That Unfortunate Business

 

 

T

hreat thickened as increasing fog, until there seemed almost nowhere to play outside it.
And who could get hold of what it was?
Not that I had ever seen dense fog or grasped what it might be, back when worry generally butterfly- flitted from who might die next after our kind Granny started it, to whether I revenge- kicked in my sleep like our triple chinned Uncle and would the sea we were so warned against outwit us?
Mostly fears didn’t quite take shape and, if they did, busy adults ignored them.
Their questions were “have you cleaned your teeth?.. washed your hands?… eaten everything on your plate?”
Our not-yet-dead, grim Grandma always asked “have you been good?” and, unlike grown-ups, we were not allowed to escape answering.
Before things changed it never occurred to ask what actually was going on.
Since any true answer was beyond our parents as well as us it’s unsurprising questions remained restricted – mostly to” when? or why?”
To the latter the answer invariably was “because I say so” or simply “because.” Possibly a fair reply though hardly giving us much to grip on.
Despite my apparently annoying “what time will…?” “where are…?” “how much longer? and always the “why?” it didn’t occur to me to query punishments at home or school.
For us a given was eating breakfast, lunch, then saying grace and having dinner. It was another given that children were hit.
Having been drawn into conventions, we had not begun to interrogate them.
And whilst highly susceptible to atmosphere the absorbed went unarticulated, except for being quick on the lookout for good and bad. We knew using toilet paper was the only right way, so ancient Maoris were simply wrong. (If we resisted our bodies, holding out on using the toilet well past discomfort, that was a different wrestling for control.)
With familial notions of decency we girls were believers, recognising the “less clean” whose garden had junk, the one or two who had been to jail and those Father said had deserved it.
At least, he frequently declared who deserved the rod until he had his own brush with the law.
While things worked in our favour, we had taken their hierarchies of respectability for our own and as fact, though were just beginning to find our parents’ decoration on core beliefs less believable. My older sister had taken to sighing at mother’s strong views on “upstarts” – like that sassy lawyer’s wife, who was “no better than she should be” and “came from nothing yet gave herself airs.”
And we liked the girl from “that awful lot“ who won the lottery and therefore a farm, then carried on as if superior and landed for generations.
The newly acquiring were brazen and our parents had plenty to say against the brash.
Their indictments, along with the word of God, were handed down. Our parents and the Almighty at one in spotting human sin.
With so little scrutiny of the shared life we joined, with underground swells of opinion picked up without our capacity to stand back or assess, we probably could not acknowledge our family had considerable standing in a small community. It was just granted that there was no hesitation for us – like our parents we belonged with ease. And of course others were pleased to be invited to our place.
So once things shifted we three, at eight, ten and just thirteen, were ill equipped to make sense of it.
Not that anyone tried to see what we might comprehend.

At first I sensed our parents changing – short with us and, though tense, longer with each other, because they no longer seemed to go out to his Rotary or Masons, or her Mother’s Union.
There were whispers between bigger girls who before took no notice of me at school.
Most who used to come still visited yet with an altered, uncomfortable air.
Later I could say we’d become the ones patronised – that hint of condescension from the vicar’s wife bringing us her inferior jam, though she always bought our mother’s best orange marmalade at each church fair.
A neighbour brought over a few lemons when we had sent them excess vegetables for years.
We protested only once Mother began to talk of an extended stay with Grandma.
What about school, friends and our rooms? Visiting there, given fierce orders not to move a thing, we slept on the floor of the arid sitting room kept for special occasions, our parents taking the only spare bedroom.
It was not conceivable to argue that we felt stifled in a house where “best behaviour” was demanded but actually no behaviour at all was better. Grandma might smile if we were dolls, added to those untouchable ones from her childhood with their china heads.
Our father was equally caged in that house but, unlike the zoo lion, couldn’t pace and show he’d eat his mother-in-law given any chance.
Instead his foot tapped incessantly and money in his pocked jangled, irritating both wife and her mother.
It was annoying but each time his tongue went around his lips, as it often did, or one hand began picking round nails of the other, I felt an urge to touch him.
Perhaps to restrain as it was an uneasy watch – perhaps to reach out with sympathy.
On this intended visit he was to remain at home and already round his lips was rash red – his finger picked to bleeding.
But packing halted when an aunt arrived.
This was Father’s sister who, though quick to tell others how to brace up, had a strong streak of self-indulgence, which with the help of our mother we recognised in our aunt. (It took years to see Mother’s clearly.)
Our aunt was soon briskly asserting that giving in would not do.
And something upsetting at Mother’s Union was no reason to stay away, the pair of them would go together.

