Gwendolene Joy Connolly was born on the 13th of July 1933. We would have to consult an almanac to
discover if this was a Friday; but for all the luck she had in her first few
years it might as well have been. She
was a twin – though this would come as a surprise to her, because she couldn’t
remember a sister, let alone a twin sister.
She had learned not to remember anything; not to remember her sister,
not to remember her mother, the sainted Vera and learned also not to remember
her father. But that may not be quite
right either, because maybe her father was never hers to remember at all.
And she was
never told why? Why was she separated
from her sister, her twin sister? Why, at six years old, was she sent by train
to a town she didn’t know? Why was she
met by a strange man who said he was her uncle?
And maybe she learnt also how not to ask the very question, why?
This is an
exercise in remembering; piecing together what you were never told or have
learned to forget, leaves gaps. And you
are never quite sure if you really remember what happened, or if you are
remembering what you were told happened.
Such is the nature of our hesitant tread on this earth that even the
heaviest footsteps get washed away by successive waves of time. And the core of
stories handed down the generations gets smaller and smaller with each
retelling until you are simply passing on the shadow of a baton in this
long-distance relay-race. So I am
indulging here and there in a bit of fiction, a dab of decorative infill, if
you will. And who knows anyway if this
version of events is any nearer the truth than anyone else’s. We all, each in our way, have our own version
of the past, which we cling to… for without it what are we indeed, but figments
of someone else’s imagination.
We have to
travel back, way back, into the life of Vera, Patricia’s mother, to begin to
understand things. Vera was my
grandmother – and yet never my grandmother at all. She was the only biological grandparent I
would ever know. Yet she was the one I
rejected. And for good reason too; I
already had a Nana who I loved – and who loved me, unconditionally. When Vera came along with her Astrakhan fur,
and a heavy cloying reek of cigarettes and cheap cologne, and told me she
was my real grandmother and that she had always loved me, she might as well
have been speaking a foreign language.
Well, she had a funny accent, (Northern, I later discovered) and we were
Suffolk born and bred; people from Norfolk were strangers to us, let alone from
But who was
this Vera, and is she the villain of this little piece or just another victim?
We have to go
back even further to Grandma Allard.
That is my mother’s Grandma, Vera’s mother and my biological great
grandmother, to find out anything about Vera.
I knew Grandma Allard, but not very well, not like my Dad’s mum, my real
Nana. This Grandma was old and
crotchety, and she was ill, though I never realised this at the time. She used to lie on an old sofa, or it might
have been a chaise-longue, in the gloomy dark living room at Ipswich Road. And she had long thin hair which she used to
wind up in a plait round and round her head.
She died in 1959 when I was only 8.
This was not
the house my mother was born into. She
knew nothing of its existence, or that she had a Grandma at all, or even a
sister. The first she knew was when as a
thin and scrawny six-year old she was collected at Stowmarket railway station
by Uncle Albert, the second youngest of Grandma Allard’s ten children, and only
one of two surviving brothers, both still living at home. If she was six, this must have been 1939, and
Albert would have only been twenty-four himself. She was perched on the crossbar of his bike
and gripping the handlebars to balance herself was pedalled through the strange
small town to Grandma Allard’s.
But why was she
there? Why did she not know her Grandma,
or even her twin sister? We will never
know. These secrets are buried with
Vera. My mother never asked her own
mother these questions, even as she visited her every week when decades later
Vera was dying of cancer. Maybe my
mother had learnt long ago not to ask.
But what we can surmise from what we know of Vera, is that, saint or
victim, it was probably a result of the man she was with at the time. Vera married four men in her life, but there
were undoubtedly more. We have a record
that the first husband, Thomas Connolly, died in 1930; three years before the
twins were born, though my mother was named a Connolly. So husband number two,
Jack Cookson, was not on the scene yet.
Or if he was around he wasn’t acknowledged as my mother’s father. Respectability at all costs.
The twins were
born in the summer of 1933 in Southend, not so far, but far enough, away from
Stowmarket. And all of Grandma Allard’s
other children had settled either in or around the town, so why did Vera move
away? But Vera was always
different. When she made contact many
years later (she had been living in Wigan for years) she was as different as
chalk from cheese. And she would
certainly have considered herself the cheese…so very superior to the chalky
relatives she left behind.
But here is
where the story gets really complicated.
Twins were born, and for reasons unknown they were separated, either at
birth, or very early on. Neither was
told of the existence of the other. But
back then children were never told – no-one would have considered that
appropriate at all. One, my mother,
stayed with her own mother and whatever man she was with at the time, who may
or may not have been her father. Her
twin sister, Pamela, went to live with Grandma Allard. Isn’t this peculiar, even given the quite
careless way with children back then, when Aunts and Uncles routinely brought
up other people’s children as their own, or you discovered that your older
sister was really your mother.
Why were the
girls separated? And the separation must
have been meant to be permanent, because neither Patricia nor Pamela knew of
each other’s existence. Had there been
some massive family row? Had Vera been
somehow expelled, ex-communicated, shoved away from the family. Or was it Vera, who had for whatever reason
deposited one half of the twins with her mother and then disappeared from sight
with the other, Patricia? And she didn’t
see them for years; we have to wonder if she ever wrote to enquire about
Pamela, and later about the other twin she had abandoned or if she just left
them, only to turn up years later, like an undoubted bad penny.
Allard died in 1959, Uncle Albert, who now, if not earlier, had taken over the
role of guardian of the family, showed my mother an old newspaper clipping
which Grandma Allard had saved. It was
from the News of the World, and my mother had been featured as ‘the girl in the
She had been
kept in a cupboard. And been rescued and
placed in a Dr. Barnado’s home. How long
she was in the cupboard we do not know.
Or by whom? Was it Vera’s man or
Vera herself? Unless we find the
newspaper report we will never know, and of course even if we do it may not
tell us much more than we already know.
really matter. I like to blame Vera,
maybe because I never liked her, despite her being my blood relative, but possibly
she was just a victim of someone else’s cruelty. But she must have known, and why didn’t she
stop him? Why didn’t Vera take my mother
out of the cupboard? I cannot help
thinking she must have had a particularly selfish and callous streak; firstly
to have agreed to the separation of the girls, and secondly to have either
commissioned, or sanctioned this cruelty inflicted on her little girl.
And why is my
mother’s only memory of that time one of darkness and a card with a rose on
it? The darkness is easy – this would be
the cupboard, maybe an under-stairs cupboard, or, worse to imagine, a small
kitchen cupboard. The darkness and the
cramped conditions and the smells, maybe of old coats, or tins of paint, or polish,
or just tired dirty air, and the sounds all muffled, and maybe the worst sound
of all. The sound of someone opening the
cupboard door may have been the most dreaded sound of all. But what is intriguing is the card with the
rose on it. Because she remembers
darkness we must assume that the cupboard had no light, but maybe just enough
managed to creep in through the cracks or under the door to lighten her little
prison cell enough to see a few hazy shapes.
And what she saw was the card with the rose on it. Maybe a Valentine from one of Vera’s
admirer’s, or maybe just a nice picture which Vera had kept and put away in the
cupboard, along with all the other things Vera wished she could forget
And we will
never know why. Why was my mother
separated from her twin? Why was she kept
in a cupboard? Vera is long gone and
Uncle Albert of course, and my mother’s sister Pamela died a few years
ago. My mother says she has forgotten
all about these early years, she only remembers living with her Grandma. And so I have written this little piece these
many years later. And I am no nearer
knowing why either.