I was brought up by my sister, Kathy. Our parents died in an accident not long after I was born, and I became her ward.
Kathy was still a teenager then.
To this day, I don’t fully understand why she was landed with me, and I probably never will. The whole thing is shrouded in an air of stuffy mystery.
“I gave up my whole life for you!” was Kathy’s favourite thing to say to me when I was small.
She says it less now. I suppose she eventually became accustomed to it, and anyway, I left home – if you could call it that – years ago.
I feel genuinely bad for her. I don’t know why other relations couldn’t have taken me on. At one stage, both Kathy and I lived with our uncle and aunt, anyway. That was a nice time.
Kathy was a bright kid, apparently. It stands to reason, as she’s a smart adult. Or an intelligent one, at least. Her decisions haven’t always been smart. I’m told, by Kathy herself, and by my Uncle Clay, that she was planning to study physics at university. This was before the advent of me.
Instead, she took on the role – needlessly I always thought – of a parent, and lumbered around with me in tow, and a huge chip on her shoulder about the whole thing. It was odd. And it’s a funny feeling, when you look back on your life, and your overwhelming thought is ‘That was odd.’
The first person who I thought would have been a much more likely choice of guardian was our grandmother. I am also immensely glad that she didn’t opt for this role. I dislike my grandmother. When I was a small child she behaved confusingly towards me. Sometimes, she would fuss me and tell me how ‘cute’ I was. Other times she told me I should never have been born. Those exact words. She also once told me that ‘The Accident’ was my fault. Never mind that I was a few weeks old at the time it happened. You do not say something like that to a little kid. Or to anyone, for that matter.
Her daughter, our mother’s sister, Fern, could also have taken me on. Similarly, I am hugely glad that she didn’t. The women on that side of my family just don’t seem to be very nice. I wonder if our mother was mean and twisted, too, sometimes.
My parents don’t seem real to me. I can’t imagine them being real people, and I always think of them as Kathy’s parents, rather than my own.
My father’s siblings and their spouses are – and were (my Uncle Tony being dead now) – an amiable lot. It was my Uncle Tony that we lived with when I was small. He and my Aunt Joanna had grown up kids, and I think they liked having me around. And Kathy, too, who wasn’t much more than a kid herself still then. Tony died when I was six. Just keeled over and died, not old, the way some people do. It affected me deeply – not just because he was my favourite person and he spoiled me rotten, but also because it was the catalyst to a lot of terrible things that happened afterwards. It took me a long time to get over it. In fact, I wouldn’t say I ever did. You don’t get over these things, you just get used to them. Like all the other great Dead People in my life, I can still hear my uncle’s voice quite clearly in my head.
I think we could have carried on living with Joanna, and I’m not sure why we didn’t. When I was very tiny, in my earliest memories, we lived in awful poverty. Then we lived with Tony and Joanna, in their lovely house, with nice things and the smell of coffee and wonderful food cooking, and then, once again, we lived in poverty. Joanna would often say afterwards that we should have stayed.
It was horrible when we moved. As well as the great weight of depression, I suppose I learned some street smarts at that time. We went to live in a terrible area, and all the children seemed to be put outside in the morning and roamed wild until after sundown, and I became one of them. When I think back to that time, everything seems grey and dusty and I always felt choked.
There was one ray of sunshine, and that was that Kathy acquired a boyfriend, and he and I became great friends. He was in a band and he listened to a lot of the music that has informed my tastes to this day.
I have often said that a lot of my music taste has come from Kathy, but that isn’t really true. It’s come from the people Kathy was around. Kathy herself I wouldn’t say is particularly bothered about music.
Kathy and the nice boyfriend split up, anyway. Then she went out with a drunk who kicked me down the stairs. Like I said, she didn’t make smart decisions, in spite of being an intelligent person.
