Autobiography

Homework

1987. I was upstairs, in my bedroom, doing homework for my English A level. “Write a précis of a newspaper article about the rebuilding of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London.” I was enjoying it. Thoroughly absorbed, crouched over my creaking, repainted desk, my paper and hands bathed in a warm pool of light from the lamp. This was actually going well. Even though I was a chronic procrastinator, I was beginning to believe I might actually crack this A level lark. I scratched away as the rest of the room, in darkness, waited.

“Maaaandy!”

My mother. Yelling. It was not uncommon, so I just looked up and listened.

“MANDY! PHONE THE POLICE!”

This was not so common. I leapt to my feet, threw open the door and almost fell down the stairs, two at a time.

In the kitchen doorway stood my father – drunk, of course – looking at my mother with the kind of loathing only normally seen in films about the demonic. A leer brimming over with hatred and disdain. And he was holding a milk bottle. A broken milk bottle.

My mother screamed at me again to phone the police. I lifted the receiver of the heavy old-fashioned telephone in the hall and began to dial 999, something I’d never done before. There was a kerfuffle in the kitchen and my mother must have knocked my father down, because I saw him out of the corner of my eye, now on his hands and knees and crawling towards me.

“Hello, Emergency Services. Which service do you require?”

“Police! The… ” I turned round to see my father was now practically on top of me, his arm stretched out. “The POLICE!”

“What address, please?”

“12 River View, White – ” his hand reached out and yanked the telephone cord from its socket. And in those days, there was no way to put it back in without calling an engineer. The line went dead.

I can’t remember what happened between then and the police arriving. They certainly turned up quickly, though, because the call had been cut off and they suspected violence. Shortly afterwards, I remember scoffing at that. Looking back now, of course, they were right – there was violence. Of course there was. But the simmering tension and fear in our house was such a habitual thing that when it occasionally exploded I would minimise it. After all, there was nowhere else to go.

There were two officers. Both tall, young, vigorous presences in our dysfunction-bound household. One went with my father into his study, and the other stayed with my mother, sister, brother, and me in the kitchen. We all told him what we had to endure… The drinking, the repeated promises he’d stop drinking, which were constantly broken. The frustration, the fear, living on edge all the time… Of course, we children should not have been present at such a conversation. Indeed, had my mother had a loving bone in her body, she would have left my dad so we could have a violence-free childhood. But there was no way she was willing to forego his generous Civil Service salary and large house for our sakes. It wasn’t even a difficult decision for her. Her comfort came first. And second. And third.

So, she used us to bolster her case. He was an alcoholic, he was incurable, we had tried and tried and tried… The policeman was sympathetic. My mother was attractive.

But when his colleague entered the kitchen, trailed behind by my trying-to-look-sober father, the atmosphere changed.

“This POOR MAN,” began Policeman Two, “Puts up with an AWFUL LOT. He has been trying to stop drinking, but he NEEDS SUPPORT!” I don’t know if this kind of blatant partiality would be permitted these days, but this was in the dark ages.

I still remember the outrage I felt at his partisanship. How could he believe my father? What kind of an idiot was he? The four of us, in chorus, protested that this wasn’t the case, that he was being led up the garden path, fed a tale. I don’t know if it made any difference. Whatever my father had said to him, he had obviously put in a convincing performance.

Both the officers left shortly after that, and nothing changed. Except that I didn’t go back to doing my homework. Not that night, not any night, not until many years later. I didn’t get the good grades my teachers had predicted, though I did managed to get into my third-choice university. How might things have been different, had I had loving – no, supportive – no, just half-decent, parents? Who can say? Of course, at the time, I blamed myself for my poor performance. But children always do, don’t they?

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