By Samantha Blaney, a Scot in London who, when not dropping her r’s in a bid to be understood, can be found practising yoga and writing her first novel.
I want to warn you what will come here: there will be a lack of opportunity, there will be a young girl who is the dux of her school, there will be a love story, there will be loss, and laughter, and plants, and children, and grand-children and great-grandchildren, there will be lies, there might be rumour, there will be caring, there will be motherhood, and sisterhood and grannyhood. There will also be tea, and biscuits if you’re lucky. There will be a brain tumour, there will be hospitals, there will be defiance, and there will be, above all, love.
Your house is the house that I’ll kick-start my life in. On a cold night in mid-December in nineteen eighty-four you and my Mum will be dressing the Christmas tree when the contractions will start. You’ll pack the bag, get to the car, you will be there, but my Dad wont. Not yet. He will be soon, but for this part of the story he is missing in action. I’ll be swaddled into our new life. You will all make space for me, give up things for me, love me when at times I prove myself to be unlovable. But that’s in the future, and we’re talking the past. I am your first grandchild, and after having five daughters yourself, I continue the tradition of the bitey, defiant and glorious women of our family. I’m given your name as my middle name.
Two Three Nine.
That’s how we say the number of you and Papa’s house. No other variation has ever stuck, who knows if anyone ever tried. No Two-hundred and –thirty-nine. No Two-thirty-nine. No.
I spend so many hours in your care as a child, while we’re at two-three-nine. You work nightshift in the life that I know you, as a nurse in a mental health unit, but you’ve had other jobs, in other lives. They’re stories to me, I as a child, cannot fathom you being anything other than my Granny. But you were; you are.
Born in a small mining town in Lanarkshire, Scotland, in nineteen thirty-nine, into a world looking into the pit of yet another world war, you were a gem in the coal painted hands of your Father, a miner, and your Mother, a Mother. There will be thirteen children, and only eleven survive. Fewer now. You are number two, but technically number three because the first will be two. Twins. There will be more twins to come. In school, you will be number one in your class. You’ll be the dux. You’ll have your name engraved on the board, and one day when the school is converted into overpriced rented accommodation, that board will come down and it’ll just be our family myth, our legend. You’ll be told you must leave school. You’ll be told to get a job. You’ll be told you must contribute to the family. There are hungry mouths to feed, and being a clever woman never helped anyone.
So, you’ll get a job, over the years you’ll get many jobs. The first one you’ll get will be in a grocers on the high street called the Maypole, but you never understand why it’s named that. You like talking to the customers, wearing the apron, playing the role of an adult. Your life will change here. A tall shy man and his short sharp mother will come into the shop every Saturday morning. You’ll snatch glances, and finally smiles with him, this tall shy man, while you stock the shelves and pack customers bags. Less shy with time. He asks you to go dancing. You say yes. And for the first time you understand maybe why it’s called the Maypole, because it feels like there are ribbons being danced around your heart.
The tall shy man, who is named Hugh is from a different type of family from you. They’ll have more money, and his Mother will think herself better than you, she won’t like your beauty, finds it suspicious. He will be left-handed, but forced to become ambidextrous at school, because his school master will say that the left hand is the devil’s hand. His hands will play the drums in a swing band and he will charm you. He will be the only man you meet in this way. The man with the devil’s hand. He’ll never raise it to you, but it will reach for other women. But that’s later. Maybe you know this already. Maybe not.
You meet Hugh, and nothing will ever be the same again. The seasons will change. The moon will swap places with the sun. The tide will still kiss the shore each day, but nothing, will ever be the same. Not for you. Now you’ve had a taste of love, you’ll want to drink the cup full.
You’ll become pregnant quickly, and you’ll get married quickly. I am told you are pregnant in your wedding photograph. I don’t know if it’s true. I look for all the signs, but can find none, only a slither of you behind the eyes, a fraction of you in the corners of your smile. Years later I will share this photograph on social media and for the first time I will see myself, and my two sisters so like you. My face was always my fathers, that must have hurt Mum sometimes, what joy it must have been to see me bloom into a version of a younger you. To see our heritage, and the women who came before us, stamped on each other faces. Familiar traits. Versions of us. The smudge of a smile. The blink of an eye. The pitch of a laugh. We’ll see them in the next generation too.
You’ll have five daughters. When you tell people this they will shake their head in pity, they will give you a glance that says, you must have your work cut out for you. You do. Two-three-nine will be your home. You’ll raise your girls there. They will bring you joy, and sometimes frustration, they will have early morning scraps for the best clothes. They are all so different. How can five fruits born from the same tree be so different?
Valerie, Carol, Yvonne, Beverlie and Lesley.
People will say these names in this order for years to come.
You’ll have another child. He will be a he. He won’t breathe when he is born. There won’t be enough air, and you’ll try to catch yours for the rest of your life. You’ll think about him every day. He would have been the last, and when your Hugh dies you’ll believe that he’ll be with him. Somewhere. A Father and Son. But your life is not all sadness. Is anyone’s? Years later my sister will find out she is expecting an unexpected boy, and when this is revealed you’ll be sitting in the corner and you will cry tears of happiness for her, and you will cry tears of sadness for yourself. You’ll say you’re happy for blue, so happy for blue. So happy for you, you’ll say.
