In the first few seconds of our lives we are all the same. It is the only time in our lives we are truely us. No outside influences or labels. Pure. Naked and helpless, innocent and harmless. A couple of seconds until we cry. We take our first breath. Another second and we start to flail our arms, legs and body seeking attention. Needing attention. A primeval impulsive reaction to being alive. An animal instinct. A sound which is unique to us. A sound devoid of accent or gender. A sound which will, we hope, announce our arrival to the person we instinctively trust to look after us. For that short time, those few seconds we are alone and vulnerable. Not safe until our mothers instinct takes over and we are shielded, protected, safe from harm. Loved. Our mother, the one person we know. Our mother the person who will teach us everything we need to know to survive. Our mother is there to look after us as she has done for 9 months safely cocooned within a thin skin veil, hidden and safe. A mothers love is like no other. A mother will fight for us, do everything to keep us safe, give everything for us. Love us. Nurture us. Since the beginning of time that’s what all mothers have done. It’s what mothers do, don’t they?
Just a few seconds. “Congratulations you have another girl, a baby girl” ‘Oh thank Heavens’ “He looks just like his Dad” ‘Dad, is she alright?’ “He’s fine look” ‘You said a baby girl’ “He’s definitely a boy” ‘Oh’ “Is something wrong?”
(1962) My sister didn’t know she had a brother until she was eight. She vaguely remembers a baby kept in one of the side board drawers but thought it was a special doll she wasn’t allowed to play with. When the noisy doll disappeared she didn’t think about it again, why should she it was just a toy after all. Not much was said about the boy she and her Dad used to visit every now and then in Bath. Her mother and father hadn’t talked about another baby so why should she think he was anything to do with her. After all she lived in Harrow and he lived in Bath. Brothers and sisters lived in the same house as one another not in separate houses miles apart. The small boy must be a cousin or something, definitely not her brother. Imagine her shock and surprise when we were finally introduced to each other, what we really were, me to my sister her to her brother. The boy she met when she went to Bath with her Dad was her brother, her brother! NO! Did this mean he was going to come and live in the same house with her Mum and Dad, with her? Would she have to share them with this strange boy? He couldn’t be her brother because all the brothers and sisters at school sounded alike when they talked. This new boy, her brother, spoke strangely and sounded totally different from everyone else she knew so he couldn’t be her brother. Ignore him and Dad will take him back to that house again and she would have her Mum, Dad and her house all to herself again.
(1960) I used to live with an elderly lady in a big house when I was no longer a baby, still young but not young enough to live in the side board drawer anymore. What a lovely kind soft spoken lady. I was only allowed to call her Dad’s Aunt. Dad called her Aunt Peg but I only called her Dad’s Aunt. It sometimes confused me why my Mum and Dad and this strange girl lived in London and I lived in Bath but I wasn’t brave enough to ask in case someone shouted at me again. Bath was quite a long way from London, from what should have been my real home.
Apart from Dads Aunt all I really remember of Bath is the petrol station across the road from the house where I lived. It had a big illuminated sign telling everyone the garages name and the sort of petrol they sold. During the day it was just an ordinary petrol station sign but at night before the petrol station closed, especially on a windy night, it shone through my rooms thin curtains casting strange shadows on the walls and ceiling. My room was at the top of Dads aunts house. It had two windows overlooking the road and the petrol station. One was very big the other was quite small. The small one was always slightly open. I don’t know why it was kept open. I don’t think it was deliberate it was just stuck. I wasn’t tall enough to reach the latch to try and close it properly. Most two year old’s would have difficulty reaching it even daring to stand on the bed I couldn’t reach it. Could Dad reach it I wonder, he was much taller than I was. Maybe I’ll ask him next time he comes to see me. One good thing about the sign was that it made my room seem brighter, not exactly homely but brighter. During the day my room was always dark. Cold and dark. If the sun was shining it was dark. If it was raining it was dark. Even if it was snowing it was dark. Always dark.
