At nine years old, I would drift into wakefulness in my child sized bed, rubbing sleep from

my eyes, swathed in candy striped sheets, fanning my golden hair out on the pillow while

trying to decide whether to be a mermaid or a Princess for the day. I would smooth out the

creases of my hand stitched nightdress while listening to the noises in the kitchen below:

the chink of china on the kitchen table, the smell and sizzle of bacon frying, my Mother

softly singing songs from her favourite shows unaware that anyone was listening. I would

pretend to be asleep when she peeked around the door, so that she would have to enter

the room and tickle me until I was helpless with giggles. Time meant nothing then, no

expectations in my life other than being a daughter, sister and a carefree child. At twelve

years old, I am still in the child sized bed, long since outgrown, the sheets are grey and need

washing, the cold bath of reality arrives in the form of my father thumping on the bedroom

door with his filthy fist. On rainy days a teardrop would seep through and run down the

cracked glass of my jaundiced bedroom windowpane, which bathed whatever colour sky

beyond in a nicotine wash. No breakfast, no clean clothes, no conversation, no incentive to

think about the life my Mother might have had planned for me, had she lived.

 

I remember that last hot summer afternoon, late in August, so hot that heat waves rose up

from the tarmac and the wet sand of the beach, distorting people and objects in the

distance. The sky was cloudless and blue. Mother loaded up the gargantuan coach built

pram, put my two younger sisters in it and all that we needed for the afternoon stowed on

the shopping tray beneath. We set off after lunch, a pleasant half hour walk down hill

through leafy lanes, the sunlight dappled and diffused. Once at the beach, we carefully

chose our space, unpacked our towels, buckets and spades, bright coloured nylon fishing

nets and stayed all afternoon. It wasn’t unusual for me to look after my younger sisters, as

Mother was often tired. She lay beside the pram, her upper body shaded by draping a picnic

rug over it. My sisters and I made sand castles, collected shells, and built dams when the

tide came in. I was the eldest, so I was in charge and when Emma and baby Kate, who was

only just walking, said they were hungry, we ate our egg and tomato sandwiches straight

out of the grey greased proof paper, with plastic beakers of weak, warm orange squash. We

poked in rock pools and failed to catch fast flitting shrimps in our nets,until I began to notice

that most people had left the beach. I shook Mother gently by the arm. She felt cold,

despite the heat of the late afternoon sun, she was still fully clothed with a warm cardigan

draped over her, ‘Oh, my poor head’ she murmured. I tried to give her sips of orange squash

but she wretched as the liquid touched her lips. She couldn’t stand unaided, but by now

there was no one around to ask for help and she had to use the pram for support. I hastily

repacked everything, struggled up the granite slip way, making my little sisters walk to

lighten the load and somehow we made it back home, Mother staggering like a drunk and

twice had to sit down on low walls to rest along the way.

 

We entered the farm yard just as my father was coming out of the stable after milking,

sleeves rolled up to his elbows, shirt front almost open to his waist, drenched in

perspiration, red in the face and irritable that he had been left to do it alone. He confronted

Mother ‘what time do you call this ?’ But she pushed past him, steadied herself momentarily

at the doorway and vomited in the yard before simply saying ‘I need to lie down’ and

disappearing into the shadow of the hall.

 

That was the last time I saw her. My memory of that evening is hazy, but keen to play the

little mother, I probably put my sisters to bed, as my father did not get involved with child

care. I remember waking to hushed voices in the night and looking out of my bedroom

window to see the Doctor’s cherry red Vauxhall Victor, headlights on, and engine running in

the farm yard. Last time that happened I had gone downstairs the following morning to find

my mother nursing a new baby, my youngest sister. So, when I descended into the kitchen

the following morning, to find Grandma looking very serious and father sitting at the table

head in hands and crying, I didn’t know what to think. I had never seen a man cry before.

‘Can I go and see Mummy ? has she had another baby ?’ Granny took me by the hand and

led me briskly out of the kitchen, ‘Mummy is … come and help me with your sisters.’

Upstairs, unusually, the door to my parent’s bedroom was closed and I was firmly ushered

past as I reached out for the handle. No one spoke about it to us. As children, we gleaned

information second hand from listening to others’ hushed conversations, ‘Haemorrhage’,

‘Aneurysm’, it meant nothing to us : maybe they didn’t know what to say to a child who had

just lost her Mother, or perhaps they were worried we might cry. No one seemed to care

about my increasingly dishevelled appearance. My Father was unable to look after himself

in his grief, let alone a child. Perhaps the suddenness of Mother’s passing made it too

painful for my him and Grandmother to discuss I had so many unanswered questions, not

least wondering if her life could have been saved had I managed to get her back from the

beach earlier. I would often visit the stale and musty parlour to hold the rapidly fading

photograph of my Mother cradling me at my Christening, it seemed to be the only

confirmation that she had given birth to me at all.

 

Within hours of the funeral, which we siblings did not attend, my sisters were bundled into a

taxi with their belongings to go to live with Grandma and I stayed with Father on the farm,

milking cows, mucking out stables, taking them to the meadow and back again, feeding

hens, weeding the vegetable patch and trying to keep the house tidy. Despite my young age

I’d always helped my Mother around the house, I knew what needed to be done, but

without her praise, thanks and encouragement, it now seemed an unbearable burden.

Where once there had been her smile to light up my world, now there was nothing.

