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The Formation of Rifts
This book explores how privilege and tradition, if they divide parents and children from each other, can leave everyone unanchored and at risk of drowning. With travel embedded in its genes, my happy family lived a way of life that became the unstable fault line along which everything broke apart.
‘what most reliably damages children is long-term emotional neglect, the absence of safety, the failure of justice, the loss of love’ (Alex Renton in The Guardian June 8th 2015)
The Formation of Rifts.
I had no idea when I turned my straw-boatered head and lifted my hand to wave goodbye that it was seismic moment. That the tectonic plates of parent, daughter, sister, brother were breaking apart and between them, hot and bitter magma would rise for decades to come. It was the end of one thing and the beginning another. When you’re eight years old and you step into the unknown, you don’t hear the splintering fracture, or wonder whether it was predetermined. In that moment, it’s just the way things are.
Half a century later my own daughter is home for a visit and we’re talking about her new job.
‘I’m good at it,’ she says.
‘And modest too,’ I counter.
‘Yeah well, Mother, modesty is a creation of the patriarchy used to keep women in their place. It’s bullshit.’
Her amused eyes meet mine with a smile that is easy, uncomplicated and glowing. We laugh and move on to something else. The words plague me. They scratch at my thinking, like a rat under the floorboards that I can hear but I can’t find.
Don’t run, don’t whistle, sit still, keep your knees together, what will people think? Modesty, one of the cornerstones of convention along with expectation and etiquette. As a family we don’t…. People like us don’t…
I think about her words when I go out walking in the afternoon. My travels around the veins and arteries of the city where I have become rooted, are a soothing, metronomic, harmless pastime, not without the opportunity to step out into the oncoming traffic. Stopping it. And stopping me. Although I haven’t yet.
Not long after our exchange, a warm, aromatic smell interrupts my daily walk. My hip has bumped up against a trailing rosemary bush. The dark green spikes tipped with soft feathery flowers are baking in the sun. I inhale, overwhelmed by an echo from a time before. Smooth, tanned feet press into a foreign-looking lawn. The grass is dry-tipped with thick, yellowing spikes. I can hear the sound of voices and the musical splash of water on stone. The memory floods me with an emotion so strong I struggle to breathe. It cuts into me. And, as fast as it comes, it’s gone. Twisting off a spike of the plant, I continue along the familiar streets unseeing, rubbing the sticky leaves between my fingers and pressing my face into the smell, trying to bring the vision back. Trying to recapture that split second of incision. Of feeling.
Memories are slippery buggers. In the autumn of the same year, as the days shorten, I visit a place called Tayvallich in the far reaches of Scotland. I’m filled with anticipation, peering around each bend until the road ends and the car pulls up outside a shuttered shop. I’ve been here before in a childhood summer. There is a photographic record. But no matter how hard I stare around me, nothing resonates. There are family tales of an idyllic August, boating on the loch with seals, picnics on islands, toasted marshmallows. You’d think a holiday as enchanting would make an entry into my memory bank. Covid-abandoned Tayvallich on a dreary November day doesn’t quite capture the magic. It’s bleak and cold. A bitter Atlantic wind rattles up the loch creating grubby brown wavelets and hurtling rubbish around the deserted caravan site. My disappointment is disproportionate. I get back in the car and leave.
I found the photograph from that summer, in a yellowed, peel-and-stick album. The date is scrawled in my mother’s curly handwriting on the back. It shows our family grouped in front of a small campfire where a smoking saucepan is balanced. We are perched atop a raised sandy mound with a picture-book backdrop behind us; the brightest of blue skies and greenest of summer-green seas. I’m positioned on the far side of my mother to my older brother and sister. I’m kneeling, wearing only a garish, flowery swimming-costume and my tanned, skinny, six-year-old arm is looped around the neck of our dog, Biggles. It’s good to see him there. Like the daring pilot he was named after, Biggles liked a good adventure and was often absent.
In general, his preferred escape took him to the cake trolley at Bawtry police station. On this holiday he can’t have sourced a good supplier of snacks. Or maybe there was the lure of frying sausages. My father’s work entailed the whole family moving house every sixteen months, often overseas, so in all honesty, it’s surprising that we even have a dog. My high blonde bunches match Biggles’s raised inquisitive ears, and together with him, we three children are gazing at the photographer with untroubled, trusting openness, happiness even. Only my brother is set back a little from the group, his expression perhaps more cautious. It’s a safe guess that my father was taking the picture. We were always together, the five of us. In the beginning.