The garage opened early in the mornings and I would watch as cars were filled up with petrol ready for the days travels. Most stopped at the pumps for petrol but a few were driven up to the doors of a small workshop at the back alongside the till booth. Sometimes the garages truck turned up with a car on a big trailer which had to be pushed into the workshop. During the day I listened to the different engine noises coming from the workshop. Sometimes an angry, frustrated shout could be heard. I couldn’t see who was shouting or who they were shouting at but I knew they were shouting, I’d heard shouting before. With my elbows on the window ledge and my nose pressed up to the big window I’d listen to the engine noises. They seemed to differ depending on the time of day. Most of the cars were driven into the workshop but the ones on the trailer had to be pushed in. In the morning the engines didn’t seem to like starting. Maybe they were like Dad’s aunt and didn’t like starting early in the morning. Complaining they would cough and splutter trying their best to come to life but no matter how hard they tried, nothing but a cloud of black smoke. It was as if they didn’t want someone poking around inside them with spanners and hammers hurting their insides. In the evening when the owner came to pick their car up what a difference. All the engines roared into life as if they were singing in a deep throaty bass, not the squeaky coughs of the morning. They sang happy to see their owner once more, relieved, another chance to be a part of the family and not go wrong again, they didn’t want a stranger poking around in them anymore, no more complaining they would willingly do as they were told back in their right place being told what to do. Their owner was in charge again and now they had the chance to show how sorry they were for breaking down “I’m sorry it won’t happen again”.
It was different if all they needed was petrol or an oil top up. Cars lined up alongside the pumps. The drivers would get out and wait until the ‘petrol man’ came to them and asked “Ow much d’yu want today sir?” ‘Fill ‘er up please’ “four star?” ‘yes please’. It wasn’t a big petrol station but it always looked busy. Something was happening all the time. When Dad needed petrol before going home I used to get in the passenger seat and go with him for the short drive across the road. It was a lovely car, quite small a ‘Wolesely Hornet’. I loved it. As soon as the drivers or passengers door was opened, before anyone could get in or out, I would press in close to catch the lovely cloves smell of Dad’s hair tonic, Bay Rum. I have never been sure why he used a hair tonic of any sort because for as long as I can remember he was almost bald. It was a ‘Bobby Charlton’ haircut he said. A shear parting on the left very close to his ear with a few long strands brushed over the top. Dad had a big lump on the right side of his forehead which he always tried to cover. He used to tell me how the tank he was in during the war was hit by a shell. He was so desperate to get out he forgot to open the side hatch door and bashed his head, the ensuing lump had never gone down. I used to ask him if all his friends in the tank had lumps on their heads too but he wouldn’t tell me. When the petrol man eventually came over to us it was always the same question that I heard every day through my window, “Ow much d’yu want today sir?” Sometimes I’d say in my best deep grown up voice ‘Fill ‘er up please’ then before he could ask I’d nip in quickly with ‘4 star please’.
Every Saturday I looked out of my window hoping to see Dads Wolesely Hornet parked outside in the road. If the car was here Dad was here too. I ran out of my room, down the two flights of stairs looking into the downstairs rooms to find Dad. Sometimes I’d get a real surprise, Dad had a young girl with him too. I didn’t know who she was but she was fun to play with and knew lots of different games. I didn’t really play games. I so looked forward to my visits. I would get a big Dad hug and a playful punch from the young girl. Mum didn’t come down to Bath. If Dad’s Aunt wanted to see her she had to go up to London. I went along too I presume but have no recollection how we got there, train I suppose. I don’t remember Dad’s Aunt ever driving, certainly not to London.
Dad’s aunt was a strange lady. She wasn’t a tall thin person like Dad more a short dumpy sort of person. I used to sit fascinated by four blond whiskers that grew from her chin and a couple of dark hairs that grew from a mole on her cheek just in line with her mouth. I had to look very discretely because it’s rude to stare at people so I’d just gave her the occasional glance. Whenever she spoke they bobbed up and down. It was essential viewing whenever she had a hot drink, tea, coffee or chocolate depending on the time of day. She would slowly lean forward, pick her cup up from the small coffee table, inflate her cheeks to the size of a small balloon, as her hands slowly lifted the china cup to her mouth her cheeks slowly collapsed letting out the air inside so her cheeks came back to their normal size. Having been cooled sufficiently the drink would be swallowed in one huge gulp. Her cheeks acted like wrong way round bellows.
