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How I Survived a Lost Childhood
By Sue Owen
John Blake Publishing LtdCopyright © 2007 Sue Owen
All rights reserved.
My earliest memory is of lying in a double bed with two of my three brothers, Andrew and Paul. Anthony had a bed on the other wall. Normally I had the boxroom, but my dad had been sleeping in there for a while. He was married to Deidre, with a two-year-old, a one-year-old and a newborn son when he had an affair with my mother Kathleen. When I was born, I lived with my stepmother Deidre, my father Allan and my three half-brothers. Mum, as I called my stepmother then, of course, sat on Anthony's bed and was going to read us a story when she turned to me and said,' Not you. Turn over and go to sleep.'
I was never allowed to join in with them in anything. I managed to see the book the next day when the boys had gone to school. I wasn't old enough to go to school and couldn't yet read, so I just looked at the pictures.
We lived in a three-bedroom house in a respectable area just outside London. My father had many jobs. He started out as a policeman; not just an ordinary PC but a City of London one. I didn't really know what the difference was but it just sounded more important. He went on to become a milkman, a potato-delivery man and a lorry driver. It was the sssshhhh from his lorry that I used to look forward to hearing; it would be the one and only reason that I dared to leave my bed, just to see if he was returning home.
A lot of my early life I spent alone in my small room. Normally I would come home from school and Mum would scream at me to go up to bed. After the family had eaten their meal I was called down to wash up but unless my father was there she rarely offered me a meal. My brothers and I took it in turns to do the meal jobs. I always washed up, but we would take it in turns to dry up, put away, lay and clear the table. Every morning I would dust and polish and the boys took it in turns to hoover.
School holidays were a little better as I was allowed out and also I ate at the table with the others. I don't know if that was a good thing or not as my stepmother had some strict table rules. Sometimes I knew I had to be punished as I had been bad, but other times I just didn't have a clue what I'd done.
My school was only ten minutes' walk down the road. I never rushed home; there was no point as I'd only have to go to my room. My little boxroom was at the front of the house, my parents' room was next to mine, then my brothers' room and finally the bathroom. I hated Fridays as I never knew what the weekend would entail. Would I be allowed out? Or would it be a boring, hungry one spent in my room? Sometimes when I arrived home, before I could even open my mouth, Mum would say, 'Bed!'
A few times I had been allowed to stay up. Thursdays were a good day as my nan used to visit, but she would only stay until 4.30. Still, an hour was better than nothing. Whenever my dad was home I was allowed to stay up, for my mum was never horrible to me in front of him. I loved it when he was there.
I remember one day arriving home from school feeling very hungry. Salad had been the school dinner that day and I hated it because it never filled me up. I was sent to bed as usual. When my mum called me down to do the dishes, I was hoping to grab some leftovers from the boys' plates, but all that was left was fatty bits of meat on Paul's plate. So I remained hungry. I thought about the biscuit tin, but I remembered once sneaking into it and it had a noisy lid, which Mum heard, so I got a beating for being a thief. I was already a 'slut's child', a 'waste of space', an 'ugly little spawny shitface', lucky to be living with her. I also stole some uncooked spaghetti once, but as I couldn't chew it very quickly it made me choke, which she heard. I got a beating while I was choking. 'That'll teach you,' she said. And it did. I never stole spaghetti again.
I had always known that I wasn't her 'proper' child. The story was that my mother was going to come and get me on a Saturday afternoon when I was a few weeks old, but she never turned up. My stepmother had no choice but to hang on to me. I had always known that I had an older sister called Alice who was kept by my real mum. I don't remember ever being told; it was just something that I had always known. Same as my name isn't Susan: it's Jennifer, Jennifer Doonie, or 'Loonie', as my brothers used to tease me.
So I finished the dishes and went up to bed hungry. But I had a plan. I was going to sneak downstairs when everyone was in bed and get some food. What should I have? Biscuits? No! Noisy lid. Bread? No! Crinkly bag. Weetabix? No! Too messy and very hard to swallow (I had tried before). Some cheese? No! That would have meant using a knife to cut it. That was the end of my plan: we hadn't any food easy enough for me to steal.
There was a lamppost outside my window and when it came on I would count the seconds until the next one up the hill came on. That's it, the fun and games were over. Time for sleep. I hadn't a clock in my room, just a bed, a cupboard and my windowsill. I didn't have any books or toys because I was told that I was bad and so didn't deserve any. As soon as the streetlights came on I would settle down to sleep. Sometimes I would drop off but would be woken up by the boys coming to bed. They were allowed to be noisy and have fun. Sometimes I would lie there trying to get to sleep but couldn't because I needed to go to the toilet and didn't dare leave my room. Not until the boys were in bed and all was quiet would I risk leaving my bedroom.
