Simon Mark Smith's Autobiography
During my years in care I would regularly stay with my mother in her mother's house in a suburb of London called Worcester Park . The main high street ran down a steep hill at the bottom of which was the station. Our house was at the top. I still have vague memories of journeying to and fro in a push chair. When I was about 5 Mum got a car but up until then we travelled by public transport. Sometimes Mum would carry or push me but I can still clearly remember trailing behind her when she could carry me no further and asking her to wait for me to catch up.
Worcester Park still looks pretty much as it did back then. I tend to drive through it at least once a year for nostalgia's sake. At one point, about ten years ago, I thought about buying the house we'd lived in, in fact I dreamt it was for sale so went to look at it the next day and sure enough it was. But I felt this was probably more about the desire I had as a child to be permanently housed there, than based on any sound practical reason. Mind you it's trebled in price since then so maybe I should have bought it afterall.
* * *
The paradox of memory
Much of what we do in the present is influenced by memories from the past, but the paradox is we can't consciously remember them, yet they are continuously whispering to us. I wanted to buy the house 10 years ago and came up with a few good reasons why but the real underlying feelings surrounding my motivations were not obvious without a bit of analysis.
* * *
I once had a dream that I was a man, a kind of Charlie Chaplin figure, walking past my grandparent's house soon after it had been built. There was still a lot of sand around from the building works and a couple – my grandparents - were planting vegetables in the front garden. I stopped and asked them if I could have a glass of water. The woman went in to the house and soon after called to me from a small window in the side of the building from which she passed me the drink. I could feel she was a bit nervous so I drank it quickly, thanked her and went on my way.
* * *
One of my overriding memories of my grandmother was that when she gave me water to drink it would always be in a half empty cup and she would say “don't upset it now”. I do not remember my grandmother being at all affectionate towards me. In fact what sticks in my mind about her was that she made me feel I had to keep my distance from her. I felt as if I wasn't welcome and was just about tolerated. One day I started to cry because I thought I'd broken a toy, I heard her say “What's he crying about now?” – I looked up at her and said “you bitch” in baby language, which fortunately she didn't speak -. This and a lot of other similar instances may also have been what she was apologising for upon her deathbed.
* * *
Mum was a different story. Perhaps the lack of tactile affection she received from her mother drove her to shower me with it. I can still remember bed times having a particularly touching routine to them. Firstly Mum would give me a drink which I was told was heralding bedtime so I'd take as long as possible to drink it, and even when I'd accidentally finished it I'd pretend to drink from it for a good while after. Then we'd go upstairs to my bedroom where I'd either jump from the window sill on to my bed, or do a roly-poly along it, and then get between the cold sheets. I still prefer a cold bed now, and back then I'd kick the hot water bottle away from me if Mum had put one in. Mum would then read me a story and as I lay down to sleep she would give me an Eskimo kiss (this involves rubbing noses together), then a butterfly kiss (this involves either flickering eye-lashes together or stoking the other person's face with one's eyelashes), and finally a kiss and a cuddle. As Mum would go out the room I would ask her not to close the door properly and insist she didn't switch the hall light off. After she'd gone I would look at the pattern of the wood in the cupboard doors or the flower design in the curtains and see faces and feel scared so I'd close my eyes and swing my head from side to side as I'd drift off. This rocking of my head was something my grandmother did too and one of my children, Erin, has done it from the age of two months. Is it genetic or do many people do it? Whatever, I'm sure it hasn't helped as far as my bald patch goes.
* * *
My mother's sister, Yvonne, and her husband, David, would throw a Christmas party each year when I was a child. Invited to this would be the extended family which included the great aunts and uncles, their children, - in other words my Mum's cousins, their partners and of course their children. The house which was a largish one was pretty full.
Uncle Albert was a memorable relation, and featured large in persona as well as physique, especially to me because he'd give me money – not that I'm easily bought or anything-. He would put money in my Christmas pudding when I wasn't looking and he‘d also buy some of us premium bonds – which were savings certificates that also acted as lottery tickets-. Later it tuned out that he wanted a lot of them back and had been using us as a means to dodging paying tax. He had been the chief concierge at the Troccadero in London and no doubt had to find a way to launder his non declared tips.