Kathy also tortured me. She has done all my life. I don’t mean she stuck needles under my fingernails or anything, she just played with my head. Sometimes, as well, I don’t think she even meant to do what she did, she was just desperate and crazy. Also, Kathy was absolutely terrible with children. She hated them, and she had no idea how to behave around one. Quite often, during my childhood, Kathy would openly admit to this, and say that for all her life she had never wanted kids. Looking back on it now, her bad parenting was also sometimes hilarious. I have never believed in Santa Claus. Whenever Kathy mentioned him, she would always add ‘he’s made up, you know’ as a postscript. Less funny was when my Uncle Tony died, and I asked Kathy if he was in Heaven.
“No” she replied. “When you’re dead, you’re dead.”
That kind of stuff, I put down more to her general weirdness than to her meanness. And in a certain way I don’t exactly fault her honesty. Not that I would say Kathy is a very honest person. Only when it suits her.
The ways in which she truly and knowingly tortured me were numerous. As far as I remember, it all started when I was about two. Or maybe that’s just when my memories of it start. She would tell me she’d got me a present. But then it would be in the weird cupboard at the back of the kitchen that had no light and was full of cobwebs and spiders. It was at the back of that cupboard, and I couldn’t have the present if I didn’t go into the cupboard, on my own, and get it. I’d gingerly attempt it at first, but then there’d be the dark and all the weird spider web covered clutter that wasn’t even ours, and it was spooky, and Kathy was getting mad, which made me even more spooked. I’d say I was scared, and then she’d give me reason to be. She’d begin to get angry. This kind of back and forth would sometimes go on for hours. Whole afternoons would be consumed by the nonsense, and sometimes there’d be Kathy, hours in, saying to me:
“Look. It’s dark now. Look how you’ve wasted the day.”
More often than not, it would end in Kathy screaming at me and throwing things, and smacking herself repeatedly in the head. The last part was the really horrible part. Kathy, I will give this to her, was rarely ever violent towards me, but she often was violent towards herself and made it clear that it was because of whatever I had done.
In spite of these outbursts, I think that Kathy still mainly liked me when I was really little. I believe, until I was old enough to disagree with her, that she largely regarded me with affection, despite me having got in the way of her life. Sometimes I would be hurtling about, or doing whatever I was doing, and she would look at me as if she had never seen me before in her life, and say, with what sounded like genuine feeling:
“Oh! You are so sweet!”
I suppose I probably was, although I never really felt like the bundle of joy a young child is supposed to be. I was too knowing. And I always felt a bit like I was bad.
Sometimes, Kathy would give me my dinner and then ask if I’d like to hear a story. I fell for this for a long time. The stories were about a boy who ate too much. He then got really fat and everyone laughed at him and didn’t want to be his friend, and they ended with his guts exploding. I always assumed that he died, although Kathy was not explicit about this. I will add that I was small and skinny and I wasn’t a child who asked for things. What I am basically saying is that if these were designed to be morality tales, I wasn’t really in need. In fact, if I was a different kind of child, I could probably have developed an eating disorder, or at least a mild horror of food.
When we went to live with Tony and Joanna, the stories mainly stopped. Occasionally, the boy would be reincarnated if Kathy and I went out for a day on our own. We’d stop for an ice cream or a burger, and the cautionary tales would be told.
The crazy outbursts stopped too, during that time, and I had two and a half years of glorious peace. Tony and Joanna lived in a big house with a big garden, and we sat in the sun, and Joanna told me funny stories and bought me funny and interesting books, which I learned to read, long before school. Tony’s sons were grown up by then, and I think he liked having me around. He bought me Lego and other things that you could build yourself, and we played football and he taught me how to ride a bike.
Before all that, Kathy subjected me to some odd people. A scary man, who shouted at me, and this weird perv, who I don’t even want to talk about. The one time I have ever been violent towards Kathy, it was because of the weird perv. It was years and years afterwards, and after I’d moved out of Kathy’s. I’d brought it up a few times, and Kathy had just denied everything and shouted at me, but this time, she let me talk. Anyway, I didn’t say who it was. Kathy knew. Which meant that she’d known all along. Or at least, that’s how I saw it. I went crazy. I pushed her across the room, kicked the door in, left, and didn’t go back for a year. We have never spoken about it since, and neither of us has apologised.
