Real Life: Silent shame of my mother: It is always the men who leave. Jeremy Seabrook finally understands a woman who stayed

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Indy Lifestyle Online
MY MOTHER had summoned me to her deathbed so many times over the past 20 years that it seemed inconceivable that I would be absent when death came. I had heard her voice, countless times. 'Come quick. I need you. I'm dying. It's the end.' And always, obediently, I had gone. Sometimes she had forgotten that she had called me, and looked at me as though to say: 'You don't usually come on Wednesdays, what's wrong?'

I was in Uttarkhand in north India when she died. The feeling that I had deserted her was strengthened by what I learned from the women of the Himalayan foothills. For they said it is always the men who leave. The men go from the marginal farm, the village, the forest, into the city. What is usually presented as male enterprise and intrepidity is seen differently by women. Men are more easily defeated. They walk away. They do not stand and fight the daily war that is waged against the poor at the level of the resource-base, of the familiar home-place.

In a quite different context, my mother had been like the women of Uttarkhand. She had remained. She had endured and overcome the devastation of her life, its ruined landscape, and had salvaged from it some dignity, even a quiet heroism.

The youngest of 12 children born between 1880 and 1905, there had been little scope for individual choice in the working-class streets around the shoe factories of the Midlands town. All had worked in the factories, and all taken their marriage partners from neighbouring families. Later, my mother would say, wonderingly: 'I thought you just got married and that was it. You didn't stop to find out if you would get on together'. Marriage prescribed roles: a good husband gave his money to his wife and didn't drink; a good wife stayed at home and made meals out of bones and pot-herbs. Certainly no one looked far afield for a partner. The working class culture was a formidable arranger of marriages.

She soon learned. She had always loved reading; and her husband, who had never read a book, allowed her to read to him one night. Self-taught, having left school at 14, she knew long passages of Dickens, George Eliot, the Victorian poets; but she chose to read Coming Through The Rye. When she looked up to see if he was enjoying it, he had fallen asleep. She said: 'That was when I realised how lonely marriage can be.'

But not as lonely as it was to become later. He had been a slaughterman before marriage, and they opened a butcher's shop on a new estate at the edge of town. But he would not be tied down. He had to be always on the move. He took a job driving a lorry that carried bricks from the brick-fields of Bedford all over the Midlands. He was an attractive man; the photographs show crinkly hair, shiny with cream; a seductive smile wrapped around a cigarette that always hung from the corner of his mouth; a flower in the buttonhole of his suit. He began to stay away, days, weeks at a time. What my mother referred to as his 'fancy-women' was something of a hyperbole: the snapshots show them to be quite ordinary, even downright plain. 'A bottle of pop', she would say of them, 'a blonde with a navy-blue parting'. She had had one miscarriage early on in their marriage, but no other pregnancy.

Early in 1938, her sister came one day and told her that his lorry had been seen, parked outside the doctor's surgery every night for two weeks. Nothing could be done in that town without being observed. The community imposed discipline and conformity, and extended its protective care only to those who complied with its ungenerous vision of right and wrong. It had developed extraordinary skill in detecting irregularities of conduct, especially if these were sexual. Sid had been ill, it appeared, for months. He regularly went poaching, caught rabbits by the sackful, which mother sold in the shop for a little extra money. To those who asked what was wrong with him he said he had become infected by a diseased rabbit.

But it was syphilis, which had reached the tertiary stage. By the time it was diagnosed, there was already tissue loss to the roof of the mouth and nose. The treatment would be long and drastic, indeed would take several years. He was prescribed daily injections of arsenic and mercury. My mother was terrified that someone would find out. Their livelihood would be finished, because he could no longer work. Every day, she would empty the buckets of mucus and waste that came from him. The stench remained in her nostrils till the end of her life. At the same time, she served in the shop, exchanged pleasantries and gossip with the women of the estate.

She was already well into her thirties, and sexual intercourse with her husband would have been impossible, even if it had not already ceased. It seemed to her that she would remain childless. One sunshiny day, as she stood washing up at the kitchen sink by the open window, a man came and asked her for some water. He was working on a nearby building site, where a palatial roadhouse was being constructed, with lounge and winter garden. There was to be a big car-park, he told her enthusiastically, because in the future people would drink in style, a far cry from the austere street-corner pubs which, until then, had been their only escape from the redbrick houses of correction of industrial life.

He was a craftsman and a socialist. He introduced her to the work of William Morris and Bernard Shaw, and in return, she gave him Mill on the Floss and Middlemarch. She decided on their first meeting that she would have a child with him. In the event, she had twins. I don't know what agreement she had reached with her husband. I imagine that she promised to look after him until he recovered, and after that, gave him no pledge. She soon learned however, that her lover was no more dependable than her husband. When she became pregnant, he withdrew to the bleak refuge of his own joyless, though comfortable, marriage and told her she was on her own.

SHE waited until her husband was restored before she divorced him. By that time, my brother and I were eight. It was still an enormity for a working-class woman to divorce her husband in the Forties. Many of her customers came to retrieve their ration-books, clearly unable to deal with people who permitted themselves the frivolous dissolution of such solemn bonds. Others, less sophisticated, had withdrawn their custom because it was still widely believed that menstruating women caused meat to go bad. Some men on the estate thought that a divorcee was by definition a woman of loose morals, and therefore available. Accordingly, they leaned on the counter, and propositioned her over the faggots and pork sausages.