He wasn't one to go without ruffling a few feathers either. As he approached his last days he fell for a woman who helped “care” for him and decided to leave everything to her. She got the lot while the rest of us managed to hold on to a few of our premium bonds.
Christmas was a time when three generations would come together, have some polite chat and then go away almost none the wiser. For us kids though Christmas meant “new toys”. The churchy bit was seen as a somewhat necessary evil. Father Christmas however was seen as a good compromise in that he was a religious figure but we got loads of toys from him. Who said you can't buy my love?
I woke up in the early hours of Christmas day and found a sack at the end of my bed which Mum, sorry I mean Santa, had left there for me. The first present I pulled out had a long thin bit to it and a bulbous bottom bit. It was so dark that I couldn't see anything so I felt my way around the object while slowly tearing the paper from it. The more I unwound it the more I was convinced it was a toy trumpet. When I got far enough I started to blow down it but no noise came out which was fortunate for Gran and Mum, who were either sleeping or blindly opening their presents too. Eventually I left it and went back to sleep. In the day light it revealed itself to be a red elephant shaped money box and I had, innocently I'd like to stress, been blowing its trunk.
* * *
The thought of the cold of the house gives me a nostalgic warm glow now, as does the smell of bacon cooking, well that just makes me hungry, but I also associate it with home. The kitchen was the main warm room in the morning during the winter and it was there that Gran would dress. I would wait outside the door until she'd let me in. Once in I'd sit at the table and Mum would serve up cornflakes in blue and white striped bowls, then maybe a boiled egg and bread soldiers. I even have memories of Mum doing the “here comes a train, now open up the tunnel [my mouth] and let it in”.
Perhaps home became an unrealistic version for me because not only did I idealise it in relation to being in care but also Mum was able to give me more attention because the quality time together was limited and therefore more easily given. It was like an unsaid deal, something on the lines of: “If you give me lots of attention when we're together I won't make such of a fuss about you not being there for me when we're not” but this required me to split off from my anger and feelings of missing, which would surface from time to time, deal or no deal.
* * *
There is a silence. Mum is kneeling and holding her head with one hand. She is crying. I am looking on. I have just kicked her quite hard just above the eye brow with my built up shoe. Five year olds can deliver a hard kick.
Even now I can look on and feel deep sorrow towards my mother for how could she understand where the motivation for this came from? For me, as a child, too I can feel the deep feelings of frustration and betrayal that were behind such a traitorous attack. Strewn across the floor was the debris of my coveted electric car racing track, which in a tantrum I had smashed up. By breaking it I had taken myself as hostage and looked at my mother for the ransom. However she pointed out the obvious, that it serves me right if it didn't work anymore, and in my desperation of not feeling understood I struck out at her.
This silence, this emotionally shocked and physically stunned moment has stretched out all the way through my life and serves as one of the many reminders that have wrapped themselves around me to contain the un-containable anger that both drives and destroys me.
What boy would dare to strike his mother if his father was at their side?
I have often felt that at times that I am at the mercy of my destructive self. Perhaps this kick was aimed at sending a message beyond the obvious one of “I hate you and want to kill you right now”. It might also be saying something like “I am feeling angry. I feel out of control, if I show you this then maybe you can see to helping control me… Please get me a father so I won't be like this!”
To be blown around by a storm of emotions can be very frightening for anyone, let alone a child. Whether there was any basis in reality for me believing that if I had a father there I'd have been different I can't tell, but to live in a home without a father had me feeling I was lacking something.
* * *
When Mum brought boyfriends around for me to meet I would view them as potential daddies. I don't remember having a check list I'd run through but if they were willing to play with me that would normally qualify them pretty much in my eyes. One such man was Mick. Unbeknown to me Mick fancied Mum but she wasn't having it – which meant he wasn't either -. I don't think I increased his chances when one day Mum told me to go have a bath with him, don't worry back in those days child abuse just didn't exist, did it? So I was ok, unfortunately Mick wasn't. Mum was standing outside the bathroom and we were all chatting when I decided to shout “Oooh yuk yuk, Mick has a horrible looking tongue between his legs”. There was a brief pause while Mick gave me a look that said “I've played with you for hours so I could get in to your mother's knickers how could you betray me with such a revelation, even if it is true?” Mum burst out laughing, which translated as “I wasn't sure about Mick, but now I definitely am”.