It wasn’t all awful. Kathy also introduced me to some of the best people you could hope to meet. When I was nine, Kathy made an announcement. She was going to university, and that meant we were moving to London. It was a wild and interesting time. Kathy, who had dreams of studying astrophysics and cosmology when she was a school kid, had now made the decision to go to art school. She’d been doing some college courses, and was actually pretty good – she made all these wonderful, intricate paintings back then – and she’d been accepted for a degree at quite a prestigious place.
Kathy’s London friends were awesome. And the best thing about them was that they treated me like I was the same age as they were, and talked to me about all sorts of things that most people didn’t talk to ten year olds about. Kathy would take me to their flats, where there always seemed to be a party atmosphere, and sometimes they’d take me out with them to the pub and sneak me drinks. Kathy had always let me drink. Even when I was really tiny, she’d ask if I wanted a bit too, and I’d get a small helping of beer or wine. I agree with this approach. Like I said, she wasn’t all bad. In fact, when Kathy wasn’t hating me, she would treat me as her equal and make me feel like we were conspirators on an adventure. The trouble was, I never knew when it would turn.
The main thing I learned with Kathy was that you had to never disagree with her. As long as you agreed with everything she said, she was amiable up to a point. My trouble was, and is, that I have this unfortunate inability to curb automatic responses. I literally say things as I think them, with no precognition, so it’s difficult for me to be a yes man.
It wouldn’t be about anything important. You’d literally say something like ‘No, I think it’s at six, not five’ and instantly you’d wish you’d never been born. She would go MAD. She’d go through phases of this behaviour, where every conversation you had would be like this, and that phase would last for weeks, and then suddenly she’d be Nice Kathy again. You just never knew where you were at. She also did this silent treatment thing sometimes. Which would have been okay if it was just plain being ignored, but it was being ignored with an atmosphere. Kathy could do atmospheres like nobody else I have ever met.
The sad thing about it was that I think she must have genuinely felt bad about the way she treated me. Because after weeks of having been pointedly and poisonously ignored – usually for no fathomable reason, I will add – then suddenly I was showered with affection, and sometimes too with gifts and treats that she probably couldn’t afford. It was all quite mixed up. Kathy was mixed up.
Money was also a divisive issue. I had to tread carefully. Sometimes, if she wanted to do something with her friends, she would press some money into my hand and tell me to go off and do whatever I liked. What I had to be careful to do was to not spend most of this money.
When it was just me on my own, this wasn’t difficult. I liked wandering around London, even just roaming the streets, and my favourite place to go, The Natural History Museum, was free. The trouble was when my cousin Eddie came over.
Kathy’s father – my father even – had three brothers, Clay, Clark and Tony, and Clay is our one surviving uncle on that side. Clark died when he was a teenager, and nobody talks about that, either. Basically, nobody talks about anything in our family. Anyway, Clay, Jeannie (his wife) and my cousin Eddie would often come over to see us. Sometimes Eddie would stay for a bit too, after his parents went home. Similarly, I’d sometimes be packed off to go and stay with them. When they came over, Kathy would make a big show of giving me money, and tell me to make sure I bought myself something nice with it. Eddie got regular pocket money, and quite a lot, so he would be happily buying himself all sorts of things. He also liked his food and wouldn’t be satisfied with just one stop off. I never objected to this as there were times in my childhood when I was perpetually hungry, so I consider food one of life’s great pleasures. I’d also usually buy myself something to keep – a book or a CD. I’d make sure not to spend all the money, but me even having spent some of it caused a great grievance. Kathy wouldn’t go as crazy as she could when we were alone. Usually, she’d pull me aside, into the kitchen or hallway, and reprimand me there in hushed but angry tones. Then I’d get the silent treatment. These were the few occasions when I could account for why I’d been sent to Coventry. They were also even worse than the times when it was just us, because she’d be perfectly normal towards Eddie, and to Clay and Jeannie if they were still there, but if she had to speak to me, it would be in this odd, clipped monotone, and her eyes would go all sulky every time she looked at me. Atmosphere. I can’t stand people who sulk. It’s the worst.
