mell was the first alert. You could tell something was going on that wasn’t right.
We knew to be cautious – better still not to go inside at all.
The thickness of one smell unnerved, but what went on, unspoken, in other houses always smelt unfamiliar.
Sex, as well as hitting, was kept behind closed doors, and you didn’t speak of those. Though at school no one attempted to put the ruler or strap out of sight. Even the cane, used for bigger boys, could be mentioned. Teachers threatened it and boys might say “that bastard wanting to practice his golf swing” or bring in unsettling talk of “six of the best”, if not the humiliating bit about submission and bending over.
School talk kept a hint of bravado – that was the way of it – not quite shocking, yet the pulse of excitement it sent through you was near disgust and fear. And belonged beside that boy offering gum, whose mother was a Miss, but lived still in town, not hiding her “mistake” or keeping it to herself with an adoption no one might mention.
No, this Miss kept her son to be our walking pornography and he played his part, offering chewing gum to put his hand in any girl’s knickers.
A public pee got mixed with more because you never sat on those seats. Who knew what lurked? Our mother, for whom cleanliness was rarely top priority, grew adamant over public lavatories.
“You didn’t sit, did you?”
A definite “no”, easily given, failed to diminish uncertainty or panic residue.
Was I too close?
What might be inside me now?
This was not a nervy parent, overly concerned with what we did, so this must be the ominous threat, as shadowy as disconcerting smells.
The smell in one house might be the worst, yet somehow it was agreed, without much consideration, that my sister would take me with her to feed two huge dogs when a dead grandmother took their family away.
Because the kennels were outside, my sister maybe forgot we would also have to go inside to get dried biscuit and meat.
She, my sister, taking too bold a step and always ahead, went right in. The mother had given her keys and said she was glad her youngest daughter and my sister were friends. But they weren’t, they were just in the same year and we had to pass their house on our way to school, so we took an interest. It was the middle one my sister began to like, but even she never came to tea.
As we went inside the chained dogs made a menacing racket.
The fridge wasn’t big like ours and full, but it was very clean, with butter and milk and two massive bones for dogs. “They could eat our legs,” she said, “but luckily they prefer bones, with the skin already off,“ then walked right up to barking, leaping animals. My sister didn’t just fling them their food.
She wasn’t scared of dogs, or the house smell, which she claimed was only the carbolic soap they used. The father, mean with his wife and three daughters, cross he had no son, only let them have carbolic soap for everything. He had taken over a business from his father and grandfather but no girl would be any use to follow him. What decent man would buy a fishing rod from a girl?
One of his daughters became pretty but when young, even she had a hint of something ragged – anyone of them might just unknit.
Their mother kept up the required front and never let the side down, though you saw it took some effort. Her attempted good cheer convinced no one, yet what was draining her?
“Misery with a mean husband.” My sister thought she could explain, but didn’t make enough sense to take away discomfort that something in this house sucked up blood – “it’s only stale blood” she insisted. “The place stinks of carbolic and old blood. He makes them use cut up discarded cloth, they aren’t allowed disposable towels. He keeps control of every penny.”
How did she know so much about menstruation when she hadn’t started and only the eldest of the three girls here might be bleeding?
“No, the middle one,” the one turning pretty, “started too early, everyone knows that.”
Well, I didn’t. I barely knew anything about sex.
“Don’t be silly, of course you know that fishy smell in mother’s bed some days.”
Knowing we weren’t to mention it was one thing. That much we understood when father, who didn’t hit, clipped my sister before he could think, that morning in their bed when she burst out with “pooh, you two stinkof fish.”
Commenting on smell was a “personal remark” he didn’t like. He warned against rude comments, and “you wouldn’t like them said of you.”
So smells and other personal things reached a dead end fast – your nose knew but thinking, or saying got blocked in our house, if not in others.
“Who has been shooting bunnies,” one mother asked in the car.
We didn’t speak like that and had no words, except the too rude “fart” we learned at school but knew not to use. Later we found “letting out wind,” and “better out than in” my sister added cheerfully, making a noise about it – no silent,sneaky ones from her.
