Past Redemption (2)
I can see myself now, across the years, standing in that room, virtually dancing from foot to foot in my eagerness to begin my new life and desperate for Barbara to go so I could start. Eighteen seems so absurdly young to me now but I thought I was as adult as I’d ever be and that I didn’t need all this fuss.
“It’s very small,” Barbara said with a sniff of disapproval. “It’s smaller than your room at home.”
I think she’d imagined something else entirely.
She twitched at the sheets and blankets on the narrow bed.
“You’ll miss your duvet,” she said. “I could come up next weekend and bring it, if you like.”
Inwardly I shuddered.
“It’s OK, I’ll be fine,” I said. “It’s pretty warm here; I should be fine. Besides, it’ll be more to bring back at Christmas.”
“Can’t you leave stuff here?” she asked.
There was a big cupboard or small storeroom at the end of the corridor that you could use to dump stuff over the holidays but I had no intention of mentioning that.
“I could come and bring you home at the end of term, you know,” she said.
“It’d be better if I just took the train,” I said. “You’ll be so busy; it isn’t fair to have you come all this way.”
She beamed at me and I felt guilty. She was thinking how considerate I was being and I wasn’t at all. I just wanted to be independent; it wasn’t as if she was really my mother at all and like all young people, I wanted to be free of parental influences. Just because the sole representative of those influences was Barbara, my not-quite-stepmother didn’t soften that yearning at all. But I’d still rather not have hurt her feelings. It seems mad now I think about it, considering what I did later.
“It really is very small,” she said again.
“They’ll all be exactly the same size,” I said. “No one will have anything bigger.”
I think she had somehow imagined something grander and more impressive than a standard institutional study-bedroom, painted that awful pale green that makes me think of over-cooked cabbage. I think she had this image of me sitting amid a pile of books and gothic architecture, surrounded by a score of lads in cricket whites, every one holding a glass of Pimm’s or something.
“This is a redbrick,” I said patiently. “Not Oxbridge.”
“Are you sure you’re going to be all right?” she said.
“I shall be fine,” I said. “I’m only going to be in here for a limited time each day.”
I was pretty sure she thought I would be spending all my time here, sitting at my desk in glorious isolation only venturing out to scurry down to the bathroom, or to go into the university itself. I had no such ideas! What eighteen-year-old girl would?
She went over to the window and peered out at the trees beyond it.
“You haven’t even got a decent view,” she said.
The trees were still more or less in full leaf though the green had begun to fade to buff and gold and a few had begun falling; they twirled and twisted through the air, spiralling down as we watched. Autumn still had to get going properly and the room was frankly overheated for a warm day at the start of October. I opened the window and felt the relief of cooler air pouring into the room, as well as the sound of sparrows and distant traffic.
“Right, I’d better help you get unpacked,” she said and began to open the first and heaviest of my cases.
I wanted to protest but couldn’t bring myself to. It would be easier to just let her get on with it so after a moment I swung the other case onto the bed and opened it. I could always re-arrange everything once she’d gone; I owed her so much and just letting her have these moments of usefulness without carping ingratitude seemed far kinder. It didn’t take long but we did manage to have a brief barney over coat hangers. She had insisted we bring a few as she was certain they wouldn’t be provided but when I opened the wardrobe and found a half dozen wire ones, I couldn’t help crowing. I waved them at her with a very irritating whoop of triumph. I cringe even now, remembering that.
“They’ll ruin your clothes,” she said. “Ruin them. I said there wouldn’t be any proper coat hangers, and I was right!”
“No, you said there wouldn’t be any coat hangers,” I said stubbornly. “Any at all. That’s what you said.”
“Oh, grow up!” she said crossly.
I sulked; I thought I was grown up. I wanted her to go so I could start my real life; we’re cruel at eighteen. We don’t really think of anyone but ourselves; I never thought how hard this was for her. Not once. At least now I have the grace to feel ashamed of myself. But back then I resented feeling guilty for hurting her feelings.
“Maybe I should have bought you a kettle,” she said as she unwrapped my jar of instant coffee from its shroud of a brightly coloured tea towel.
“We aren’t supposed to have them in the rooms,” I said. “Something to do with dodgy electrics. It was in the handbook. Apparently it’s to do with how much power kettles take. There’s a water heater at the end of the corridor in the kitchenette thing.”
