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They Sole My Childhood. Here is My Story of Recovery and Triumph
By Sarah Preston
John Blake Publishing LtdCopyright © 2006 Sarah Preston
All rights reserved.
AS MUM WALKED quickly along I half walked, half ran, trying to keep up with her as her steps seemed to quicken with every stride.
I had always enjoyed spending extra time with Mum, even though I knew it was wrong and I really should have been at school. My schooling was important to me, but I still had four years to go and this seemed like plenty of time to concentrate on my education. 'Don't worry, love,' Mum used to say, 'you can catch up tomorrow.' But, as time went on, I began to realise that I would need a lot of tomorrows to catch up on everything I had missed.
I ran carefree and happy alongside Mum on that warm June day. The sun beamed down and shone bright on both of us. I loved to see the shadows I made as I ran along the pathway in front of her. On nice days like this, Mum and I would always walk down the hill, a journey that took us about half an hour. Sometimes she would tell me not to dawdle – I was always dawdling – because she panicked about missing the bingo tickets she wanted when we got to the bingo hall. I didn't know what all the fuss was about – I thought all tickets were the same apart from coming in different colours, but Mum thought differently. 'Winning tickets,' she often said, 'are better if they aren't the first or last out of the packet.' That was her explanation, and we had to arrive at the right time.
Mum went to bingo three, sometimes four times a week; she had a bingo addiction, although she would never have admitted it. It was like a drug to her: she believed she had to go because if she missed going she would miss her chance of winning. That was why she often kept me away from school to go to bingo with her. Sometimes I hated it, other times I didn't mind, but going back to school got harder each time I was away. I would find it difficult to settle back into the routine or catch up on the work I had missed. My form teacher would ask me for a note to explain why I had missed more school, but Mum never wrote one for me. 'You don't need a note. Just tell them you weren't well, it'll be all right.' But she didn't understand how strict my teachers were, or how severely I was reprimanded each time I turned up empty-handed; she didn't understand that I would never be believed even on the occasions when I was genuinely ill; she didn't understand that I could never do the homework I was set because I hadn't been in the right lessons; and she didn't understand how more and more my absences led to my peer group picking on me and calling me names. In the end, it was easier just to stay away.
And so the bingo hall – an enormous building on the outskirts of town that had started life as a cinema – became my second school. The large main hall housed the central seating area, on either side of which was an aisle and then more seats. The chairs were covered in a thick, musty, red moquette, and their arms and back were made of dark, polished wood. I suppose they were the original cinema seats – they were certainly in the traditional style, with the seats tipping up when you stood. Mum always chose the same area to sit: at the back of one of the side rows, close to the exit, and a few seats in. It was her place, and everybody knew it. And I became such a familiar face that soon nobody gave me a second look as I sat next to her, playing on 'my' tickets – used bingo cards that I had picked up off the floor where previous players had discarded them, so that I could follow the game in my own little way.
The hall was always filled with the same people, women like my mum, housewives from the same social background, filling the time before their children came home from school and their husbands returned from work. They didn't work themselves. They had no time to – they had families to look after and bingo to play. The hall was a popular destination where people went most days, nights and weekends. It was nothing special; it wasn't glamorous or exciting. It was just there, beating life into a tired working-class community, used each day and loved by those who called it their own.
One day, as Mum and I were sitting comfortably waiting for the game to begin, Jean, the lady who worked at the snack bar, walked up to our row. 'Excuse me,' she said, gesturing at Mum to let her past.
Mum smiled at her as we stood up, but once we had sat down again she started muttering under her breath. 'Why couldn't she have gone in there?' she whispered, pointing at the completely empty row in front of her. I shook my head in disapproval, but secretly I couldn't understand why she was making such a fuss. Jean had bought a ticket too – she had a right to sit wherever she wanted. 'I know what she's up to,' Mum continued. 'She's just trying to be nosy.' My mum was superstitious about her bingo, and very secretive about the numbers on her tickets – she was lucky, and won more often than most, and people were curious to know how she did it. Or maybe she just didn't want Jean to know that she had a little scheme going on with one of the callers.
His name was Bill. I remember seeing him for the first time walking through the hall, striding forward with his head held high. He seemed to belong in the bingo hall, and walked with an air of importance, with the air of a man who wanted to be regarded as an important cog in the workings of the bingo machine. He was a slight man, with grey, Brylcreemed hair, glasses and silly ties that clipped on to his shirt. He was always very nice to Mum, stopping to chat whenever he saw her, but I didn't like him. I don't know why I didn't – there was something about him that made me feel uneasy. The scheme Bill had going with Mum could easily have lost him his job, so they had to keep it very quiet. He used to pay half the cost of her bingo tickets, and in return she would split her winnings with him whenever she had any luck. This became quite profitable for him.