 

One Sunday afternoon, during a rare visit from Grandma and my sisters, possibly for one of

our birthdays, but the celebration, if there was one, has paled into insignificance, we

children were dispatched from the kitchen so that the adults could talk. I remember

standing barefoot on the cool flagstones of the gloomy hallway, envious of their clean shiny

hair tied with ribbons, crisp white ironed dresses, white ankle socks and patent shoes. I

wore hand me down boys’ clothes, my face felt grittily dirty, my hair needed a wash and

muck from the farmyard was caked beneath my finger nails. ‘Poo, you stink’ said Katie

wrinkling her nose and pulling a face. ‘That’s not a very nice thing to say’ I replied, knowing

it was true. ‘Let’s play hide and seek’ said Emma excitedly. She commenced her slow count

to one hundred. I remained motionless for a very long time, trying to think of somewhere

really elusive to hide, so that I had only just reached the upper landing when I heard her

footsteps on the first treads of the stairs below me. I took a step backwards into my parent’s

bedroom, quietly pushed the door without completely closing it and as I heard her footsteps

advance in my direction, I crossed the room, opened the door of my Mother’s wardrobe and

stepped into the darkness. I immediately forgot my part in the game, as I found myself

transported back in time. I crouched in the gloom, embracing the fabric of her dresses,

inhaling the faded, but unmistakably still intoxicating scent of Elizabeth Arden’s ‘Blue Grass’

and the hems of her summer cotton dirndl skirts, brushed by the heads of lavender in the

front garden borders. The tough worsted woollen fabric of her jodhpurs, still studded and

stuck with fragments of hay, splinters of the stable door, horse, dog and cat hair, retaining

just a hint of bonfire smoke; special occasion dresses, the one for Aunt Sarah’s wedding and

the heavy black crepe for funerals. The bold colours of the 1950s had lost none of their

vibrancy while hanging there, unlike the washed out and sun bleached garments belonging

to my friends’ mothers. I felt along the rows of buttons and fastenings with the fervour of a

Catholic with a rosary. As long as I clung to the swathes of fabric, I held the very essence of

my childhood within the soft folds of cotton. I remained there motionless long after I heard

the footsteps recede and the squeals of my younger sister being discovered. I squatted, my

arms clenched around my knees, ignoring both Grandma and my Father calling me. I

endured pins and needles in my feet, cramp in my calves and hunger pains which came and

went, but still I remained inside the cocoon of the wardrobe. It became my refuge and my

secret. If I was feeling sad I went there for comfort and on the rare occasion I felt happy, I

went there to share it with my Mother. Only then, in the solitude and the darkness did I

realise how much I missed her and the tears withheld for so long, fell uncontrollably.

 

Most precious of all, was that this time was mine and mine alone. Selfishly, I didn’t share my

discovery with my sisters, for fear that they would laugh at me, or even worse that they

might want to share the limited space in the wardrobe. I often wondered if my Father knew;

if he did, he never said anything. But as the months and then years advanced, it was

because I wanted that feeling all to myself, as if sharing it with others would dilute the

intensity. I felt sure my Mother would understand. If she was looking down on us and could

see her own mother looking after her two youngest daughters, giving them the loving,

nurturing security that she had enjoyed as a child, while I had my father and he had me. He

was wallowing in self-pity, drowning his sorrows in Whiskey and Rum, he performed the

daily and seasonal duties of a farmer, the bare essentials, but he was a broken man and his

heart was no longer in it.

 

In the summer of 1969 I didn’t visit the wardrobe at all. I had left school without any exam

passes and no prospects other than working on the farm. I was as distracted by boys as they

were attracted to me, and I spent as many hours as possible at the beach. Besides, my

father’s latest lady friend was spending increasingly more time at the farmhouse, along with

her obnoxious teenage son and it no longer felt like my home. At first I noticed discarded

cigarette filters rimmed with lipstick, then a nail varnish, little tell-tale signs. Bottles of wine

appeared alongside my Father’s bottles of spirits, two glasses on the draining board where

there used to be one. He was no great catch in the marriage market, none of his

relationships lasted for long. The veneer of respectability, with him being a dairy farmer

with his own mortgage free farm, was poor compensation for his alcoholism, foul moods,

rotten teeth and lack of bodily hygiene. I rudely ignored Valerie’s attempts at friendly

conversation. One afternoon I returned late from the beach, having missed the bus, my

father snored loudly in his armchair, alcohol fumes filling the room. She blocked my

entrance to the kitchen, ‘We’ve had our tea and I’ve cleared away, if you can’t grace us with

your presence at meal times you can go to bed hungry.’ Her spotty son pulled faces at me

from behind her back. I didn’t have much money of my own, but what I had, I kept in an old

red sock in the bottom drawer in my bedroom. Sam now dangled this behind his mother’s

head and started to laugh. There was a window open at the far end of the hall, the gentle

breeze coming in from the orchard brought with it strangely scented wisps of smoke, ‘oh

look !’ I said pointing to it with a sense of urgency, and when Sam turned his head, I lunged

forward and grabbed the sock from him. There was a volatile confrontation of some kind

before I slammed the kitchen door so hard that my fingers grasping the handle, were stung

from the impact. I began to stomp up the stairs. I stopped abruptly at the third step and

bent down to retrieve a small piece of patterned cotton, another two steps and a pearl

button winked at me, illuminated by the shard of late afternoon sunlight coming through

the landing window. Beginning again, my steps became a regular staccato of stout shoes on

bare wood until I reached my parents’ bedroom, I realised Sam was racing up the stairs

behind me, I whirled the sock full of cash above my head and with a carefully aimed swing

and using it as a cosh, landed a blow to his left temple, ‘Ow ! you vicious bitch ! just wait

until your Dad wakes up !’ he shouted and he foolishly put his wrist in the door as I slammed

it closed with all my strength. ‘Arrrggghh ! my wrist, she’s broken my wrist.’ The wardrobe

door was open, revealing alien clothes. I rushed to the window where I heaved the heavy

sash frame upwards. At the edge of the orchard, an old fifty gallon drum punched with holes

and supported on bricks, sent out faint curling tendrils of smoke.

 

By Wendy Falla