Other Homes . Church Walk . London
Under the stairs, in our house at Church Walk, the woman they called my mother had a Good Cupboard and a Bad Cupboard. Her husband, if he thought about the cupboards at all assumed they were for junk or women’s stuff. He never spoke about them.
Neither cupboard had a light inside. Mice certainly lived there in the pitch black, scrabbling and scratching as they tried to find an exit. She never let them out. So the stench grew. She never let anyone even peer inside except on a Thursday. That was the day, the same day every week, when she issued her frightening Invitation to the Cupboards. She only issued the Invitation to the Cupboards to me and what scared me was that I never knew whether I would be invited to crawl inside the Bad Cupboard , if I had been Worse–Than- Usual or the Good Cupboard if I had been Not- Quite-As- Bad.
What these labels referred to was never clear as she changed the rules for my behaviour each week. If I refused to eat spinach or semolina one week, that was a route towards punishment inside the Bad Cupboard; but another week the same ‘arrogant eating attitude’, as she called it, would only merit twenty minutes (or however long it took) crouched under the dining table, like our dog Rover, eating the cold chewed spinach and semolina mixed together, from Rover’s dog bowl. But it would not count towards time in the Bad Cupboard.
Some days he, her husband, weakly remonstrated: “Isn’t it a bit much to put Sam under the table? ‘
Her reply was stony. “If she won’t behave like a lady and eat everything up at the table then she will have to be treated like an animal and eat where they eat.”
She loathed challenges to her authority and he rarely offered any. Occasionally after an incident he would call me into the garden and shifting uncomfortably from foot to foot he would say: “She doesn’t mean to be hard on you. She tries to do things for the best, Sam. “
When he put a hand on my shoulder I shrugged it away quickly. “Can I go now?”
Today I recognise he was probably as terrified of her wrath as I was. He certainly didn’t want to discover more than she told him. That was their bond.
I knew what was in the Good Cupboard because every two weeks I accompanied her to the Fortnightly Book Sales in the East Finchley and Muswell Hill second hand book shops. Occasionally she let me wander around the store. More often she would choose a poetry book for me to read, then deposit me on a stool in the dusty interior and expect me to have learnt the first two stanzas off by heart, by the time she had made her choices and we left the shop. If I could say them correctly, and her own repertoire of poetry was so wide and knowledgeable that she would not have to check the page, that would be one of the books stowed away in the Good Cupboard, along with her new batch .I had a good memory as a child but my fear of her and of what might lie ahead, made me stumble over several of the lines. Even today I cannot get through ‘Dover Beach’ by Mathew Arnold without shaking slightly. If I made one mistake in the book test then that was added relentlessly to my other failings due for the punishment meted out in the Bad Cupboard.
On Thursday, at four pm when I returned from school, she took out her red book and turned to the page headed Samantha’s Marks. There were two columns, one for the Worse-Than-Usual, the other for the Not-Quite-As-Bad. Almost every week the bold black letters in the long Worse column glared at me, whilst the small number of Not-Quites in pale blue biro seemed to shrivel.
We walked in complete silence through the hall to the two under stair cupboards. “Which cupboard is your reward or punishment today, Samantha? “ she said, as we stood looking at them. I was too scared to speak but I pointed, almost every time, to the Bad Cupboard. She nodded, a thin smile escaping her tight lips. “Just so.” She put her bony hands on my shoulders and pushed me roughly to the ground.
“But let us see what you have given up through your wickedness”.
Then she indicated I could open the Good Cupboard and gaze at the books I was not allowed to read. I was usually crying by then but through a thin film of tears I saw the longed for books piled and jumbled in the filthy interior.
Then it was time. She closed the Good Cupboard and made me open the Bad Cupboard door.
“Go on. Get in. “
I began to scream. I was terrified of darkness and couldn’t bear the little thin white bodies of mice with their pink noses.
She was implacable. “Perhaps next week you will do better.”
