At the age of twelve I was forced to relinquish the sanctuary of my grandmothers home where I had lived all my life, in order to go and live with my father. The reason for the move was because the time had come for me to leave my mixed, boys and girls primary / junior school to begin secondary school. Life with my grandmother had been happy if not exactly straightforward. Sleeping arrangements for a start were unconventional. Every night at seven o’clock I would pull a heavy collapsable bed from the hallway into the living room of her tiny flat where I would then make my bed to sleep. I slept like this all those years but it wasn’t hard, it was cosy there with her (except that was, for the arctic bathroom of which you can read more elsewhere). Before going to sleep I would read fairy stories from a selection of old torn and creased “Ladybird” children’s books that I had. I would read either with my father before he left to go home or, if I was lucky, with my grandmother. My father always wanted me to be a Knight or a King or some other ridiculous, violent hero. My grandmother on the other hand, would allow me to be the Princess or the beautiful Queen of some magical kingdom, I loved her so much for that fact alone. She allowed me the only scrap of a normal childhood I ever got, to dream a while and actually see myself on the page before me. I would always fall asleep, after saying my prayers, holding her hand as she dozed in her old threadbare armchair. I remember she would endlessly stroke my hand with her finger even when she appeared to be asleep. She never left me until I was asleep. If I ever woke in the night I would usually have the embers of the settling fire to calm my heart. The open fire was not just the only source of heat but also had a “back boiler” that supplied all the hot water, so even in summer, on cooler days the fire would be lit, if just for a few hours to make some hot water for washing. My grandmothers name was Annie, she possessed a paradoxical mix of religion and superstition, she prayed every night yet mumbled to spirits of friends (and others) departed all day. Outwardly down to earth and rather matter of fact, privately she was rather more white witch than saint. She was a fabulous woman though a little grumpy at times (I guess all my friends just smiled to themselves thinking “so that’s where she gets it from”). My grandmothers predisposition for paradoxical praying was not confined just to her, so just before getting into bed myself I would be made to kneel beside it on the disturbingly loud orange and red carpet that lay in her living room to pray for the spiritual safety of a long list of (mostly unknown) family members. Over time the list had shrunk substantialy; partly through “natural causes” as my grandmother assured me, the dead no longer needed praying for as they were either already “up there” or God forbid, “down there” (always said in a hushed voice from behind a raised hand). I must confess I had also amended the list myself over the years to omit anyone who had repeatedly forgotten me at Christmas as I forever the pragmatist, believed the prayer / present equation to be very much a two way street; I supply the powerful prayers of an eleven year old witches apprentice in return for cuddly things (it made perfect sense at the time). Unknown to Annie, silently added to my prayers every night for a whole year up until my twelfth birthday was one that, leaving random family members horribly exposed to the powers of evil, consumed all my fledgeling powers; namely that my fathers stated intention to put me into a boys only school would fail as I desperately wanted to go to a mixed school where I would at least feel safe in the presence of other girls. Unfortunately however this was not to be the case and unknown to me, the moment from which my life began to unwind was almost upon me.
My father used to come to see me at my grandmothers house some evenings after work and one stormy night I remember him walking in soaking wet from his bike with a huge smile on his face. I knew immediately what it meant. My world dissolved as he looked at me with his steely grey eyes. I couldn’t hear, I couldn’t feel, I couldn’t think, I just saw his bitter, angry mouth spitting the words b-o-y-s s-c-h-o-o-l at me. Hope died in me that night, and it was going to be around thirty years until the pain would begin to find resolution again. I’m glad I had no way of knowing that back then at the age of twelve, if I had, I think I would have struggled even more than I did to make it to now. I remember looking desperately at my grandmother thinking she might save me as she had before, on several occasions hiding me from him when he returned early from work and I was dressed in her clothes. I think it broke her heart too. She came to me later when I was almost asleep “I’m sorry, try not to worry, you’ll be alright” she whispered softly in my ear and kissed me. I don’t think she believed that for a moment. I lay there in the darkness and cried myself to sleep night after night as the embers of the fire fell slowly through the grate.
That was the event that finally sealed the slow disintegration of my relationship with my father. To survive secondary school I buried my feelings deep within me. I lost myself in daydreams and made myself as unreachable as possible so unreachable that I lost myself. I became my own prison, I buried my feelings so deep that I found myself stuck in a solitary confinement of my own making from which it was impossible to reach out to anyone. It was going to be four desperate years until I shared my feelings with anyone and it was going to take another three decades to escape completely from the world that engulfed me in that dreadful place; three decades in which I did amazing things, and led an amazing life but three decades that were slowly killing me.
I am still haunted by the feelings that consumed me then, the despair and the isolation of a soul caught in a deformed body and a contradictory life. Even this week I have been troubled by a dream I had a few nights ago. A dream about my father and I fighting as we did many times (sometimes physically) towards the end when I finally left him to his own life. The dream had been stuck in my head for several days, I wasn’t even consciously aware that it was there, just that there was something unhappy, a dark shadow stalking me without making itself known. I love to walk in the rain, which is lucky living as I now do in The Netherlands. As I walked today out of nowhere I suddenly caught sight of this malevolent spirit. I was just walking and thinking and overheard an argument, about what I have no idea. As if startled by the raised voices the dream was just “there” in my head, in full Technicolor. We stopped, two strangers in the rain, each afraid to loose sight of the other. Unsure quite what to do with this unexpectedly exposed dream, I stood a while and quietly wondered what my next move should be, how to defeat this unwelcome guest to my day then, taking a few steps forward toward the railings on one of the many canal bridges in the city I felt something beneath my foot. Slowly I reached down and picked it up, to my surprise it was a smooth grey pebble, shiny and cold from the rain ( those of you who read my blog regularly will know I have “history” with pebbles, owning a very precious one from a very, very scary man whole wanders the streets of Antwerp). My past and I now facing each other in the open, I closed my eyes and using all my best witch magic forced all that pain and hurt from the dream into the pebble. I stretched out my hand and saying a silent farewell released the pebble and that moment one rainy night at my grandmothers house into the canal below. The amazing thing was that the water accepted my gift without a sound. There was no splash, hardly a ripple as if the world had been waiting to take this pain from me. I just needed to let it go. To no longer accept that it was a part of me, this reborn me, this safe me. My body hurts all the time, but my heart is now free from at least some of the pain I have carried for so long, a falling leaf, a drop of rain all these things are accepted back by the world. With barely a sound they return to the earth, they are dissipated and absorbed.
I think I will always feel an outsider, a soul in an uncomfortable shell but I’ve started to let it go, to move on and give myself and those who love me, a chance to live with this thing that has crushed and hurt so many. As someone very dear to me has often said “it’s magic”, the stuff of witchcraft and being truly connected to that which gives us life.