Can a child be born strange? Or does it come from some early forgotten experience?
My parents and my maternal grandmother, Nan, were loving and caring. We ate well (especially considering that this was just after the end of WWII and many foods were still rationed). Our grey house was comfortable and warm, I had plenty of toys and rag books that Mummy and Nan read to me. I don't think I lacked for anything.
So why would I steal?
At the age of five I was a thief. I had a mania for stealing paper. When I could get to school before anybody else, I went around the classroom lifting the lids of the other children’s desks and digging into their exercise books with their lined and squared pages. Then, holding my breath with concentration and excitement, quickly, carefully, I would pull out several pages from the centre of each book, bending back any give-away staples that had worked loose. A new day had made a most satisfying start. Why, or what I did with the reams of paper I must have accumulated, I haven’t the faintest idea. In our class only my exercise books glowed with plump good health, while my classmates’ books were gaunt and skeletal, but the strange thing was that nobody ever seemed to notice. Nothing was mentioned, neither by the victims, nor by the teachers. Each day’s anticipation of being named and shamed meant that I was very frightened, but at the same time strangely excited.
Encouraged by my success, I began to supplement my paper reserve with money, which had a more practical benefit. Most of the other children in my class brought a 1d. (one penny piece) to school for break-time (this was the 1950s, when there were 12 pennies in a shilling). One penny might not sound much today, but it was sufficient then to buy a fine break-time treat – a choice of a pink or white sugar mouse with a little string tail, Ovaltine or Horlicks tablets folded into a small cone made from paper from used arithmetic exercise books, a packet of lemonade powder eaten from a licked finger, or a small thin chocolate bar. I don’t know whether I didn’t have my own penny because my parents didn’t know about it, or couldn’t afford it. In any event it didn’t matter because as we stood beside our desks for morning prayers, our hands devoutly folded and eyes piously squeezed shut, I reached out and felt for the penny pieces nearest to me, put on the corner of their desks by their unsuspecting owners. With a nimble movement my hand found the coins and transferred them into the pocket of my gymslip. On a bumper day I managed to scoop two coins, careful not to let them clink together as they changed ownership.
Astonishingly, none of my classmates ever mentioned the loss of their pennies, just as they didn’t appear to notice that their exercise books were showing signs of anorexia. If I’d had a penny to lose you can be pretty sure I would have raised quite a storm if it had disappeared. So each day some unfortunate child, or on a good day, two children, didn’t get a sugar mouse or similar treat. The Lord helps those who help themselves, and he certainly provided very nicely for me.
Apart from paper and pennies I began to find small, interesting items in other children's desks. Like a jackdaw I pecked them up. My satchel was a repository of things that did not belong to me – hair grips, pencils, tiny ornaments. It was the mother-of-pearl rosary beads and Bible that led to my downfall.
On an early-morning raid, I was enthralled to find these pretty items in another child’s desk. I slipped them into my satchel, so thrilled with this exceptional haul that I didn't even bother about harvesting any paper.
That evening there was a knock at our front door, a rare event, and my mother came and said there was someone to see me. It was the previous owner of my swag, with her parents.
It's only now, as I write this, that I think: How had they known where to come? How had they known it was me? It's most unlikely that they would have gone to the house of each child in the class. They wouldn't have had a car, in those days almost nobody did, so they would have either had to walk or travel by bus. I'm sure, now, that they had somehow known who the thief was and come straight to our house. Is it possible that my clandestine stealing sessions were observed, not as secret as I thought? Was I watched as I pilfered? Did the watcher know about the pennies and the paper?
“Susan,” asked my mother, “did you bring home some things belonging to Angela?” The dispossessed little girl gazed at me, wide-eyed and open-mouthed.
“Yes,” I said. I was a thief, not a liar.
“Then will you go and get them, and give them back like a good girl?”
Off I trotted and with a slight reluctance returned the pretty things to their owner. Then everybody made a great fuss of me. Angela's mother invited me to tea at their house, where she gave me a packet of waxed crayons and a new Bible. I never wanted to steal anything again.
Post-war London, where I was born, was a landscape in every shade of grey. Our semi-detached house was grey, in a grey road in a grey place called Hanworth in the now administratively-defunct county of Middlesex, south-west London.