She tried to push me inside, her foot on my bottom. Fear made my body rigid so she had to bend down to my level and use both hands to hurtle me into the blackness. She locked the door and went into the kitchen. If she heard my screams she turned up the radio louder. An hour later she would unlock the door and send me to my room to do my homework.
It was a rare Thursday that I merited the reward of the Good Cupboard. But there were a few weeks when I had obeyed every instruction, had not spoken back, had not voiced “arrogant opinions”, had not been unpunctual, lazy, untidy, or hidden dirty thoughts. In those weeks I had never let a hair stray from my tight plaits and ensured my shoes shone daily so that I would be allowed near the Fortnightly Books.
The only piece of disobedience she never knew about was that occasionally, in secrecy and silence, her husband entered my bedroom, with the shoe cleaner concealed in his trouser pocket, and polished my shoes. He extracted his recompense the following night.
The previous week on a Book Sales hunt she had purchased second hand copies of two Frances Hodgson Burnett novels: ‘The Secret Garden’ and ‘Little Lord Fauntleroy’. I knew the stories of each book from countless trips to the shop. I identified completely with Mary Lennox, the sickly sour faced little girl who is forced to keep out of sight as her appearance and character will upset her mother and father. I had already suffered two serious bouts of rheumatic fever and the woman they called my mother hated my sickly appearance. Frequently she told me to change my sour expression. Like Mary Lennox in ‘The Secret Garden’, I kept out of her way as much as I possibly could.
The small portions I had read of ‘Little Lord Fauntleroy’ had cheered me immensely. Cedric Errol was a poor but smiling American boy who suddenly finds he is the heir to a wealthy British Earldom. One day he will be the next Earl of Dorincourt. Meanwhile he goes to live with his British grandfather, the bitter twisted old Earl and his mother is forced to live next door. She is not allowed into the Earl’s estate. How I wished that would happen to me. How I wished I had a grandfather, even a bitter and twisted one, who would call me to come and live with him, and not allow my mother to live in the same house.
The third book I had anguished for was ‘Ballet Shoes’ by Noel Streatfield, whose cover told me that Pauline , Petrova and Posy Fossil were sisters who had all been adopted. That was all I knew, but it was enough to make me desperate to read inside. Imagine being adopted. Imagine the heaven.
Now all three books lurked in the Good Cupboard. I tried to obey all week but made the mistake of telling her which three books I wanted most. Her eyes glinted. On Thursday she invited me to the Cupboards.
“Which Cupboard is your reward or punishment today, Samantha?”
I was terrified of pointing towards the Good Cupboard and being told that was presumptuous or arrogant and therefore merited time in the Bad Cupboard. But if I pointed towards the Bad Cupboard when I felt in my heart I had earned the Good Cupboard that might be seen as a Lying Thought and I would certainly spend an hour in the blackness. So eager, so anxious, was I to read at least one of those books that I dared to risk pointing to the Good Cupboard. She hardly seemed to take in the information. She had other plans. Before pushing me to the ground, she knelt down, with a sharp vegetable knife she had brought from the kitchen. She opened the Good Cupboard door, stuck a torch inside and began to root about. Oh no, I thought, she will cut up my three books. She will cut them into shreds. Then I heard loud piteous shrieks from inside the Good Cupboard, small thumps, and blood began to ooze out of the door.
“Go on” she said, standing up, leaving the door wide open. “Get in there. Get your books! Don’t think of coming out without those three in particular”.
She threw me inside where the corpses of the dead mice were bleeding all over the book jackets. I would have done anything to get out of that hell hole. Four corpses had fallen on two of the precious books. I flung myself against the door then threw out the books with the dead animals slithering across their jackets. I struggled through the door and vomited on the carpet. Her fury was beyond even her grasp of vicious vocabulary.
“My cream carpet! You have been sick on my new cream carpet! “
She pulled me by my plaits until my head was level with the vomit. Then she thrust my face in it. “Act like a dirty dog, Samantha and you will be treated like one.”
She went into the kitchen and returned with a bowl of water, a mop, carpet stain remover and some Dettol.
“Clean it up” she said.