Etiquette and the highest standards of manners were this aunt’s speciality but it spilled over to other behaviour.
Her advice was the necessity of a party. It was nearly Mother’s birthday and she would stay to organise, our parents being no longer up to it.
Father remained unconvinced, despite gratitude that his sister’s arrival stopped our deserting him which would look bad. Besides her requiring the guestroom sent Mother back to their bed.
That a party would not happen we understood because our aunt spoke about some things we could overhear. Before there had been only un-deciphered hisses from our parents’ bedroom. But how our position had been undermined remained nebulous, as did our grounds for it in the first place. If that had been well deserved was a reversal equally our fault?
We navigated our way through turbulence without words and later found it impossible to believe we did not ask what was happening. We were not mute children. Though a “we” is misleading for the three of us barely spoke about ourselves or the family for another decade. It wasn’t what we or anyone we knew did.

I said nothing to my sister the night of the last proper party for the now dead Granny’s birthday (and our aunt did express relief that at least her dear mother was no longer with us.) Our mother had seemed on edge and we, who were meant to be asleep, drew parental annoyance. Mother came in, asking no questions, told the eldest to pull up her nightdress and slapped her bottom hard. She was meant to be responsible Mother declared.
That sister had no chance of controlling the pair of us. I lay silently awake, distressed by muffled crying, while lines etched into memory – my humiliation as well as hers.
Mother objected if ever she caught rivalry and jealousies playing out between us. Once they surfaced in open fight she, too, entered the ring and it was she who won – with tension crushed but unnamed.
Occasionally there is gratitude that though most of what erupted between us sisters was not made explicit, we were largely spared having who we might be and how we reacted stamped by a parental voice. They kept to “good” or “bad” behaviour.

Then threat moved in close.
It wasn’t “that rogue” infuriating because he was out of jail too soon and back down the road.
It wasn’t what we recognised from mocking older children, those fighting big boys or the tempers of certain teachers permitted straps and sticks.
Nor was it one of those distant uncertainties which could make one of us fearful.
Some menace lurked and we hadn’t even been to church the previous Sunday.
Our aunt was having none of that. Well dressed, with a new green hat and confidence in being stylish, she led the way in. Father baulked when she aimed for the front where we had once sat beside Granny, those years he was warden.
His sister, conceding, ushered us to the third row.
After the service there was none of the usual lingering.
Our aunt said too pointedly “I know you have to hurry back but I’ll catch up with one or two.”
We squirmed at the theatricality yet were relieved to get away.
From what we couldn’t begin to say, although we sensed having slipped down to “dubious,” our fixed place now in doubt, despite the lawn still being very “respectable.”
Our aunt’s concern was that we keep our heads high, making us practice down the passage balancing a book.
She managed while Mother took regularly to her bed. But it couldn’t just be a fight with father, as they had been carefully kept inside the house.
No one else was to register the lack of ease or our cautious attention to all home rules before slipping out to school.
If Mother sulked a few days extra to make her point, we recognised improvement when Father brought home something to please and became rather too hearty over dinner.
But now his being flattened was a constant, with my sleep broken by listening to his foot fall up and down the passage. And mother was subdued without petulance, lacking the once predictable that “she knew what was what!” Her general air having been that Father might consider himself important yet he hardly began to comprehend the subtle realm over which she ruled.
Something had shaken certainties, leaving her at the mercy of judgements she couldn’t control. No longer assured of where she stood, with her decency respected, confidence in her good mothering seemed gone.
Instead of punishing she wept when her daughters fell below expected standards.
At these tears our aunt, as though giving stage directions, would loudly whisper that we must spare the “poor dear” any further disappointment.
How had this strong mother become a “poor” woman to anyone?

