11 March 2024

You can’t tell me what I’m doing wrong… : 1976 : And Mother Makes Four, Camberley

 “Why are you choosing a university so far away?” aunt Sheila demanded of me. “You should commute from home to Guildford so you can help your mum.”

I was seething. It was the first time we had spoken in years and THIS was her ‘advice’ to me? How dare she! It was three years since my middle-aged father had walked out on our family to shack up with a runaway teenage bride. Following his departure, he had apparently visited Sheila and poisoned her mind against her younger sister, my mother, so that the pair exchanged not one word for decades thereafter. Just when my mother had needed sisterly support to survive a difficult breakup and resultant hardship, Sheila had frozen her out. But she still felt able to tell me how to run my life?

There had been a time, between 1967 and 1969, when I had walked round to Sheila’s home every afternoon after school. My parents had moved house, now too far away for me to simply catch a bus, so I would wait at Sheila’s between four and six o’clock until one of them arrived after work to pick me up. My lovely older cousin Keith would play me his Jimi Hendrix records on their living room stereogram until the arrival of his father from work at Solartron, a defence contractor in Farnborough. Suddenly, us children would be quickly ushered out into the garden (“Quick! I can hear his car,” Sheila would shout), or the kitchen if it was raining, because taciturn uncle Fred apparently required domestic solitude without the distraction of his three children (plus me). Even as a nine-year old, I viewed this household’s behaviour as bizarrely disciplinarian.

According to my mother, in the early 1950’s her father had forced a pregnant Sheila to marry Fred. That rift evidently never healed. Even by the 1970’s, when the couple and their children gathered with us at our grandparents on family occasions such as Christmas, Fred remained sat in his parked car on the street outside for hours, like a vampire uninvited to cross the threshold. A dozen of us relatives would be sat scoffing our dinner around my grandparents’ old wooden dining table, extended once a year by me pulling out its two extra leaves, while Fred was abandoned outside literally in the cold. It was a family feud that had started before I was born and which everybody since had politely ignored and refused to explain. Ours was a family at (passive aggressive) war.

How dare Sheila lecture me about my education choice! I had already been impacted by my parents having selfishly selected a secondary school at the opposite end of the county, saddling me for seven years with a horrendous commute that took at least two hours daily to journey home. I had been denied a voice in that decision and paid the price, marooned so far from my school that I had not one local friend. Now this was MY time to determine MY future. Besides, nobody in our family had gained a school certificate, let alone attended university. Sheila worked as a ‘dinner lady’ at my former primary school. Upon marriage, Sheila and Fred were offered a post-war semi-detached council house on the Old Dean Estate where they remained their entire lives. I wanted more for my future than that.

When Sheila told me I should stay home to ‘help’ my mother, she had no idea what that ‘help’ had entailed during recent years or the toll it had already taken on my teenage life. As the eldest of three children in a newly single-parent household, I had to be the first to rise every weekday morning and the last to go to bed, usually after midnight. On top of a lengthy school commute requiring bus and train connections, teachers gave two homework subjects to fulfil every weekday night. My mother held down a full-time day job and an evening office cleaning job, requiring me to babysit my two siblings after school, as well as undertake ‘parental’ duties such as teaching my baby sister to read and write, along with hours of play on our living room floor. I thoroughly enjoyed providing her with the attentions that my parents had failed to offer me as a child, but my homework had to remain untouched until she fell asleep. (Daytimes during term time, while my brother and I attended school, our retired maternal grandparents generously looked after my sister at their house.)

The other aspect of my ‘help’ was the task of managing my mother’s financial and legal problems. When household bills and reminders arrived by post, she refused to acknowledge them, preferring to stuff them unopened into a drawer. To her, out of sight literally meant out of mind. I had to organise all her paperwork into folders, challenge incorrect charges, negotiate overdue payments and stave off court appearances and bailiffs. I corresponded with the government’s Inland Revenue tax authority, claimed benefits to which I discovered low-income families were entitled and visited the Post Office fortnightly to cash the ’Family Allowance’ voucher book. The volume of correspondence meant I soon became adept at forging my mother’s signature on letters and forms I prepared.

