The shop which came next was in the village of Herne Bay. This was better than the boarding house. It was a general store and sweet shop, the sort of opportunity that normally only occurs in children’s stories. When I stayed there I was allowed to choose one treat from the confectionary counter every evening, and take it up to my bedroom in the flat above the shop. Obviously this was a lot better than no treats, but I could not understand why I was only allowed one treat. After all the shop was absolutely full of sweets. Why not two treats? Why not three? Why not everything?
Finally Grandma and George moved to somewhere near us, but out on the trackless suburban fringe. The house was in a street of low modern houses and bungalows. There was woodland nearby. The golf course where we would sometimes walk and find golf balls in the ditches was also near. Yet still I could not have found the house alone.
Perhaps this was to do with the underlying mystery surrounding both my grandmother and step-grandfather. At the time, all I knew was that a mystery was active – this was something sensed rather than known. Later I put facts and hints together and realised that my grandmother had most likely been born an illegitimate child, and that her biological father was the unexplained individual whose name we never knew, who had paid for her schooling, and then for the schooling of my mother.
This would help to explain my grandmother’s hyper-sensitivity to the slightest suggestion of impropriety: in this she was like a stock character in a sitcom. Once she caught me in an empty passageway and said quietly in a special robotic tone reserved for matters of conduct with a sexual tinge: “You’ve been seen. Oh yes, don’t you deny it. You’ve been seen.” I did not know what I had been seen to do, or where, or with who, but such facts count for nothing in childhood.
It also helps to explain why for a quarter of a century my grandmother concealed the fact that she and George were not actually married. This emerged only after her death. George, who in his own eyes at least was born to be a freebooting Samurai with a van and a caravan, a ladies man and not to be tied down, had refused to marry. Yet when it came the death of my grandmother reduced him to a near-catatonic state, and not long afterwards he began a long descent into dementia.
Once I stayed with Grandma and George for a week or so while work was being done on our own house. As an asthmatic I was considered to be frail, and not to be exposed to dust (the asbestos seemed not to count). Every morning I left Grandma and George and took the bus to school but on returning I kept getting off at the wrong stop, and ending up having to walk without quite knowing where I was going, following streets at random until I hit the right one.
At other times I would be put into George’s care while he drove around town, doing jobs, paying calls. George had an Austin A40 van which had a large rotary switch made of brown Bakelite on the dashboard. I was allowed to turn this switch: George would tell me when.
On one occasion when I was very young he drove to a terraced house with a long front garden. He left me in the car saying he would be back in a minute or two, and walked away purposefully up the long path to the tall house.
I sat in the passenger seat of the Austin as instructed. It was a sunny day, and it was hot inside the car. Time passed. A few people walked by on the pavement. Someone came past with a large dog, which came up to the car and urinated on the tyre. The dog’s owner was oblivious to me; I seemed to have become invisible. I did not know how much time had passed although it was a lot of time, longer than a lesson at nursery school, longer than playtime. I did not recognise the place we had come to – it lay far beyond the territory I knew.
I started to call out to George although there was absolutely no chance of being heard. I started to cry. Soon the crying took on its own energy and I cried at an intensity that shocked me and caused the crying to become even more intense. It began with crying out for George to come back, and then went on to crying for my mother, and then just crying. I was trying to shout at the top of my voice, but eventually my voice gave out, and it was also getting more and more difficult to cry. Another person came past on the pavement and looked at me, and then went on. Eventually I was reduced to crying silently.
When George came out of the house I had finished crying. George opened the door of the car. “Alright then lad?” he said. I was too exhausted to explain, or to return to my previous state of hysteria. I was too exhausted to speak.
I never mentioned what had happened to anyone. I felt it would reflect badly on me. Perhaps it would be bad in some way for George. Perhaps George too had been ‘seen’, whatever that meant.