At times, she would say to me and my brother: 'Ah, if you only knew]' She hinted constantly at something dark and unsayable, and although we might have attributed this to parental mystification, part and parcel of a strategy to make us more tractable, it nevertheless filled us with anxiety and foreboding. Such allusions were the only relief she allowed herself over 35 years. Perhaps they made her feel a little less alone; they certainly attached us more closely to her through the fear they aroused in us.

Occasionally we would arrive home from school and find the man we subsequently discovered to be our father sitting beside her on the sofa in tense silence. We resented him. He was there when I passed the 11-plus, and before I went to Cambridge, soft-eyed, anxious to celebrate. He was there when my brother started his apprenticeship, and there to mark its completion. We did not understand this obtrusive tenderness from someone who had no connection with us. He clearly wanted to take part in the rejoicing over our achievements, although he had wanted no place in the daily drudgery of our care.

As for our mother's husband, we grew up separated from him by the distance of his shameful illness. He slept alone in a room which we were not allowed to enter, a chamber of prohibited and rancid maleness. He used his own plate and cutlery. He rarely touched us. Our model of being male came to us across an immense space. My mother's bitterness towards men did little to reconcile us to our gender. She used to say, 'I've had to be father and mother to you as well.' It was a fierce, expiatory, over-protective love, saturated by her own guilt and unhappiness.

It seemed to me a pity to have had two fathers, and to have known neither of them, a bit of a waste really, since I had such a fragile sense of my own sexual identity. To make it worse, the separation of the men in her life was mirrored in her relationship with her twin boys. I think she feared above everything the possibility that we might combine against her. To forestall this, she kept us apart, as she had kept her husband and our father apart. We grew up as strangers to each other. Our personalities were constructed by her in such a way that we were mutually incomprehensible. I was clever, he was slow. He was handsome, I was ugly. He was well-behaved, I was troublesome. He was practical, I was supposed to be 'creative'. As it turned out, he had inherited his father's craftsmanship, and I his radicalism. But what could such beings possibly have in common? We grew up estranged from one another in the claustral intensity of our narrow family group; and so effective was it that it has persisted all our lives. She praised us endlessly to outsiders, but never to our faces. She also complained to each about the other. 'He'll never amount to anything.' 'He hasn't got a ha'porth of common sense.' 'He'll never get anywhere.' 'He'd better learn to hold a brush properly, because sweeping the roads is all he'll ever be fit for.' 'He isn't sharp enough to give handbills out.' 'He's a great dream of delight.' But she gave us to understand that each was the preferred one; and this was perhaps the best way of keeping us apart. We savoured, in secret, our superior status, not knowing that this was part of a competitive separation which was destined to last a lifetime.

When she told us, she was already 70. She spoke to us separately; but for once we were united in our response that she had done the right thing. But as soon as she had parted with her secret, she began to shake. It was as though keeping it had been the principal thing keeping her together. She was diagnosed as having Parkinson's disease, but she said what did the doctors know about such things. She also suffered from agoraphobia, and became afraid to go out of doors. Her life was already limited to the daily walk into town from the little terraced house where we lived with her sister after the divorce; her only outing was to the market square, to exchange gossip with acquaintances around the trestles laden with locally grown apples and tomatoes. But even that ceased. Soon, she would no longer leave the security of the house; then of the room, and later, of the chair and bed placed next to it. Illness became her last refuge, her identity.

She had lived in dread of going into a home; but that is where she finally went, rigid with arthritis and yet shaking uncontrollably. It cost the State pounds 350 a week to keep her there. The private room looked on to a golf course, landscaped, an instant garden of hypericum and cotoneaster; a room with floral curtains and matching watercolours on the walls. She looked round and said 'When we were kids, we had orange-box furniture and sacks at the window, because other people were making money out of us. The only thing that's changed is the scenery.' She hated the thought that her infirmity and dereliction should be someone else's business opportunity. But in spite of her loneliness she had a considerable capacity for attaching people to her.

The women workers in the home used to gather in her room, to complain, to confess, to cry, to tell of their secret worries, their breaking marriages, their children's success. Perhaps they sensed they were in the presence of one whose supreme gift lay in the keeping of secrets.

She had always appeared to me a sombre woman, puritanical, always anticipating the worst. I feared that she would die as she had lived, in struggle and in anger. I dreaded that she would seek our company in death, as she had sought our unknowing complicity in her life. But it wasn't so. She had a chest infection that failed to respond to antibiotics, and within a few hours, she was dead. They were giving her a cup of tea; she appeared to die; but then raised up her head once more to take her last breath. An easy death, they all said. A lovely way to go.

HAVING been away, I felt a need to see her. Her body was in the undertaker's chapel of rest. They had dressed her in a white gown with silver embroidery and lacy cuffs, raiment really, going-to-heaven wear of her childhood Sunday-School hymns. She would have hated it, just as she had always hated the crematorium where the funeral service was conducted, built in the Thirties and given as a 21st birthday present by the owner to his son, because he had foreseen that burning was the coming thing. Perhaps it was the gulf between appearance and reality in her own life that gave her such a lively sense of social incongruities; and this has been one of her many gifts to me. Although she had ceased reading many months before, she kept her two favourite books close to her; they were Bleak House and Mill on the Floss.

I had been preoccupied, almost obsessed with my relationship with her well into maturity, but I felt neither guilty nor overwhelmed by her death. I thought of the Himalayan women who had stayed to fight the destruction of their environment; and I thought of her kinship with them, who had remained to fight the inner desolation of her life. I am grateful for these insights into the endurance and creativity of women of different societies and cultures; women who remain and remember, where men run away and forget.

(Photographs omitted)