What Happened To Gail?

I think you will have deduced by now that the family as such has never been an entity, but I will give you a brief background.  I am the eldest of 16, but have never seen, nor do  I know the names of, the last eight.  The other seven have drifted in and out of my life over the years, some a few times, others slightly longer and the four stalwarts, my brother and two sisters, now permanently connected.  As to my son’s query as to how many cousins he has, I can only hazard a guess that it’s of a biblical proportion!

Gary’s cry in the book of ‘What happened to Gail?’ could very well have echoed my own as I never set eyes on that particular sister until I was 40 years old.  And that came about ironically by the best literary device of all times: an advertisement in the Personal Column of the local newspaper in 1985.

It was over two years later – years in which we had spent forming a very new, but close, relationship – that we ended up in my lounge on yet another lovely summer’s day discussing, amongst many other things, my brother’s revelations of a few weeks earlier.

‘It happened to me’, she remarked.

I was puzzled.  ‘What did?’

‘I was abused for years’.

Now, you have to understand that she was the only one of us who had had the fairy tale life.  The only one to be adopted.  The only one to be “chosen” from the Home.  The only one whisked away to be kept safe from the influence of, or tainted by, other family members.

‘Oh no, not another man who couldn’t keep his hands off little girls’, I said cynically.

‘Oh God, no, Dad was a real softy, wouldn’t harm a hair on my head.  No, it was my brother, he was seven years older than me and…..’

I held up my hand.  I had already switched off any sisterly reaction and was in writer’s mode.  I couldn’t afford to think of her feelings; this was material for the book.  Notepad on knee, pencil in hand and no doubt a drink to one side, I asked her to go back to the beginning.  The dark tale, on that sunny day, unfolded.

Thinking back over 30 years, I can still remember the hush in the room as she came to an end and, despite my objectivity, the overwhelming feeling was one of sadness, not only at what she had suffered, but the sheer inevitability of it all.

On varying scales and in startlingly different ways, all three of us had been badly let down by the care system.

GARY – Chapter One

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.

GARY – PART ONE

In some ways, Gary had a lucky beginning in life.

Grace, his fiercely loving sister, was also the “mother” he would never have.

Deprived, neglected and ignored he was fortunately innocently unaware of the troubles around him as a baby and always had her to protect him.

The day she left for the farm he was desolate and life became intolerable until one happy family came along and rescued him.

However, this happiness was just a fleeting moment, a short time when he could dream of great achievement and a successful life.

Being plunged back into reality, with all its deepest misery, forced him to forget those hopes and dreams and he despaired of ever being a worthwhile person.

Living with his parents again was to be his downfall.

‘Hold On To Your Horses’

The most poignant memory I have of THAT weekend with my brother was the way we remembered our pasts.  I slipped relatively easily – and safely – into the third person; in contrast, he reluctantly returned to the first.

My large, airy lounge was filled with warm sunshine, the hum of traffic and conversation from passers-by drifted through the open windows, we sat across from each other both clasping cold drinks – no doubt alcoholic, but I don’t recall exactly what – and we started to chat.

‘What’s it all about then, Sis?’

I considered.  ‘Let’s start at the very beginning….’ I said.

‘A very good place to start….’ he sang.

We both laughed and then we talked.

You already know how it all began for me; he didn’t, so the first hour was spent bringing him up to date.  Apart from replenishing drinks and muttering the odd expletive, he was quietly attentive.  When I finally ran out of words, he was silent.

As if on cue, a lone, busking sax player on the pavement opposite filled the room with the sound of “Summertime” and it broke the spell.  We smiled happily at each other.

‘Of course, I can’t do it without you’, I said, stating the obvious.  ‘If you don’t want to rake it all up, I’ll quite understand’.  A monstrous lie.  I held my breath.

‘All right, darling, if you can do it, I’m bloody sure I can.  You’re right, this story needs to be told.  But….’

Oh, God, I thought, what’s coming now?

….hold on to your horses’.

Funny, how I’ll never forget that phrase, such an innocuous one for the torrent of pain, hate, grief and bitterness that poured out over the next few hours interspersed with some occasional laughter, silent tears and a lot of hugging.

He thought I’d had it hard and, of course, I had.  But nothing could compare with his torment suffered at the hands of the two people who should have loved him most; our mother and father.

 

Grace – Chapter One

She sat in the corner of the cot and whimpered.
The room was so dark that she couldn’t even be frightened by dancing shadows; the stove had gone out. There were no street lamps so no light came through the un-curtained windows. She was alone in her mind although her six month old brother Gary lay wrapped in a grey army blanket at her feet. It was bitterly cold and she was only wearing a vest but, young as she was, she knew that he needed the covering more than she did. She desperately needed to go to the toilet but couldn’t climb out of the cot and even if she could, there would be a long, dark corridor to the outside.
Mummy, Mummy, shrieked inside her head.
Her brother stirred and moaned in his sleep. She tugged on a corner of the blanket for herself and chewed the edge of it. He was hungry; she was starving. At least he’d been fed in the past twelve hours.
Oh, Mummy, Mummy, where are you?
As if sensing her silent plea, her brother woke up and yelled.
‘Be quiet! Shut up!’ she screamed at him.
He was frightened by her loud voice and she was immediately upset at her outburst. She cuddled him in her arms and attempted to soothe him. ‘Don’t worry, everything will be all right. You’ll be all right. We’ll be all right. Mummy will be home soon. You’ll have some food. Don’t mind the dark. Everything will be all right’.
Grace said this mantra more for herself than Gary, but jogging him against her with the blanket wrapped round them both gave extra warmth and they drifted into sleep.