At the same time, I had to tackle the fallout from my parents’ separation and subsequent divorce. Without consulting me, my mother stupidly had decided, for the division of the couple’s assets, to appoint a local solicitor who had previously been used by my father in his erstwhile property business. The outcome was predictably disastrous. The court awarded her significantly less than half the value of the family home the couple had built themselves brick-by-brick in the mid-1960’s, along with no interest in her husband’s self-employed business in which she had undertaken all the bookkeeping for decades. It rested with me to sit in libraries, searching through legal texts until I could prove her solicitor had failed to adequately represent my mother’s interest. I then made after-school appointments with a brace of legal practices nearby, meeting each puzzled solicitor in my bottle green blazer, until I found one who was prepared to initiate action against a fellow lawyer for breach of Law Society rules.

This was the ‘help’ I had been providing my mother the last three years. Although aunt Sheila had been invisible during that time, her eldest daughter Lynn had volunteered to be fairy godmother to me and my siblings, virtually living at our house, cooking meals and looking after us while our mother worked. I had recently been forced into my first ill-fitting suit to attend her church marriage to a salesman for ‘Smith’s Crisps’ (proud of his company car!). Having no children and no longer working, Lynn became the sensible adult sister our hard-up family had never had and made an immense difference by keeping us alive and together during those difficult times. Her invaluable contribution during our hours of need has never been forgotten.

Aunt Sheila had failed to understand that my reason for going away to university was to reduce the burden on my mother’s precarious finances. At the moment, her earnings were having to pay for my upkeep. My father had been ordered by the court to provide maintenance payments for his children but he was forever in massive arrears. Another of my jobs was to phone Farnham County Court once a month (which necessitated arriving late for school) to remind its clerk that my father’s payments were months’ behind and he needed to be threatened. It was a fruitless task. Worse, on my sixteenth birthday, my cruel father had petitioned the court to reduce my maintenance payments to £1 per annum on the grounds that I should take a job. The stupid court agreed, oblivious of my goal to obtain the education my parents had never had.

I had already made attempts to reduce the financial burden. The local council was now paying for my termly railway season ticket to travel to school (but not for the buses). My mother had always prepared sandwiches for me to take in a Tupperware box for my lunch. To cut this cost, I applied for free school lunches, something I had never eaten before. Eventually the school agreed, I entered the dining room for the first time but the staff forbade me to sit on the benches with my classmates. Instead, I was ordered to sit at a tiny table in the corner of the room with three other boys from lower years (out of a school of 300) who were similarly entitled to ‘free school meals.’ I argued that this policy was discriminatory against us ‘poor’ students. I was told where to go. That became my first and last school dinner. I had to return to taking sandwiches.

Attending university away from home meant that I would receive a ‘full grant’ from Surrey County Council that included my costs of accommodation and travel there and back each term. I realised how expensive living costs would be in London so I had to rule out applying to universities there. That left plenty of institutions across the rest of the country. There would be downsides to moving away. I knew I would miss my family terribly, particularly my little sister whom I had looked after from a baby to become a smart, lively four-year old. There had been a time earlier in her development when she had invented her own non-English words for everything and my presence had been required by our family to ‘translate’ what she meant. My mother had even taken her to the doctor, fearing a speech problem, but she eventually grew out of that habit.

Speaking to me the way she had, aunt Sheila appeared oblivious to our family issues. She was equally oblivious to the fact that universities had to choose YOU, not the other way around. To me, at that time she seemed to inhabit a safe suburban bubble. Whereas, since my father’s departure, our family was being tossed around by circumstance, never certain of what further calamity might arrive around the corner. I could not explain all this to Sheila. I was livid with what she had said but I just walked away. Despite me having had to assume domestic responsibilities beyond my teenage years, she had chosen to address me in such a condescending adult tone. Why did she seem in thrall to my dreadful father who was so eager to make life as difficult as possible for his former family? I never understood.

Once I had completed my first term at university, I bought a Kenwood food mixer for my mother for Christmas, to replace the broken one she had been gifted in the 1950’s and treasured. As a small child, she would offer me its ‘K’ shaped mixing element to lick off the excess cake mix. This was the most expensive present I had given her, having saved up through miserliness with my initial student grant. I was pleased to be contributing financially to our household for the first time, rather than being a financial burden. Now, at the end of each term, I would arrive at my mother’s home and have to spend the first few days answering all the bills, demands and legal threats she had ignored and hidden away during previous months. Somebody had to do it. Sometimes it felt as if my life might never be my own.

These days, on the rare occasion I hear the brilliant number thirteen pop chart hit ‘Captain of Your Ship’ by ‘Reparata & The Delrons’, I am transported back to 1968 when I would sing along with the kitchen radio tuned to ‘BBC Radio One’ in Sheila’s house after school. Good times never seemed so good.

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