I awoke one day, made my bed, got dressed and went downstairs to do my dusting and polishing. Mum was still in bed, so I got a bowl and had two pieces of Shredded Wheat, which I ate very quickly. No one else was up yet and I was just thinking about having another two when I heard her coughing. I wasn't going to push my luck – at least I'd had two. She came down, didn't even look at me and said, 'Bed!' I ran upstairs crying as I'd really hoped that I would be allowed out. I hated going to bed on Saturdays as it was such a long day. I heard the front door slam and I took a look out of my window, crouching down in case anyone was looking up. I saw Mum had gone out with the boys and I really wished I could be with them.
Being in my bedroom was so boring. Sometimes I'd sneak books in to read. I had always loved Enid Blyton and used to pray that I could somehow be sent to St Clare's or Malory Towers. I wouldn't even mind if I didn't go home during the holidays. I was always scared in case Mum found them and tore them up. I once wrote a story and was given a gold star. I had to stand up in class and everyone applauded me, but she found it and tore it up. Why? I don't know. I was scared to take things home after that and nearly cried after my teacher said, 'This year you'll start getting homework.'
Today, however, I don't know whether I was angry for being sent to bed that day. I felt brave. I went downstairs and sat in the armchair. Wow! I felt so grown up as we children sat only on the settee or floor. I went round the room. She had a box of Matchmakers on a shelf – I had seen them there while I was dusting earlier – so I sat in the armchair and ate some. I shook the box so no one would notice any missing. As I was putting them back on the shelf I looked up and saw them all returning, so I flew upstairs, hoping and praying they didn't see me.
But they did. My brother told me that through our glass door they all saw me running up the stairs with my bare bottom showing under my nightie. I jumped into bed and pretended to be asleep, but she burst in, grabbed me, demanded where I'd been and beat me. At the time her beatings were just slaps, punches and kicks. I hated the slaps most as they really stung.
After that incident Mum started putting down talc outside my door, so that when she was out she would know if I'd got out of my room. I only knew it was there as I had to hoover it up once she'd returned. I never dared leave my room again without permission. I had learned my lesson. At the time I felt I deserved the beating as I'd left my room when she had told me not to. I had been bad.
I hated the nights; they seemed so long. Sometimes when everyone was in bed I'd go into the bathroom and take a swig of Night Nurse as it 'aids restful sleep'. Even when I was asleep at night, I could still be abused by them, both sexually and physically. On awaking, the first thing I would find out was who was there by my bed. If it was Dad, 'Phew, relief', it was OK, because I was safe with him; he had told me many times that he loved me. If it was her, I'd start begging her forgiveness for whatever it was I had done wrong.CHAPTER 2
Occasionally family friends would come over. I was allowed to get up for these evenings. Dave Johnson was my dad's friend and they would sit in the front room drinking and smoking. His wife was her friend and they would stay in the sitting room smoking and drinking, while my brothers and I would play with their two boys. Outside we mainly played One Two Three Homey. We had a base, our gatepost, and one person was the finder while the rest hid. When someone was seen they would try to run to the base before the finder caught them. I loved playing that.
There was a synagogue nearby and it was always a good place to hide. The only problem was Andrew. If I caught him, he would always deny it and tell her that I was cheating. She would tell me off so sweetly in front of everyone, but when no one was looking she would give me 'the look' and then I knew I was going to get it later on.
So I gave up playing outside with my brothers and stayed in with a pack of cards. I would stand two cards up and rest them on each other. These were my little castles. Or I would put three on the bottom, balance two on top and then, with a very steady hand, balance another on top: my pyramids. But Paul, the Johnsons' eldest boy, thought it was immensely funny to bang his foot on the floor, causing my little castles and pyramids to come crashing down. I couldn't complain, though, as at least I had spent the evening out of my room and I did enjoy making my buildings. If I was feeling very adventurous I would make lots of two-card castles in a long line and then tap the first one and watch it fall on to the next one and that would fall on to its neighbour and so on. I loved playing with my cards and wished that I could sneak them into my bedroom. I would never be bored again.
Of my brothers I hated Andrew the most. Generally they left me alone, though sometimes they taunted me by calling me Loonie, Vincent or Van Gogh. I knew where the first nickname came from, but the other two I didn't have a clue about. Andrew was a bully-boy: his favourite joke was to throw glass jars at me. If I didn't catch them, obviously they would break all over the floor and I would get a beating. He just used to stand there smiling.