Mum's friendship with Bill did not go unnoticed. Every time she won – which at one stage was a couple of times a week – everyone would turn round to see who had called 'house' at the back of the hall. When they realised it was Mum, they would seem annoyed – especially if it was Bill calling the game. Bill was married – perhaps that was what caused the outrage, though I suspect it was more likely jealousy of Mum's success – and he had a child. But he lived about twenty miles away from the bingo hall and, because he worked split shifts, he kept a flat locally. He occasionally went home in the week and on Saturday nights, but most of his time he spent at work. He had not been married long, and I remember overhearing a conversation he had with another employee at the hall.
'Don't you mind being away from Julia?'
'She prefers me to stay in town when I'm working,' he replied. 'Doesn't mind me being away – better for her than me going home in the early hours. I don't want to disturb her or the baby by going when they're asleep.'
I had seen his wife once when she visited him at the hall. She walked through the building with her nose turned up as if she was too good to be in this place surrounded by such people. Nobody liked her much – they all thought she was a snob. But her absence meant there was never anybody around to check up on Bill. He was free to do what he wanted, whatever that might be ...
Sure enough, Bill was there that summer's day. He was chatting casually with my mum when suddenly he asked her if I might help him make the sandwiches that were sold at the snack bar. 'She'd love to,' Mum told him, either not seeing the warning looks I sent in her direction, or ignoring them. I felt so ill at ease – I don't know why – that I complained. 'I just want to stay here with you, Mum, and play on my tickets.' But she was already focused on her game, and my protests fell on deaf ears.
He asked again a few days later. Again I protested. 'Don't be silly,' Mum told me. 'I'll still be here when you've finished.'
These 'helping' sessions went on for about two weeks. Each time after helping Bill, I would go back to where Mum was sitting. He would always come with me and arrange for me to help him on other days too. Often Mum was busy – she'd be halfway through a game – so she would just nod her agreement.
I hated every nod she made, yet I wasn't sure why.CHAPTER 2
I WAS BORN in 1962 in a large industrial town in the northwest of England. The town I grew up in was once alive with the sound of clogs on cobblestones and shuttles speeding through cotton looms in the numerous factories and mills that surrounded the place I called home. The cotton mills that had made this town what it was had dominated its existence for nearly 200 years, and in that time the town had grown in size so rapidly that housing was built quickly in uniform rows to house thousands of mill workers in the 1840s and 1850s.
I spent the first five years of my life in one of these houses. My memories of it are vague, but I recall the dining room well – it was used as a playroom for my sisters and me because it had no fireplace. I don't remember sitting in the lounge very much at all, even on Sundays when we were together as a family. If Dad was watching a film or a football match, we had to go into the playroom so that we didn't disturb him: he liked peace, and became very angry when he couldn't have quiet. Sunday was Dad's day.
My sister Carolyn was older than me; Gemma and my brother Robert were younger. I would have had an older brother, but he died when he was four months old. We saw our maternal grandparents regularly. I loved my granddad – he always smiled a lot and made us laugh with his funny stories – but I remember my nan being a little harsh, always finding fault with the way my mum did things. I remember them coming over one Sunday for their dinner and her laughing at Mum's roast chicken because its chest had fallen in during cooking. 'What have you done to it?' she asked.
'Nothing, only cooked it,' Mum replied.
'Well, Evelyn,' said my nan, 'I've cooked more chickens than you'll ever cook, and not one of them has ever come out of the oven looking like that!'
Dad laughed, but I could tell Mum was hurt by her words. She wanted to be a proper mum, even if she sometimes found it difficult.
Every Christmas, my nan and granddad would deliver a real Christmas tree to our house. I would be mesmerised by the smell of the pine, and would be filled with excitement at the prospect of waking up on Christmas morning to find the tree decorated from top to toe, and a stocking. It was never a real stocking, of course, just one of Dad's old fishing socks, but it was always filled with the same things: an apple, an orange, some nuts and a shilling. It was magical. As we grew older and decimalisation was introduced, our shillings became a shiny five-pence piece. We didn't always get real presents – Mum and Dad simply couldn't afford it – but we always had a good Christmas dinner. There would be lovely roast potatoes, and turkey, if there was enough money, otherwise chicken just had to do.
In the afternoon, we would sit around playing with our toys and doing jigsaw puzzles. One Christmas, Carolyn and I were given baby dolls that cried. They were so beautiful. We were never given clothes for them – that would have simply been too expensive – so I used to wrap my doll up in a terry nappy, which was just like a shawl. I used to care for that baby doll as though she was my very own child, clinging to her whenever I felt in the need of comfort, and whispering in her ear that I would always look after her. I loved her more than anything.
One day, Carolyn and I played truant. She was responsible for taking me to school, and she decided that she wasn't going to go. Impressionable to the last, I told her that, if she wasn't going, nor was I. We spent the whole day in the park, growing hungrier and hungrier, then arrived home an hour late because we had no means of telling the time. Mum was furious. As a punishment, she took away our baby dolls and gave them to a girl who lived near by. I still remember saying goodbye to mine, as tearfully as if I had been parted from a real baby.
