My life begins with death.
Before I was even conscious of my own being, my sister died.
You can see from this picture that my sister was an ANGEL. In case you’re not sure, that’s her on the right.
This is the place where she drowned one Whitsun, while I played in the sand.
My sister was the best big sister any little soul could ever have and I missed her lots for a long time after, hanging around the front gate of our house for six months waiting for her to return, and then in many, many disturbing ways for decades after.
Mostly, though, I forgot about her.
After all, I was only two when she drowned.
This is the type of car we drove in, a Vauxhall Cresta. Ours was blue and black. I stood on the front bench seat between mum and dad on the way down to the sea, but sat on the rear seat beside my other sister on the way back.
I do remember returning home without her, turning into our road and thinking there were five of us when we left but now we were only four.
But, also, that life goes on.
I still didn’t know about death, or how my sister had died.
Before she drowned, my sister used to wheel me out in a pushchair with Treena, her Polish friend from down our road. They would sometimes take me around the village to find Grandad, who still worked in the area as a labourer however old he was, and they trained me up to ask for a silver penny – or two bob (two shillings, 10p). Which he always coughed up!
Definitely worth having, since you could get all sorts of fizzy drinks and chocolate bars with that kind of money.
When she drowned, my sister had just finished at the local Church of England school and was due to start at the nearby Secondary Comprehensive, where mum worked as a cleaner.
This is the Holy Trinity church where my sister is buried, attached to the C of E school all three of us children went to.
This is a photo taken in the graveyard at my sister’s funeral. You can see members of my family. In all, on both sides, there were about forty aunts and uncles.
And another one, which includes my other sister. They were together when the drowning occurred.
I showed the grave to my friends when I was eleven – the age of my sister when she drowned – but they didn’t believe my sister was buried there. They thought I had made her death up. One of them – the very same girl I admitted my undying love for after she had stolen a cigarette lighter that I had bought as a present for mum during a school trip to Holland and wouldn’t return it until I had said as much – said that I had found a grave with my sister’s name on it and was only making out that she was buried there.
The porch of the Holy Trinity church is where Gee Ward takes his first tab of acid with his new mate, Matt Bunting, in Death and the Dead.
My dad’s youngest brother got married at the Holy Trinity church three years after my sister’s drowning at the beach and burial in the church graveyard. I was a pageboy. I remember being dressed in a white shirt with a collar and ruffled front, a dickie bow, and shiny black patent leather sandals. Nothing more. And – being the last day of January – it was freezing! I remember standing by my sister’s grave as some photographs of the wedding group were taken.
The married couple gave me a little book called “GOD’S CHILD” A PRAYER BOOK FOR THE YOUNG and showed a little girl praying on the front, seated with hands held together, in a white chiffon bridal headdress and two little cherubs listening to her. Of course, that could have been my sister praying on the cover.
In the Foreword, I read,
Life is much shorter than you think. At any moment we may die; and so we must always be ready to have a happy death.
Unlike that of my sister, methinks, who must have suffered incalculable pain as the salt water filled the ventricles of her lungs…
In Chapter One GOD AND YOU I read,
On some nice day in summer you go to the beach. You love the ocean, don’t you? There, after playing in the water for a while and getting cooled off, you begin to play in the sand. You mix some water in the sand, then you make a sand-man. Who owns the sand-man? Why, you, of course! You own it because you made it.
Yes, I own the sand-man.
The funny thing is that the little book was a Roman Catholic publication and had nothing to do with the C of E nuptials of my aunt and uncle. Just as my mum had nothing to do with the Roman Catholic church, despite being born in Eire. She was from the 3% Protestant stock.
While we are on the matter of percentages, only ten per cent of drownings occur in seawater.
My other sister got married at the Holy Trinity Church, too, many years later. Before that her twenty-first birthday was celebrated at the church hall on the school grounds and at the party (I was fifteen) my aunt from my uncle’s marriage when I was a pageboy claimed to my dad that I tried to get off with her.
Honestly, you couldn’t make any of this this up!
