…As I made my way back to London that evening I started to think about what had followed the birth of my parents’ first child, a boy, Anthony John. Mum worshipped him from the day he was born, and was apparently delighted when Shirley Ann arrived two years later. But more children followed in quick succession, and she found it increasingly hard to cope.
Mum was a mass of contradictions. She could be cruel and compassionate by turns, but she loved her babies with a passion. Shirley remembers her nursing me devotedly throughout my first winter. I had a weak chest, from being born to a mother with pneumonia. I was also born with bandy legs, and was prescribed splints, to be worn at night, to straighten them. Mum could not bear my distress at the discomfort, and soon stopped using them.
Yet, she found it easy to leave the children in her frenzy of socialising, and was happy for her two eldest children to assume a dangerous level of responsibility. As soon as Tony and Shirley were old enough to wash and dress themselves, they had helped with their younger brothers and sisters. The family had moved twice by this time, and was living at 322 Luton Road. For Shirley, in particular, life was hard. By the time she was ten there were four children younger than her, and most of her time was spent looking after them.
Shirley remembered one incident as particularly painful. She was ten and it was a school day. She stood at the kitchen sink, gazing out of the window, across the back garden. Her fingers played with the suds in the washing up water. On the left side of the garden she could see the thriving vegetable patch: beans, cabbages, carrots, potatoes. Dad won prizes at the local produce show, held annually at Evelyn Road School, round the corner. To his fury, Mum refused to cook these vegetables as he used chicken manure to help their growth. When Dad tried to explain about the wider use of manure in farming, Mum looked at him with contempt. ‘You think I was born yesterday. Of course they don’t use animal droppings, so don’t talk such disgusting filth. ‘
Dad picked his beautiful crop; Mum gave it away directly he was out of sight, then bought inferior vegetables from the corner shop.
The right side of the garden was the domain of the chickens, and Shirley could see them strutting and busy.
At the bottom of the garden was Back Field, a strip of grass, rich with clover, from which the children sucked the sweetness, pretending it was sugar. Cheerful with scabious and dog daisies, proud with buttercups, the field skirted the row of houses between Belle Vue Garage and the Halfway House Hotel. The children in the houses gathered there to play. And the other side of Back Field was the playground of Evelyn Road School. The shouts and laughter of the children in the dinner- time break enticed her, but Shirley knew that there was no hope of joining them.
‘Shirley,’ Mum’s voice broke into her thoughts. ‘Have you finished the washing-up?’
‘Nearly, Mum.’ Hastily Shirley emptied the dirty water down the sink, and grabbed the tea towel to begin drying the dishes.
‘Then bring me a cup of tea, and don’t forget to rinse the cup with boiling water.’
A loud knock at the front door interrupted proceedings. ‘Shirley, see who that is.’
Obediently Shirley dried her hands and opened the door to find an officious looking man, complete with brief-case, on the step.
‘Mum, it’s a gentleman.’ She raised her voice so her mother could hear in the living room.
‘I don’t want to buy anything. Say ‘‘No thank you,’’ and close the door.’
The man looked irritated and shuffled his feet. He cleared his throat and called down the hall, ‘Mrs. Darby, I have just come from a meeting with Miss Greenwood, at Evelyn Road School. I wish to discuss your daughter’s attendance.’
A moment’s silence, then, ‘Shirley, invite the gentleman in, and then make him a nice cup of tea. Don’t forget the saucer.’ As the man entered the living room Mum gave a tinkling laugh. ‘You know what children are like, I’m sure. They do lack social graces. Now, how can I help you? Shirley, close the door after you. The gentleman and I need to discuss matters that are no business of children.’
Shirley knew what ‘don’t forget the saucer meant’ and so ran next door to borrow two matching cups and saucers from Mrs. Coombes. Back in the kitchen, Shirley skipped and jumped. She realised that the visitor was
the truancy officer, and that it meant that she would be going back to school. It was nearly a month since she had last run round the corner to join her friends at Evelyn Road. It had begun with Mum being unwell and staying home from work for a few days. Shirley’s heart had sunk as she knew what would happen. It always did. She was kept at home to look after her mother while the other children went to school and nursery as usual. This time, when Mum returned to work, Jill caught a heavy cold, and so Shirley had to continue staying at home to look after her. Then, as Jill recovered, Shirley herself was crippled with pains in her back, and cried as she dragged herself out of bed in the morning.
‘It’s your kidneys,’ said Mum, not without sympathy, ‘You take after me.’
‘Growing pains,’ said Dad, ‘Work it off.’
