Monday, 11 November 2013

(.... till I end my song)

                                       AND MYSELF – PART I

            Up until the age of four I was very happy.  My mother told me that I was a happy, gurgling baby.  She used to be stopped in the street by passers-by who wanted to praise her ‘beautiful’ baby.  We were very close, we were bonded together, just the two of us.  I knew nothing else, I did not need anything else, nor did I want anything else.  We were complete.

         My mother made me beautiful little smocked dresses, with puffed sleeves;  she made me a winter coat and a bonnet edged with fur.  She was a comforting, warm presence in my life.  I used to tell her how much I loved her:  deeper than the sea, higher than the sky, wider than the universe. I would stretch my arms up high and wide to illustrate.

         We lived first in Nice for about three years, then we moved to l’Abbaye, a convent/pension by the sea in northern Brittany.  My mother told me how I used to have long conversations with a beautiful Being, dressed in beautiful clothes.  He kept telling me that ‘everything would be all right in the end’ and I would repeat this to my mother.  Again, we had a very pleasant life.  I had plenty of small friends to play with;  my mother made her own friends, kept busy with her sewing and reading and social life  We were relaxed and happy.

         All this changed when I was four and my mother lost all her money in the Depression.  My mother now had to earn her living and I was left with the nuns at the Abbaye where we were staying. They promised my mother that they would look after me.  I do not know what explanations were given to me, or how I responded and I have absolutely no memories of that time or of any distress.  I began to live my life with the nuns.

         I remember the sister who looked after me, Sister Yvonne.  She was quite young, apple cheeked and cheerful.  She did all the cooking at the Abbaye and I would spend hours in the kitchen, watching her roasting meat, making puddings, white meringues in custard (floating island), serving up ice cream  in small, shell shaped glass dishes.

         I remember Sister Marie who helped Joseph in the garden.  She was tiny, with graying ginger hair and a striped apron tied round her black skirt.  She was always smiling and kind.

         Sister Marguerite I was afraid of.  She was ugly, with a sallow complexion and a large mole on her chin, with black hairs sticking out of it.  She was the one who bathed me in my combinations in the tin bath once a week.  She would bend over me and I would gaze, captive and fascinated, at her mole.

         Mademoiselle Abilly, the Mother Superior, was another formidable figure.  Very upright and stately in her long black skirts, she always looked quite severe.  I was in awe of her.  On one occasion my mother had sent me a parcel and I had to go and see her.  She removed a beautiful dress in royal blue cotton and told me that I would not be able to wear it, as it had a divided skirt, and little girls should not wear trousers.  I saw it disappear again inside its wrappings, with a feeling of helplessness and dismay.

         The other thing that disappeared was my beautiful, china doll with blue eyes that opened and shut;  she had long, black lashes.  I searched for it everywhere, but the nuns remained mute.  I believe they removed it because it had no clothes.

         I have no memory of any unkindness on the part of the nuns.  I know Sister Yvonne was devoted to me.  It was a strange life for a small child.  I remember pacing around the garden with the nuns, telling my beads.  I had been given a beautiful, small rosary of my own.  I do know that I picked up some very strange ideas about the body.

         There were no other children to interact with and I became very withdrawn and reliant upon myself.  Perhaps I was still having conversations with the beautiful Being. 

When I was five I started going to the village school.  We were given pleated overalls made from black serge.  I had to walk up the hill past the CurĂ©’s house to the school, a two roomed building with a playground opposite the church.  My main memory is of being rapped on the knuckles by the teacher who was trying to teach me to write with my right hand.  I am still left handed in everything else.  Nothing was known in those days of the damage this can do to the child.

So when my mother took me away from the convent at the age of seven, I was a very different little girl to the one she had left behind.  I was withdrawn, very suspicious, passive, showing little emotion and very, very shy.  I spent all my time reading.  I think I had become pathologically shy and very afraid of people in general.

How did my mother cope with this strange, new child.  She was always telling people how nervous I was, and this stayed with me as I grew up.  My mother and I were alone in the world.  My mother still had one friend, the ever faithful Walter Tuck.  How much did she confide in him, I wonder?  On my eighth birthday he gave me a copy of The Water Babies, which I read through and through, even the most difficult words. I believe he tried to make friends with me, but I remained aloof.

My mother’s situation was very different now.  She was working hard and was very often tired.  She must have been worried about the future, about money, about my education.  She had always been slightly deaf, due to her contracting measles as an adult, and this was now getting worse.

We were now living in Jersey and my mother was working as a cook housekeeper for a large family with three growing boys, of whom I was terrified.  My mother was no longer the easy relaxed woman she had been, and I was no longer the trusting, confiding child. Nonetheless, I clung to my mother throughout my childhood.  Even though our relationship had so changed, she was still my bulwark against the world.  I was like a small animal, staying close to her and burrowing into her side.

I can only pay homage to my mother, to her strength of character, to the love she gave me, in spite of everything.  As I grew older, our relationship inevitably changed and we grew still further apart.

(to be continued)