My mother never had a mother. That’s what she always says, I never knew what it was to have a mother. We were always being told how lucky we were, my brother and me. The kids today, don’t know they’re born. As if the grown-ups resented us, and also as if there were hard truths we’d find out one day for ourselves. Drinking tea, reminiscing about hard times. We never saw the sea. Aunty Betty, Aunty Doreen, Uncle Derek. When the grown-ups get together they can’t stop talking. They’ll ask me about school, say how much I’ve grown, but they’re not really interested. They talk about mortgages, storage heaters, miles per gallon. And they talk about the past, retelling the same stories again and again.
The children can’t get in the house. The back door’s locked. The boy tries again, goes around the front and down the entry. His little sister’s getting anxious. A neighbour sees them, offers to help, he says no, and they wait on the doorstep – and then – finally – someone fetches a ladder. And he finds their mother dead.
I can see that boy, standing at the top of the ladder, looking through the window, and I can see what I imagine, wrongly, he sees, a shape on the bed.
There are other stories too, stories about a wicked stepmother, and something about a policeman who was shot. All of them told in fragments and snatches, all of them revisited word for word, with a minimum of detail. One day, years later, my mother suddenly says, as we’re washing up together, ‘You know my mother committed suicide?’
LOVING MEMORY OF
BELOVED HUSBAND OF
WHO WAS SHOT IN THE
EXECUTION OF HIS DUTY
JAN. 18th 1925 AGED 24 YEARS
‘FAITHFUL UNTO DEATH’
ALSO OF HIS WIFE DOROTHY
DIED 3RD FEBRUARY 1943
AGED 42 YEARS
Albert Willits is buried at Merridale Cemetery, in Wolverhampton, some eight miles away from where my mother grew up. There are photographs available of the funeral procession – an endless line of Keystone cars, the open-topped vehicle at the front smothered in flowers. The city street is lined with onlookers, thousands of them. As the coffin’s carried into the church, it’s followed by the constable’s mother, stooped and bowed, supported by his brother. Just behind them walks a young woman in a broad hat, gazing into space with an air of resignation, or perhaps bemusement. This is my grandmother, Dolly.
They called her Dolly. What else do I know? Not much. My mother has no memory of her. Of course, I never knew my mother. She was put away for years, and then, when she came out, she died. But why? My mother thinks there was a pram, perhaps another baby on the way. And she remembers her mother never did her hair, she took no pride in herself, it was cut short and left unstyled. The rest is blank. Even now that my mother is in her eighties, she mulls over the unanswered questions. She’s still a bewildered young girl – eleven, she says, when her mother died, though I know from the date that she must have been thirteen. She still wonders if she really saw that pram. She’s still afraid of gas, frightened to sleep in a room with a boiler.
Dolly is buried with her first husband, the policeman. I don’t know if that was her wish, or if it seemed appropriate at the time, or if the decision to bury her there was in some way connected to her cause of death. Suicide was still illegal in 1943, and some churchyards might have been reluctant to bury her. Midland Murders, a true-crime potboiler from 1973, begins the chapter ‘Farewell My Son’ with a little cameo of PC Willits kissing his wife and baby goodbye, and ends with ‘his wife‘ gassing herself ‘in 1946 at her home in Walsall’: ‘Many people say she never got over that day in 1925 when she kissed her husband goodbye.’ The author gives details of the shooting, carried out, he says, by a pair of juvenile delinquents on the run from a probation hostel down in Hertfordshire. But since the author gives the wrong date for Dolly’s death, perhaps other details aren’t completely accurate.
My granddad was Victor Mountford, who worked for the Midlands Electricity Board, and who married a second widow after Dolly died. When I knew him, he lived in a 1960s council flat, within sight of the parish church where he was verger. My clearest memory of the flat is the picture in hallway. And when did you last see your father? Visits to Grandad were an ordeal by silence, broken by the sound of the Express and Star clattering through the letter box. Someone else had been there before us; the second widow had died, but her daughter, Margaret, was still Victor’s pet, and my mother was consumed with loathing for her. But still we came back, week after week, sitting in suspended animation, in that sealed capsule high above the ground, riding the grim lift that smelt like rotten cabbage.
These images stick in my mind, with the other stories some real and some made up and some from the telly or from library books – The Man from Uncle, The Young Elizabeth – the landscape at the edges of the estate where we lived, the grey mysterious cooling towers, the bridges, canals and rail tracks and the barren hill of the slag heap, the rag and bone man and the gypsies and the red flying insects that sucked your blood.
We lived on the Beechdale, which Walsall Council first thought of calling the Gypsy Lane Estate. New houses with gardens, front and back, and streets named after scientists and inventors – Cavendish, Faraday, Gurney – all clean and new. My mother likes everything new. By the time I was fifteen my parents had saved enough to buy their own place, a newly built bungalow, four miles out of town. Much later, they retired to a new development in Devon. They’d never have looked at a property that some one had lived in before them.
My parents’ homes were furnished with new things that were not long-lasting but were easy to clean. My mother would get on her hands and knees to pick up a speck from the carpet. Her favourite colour is still turquoise, and a turquoise glass vase, with the sun sparkling through, is one of those few things she’s kept hold of through the years, mostly presents I bought her for Christmas or her birthday, gifts that I suppose will be returned to me one day. I once made the mistake of buying her a nineteenth century figurine in biscuitware, forgetting that antiques have no appeal for my mother. They remind her of those dull hours spent in churches – three times on a Sunday – prayerbooks, dust and piety.
If you go into Torquay or to Paignton or Dawlish, you’ll hear the low thrum of Midland accents everywhere. My mother’s thrilled when she meets someone who knows the Beechdale, or Darlaston, Bloxwich or Palfrey, or the other little districts round Walsall, and they’ll quickly find some connection, confirming each other’s memories of those places. The stories, the same old stories, circulate again – the boy, the ladder, the policeman who was shot.
My dad’s buried on a hillside in Torquay, where you can glimpse the distant moors, lonely spaces that didn’t interest my parents very much. The countryside, to them, was empty and exposed. They liked to belong to the crowd. My dad’s headstone stands out from all the others for its lack of detail. It takes the form of an open book, one side for him, the other blank. My father died on his birthday, February 15th:
Loving husband, father and grandad.
Nothing there for the stranger to follow, no footprints into the past, because his life and his death belong to my mother, who wrote his epitaph, and is waiting to join him.
Ailsa Cox is a Liverpool-based short story writer and the Professor of Short Fiction at Edge Hill University. Her work has appeared in Best British Short Stories, Warwick Review, London Magazine, Mechanics’ Institute Review 15 and Confingo.