There was also no way to avoid things ending up like this, because I thought I’d got wise to what Kathy was doing, and one day, when me and Eddie went out, I bought nothing but a McDonalds Quarter Pounder Meal. When we came back, Kathy was annoyed with me that I hadn’t bought myself anything, and gave me the silent treatment.
Before school trips, as well, Kathy would assure me that she’d give me some cash for the day. But then she would leave me hanging, and I’d not dare ask for fear of some explosive response, and eventually it would be at the point where I’d be about to leave the house, and I’d have to ask her, and then she’d start screaming at me, denying she’d ever said such a thing, shouting the house down. I’d end up just leaving the house with nothing and going hungry all day. It was kind of shit sometimes, because what would happen is I’d end up thinking of nothing except food and it would spoil my enjoyment of what the trip was actually about. Castles, for example. I loved castles and medieval stuff, but when we went to Lincoln Castle, I could think of nothing but food. I was too proud to admit what had really gone on, so I’d just said I’d had a packed lunch and already eaten it on the way to school, and I was still full.
My financial difficulties were alleviated for some stretches of time by Clay and Jeannie, because in the summer I would help them out in their food van. I have fond memories of these summers. We’d all of us go – me, Kathy, Clay, Jeannie and Eddie – up and down the country to all sorts of things, and we’d all work, even me and Eddie. When I was a bit older I’d help out as a fry cook, but even when I was too small to do that, me and Eddie would help out in the back, putting bacon butties together and making teas. Clay and Jeannie paid us, and quite well.
Because of the food van, I’ve been to all sorts of interesting events – the Goodwood Festival of Speed, Hampton Court Flower Show, festivals, agricultural shows, large arts and crafts shows. Some of these were in stately homes with vast grounds, and me and Eddie, when we were not working, would go off on some mad adventures. Also, you’d see the same people over and over again at these things, so you’d meet some other kids at Goodwood and then see them again a few weeks later at an agricultural show or a folk festival. We got up to all sorts as well, because the grown ups would be busy at work, so we were left to our own devices for hours at a time. Once, a girl we knew found some pegs somewhere – God knows where, we were in the grounds of Petworth House, a large stately home in Sussex – anyway, she found these pegs and proceeded to attach one to an unsuspecting woman, who had all these tassels hanging down from her top. After that, we were pegging everybody we could. As the day went on, we became bolder in our pursuits. As far as I can remember, we never got caught.
Another time, we were at Tobacco Dock in London, and me, Eddie and another two children discovered that from the grates in the floor on the level we were on, you could see down into the level below. You could also pour things through the grates. I’m sure you can see where this is going.
These were good times. Kathy always seemed happy when we were travelling about, and was kinder to me, and I liked Clay and Jeannie, and I didn’t mind Eddie most of the time. Sometimes, he would be mean to me, in the way that children can be, and say nasty things about Kathy, or my dead parents, or about me being poor. Eddie was a year older than me, and I always did better than him in school and just generally with stuff, and as a consequence he sometimes liked to hurt me. The funny thing was, in my head, Eddie was good and I was bad. I think, in some kind of half-formed, childish way, Eddie realised I felt this, and he played on it.
From the time I was small, I was made to feel like there was some unspoken truth, some dark secret, surrounding my very existence. Clay and Jeannie never made me feel like that directly, but they must have spoken about things in front of Eddie, or perhaps he eavesdropped. Either way, he knew how to bait me.
You would quite rightly wonder why a teenager who had no interest in children, lots of family around her, and a promising future, would choose to be the guardian of her much younger sibling. It doesn’t really make any sense. One theory that has been put forward is that Kathy is, in fact, my mother. As soon as Eddie said it, I knew it was probably true.
