THE GODFREYS & THE BOUCHER'S
When I was about six months old, we moved out of Leeds Abbey into Park Barn Farm, a redundant farmhouse on the Leeds Castle estate. My mother took on a daily help in the form of the redoubtable Mrs Thorneycroft, the wife of one of the farm labourers. She and her family lived in a little cottage a couple of hundred yards from Park Barn. I called her “Norny”, and she became my de facto nanny. She bathed me, prepared my food and put me to bed. In the meantime, at roughly two year intervals, my sisters Sally and Susan popped onto the scene. The strain on my mother became unbearable.
As I grew up, relations went from bad to worse between my grandfather and his brave, but naïve, son-in-law. As if to mirror this deteriorating relationship, my life went steadily downhill as the list of my transgressions grew in length. And I was very naughty – of that there can be no doubt.
Monica told me that I was aggressive towards other children. At various times during my pre-boarding school days, I bit a little girl on the knee which left her with “a permanent scar”. I hit the policeman’s son over the head with a lump of wood whilst the family were watching my father play cricket. I nearly drowned a boy of my own age in a paddling pool by holding his head under water. I could never stop touching things; - in shops, the farm machinery – the drinks cabinet – in the car – in church – at the table. I had an insatiable curiosity coupled with an unstoppable urge to investigate all things.
For a brief period as a toddler, I had my legs bandaged together like a mermaid during the night. For years afterward I had assumed that this was due to some medical condition. My mother had always maintained that it was done on “doctor’s orders”. However, when I questioned her about this not long before her death in 1999, she admitted that although it was indeed done at the suggestion of the family doctor, it was in fact restraint; to stop me from getting out of bed and into mischief during the night.
My relationship with my mother had never been very good from the day I was born and it got progressively worse over time. She had what in modern parlance we now call, an “anger management” problem - a problem which caused her to be violent, capricious and emotionally unreliable. She was completely unable to control a vicious temper or cope with three small children. To make matters worse, my father was never around when we all needed him. I believe he was always faithful to my mother, and I am sure he loved her, but he nevertheless neglected her. He much preferred the company of men such that he spent as much time as possible with either the farm workers (his platoon) or with his wartime mates at the golf club.
My response to my mother’s unpredictable behaviour was to become ever more clingy, needy and demanding. My mother was not the monster I paint her to be all of the time; - just some of it. She could flip like mountain weather; – a dark menacing tempest would descend upon the benign beauty of sunlit uplands, unlooked for and unprovoked. Without warning she changed from being an affectionate, generous and loving “Mummy” to a violent and lethal harpy.
Our relationship was preserved with a daily and obsessively observed ritual. Whenever she left the house to go shopping of to see my grandmother, she would give me a “kiss anda love” before leaving me behind with Norny. One day, for some reason our customary rite failed to take place. I remember seeing the back of her car disappearing down the drive. It is a measure of my insecurity as to what I did next. I ran after the car like a mad thing. Norny had to run after me and drag me back home. I refused her best efforts to console me; in fact I behaved badly for the rest of the morning. When my mother returned, I was expecting a hiding. But not this time. She understood perfectly what had happened and promised me a treat to make up.
My memories of childhood are patchy and for the most part pretty joyless. The most vivid recollections tend to be painful and traumatic. I am still haunted by the awful screams of Dandy, the dog I so loved, being savagely beaten one night by my father in the wood-shed; – by the sound of my own desperate panic begging for my mother’s mercy in the face of a hiding which seemed to never end; – by the disturbing and incomprehensible sound of frantic sex emanating from my parents bedroom; - the silent drowning of infant kittens so hurriedly stuffed into a pillow case and plunged into the water-but outside the kitchen window. And not least, by the desperate efforts of a condemned wood louse trying to escape from the log it had made its home and which my grandfather had now thrown on to the living room fire. Its last frantic attempts to avoid the agony of its impending immolation still bring me out in a cold sweat when I think about it.
It is only in the act of writing this account of my life that I have been able to completely forgive my mother the crimes she committed against me. And this is the tragic truth: - My mother was by nature kind and motherly: with all the instincts to nourish, nurture and protect. She was generous and lavish with her love for all living things in need. And though there is much I still live with; I do not want to say much more about her conduct.
And yet, there are joyful memories. There were islands of happiness. Christmas time and birthdays were always magical times. As were the endless hours spent “trespassing” in the grounds of Leeds Castle or the ruins of the Abbey Church; – The expeditions with my sister, Sally, through the never-ending bluebell woods at the end of our lane. Then there were the frequent visits from my Gran, my father’s mother, and the rides we would go for in her Austin Seven.
In summer, the idyllic post-war countryside was heavenly; filled with the smell of newly mown grass, the taste of blackberries, and the prospect of fresh rabbit for supper. As a small boy, my surroundings were a paradise full of forbidden attractions. The farm machinery was always a magnet as was the fearsome well at the back of the garden: - dangerous interests for an inquisitive wild child and his two younger sisters.
It helps to understand my mother’s scary behaviour when you discover that she had recently lost her brother, Bobby, in the war. He was her dearest friend and he was killed in action at Normandy. His body was never recovered. She had little or no support from her parents, who were each separately wrapped up in their own lonely grief to pay much attention to her. She was just left to get on with it. This was a tragedy made more so by the selfishness of others: For I learned many years later that it was my grandmother, Ethel, who was the root cause of the family’s emotional dysfunction. On Bobby’s death, she took to her bed for several months, cutting herself off completely from her family. It is perhaps indicative that it was at this time that my grandfather sought the warmth and affection of another.
Born in India, my grandmother andher sister had been brought up in the strict Christian straight-laced prudery of high Victorian respectability. An environment where even the legs of the furniture were considered rude if not covered! The idea that sex could or should be an enjoyable experience was a beastly notion and could only be understood biblically; either in the context of Sodom and Gomorrah or in association with the various harlots of the Old Testament. To her, sex was a necessary duty of being married and producing offspring. Yet she was kind, immensely generous and forgiving; if a little judgemental. Remarkably, she was an avid fan of professional wrestling. There was something telling about the way she adored seeing these gross near-naked men throwing themselves around or sitting on top of one another.
My grandmother may have been fucked-up about sex, but she was a true Christian in the sense that she did her best to live by the standards she believed in. I never really understood why my father disliked her so much. But then, perhaps like me, he was a misogynist?
For someone who usually enjoyed talking about her various illnesses and medical conditions, this pleasure was now in her last long illness to be denied her. In a cruel turn of events, she got ill in the one place she couldn’t talk about. She died of cancer of the vagina in 1987. Sadly I rather neglected my poor grandmother in her last years of life – a fact I deeply regret.