You are sitting on short grass, your legs curled round to one side in a curiously adult pose, too old for your age – you can’t be more than ten – and staring obliquely ahead, your head slightly averted in a coquettish way, as though you should be looking somewhere else but have been distracted by the attention of the person with the camera. It is a sunny day and you have what looks like a Japanese paper parasol over one shoulder, which casts a shadow across the top half of your face. You are smiling, the small thoughtful, almost flirtatious smile of someone who has decided not to say cheese despite the photographer’s insistence, but still can’t quite deny him his due. The field you’re sitting in, you told me once when we looked at this photograph together, is no longer there; immediately behind your first house, sharing a wall with the graveyard of the local church, Holy Trinity, your church, it was built on, built over, years ago now, the first wave of the council estate that covers what was once uninterrupted farmland from Heath Town to Wednesbury.
Your hair, jet-black in the picture, a deckle-edged square of cardboard slightly damaged along one side, the glossy surface cracked diagonally where the photograph has been bent, is cut in a short bob, with a fringe that nearly but not quite reaches your eyebrows, the style made famous by Louise Brooks, ten years older than you are here, involved in an affair with Charlie Chaplin and due to become a star in Germany in three years’ time. By the time you are nineteen years old, she will have retired and your adult life will be about to start. But so much will have happened by then. So much. Where do we start? Three years after this photograph was taken, your mother will die of dropsy.
You’re standing on the pedals of your bike, you’re going downhill, your eyes are tight shut. You could hit something at any minute. When you come to a halt at the end of the road, unscathed, the front wheel of the bicycle braked by the long grass of the verge, you don’t know whether to be happy or sad. You cycle your bike back up the hill and then do it again, and again, until you finally fall off and have grazed knees and a rip in your dress. Your mother is furious, she washes the dirt from your skin and pulls your dress off, roughly, over your head. A button catches in your hair, in a tangle at the back, and you start to cry for the first time that day. A trace of grit stays under the skin for months and months, like a trophy brought back from a war.
Do you have a doll? I see you with a doll in my mind’s eye, a large baby doll with worryingly lifelike features and small clutching hands with the fingernails perfectly formed. But did dolls like this even exist then? The doll I have in mind is the doll you will buy for my sister, who will neglect it, and it seems to me now that your love for that doll, in the vacuum created by my sister’s indifference, is a new thing for you, the final expression of an earlier, denied, emotion. Yet surely, in that house with four older sisters, all of whom must have slept in your bedroom, shared that space with you, who must have handed down their outgrown clothes to you, and squabbled over underwear and hosiery, if that’s the term that was used then, and whispered over your head, small grievances, secrets you were too young to share, there must also have been a doll. In that house that was suddenly, when you were thirteen years old, without a mother, dolls must have had some role to play. Or perhaps you, the last child to be born, were the doll. You were your father’s favourite, I’m sure of this. You can’t have loved him so much as you did without his loving you best. You will talk about him to me, decades after his death, as though he were listening and your words were being measured against some impossible standard he has decreed, against which we shall all be judged.
To get to St Faith’s primary each day, you have to turn right outside the house, walk down Leslie Road and cross Cannock Road. The town where your father works is to your left, just over a mile away, too far away for you to see. He took you in once, to show you off. Your hand in his, he led you from one part of the factory to another, machinery booming and banging above your head, the smell of oil and metal, waves of heat that came from nowhere and died away, and everyone laid down their tools to greet you both, because your father is an important man, a chief engineer brought up from London to make sure every lock they produce is perfect, because people depend on locks, and you are his daughter and the prettiest little girl they have ever seen. You’re shy, but don’t want to show it. Is this true, or am I imagining it? Imagining you have told me? Because your father must have done this at least once, as my father did to me, as you did, with your friends, the pride of having children, the pride and then the worry that something might happen to them. There are so many dangers. Years later, you will read about murders on Cannock Chase and imagine it happening to one of your children, and you will tell us to be careful, the world is so full of danger. That must have been why, at first, your mother brought you to school, also holding your hand from the house to the school door, and then only as you crossed the road, and then it was no longer your mother who brought you but Win, or Connie when she was home from London, it was girl’s work, women’s work. And now you are old enough to walk here on your own, your hat on the back of your head, your satchel on your shoulder, a sandwich wrapped in greaseproof paper for dinnertime in the inside pocket beside your pencil case, your clothes washed and pressed, your hair brushed until it shines. Sometimes you meet up with one of the other girls in the street and glance back to see if your mother is watching from the gate, because some of the girls are girls that she doesn’t want you to spend your time with, girls that are common, or that have common mothers, women who shout in the street, or fathers who have no work, or who have chosen not to work and hang around, smoking, in their braces. People with pigs in filthy sties at the bottom of their garden, and washing in the front. If she is one of these girls, you smile, but don’t speak, and walk on until you are both out of your mother’s sight. And then you can slip your arm through hers.
