I woke to a spreading pool of damp and a still warm body lying next to me. Her expelled urine connecting us like an umbilical cord, my mother died six days after my twelfth birthday; she was fifty-two years old. She’d been ill, so we had moved back to live with my brother Bob and sister-in-law from the boarding house she managed. Now she was dead; I became a problem.
“I can’t take her.” Dad was the first to say it, “I’m not set up to look after a child,” at sixty-one I think the thought terrified him. Older siblings, in-laws, Dad, and family friends were all crowded around the dining table.
“Well, I can’t do it,” those words passed around the table like the baton in a relay race. I felt like the booby prize nobody wanted.
My brother Bob got me by default. His agreeing to let me stay allowed me to breathe properly, for the first time since I’d woken to that damp bed. I’d have a home I was familiar with, I’d be able to see my other brothers and sisters, keep my dog, not everything needed to change. I didn’t realise he did it for the money Dad paid him.
Bob was eleven years older than me, married, and a father of two. In the company of adults or young women, or those who might be useful he was charming and courteous. His good looks were an asset he used. My twelve-year-old heart just wanted a big brother’s love.
A few days later Bob and wife Roslyn sat me down and explained that my birthday presents from Mum had to be returned. The camera and the stereo had been bought on time payment: now Mum was gone there was no way to pay for them. The next day when I got home from school the gifts were gone; I found out later, when I noticed the neighbour’s stereo looked familiar, that he’d sold them.
My life adjusted to its new routine. Afternoons after school, were for minding the two little ones, until one of their parents arrived home from work or the pub. The days they went to the pub meant cooking dinner. Having recently mastered burning toast made that an interesting period; fortunately no kids were harmed in the process. Looking after Karen and Robbie, made me feel less of an uninvited intruder. Robbie hadn’t reached his first birthday, and Karen was a round and podgy walking doll.
Keeping an eye on those two meant there was little time for myself. For the first time in my life, I was late getting homework in. My teachers probably assumed it was because Mum had died. Their overlooking of my lapses at school, the subtle glances that reined in the other kids comments, made me cringe. I started sitting at the back of the room, hiding out in the library or the girls’ toilet until the bell went. Being invisible meant I avoided attention.
At home I was getting all the attention I could endure. Home, I’d lived in many different homes; it was difficult to separate them. Mum moved houses like others changed clothes. This home however, was like walking across a booby-trapped floor where there were no safe sections.
Like any child I had dislikes, but could be persuaded to eat almost anything providing I could mix it up with other tastier bits. One night, fork in mid-air, I was stopped. New rule, I had to eat each ingredient on the plate separately, and until the plate was clean my backside would continue to polish the seat it occupied. My twelve-year-old logic said this was a stupid rule, another one to add to the list of stupid rules my brother had begun to invent. Some of the rules seemed to cancel out others, which made keeping out of trouble like dodging highway traffic. Eventually you got hit.
I never got to bed that night. I’ve wondered if it was coincidence that Bob choose the night I had pumpkin on my plate, I didn’t think so then, I don’t think so now. In the subsequent months dinner time became a challenge, but it was the only protest I had; I never yielded.
Ultimately it was weariness that made me break so many of the other rules Bob invented, and his forgetfulness in telling me about them. About six months later he decided that I needed a firm hand. The first time he hit me, I vomited. No-one had hit me before. Each time it happened, it got harder to know what would trigger it. To save his hands he began to use the jug cord, I remember it was white with blue coiled stripes. He aimed for my legs, continuing to hit until I cried, or my legs gave way. It was always the latter. I started wearing stockings to school.
Roslyn, my sister-in-law, preferred the hair-brush, one of those flat, oval, wooden types. Taking pointers from my brother, the main target area was my legs. She’d stop when they buckled.
I was in need of affection, any affection. At first I’d still had Tiny, my small bundle of a dog. I came home from school one day to find her gone, Bob saying she’d run away. I put notices in the local shops, at school, anywhere I could. I rang the pound, but I never saw her again. My brother drove trucks sometimes, years later I found out he’d taken her on a long-haul trip and dumped her on the road. He may not have known, but he finally got what he wanted, my tears.
Sometimes at night when Roslyn was in bed, Bob and I would sit on the same lounge watching TV. Desperation for affection can put you in risky situations. I learnt that one night, when an outwardly innocent cuddle and feeling cared for with my big brother, ended with his erect penis reaching out from his jeans.
“Kiss it, go on, kiss it.” His hand was pressuring my head downwards. I squirmed away, and shut myself in my room. I curled up into a chair and shook for most of that night. I went to live with Dad soon after, I had become uncontrollable he was told. I never told him the things that had happened in that home.
It took time, but that home no longer inhabits more of me than it should. It’s become just one part of the whole of me. The year I turned forty I rang Bob. I asked him, why? He didn’t apologise, in fact he said it never happened. It will be our last conversation.