Dad was a window cleaner by trade, and worked alongside his brother. They had a window-cleaning round on the outskirts of town and worked every weekday and the occasional Saturday morning. Every Friday night, my sister and I would stand at the corner of the square by the church railings waiting for him to come home. Mum never went out to work while we were very young. She made a bit of extra money from childminding for working mums, and I remember other children occasionally sharing our home. Then, when I was a little older, Dad stopped window cleaning because he had not been well, and we lived off state benefits. We were no different to many other families – jobs were hard to find and there was unemployment all around – and we became reliant on dole cheques and free school meals until Dad started working again at the local mill. By this time, Mum had decided to start working as well, cleaning offices in the evening, and so our care was shared between our two parents.
Our parents were strict with us. When we were naughty, we were smacked and sent to bed. We usually got smacked on the backs of our legs. Dad's hand always stung for ages, but Mum's was much less painful until she started using a slipper. Occasionally, we were belted, but we were never treated as harshly as some children were by their parents, because we were never left cut or bruised by our punishments. Still, we hated it, and I hated being sent to my room, especially during the summer months when I could hear other children playing out in the streets. I remember once going back downstairs. 'Please,' I said to Mum and Dad, 'I'll be good from now on.'
Mum was furious. She chased me back upstairs and took the handle off the bedroom door so that I couldn't get out. After she had done this a few more times, I sneaked one of Dad's screwdrivers into my bedroom. I never dared use it to escape, but it was a comfort to know that I could get out if I wanted to.
One summer, it seemed as if we were always in trouble, but I was an impressionable child – more of a follower than a leader – so I suppose it was inevitable. If someone told me to do something, I just did it. No questions, no qualms. I thought that was how you made friends. One day, I was playing with Denise, a girl who lived near by. We were hanging around on the corner of the street, just sitting on a wall and then jumping off. As we sat looking down into one of the gardens, we saw a big bush with beautiful red berries. Denise dared me to eat some to see what they tasted like. I didn't want her to think I was soft, so I put a handful in my mouth. 'Yummy,' I said to her. 'They're good.'
Denise tasted some for herself. 'They are, aren't they?' she replied.
We sat munching away on the berries for the best part of an hour before we grew bored. 'What do you want to do now?' I asked her.
'Let's go and play in the lift in the big block of flats over the road.'
'You know I can't. I'm not allowed to cross the big road on my own. My mum will go mad, and so will my dad.'
'Oh, I see,' replied Denise dismissively. 'So you're scared, are you?'
'No,' I told her, desperate not to seem so.
'Well then, let's go.'
Moments later, we were in the lift travelling towards the top floor. We went up and down eight times, getting out every time someone else wanted to use it. We played around for the next half an hour, up and down, up and down. Gradually, every time I went up I began to feel dizzy, and every time I went down I felt sick. We stumbled from the lift and the block of flats into the road outside, and Denise propped me up as we staggered back home. Mum wasn't at all happy when she answered the door, but one look told her something was wrong. She phoned an ambulance and the next thing I knew I was being whisked away to hospital.
The berries, it turned out, were Laburnum – highly poisonous. I was lucky to get to the hospital when I did. But it didn't stop me from being as impressionable as ever.
As bingo became Mum's life, she had to have regular trips to feed her obsession. I continued to accompany her to the bingo hall on the days she went, and I continued to be coerced into helping Bill make the sandwiches. More and more I found myself being asked questions that made me uncomfortable. 'You're very pretty,' he would say to me. 'Have you ever had a boyfriend? I bet you have.'
'Don't be silly,' I remember replying. 'I'm too young for boyfriends.' I tried desperately to steer clear of his questions, but he was persistent and continued to ask them. He seemed always to be fishing and prying for answers to questions that he had no right to ask.
'How old are you?'
'I'm eleven,' I said proudly.
'You look very grown up for eleven. I'd have thought that you were at least fourteen,' he replied with a glazed look in his eye.
It was a look I would grow to hate, the look I now know and have grown to understand. It was the look of a fifty-eight-year-old man who was planning and plotting to abuse a child.CHAPTER 3
I have asked this searching question so many times in my life, but I have never found the answer.
Was it something I did?
Was it something I said?
Was I smiling too much?
Was I flirting?
What was it about me that attracted people like Bill?
If I could wish and have my wishes come true, I would find the answers to these questions. And then I would feel that I had regained some of my stolen emotions and pieced together the fragments missing from my heart.
One day, Bill approached my mum. 'Would it be OK if Sarah helped me with the sandwiches a bit later? I can drop her home in the car if you like.'
Mum thought about it for a moment. 'I suppose so,' she replied. 'Just make sure she's not late for her tea.'
Excerpted from Sarah's Story by Sarah Preston. Copyright © 2006 Sarah Preston. Excerpted by permission of John Blake Publishing Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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