You tie the two ends of a piece of string to door handles on opposite sides of Leslie Road and wait to see what happens. When a woman comes off her bicycle, you shrink with horror from what you have done, but it is too late.
You always remember your mother as beautiful and there is a photograph of her as a young woman that proves this, a slim face of great delicacy, the eyes large, the mouth fine, a striking elegance in the pose. She has a lace jabot – is that the word? – at her neck, and a black dress, but who knows what colour the dress was? A photograph can only tell us so much. I wonder if this photograph is what you see when you talk about her beauty, or if you have earlier memories, perhaps as sharp and posed, as though your mother knew she was being watched. As I have memories of you - turning to check the back seat of the car, standing on the brow of a hill, smiling with one hand raised to greet me; memories that are also perhaps no more than half-remembered photographs, given form and colour by my desire for them. By the time you were born, she was already stout, weighted by illness, although her features remain fine, refined, she would probably have said. You talk of her refinement often, how valuable it was to her, how essential it was that she retain it. You remember her as being foreign to her surroundings, wilfully so, an oasis of refinement in a general roughness of manner and attitude, so proud and diffident she made no friends in all the years she lived there, despite the efforts of others, who tried to warm to her, and to warm her, who finally dismissed her as stand-offish. You don’t say this, but it’s clear that she never forgave your father for taking her away from her life in London, where they met, and bringing her here to Wolverhampton, where every word she spoke marked her out. Your father is known as a gentleman, your mother is known as stuck-up. You don’t understand why that is.
You eat different food from that of other families, use different words for the same thing. Your mother has found a butcher in town that prepares her meat the way she likes it, the right way. You think of the part of your life that marks you out as London, a city you have never seen although some of your brothers and sisters, the oldest, were born there, and Connie has gone back there to live. She sends you letters and photographs of dresses she has made, of parties and glamorous friends. You are proud and ashamed at the same time of the London part of your life. You read the letters over and over again and whisper words to yourself. West End. Pall Mall. Charing Cross. Street names that don’t sound like street names. When your mother dies, the other life washes in to fill the space.
Your father loves reading books, loves going to the theatre, and so do you. You want to be an actress. You have the chance to play a part in an amateur production but you lose your nerve at the last minute and don’t audition. Afterwards, you can’t understand why. You don’t tell your father, but someone else does, and you can’t tell if he is relieved or disappointed. You lie in bed and imagine yourself on stage until you fall asleep. One afternoon around this time your father talks to you about Oscar Wilde and how badly he was treated. Decades later, you will tell me about the time your father went to the theatre in the West End to see The Importance of Being Earnest and how at the end of the performance Wilde walked onto the stage and threw a flower into the audience. A lily, perhaps, or a green carnation. I see my grandfather pick up the flower and keep it, and wonder what to do with it months later when Wilde is arrested. He is in his late twenties, an engineer transferred to London after a spell in the Navy. His own father was head of the Bristol docks. There may have been tension between them. His wife-to-be is the daughter of the family with whom he lodges. You have a season ticket to the Grand Theatre as soon as you’re old enough to go unaccompanied. You see all the stars, every one. You love the theatre and, even more, you love the pictures. You eat chocolates bought for you by boys from the tennis club in the anxious dark. You learn to fend them off, but not so much they refuse to take you again. You learn, but not yet, that they have a word for you and for what you do. You learn to imitate others and find you have a gift for it, so that every story becomes a little play. I would have loved to be an actress, you will say, on and off, throughout your life.
You feel different from everyone else. You can’t shake it off. You wonder if other people feel the same. You can’t imagine it. You’d like to be a doctor, and help them understand what it’s like to want to help.
