“In every tragedy there’s a moment where there’s a possibility for triumph.”
The first time I experienced fear was just before my fourth birthday.
It was 1971 and I sat in the back of my mother’s Mini, surrounded by bin bags filled with my belongings. She drove in silence. The only sounds were the hum of the car engine, the noise of passing traffic and my sobs.
“Mummy, please don’t take me. I don’t want to go!”
She ignored me. I begged her to turn the car around and take me back home, but she continued regardless. I knew she was crying as I saw her hand wipe tears from her face.
“Please Mummy,” I begged. “Please don’t make me go. I’ll be a good girl, I promise!”
What had I done to deserve this? I searched for answers in a desperate attempt to find something to make her stop the car, pull me into her arms, hug me, and never let me go. But she didn’t.
I’d only once been scolded. That was when Mummy had left me in the car parked outside the launderette in Muswell Hill where we lived. I’d climbed from the back seat into the front to get a better view of her talking to a neighbour, and had accidently stood on the handbrake. The car started rolling down the hill and ran into the back of the car parked in front of us.
Frantic with fear I jumped out of driver’s door and ran up the hill screaming, “Mummy, the car’s crashed!”
My mother stepped out of the launderette and found a man shouting and yelling at me about the damage to his bumper – her Mini was jammed against it. I was legging it towards her as if it were nothing to do with me.
Mum took me in her arms and passed me to a neighbour who hugged me until I calmed down. She then went and dealt with the angry car owner. She didn’t speak to me all the way home. When we got to my grandparents’ house, my grandfather told me off whilst Grandma consoled my mother.
Later that day when the bar opened (the expression the adults in my family used to say it was late enough for a drink), and everyone had had their customary late afternoon gin and tonics (more gin than tonic), they fell about laughing at what had happened.
Until then, I’d been raised by my mother and grandparents, and life was filled with pure love, happiness and lots of laughter. Our family always laughed, especially when Great Uncle Charlie (my grandfather’s brother) was over. He was always cracking jokes and tickling me until my sides hurt from giggling so much.
That morning, Mum had announced that I’d be going to live with my dad. I’d panicked as I didn’t want to go, and I hid under my bed. Mum had packed everything I owned, clothes, toys and all my memories, into black bin liners and loaded them into the car as if she were clearing me out of her life for good.
Although my grandparents were usually around in the mornings, on that occasion they weren’t so I couldn’t plead with them. They would have stopped her. They loved me just as much as Mum. And Aunty Hardwick would have stopped her. She wasn’t my real aunty but she looked after me when Mummy worked at her public relations job and I loved her to pieces. She made lovely home cooked food and baked delicious cakes and biscuits, things Mummy never had time for. She read me adventure stories and we lay down in the afternoon for a nap together and cuddled whilst listening to The Archers on the radio. Life was blissful and I was cherished and safe – until that day.
“Please Mummy, I don’t want to go. Please don’t leave me,” I cried over and over again.
I’d been to visit my dad a couple of times, but only briefly. Each time I longed to be back with my family as soon as possible. He had a new wife and baby, but his wife ignored me and I’d felt unwanted each time. I wasn’t going to be loved and protected at my dad’s and I was petrified.
The drive took two hours and I sobbed for the entire journey. Every now and then, Mum said, “Everything will be OK, sweetheart. I love you.”
She didn’t convince me.
When we arrived, I screamed harder. “Mummy no,” I begged. “I don’t want to go, please no.”
The daunting large white detached house had ivy growing up the walls, a circular drive and two lions either side of the front door. There was a white van parked on the left hand side of the drive, which I knew was my dad’s.
Mum turned to me in the back of the car, tears streaming down her face. She got out of the car, opened my door and took me in her arms. “Sorry, baby,” she said.
I clung to her, but I knew this was it. Sobbing, she carried me to the front door and rang the bell. She put me down and stood me in front of the door. No-one answered at first, and as I stood there, she went back and forth from the car to the door carrying all my stuff until eventually the door opened just slightly.
“Go in sweetheart. Everything will be OK, I promise you,” Mum said as she ushered me in.
Dad, a stocky, well-built, dark curly haired man with piercing brown eyes, arrived in the hall as my mother walked off.