As Mum hurried out of the door to work, she said, ‘If you’re not going to school, you can take Jill and Judy to nursery. That will save Tony a job. If you still feel ill after that, you can go back to bed.’
Coming back down the hill from the nursery the pain became stronger; Shirley gasped and bent double. A kindly neighbour stopped to ask if she was all right. ‘It’s growing pains,’ explained Shirley, ‘I’m going to work it off,’ and she struggled through the garden gate on her way to bed.
The attack passed after a few days, but Mum said it would be a good idea if she took longer off school. After all, it had been a nasty bout and she could stay in the warm and get some housework done.
‘Please let me go to school,’ said Shirley, ‘I don’t want to stay at home.’
There was no discussion. Shirley stayed off school, and was still running the home when Mum had another of her bad heads and vomiting. Although Mum could probably look after herself at these times, Shirley knew there was the extra complication of Mum fearing her own company, something never voiced.
The truancy officer’s visit coincided with the last day of Mum’s illness. She was due to return to work the next day, but no one had mentioned Shirley being allowed to go back to school.
So, for Shirley, the visit was a miracle. The man would tell Mum she was wrong, and that Shirley must go back to her lessons.
Nudging the door open with her foot, Shirley entered the living room, carefully balancing the cups of tea. To her surprise, Mum and the man were laughing and talking like old friends.
The man turned to Shirley. ‘So you’re Mummy’s helper. I hear what a good girl you are to help your mother with the little ones. It’s so difficult for Mummy never being able to go out with her poor health. How old are you?’ He consulted his file and gave Mum a reassuring smile. Shirley watched anxiously. ‘Ten years old, and quite the mother. Mummy is so proud of you, doing all the things she can’t, but would love to do.’
A shiver ran down Shirley’s back as she realised that this man was not going to help her go back to school. He was still talking to her in a patronising tone: ‘And your older brother is doing so well at the grammar school – passed the scholarship a year early. But girls are the future homemakers, aren’t they? It’s so hard for your mother, who would so love to be strong and run the home without help.’
Shirley looked at Mum, and caught her giving the truancy officer a gentle, wistful smile. ‘How well you understand,’ Mum murmured.
The man leaned forward, and said earnestly, ‘Mrs. Darby, keep Shirley home whenever you need her. I fully understand.’
Shirley wanted to cry, but knew better. Mum would say, ‘Stop that crying, or I’ll give you something to cry for.’ With a cold resignation she realised that her hopes of going to school regularly had gone. Even the truancy officer wouldn’t help her.
It was some days after the truancy officer’s visit that Shirley eventually returned to school. Shy at first and wary of the curiosity about her long absence, she kept her head down and concentrated on her lessons. Mum had told her she must say that she had been suffering from ‘flu with complications’ if anyone asked. But soon she relaxed, enjoying the familiar routine of the classroom and the chalk-laden atmosphere. Even the odour of the stale, unwashed bodies of children was not unwelcome, and she revelled in the predictability of the day.
As the children lined up after lunch-time play, a whisper spread down the line: ‘Nitty Nora’s here.’ And sure enough the children were told to form an orderly queue in the corridor to have their heads checked for lice.
Standing next to a table which carried a bowl of disinfectant stood a tall, angular lady with a mouth like a rat-trap. No one had ever seen Nitty Nora smile. Her wire wool hair was scraped back viciously from her face into a severe bun. Not a trace of make-up softened the rough red features, and her eyes were as cold as the charity she lacked. She would dip what looked remarkably like a knitting needle into the bowl of disinfectant, trawl through a child’s hair, give a grunt of dissatisfaction if she found nothing, then give a sharp nudge to the child’s back. The victim would stumble away, and she would claw another forward. When Nitty Nora found evidence of infestation she would dig her bony fingers triumphantly into the child’s shoulders and march the cringing pupil down the corridor like a criminal to Miss Greenwood, the headmistress.
Shirley waited anxiously, relieved when she received the push in her back that meant her head was clear. But three children were not so lucky and Miss Greenwood sent home letters to all the parents that afternoon, warning them that any child found with headlice would be banned from school until a doctor’s note confirmed that the situation had been dealt with properly. Miss Greenwood accepted the common convention that head lice were caused by lack of hygiene.
When Mum read the letter explaining the anti head infestation procedure, she reacted strongly. ‘No child of mine gets head lice. My children’s heads are clean. It’s disgusting that people send their children to school with filthy vermin crawling in their hair, ready to infest others.’