“But you’d have to go out just to get a coffee,” she protested.
I had forgotten how pathological she could be about things like that; Barbara’s home was always her castle and no one but family and plumbers got past the portcullis. Friendship for Barbara stopped at the front door. I don’t remember ever having friends in the house: in the garden but never in the house. I suppose it’s a mark of how much she loved me for myself that when my dad left, she kept me even though Social Services said she didn’t have to, that they’d find me a foster home. I’d become family even though I wasn’t and now, I sometimes don’t think she remembered I wasn’t her daughter at all. After all, I was usually known by her surname not my dad’s.
“That’s not a problem,” I said. “I need to make friends and the best place is always a kitchen.”
I think I must have picked that up from television or from the families of school friends. I certainly hadn’t learned it at home.
“You’re probably right,” she said without conviction. “But don’t get too involved with people. You don’t owe them anything if they aren’t family. Remember that.”
She unwrapped my two mugs, and put them by the coffee jar on my desk.
“I don’t know where you want things to go,” she said, suddenly uncertain of herself.
“Nor do I yet,” I said. “But the desk seems the right place for coffee.”
I was stuffing knickers into a drawer as fast as I could.
“You will phone, won’t you,” she said.
“Every Thursday as we agreed,” I said.
The cases were starting to look very empty now and she knew it was nearly time to go.
“Don’t come down with me,” she said, picking up her handbag and her car keys. “I’d rather you didn’t. I’ll speak to you on Thursday at eight. I’ll call you straight back. Have you got everything you need, love?”
It was a bit late if I hadn’t.
“I think so,” I said. “Look, Barbara, don’t worry. This is all going to be fine. It’s a big adventure for me but no trolls, no giant spiders, no orcs or anything really horrible to worry about.”
She gave me a very watery smile; she’d read The Hobbit to me as a small child and it was a kind of touchstone between us. She wasn’t a very bookish person at all and she’d struggled with it but I had insisted, having progressed well beyond the usual level of bedtime story my age group were having read to them. The fact was I could read perfectly well for myself when she read it to me but I had craved the attention of being read to. It made us feel more like a normal family.
“All right darling,” she said, and put her arms round me and held me tighter than I was comfortable with. “Just be careful and do behave!”
“I will,” I said and hugged her back and let her go. I could see her dashing away tears as she shouldered her way through the door.
Once her footsteps had faded, I thought I would feel relief and even a soaring sense of freedom, like a newly released bird but if I’d really been a bird, I’d have hopped back into my cage right then and stayed there, hunched up, feathers fluffed up and scruffy. I sat down heavily on the bed and felt my own tears prickle the back of my throat; the springs creaked and settled as I curled up into a tight ball and howled inwardly. So many emotions, and only a very few of them sadness I’m afraid. I was mainly just scared, to tell the truth. This wasn’t like Brownie camp or anything else I’d been on; this was the start of a new life altogether and I was nearly paralysed by anxiety.
I rolled onto the bed properly and heard the bed protest again and when it had subsided into a sullen silence I found I could hear other things beyond my room; other voices, other footsteps. The sounds of the other students moving into their rooms reached me and drew me out of my ball and after a minute or two, I stood up and decisively reached for my mug and my jar of coffee and headed down to the end of the corridor. I felt like you do in one of those dreams where you discover you’re naked and you can’t find anything to cover yourself with and just have to carry on and hope no one notices. Now I know that probably eight out of ten of the new arrivals felt much the same but right at that moment I thought I was the only one feeling so pathetic.
To make matters worse, even though I had come to make coffee for something to do rather than because I wanted one, I couldn’t figure out how the wretched water heater worked and I couldn’t find any instructions. Failed the first test; I’d wanted to be the one the others came to because they couldn’t figure out this sort of thing. I wanted to be the one who was sorted and in control. Why, I don’t know. I never had been that sort of person before so why I expected to suddenly become capable and so on I don’t know.
I stood there in that cramped little kitchenette, growing steadily more panicky and uncertain. If you have spent your whole life being told what to do, when to do it, to finally find yourself completely at your own disposal is terrifying. You just seek someone to tell you what to do again, some timetable, some list, some clue as to how to organise your life. All I knew was that there was an evening meal at six thirty and other than that my time was my own today. I looked around, hoping someone would just appear and take control. I wished Barbara hadn’t gone; we could have had a look round the hall together, at least until meal time, and that way I wouldn’t have been alone like this, anchorless and scared.
