I’ve always had my idols, and come to that, in my middle age, I still do, though it’s not the kind of thing you’re supposed to admit to, at least not when it’s someone who makes a lot of people – I don’t want to say “normal people” – groan, on a TV panel show or someone who isn’t even that brilliant at a sport a lot of people aren’t interested in. I’ve always prided myself on my slightly quirky choices, even though they come unbidden and it’s not just perversity. I like the bit of a maverick, the bit of an underdog, but generally the ones who are safe enough – who aren’t going to do anything that makes for pruriently punning tabloid headlines. My judgment on the matter hasn’t always been sound. But that’s another story and I don’t want to go into it at the moment.
But what I do want to talk about now isn’t quite the same as that. And the thing is, it covers a tidy chunk of my life. I’m not sure exactly where and how it began, but I think it was probably some kind of mental evolution from the Happy Families of children’s literature (though I had a soft spot for Pippi Longstocking I was never that keen on the anarchic abandoned orphan sort!). It stretched from my mid-teens, to when I was still, basically, a child (and though I was quite intellectually clever, I was pretty immature) to into my twenties.
There comes a time in your teens, if you read magazines (rhyme unintentional) and especially (I’m sorry, but it’s true, though of course there are exceptions) if you’re a girl, that the process that began with Twinkle and then moved into Bunty and eventually into Jackie (and I know this is heresy in some quarters but I always thought it was a bit over-rated, though I suppose some would say I encountered it when it was past its prime!) eventually takes you into your mother’s magazines. And like me, though she loved her books, my Mum also loved her magazines.
Women’s magazines were in a bit of a state of transition then, at any rate, in this country. I can still remember the furore when Woman’s Weekly dropped its traditional pink and blue cover. The new kids on the block, like Take a Break and Chat were beginning to establish themselves, but the old guard weren’t going down without a fight.
Mum occasionally bought a monthly magazine, but was always more one for the weeklies. But one thing they all had in common, whether they carried knitting patterns for babies’ booties or stories headlined My Trucker Hubby’s Helping on the Side in the Transport Café (I’m honestly not sure if that’s a genuine one lodged somewhere in my subconscious or if I made it up!) and alongside the so-called Quick and Easy Recipes which were probably neither, was Advice. Advice with a capital A. Some of them used the old-fashioned term “Agony Auntie”, some more grandiosely spoke of “Relationship Counsellors”, some had different sections for different problems, and some, indeed, most, offered advice on matters entirely independent of their readers’ questions.
And oh, how I absorbed those columns and those replies with the avidness and uncritical eye of a new convert to a religion.
And oh, how I resented my Mum because she didn’t live in Agony Aunt Land. Now let’s get this straight. Most of the time I had a pretty good relationship with my Mum. I’d even say we were closer than most. My Dad was working shifts at the time (he was an engineer) and so the two of us were alone in each other’s company, so to speak, more than a lot of mothers and daughters. We both loved our books, and had taste in TV that was close enough for us to reach a state of accommodation, and we even enjoyed playing cards together. From toddler-hood I’d been introduced to proper playing cards with hearts, clubs, diamonds and spades, none of this Mr Bun the Baker stuff.
You could even say that compared to a lot of teenage girls I was relatively little trouble. True, I indulged in a bit of under-aged drinking, but unless you count sitting on a wall behind the little wood in the park with my rather strange friend Petronella, inhaling the second-hand smoke from her roll-up containing the inside of a banana skin rather than tobacco (I never have established if that really does have hallucinogenic effects or if it’s an urban myth) I’d never done drugs. I went to discos more because I was expected to than because I wanted to, and though of course I groused about Mum or Dad insisting on picking me up, inside I was probably quite grateful. I did well at school, though I’d have done better if I hadn’t had an aversion to concentrating on anything that didn’t interest me, but I didn’t do as well as I said I did.
Now of course, in Agony Aunt Land they had an answer to that. It went without saying that you must encourage your children to study, but you must also assure them that you loved them unconditionally anyway, and “welcome” poor results with kindness and reassurance. But that was part of the whole panoply. In Agony Aunt Land, it was the role of the good parent to stay calm, to stress that they were always angry at the action, not the person, never to let the sun go down on their wrath, and, as the King of Siam might have observed to the feisty governess, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
Mum wasn’t a strict parent. In fact, on many matters, such as regular bedtimes at an earlyish hour, and the importance of a healthy diet (though I don’t think they’d started making such a song and dance about your 5 a day then) she was probably more lenient than the Aunts and Counsellors would have approved of, though I don’t want you to run away with the idea that I was up until the small hours feasting on cream cakes and sherry every day.