My first teacher from the Church of England school (when I was four) ended up marrying an uncle of mine forty years later, which was pretty weird. But nice. He was in a wheelchair by then, having lost a foot to gangrene. She used to push him around the village, just like my sister pushed me around all those years before, when I’d ask Grandad for a silver penny. Funnily enough, that very same uncle who married my first teacher all those years later asked my grandad for his house and all his money after Nan died. Somewhat more than two bob. By way of compensation, he and his son married Grandad off to some poor old woman who immediately fetched up non compos mentis in an old people’s home when Grandad died shortly after. They then produced a will signed by Grandad saying all the money should pass to them by way of the old dear. The son died of alcoholism soon after. Another funny coincidence is that my grandad slept with his son’s wife. You couldn’t make this up, not really.
That said, I’ve written a novel based on these very details.
My remaining sister was actually epileptic, having turned blue in Mum’s arms as a two-year old after suffering a seizure which cut off the blood supply to her brain, and being rushed to hospital. Mum didn’t think she’d live. But she did. Unlike my other sister. Her relationship to her illness was far from straightforward. One day while mum was out and I was about seven she pretended to have an epileptic fit in the house and I didn’t really know what to do. I knew she was pretending but because she was also actually a genuine epileptic I couldn’t really take the chance of ignoring her. She went through the whole procedure of nearly gagging on her tongue and passing out and then she came to on her bed, me waiting patiently for her fluttering eyes to at last remain open and still. At that point she theatrically asked me where we come from. My mind went blank before I told her that we come from God. I meant nothing by it, incidentally; just that, we had to come from somewhere, and she had asked, and so I felt compelled to provide some kind of answer.
Then again, in my little book Chapter One, GOD AND YOU, I had read – or quite possibly had read – the opening passage, which actually went like this,
Dear Child, did you ever ask yourself : “Where do I come from?”
No? Maybe you were too little to ever ask these things.
But now you are getting big enough to think of them and to know about them.
Where did you come from?
(Guess what the answer is)
Why, you came from God. God made you and you belong to God.
Just like the sand-man I had made on the beach while my sister drowned belonged to me, as the book also made clear.
So I had the answer all ready for my other sister, the one who survived.
To get my own back, I made out that I was having a breathing fit and she believed me until she understood that this behaviour was merely meant as payback for what she had done to unsettle me.
By the way, this sister – the epileptic sister – was in the sea with my other sister at the time of the drowning.
On the first day of school Mum and I stopped to buy sweets at the newsagent’s (better known as the sweetshop) and I, as usual, stood before the chocolate counter bedazzled by the array of sugary jewels displayed in glass jars on the back shelves. Oh, such gems you never saw. This was an Aladdin’s Cave of crystalized magic. Sugar-coated pear drops and cola cubes, bright yellow powdery lemon bonbons, shiny sherbet strawberries, gleaming aniseed twist, all dancing with colour.
Then when mum and I came back out, me with four ounces of Rhubarb and Custard nestling in my coat pocket, we saw our neighbour’s son, who was the same age as me, clinging onto the letter box and refusing to let go even as his mum tried to prise his fingers off the red-painted metal. No school for him, then! At least not for another day.
School was okay to begin with. I liked my first teacher, the one who later married my uncle (the one who procured all the family money and assets). But that was only for the first three years, while we attended infants’ school.
The whole education process became much heavier after that. As a matter of fact, the school building was built on two levels, so that as an infant you remained on level one, whereas from the age of seven you physically went up a level – and somehow the pressure on you reflected that.
From then on they really laid into you. You were got at. You were fair game.
First of all the teacher in Junior One was on your case about how often you took a shit and whether or not you carried a cotton handkerchief with you at all times. Said handkerchief could be thrust in one’s trouser pocket or bundled up under one’s sleeve as one wished. The main thing was that you had the said article upon your person without fail. Next, and most importantly of all, was whether or not you attended the church on Sunday mornings. In all these matters, humiliation was the preferred instrument of mental duress. A choice question would be raised in class and if you could only answer in the negative your fate was to remain standing in shame before all your classmates, as they sat soundly on their chairs with straight spines and gleeful smiles. As backup, a wizened old crone of a woman came into the classroom from time to time and read from the holy book stories that remained incomprehensible but that were clearly intended to fill us all with fear. God was an absolute cunt. If that failed, her stares were intended to have the same effect. The vicar – a smug, fat bastard, if ever I saw one – would also turn up at unannounced hours during the school day and certain members of the class would become the centre of unwanted attention as their foul behaviour was pointed out to all concerned. Oh, my, oh, my.
