His first memory was also of darkness and suffocation.
A small hand was clasped across his face. ‘Shush! Shush!’ He tried to look around, but could see nothing. Grace slowly removed her fingers, waiting to see if he would yell out again. No sound from him, but a loud knocking on the door had started up again. She turned him over and he lay back, looking at the bed springs above. They started moving towards him, slowly at first, then faster and faster and squeaking louder and louder, until he opened his mouth to scream again. Grace’s hand came down with far more force this time and he started to gag.
‘You stupid, little…’ she hissed.
This time he fought her hand away and rolled over onto his side. He was going to scream and kick, but was distracted by a sudden movement in the corner of the room. A mouse was running along the skirting, stopping now and then to sniff out food.
He was entranced. ‘Look, Gracie, look!’
Grace did at the same time as she clamped her hand over his mouth yet again. All this fuss over a mouse; they were everywhere. There wasn’t enough food for the children, so the mice had little chance. Gary settled back, but the dust was getting into his nose and throat and he wanted to cough so much, he was going red in the face. He clawed at her arm until Grace removed her hand and he spluttered.
The banging on the door became more insistent. ‘I know you’re in there, Mrs. Grigg! Come on out! It’s been five weeks since I’ve had any rent money and you’re not getting away with it any longer! You pay me today or you don’t have a place to pay for!’ The knocking moved from the door to the bedroom window and Grace, who had started to crawl out from under the bed dragging Gary with her, pushed him back with such force that he opened his mouth again to scream. Her hand descended automatically and the bite marks on it were still visible an hour later.
‘You little bleeders, you nearly gave the game away! You come ‘ere!’
The mouse disappeared quickly when he heard Sally Ann’s yell as they scrambled from under the bed, but not quite as quickly as the latest “Uncle” who had pulled on his trousers and was heading for the door before the Rent Man had reached the end of the path.
‘You, you stay ‘ere! Where’s me money?’
Grace dragged Gary along behind her, trying to avoid her mother’s slaps. ‘He couldn’t help it! He’s only little! As she got to the safety of the front door, she elbowed the fleeing “Uncle” aside and looked at her defiantly. ‘You’re lucky you weren’t caught!’
Sally Ann, hair all over the place, gathering her gown around her, was only too well aware of the truth of what her daughter had told her, but that didn’t make it any easier to accept. ‘I’ll have you, you bleeding little toe-rag! I’ll have your guts for garters!’
As she ran across the room towards them, Grace pushed him out through the doorway, leaving her mother yelling obscenities.
When they crept back later from the Tip, Sally Ann was oblivious to them or anything else. An empty, dark green bottle lay beside her slumped body on the settee and familiar fumes came from her mouth with each rattling snore.
They ignored her.
Having put Gary back in the cot, she went to forage for food and found stale bread in the bin. Grateful that there were no green bits to tear off, she brought a piece back for them both and they chewed in silence.
The night Gail was born he was only vaguely aware of the commotion. He lay in Grace’s arms feeling her warmth and a sense of security. Hours later, reality returned and Grace was holding someone else in her arms. ‘Shush! Shush!’ The intruder became quiet, whimpering only when Grace removed her finger from its mouth.
He certainly remembered the night when his life changed forever.
He had been wakened by piercing screams and sat bolt upright in the cot looking around for Grace. He had momentarily forgotten that since Gail was born she had gone to sleep on the settee. He looked through the railings, but the scene didn’t make any sense. His screaming mother was waving a dripping knife in the air and his father lay huddled up in a pool of blood whilst Uncle Alan was kicking him and shouting, ‘How could you? Your own daughter! You bleeding bastard!’
But where was Grace? He looked around and saw her unmoving body on the settee. Was she dead? Was his Gracie dead? He froze and then let out one almighty yell of anguish before collapsing into uncontrollable sobs.
If she was dead, then he might as well be.
Weeks later, reassured that she was very much alive, he put the evening’s events out of his mind. He never really understood what had happened and Grace never did enlighten him.