio of Jeremy Sandford, Ken Loach and Tony Garnett who took them to a new level – backed by the independent and brave BBC. Cathy Come Home changed my world forever. It frightened me, it shocked me, it made me realise how close I had become in my own life to being a child in care. No wonder my mother worked her socks off in a filing systems factory to keep paying the rent, no wonder she put up with her demanding mother moving in with her so that her daughters had childcare, and no wonder she was unhappy and died poor and far too young – the chill of the social meant she was on a treadmill and could never get off. I remember very clearly how stunned my boyfriend (who would one day be my husband) and I were at the end of the Sandford/Loach/Garnett play. He said it made him see our vulnerability in the world – especially mine – I just saw what I had always taken as the ultimate goal – marriage and babies – as being something other than glistering gold. Things could go wrong – circumstances could topple your world – Cathy’s story might be fiction but it happened to people every day.
Now that I am living without hot water or domestic appliances except for a fridge freezer I bethought me to have a treat for my all-alone Saturday night delight of slumping on the sofa to watch the telly and eating my supper off a tray without benefit of builders. (I am not knocking the builders – they are fine – but we see rather a lot of each other during the week). The tray is not an indulgence any more, the tray is a necessity as I have no work surfaces OF ANY KIND. The tray, a small thing but mine own, is it.
My mother died in 1989 and it’s only in the last few years that I’ve begun to see myself in her – and to spend a lot of time apologising to her for my impatience and reproach at what I saw as her many failings: Her ‘fussing’ when something went wrong in the house, her anxiety when she was late for somewhere, her apparently sudden weariness of life when the mother who had cooked up a storm at weekends just didn’t do it anymore, her ability to sit and watch and seem to believe in Crossroads with reprehensible lack of judgement, her seemingly permanent obsession with buying comfortable shoes when I took her on holiday (Shopping on holiday? How weird), her wish to forget the horrors of the past – in her case the newsreels of Belsen and Auschwitz and read The People’s Friend and love stories. All in all, though she was still my mother and I loved her, I thought of her as she aged with irritation for her quirks and foibles and felt – well – a bit superior – being so plugged into the world and able to take everything in my stride while she faded into what seemed a self-imposed lack of backbone. And then I hit sixty. Be warned you little primrose pathers out there – you smiling thirty year olds, you nodding forty year olds, you happy fifty year olds – remember what happened to Laertes in the end – died on his own poisoned sword. He thought he knew it all. He didn’t. And he didn’t even make sixty.
I have just spent a weekend with a hole in my bedroom wall and water stains on the ceiling. The hole in my bedroom wall was caused by the builder who is putting in a new bathroom. The water stains are from the same plumber who is putting in the new upstairs bathroom. True my bedroom is the only room in the house that has been decorated and which was in perfect condition – my sanctuary – but to have been driven to sleeplessness and rage and despair and playing out over and over again the encounter with the builder on Monday morning was, my pre-sixty year old self would say, taking it a bit far. Of course, when the builder arrived on Monday morning to find me a witchlike wreck – he was apologetic, he would put it all right immediately, I would never know there had been an ‘issue’. Of course he would. It was never in doubt. Another occasion on which I lifted my eyes to the (stained) ceiling and said a silent ‘Sorry, Mum’ – because she would have done what I had done, and the younger me would have thought ‘Oh buck up – nobody died of it. Get a life.’
It happens all the time. A slight rising panic en route to the airport because I think I might miss the ‘plane, an overwhelming desire to pack half the house for a week away ‘because you never know’, a grip of anger at finding a crisp pack in the front garden (which can include the idea that someone put it there deliberately). Sorry, Mum.
And then there are those other things. The only reason I have weaned myself off Eastenders (if alone I couldn’t chew unless I was watching unspeakable things unfolding in Albert Square) is because of the builders undermining any form of routine – Crossroads might have been silly with wobbly credits rolling up the screen but no sillier and no more a sign of dotage than my avid following of the constant depravations in one tiny square in Walford… As for the way I rush from whatever I’m doing to glue my ears to R4 when The Archers dum-dee-dums its way into my life – a quirk and a foible just doesn’t come close. Indeed, at a dinner party recently, so intent was I and all but one of the other guests on discussing Helen and Rob that the lone survivor at the table of Ambridgeitis was moved to say despairingly – ‘It isn’t real you know’ – to which I actually said – and I think without irony – ‘Well David, you say that…’ Sorry, sorry, sorry.
I came back from Rhodes with a pair of sandals and a frock, from Amalfi with several pairs of socks (!) and from South Africa I took home a goat hair blanket – my mother never went that far in her holiday shopping – it’ll be sheets and pillowcases from Corfu next. Sorry, Mum.
And then there is the darker side of life. I used to take a kind of pride in facing up to the horrors of war, the famines, the natural disasters wrecking the world, and could confront it all on the basis that one had a duty to bear witness – but in my later years I have never watched an execution by those brutalised so-called Islamic Staters and I do not want to see the actuality of suicide bombers with mangled limbs and blood and bone. I know it happened, it appals me, but I do not want the images in my head. So that’s a very big apology to my mother who turned away from talk about The Holocaust finding it too much to bear. She would have had a one-year old baby at the time of those newsreels and its impact would have been all the more agonising. I remember seeing the famine pictures from Ethiopia when I had a three year old and how that haunted me for months – still does – those babies were my baby and it must have been the same for my mother. She had a right not to want to confront those nightmares any more. As I have a right to turn away from watching gratuitous bloodshed. So very sorry, Mum.
So the next time you watch your mother fumbling with her doorkey, or being strangely drawn to a shoe shop window in Bournemouth, or becoming a sweaty mess over the leg of lamb – remember this – in time your faculties will blunt, your step become a little less sure and your ability to cross a busy road without looking left or right will increase (alongside your diminished ability to hear the screeching of brakes and the hysterical abuse that follows). You, too, will find yourself raising your eyes towards some possibly heaven or haven and apologising profusely – again and again – Sorry, Mum. Sorry.
I’d like to send you a short story, for free – you just need to tell me where to send it