And so the God thing got really hammered into you, accompanied by an uncomprehending fear of all the worthies surrounding you: the form teacher, the headmaster and deputy-headmaster with their adjoining rooms at the end of the corridor on the second-level, the book readings, and the vicar – and the threat of what awaited you in your final year before leaving juniors for secondary school…the Boss-Eyed Bee.
But first of all the hammering-into of the little soul who had lost his beloved sister on the beach…
In the book I had been given as a pageboy at my aunt and uncles’ wedding, in Chapter Two, WHAT GOD WANTS YOU TO DO, I was able to read,
If you belong to God, you must do what he wants.
(And implicitly all those who are representatives of God: see worthies above)
If that little sand-man you made on the beach could talk, what would he say? Why, he would tell you he loved you. And why? Because you made him.
And the little sand-man would try to please you. And he would try to make you happy.
And so God wants you to please Him. And to make Him happy.
According to my remaining sister’s testimony at a slightly later time, the deputy-headmaster and the headmaster wanted her to please them, too. And to make them happy. As a result of trying to avoid making them happy she suffered severe burns on her legs (as attested to by my parents) as she sidled away from them and found herself pressed against a full-on heated radiator.
Some boys and girls always growl and grumble (according to my little book) when they are told to do something. This is wrong. And it does not please God, Who made them. Obey right away and gladly. Because when you do, you make God happy.
And we all want to make God happy, don’t we, children? (my words)
What else can I remember?
(By the way, are you familiar with all those great Van Morrison songs where he gets all emotional and misty-eyed – or should that be misty-voiced – over the past: Hyndford Street, Sense of Wonder, Take Me Back… and the rest? Check them out sometime.)
Let’s start with the comics. You had the Beano and the Dandy and the Topper and the rest them. But the one for me was the Beezer. The other ones had strips which seemed somehow dated, even then, what with Desperate Dan, Korky the Cat, Lord Snooty and the like. Maybe it was also their size, since many were tabloid compared to my favourite comic’s A3 expansiveness.
I don’t recall Ginger so much, but inside Smiffy was the prototype for a later Joey Ramone, while The Numskulls had a certain whiff of French Existentialism about them as they ranged about their owner’s interior cranium causing him all sorts of uncertain sensations and psychological meanderings. Beryl the Peril and Dennis the Menace, Minnie the Minx and Roger the Dodger, apart from possessing great-sounding rock n roll names, were the perfect role models for all British ten year old children. Admittedly, these were from the Beano. As was The Bash Street Kids, forerunners of all those American garage bands like ? and the Mysterions, 13th Floor Elevators, Strawberry Alarm Clock and so on. Maybe even MC5 and The Stooges!
Actually, you can probably point to the Dundee-based publishers for all my later reprobate behaviour. They were the ones to blame.
Although I don’t think they were responsible for all my bed-wetting during those years.
Uurgh, bed-wetting was the bane of my life for so long. I’d wake up in the middle of the night absolutely soaked, afraid to get up, afraid to disturb my parents, lying awake in the dark waiting for morning to arrive. Trying to sleep, I’d ball my hand into a fist and place it under a hip to prop my body up from the soaking bedsheets. And then, of course, the telling off and ritual humiliation…
Oh, thank goodness for aniseed twist and the Beezer!
Bed-wetting apart, I don’t think that I was a bad little boy at all – that is in the sense of offering up what is now referred to as challenging behaviour. I smoked, I investigated the private parts of a little girl down the road and the boy next door, I bullied a smaller boy once by making him pull down his trousers and having him stand in an old iron bedstead – but, you know, over all, I was a pretty good kid, never made a fuss, ate up my dinner, came home when called at night, got up in time for school, never back-chatted teachers.