The children in the car exposed mine with a shout, not as kind as father who might open a window but never ask.
Maybe meanness could make a house reek, with a smell which didn’t pass. But that didn’t feel enough name for it. So my sister added “he prefers male dogs to his collection of females.”
“But he yells at those dogs.”
“Of course, but I bet he beats the people. Let’s look.”
And so she did. A big leather strap hanging on the kitchen door was probably his best weapon.
But then we saw another in the bathroom.
“That one is for a razor. Some fathers use that, or a belt, but he might not share what is his, even for punishing.”
How did she know so much?
And did she really know things? Our father had a further warning for her, this time against gossip.
“You sound far too sure of yourself, young lady. What do you really understand of any other family?”
Gossip, too, was an unkindness he didn’t like to see in girls, besides it did you harm as well because it made you forget how hard it was to really know what you were talking about.
Back then we hadn’t heard any gossip about his parents, though there was plenty of it, which no one mentioned till we were big and saw clear questions.
“You ask too much too often,” mother said but, fortunately, one aunt liked to tell. She didn’t believe asking was unpleasant, or likely to end with you being too confident you understood everything when you didn’t.
But no one had proper answers for what went on in that scrubbed, tidy house smelling of carbolic where something was kept out of view. Mess might be hidden deep in cupboards, or simply chucked under the bed. It had to be somewhere and if it wouldn’t go down the toilet the worst could be stuffed into some big bag – we both knew that from a horror story told at school.
In this place the kitchen benches were empty, with nothing left out, not even a toaster. Nowhere a sign of living or eating, which was always evident in our house. Tidy for us meant we swept the floor, or polished brass, getting Brasso too many places. Rubbish had to go out, with wood and coal and vegetables brought in – there was an ordering. But in this house something was superimposed to obliterate any sign of life, giving nothing away and leaving belief that nastiness had been pushed down too thoroughly.
The lived in state of ours was more usual, just as we fitted in with other town ways – a new diamond ring on our oldest cousin being one requirement. Marriage and small town order gave a lean, clean shape to things , until gradually it didn’t…….
My sister knew where to look for what could dissolve the comforting and proper – finding the Vicar’s hidden Playboy magazines, our aunt at a “keys in the ring” party, and then there was that “unfortunate business” which no one could hide, when two upright scout masters had to go to court.
Though the family who made the fuss were more blamed.
Despite a “spotless tight ship,” two of the girls from that home with dogs made you a bit embarrassed, like a runny nose, by giving off an unkempt air you couldn’t put your finger on.
They didn’t actually cry, or snivel like the girl whose mother got drunk too much. That one never minded displaying bruises. But it was obvious with these three you would never go to their house and play. It wasn’t a place for that.
They went in and shut the big gate, sealing off whatever made us ill at ease.
They were only allowed to stay late after school for sport; though not much good at anything, they persevered and never let a team down.
The father gruffly approved of sport. His was a sports goods store. A lot of fishing gear and sea stuff but basketballs too and sand shoes. We had to buy the required PE rompers from his shop and didn’t like it. But it was the only place in town selling sports clothes and mother, who made our dresses, said school rompers were as cheap as the material she’d need and were too boring even for her to bother with.
He wasn’t exactly sullen but being in his shop was not nice. He was no flirt, unlike the bookstore man and the butcher. You didn’t get cheerful gossip as you would buying buttons and elastic. You got nothing except rompers and left feeling short changed.
When he said “hello” his heart wasn’t in it and at the “goodbye” you wondered if he was glad to see the back of you.
The shop smelt musty so you were pleased to leave, but preferred to take a bit of cheer with you from any shopping. As our mother said., “After all you give them your custom.”
Maybe, but if there was a choice we wouldn’t go in, which he probably knew, so felt there wasn’t much cause to be grateful.
If he refused mother attention she expected, he made us squirm. He might like to show all girls “what is what” – subdue every one of us to flatness like his daughters.