“Let’s go up,” he said, taking my hand and leading me up the stairs. “I’m going to show you your new bedroom.”
It was a larger room than I was used to with a double bed, fitted wardrobes and a view of a large garden. It smelt funny and there were no toys or pictures. It was a plain white room with a maroon quilt on the bed.
“Wait here and I’ll be back,” Dad said.
I climbed up and sat on the bed, still sobbing, and when Dad had finished bringing my things up, he said, “Stay here for a while, I’ve got some things to do.” Shutting the door, he went back downstairs.
I lay down on the musty smelling throw, hugging Bunny, my favourite toy that I’d had since I was born. I hated the smell of the room. Maybe if I lay in a ball Mummy would come back and realise what a mistake she’d made. Minutes ticked away and I waited and waited, but she didn’t appear.
I sensed something wasn’t right in the house. It seemed cold and dark although it was daytime. I felt frightened.
I could hear voices getting louder. One was my dad’s and the other was a woman’s. They were arguing. The voices started to rise in intensity and volume. I tried to hear what the argument was about, but I couldn’t, so I lay still on the bed.
I felt my body stiffening and my blood running cold as I tried to make sense of what was happening. I buried my head into the throw and covered my ears, drawing my legs more tightly up into my stomach and started to cry again.
I heard a crash and jumped with shock. The voices were muffled and I could hear furniture falling and the sound of glass and plates breaking. Then I heard dull thuds. Was Daddy hurting the lady? Was she trying to hurt him? Eventually it stopped, and there was silence.
I cried myself to sleep. When I finally woke, Dad was standing over me. “Come on you, you must be hungry. Let’s go down and have something to eat,” he said with a half-smile. It was starting to get dark by then, but that didn’t stop me noticing the huge scratches on Dad’s face and neck. I swallowed hard. I had no idea what time it was, but I followed Dad downstairs, reluctantly and cautiously.
He sat me down at a large old wooden kitchen table on a bench in front of a bay window in the large and modern kitchen. He didn’t speak and there was no sound of life in the house. I wondered where the woman was. Instinct told me she was there, but out of sight.
Dad boiled the kettle and, without asking me whether I drank tea or not, made me one with three sugars. He placed the mug of hot steaming liquid in front of me and I watched him walk back and forth preparing scrambled eggs on toast. I wondered why Mum and Dad weren’t together. I couldn’t remember a time when they had been.
Dad put a plate in front of me. “Go on! Tuck in then. It’ll put hairs on your chest.”
I had no idea why he’d want me to put hairs on my chest. Normally, I liked scrambled eggs on toast but I was in no mood to eat. He sat down to eat his own food and encouraged me to begin. I had no appetite and slowly started to push the food around the plate.
Then a woman walked into the kitchen, ignoring us both. She left after retrieving something from the worktop. It must have been her that Dad had been fighting with. I heard a baby start to cry.
“That’s your new baby brother,” Dad said, smiling.
We sat in silence eating our food until Dad announced, “I’m going to work tomorrow and you’ll stay here with Sue and Christopher.”
I felt light headed and nausea set in. I felt a huge chill run through my body. I was too scared to ask questions.
“Sue will take you to your new school to meet your teachers and I’ll see you in the evening when I get back from work,” Dad said matter of factly. “You’re going to live with us now and we’ll be your family.”
I nodded in polite agreement. Had I been a bad girl and Mum no longer wanted me? Had Mum left me for good? Would I ever see her and my proper family again? I was too scared to ask.
After tea, Dad took me into the garden. He said he had to lock some of the rabbit cages as it was now getting dark. It was a large square garden separated by four grass areas around a path shaped like a cross that ran up and down and from one side of the garden to another. There was also a perimeter path that surrounded the entire garden, and beyond that borders were filled with flowers, bushes and trees. A high fence enclosed the entire area.
At the top left hand side of the garden was a large pond and a huge majestic willow tree that dipped its branches into the water. On the far right hand side of the garden was an area full of cages and runs for all my father’s animals. The garden was a mass of fruit trees and bushes and with the odd outbuilding, shed, stone statue and a rusty old swing, it was to become a haven for me.