What need of I for my little prayer book’s admonishments,
You must obey your father and mother (who would have been horrified at what I got up to, well mum, anyway), help them, never make them angry. A good child loves his parents very much and never says or does anything to hurt or displease them.
That was me.
You must also honour and obey your teachers and superiors, and respect the old.
That was going a bit too far, since I hated my teachers because I was mostly scared of them and I especially hated the old crone who read us those ridiculous bible stories about Samson and Jonah and Job and whomsoever. What a load of cobblers!
You must be kind to all and never neglect to help the needy.
So I lent money to my friends, if need be, as a result of being able to save a little bit of my fourpence a week pocket money. One day I found tuppence and gave a penny to the friend who was with me. He thought for a moment, gave it back to me, and said that was part payment of a thruppence debt he owed me. Now he only owed me tuppence.
That said, I was pretty shrewd when it came to money. I suggested to my dad one day that if everyone gave the exchequer a penny every week there’d be enough money to pay for all the things the country needed. He replied that already happened. And it was called taxes.
But not even I would have considered as making sense something else written in my little prayer book.
This morning papa gave you two dollars to buy anything you wanted. (I wish. Dad worked all day for that kind of money.) You love a little dog and you always wanted one. So you and your mama went off to the kennels, the place where they sell nice dogs, and you bought a little, friendly dog, who licked your hands and was so glad to go home with you.
This is the good part.
Who owns the dog? Why, you of course! And why? Because you bought it, and what you buy is your own.
Okay, forgetting the mangled syntax and the fact that I never wanted a dog – a nice one that licked my hand or otherwise – , or even that my mum would never consider letting me have one, how is it that I, who have never contributed to the family income or up to then earned a penny, with money given to me for doing exactly zilch, now have ownership rights over another sentient being?
But here’s the best bit of all, the catch, if you like.
Now, did anyone ever buy you? Think a little. Look at the Cross. Who is there? Why, it is Jesus! And why is he there? Because he is buying you back from the power of the devil. And who is Jesus? Why, he is God. And so He bought you, and He owns you.
Now what kind of twisted logic is that? I’d never heard of the devil, knew nothing about him, much less that he had power over me in much the same way as I had power over my own little imaginary doggie. And as for being purchased by some other being I knew nothing about – how did that work? And all because some fictitious papa presented me with two non-existent dollars. You couldn’t even use American currency in any shop I knew. Offer them a dollar and they’d laugh at you. This was the land of pounds, shillings and pence. LSD.
The little prayer book then proffers up another fictitious account of how Uncle Joe (I had fifteen uncles back then and not one of them was called Joe) called round our house the previous night and brought me a rubber ball! And I was so happy! Out bouncing it on the street, it rolled away.
Little Jimmie sees it and picks it up. He begins to walk away with it. “Wait…that’s my ball, Uncle Joe gave it to me.” And Jimmie gives it back to you. Whatever is given you, is yours.
You can see how I feel about all this ownership stuff in my revenge novel QUESTION.
Anyway, the upshot of all this pontificating in the little prayer book presented to me for being a pageboy at my aunt and uncle’s wedding is that,
You belong to God. Did not Jesus buy you from hell?
So that’s where I’d been, and there was me thinking – if not explicitly – that I was having an idyllic childhood, what with sweets and comics and friends and pocket money and school holidays and making camps and playing in the woods and dressing up and what have you.
And indeed, apart from having one dead sister, and a remaining almost-pathologically violent, epileptic sister who hated me venomously, that was wholly the case.
This was my secondary school, where they used to beat you if you didn’t comply with their rules.
Unaffectionately, it was called ‘the Prison on the Hill’.
I enjoyed getting into trouble and thieving. And I liked motorbikes. So when all three came together…that was perfect!
This was my first motorbike, a BSA Bantam 150cc
Before this I had a Lambretta 100 motorscooter.
Both machines got me into trouble…
Well, we won’t persevere with this theme, since I have written about it elsewhere.
Then this happened