Another thing he liked to do was soak the end of a tea towel and then flick it at me so that the wet end would sting me. I swore to myself that when I was older I would never have anything to do with him. At the time I was probably closest to Paul as he was nearest to me in age and we both went to the same school. Anthony was the kindest and quietest of the three; he used to try to sneak food in to me when I had to stay in my bedroom.
Mum was friendly with the Evans family, who lived over the road. Margaret Evans had five boys. Three of them were grown up and the youngest two were at high school. I liked Margaret as she was kind and often helped me with my speech problems. I used to stutter quite badly and there were many words I couldn't pronounce. Over and over she would repeat the words, then get me to say them. Her youngest boy, Philip, was just a little older than my brothers and we often played together. Whenever we had guests Mum was a different person towards me. She was kind, she laughed, she called me Susie and everyone thought she was a super mum. It was only when she flashed me 'the look' that I knew it was still her. But I still enjoyed those days.
Sundays were sometimes good days as my dad never worked then. I was allowed out in the mornings and would go and play with friends. Dinner was at one o'clock: a roast. After washing up I was allowed out again but not allowed to play with friends as Sunday afternoons were a time for parents to have a nap in their armchairs. So I used to walk round the streets picking up ring-pulls to give to the church. Greenford Broadway was always a good place to get loads; sometimes my pockets would bulge, they were so full. It was so much better than staying in my room.
One Sunday I woke up to be told one of our kittens was missing. I hadn't even known that our cat was pregnant, let alone had given birth. The kittens were so cute. We all had to search the house until the missing one was found. I went into my brothers' room and noticed how windy it was outside. All the washing, not just in our garden but in all the neighbouring gardens, was trying desperately to stay pegged on to the lines. I so wanted to find the kitten before it could get out, for I felt sure it would be blown away. We had a porch at the front of our house and I looked in there. I looked in the shoe cupboard inside the porch. No, it wasn't there. As I was closing the porch door I was wondering where to look next when suddenly I felt a pain in my head.
Mum was cooking the Sunday roast and so I went to find Anthony to tell him that I'd hurt my head. He looked at me and told me to go and tell her. 'Oh, my God!' she yelled when she saw me. My head was pouring blood. Apparently, when I opened the porch door, the handle sliced into the top of my head. Mum called my dad down, cleaned me up and then he took me to the hospital. We didn't have a car, so we had to go by bus. As it was a Sunday we had to wait ages, with me standing there holding a towel to my head. I was told I needed stitches and the doctor said it might hurt a bit, but it didn't. I just sat there while they did it and then went home. Being Sunday, it was bath and hair-wash day, but I couldn't have either. The only other time I had ever missed my Sunday-night bath was when my leg had got a cigarette burn. It stung so much when I put it in the water that my mum had to take me out in case my dad heard my screams.
When I went to school the next day I had to give my teacher a letter saying I wasn't to be allowed out at playtime or to do any gym. I was so disappointed, but the teacher got me a grown-up chair that I was allowed to sit on during story and milk time, instead of on the floor. I felt so important. I loved all my teachers in first school. I loved school. On school mornings I was out of the door at 8.15. On my ten-minute walk each day I used to see a woman taking her children to the Catholic school. The two girls looked happy and were always smiling. I would be happy too, I thought, if I had a nice mum who took me to school every day. I also saw another woman on the other side of the road, who would take her son halfway there and then watch him for the other half.
Like me, Paul was still at the first school, but Anthony and Andrew were at the middle school, which was opposite. Sometimes after school I would walk in the front door and sense straight away that there was going to be trouble. One day Mum called me in and said, 'What have you been doing today?'
I had to stand within smacking range. My stomach started to get all knotty.
Smack! She got me right across my face. I hated the smacks. My body had got used to the punches and kicks, but not the smacks. She raised her hand so high that I was more scared than I was worried about the actual pain.
'I'll ask you again. What have you been doing?'
'I don't know.' As soon as I said that I wished I hadn't. She hated it and it just seemed to get her more angry.
'I know what you've been doing, so you might as well just tell me. Well?'
'I didn't do anything.' I tried to find the answers to her questions but sometimes I would just completely run out of answers.
Smack! Smack! She got me on both sides of the face.
'You were playing football, weren't you?' Seven-year-old girls weren't allowed to play football.
'No, I wasn't.' My thoughts raced back to dinnertime, when I had been standing by the fence, but I wasn't in goal as the boys were using the next fence down as their goal.
Excerpted from Sue's Story by Sue Owen. Copyright © 2007 Sue Owen. 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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