But one thing that mattered to Mum, that mattered very much, was honesty. She hated liars – and yes, that was what she said, she hated liars, not she hated lying, and that was breaking one of the rules of Agony Aunt Land to start with. I think in her heart of hearts she even felt a bit uneasy about Santa Claus, though she was too kind to begrudge me the magic of that when I was little. Still, I fancy she was mightily relieved when I discovered what was going on fairly early and without too much trauma. She had a liking for sayings like “A liar needs a good memory” and “Lies have long legs” and a fondness for the story about the Little Boy who Cried Wolf.
I never did quite find out why she felt so strongly and viscerally about it. Maybe she just did. Much later on in life, some relatives obliquely hinted that Dad had had another woman in the early stages of their marriage, but that was something I just didn’t want to think about. She gave no sign of it, at least not in my presence, even when I was grown up, and perhaps she was, after all, following the advice from Agony Aunt Land that if you did decide to make a go of your marriage then you must not carp and nag about what was past and gone.
The trouble is, if she went to one extreme, I went to the other. I couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. Now I don’t mean that I was a habitual teller of tall tales just for the hell of it, but if being economical with the truth (I can’t remember when I first heard that particular phrase) made my life easier and less complicated, and meant I didn’t have to face or do something I didn’t want to, then economical with the truth I was.
It emerged pretty early, while I was still at junior school, over silly things, like being picked for the netball team, or fishing another child out of the duck pond (when in fact I’d been the one to fall in). I hadn’t been introduced to Agony Aunt Land then of course, but I did know about the famous land of other mothers and was sure that other mothers didn’t make such a fuss and treat it as if it were such a drama and a disaster and the end of civilisation as we knew it.
Now let’s make this plain. I’m not remotely proud about what I’m telling you now and I don’t think there’s anything big or clever about it.
With a few crises en route, I had got through school with pretty good results, or enough to get me into university (I chose the one near home, always one for the easiest option) and I did well enough at University, too. In fact, and I know this is horribly cliché-ridden, it, rather than my schooldays, was the happiest time of my life, and I didn’t want it to end. You may entirely fairly point out that there was no reason why I could not just have gone on to do postgraduate studies. I think I’d have been accepted (I hadn’t managed a first, but had a 2.1) and in those days it was far easier to get funding. Mum (and Dad) wouldn’t have disapproved. In fact, when I told them that was what I was doing, they didn’t disapprove at all. They thought it a good idea.
But it wasn’t what I was doing. I just couldn’t be bothered going through all the applications for both a place and funding, and perhaps I wasn’t quite as sure that was what I wanted as I liked to think.
It isn’t an original story. True, you’ll hear it more often about someone carrying on with their routine of going to work, not university, and of hiding it from their spouse, not their parents, but it amounts to pretty much the same thing. The familiar bus journey. The talk of meeting familiar people. I think I did only mean it to go on for a week or two, while I sorted myself out, and did make some kind of belated application, and then all would have been well. I was an adult now, after all, and not a child, not even a teenager, and as Mum said (entirely unmaliciously, and I don’t even think it was what she wanted for me, at least not yet) some people were married with kids at my age.
I started embroidering without even wholly realising it. I spoke of lectures and seminars I was attending, and even went through the motions of writing essays (though I couldn’t get books out of the library anymore). The odd thing is, or perhaps not so odd, that I DID go up to the campus at least most days, and often sought out a coffee bar as far as possible from my old haunts.
I was leading a double life. But here’s the thing. When you’re leading a double life, you’re also leading a half-life. Sometimes it’s not the fear of being found out, or the stomach-pit knowledge that it can’t go on forever that’s the worst thing about a “double life”. It’s the incompleteness. The emptiness. I can’t speak for everyone, but in my case, at least, the novelty soon wore off.
And the grant, the financing, had not, of course, come. Nor was it going to come. For a couple of weeks, even a month, even six weeks, it was easy enough to pass it off with words like, “You know how such things drag on, everyone says so.”
And no doubt they sometimes did, and no doubt at least some people said so, but that could not go on forever, and Mum started to talk about “looking into it”.