You’re standing in front of the bathroom mirror in a dress Connie has sent you from London. It’s a cast-off probably, although it feels brand new, you can imagine Connie wearing it to one of the do’s she’s told you about, in hotels and night clubs, do’s she hasn’t mentioned to your father. But it doesn’t matter if it is, because she has made it herself, hand-sewn along the seams, a dark green watered silk, high beneath the bust, with the skirt cut on the bias so that it swings when you move and the back scooped lower than any dress you have ever worn before. You’re almost eighteen and you have been invited to the annual dance at the tennis club by Reggie Chalmers, whose father is something important at the bank. You have never seen anything quite so beautiful and you would be the happiest woman in the world if you hadn’t just looked at your back by holding the hand mirror up and turning round, if you hadn’t just seen the scattering of spots on your shoulder, where the edge of the neckline swoops down to show your back, and all you can see is acne, some spots small, some large, two with their bright yellow heads circled by red like something alive. You knew they were there but, somehow, in the excitement you’d forgotten, or thought the dress would cover them. You start to cry. You’re still crying, slumped on the edge of the bath, when your father knocks on the door. Go away, you tell him, and so, of course, he comes in. What on earth’s the matter, my dear, he says. I’m ugly, you say, and he laughs, which ought to be a comfort but only makes it worse. You’re ugly and laughable, you wish you were dead. I’m covered in spots, you mutter through your tears, your words so stifled you’re surprised your father can understand what you’ve said. He sits beside you on the edge of the bath and puts his arms round your bare shoulder and it’s all you can do not to flinch, as though his touching the spots, touching you, will only make them more real. You’re the most beautiful girl in the world, he says. Anyone who knows you knows that. Any boy worth his salt will see beyond a few spots. This isn’t helping, although you know he’s right. It’s just that Reggie Chalmers isn’t worth his salt but that doesn’t mean you don’t want him. Why won’t they go? you say. It isn’t fair. I’m nearly eighteen. I never eat fatty things. Your mother had spots when I met her, he says, much worse than yours, and I loved her from the day I saw her. You saw how smooth her skin was later? Well, so will your skin be smooth when you’re a grown woman, you’ll see. What good is smooth skin to a grown woman, you want to say, grown women are married already, they don’t need smooth skin. I need smooth skin now. But you bite it back. You don’t want to hurt him. You wish he hadn’t mentioned your mother though, because she would have understood and she isn’t here. Please God, don’t let my children have spots. You don’t believe him, in any case, he could never have loved her with spots worse than yours. You stand up. I’m not going, you say. I can’t go like this.
It takes all Win’s persuasion, and a pale gold shawl that belonged to your mother, to change your mind. You have a wonderful evening but you will never go out with Reggie Chalmers again.
You come across something your mother made you, at the back of a drawer, a blouse perhaps, something that was cut down to fit, a cast-off of Win’s or Connie’s even. It’s far too small for you now, it’s been hidden there for years, but you take it out of the drawer and hold it up as if it were some garment you’d found in a shop. You shake out the creases and press it to your face and it smells of nothing really, it smells of your drawer, of the back of your drawer, but you hold it against your cheek and think you can pick up the faintest trace of what your mother must have smelt like. You find yourself crying, silently at first and then convulsively. Your father walks into the room and discovers you, your face concealed by the blouse. You can’t tell him what’s wrong, you’re crying too hard, but he seems to understand and hugs you to him, clumsily, his chin at your temple, in your nostrils his habitual smell of carbolic soap and beneath that the lingering scent of engine oil, a scent you will never forget. Mummy, you say, finally, your voice choked up, clotted with tears. I know, my dear, he says, and you can tell from his voice that he’s crying too. He’s crying with you, for you and for himself. Later, you look at the blouse again and, you don’t want this but you can’t hold it back, you remember hating the way it was gathered at the wrists and refusing to wear it and your mother calling you a wicked, ungrateful girl.
Your father calls you a chatter-box. You resent it, but you’re flattered as well. You always have something worth saying and there is always someone there to listen, unless there is cricket on the wireless. He sits there, in his braces, his hands on his knees. What a miracle it is, he says, that I can listen to a cricket match played a hundred miles from here. What a wonderful world this is to have been born in, Kate. Never forget that, he tells you, whatever the future brings.
You develop tuberculosis, the illness that will kill your sister, Connie, but you recover, I don’t know how. You spend some time away from home, but never talk about it. Your mother dies of dropsy. Old-fashioned illnesses. Gladys falls ill to multiple sclerosis, which you and Win will always refer to as disseminated sclerosis. Old-fashioned words for illnesses that are still with us. Your doctor falls in love with you and there is a hint that some attempt may have been made at some point, on his part, to let you know this, to kiss you perhaps, or simply express an affection you know a doctor shouldn’t feel. You’re flattered, a little, and made anxious by this attention. You talk of him sometimes, of ten years later, and of his funeral, where his wife was cool with you. You told him once of your dream to be a doctor and he shook his head in that way he had, as though you’d suggested something vaguely naughty, or vulgar. Oh no, my dear, he said. You don’t want to be a doctor. You wonder now what his first name was, but didn’t dare to ask.
