I would have been nine when we moved down to London from Glasgow. My father had both remarried and relocated, running a video shop at the beginning of the eighties as the VCR boom years began. My mother remained in Glasgow, saying she would visit both my twelve year old sister and me at regular intervals, and we could come up north whenever we liked: she would just send down the train tickets, or, if possible, come and pick us up. I suppose I needed this security in those first few months, just as the spring began to move into summer, and in a city I had never previously lived in. Maybe even, unconsciously, needed it still more a few months later after I was offered curious affection from elsewhere. However, I think there was a period during that summer where I barely thought of my mother at all.
My father had moved in with his new wife, Sally, in her council flat off Finchley Road, and they decided they wouldn’t buy a house until the shop moved into profit. They offered this comment to both Diane and I in an almost apologetic manner that first afternoon we arrived, as we all stood in the kitchen – a kitchen with hardly room for all four of us, and as the sunlight sparsely entered the ground floor flat squashed under four other storeys. As they showed us around the flat, I became increasingly despondent as I saw the smallness of the sitting room, the narrowness of the hall, and of the stairs that lead up to the three bedrooms, all much smaller than those in our Glasgow flat. Looking back I’d call the whole place claustrophobic, but that might especially have been because of the nature of the situation.
For as I think of it, the school strikes me as claustrophobic also. Situated a couple of hundred yards away from the block of flats, with only a quiet side road to cross between home and school, the school’s buildings were low slung, single storey and the school was contained at the back by an especially high wall built in case any kid decided to clamber out onto the busy Finchley Road behind it. At the front, at least during the summer months, it felt to me like the school was surrounded by leafy, overhanging trees that shrouded the school entrance if not in darkness then at least a constant dusk.
And the classrooms weren’t large, though each contained over thirty pupils. During the summer, with so many bodies crammed in so enclosed a space, there were pungent, contrary odours. One person would lift an arm to scratch their neck and a waft would pass through the air; another would slip a plimsoll off their foot with the toe of the other foot and a dull, stale smell would lowly cross the room. There was also one teacher, whose first year of teaching it was, who earned the nickname ‘sweatpaps’. It was during one sweaty, lazy afternoon where nobody could muster up the energy to raise an arm, and the teacher jokingly showed us how it could be done. As she did so the class looked at the circle of perspiration that had seeped through her sky blue blouse. Noticing the direction of our eyes, she snatched her arm down and thereafter, when the temperature was in the mid-seventies, we would take our lessons outside on the grass. The nickname, garnered from no more than a momentary gesture, presumably stayed with her for years.
Or so I am surmising, as I didn’t stay in the school long enough to find out; and it is this need to surmise that leaves me wary of telling this story at all, because some memories may well be fantasies, others projections, still others acts of curious revenge. All I can do is rely not just on the conventions of conjuring up visual memory, but also try and capture the less voluntary, more contingent recollection of sounds and smells. For example, there was one afternoon, during break, when I wandered away from the game of football we were playing on the hot tarmac with a tennis ball, and over across to the high wall. Next to it there was an enveloping oak that we called the shade tree, the one tree at the back of the school large enough to protect us from the intensity of the sun. Lying there I saw a naked girl, no more than my age, being fondled by a couple of boys roughly her own. I moved closer, and one of the boys turned, looked at me with complicity, and ushered me into the shade. ‘Don’t talk’ he said, as I looked at the face of the girl. Her name was Mina, in the same year but in another class, and though I’d found her one of the prettiest girls in the school, nobody ever commented on her beauty with awe or admiration. Was this why? I recall lying down on top of her and feeling her tiny breast with my outstretched fingers, and pushing my face between her legs. Immediately repelled by the smell, like a combination of all the odours from the fetid classroom, I ran off, hearing the boys laughter behind me and, perhaps, Mina’s crying also. Over the next week or two, whenever I passed Mina she would stare at me, an inscrutable yet undeniably disdainful look that I tried not to meet. Was the smell so bad, I might have thought, or just unusual, just a smell less distinctive than a smell at all where I expected something neutral, clean?
Several weeks later, I heard she was no longer coming to the school. She would attend one in nearby Kilburn. Was it because of all those little incidents under the tree; or had my reception of her been the key factor? Did she – her parents, whoever – act morally in the wake of my sensory decision? That is something I never found out. I guess as I grew older and my mind became capable of thinking through some of the implications, so my memory and emotional response to the event faded. And so its place in my mind and body has never been consistently central, merely naggingly fully conscious in the body of nine year old boy, and half present and allusively relevant to the mind of a grown man.
Anyway, around this time, as we moved into early July, something else started to happen. My father has been creating his business, working fourteen hours a day on the other side of the city, and my stepmother had a part time secretarial job whilst Diane and I were at school. She said she wanted to work extra hours, and persuaded both Diane and I to join after school clubs. However, where Diane was always good at sports and joined three, I hated the idea of competition and shouting, and left the football club after one week: our stepmother never did get the chance to increase her hours. At first she probably resented my frequent presence, but after a week or two it’s as if she liked company around the house once she accepted she would stay in part time work, and she increasingly offered affection.
Increasingly offered affection, or offered increasing affection? One afternoon I knocked on the bedroom door and, from through the door, asked for a glass of orange. She insisted I come in, and next to the bed was a bottle of something and a glass. Her speech was slurred and she was lying on the bed wearing panties and a white, sleeveless T-shirt, one arm behind her head, a trickle of sweat running down her cleanly shaven armpit. She asked me to come over to where she was lying, and said that I should lie with her. I moved my hand towards not her face but her body, and smelt the feint, pleasant odour of what was obviously anti-perspirant, with just the faintest whiff of sweat co-mingling. She wondered if I liked the smell. I nuzzled my nose under her arm and found myself clambering on top of her as I had earlier done with Mina. As I moved along her body, she said, presumably feeling my small hardness against her navel, ‘you’re enjoying this aren’t you?’ She allowed me to sniff and lick and touch her, though at no stage, on that day, did she remove her T-shirt or underwear. Nor did she let me near her mouth. After half an hour she shuddered, lightly ruffled my hair, and suggested I got and get myself a juice. She would have to come and make the dinner.