The next morning after Dad had left, I lay in bed listening to my stepmother moving around and talking to her baby. Eventually, she came to my bedroom door and said, “Get dressed and meet me down by the front door.” Her voice was cold and harsh, so I quickly got out of bed and looked across at all the bin bags still piled beside my bed.
Having not dressed on my own before, I felt a welling panic. I didn’t want to make her angry and I didn’t want her to hurt me like she had my dad. I delved into the bag, and the first thing that I found was my favourite dress, the one Grandma had made for me.
I arrived downstairs in the hallway to see her putting her baby in a pushchair. Turning briefly to look at me she said, “Put your coat and shoes on.”
Not daring to ask if I could have something to eat, I obeyed. She opened the door and I followed her outside. Once she’d shut the front door and taken the pushchair to the end of the driveway, she turned and looked straight at me.
She seemed so sad. The only other thing I noticed about her physically was her shoulder length, dark brown hair. Something cold and hostile emanated from her. She told me to hold out my hand and promptly gave me a handful of half pence pieces. It was the first time I’d ever been given money.
“This is your dinner money. Don’t lose it!” She turned to start walking and threw over her shoulder, “I won’t be collecting you after school. I won’t be here after today.”
I thought she was going to take me to school and leave me there. I thought of Hansel and Gretel and the trail of bread in the forest that they used to find their way back home. I needed to do something similar, because otherwise when she left me at school I’d have no way of finding my way home.
I was proud of my plan. If this sad angry lady was going to leave, perhaps I could get back to Mummy after all. If she wasn’t there to look after me, Dad would have to send me back.
I decided to use my dinner money to leave a trail, so I dropped a coin every few steps I walked. We eventually arrived in the playground and she said dismissively, “Stay here until you hear the bell and then follow the other children.” She then turned and walked away.
I stood and watched the children running about, giggling and laughing. I wanted my mum to hold my hand and tell me everything would be all right.
Suddenly I spotted a girl at the opposite end of the playground wearing a knitted dress like mine! I instantly recognised the pattern and looked down. Sure enough, they were alike but mine was blue and hers was peach coloured.
I approached the girl in the peach dress and she looked at me quizzically.
“Who made your dress for you?” I asked.
She looked down at her dress, realised we matched and smiled at me as she replied, “My grandmother.”
Maybe last night’s prayers had been answered. Grandma had told me that if I prayed my angels would always listen. The girl told me her name was Coral. I thought it was such a pretty name and took an instant liking to her.
When the bell went, teachers came out to collect us and I met my first teacher, Mrs Mustoe. Coral and I were in the same class so found a desk to sit at together. That day we learned to sing Frère Jacques and played at shops in the back of the classroom. Coral and I stuck to each other like glue.
That afternoon when school finished, I waited like all the other kids for their parents to collect them. I’d totally forgotten that the sad woman with the baby wouldn’t be around to collect me.
“So what’s happened to your mummy then?” Mrs Mustoe asked.
“I’ve only got my daddy now,” I said, remembering my stepmother had told me she’d be leaving. I wished my nursery teacher could take me home and keep me there, safe and warm.
Another teacher came back into the classroom where I sat with Mrs Mustoe and said that they’d tried to call my father but no one was answering at home. She said they’d have to call the police.
When the police turned up at the school, a policewoman asked me questions. “So why haven’t you been collected from school today, Amanda?” she asked.
I explained what had happened when my stepmother announced she was going to take me to school and leave me there.
“So do you know where you father works?”
“No.” I said simply and shrugged my shoulders.
“Is everything all right at home, Amanda?”
I told her the truth. I explained what my stepmother had told me that morning and told them everything that had happened since Mum had left me, including about the fight I’d heard the night before and how scared I was. They then drove me to my dad’s house.
When they knocked on the door, he answered. I could see through the hall and into the kitchen and saw a bucket, sponge and half the floor all wet and shiny.
“Sorry I lost all track of time. I was washing the kitchen floor and didn’t hear the phone ring,” Dad said. “Come in honey!” he said to me as he gave me a big hug. “Go up to your room and let me just talk to the police and get this all sorted out.”
Eventually, Dad came up to see me and sat down with me on the bed.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “She’ll be back in a few days’ time. She’s just gone to her mother’s, but she’ll be back.”