At that time, we were a respectable middle-class family, like hundreds of thousands of similar families. My mild and gentle father worked for Kodak, and Mummy was a housewife and mother. We were the only family in the street who owned a motor vehicle – a motorcycle and sidecar my father used for travelling to and from work, and for pleasure rides. Mummy rode on the pillion with her arms around my father and I sat in the little pod with its slightly hazy plastic windows. We had a black cat called Clem, named after Clement Attlee, the British Prime Minister. Clem’s favourite spot was curled up asleep in my father’s old leather attaché case in the garden.
On Sunday mornings my father liked to walk, and if I went with him I had to jog smartly to keep up with his long stride. Those walks took us to nearby Teddington Lock on the river Thames, and Royal Bushy Park where we played cricket, my father bowling slow balls and me trying to whack them back with a child’s cricket bat. The highlight of our visits to the park was a ride on Bonny Bright Eyes, the playground rocking horse that seated several passengers.
At weekends, Mummy's mother, Nan, came to visit with her corgi, Taffy. During the war she, like so many others had "dug for victory" and it was something she had enjoyed and continued. She spent Saturdays weeding, hoeing, sowing, planting, staking and harvesting boxes of beautiful vegetables and fruit. Short, dignified and plump, she was beautifully spoken and always impeccably dressed. Her passion was music. Both her paternal grandparents were opera singers; her father was a chorister at Westminster Abbey and her uncle a chorister at St Paul’s Cathedral. She had trained to be an opera singer and sung in the chorus of many operas with the great names of the time. Later, when her voice began to let her down she became a secretary and worked for one of the senior directors of the General Electric Company. During the First World War she had married an American serviceman and emigrated to the United States. It was an unhappy marriage and after two years she returned to England with her little daughter – my mother. Although she never mentioned it, the stigma and difficulties of being a divorcée and single mother in the 1920s must have been considerable.
She was the quintessentially doting grandmother who would do and give me anything I asked for. For a while I had an obsession with posting presents to myself. Nan would find small things like her powder compact, a tiny scent bottle or a writing pad, and together we carefully wrapped them in brown paper, tied them with string and addressed them to me. Then we walked hand-in-hand to the Post Office to buy stamps and drop the packet into the letterbox. When it was delivered the following day I was beside myself with excitement. A week or so later it was recycled and re-posted, and no matter how many times I sent myself the same thing, the delight of receiving it never diminished.
Our next door neighbour was a tall, thin man with a long black beard, always dressed in black and always wearing a large black hat. Whenever our paths crossed he smiled and said “Hello”. My father hurried me past, telling me not to speak to him because he was a Jew. I asked once what a Jew was as he looked much like any other person, but my father simply said they weren’t like us. I tried pressing the question, in what way weren’t they like us, but there didn’t seem to be a proper explanation. I spent the next twenty years wondering exactly what it was about Jews that made them ‘not like us’. It’s strange that such a quiet and easy-going man as my father should have been a bigot. He also hated Germans which was more understandable, as he’d served in the British army for the duration of WWII and his uncle had been killed at Dunkirk.
Directly opposite our house lived Mummy’s friend Auntie Kitty. Tall and thin with a chuckly voice, wiry black hair and a prominent wart on her chin, Auntie Kitty became a celebrity in our street when she bought a television in 1953 so that she and we could watch the Coronation. I recall that the sound was very clear – the harsh, unfaltering voice of our new Queen as she made her first public address, although the black and white picture flickered on and off and the small screen seemed to be enveloped in a snowstorm. It was a freezing day and a long afternoon, punctuated by servings of Auntie Kitty's speciality. Soaked in a mixture of egg and milk, cooked in lard and saturated with sugar, her fried jam sandwiches were ambrosial. When Auntie Kitty's big chin wart began sprouting hairs, Mummy persuaded her to do something about it, and so we went by bus with her one day to hospital to have it removed. All the way home we laughed at her delight in not having the thing on her chin any more. Wherever Mummy was, there was always laughter.