You leave St. Faith’s and go to the Royal Insurance Buildings in the centre of town to study shorthand typing and acquire secretarial skills. You learn a few words of Spanish – buenos dias, grazias – words you will never forget and that will stand you in good stead, you imagine, decades later, when you visit Italy, only to be disappointed. You are a good student, you will continue to use shorthand until you are almost blind, leaving notes by the telephone that no one else can read, some of which I still own, but your mind is often elsewhere. You are a great reader, and reading is a sort of dreaming. Your father is often in your thoughts. He works less than a quarter of a mile from your classroom, in a factory filled with the racket of machines as your classroom is filled with the rattling din of typewriter keys being struck by the fingers of teenage girls, but you see him on stage, or walking through a park, with you on his arm, and he is introducing you to peers of the realm, or artists. You bow your head, with mock humility, one eye glancing up to see their reaction. The singing words of poems your father has recited so often they have become a part of you pass through your head like the credits of a film. Poems of disaster, and forbidden love. You will never forget these poems. A lifetime later, when you are no more able to move than Gladys was, your children will make a film of you reciting The Wreck of the Hesperus on a cell phone no bigger than a mousetrap and you will think of what your father said about the wireless and the wonder of it all, but you will keep it to yourself.
As a teenage girl, you risk death twice. You almost drown when you tumble from a rowing boat on a river during a visit to your aunt and uncle in Ipswich and there is no one there to help you. You come to the surface once, and then again. The third time you reach for the boat and it is there, within your grasp. It is true what they say, you discover, that your life flashes before you in a sequence of vivid images, like something from a film, a wonderful life, you think, as you cough up water and struggle back into the boat, already incredulous that you might have died and that there would have been no more you, that impossible thought. You look at your dress as it clings to your body and feel a flush of shame, and then a relief so strong you burst into tears. It takes you half an hour to recover your composure. But how is it possible that there was no one there with you, people will ask you later, and you will shake your head and say, I don’t know, as if this has never occurred to you before. You never learn to swim, although you will always want to.
The second time you almost die you are walking across a field on the edge of Heath Town and a bolt of lightning strikes you. Eighty years later you can still remember the thrill of it, and the fear, and the way your hair refused to lie down for hours afterwards.
You go to the theatre and you want to be an actress. You see your mother die, and other people die or fall ill, your family and friends, yourself, and you want to be a doctor, despite the warning of your own doctor, which you have kept, in any case, to yourself. The war starts and you want to be a land girl, your hair tucked up beneath a scarf as you hoe and reap, or mount a tractor, the smell of cut grass in the air. Everything is contingent, everything comes from the heart. Sooner or later, already perhaps, you will want to be a mother, and before that, or possibly not, a wife.
The war starts. Your first job is collecting rents from council house tenants. At first, you use your bicycle, parking it at each gate and walking up the path, but after a few days you start to leave it at the end of the street and leap across hedges to save time, your rent-collector’s bag bouncing against your hip. You do this until a woman complains to the council and you’re told by your supervisor to respect other people’s property. You like the fresh air, and the exercise, but hate it when tenants say they can’t pay; you’re never sure whether to believe them or not, and if you do believe them it makes it no better. Sometimes it makes it worse. Your father catches you crying one evening about an old man who hasn’t paid for months and risks eviction. You’re sitting in his chair; there’s no one else in the house. He offers you his handkerchief, which you take, and tells you that no one can be responsible for everyone else, and that she has a job to do. If she didn’t do it someone else would, and the old man would still have to pay his rent. But how can throwing an old man onto the street be part of the war effort? you say. He has pigeons, you say. His wife died last winter, he’s already lost one son and he hadn’t even been sent to fight. Your father puts his arm around your shoulders, and is silent, which makes it worse. You were hoping he might have an answer. I want to work in the fields, you say, I can’t bear this. They won’t even let me jump over hedges. And then, as if you have heard this in the mouth of someone else, because no one you know, least of all you, could say anything so foolish in the middle of a war, you begin to laugh. We must all do our duty, your father says, and you aren’t sure if he’s comforting you or if this is a rebuke. I’m sorry, you say, and return his handkerchief, damp with your tears, and you watch him fold it carefully and put it back in his pocket. Soon after this, you find another job in the typing pool of a munitions factory. You work for a man with the high, fluting voice of a choirboy, who invites you to a concert where he sings Tit Willow while you stifle your giggles, who offers you sandwiches filled with black market bacon you’re forced to turn down when he grazes your bust with the back of his hand once too often and it’s clear his intentions are romantic. You make the best friend of your life, Barbara, your only friend to survive you. You take long rides together into the country and drink so much cider you fall off your bikes and are laughing so much you can’t get up. Helping each other is no help at all; it only makes it worse. Soldiers whistle at the pair of you from passing lorries and you pretend not to have noticed, but you feel the blood rush to your face. You hear two girls from London whispering in the ladies about taking it up the back passage during their monthlies and almost die with the shock. When you tell Barbara what they said, she refuses to believe you.
You come back from work one day and find the wireless on and your father dead in his chair.