Thursday, 8 July 2010

Low Rent

My mother was always in and out of mental hospitals. She’d had a hard life. Both her parents died in the war – he was under a truck when a bullet hit the petrol tank; I don’t know what happened to her. Mum was sent off to live with her notorious alcoholic uncle. It was a bit like Cinderella. He did bugger all but drink all day and beat the kids, and she had to drop out of school to look after him, and her cousins. Before she knew what had hit her she was either working her fingers to the bone in the munitions factory or boiling ham and cabbage for ten. She didn’t have much of a social life.

That set the tone, really. She sought escape in her first marriage, a bloke called Geoff who worked for the BBC and was into Cub Scouting on a Saturday. Except it soon became apparent that he was far more into camping, young boys and dib dib dibbing than she’d at first chosen to suspect, and that she was stuck in a loveless marriage. This was an irony, because my mother wasn’t an ambitious woman, in the normal sense. All she ever wanted was to be a housewife in a loving marriage, preferably with a man who liked regular sexual intercourse, which is the complete opposite of what actually happened to her.

He gave her three children, and humdrum weekends with which to catch up on the ironing, while he went off in his VW camper showing other people’s kids how to sew, salute flags, and wear long socks with lace-up shoes.

That was when my dad showed up. He showed up because he needed somewhere to live. He had no ambition either; he was an elephant keeper at the zoo. He did like rock and roll though, and being a bachelor boy, in the happy go-lucky way of the Cliff Richard “pop” record that nobody remembers or likes. 

He’d responded to an advertisement that Mum had placed in the local gazette:

Room to Let

in comfortable house. Low rent.

Suit single professional male.

Must like children.

My father obviously didn't think it through. For a start, he didn't like children: he liked elephants. And even if he had, he probably wasn’t planning on having any himself. Secondly, no bachelor is going to find a house full of children comfortable, low rent or not. He failed to perceive the sinister undertones that ran between the lines. It would be several years before “Tales of the Unexpected” was televised in England, and he didn’t consider that he might be walking in to a situation from which he wouldn’t be able to free himself for the next eight years, which was, in fact, what happened. He just wanted to put his brush down and have a spot of tea.

Almost exactly nine months later, I was born, closely followed by my youngest brother.

You’d think, wouldn’t you, that the marriage of a woman who wanted nothing more than to be a housewife to a man who wanted nothing more than to be left alone would be doomed from the very start, and you’d be right.

When my dad couldn’t cope any longer, he left, and became a lodger somewhere else. His landlord was a large bald man with a beard called Gustav, who used to crouch in a corner of the kitchen in the dark and attack my father in the evening when he returned from work. Meanwhile, my mother got a job in a bakery and started flirting with alcoholism and the Anglican Church, with the added bonus of an extra two children to bring up on her own.

It wasn’t long before potential husband number three turned up. Kurt Gruttox, his name was, and he was a captain in the British army. He’d just killed his fourth wife, and he also had five kids, so they had plenty in common.

Kurt had pretentions to culture. He used to scan the free ads and come back with all sorts of awful crap. One day I got home from school to see a new bookcase filled with exotically bound hard-backed books. He can’t be all bad, I thought, until on closer inspection I discovered that they weren’t books at all, just the spines of books stuck on cardboard boxes. It was the same with the chairs, which he bought because the seller had advertised them as Parker-Knoll. “They’ll be fine when I get some spray-on leather and cover up the worn bits,” he said.

Even then, I wanted to see him crash and burn.

One of Kurt’s pretentions was Bridge. He bullied my mother into learning to play – he considered it a useful tool for social climbing – and started buying the Mail on Sunday. He also persuaded her that it would look good if she attended church every Sunday, and took my brother and I with her. They became very friendly with a couple who lived a few doors down, Henry and Margot, and every now and again they’d all go off on Bridge nights together.

They were an odd pair, Henry and Margot. He was a solicitor in his late fifties who had a permanently dazed look about him, was fond of the scotch and did an entertaining impression of Les Dawson on the piano. She was twenty years or so his junior, with a liking for short skirts and outlandish wigs. They had a son, Little Mickey. Mickey (or Little, as he was sometimes known) was a horrible child. Very milky. Pasty and pale and freckly and awful. He was a lot like the Milky Bar Kid, only milkier. He was also a bastard. Not infrequently we’d return home from church to find Margot in the kitchen having coffee with Kurt, while Little Mickey played on Kurt’s new computer, a Sinclair ZX Spectrum.

Sooner or later the Captain’s parents began turning up on holiday from Southport. He was a white-haired friendly sort of a fat chap; she was a dried up old bag who looked and acted like she’d been sucking on lemons. She expected us to call them “Nana and Granddad”, which I found embarrassingly working class.

Well, it wasn’t long before Granddad started volunteering to babysit for my brother and I, forcing his pink tongue into our mouths when he kissed us after a story, and creeping upstairs when we were alone in our respective rooms to “have a good feel”. I found these kind of shenanigans distasteful, but there was a part of me that sympathised with the old boy; I mean, he wasn’t getting any from the shrivelled up old harridan that he’d married, and probably hadn’t for the last thirty years; and even then it was probably fully clothed in the dark while she recited verses from the Bible and slapped him if he seemed to be enjoying himself or acting too much like a Catholic.

So we bore it stoically, my brother and me, and said nothing to our mother. Possibly it would have destroyed her, and possibly she wouldn’t have been able to bring herself to believe us anyway; she wanted to be married again so badly.

Finally the Captain got posted to Germany, and his calls to my mother became less and less frequent. We didn’t seem to see so much of Margot anymore either, although in the aftermath of Kurt’s last phone call to mother we felt obliged to go and fetch her. Mum was in an awful state; she was nearly hysterical. I’d sat at the top of the stairs all evening listening, as she’d variously sobbed and begged and pleaded with him to give her one last chance. It was pitiful. And all the time I was praying to God: “Don’t let him give her another chance, don’t let him give her another chance.” I just wanted to see the back of him and his Audi and his fake books and his child-molesting parents.

Margot finally landed in her red wig, and spent twenty minutes rolling her eyes, looking at the clock and saying not much at all to mum, who was a quivering wreck. She was no help whatsoever. In the morning her husband Henry awoke to a note saying she’d taken Little Mickey, and gone, to Germany.

Shockingly, Margot died of cancer within the year, leaving Kurt to bring up Little Mickey on his own. But Mickey always did look like a member of the Hitler Youth, so it probably all turned out for the best.

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