13 Feb A Brief History of Me. Chapter Three. London and Scotland.
After two years in France we returned to London, somewhat reluctantly. In our absence, Portobello had become unaffordable, so mum set her sights up the road on Kensal Rise. Somehow, with a bent mortgage broker who managed to convince the mortgage lender that she had work and money (she had neither), she managed to buy a flat and then immediately set to renovating it. She worked as a waitress and sold vintage clothing on Portobello market while I went to the local nursery (I remember delicious white toast, comparing belly buttons and wishing I could whistle like the girl with the black curly hair).
A year passed. I was to turn six in the Autumn, and mum thought it would be a good idea for me to stay with my grandmother for a summer holiday in Banchory, North Scotland. I enjoyed the difference in lifestyle, the ‘normality’ of the house my grandmother and her husband Gordon lived in. I had begun to understand that not everyone’s parents were like mine, and I had become self conscious.
My grandmother Brenda was an art teacher and of conservative values. Her passions were jumble sales, hillwalking and emotionally manipulating her nearest and dearest. Without informing my mother, she enrolled me in the new term at the local primary school and when my mum came to collect me, she told her it would be a selfish choice to take me back to London, and that I needed the stability of a semi-rural life in Scotland.
I speak for my mum here, as I know she finds it so hard to talk about. But I know how powerfully manipulative my grandmother is, and how small she would have made my mum feel. And I know how easy it is to doubt your abilities as a parent and second guess your own instincts. And I know how easy it is to succumb to the false narrative that kids need a ‘normal’ home, preferably in the countryside.
So I stayed in Scotland. And I did love it, most of it.
I loved the saturday jumble sales and reading books under trestle tables piled high with wool cardigans that I would now kill to rummage through. I loved the Sunday hill walks and sandwiches eaten out of orange tupperwares. I loved the wall between our garden and the neighbour’s, that I could climb over and enter a world of cream carpets and gold sofa trims.
I didn’t love always feeling different from all the other kids at school, no matter how hard I tried. I didn’t love Brenda repeatedly kicking her husband Gordon in the ribs after collapsing drunk and then carrying me barefoot to a relatives house where we could be safe, or finding Gordon’s toenails in the bath water (he would get first turn, I was last in line).
I was six and I was confused. I knew that I enjoyed the freedom that living out of the city brought, but I couldn’t understand why my mum wasn’t there with me. When I asked Brenda why mum wouldn’t come to live with us, her answer was clear:
‘She doesn’t love you. If she loved you, she would have moved out of London and come to be with you in Scotland’.
Around this time I started writing a diary, and I remember writing Brenda’s words down, repeatedly, punishing myself with them.
Mum would come and visit, often unannounced so she couldn’t be refused by Brenda. She would turn up just before bedtime, I would be in pyjamas and see her in the hall, and she would drop her bags and gather me to bed. In the mornings I would wake up to notes she had left me, written with Brenda’s neon magic markers (kept strictly for marking essays, so a daring crime in itself) and then we would walk to school together. I felt so proud to show my mum at the gates, proving I had one, just like the other kids.
Another year passed.
And then one day, my mum turned up on one of her surprise visits, but this time she wasn’t alone, she was with her new partner Jim. It was the school holidays and they were there to take me on holiday to Blackpool. Brenda protested, incensed. But there was no wavering. They packed my bags into the car as I watched Brenda, stood at the backdoor, eyes like storm clouds. We drove away, heading to England.
And that is how my mum and my stepdad Jim kidnapped me back from my grandmother Brenda.