A few years later Mum had another boyfriend, Michael, who took me into a public loo where he decided to have a pee too. Don't worry the only abuse was adult-abuse as I decided to holler at the top of my voice “Goodness your willie is absolutely massive” to which he replied quite proudly that it was a “good eight inches”. Of course nowadays such public announcements would have the loo door broken down in seconds by a lynch mob but in those days he just got a pat on the back by his fellow loo-goers and Mum got a lot of knowing looks from their wives, they were, it's true, more innocent times.
* * *
One of my favourite pseudo-dads was Colin, who was the husband of one of Mum's friends Val. They had two daughters but showered attention on all of us. He even had a Lotus Elan sports car which he'd let me drive. I called it a Lotus Lamb. I'd sit on his lap and turn the steering wheel while he'd actually drive. He spent many hours playing with me but alas he was already taken. One day he took me to Battersea funfair where he introduced me to a shooting range. Everything was ok until he let me aim the gun. I didn't understand what a target was so I started shooting at the china prizes. I can remember Colin laughing but the stall holder was not amused.
One day Mum took me to Colin and Val's place. She had just bought me some new black and white check trousers and warned me not to get them dirty when I played in the garden with the girls. The first thing we did was eat some of the tomatoes growing in the vegetable patch. Mum called me in and asked if I'd been eating Colin's tomatoes. I denied it so Mum showed me my tomato stained face in the mirror, I suddenly recalled a brief incident where a tomato may have accidentally passed my lips.
Things were about to get worse though. I went back outside where we decided to play pretend families. We sat on wicker chairs in a circle facing each other shouting out instructions of what we should pretend to do. Someone told me to go to the loo so I did a straining face, I think you know where we're going, which brought about rapturous laughter from the others so I did it again, this time with a little bit more gusto. There's a thin line between reality and make believe and I crossed it. “oops I've just poohed myself” I said. The other children laughed even more. “No I mean it” I implored. I didn't think it was a good idea to stand up so I asked for someone to get my Mummy. I can still remember the look of disgust on her face as she helped me change back in to my old trousers. “They're ruined!” she said with venom. I wanted to tell her about a good washing powder I'd seen advertised but I thought it better to just stay quiet … still I didn't get any grass stains on them.
* * *
Home not only existed within the actual building but spread out to the domains of other family members, friends and neighbours. Apart from the occasional boyfriend, Mum had a close circle of friends, most of whom had children of a similar age too. Her sister Yvonne had had three daughters, the two who were of a similar age were playmates, the older one Sarah, once played her recorder at my birthday party and got booed, I have a feeling that put her nose out of joint and given the large age difference of 3 years we were destined not to be that close. The other two, Druscilla and Caroline however were. I was particularly close to Druscilla and can remember asking Mum if I could marry her when I got older. Apparently in law you can but it also requires the other to agree to marriage first. Due to her not sharing the same desires it didn't get that far! Anyway Druscilla, Caroline and I would often be left for hours to play together. Caroline was the youngest and consequently got bullied, but Druscilla bullied me too so it was pretty equal, well ok it wasn't but I thought Druscilla was beautiful so I didn't mind. The story of my life!
Mum's brother had two daughters. They lived around the corner but we hardly saw them, mainly because he didn't like Mum. My only vivid memory of Christine and Judith was of them bringing a chocolate egg with a creamy white and yellow filling to me for Easter. For years I was haunted by this moment, it was my first experience of mythical food. Mythical food is something you eat which tastes beautiful but never tastes as good at a later date. About 6 years later I had a Cadbury's Cream Egg but of course it wasn't as good as the one my cousins gave me.
The problem with cousins is no matter how much you love them your parents –well in my case my Mum- do that thing of comparing them to you and telling you how great they are and how shit in comparison to them you are so after a while you can't help but hate them a bit. Apparently their parents do the same to them too, which was quite a satisfying revelation even if it came too late to help.
* * *
Having family members living very close by is not so common nowadays but back then my family experienced much closer proximity to one another. Most of my Mum's aunts and uncles lived within a mile of where we lived and visiting relatives was a firmly set part of the weekly agenda. Even now my mother tells me off for not calling her regularly enough. For her it is a rejection because visiting family members is a sign of caring whereas for my generation it is a sign of caring to leave each other well and truly alone. But the word Kindness has in it the word Kin and in this there lies a warning to us all.