Try as I might to inhabit this memory, me, the person I am now - this adult me, I can’t slide back into the skin of that six-year-old and feel it. I’m grinning, and both my front teeth are missing. One of them was missing permanently from a bike accident I’d had the year before. I run my tongue over the back of my teeth and feel the bridge work that fixes my teeth in position now. I don’t remember the accident only what, my mother saw. The band of three brothers who lived next door strung a rope across the grassed patch that lay between our houses. Watched by my mother from the kitchen window, I pedalled tight circles on the upper portion of grass above the unfenced slope down to their house. When the boys called me, I turned and picking up speed flew triumphantly down the small dip straight into their trap. Over I went, smashing my face into the entangled handlebars and on into the ground. By the time my mother reached me, the boys were nowhere to be seen.
There is no moment in all my catalogue of remembered or misremembered memories where I’m inside my skin. Am I not that girl? Am I in fact another girl whose actual memories have been overlaid by told ones? On close examination there is a clear resemblance though. I still have the same uneven eyebrows, the same missing teeth, the same scars.
It’s important to know who you are, when you’re writing your history, or people will think you made it all up. What rubbish, they will say, that can’t ever have happened. But if I knew, if I really knew, I could refute those statements and say, ‘I know, because I was there.’ But I’m not sure. And if I wasn’t there, then where the hell was I?
On the other hand, it’s as important not to tell the truth. People will be hurt. People will think, that’s me she’s talking about. I was there and it wasn’t like that. I can almost be sure it wasn’t like that for my brother and sister, because of the way they tell their own histories. That, as they grew, they stayed right inside those two other, thin, sun-bleached entities kneeling on the far side of our mother from me and our dog on that hot Scottish day. As for me, I can only suppose what I felt and that is how I’m going to tell it to you. It will be all supposition. That way no one can tell me that I got it wrong. It will be snippets of me as I think I remember them. My snippets. Like colouring in the washed-out photographs as I flip thought the albums.
Nowadays my skin has lost its youthful elasticity. It’s tired. Tired from living and from straining to remember. My eyes are sun damaged; the cornea lumpy, the once luminous blue-green iris has faded to grey, and fine thread veins crawl across my cheeks. When I look in a mirror it’s still a shock to see this aging me. The me that I do inhabit. Although the outside doesn’t match the inside, it shouldn’t be bewildering that my body is all aches and failings, nevertheless it’s a source of anguish. My brain though has not shrivelled or sagged and goes on thinking it’s in the bloom of youth. Only occasionally, on a cold winter’s afternoon, it forgets to be young and nods off when I’m least expecting it to.
At eight, I was loved, curious and ignorant all at once. The steps where you find me are attached to the Preparatory School for Young Ladies, housed in a squat Victorian villa at the foot of the barren Malvern Hills. I’m two days, one sea and half a continent away from home. With thirty or so other girls, I’m about to step over the threshold to what will be my new home for the next fourteen weeks. I follow a frowning, tweed skirted woman up the stairs unsure whether to remove my uncomfortable headwear and I’m too preoccupied to feel the light tremble under my feet.
I had begun eight years earlier with my parents - cells colliding, cells dividing. My father was working in Singapore and had a heck of lot of life under his highly polished belt. My mother, by comparison had very little life under her sixteen-inch waist but had joined her parents in the same city to enjoy the summer before heading to university. Stella was an earnest, bright young woman. Jon was older and adventurous and after a day of challenging work, happy to be out in pleasant company. It was coincidence that led to their initial collision.
‘That’s Henry.’ Corinna, my mother’s chaperone for the evening, is pointing at a tall man with blonde, brilliantined hair. He and his friend are crisp in white uniform with gold braid detailing. She dabs at her face with a cotton handkerchief. ‘I’ll introduce you.’
The men grin as they approach. My mother has never seen anything more handsome. Being as she is, fresh off the boat and fresh from an all-girls boarding school. She feels awkward and stands behind Corinna’s shoulder looking up from under her fringe. Sweat is running down her back and she hopes it doesn’t show though the fabric of her new silk dress.
‘Rin darling, we were about to give up on you. You look fabulous.’ Henry kisses her on the cheek. ‘We’re planning a day trip. You simply have to come.’ He scans my mother from head to toe and raises an eyebrow. ‘Both of you, of course. Don’t you think, Jon?’
‘This is Stella. My boss’s daughter, so go easy.’
The other officer looks at her. He has straight white teeth and brown eyes full of laughter. Stella’s heart sinks. Now she knows that he won’t like her at all. Although he seems kind.
‘You’ll come with us, won’t you, Stella? I can’t go off on my own with them. Think of the talk!’ Corinna flashes her eyes at the men, giving them a quick smile, ‘But it’ll be fine if there are four of us.’