Once a year we went on holiday with Nan to Boscombe, east of Bournemouth on England's south coast. After breakfast at the guesthouse on the Lansdowne Road, we marched down the long zigzag path to the sandy beach with its fascinating pools of slimy, podded weed and furtive creatures scuttling and darting beneath rocks. My ruched red swimming costume held water, so as I emerged from the sea it drooped around my knees as the water drained away.
Looking back, I recall the weather was always perfect, never a cloud or drop of rain to spoil the blue of the sky and the kiss of the sun. Boscombe meant being with my parents and Nan all day, every day, ice cream, pony rides, mini-golf, building sandcastles and then watching the incoming tide melt them away. At the end of the day the haul back up the long zigzag path was hard work for small, tired legs.
Those memories of the early years of my life are of security and love. As my father was at work I saw less of him than Mummy, and he was not as demonstrative as her, but I adored him.
I have pin clear mental photos of our life in Hanworth.
On the kitchen table sit rows of fragrant small sponge cakes in fluted wax paper cases. When they are cool, Mummy slices off the tops and cuts them in half. She spreads butter cream over the base and sticks the two pieces on top, like wings. She calls them Butterfly Cakes, and always leaves a generous amount of delicious raw cake mixture in the mixing bowl for me to eat with a wooden spoon. Even today when I make a cake and take a spoonful of the raw mixture and close my eyes, I see and smell the Butterfly Cakes on our kitchen table.
While I sit on the draining board with my feet in the kitchen sink, Mummy works her way down from my face to my feet with a flannel dipped in the warm, soapy water. When she washes my hair she gives me a flannel to press against my eyes to stop the shampoo stinging them. We run our fingers through my wet hair. If it squeaks then we know it's clean. Then she wraps me in a towel and pats me dry, feeds me into my pyjamas and warm blue dressing gown with the ladybird buttons.
The dressing gown has a cord of twisted blue and silver, with tassels on the end. Alone in the living room in front of the coal fire covered by a wire safety guard, I swing the dressing gown's tasselled cord into the flames so that it singes with a satisfying sizzly noise and an interesting smell. Mummy sniffs when she comes into the room and looks in puzzlement at the carpet in front of the fire for signs of smouldering.
The fire can be a bit of a sod to start. My father holds sheets of newspaper across the sullen chimney to encourage the draught. Putrid smoke billows, then a small flame grows, singeing the paper yellow. Half an hour later the coals glow orange as we sit listening to the radio. Clem gets as close as he can to the fire. Mummy knits or smocks clothes for me and my father puffs on his pipe.
All our walls are painted the same dull cream colour, so my father decorates the living room with a bucket of distemper. It's a thick green stuff the colour of baby's diarrhoea, and he blobs it onto the wall with a roller. It looks horrible.
At weekends Nan is in the garden with Taffy, rain or shine, always planting or picking. I don’t remember Mummy doing anything in the garden apart from rescuing birds from Clem. She stows them tenderly into a cardboard shoe box and puts them in the airing cupboard to recover. Usually they regain their senses and equilibrium after a couple of hours, and fly away to safety. Or straight back into Clem. Daddy doesn't garden, either, but he likes pansies because they have happy little faces.
Nan eats Energen Rolls because she is trying to lose weight. They are crispy on the outside and crispy within, but not very satisfying. I prefer Taffy's charcoal dog biscuits.
Once we go to visit Daddy's parents. There is a long, gloomy, dark green corridor and two and a half flights of stairs. At the top is a bedroom where a skeletal yellow-skinned woman lies in bed coughing.
Mummy comes home from the Ideal Homes Exhibition, merry, footsore and laden with carrier bags stuffed with miniature pots of jam.
She takes me to Bentalls in Kingston to have my hair cut, and then we have tea and toasted teacakes oozing with butter. We bring home one of their cakes shaped like a giant mushroom and made from marzipan and lashings of coffee cream.
Every Friday evening she coos with delight over a box of powdery Turkish Delight, Payne’s Poppets or Buttered Brazil Nuts, her weekly treat from Daddy.
She is always happy, smiling and beautiful, with short curly dark hair, golden hazel eyes and a carefully-pencilled black beauty spot to the side of her mouth.