* * *
In the part of London I lived in, Fulham, and in the street that I lived in, and had done for 20 years, the neighbours talk to one another. I recently moved from one house in the street to another because I like the area so much. I told the woman who bought my house about the neighbourly spirit of the area and on moving in she knocked on most of the houses 5 doors up and down from hers and introduced herself. So I can't say it's just the old guard who are just neighbourly, but generally speaking our society has become more and more insular. The world of everyone knowing what your business is was a very oppressive one but the new world, the one where we leave each other alone has become too fragmented and isolating. If the theme of many relationships is a conflict that leaves people feeling either agoraphobic (resulting in a feeling of too much space) or claustrophobic (a feeling of too little space) then perhaps our society as a whole is facing a similar quandary.
* * *
One day when I was 5 I wanted to ride my tri-cycle up and down the road in front of Gran's house. Mum stood there and listed what I should be careful of including “don't talk to any strangers, if someone offers you a lift then come and tell me at once, and if someone says they've come to take you to see me then run away as quickly as possible” and so on including warnings about offers of sweets and ice cream. By the end of the list I got off my tri-cycle and said I'd rather play in the back garden. However there's only so much appreciation of the scent of grass that a child can take and peddling on grass is hard work so I decided to explore the end of the garden. This is where the shed and vegetable patches were. Between them a maze of pathways criss-crossed and divided the different areas. From seemingly nowhere a voice said “Hello Simon”, I looked up and over the fence a neighbour's head was looking at me, it was Mr Bertie. Mum walked towards us, picked me up and chatted to him for a while then passed me to him over the fence. I'd often spend hours with Mr Bertie, his wife and their white Scottie dog. There must have been a connection between people with pets and those who liked looking after kids because the neighbours on the opposite side of the road, the Marchmonts, would also look after me too, they had cats though. In fact people with dogs tended to be more fun, Mr Bertie was playful and he had a dog, Mrs Marchmont was a bit strict and she had three cats, Mum's friend Judith had a cat called Sooty, a dog called Kim, who had puppies, and three sons. Just having puppies made Judith's place magical especially when we, that's her son Peter and I, spent a whole morning pulling sugar puffs – a breakfast cereal – out of their fur after they'd got in to the cereal box. I rest my case. Pets, especially dogs, indicated a receptive environment.
At five years old I was forced to wear artificial arms which meant when I wanted to stroke people's pets I couldn't feel their fur unless I put my face to them. This would often get me a stern warning from any adult nearby because of the dangers of being so close to a potentially dangerous animal. But I don't remember being attacked. In fact I'd often be told that animals which would normally keep away from people would warm to me. I still have this gift now but sadly it doesn't apply to snakes but does attract the homeless and mentally ill.
* * *
The days of passing kids over the fence are bygone for most people now, we live in a world where we have seen time after time that even members of children's own families maybe of danger to them. The other night I visited a friend who lives on a boat in Chelsea Harbour , her main living area is a room that has a glass front and burgundy red walls that curve around. We sat watching a Russian animation based on a lullaby that says something on the lines of
“ Go to sleep, little one, for mama
If baby won't go to sleep
The big wolf will come and eat him”.
As we watched it I remembered my early fixation on the Wolf. The irony is that wolves tend not to attack people. However people focused our cultural attention on external enemies in order to avoid the terrible realisation that it is our own lack of control that is our greatest threat. I read the bit I wrote about “adult abuse” a few paragraphs back, to a friend the other day and she told me how her mother had been a paedophile and had farmed her out to other paedophiles from when she was 3 years old. My friend, at 50, has only recently been able to talk to others about her ordeal. For her the Wolf was the least of her worries.
A few years ago I stroked a wolf and its fur was the most beautiful I'd ever felt. I don't wear artificial arms now so I didn't need to bury my face into it but I wanted to.
* * *
Beyond the end of Gran's garden, possibly in Mr Bertie's, stood three very tall conifer trees. I would sit in the garden and look at them, seeing them as giants bearing over us. I'd most likely be playing with my Action Men, which were soldier dolls – I stress they were not only soldiers but elite scar on the face types so there could be no mistaking that this wasn't a pursuit likely to result in overt homosexuality, but just to make sure, they didn't have any penises. So the giant trees looked on at me and I would look on at my brigade of post-op transsexual soldiers. There was a certain feeling of order to it all.