Only his “what is what” seemed more sinister that the “pervs” we could snigger about, who behaved as if we already were “panting for it” and they would show us what we really wanted. As though we would ever find them one bit enticing my sister laughed. Revolting more like! Sex creeps were silly, not upsetting – but you couldn’t giggle about the sports store because the palpable threat had no shape.
Little wonder two of his girls had blurred edges. They weren’t fat, just lacking what made you compact, and although they didn’t dissolve further over the years, they stayed with something rubbed out. Only the middle sister smartened up. She didn’t wear cheap glasses like her sisters and even her school uniform grew crisper. With her sleek, dark hair now pulled back she had a fine, racehorse profile one boy said, whose father probably lost lots of money on the horses.
The other two were paler, washed out like the parents, with mouse hair, cut badly at home and unmanageably bushy.
My sister said “What can you expect but bushy if you have to use carbolic? They don‘t have the guts to steal conditioner and the sister who does keeps it hidden.”
Stealing made a virtue– brave to be doing what needed to be done – this was disconcerting. We only stole a few sweets from the perv in the sweet shop, who was probably fully aware, as long as we didn’t overdo it and let him chat us up a bit while we pocketed a Mars bar. There wasn’t a problem, unless his flustered, unhappy wife came in and he panicked as much as we did.
Keeping 3d intended for church collection, or Brownies, wasn’t bad and if father left small change around what else would anyone expect. But stealing from the tall, irritable chemist felt entirely bigger.
Perhaps the girl finally got caught and sent away. No one knew exactly.
She was older then and kept some spirit until she vanished at 16.
“She will be a beauty,” some said.
“Fancy a fine rose blooming in that garden!” mother declared, not altogether satisfied we weren’t better specimens, despite her more promising soil.
The first rumours fixed on one point, the teenager was no longer allowed to leave the house. Bars went up on her windows. There had always been a higher fence around the place than anywhere else.
It was better to show you had nothing to hide and that dark, bleak barricade was unsightly, why not pretty plants displayed out front like most of us, our mother tutted.
They claimed it was so the dogs could run loose. Then why the large padlock? That could hardly be a dog deterrent.
Somebody spread conviction of the girl behind bars being pregnant. As if this was now fact, speculation flourished.
A few blamed the Indoor Basketball coach because she’d been dogged, if not a star of his team.
More agreed the girl’s father must be responsible since she’d barely been allowed out. When a group of girls shut the younger one in the caretaker’s shed to get her to tell, she would only say her sister wasn’t well.
We waited. After the required months might she return to school? Or start working in the back office of their shop, along with the eldest?
Then a neighbour heard screams one night. No other house was close, so they must have been loud.
“Could be labour,” my sister said, “women without discipline will yell.”
Yet the girl in question had shown more determination, to hold it together and find a way, than most of us who had no need to steal conditioner.
“Yes, but she won’t want the baby. Resist and it’s hell.”
Did my sister bluff just to keep me feeling small and ignorant?
She’d started going out dancing and came back with secrets. Older girls might confide, or talked between themselves in the cloakroom, so my sister spent ages re-teasing her new bouffant to eavesdrop.
It was there she heard another account. The girl was not pregnant but an ambulance had driven up one night.
The padlock was opened. After the vehicle went in,a passing man could see through the gate.
The girl, in a straitjacket but still resisting, was shoved in the ambulance by her father, the driver and someone else. Then she was driven away.
We didn’t have a mental hospital so it would be a long drive.
Could it be true that the one in the family who seemed to make a “tight ship” of herself, looking trim, unlikely to unravel as easily as her slipper wearing mother and sisters, had simply cracked?
The other two, who stayed out the back in the shop and played Saturday tennis, could not be enticed to speak of her. They soon looked like their mother and never went away. We did, and returned for Christmas and funerals to find the sports shop and their house unchanged, except three new Alsatians replaced the two old ones.
There was never anything more substantial than rumours over the disappeared.
Recently a computer whizz insisted you could trace everyone now, yet she failed to find any sign of the girl, and for me that thick smell remains.