I didn’t want to believe what he was saying.
“From now on, don’t ever tell anyone our business outside this house again. Do you hear me?”
He didn’t seem cross but his voice was stern. I lowered my head in shame and nodded. From that day on, I kept my mouth shut and did as I was told.
For the next few days, my father looked after my every need. He cooked lovely food, took me for walks with his lovely collie dog, Roddy, let me watch television with him and let me help him dig in his garden. He didn’t go to work for a few days and he made me feel cherished and made me laugh at every opportunity.
I met all of Dad’s animals: two cats, around twenty rabbits, chickens, ducks, geese, a tortoise and some fish. We started to bond like a father and daughter should, and I felt a fragment of hope emerging in my new world.
I could see why Mum had loved him as he was very handsome. Feeling very special and chosen, I wished those few days would never end.
About five days later, Dad said, “Now Amanda, I want you to stay in your room until I come back with your stepmother. I’m just going to collect her and bring her and your brother home.”
I put my head down and felt sad the fun would be over with my father, but I nodded to say I understood. Some hours later, I heard a key in the front door. I strained to hear voices and my heart sank as I heard Sue talking to Roddy as he greeted her. I’d started to form a bond with the big shaggy black and white dog who seemed to do nothing but run round constantly in circles on the patio outside.
That night the air wasn’t as tense as it had been before Sue’s departure, but Dad was giving all his attention to Sue and Christopher and I felt excluded. When I made eye contact with Sue, she gave me filthy looks that sent shivers down my spine.
Dad asked me to spend the evening in my bedroom and I felt confused by his rejection. When the weekend was over and Dad had left for work on Monday morning, Sue arrived at my bedroom door and said in a stern voice, “Get out of bed and get dressed.”
She seemed angry with me although I’d heard no arguing that morning so didn’t know why. I sensed something was coming, though I had no idea what. She stood with her hands on her hips and started to shout at me, telling me she didn’t want to look after me and the only reason I was there was that Mum didn’t want me.
“If it wasn’t for you we’d be happy. Your mother doesn’t want you because she doesn’t love you, so I’ve been lumbered with you cos you’ve been dumped here with your father! I’ve got enough to cope with looking after my own baby. I’m only nineteen and don’t intend to look after someone else’s child just cos they can’t be bothered!”
I felt tears sting my eyes as she continued to rant at me.
“The only reason I came back here was because your father begged me to. I don’t intend to put up with you for long.”
I felt scared and sick. I started to shake and tried desperately to hold back the tears.
“I don’t want you here and I have no intention of putting up with someone else’s reject. All you’ve done is cause problems and I’m not prepared to lose my husband and security because of your selfish mother.”
Mummy didn’t want me anymore, because she didn’t love me. Pain seared through my heart and tears welled in my eyes. Mummy had abandoned me and she was never coming back and Sue hated me because I was unwanted.
“You’ve turned my whole world upside down and because of you your father thinks the sun shines out of your backside. How dare he put you before me and my own son?”
I had no idea what she meant but dared not to ask anything.
“If you think you’re going to get away with this you’ve got another think coming. You’re going to pull your weight around this house. I’m not prepared to look after you.”
“You’re to do everything you’re told to do and never, ever tell your father anything about what goes on at home when he’s out of the house, let alone anyone else. Do you understand me?” she screamed.
“Yes,” I said, petrified by the tone of her voice.
“You are to be good and do as you’re told at all times or you’ll get punished. Do you understand me?”
I sat and nodded, too scared to do otherwise. I longed for the love and safety of Mum, but I daren’t let Sue see my fear and sorrow. I swallowed hard to hide my upset, digging my fingernails into the palms of my hands.
Mum had abandoned me because she didn’t love me. I wasn’t wanted by my stepmother. I had to follow her rules and keep quiet about the daily goings on and, above all, do as I was told. Dad had pretty much told me the same thing about keeping quiet when the police had taken me home that day. All I could do was obey!
This First Chapter is taken from the memoirs of Amanda Hart, ‘The Guys Upstairs – How I Found My Power & Voice.’ Copyright © 2017 Amanda Hart
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