In the summer she ties ribbons in my silver blonde hair and sews pretty smocked dresses. During the winter months I wear a pair of rust-coloured Harris tweed leggings and a liberty bodice beneath a knitted jumper. The leggings are thick hairy trousers with a broad elastic band that passes underneath my shoes to hold the trousers down over my ankles. Wearing them can best be likened to having both legs scrubbed with medium grade steel wool: they have an abrasive quality that makes each step torture.
Mummy takes great pride in dressing me in style, and these horrid trousers must be the dernier cri. She can't have the least idea of what torment it is to wear them. The liberty bodice is a less painful, more private garment, a short, white fleecy sleeveless thing with rubber buttons and little rubbery suspenders to hold up the thick brown wrinkly stockings that we wear to school; it fits under a chunky woolly vest that lies beneath various other layers of clothing culminating in a hand-knitted jumper all designed to keep the penetrating damp of English winters at bay. My hair is tucked beneath a bright red knitted pixie bonnet, tight-fitting like a snood and reaching to a nipple on the crown of my head. The rust-coloured leggings and the red pixie hat add quite a splash of colour to the generally grey environment.
On my sideboard today is a sepia photograph of a handsome blonde five-year-old boy. He’s wearing a one-piece woollen bathing costume with straps over the shoulders, sitting on a rock on a beach, smiling into the sun. This is my brother Ian, born in October of 1940, the height of the Blitz on London.
I suppose it was because Mummy would have been working during the war that he was sent to live with an elderly couple in Devon. All I know is that in February 1945, Ian's temporary foster parents wrote to tell Mummy that he was ill, with a seemingly permanent cold. She went to Devon, where the doctor told her that Ian had meningitis. There was no treatment, no cure and no hope. It was only a matter of time. He died with Mummy sitting by his bed and his father in North Africa. I cannot begin to imagine how they were affected by this loss, how my father felt when he learned the news, so far away, and how my mother coped with the loss of her child as well as the absence of and worry about her husband.
Probably it was for this sad reason that my birthday and Christmas presents were always things like a bus conductor’s costume, complete with a punching machine and tickets, or a Meccano set in the form of a crane with a little handle to wind it up and down to pick up matchboxes. My father made small contraptions from a cotton reel, a rubber band and a length of candle. When the rubber band had been twisted sufficiently the cotton reel jerked across the floor in a purposeful way like a little tank. I was never given the things I really wanted, and asked for repeatedly: a glass eye, a hearing aid, and a set of false teeth. I still don’t have any of them.
Each year, Kodak held a party at their offices in Kingsway, London for the children of their staff. Whether all the children found it as much of an ordeal as I did, I don't know. But none of us knew each other and I seem to remember that I couldn't wait to go home, with my slice of cake, balloon and gift-wrapped present.
There were only two things that darkened my days and nights. The monster that lived upstairs in the toilet bowl, skulking with evil intentions until the toilet was flushed, when it would spring out and rake at people’s bottoms with hooked claws and spiky teeth. From terror of these awful assaults I developed a technique of opening the door wide, reaching in and yanking on the chain and leaping down the adjacent staircase before the monster could get me, crashing to the bottom of the stairs with my knickers around my ankles and alarming Mummy.
And there was Mr Beeblesticks, who lived in the big wardrobe in my bedroom (where I hid from Mummy and the knife – I’ll come to that later). Mr Beeblesticks was a friend by day, but at night, once the bedroom light was turned out he became a gun-wielding murderer. So that his bullets would miss, I lay in my bed rocking madly from side to side. The rocking habit lasted until I got married, I just couldn’t get to sleep unless I kept madly rolling backwards and forwards.
I didn't mention either of these horrors to my parents, because I didn't want to worry them.
Where did these strange ideas originate, these evil people who wanted to kill me? I was safe, secure and very well loved. The Saturday morning matinees at the cinema showed only cartoons, and the most violent programs I watched on Auntie Kitty's television were Bill and Ben the Flowerpot Men, Andy Pandy, Noddy and Muffin the Mule.