* * *
One day a doctor from the hospital where my Mum worked as a hair dresser took me to a shop with his girlfriend to buy an action man diving suit. I could feel him playing at being a daddy, but his girlfriend wasn't so involved. If this was what it was like to have a father then I wanted more of it. A few weeks later I asked Mum if I could see him again and she told me that sadly he'd committed suicide. I asked her what suicide meant and she explained that he'd been so unhappy he'd killed himself. I couldn't understand how someone so nice could take themselves away from me and in the hope of creating a kinder world I told Mum that I would never kill my self.
* * *
The garden was a place for driving my trike, exploring, setting up Action Man battles and lying in the paddling pool while Mum got the hose and aimed cold water at me. Gran would leave jam jar traps out for wasps – You see just like the Bush Family's battle with Saddam, my war on wasps was a trans-generational issue -.
The Garden with its apple tree, the old shed with curtains painted on the window, and the bird-bath were remnants of a grand father I never knew. This was his garden, once lovingly tended too it was now maintained by my Gran, possibly partly as a memorial to him. A photograph of him sat on the mantle piece in the front room. He was a ghost of the dream I yearned for, maybe he watched over me or maybe it was me who, like a ghost, haunted the garden.
When I was twenty three I painted a large triptych. The central painting was called “Garden Stories”, and had a shadowy figure (my grandmother) standing under the apple tree, while buried beneath the garden was my grandfather and their son, Neville, who'd died from meningitis aged 10.
Inside the house was the home of Mum and Gran, but outside had been the world of the men in my family, but they were all gone.
* * *
Whenever we were going to go anywhere interesting the time taken for Mum to do her hair and makeup would feel interminable. Sometimes I would sit and watch her. If I did she'd brush her hair up so it looked like bunny ears and pull a rabbit type face at me in the mirror. Even now I like watching who ever I'm going out with putting their make up on, but instead of making a funny face they just tell me to get lost.
* * *
The routine of home life doesn't generally lend itself to exciting subject matter for a book but there were odd moments, like me putting Mum's bikini on and walking up and down in front of her and feeling a bit excited about doing so, but I didn't grow up to be a transvestite and I doubt even that momentary experience gives me an insight in to what it feels like. I can remember Gran telling me not to come in to the kitchen because she was getting changed, I got a chair and stood on it to look through the key hole but then I thought “I don't want to see Gran undressed” – for a change I made a sensible decision, perhaps if I had done I'd now be a regular subscriber to “Old bags for shags” or gay -. Amongst other indiscretions I occasionally ate a few of Gran's grapes without asking and played with the light switch at the top of the stairs but at that point in my life I didn't seem set on a path of crime and misdemeanours.
Then there'll be the experiences shared by many people of my age group such as hiding behind the couch when Dr who was on TV, or the coldness of a house without heating, especially the cold loo, or being washed in the washing up bowl in the kitchen.
If not interesting reading, the routine, the boisterous regularity of family life was what I yearned for. From waking in the morning and finding toys to play with, being dressed, having breakfast, more playing, maybe some magic painting – putting water on a page and watching colours appear - or colouring in pictures of exciting furry animals, and then, with me dressed up in my new space man suit complete with a green visor helmet, going out to visit a relative and playing with their toys too. If we'd go shopping we'd pass the mirror shop where I'd play in front of the bendy mirrors, or we'd pop in to the toy shop where occasionally I'd get something, normally a model aircraft, that'd keep me quiet for hours. For special treats I'd be taken to the cinema where I'd get upset if there weren't any aeroplanes involved in dog-fighting.
If Mum wanted to go out of an evening I'd stay at her friends places where their kids and we would build camps, and play with each others toys. I'd fall asleep but have vague memories of Mum carrying me to and from the car in a wash of orange streetlight and wake up the next morning in my own bed. If home is where the heart is then home spread out to Mum's friends, their homes and their children. When I came home from “care” (the Home ) I felt like everywhere we went together was home.
* * *
17 July 1969
A day in the light of
Bright specks of dust glinted in the light streaming through the gap between my curtains. For a moment I was transfixed but the call to duty was greater. Down stairs my Action Men needed to be called to arms so I crept down to them. Mum was still sleeping but Gran was up and sitting in the kitchen. I said hello as I passed her and she looked up at me. The back room was where my toy box was so this was my play room. When I wasn't here it was the dining room. It had a red carpet, and upon the fire place were ornaments including china horses, porcelain deer and a red glass. The dining room had French windows that opened on to the garden. I played until Mum, who had finally gotten up, called me to the kitchen.