I realised this was the endgame. One more weekend, and on Monday, I would confess and it would be over and done with.
One last time I went up to the campus. I phoned Mum, and it came out in a rush, and I waited for her to behave as people did in Agony Aunt Land, and to say something along the lines of “Well, of course I’m disappointed in you, and this was a foolish thing you did, but come home now, and remember your Dad and I love you, and we’ll have a talk about it.”
That did not happen. My Mum had a hot temper, and admitted to it herself, and not being proud about it, but on that particular occasion it was the coldness that frightened me, not the heat. She said words that I prefer not to repeat. Mum wasn’t a swearer, and “Bloody Liar” was probably the strongest language she used, but there is strong language and strong language. This was worse than any raging torrent of profanities. She had finished with me, she said. She never wanted to see me again.
I told myself, desperately, that she had said she’d finished with me before, and things had been patched up. I thought of spending the night on one of the couches in the coffee bar (it wasn’t officially allowed, but blind eyes were generally turned) but decided to go home. Things would be fine when I got home. Well, not fine, of course, I didn’t deserve them to be fine, but I would get a hug and she’d say the right things about loving me unconditionally anyway, and sorting things out, and making a fresh start. These thoughts were in my mind as I walked the few metres from the bus stop to our house. I was allowed in. But there was no embrace, and no assurance of unconditional love and sorting things out. She barely spoke to me and only to say that if I wanted to stay in this house, and they’d prefer me not to, I’d have to bring some money in, either getting any job or signing on. For some reason, I thought about us playing cards together on the little green baize table in the lounge, and when I saw that little green baize table, I burst into tears. In Agony Aunt Land, Mum would have relented then. She did not. She tersely said it was too late for bawling. Except I think she said “bawking”, which is a term for crying from her native Cheshire. Anyway it doesn’t matter. It did then.
Give me credit, at least I knew I was entirely in the wrong. Just as much as I knew that saying that and pleading for forgiveness was not going to do any good, not when confronted with that expression.
I retreated to my room, eventually cried myself to sleep, woke up remembering what I had never forgotten, and not wanting to leave the sanctuary of my familiar bedroom where there were still many items from my childhood, but realising I needed the bathroom and had no choice. From the upstairs corridor, I could hear voices – Dad, poor man, had come home from his shift and been confronted with the news. I could also hear sobbing. At first I thought it was my own, in that strange, surreal way you hear your own voice when you’re stressed out, but no, my own sobbing had abated, at least for a while. Mum was sobbing. And though I could not see her face, I knew it would no longer be a cold mask, it would be flushed, and blotched, and just as ravaged as my own had been and probably still was. Neither of us was a “pretty crier”.
“I couldn’t help it, Gordon,” she gulped and gasped through the sobs she struggled, not with much success, to control, “And I know some folk will say I was mean and horrible, and had no sympathy, and didn’t behave how I should at all, and not how you’re supposed to. You know I had my suspicions – we both did,”
“We did, love,” he said, and I was pretty sure he was patting her shoulder.
“And I lived in hope, and told myself that if it was true I’d be – how you’re supposed to be, and all understanding and tolerant and – oh God, I was churning inside, I thought I was going to be sick. But – why does she need to do this? WHY! She’s a talented girl, woman, I mean, and she doesn’t NEED to live in this – this taradiddle world, and …. and I love her so much, and what the hell’s going to become of her? Does she even KNOW she’s lying? Will she end up in jail?”
I was on the point of running downstairs, there and then, but I didn’t. I thought better of it.
Did we make up with each other? Yes. In fact our relationship probably matured and improved, though we always had our ups and downs. Did I never tell another lie in my life, apart from the tiniest of white ones? No. But I’ve never LIVED a lie again. And I’d be – well, lying, if I denied that at first, at least, some of it was because of fear of the consequences, but that wasn’t all. By no means. Have I made something of my life? Nothing spectacular, I suppose, but at least I’m not in prison!
And I still read those letters, and those columns, and still think it would be nice if life were always like it always is in Agony Aunt Land, and that some of the advice is good, and it would be far from a bad thing if people acted on it at least sometimes. But that, too, is only a fraction of what we are and what we feel, and what we have a right to be, and a right to feel.
Oh – and that TV show panellist? Today he started to get on my nerves!
And I wish it weren’t, but that IS the truth!