Eventually our aunt called us and told to sit. We were to go to her place. Grandma was coming to be with Mother.
Our aunt clearly had a prepared speech. “Two men, as Boy Scout leaders, are said to have behaved badly – none of it is true, of course, but your father having been Scout Master, and very good at it, is upset by all this unfortunate business, though he saw nothing and would have done so if anything untoward was happening.”
Questions were not invited.
My older sister muttered, as we went to pack, how she already knew that much from school.
The fact it didn’t occur to her to share what she’d heard seemed the expected.

Off we went for the August holiday and more balancing of books.
Our big cousin, back from university, drove us to cold, wintry beaches each day, because our aunt needed quiet, even if at our place the drama had apparently energised her, obliterating aches and ailments.
Her husband, genial though weak, had long ago accepted being banished to a separate bedroom “because of his legs.”
A fact which fascinated. Over them I got hold of something to ask, “did you kick her in your sleep?”
“Apparently so young lady. Not the way for a gentleman.”
“Why?”
“No idea and nor has the Doc.”
“Are my legs restless too?”
“No, no.”
“But if I’m asleep and there is no one kicked to be cross, how would we know?”
“Doesn’t happen to girls and only to one other man, as far as I know.”
And that ended questions if not my interest.
But to his jocular “soon it’ll be business as usual” I couldn’t find the right question.
We girls failed to ask, “Is Dad the one accused?“
We knew how proud he’d been “of running the show and a jolly good one at that. Gone down since.”
After some days, our aunt was off to our house again and not taking us. Her husband must drive this time, she being too stressed to take herself.
All the talk was about our cousin being in charge so we didn’t immediately enquire if there was bad news, and she was soon gone.
Then our lot improved. No more practicing high heads so we wouldn’t “skulk.” Our cousin taught us how to twist and turned up the volume of the record player way beyond the allowed.
When our uncle returned alone, tired after the drive both ways, he perked up with the music and, turning it up even louder, suggested dinner out that night, a movie the next.
We were unused to either and certainly not accustomed to adults out to please.
He put as much energy into that as usually went into appeasing our aunt – a measure Mother made regularly and tartly.
The youngest did ask “are Mum and Dad okay?” But he put less into answering her with only, “You’ll see, it’ll all come out in the wash” then adding an unlikely “they just want you to enjoy yourselves here.”
Adults generally expected outward signs of contentment but hardly made pleasing us any priority.
School restarted but we didn’t return home for a further week.
Our mother lay in her darkened room, Father was out and we were shushed to tip toe by formidable Grandma.
It had long been palpable that she didn’t like father but now, even in our house, his power was reducing.
His sister, though bossy, seemed careful to maintain his place and dignity. Grandma certainly did not.
By then news in the paper was well known at school. Two scout leaders, both married, had been found guilty of indecency with each other, such was the law I barely understood.

They were jailed.
But the rumour was that stories from a couple of boys who’d come forward had been dismissed.
After all weren’t boys’ bare backsides there to be beaten?

Our older sister suddenly grew fierce. She had heard far more than we realised and for her, those things having been said, there was no taking them back. Was she to swallow them as if they meant nothing?
Our aunt told her not to take it to heart, it had just been gossip. But my sister was now growing tenacious. If people were not to be taken at their word, when did what they said matter?
And why wasn’t it serious if you were the subject of unfair tittle tattle?
Why not hold gossips to account or at least never trust them? They were wrong! Yet their credibility took no dent as Father’s had done. They were as welcome everywhere.
That sister stayed in town, readily bitter and unforgiving.
Mother wished to move and increasingly spent hours on the sofa, complaining of headaches and menopausal discomfort. Something of her was diminished and that defeat oppressive.

Father was not just being stubborn, though he certainly could be.
He wouldn’t run away as if guilty; people would soon rally he kept saying. Also his credit was not transferable anywhere else, he’d have to start again to make his reputation and didn’t feel young enough to do it.
Mother was trapped, with no income of her own, unable to make an independent decision.
And though their strained marriage now looked a misery, divorce was as bad a scandal as the one which left its stain.
Outside the house our father sounded too loud and Mother tight but neither joined in as before.

Once that underbelly of what had given us standing lay exposed, trying to fit in again had no appeal for me.
Soon the counting began – years, months, then a few final weeks until an exit.

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