Life: The first chapter

Suspended, I wait in the warmth. There were two before me, but I don’t know about them yet. I’m oblivious to all that chaos, that exhilarating danger that comes with being. I’m brand new, yet I already possess a world of hope and promise.

A stark contrast from the devastating arrivals that came first, mine is traumatic, but beautiful. She’s been through the agony of the ones that didn’t make it, so she doesn’t mind this pain. She knows it will finally be worth it.

It’s 42 years ago today that allied troops landed in Normandy, beginning the final chapter of that long and bloody war. The country is grey with recession; spoofs and puppets are in the charts. People don’t want to look at real life on their TV sets. The economy is so depressing, all they can do is laugh at outrageous parodies of their politicians.

I’m quiet when I enter that enormous world. I’m struggling to breathe, but they cut the cord from around my neck and although I’m pale, I emit a small cry to tell them I’m alive. I’ve already succeeded where the others didn’t. I’m skinny, limp and yellow-tinged, but I’m the most beautiful thing she has ever seen.

Although I don’t live inside her anymore, we are still connected, almost inseparably. We feel the heat of each other’s love, and elation. The sadness we share resides in my solar plexus, a dull ache that reminds me of her.

Growing into a happy, healthy toddler, I take it in my stride when my sister comes along three years later. The two of us are partners in crime; gaining confidence from each other with each year that passes. Our disagreements are intense and dramatic, but our laughs are full of heart.

My earliest memory is sitting on the seat of an old fashioned pram, my sister the baby beneath me, and the small hands of my seven year old brother and our neighbour’s children gripping the edges. Mum is walking them all to school. It’s a cold morning, I can see their breath in the air. My brother lets go to run to the red post box at the corner of the street with a letter.

The rest of that early time is a colourful blur. I say colourful, as it was the eighties and everything was neon, patterned and shiny synthetics. There were so many shell suits in our primary school, the PTA issued warning letters to parents the week before bonfire night. There had obviously been some devastating incident with those flammable fabrics.

Dad was a grafter. He worked hard and often. It can’t have been easy bringing up three small children on his tradesman’s wage. Mum did her best to supplement his small salary with odd jobs she could do at home; making sandwiches for the bread shop, ironing clothes for the wealthier parents at our school, packaging free gifts to attach to magazines that would inevitably end up in the bin.

She wanted to be around for us as she knew what it was like to come home from school to an empty house. Her mother was a bright, loving woman who was struck by mental illness. In those days there weren’t talking therapies or effective medications. When she had her breakdown, she was carted off to Broadmoor psychiatric hospital in an ambulance. It’s a sensitive subject, so the time period is fuzzy to me, but I know she returned once they had reanimated her with electricity. That brutal treatment would have been enough to convince anyone they didn’t need help anymore.

My grandparents ran a local corner shop when my mum was small. It occupied most of their time. Once her mother was packaged off to hospital, her father was left holding the fort. He didn’t have time for his children. He had shelves to stack, stock to purchase. It was a blessing really. He was a frightening man, and what little good humour he had was reserved for his customers. Tired at the end of his long days, he would chain smoke in his favourite arm chair and the children would stay out of his way.

He wasn’t aware when my mum stopped going to school. She was bullied so mercilessly that one day she decided not to bother taking herself there anymore. Without friends or a compassionate shoulder to lean on, she would pretend to leave for the day and return once he was busy at work. Scared of her peers and wary of him, she hid in the attic for the long hours until she could safely emerge in the afternoon when school finished.

The children at school ridiculed her because she was overweight. Despite the fact that she was a beautiful, creative, outgoing young woman, she felt like someone nobody could love. That’s probably why she forced herself to grow up so quickly. Getting wrapped up in how an older man made her feel, his worldliness and interest in her, she allowed him to take advantage of her and he broke her heart. She was vulnerable, but he taught her some lessons in life.

She moved out of her parents’ house as soon as she was sixteen and took a hospitality job that came with a tiny room. She partied hard. I suppose that made the days of cleaning up the filth left behind in hotel rooms by the holidaymakers and the secret lovers a bit more bearable. It’s not a surprise she couldn’t put up with it for very long.

Having been raised in an atheist household, my mum’s next rebellion was to become a born again Christian. She signed herself up to work with a missionary organisation that counselled men who had recently been discharged from the armed forces. At that time, the Falklands war was drawing in the impressionable youth, just like all the wars before it. History is so repetitive in that way, people are fooled by the promise of excitement and glory. And as with all the other wars, the Falklands spawned a generation of physically and emotionally damaged young men.

With the most honest intentions, my mum was far from equipped to work with the broken soldiers she met every day. Barely beyond adolescence herself, there was no way for her to handle their grief and their tales of horror. She wasn’t qualified to help them and she knew it. She knew her words of sympathy were futile, she could never understand their terrible losses. From a place of authentic compassion she tried to do what she could, but many ended up in prison, or turning to drink and drugs to dull their pain.

This was when my mum discovered music. I’m convinced that all the best musicians are people who have suffered. They’re people who can pour their purest emotions into producing something that comes from the heart. That’s the music that touches people; the raw, heart shattering sound of a life lived.

My grandmother was a classically trained soprano. Her clear, powerful vibrato was filled with a soulful mourning. Even as a child, her performances choked me with tears. Often the songs were in a language I couldn’t interpret, but that didn’t matter, I could feel what she felt. The words were surplus.

Teaching herself some guitar chords, my mum started writing songs. They began as soft, Christian folk, but it wasn’t long before she got disillusioned with religion. After that she started writing about real life, about love and loss. The themes of all great songs. As a child, I remember our home being filled with musicians. We had massive parties. Everyone brought instruments with them and they performed turns or just jammed together.

Music was integral to my little life. I started learning piano at four, and violin from 6. This was never enforced, I didn’t strive for any academic success with my music. I performed for friends and family, but never took any formal grades. It was important to my parents that I learned to love music, even if I was never any good at it. I can remember standing on wobbly legs in front of an encouraging crowd of my parents’ friends for my first violin performance when I was six or seven. I glowed with their praise, I felt like I’d played them the greatest thing they had ever heard.

I was so loved by this enormous extended family of musicians. I adored their love for me, relishing every opportunity to be wrapped up in their arms or fall asleep on their laps, feeling the vibrations in their bodies as they sang.

I went everywhere with my parents. They couldn’t afford babysitters, so if they were going out for the evening, my sister and I would go along in our pyjamas. We’d be left to snuggle in a pile of coats in a spare room until dad appeared to lift us into the car at home time. I remember being at one of my mum’s gigs, fast asleep in the velvet cushions of a double base case. I could hear my mum singing nearby, and the warm murmur of people having a good time and I felt so safe.

Up until the end of Primary school, I existed in this contented cocoon. I felt wrapped in the love of the wonderful, funny, talented adults in my life.


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