Dads Aunt was a dedicated Christian with, what seemed to me, a never faltering energy and dedication to the church. All her adult life she had travelled across Africa spreading the religious word. We spent whole afternoons watching films and looking at photographs she had taken on her travels. Amazing mind blowing pictures of black skinned, semi naked men, women and children who lived in straw roofed mud huts. I sat in silence fascinated at this totally different world from mine. How could they possibly live like that. The huts didn’t have any windows or doors, weren’t they cold in winter? Just straw to keep the warmth in. Doors should be kept closed all the time but how did they close a door that wasn’t there? No glass in the windows either? My small window made it cold in my room sometimes with the small curtain shimmering breeze so what must it be like with no windows? Did it snow? Every picture showed long shadows like the shadow the petrol station sign made when it was a sunny day so it must be sunny in Africa. Maybe they didn’t need windows and doors after all. Grainy pictures of thin skinny cows and goats roaming freely around their homes. Maybe they were pets. My sister had a pet cat, maybe these people kept cows and goats as pets. Such a different way of life. How did they travel? There weren’t any roads outside their homes, did they have trains nearby they could catch? Who would ever believe that this was real, that people didn’t have big petrol forecourts across the road from their home, their room. How would their Dad get from a big city to their mud hut to see them? I bet their Dad’s didn’t have a nice smelling Wolseley Hornet to drive in.
(2017) Our memories are strange things they decide what we remember and how we remember it. Good memories usually come with no problem but we tend to lock the bad ones away deep inside afraid they might come out and we’ll have to relive it all again. Did I have birthdays with my family is something I have always wondered. I can’t remember parties or cakes the things young people do remember. I can’t remember having any friends just the bedroom and the petrol station. I spoke with a country accent so I must have mixed with the local children at some point but find it very difficult to remember anyone coming to Dad’s Aunts house. Did she have people come round to see her? Did the people who might have come round to see her have small children too? Did I get to mix with them to play with them? Was I formally introduced, “Tim say hello to Mrs, Mrs who? or was it “Oh yes, this is Tim my nephews boy. He’s staying with me for a while”. Did Dad’s Aunt ever elaborate why I was staying with her? Tim, yes he’s staying with me because his mother hates him and wishes he was a girl. It is very sad I agree but better he’s here than at ‘home’, he is safe here”. I wonder how that conversation went on. Did I sit with Dad’s Aunt while her visitors were there or did I go up to my room and wait looking at the petrol station forecourt, wanting a Wolseley Hornet to be there and hearing “Ow much d’yu want today sir” and my Dad replying “Fill ‘er up please”, the by now familiar language of the petrol station. What did I eat? Where did I sit to eat? Did Dad’s Aunt and me sit alone at the table or did we sit with her guests eating together? It is a strange feeling knowing that you are where you are but not knowing where the rest of your family is. I must have a family because my Dad came to see me and I called him Dad. True I wasn’t aware that the young girl was my sister but she came down with Dad so he must know her somehow. There were a few times I saw my Mother, at least the lady who lived with Dad and the young girl. I wasn’t aware then how much she didn’t like me, how much the idea of me being her son was intolerable for her. How I would always be ‘dirty’. I hadn’t done anything to deserve being banished to another part of England except for being born a boy. It was her that made me. I had absolutely no control, no influence over Mother Nature, no pre chromosome division choice if I wanted to be a boy or a girl, I was a boy.
If I had been born in today’s modern National Health Service, with all the technology in pre natal medicine I wonder if I would have been aborted. “Look at the screen, there’s your baby. Would you like to know the sex of it?” “Oh yes Please” ” Well, you are going to have a little boy.” “Oh, I don’t want a boy. I don’t like little boys. How do I go about getting rid of it and trying again for a girl?” “You can’t just ‘get rid of it’ “Why, I don’t want a boy. We’ll get him adopted. Do you have any leaflets or something to tell parents how to go about giving unwanted babies away?” In 1958 though it would have been to some backstreet gin palace knitting needle job probably. I can’t say for certain that is what would have been said or if that would have happened but from my experiences later on in my life I wish it had.