Kathy would have only been seventeen when she took me on. I’m not even sure if that’s allowed. I mean, did somebody let her, or did she just fuck off and run away with me? And if so, why? It does seem so obvious once it’s pointed out. I could delve into it all a lot more than I have done, but the truth is, I respect Kathy’s privacy. I know that’s possibly ridiculous, but that’s how I feel. And I really couldn’t be arsed with all the drama. It would achieve nothing. Kathy would develop a renewed hatred of me, and I’d feel bad and uncomfortable, and everyones’ lives would be a little bit worse. Some things are worth pursuing, and some things you should have the sense to leave the hell alone.
My spiteful Aunt Fern and my grandmother had often said strange things to me, and suddenly, when Eddie dropped this bombshell, they clicked into place. Fern was the worst. I hated her. She said awful things that made me feel like I’d wronged the entire world by being born, and also nasty things about Kathy. She would often insinuate that Kathy had done something terrible, and that because of that Terrible Thing, she had indirectly killed our parents. More than once, she had said:
“If they hadn’t been arguing in the car that day, they would never have had the accident.”
It was only years later when it came to me, suddenly and seemingly out of nowhere, that Fern could not have possibly known whether or not they were arguing in the car. She wasn’t there. Nobody was, except them.
I was very tiny when Fern and my grandmother used to say all these things. Like two or three. We barely saw them when we lived with my aunt and uncle, and Kathy stopped speaking to Fern altogether when I was eight. I couldn’t blame her, and I actually felt very defensive of Kathy as far as her treatment by Fern was concerned.
Sometimes, Kathy would send me off to stay with Fern, and I would hate it. Fern was a devout Catholic and made me go to church with her and reprimanded me for all sorts of things that I didn’t understand.
“Don’t let her fill your head with junk” Kathy used to say. Kathy was an atheist, and I always took this warning to be about all the religious stuff, but she possibly meant about everything else, too.
So many people said so many different things to me all the time, that I never really believed anything anyone said. In a way, I suppose this was kind of sad, but in another way, I am glad about it. You grow up really open minded when you have never expected adults to tell the truth.
I was never mad with Clay and Jeannie for whatever it was they said, because I liked them. But I was also aware that they talked behind my and Kathy’s backs, and that they kept things from me. Eddie would never have been able to make up the things he said they had said. He was too young to think of them, and not bright or imaginative enough.
Often, we’d be out somewhere, at the back of their large garden, or in town eating a Maccies, and Eddie would begin with:
“Do you know what I’ve heard?”
I knew what to expect after this.
Once, Eddie asked me if I’d ever thought about looking for my dad.
“He’s dead.” I said.
“Don’t be stupid” said Eddie. “I mean your REAL dad. Kathy’s boyfriend. He must have been Kathy’s boyfriend.”
“Eddie” I replied, “Come on! Don’t you think I’ve got enough weird relatives? I really don’t need any more.”
Eddie howled with laughter. Even though he was mean to me sometimes, he would often laugh quite affectionately at the things I said. Usually when I wasn’t intending to be funny.
Once, when I was about ten, I said to him that children do my head in. He laughed so much.
“You are so funny!” He said. “How can you say that? You are one!”
I suppose it was a funny thing to say. I didn’t feel much like a kid, though. I have always felt, even as a small child, like I was about a hundred years old. For a long time, I thought that some people are just born with old heads on them, but I now see, quite clearly, that it was because I had spent my childhood being constantly guilt tripped for things that were far out of my control, and often beyond my comprehension.