The light snapped on.
A bare bulb illuminated a large, shabby room furnished with an old fashioned cast iron stove and range, a sideboard rescued from a junk yard, a settee with the springs poking through the shabby chintz upholstery and a well-worn rug over cracked linoleum. An oversized cot stood in one corner.
‘Come in’, giggled a drunken, girlish voice. ‘Come in!’
‘What about…him?’ came a mutter.
‘Oh, you can forget him. He went inside yesterday for six months. Silly sod! Can you imagine getting done for a piece of cheese?’ She laughed hysterically.
‘It’s bleeding cold!’
‘You don’t think I can get money from this bleeding Council to buy bleeding coal, do you? I got something else to get you warm!’
Dragging him by the arm, she went to the opposite corner of the room and wrenched open the bedroom door. The small room was dominated by a huge brass bed covered with coats and
another army blanket, a wash stand with a jug and bowl on it and a small chest of drawers pushed against the wall. Washed and unwashed clothes were heaped in one pile in the corner.
‘Jesus!’ he said with chattering teeth. ‘How can you stand this?’ His feet were already freezing on the icy cold floor and that was with his shoes on; he certainly had no intention of taking off his socks.
She was pulling off her coat to expose an over-developed body squeezed into a dress at least one size too small and already showing wear and tear. At seventeen there were signs that she could have been a voluptuous beauty, but excess of drink and poor diet had already taken its toll. Her long, blonde curly hair, which Grace had inherited, was still her greatest asset and she definitely knew how to entice men in the only language they understood.
‘Don’t be bleeding stupid! Get into bed! If I can’t get you steaming inside five minutes, my name’s not Sally Ann Grigg!’
In a great hurry he took off his jacket and trousers, reluctantly unlaced his shoes, kicked them aside and jumped into bed still in his vest, underpants and the much needed socks. With chattering teeth, he wrapped himself around Sally Ann in her grubby petticoat and dragged the coats and blankets over their heads.
‘Well, come on then, you’ve been promising me all sorts of delights all night, when you going to deliver?’
In the corner of the cot, Grace stirred, heard noises, but didn’t fully awake. Gary slept on in her arms.
Now that he was warming up and the blood was racing through his body, he found that he was really in the mood. Groping her large breasts, he muttered, ‘Christ, you’re bloody fabulous!’ He overlooked the copious quantities of beer he’d consumed and ignored the rank smell of their clothes and bodies.
Delighted at the compliment, she squeezed his balls and shrieked, ‘Fantastic! Fantastic!’ Screaming, screeching and clawing their way through the next hour, they forgot the cold.
Grace didn’t. The noise had woken her now and she was halfway up in the cot as he came through the bedroom door muttering, ‘Got to go’, followed by Sally Ann draped in the blanket, yelling, ‘Who’s stopping you?’
He looked around at her. ‘How much did you say it was?’
She was amazed. ‘You bloody well know it’s a quid!’
He threw down a battered note which she seized. ‘Here! What the bleeding hell? This is only ten bob!’
‘Well, I bought the bleeding drinks all night, didn’t I?’
‘Sod the bleeding drinks! I said a quid and I want a quid!’
He was nearly at the door when the plastic ashtray daubed with “A Present from Weston-Super-Mare” hit him on the back of his head with her screaming accompanying the accurate throw. ‘You filthy bastard! You can’t do this to me!’
He rubbed the back of his head and half turned as he opened it. ‘I already done you Sal’, he said cheerily, ‘but I’ll recommend you to me mates when they can’t afford sommut special. Ta! Ta!’
Gary started to scream and Grace yelled, ‘Mummy, Mummy!’
‘Shut up, you stupid, little bitch’, her mother hissed. Could’ve had two bleeding tricks the time I wasted with him! What a sod!

They started crying and Sally Ann went to the cot to clout Grace, but instead wrenched her from it, bruising her legs against the rails and dragged her across the floor. Her anger at her “client”, her frustration at lack of money, her contempt for her husband and her bitter railing about the unfairness of society in general made her anger uncontrollable. With one hand in Grace’s hair and the other holding a leg she threw her through the open doorway into the three feet deep snowdrift and screamed into the night.
‘I hope you bleeding well die!’

‘I Think We Need To Talk’

I sat at the typewriter, closed my eyes and travelled back in time to Grace’s first memory. The temperature in the study, warmed against the January freeze, dropped ten degrees as I looked around her small world exactly forty-one years before. There was no more going back any more than there was getting out of that cot. Time vanished as her night moved on; life in the Village outside carried on noiselessly and the shouting in the hut grew louder. My fingers flew over the keys and then stopped abruptly as two doors slammed simultaneously; one real, one imagined.