They could have arrived minutes later on that wide, white stone terrace or chosen another of the myriad of cocktail parties taking place that evening. The right sort of parties, that were arranged by the ex-pat community, for their young people to meet the right kind of people. A sort of elaborate real-life dating game. Without the bell or the swipe right. By all accounts, there was always a soiree or a boat trip to be joined. Their courtship days are a shiny portrait of expat privilege, like a real-life Grace Kelly film where the voices are clipped and confident, the clothing, fashionable and elegant, the drinks ice cold and on tap. Jon and Stella fell in love. Of course they did. The privilege, the heat, the romance, the youthful exuberance of it all. And they remained inseparable until the end of the summer when Stella left for Cambridge.
My dutiful, always law-abiding mother. A woman who has lived her whole life to the rule of unspoken and mostly unknown public opinion, never realising that people don’t think that much about other people. Their thoughts are more along the lines of vacantly wondering if they remembered to feed the cat or shut the front door? Worrying too much about the opinions of others, once she was safely tucked away at university, led her to write to my father the following formal letter:
I feel I should make you aware that I have received a number of invitations to dine from other men here at Cambridge. I wonder if you could clarify for me the nature of our relationship that I might be clear how to reply to them.’
His response, dry and amused.
If it’s a proposal you’re after, then I’m happy to supply one.
Her answer to this is a little haughty and perhaps has a touch of cold feet about it,
I would love to marry you, but I’m worried about the fact that there is a great difference in the amount we have read and that that might make us incompatible in the long run.
He replies, and I can hear him snorting now,
Don’t worry you’ll have plenty of time to catch up with me.
The tone of this correspondence, in which I can see the slight crease of confusion on Stella’s smooth brow, as she struggles to make sense of it, always makes me smile. In these few short sentences so much is revealed. My mother’s lifelong intellectual snobbery, her inability to laugh at herself and my father’s unromantic honesty and refusal ever to take her seriously. If the two of them were presented as an example for a long and happy marriage in the 21st Century, I suspect it would be laughed out of town. But they received a telegram from the Queen in August 2021 to congratulate them on 60 years of marriage, so who am I to judge.
Once the proposal had been made, accepted and approved by those with power to do so, my mother left university and the following summer they were married. If anyone advised her to stay on, she can’t remember. The alternative remains unknown, and the narrative, of their being so madly in love that waiting was not an option, might therefore be as impossibly romantic as their wedding album suggests. My grandmother did not speak out. Her judgement ruled the roost, and she must have judged the match ‘a good thing.’ My grandfather did not speak out either, even though it was no mean feat for a young woman to get into Cambridge in 1960. I will cling to my belief that it had to have been true love.
When I hold my father’s hands today and stroke the papery skin, I find it incomprehensible that he was ever young or that those hands ever held a weapon, and yet although not always at war, the army was his entire working life. I love the photographs of him as a young man, sitting in his sports car, nonchalant elbow over the opened window, or leaning against his Auster light aircraft in full leather flying gear. One monochrome image I’m drawn to is of him sitting with a group of soldiers outside a large canvas tent. It’s 1953, they are in full combat gear. In their midst is a hand painted sign that reads, ‘The Best Damn Outfit in Korea’. I, in conscious delusion, like to think of his life there as a Sunday afternoon black and white film, part glamour, part romance, but who knows what dangers those young men faced every day? The sign, and the fearless grins, don’t tell the whole story. My father’s the broadest smile of them all. I must fill in the gaps of his life with imagination. It feels safer to do that, than to poke around in his memories and stir up things long buried.
It’s easy to see that the idea of a beautiful, young wife and the comforts of a family may have been something my father was ready for. That it made sense that they married. There will be time later to unpick his own unsettled childhood and the unravelling of his family, with all the additional baggage that brought to our own.
When he met my mother, Jon was not a fragile, gentle, old man. He was tall and dashing, a suave Cary Grant lookalike, with the same athletic build. As small children, he would pick all three of us up together and swing us around at once. And he could make us cry with laughter. He would begin to laugh before he started a joke and could barely speak from chuckling by the time he reached the punchline. Even at ninety he’ll think of something that amuses him and be whooping and wheezing with tears running down his face, unable to say what set him off. But he saw active service and I know that underneath the joking and the charm, underneath the still neat cravat, the soft brushed-cotton shirts and corduroy trousers, is a legacy of trauma that affected him his whole life long.
Travel, travel, travel. It’s in our blood. Every direction you look, as a family we have dispersed across this globe for generation after generation. And we were bold. Living as I do now a quiet, domestic life I consider for a moment how this gene, this urge to adventure has passed me by. Where is my dose of intrepid?
Wow. This is gorgeous work;…
Wow. This is gorgeous work; I absolutely love your style.
Oh my goodness.
Your writing is so strong. You swept me along with every word. What a start!!
Thank you for these kind words. I'm thrilled to get such positive feedback.