My left calf began to cramp; I’d been standing at a funny angle, all tensed up against my predicament. I hopped for a moment to relieve the muscles and then decided that if there were no one here to ask, I’d have to go and find someone. I felt like I’d swallowed a handful of ice, hard and cold in my stomach, and left the kitchen and wandered slowly back up the corridor. I stopped at one door a few down from mine; loud music was playing behind it. It wasn’t music I liked much, so I passed that door and carried on very slowly, listening for something I couldn’t quite place. At the end room, I stopped. Someone was singing, quite softly, rather like a child in the dark. It was a nice voice, not terrifically tuneful but unselfconscious so impulsively I rapped on the door and waited. I swear even now I could hear my own heart beating like African drums in my head.
After a second or two, the door opened and I gazed blankly at the girl inside. I cleared my throat.
“Do you happen to know how the water heater works?” I asked, my voice sounding very odd even to me. I held up my mug and my jar of coffee by way of explanation or visual aid.
The girl gazed back at me and then much to my relief, she smiled.
“No, I don’t,” she said. “But I guess with our combined brain power we might figure something out.”
She was a bit taller than me, and she had a nice smile.
“Let me just grab my mug and we can have a look,” she said, darting back into the room.
It didn’t take us very long to figure out the water heater; I’d been too scared of breaking something to really try but she had a bit more confidence with appliances than me and after fiddling around for a minute she’d managed to attach the rubber hose to the tap and filled the heater up and we waited for it to boil.
“I’m Hannah,” she said after a few seconds of silence.
I told her my name.
“I was known as Thelwell though at school,” I said. “Because of the cartoon ponies.”
“That’s better than my nickname,” she said. “I was known as Her Royal Highness!”
“Oh God,” I said. “You’re not royalty are you!”
I had begun to panic at that. She hadn’t seemed like that; a tiny bit snooty-looking but not anything out of the ordinary really. I had her down as probably a private school girl at the least but not royal.
“Relax,” she said, laughing. “It’s down to my initials. Hannah Rachael Hardwick. HRH, see?”
I found out as I got to know her that the HRH nickname had an extra and rather crueller dimension. Hannah had beautiful eyes and poor eyesight and enough vanity to wish to maximise her best asset, so she often left off her glasses. Remember this is before contact lenses were as good as they are today; some eye problems couldn’t be corrected by lenses at all, or with the harsher materials used then, many people who would have loved to have cast away their glasses were unable to tolerate lenses. Hannah was one of those; and straining to see without her glasses had given her an air of looking down her nose at people. It gave her a rather snooty expression that was entirely down to not being able to see properly. It kept people at arm’s length when she was a warm and sweet individual who would have loved to get closer to the very people she inadvertently put off. She was the first friend I made after leaving home and even as I sit her writing this, I have a wave of love towards her across the years.
We made coffee and adjourned to my room: another first. I don’t think anyone had ever been in my room since dad left. After that, Barbara sort of shut down all her defences and that included all the little friends and sleepovers and so on little girls have. I’d asked at first if so-and-so could come to tea but gradually I got to accept the answer would always be no. She was the same for her own friends; no one came in. It stopped at the door. She’d sometimes go to other people’s houses, but she was never comfortable with it. I never understood why she wouldn’t let people in; it wasn’t as if the house was ever a mess. She kept it tidy and clean; a little bare and without style maybe now I remember it. Maybe that was why; she’d seen how other people did their houses, both on the television and on visits to friends houses and she could never hope to emulate it. It wasn’t just the money thing, though that was about as tight as jeans a week after Christmas, it was a kind of lack in Barbara. She just had no grasp of aesthetics. I went once with her to an art exhibition in London. It may have been a school trip or something connected to school; I can’t remember now. But what I do remember is being blown away by it all before noticing that she was very quiet, and I asked her what was wrong.
“Oh, it’s all very pretty,” she’d said, putting her hand to her head as if it hurt. “But I can’t see what use it is to anyone.”
I was too young at the time to answer that one but it says a lot about her now I think about it. It was strange how sad it made her, being able to see the beauty without being able to understand that it didn’t need to have a use: that just being beautiful was its use. Needless to say, any other exhibitions I went to, especially modern art or anything abstract, I went alone.