LH’s return on that first day of writing set the pattern for the next few weeks as he read my raw outpourings with evident – and deeply gratifying – pleasure. His critical appraisal was always encouraging and, almost before I knew it, Grace had to be set aside so her brother Gary could take centre stage.

Therein, lay a problem.

My brother and I had drifted in and out of each other’s lives in fits and starts, which makes no sense at all grammatically, but sums up our relationship perfectly. We never kept in touch as such, but whenever the need arose we had a spurt of family get-togethers for a year or so and then drifted away until the next time. Now, I needed him, but where was he at the moment?

It took me nearly two days to find out. I’ll give you a reminder that this was 1988, I didn’t possess a computer – which I couldn’t use anyway – and smartphones had yet to be invented. I’m not even sure if mobiles had found their way off the drawing board! Eventually, I tracked him down and dropped the bombshell.

At this point I have to admit a slight oversight in my planning of the book; I hadn’t even told him I was writing one, let alone the subject matter. I began to have a few misgivings as to how he would receive the news that I was intending to expose his life, his feelings, his emotional complexities and sheer factual horror of his childhood existence to the world. I started to justify it in my mind and had all sorts of conversations in my head, so that by the time we actually spoke on the phone, everything came out in an incoherent babble.

‘I think we need to talk’.

That was one June weekend I didn’t forget in a long time.

Unresolved Issues

Starting at the beginning was not as easy as it sounds or as straightforward as it seems. According to the only Literary Agent (he was definitely a capital letter type) that I ever met – much more of that unbelievable visit later on in these ramblings – every first book is a cathartic exercise to unleash the demons in your past, conquer them and move on to write much more highbrow, worthy or lightweight best-selling “stuff”. That’s not to say that every best-seller is lightweight, just that I rather gathered he didn’t think my skills – based on what was before him on his desk at that moment – lay in the worthy or highbrow division of the book lists.

Unleashed demons apparently can also transfer into confronting “Unresolved Issues”, a phrase that has always seemed nebulous to me as I was unaware that I had any to confront. And I certainly hadn’t been aware of doing any of that other great favourite indulgence, “Repression”. So, without the drama of these two great staples, what was left to tell other than a straightforward childhood story?

Ah, but I didn’t reckon with LH (late husband)’s reaction. ‘For someone who likes to think they’re pretty intelligent, you can be incredibly stupid!’ As you can imagine, this was not exactly how I had envisaged setting out on my “journey” to write my literary masterpiece and took great affront until he made himself a little clearer. ‘You should count yourself fortunate that you were given opportunities to overcome the past and were able to deal with it in a rational way. Can you honestly say that it never affected your viewpoint, relationships or attitude to life at every crossroad you reached?’

Do you know, I didn’t think it had. To his shaking head I told him so and got on with the writing.

Until the weekend of my brother’s visit when he told me his side of the story. Then it became a whole different ballgame.

Prologue

Her earliest memory was of being buried alive because Grace was eighteen months old when her mother first tried to kill her.

The winter of 1947 brought the worst snow, ice and bitterly cold winds that had been seen and felt in Bristol that century.  Of course, people didn’t believe that she could remember that far back, but she pieced it together over time and realised that her overwhelming fear of the dark and cold came from her mother’s scream, ‘I hope you bleeding well die!’ as she threw her into the snowdrift outside the door of the Nissen hut.

In contrast the second attempt by heat was a very different experience as she had her hands pressed against a burning stove; this time she hardly registered it as pain because she was happy.  It was her fourth birthday and she had been given a very large teddy bear.

Ironically, the third time she was seriously assaulted it was her mother who came to save her.

In different circumstances and years later, if her younger brother Gary had not stabbed his father, he, too, might have been a victim of their mother’s rage.

Her little sister Gail was believed to be the fortunate one.

Surviving Childhood – The Start

It was one of the leaving presents from my boss and very poignant. An IBM electric typewriter. State of the art, gentle touch and a joy to behold when I received it in the early 1980s. By the time I left, it – and I – had been superseded by the relentless marching of time when those irritating upstarts of large monitors and keyboards with attitude came into my life. Newer, younger and more exciting models ruled the workplace.

In the farewell lunch in the Social Club, the platitudes had been exchanged in the speeches and I was fortunate to receive some wonderful gifts from ex-colleagues amongst which was another typewriter. An electronic typewriter. One with a moving screen. The horrors! I had asked for this gift without realising the stupidity of my self-confidence in mastering it and was transported home with an eagerness to start work on the masterpiece.

I will draw a veil over the next two weeks; the battle between me and IT is still too raw to recognise even after all these years. But…the day my precious IBM arrived, carried from my old work station in an executive office suite to the re-organised old kitchen which was now my transformed “study”, was like welcoming back a long-lost friend.

Now what? I had left my job to start writing. My mind was as blank as the sheet of paper.
“Why don’t you start at the beginning?” my husband gently suggested.

So, I did.

Errol’s “Colourful” View

COPYRIGHT – CHARLES HENRY

May, 2017