Once I was in my teens, I mainly just stayed out of Kathy’s way. She often left me to my own devices, and never told me what to do about any big, important things, or about things like when I should be in by, or when to go to bed, but she’d suddenly pick on something really weird, and be like ‘Why do you stand like that?’ or ‘Why are you pulling that face?’ or ‘Why do you hold your knife like that?’ She’d go through phases where I literally couldn’t do anything. Sometimes, as well, I felt like she was deliberately setting me up. Like she’d tell me that she always liked the living room door kept closed, so I’d keep it closed, then I’d go and stay with Eddie for a week and when I came back she’d shout at me for closing the living room door. It all made me feel like I was going a bit mad, because if I ever confronted Kathy about any of her weird behaviour, she would outright deny it, and tell me that I was fucked up and needed help. Also, I always wished that Kathy would be normal, and I’d sometimes tell myself that maybe it was just me, and I’d try really hard to not make all the weird stuff happen, and I’d just be getting to a point where I’d convinced myself that it was all my fault, when Kathy would do something crazy again.
What I learned to do, as well as I possibly could, was to just make myself invisible. This didn’t always work. As quiet and considerate as I could try to be, Kathy, when she was of a particular mindset, would make it quite clear that my presence had somehow irked her. Reading books didn’t work, either. I learned, when I was really small, that if you want people to not talk to you, just read a book and they generally won’t. Unfortunately, this didn’t work on Kathy. Sometimes she’d have not spoken to me for days, and as soon as I opened a book, she’d be full of conversation. And nothing interesting, just that kind of pointless talk some people do to fill what they must see as dead air. In the end, as soon as I could, I just either stayed in my room or went out all the time. I spent as little time as I could in Kathy’s company. I also asked her for nothing. I had learned the value of earning your own money from the food van, and as soon as I could, I got a part time job. I also added to my income by selling weed and pills, and I moved into a mate’s house when I was sixteen and saw Kathy as little as possible. It was actually easier to do my A-Levels like this, because I had some peace.
Kathy is doing well for herself now. About four years ago, she opened a restaurant with Clay and Jeannie. I go and see them sometimes. It’s all quite amiable as long as I don’t make the mistake of staying at Kathy’s house. When we’re alone, she starts on me again. It’s not even hurtful any more. I just can’t be bothered with it.
I find the idea of Kathy running a restaurant quite entertaining, because apart from the fry cooking, Kathy absolutely cannot cook. She didn’t even know you had to boil potatoes off. I had to tell her that. I am quite domesticated because Kathy is not at all, and I like to live in clean and tidy surroundings and eat things that were not pre-made in a factory.
The restaurant is pretty nice though. Clay and Jeannie know what they’re doing, and Kathy, in spite of all of her madness and shortcomings, wouldn’t do anything shit. I respect that about her.
In spite of all of it, I have a lot to thank Kathy for. Her and all of the mad adults that muddled me up when I was little. They gave me the gift of total independence.
Also, one thing that I am eternally grateful for is that Kathy, and all of them, weren’t Normals. Kathy and Clay will often laugh at peoples’ funny uptightness or hypocrisy, and deem it to be a result of them being part of that hated masse – ‘Middle Class English People’. But of course, both Kathy and Clay are middle class English people. I mean, they own a restaurant for fuck’s sake. Financially, Clay has long been middle class, and Kathy, of course, was desperately poor way back when, but she certainly isn’t struggling now.
I’m not mad with Kathy. Not about any of it. There was a point, a long time ago, when I was, but that has gone entirely. I feel incredibly bad for her, and even though we could never be friends – not truly – I wish only good things for her.
I actually don’t even think about it all that much. I’m not a great thinker, anyway. I glide through a lot of my life barely thinking about anything, and although it’s not a way I’ve deliberately decided to be, I am aware that it serves me well. If I did think about it all, I’d probably be a lot different to how I am. I think Kathy thinks a lot. I think that’s why she laughs so little, whereas I find myself laughing a lot. Writing is odd, because it brings it all out of me. I suppose it’s a kind of therapy. I have often thought of writing a character sketch of Kathy, and then decided against it in case she ever finds out and is hurt by it. I would never want that. The thought of Kathy feeling hurt makes me upset. I want her to be happy. I hope that eventually she stops feeling angry, and I hope that she never reads this.