A few days later a similar scenario developed. I knocked on the door, she asked me to enter the room. I saw once again the bottle by the bedside table, and beside the table the half empty glass. This time she was wearing a clingy nightgown that was riding up her thighs, and sweat glistened off her forehead. She again asked me to come towards the bed; and once again I clambered on top of her. She immediately moved me down her body and between her thighs, moving my head rhythmically as I buried my face in her mound. Afterwards, she kissed my forehead and, as I remained leaning on her body, she moved her hand between my legs and stroked my hardness until my body shook. She smiled, grabbed a superfluous tissue from beside the bed and said that was my little reward.
A few days after that, on a Sunday, my father took a day off, deciding we should spend it together as a family. He suggested Regent’s Park, and so Regent’s Park it was, with my father’s slight paunch jutting out of a semi-nylon, royal blue T-shirt as he pointed out the pythons, the cobras, the tarantulas and the scorpions. Sally, slimly standing with her arm round his shoulder, wore tight fitting blue denim jeans with flared bottoms, and a white T-shirt without a bra.
I recall not from twenty years ago, but from only a couple of weeks ago, from a number of pictures my sister was showing to me as we flicked through an old photo album over at her place. After putting the album away, she said what she liked about Sally was her litheness, her energy and her physical attractiveness: she saw a healthy role model for her own burgeoning sporting interest. And what did I see? Looking at the pictures I saw the pert nipples I had circled with my fingers and the long legs I had run my hands along, but also the eyes, wide apart that had looked glassily at me, and the swollen lips I had never been allowed to kiss.
I suppose I could have told my sister that evening, after dinner, with Rod off up in the study finishing his marking, and the kids watching TV in the room next door. But I didn’t. I could have told her I had a secret life with our stepmother that went on from July through to early September, but I didn’t do so not only out of a certain sense of discretion; it was also due to the inability to recall events with the cold facts of the clearly remembered and the firmly de-eroticised. If whatever took place was an act of child abuse, shouldn’t that abuse have an irrefutable factuality– a hard certitude to match the term? Instead all I have are ethereal images, sounds and most especially smells that were, surely, at one stage real? Is this why I have spent so much of the last few weeks, since seeing that picture for the first time in years, vacillating between the action’s moral implications and my own semi-buried pleasurable memories?
And could they have been anything but buried next to the more categorical reality that superimposed itself upon them? For though my specific memories of that summer are of the half a dozen occasions I knocked on her door and slipped into her room, I assume that remains exclusively between her and me. The rest is more obviously public knowledge.
Or so I assume when, after I got back from my sister’s, I looked at the fragile material of the clippings. ‘Horrific collision’ said one headline. Below there was a picture of the mangled wreckage of my stepmother’s Chrysler, and the severely damaged wing of a heavy goods vehicle, and below that the story told of a Sally Robertson who, returning from work, careered into the lorry and died. It was suspected she lost control of the car, perhaps because of the couple of glasses of wine she had imbibed before leaving work. The article stated it was part of a going away lunch for one of the staff.
I have my own ideas on all that. I’ve always believed Sally left this world as young Mina scuttled away from our school, and needed to leave the wider confines as readily as Mina escaped her narrow reputation in a Swiss Cottage primary. For a while just as Mina had no living presence much beyond that momentary smell, so my stepmother, for a long time after she died, seemed to be made up less of guilty thoughts than of sounds, smells and images, sometimes vivid, sometimes vague.
We didn’t stay long in her council flat after her death. My father quickly moved back up north, not to Glasgow, but to Inverness, and opened the first video shop in the town, near the river-bank, on the other side from the town centre. For a couple of years my sister and my father stayed with my grandmother and, after that, with the business doing very well, my father decided to buy a house. I moved back to Glasgow. Apart from one brief visit in the middle of June that summer, I had only talked to my mother on the phone, and it felt strange returning to her two-bedroomed flat with its large rooms and high ceilings – it felt simultaneously airy and forbidding. However, the alternative wasn’t really an option. Initially because I had begun to dislike my sister and my father, because I felt as if their loss were so much less great than mine. So many people were consoling especially my father, and so readily allowing him to sanctify his late wife. My sister, meanwhile, would talk so effusively if mournfully about a woman I didn’t know, and ignore completely of course the woman whom I did. In the process it was as if my sister had become no less a stranger than the woman she was describing.
Though, like my father and my sister, I also have respected her memory. While I may even allow myself moments of feeling good about the way I have protected my stepmother’s ‘reputation’, has the moral protectiveness been formulated out of allowing – perhaps demanding – both the sensory pleasure to fade, and perhaps also my own identity to remain in some way in limbo? Now I can’t readily recall my stepmother’s smell, except to say I found it pleasant, while if I retain a strong visual memory of her, it is more through looking at those photo albums than on the specifics of our intimacy. I sometimes wonder, though, if my stepmother had allowed me to kiss her on the lips – to smell the alcohol off her breath – as Mina had allowed me to bury myself between her legs and smell the feint whiff of urine, would I have been so repelled by the odour that the whole sequence of events could have been avoided? That is, a sequence of events that left my father without a wife, a small corner of London without a video shop whilst giving the Highlands its first, my sister an idealised, petrified role model, and me a sense of irresolvable guilt and memories I’m wary to call my own.