She became alarmed when Shirley told her that the three infested children were in Shirley’s class. There had been no attempt to keep their identity secret, and a long line of children had watched their ignominious trek down to Miss Greenwood’s room, marshalled by a self-satisfied Nitty Nora. There was an air of black comedy about it all. Miss Greenwood had responded to the knock on her door, by coming into the corridor and closing the door firmly behind her. Her look of distaste was formidable : no bugs were to have the chance to infiltrate her room, and she stood several feet away from the luckless children, whom by now were weeping wrecks . Within seconds the children had been despatched home with Mrs. Greenwood’s voice ringing down the corridor, ‘Tell your mothers a letter will be in the post by the end of the afternoon with clear instructions what they must do.’
Mum was terrified of such disgrace, and Shirley tried to console her. ‘Mum, it’s all right, I haven’t got nits.’
‘But the eggs might have been too tiny for the nurse to see. You probably played with the children who have got nits. That would be typical. You didn’t, did you?’ Mum’s voice rose in alarm.
We all believed Mum could read our minds and so Shirley confessed that one of them was a friend with whom she had played two-ball that morning.
We waited anxiously, knowing all too well that Mum’s mood changes came out of the blue, and weren’t surprised when she went white and her fists clenched. ‘You stupid little cow, now you’re bound to get them. Wait till your father gets home.’
Tony looked up from his homework with a quizzical expression on his face. ‘I can’t see Dad going barmy about it like you. He’ll probably say that there are more important things to worry about and just to wait and see what happens.’
Mum gave an absent minded swipe in his direction for his cheek. Her heart wasn’t in it though as she was absorbing the truth of what Tony had said. ‘You’re right. He won’t be any help. I’ve got to think of something myself.’
All went quiet, and then Mum snapped her fingers triumphantly. ‘I know – paraffin.’
Tony looked apprehensive. ‘What do you mean? What are you going to do with paraffin?’
‘Don’t be bloody stupid, I’m going to use it to clean Shirley’s head.’
As Shirley backed away into a corner Tony said, ‘Mum, be reasonable, say you’re joking. You can’t pour paraffin over Shirley’s head. What will you do then – set light to her?’
Mum gave her tinkling laugh as at a joke. Tony assumed all was well and returned to his homework. Shirley watched Mum warily and kept out of her way, making sure that she did all her household chores so carefully that she couldn’t arouse Mum’s anger. Never had the table been set with such precision, nor the kitchen floor washed so thoroughly.
Shortly before Dad came home Tony went out to feed the chickens.
‘Quick, Shirley, come here.’ Mum grabbed the can of paraffin from under the sink. ‘ Put your head over the bowl before Tony comes back and makes trouble by telling your father.’ She glared at Jill and me as we peered round the corner from the back room. ‘Get back in there and play quietly. It’s nearly your bedtime.’
We backed away, fearful of being sent to bed earlier than necessary, but listened wide-eyed and scared to Shirley’s begging.
’Please, Mum, no. I haven’t got nits, I haven’t. Nitty Nora said so.’
Mum gripped Shirley’s arm and hauled her towards the sink. ‘I’m doing this for you. Do you want the other children to despise you when those eggs hatch? Do you want your mother disgraced by being one of those children with nitty hair?’ Mum shuddered. ‘I couldn’t bear the shame.’
Shirley put her head over the sink. The cold paraffin gushed over her head, and the fumes made her choke and retch.
‘Mum, I feel sick, I’m going to faint.’
‘Keep your eyes closed then you’ll be all right,’ said Mum, one eye on the back door as she swilled the paraffin haphazardly over Shirley. ‘That should do it. Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry for. Here, dry your face and neck with this towel,’ and she flung the dirty scrap of worn cloth which served as a kitchen-do-all towards a sobbing Shirley. Her face and neck rapidly became red and raw, and Mum applied Nivea cream before Shirley went to bed.
‘No need to mention it to your father,’ said Mum, ‘and I’ve told Tony to keep his mouth shut.’
‘I’m so sore, Mum,’ said Shirley, ‘and my head hurts.’
‘You’ll feel better in the morning, and just think you won’t be one of those dirty children with nits.’
The next morning Shirley woke with a throbbing head and a blistered face and neck. Even Mum was worried when she saw that Shirley’s head was noticeably swollen with weeping sores. She couldn’t put a comb through her hair without crying out in pain.
‘Crikey Mum,’ said Tony, ‘Shirley’s head has grown enormous. She looks like a monster. You’ll have to take her to the doctor.’
‘No need,’ said Mum, the tinkling laugh in evidence again, a sign she was nervous. ‘She’ll be as right as rain in a few days time. A couple of days at home will do the trick. There’s a few jobs to catch up on round the house, so that’s a bonus. I’ll send a note in by one of the others to say she’s got a cold. We don’t want them thinking she’s got nits.’