I ate cornflakes while Mum cut out some tokens from the cereal box. Cereal boxes, Golly labels on marmalade jars, and Hot Wheels racing cars had perpetual offers for “free” items. When I'd eaten most of the cornflakes Mum poured the rest of the milk in to a cup and I drank it. Having the cornflakes was a necessary procedure one had to undertake in order to receive the bliss of sweetened milk.
Mum was talking to Gran when Mum made a strange sound. I looked up to see tea gushing out of her nose. I looked on as Mum stood up and made her way to the sink, still coughing. The paper she had been reading was soaked. Mum came back to the table and said “Sorry Simon”.
“Are you alright Mummy?”
“Don't worry darling the tea just went down the wrong way. Come on let's get ready”
Gran added “You won't be late will you?”
So we got ready and went out for a walk to see one of Mum's friends. This friend lived behind some shops and we had to walk up a black wrought iron staircase to get to her flat. Mum and her friend talked while I played with my Action Men. This friend didn't have any children so I was left to my own devices.
An ice cream van sounded its music nearby. Dutifully I begged Mum to buy me one but she refused. Instead her friend offered me an ice pop, which is an ice-lolly that you squeeze out of its plastic wrapper as you eat it. It was so cold that I had to scrape it with my teeth. No doubt this was a deliberate ploy by the adults to keep me busy for half an hour while they chatted.
We made our way home, stopping at the mirror shop for a quick play, but the toy shop was closed, it was a Sunday. When we got back I played in the garden while Mum stood in the kitchen putting on make up and doing her hair. I have tended in my adult life to go for women who put on a minimal amount of make up and have plain hairstyles. This is possibly because of the nausea that sets in after the initial 10 minutes of watching a woman getting ready to go out.
“Are you ready yet?” I'd ask
“Are you still not ready?” Gran would ask
“How much longer are you going to be?” We'd both ask
“I'm so bored Mum” – that'd be me saying that, in case you're getting confused.
“Can't you see I'm going as fast as I can?” Mum said, she'd be getting quite irritated by now.
I bounced off back in to the garden followed by a stern warning of “don't you get your clothes dirty young man!” Gran would be sitting waiting in the front room, reading and rustling a newspaper.
The shift of power between children and their parents generally takes place gradually. A parent stands over and protects a helpless child and if all things go to plan the child eventually stands over and protects a helpless parent, what a comforting thought that is.
Mum had recently bought a car, A Singer Chamois, so Gran was beholden to her for lifts. If Mum wanted to take a little longer to do her hair then she did and there was nothing we could do about it.
My Gran's youngest brother, Eddie, had a daughter, Marianne, who was having her 21 st birthday party. Nowadays this would probably be celebrated in a nightclub under the influence of copious amounts of alcohol but back then it was a sedate family affair. The same lot who'd got together at Christmas were back again. There was no Christmas pudding to get rich quick from so I turned my attention to uncle Binks, who was an ex RAF type with a handle bar moustache to show for it. To the adult's present uncle Binks was a bit of a pain but to me he was quite magical. He had me believing there were crocodiles in the pond. So much so, that eventually I wouldn't go out in to the garden. In fact I started crying at the prospect of being made to. Marianne's brother, Paul, had his soon to be married girlfriend, Ann, with him. She had long black hair, big brown eyes and was wearing a white and mauve mini skirt. She came up to me and said “come on darling there aren't any crocodiles out there” and gave me a cuddle. I was I have to say persuaded and let her carry me outside. I wouldn't meet Ann again for another 9 years but both of us carried this moment with us.
As the sun shone on this family occasion this family occasion shone on me. The light of a family's love, even if it isn't a strong one, is a precious commodity when most of the time you live under a shadow. As the afternoon drew on I was jogged in to remembering that Mum would be driving me back up through London to JCH and might if I was lucky put me to bed and kiss me goodnight but the next morning she would not be there. Even the toy robots and battery operated cars she'd bought for me could not make up for the mundane existence of family life that I knew I was missing.
End of chapter 9