Even stranger was the recurring nightmare I had for years. I was alone on an empty, sandy beach on a hot sunny day, with cliffs rising close behind me. As I watched the surf swishing gently backwards and forwards, the sea suddenly began to withdraw to the far horizon, leaving just the clean sand behind. Soon there was no sea at all, just the pristine beach. In the far distance a darkness appeared on the skyline. It began moving towards where I was standing. As it neared, it developed into a great wave, curling upwards. It rushed quickly forwards. It grew until it was the height of the cliffs behind, and I was beneath it, looking up, knowing that now the water would come crashing down and wash me away.
I'd certainly never heard of or seen a tsunami, so where did this image come from? Was it an omen, a warning of what was to come?
But these were only small blips in a very happy and normal family life filled with love and laughs and cuddles and hugs.
The convent school where I went to appropriate anything light enough to lift, not nailed down and small enough to fit in my satchel was in Sunbury-on-Thames, two bus-rides from Hanworth. Mummy walked me to the nearest bus stop, a couple of hundred yards from our house and put me on the first bus. This bus stopped at Sunbury-on-Thames where I changed to a second bus, which stopped a short distance from the school. From the bus stop I crossed a major road, although at that time there was little traffic, and then walked up a long winding rhododendron-lined drive. It’s unthinkable to imagine five-year-old children undertaking such a journey alone these days, but at that time it was perfectly normal.
One small girl in our class caught a train unaccompanied to and from school. At her invitation I went home with her one day, to the considerable consternation of her mother who had no idea she was expecting a guest. She had to take me back by train and bus to where my mother was panicking at my failure to arrive home.
In the classroom, before reading or writing, or sums or drawing we learned the Ten Commandments. We learned them by heart, by constant chanted repetition: thou shalt not this, thou shalt not that. You mustn’t do idolatry or adultery and you mustn’t steal (I think that was No. 7). If you did any of these things then you could not go to Heaven. Instead you would burn in Purgatory and have to suffer very much indeed forever and ever; but even this fearsome prospect did not deter or frighten me from stealing paper and money, despite the great black sin blotches I knew were printed all over my wicked little soul, which would be a dead giveaway on the Day of Judgement.
We were not a religious family. I think we called ourselves Church of England, but as far as I remember the family only went to church to deliver me to Sunday school. Like my weekly dancing and elocution lessons, a convent education would, my parents believed, make me into a little lady.
The only time I ever remember Mummy being angry was when I was eating. I was a slow eater and had difficulty swallowing. It wasn't that I was fussy. I'd eat anything except angelica, with which Mummy decorated the trifle, but I could chew soup or ice cream for hours on end, churning it around and around in my mouth like cement swishing in a mixer, until Mummy screamed: “For God’s sake, swallow it!” But the harder I tried, the less I could swallow, so I chewed and swished faster and faster. One day when I was struggling with a mouthful of tomato soup, she picked up a knife and frightened me so much I ran upstairs and shut myself in the wardrobe where Mr Beeblesticks lived.
When I ventured out, Mummy was sitting sobbing on my bed, and I don’t know which of us was the more traumatised.
After that I ate my meals with our friends the Mason family who lived on the opposite side of the fence at the bottom of our garden. Daddy removed a plank from the fence so that I didn't have to go around by the road. The Masons had a little boy called Charles, who was quite happy for me to sit churning in their dining room while he watched and waited patiently for the final gulp that released us to play. He must have been quite a precocious little boy, because the game we played most was ‘r’ for rudies, which mainly consisted of watching each other urinate into a small bowl in his bedroom. I think I probably got more out of this than he did. The casual way he asked in front of his parents if I wanted to go and play “r” used to make me hot and crimson with embarrassment. I was certain that his mother and father were perfectly aware of our urinary adventures.
One morning, left to our own devices, Charles and I raided my house of anything small enough to lift, and set it all outside to sell. In those days there was almost no motor traffic about. Milk and coal were still delivered by horse-drawn carts, policemen patrolled on foot and people went to work by public transport, so we could safely spread out our wares across the street without worrying. Whose idea this had been or why, I’m not sure, but possibly we’d run out of urine. Nan arrived just in time to save Mummy’s twelve treasured Apostle spoons going off with a stranger for one penny.
c. Susie Kelly 2022
Not to be reproduced without permission
I Wish I Could Say I Was Sorry by Susie Kelly
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