So, you’ll live out your life at two-three-nine, you’ll raise your girls and you’ll plant a rose garden, all will bloom.
Until it doesn’t.
That man you met, that tall shy boy, you met and loved, and bore daughters to, who in their turn bore sons and daughters too. That man, your love, will get sick. He, like many men of his generation, doesn’t like going to the doctor, so he doesn’t. He doesn’t and then it is too late. The cancer is ferocious. Thirsty for flesh and life. The two can’t exist together. You and your daughters will care for him at two-three-nine. The dining room will become a hospital room when his legs can’t make it up the stairs. You won’t be able to cook hot food because the smell will make him nauseous, so you’ll live on sandwiches and sadness. He’ll die with you all around him. I’ll be ten doors up the street at my parents and I’ll know the exact moment he is gone. Because the women in our family are magic, and they know these types of things. The next morning, the first morning without him, I’ll walk down the road with a packet of bacon and you and I will eat bacon rolls that we’ll cook in the kitchen. It’s been so long you’ll say, but you’re not talking about the bacon roll. The dining room is never used as a dining room again.
One day after he is gone, you will start to lose your hearing. Your grandchildren will joke about you being a deaf granny, they’ll shout what, and lark, and say that again. You’ll laugh along, but really, do you really need to hear in a world with no sound, without his voice, without his bassline, without his drum, drum, drum.
You’ll see a doctor, you’ll be fitted for a hearing aid, but you won’t hear much else because when he’s trying to explain to you that they’ve found a tumour in your brain, when all you came for was to be fitted for a hearing device, the sun loses her sound, and even the blades of grass growing are silent in the garden. The roses don’t shout. The children don’t cry.
There’s not a dry eye in
the house (two-three-nine).
They’ll say it’s fine until it isn’t. Then they’ll have to perform surgery because the uninvited guest in your head is growing larger, affecting more, creating havoc with elements of your personality. They’ll warn you and they’ll warn us that it might not go well, that you’re older now and recovery will be harder. The surgeon will perform intricate moves on this organ of yours that holds most of who you are. This organ that files your memories, this organ that creates your personality, this organ that helps you walk and talk and garden and sing. You’ll wake up, groggy, like a new born, fresh to the world. We’ll be standing over you when you wake, we’ll hold your hand and whisper to you that, Everything is ok, even though we’re not sure it will be. But it is. You’ll recover. You’ll rise up with your newly shaved head, like a new-born, reborn, again and again. You’ll see more grandchildren born, and then some great-grandchildren born, the conveyor belt of time keeps trundling along, with little regard for our need to
Down to see the smaller things. The important things.
At two-three-nine you’ll descend the steps into your back garden. You’ll tend to your flowers and your plants, hands dirty from soil. In summer, you’ll water the plants at sunset, in winter, you’ll collect dead leaves. The stairs will make your knee ache. The house is too big for one person anyway, isn’t it? But it’s two-three-nine. It’s your home. You’ll struggle with the idea of leaving. The roots of who you are lie deep under the ground of this house, this home. Your home. But the throbbing in your knee keeps whispering, and you know a smaller house will be more convenient, less sprawling, less work and less stairs – but also less memories. Two-three-nine will be packed up. A lifetime of life, and family. You’ll have lived there for forty-nine years you’ll say when you close the front door and hand over the keys to the new owner. She won’t understand. She won’t hear your husband playing the drums in the loft, or the sound of him sawing in his hut, she won’t hear, the declarations of love, the admonishments, the introduction of new boyfriends when the girl are teenagers. She cannot peel away the years like wallpaper to see the Christmas dinners or the Easter parties that were all filmed on the camcorder, now hidden in a box somewhere, and thought of occasionally. She cannot smell your baking, she cannot taste your soup, the minestrone that you put pasta in, the macaroni with too much cheese sauce, your occasional brandy, or Papa’s daily beer. She can’t hear us chapping the door to be let in, she can’t hear the car pulling up after a long nightshift. She can’t hear how silent it’s become.
Your new home is much smaller, but warmer and with less baggage. You enjoy the process of decorating it, finding the colours, the textiles, the furnishing. Nesting into your new home.
You leave me with your habits. I drink tea with lashings of milk and too much sugar. You’re in every cup, every sup, every sip. I have your insatiable thirst for gossip. Who said that? She did what? He left who? I also have your inability to keep secrets. They blurt from me accidentally, my words too quick, my judge too hard. Your laugh, which is more of a cackle, I have that too.
So here we are. This story allowed me to write some of you down on paper. I got to speak to you, clarify details, ask your permission. You say yes, and then ask if I have a boyfriend yet.
Your story won’t be in the tabloids, not in the broadsheets, you won’t have an obituary in the Guardian. No one will see your picture. That’s why I’m here. Writing these words and telling your story. Because you have accomplished, you are accomplished. I’m writing it so other women read your story, and realise that despite no films being made about you, no radio drama, no biographies by unaccredited authors.
You are here. You exist. Your story matters.