Short Story – 13 – WHY

Patricia 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 Wigan.

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.    

When Grandma 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 cupboard’. 

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. 

It doesn’t 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 about.  

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.