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A Shout From The Attic: Family Life

...I went upstairs to bed alone, sometimes, for reasons of which I am not sure, carrying a lighted candle stuck in an enamelled tin candleholder. When I heard my mother come up to the floor below I called out to her so that she would visit me in my bedroom. She did not always come. Sometime she came but never stayed more than a few seconds. She was always busy with some task around the house. I felt so unloved and alone...

Ronnie Bray recalls troubled thoughts from his childhood.

Read earlier episodes of Ronnie's autobiography by clicking on A Shout From The Attic in the menu on this page. A follow Ronnie's ever-surprising and always entertaining Letter From America column which is posted in Open Writing every Saturday.

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The Law is the true embodiment
Of everything that’s excellent,
It has no kind of fault or flaw
And I milords embody the law. -
Iolanthe, WS Gilbert

I was surrounded and dominated by authorities that ordered and imposed a strict regime under which I squirmed but submitted. What else was there to do? For all of my childhood and most of my adult life I have felt alienated, an outsider, unwelcome. Such were the circumstances of my childhood that the only human contact available were the goodnight kisses from Ma and Nan. These were very wet experiences, which I found distasteful. The ritual was rigid:

One: Kiss;
Two: Wipe-off.
Three: “Look at him wipe it off! I knew he’d do that, he always does.”

I was a stranger to soap and water, but loved being washed when my mother sat me on the end of the scullery table and washed me with a flannel, a half-pound bar of green Fairy soap, and hot water from the Electra geyser. I would have stayed there for hours just being touched by her.

I went upstairs to bed alone, sometimes, for reasons of which I am not sure, carrying a lighted candle stuck in an enamelled tin candleholder. When I heard my mother come up to the floor below I called out to her so that she would visit me in my bedroom. She did not always come. Sometime she came but never stayed more than a few seconds. She was always busy with some task around the house. I felt so unloved and alone.

Sometimes I would let my unhappiness show. Many times when it was bedtime, I asked my mother to come and put me to bed. She never would and so I would sulk miserably upstairs at a snail’s pace. My Nan would say to my mother, projecting her voice so that I could hear, “When he’s dead we’ll say, ‘He wasn’t such a bad old pig,’” adding to my pain and powerless desperation, and I knew that life was suffering.

Relationships were not part of our family life. There was no constellation, so that it was not possible to tell who fitted in where. When Arthur was two, Mum and Dad went to Brussels in Belgium to stay with old friends of Dad. Nan and granddad never went out together and I don’t ever remember them going out alone either. The only time we went out together was in the annual week holiday when we descended on either Blackpool or Redcar.

In the midst of all this, from somewhere I grew a vision of my ideal home. It was a cosy cottage with a warm fire and orange light full of warmth. The dream home housed my wife and children and was suffused by human warmth that led them to touch each other with affection. I grew up believing that anyone who touched me really loved me, even Mrs Heap.

Mrs Heap was Barry Heap’s mother. They lived in the flat over Gabriella’s Milk Bar in Trinity Street. One day Barry invited me to go with him and his mother into town. I gladly accepted the invitation. His mother changed my clothes for some of Barry’s and gave me a spit wash at the bus stop opposite the park gates in Trinity Street. I was too dim to feel insulted.

When Barry had a birthday, he told me he was having a party. I was not invited, but thought I’d be welcome if I took him a birthday gift. I took a book wrapped and labelled. I knocked on his door, the door opened and although he was surprised to see me there by the look on his face he accepted the gift, said “thank you” and closed the door. No jelly and ice cream for me that day, no balloon, and no fun. The book was a New Testament that I stole from one of my Dad’s locked but inviting chests. Perhaps it was divine punishment for prising the lid.

The Heaps opened an Antique shop in the shell of what had been Billy Rhodes's greengrocer shop in Trinity street but from what I heard it did not do well and they closed and moved away.

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