Eileen McHugh - a life remade

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Deep down, Eileen McHugh knew how similar she was to her mother, but in her youth, she refused to admit it. Indeed, she seemed to manipulate events, choose clothing, pursue patterns of behaviour that defined, restated, even accentuated a desired difference between them. It might even be argued that her apparent yearning for impermanence and the ephemeral in her art was merely a calculated reaction to a quality of steadiness, of predictability she ascribed to her mother.

Marion McHugh, née Jackson, was born in Wakefield in 1920. She was brought up in a terraced house and then in a new-build semi-detached council house on the Eastmoor Estate, her father a baker, her mother a part-time house cleaner and launderer. Her father, Harry, worked shifts, whilst her mother worked whenever jobs might come her way. Neither parent either smoked or drank. The family ate a repetitive and predictable but adequate diet that, unlike many of their peers in the decade that ran between the mid-twenties and mid-thirties, was always sufficient to allow them health and relative prosperity. They lived to a strict routine, even eating the same dishes on the same days every week. They were never rich, but also, again unlike many others, were never poor.

The original family house had two bedrooms, but never seemed too small to accommodate parents, Marion and two older brothers. The two-up two-down allowed the upstairs front for the parents, upstairs back for the brothers and downstairs front for Marion, the youngest, who made up her bed on the sofa each night and packed it away each morning. This domestic situation eased when they moved to their new house. In the nineteen-thirties, this council estate was a new local height of luxury. It was geographically close to their terrace, but felt like it was in a different world, where there were spaces with grass.

In their terrace, the living room was the kitchen unless it was bath night. The toilet was in the backyard and they had no bathroom, with ritual cleansing taking place once a week, usually on Tuesdays, when they took turns to top up a galvanised bath in front of the kitchen fire. Tuesdays were therefore days when Marion was allowed to go to bed late, because the whole family had to inhabit the front room. They would read or listen to the radio and then, at the end of the process, the two lads would take a bath handle each to allow a speedy emptying of the by then tepid, opaque, soapy water into the gutter on the street at the front of the house.

The modus vivendi of the Jackson house seemed unchanging. But the lads got bigger and so did Marion. Sexual maturity increased the psychological distance between the family members, but they remained a close family who shared one another’s always gently expressed feelings. There was never a raised voice, apparently never disagreement and, crucially, little ambition. The move to the new council semi eased their domestic life considerably.

Marion’s mother always referred to her daughter via a diminutive. Marrie, she called her, ‘Our Marrie’, pronounced with a first syllable of the long Yorkshire ‘a’, sounding like a sigh, the name itself having the short vowel. Marion never liked the name, believing it sounded too much like a command and thus made her feel both uncomfortable and inadequate. But it was certainly the two lads who followed the route to marriage before her. After leaving school at the usual age, they took apprenticeships at the pit and were bringing girlfriends home on Sundays for tea almost as soon as they had pay packets. Both brothers had identified their respective spouses, had named dates and exchanged rings when the war broke out. They were also in potentially reserved jobs and by that time both had completed their apprenticeships which, although based at the colliery in Walton, qualified them in carpentry for the elder brother and electrical work for the younger. But both lads decided to join the armed forces, since both had previously been regular and conscientious attendees at the cadets. Both joined the navy as ratings and neither returned. The family did not recover, and Marion was alone.

She left school at fourteen, not really remembering anything she had done during the previous decade. She could wash, she could sew, she could do light gardening and she knew how to clean babies. She could also make jam. Her skills were of the home that war had taken away. But at least she had already met Thomas McHugh, always Tom, a local lad of indeterminate Irish heritage and a Catholic. Thoughts were expressed. Her father was stoical. “If you decide to go that way,” he told his daughter, “then we will back you.” Mother and father both approved of Tom, who already had a steady job, was literate and really quite educated. He was a trainee insurance salesman.

They were ready to announce their engagement when the war intervened. He was determined to join up and, over the next four years, came and went. He always, as far as the knowledge of the Wakefield family went, stayed faithful to Marion, repeatedly promising to come back and marry her. And this is precisely what he did, but only after both of her brothers had been lost. In some ways, Tom was a saviour for Marion’s parents, a surrogate son to offer some replacement for the loss of the two lads in the Atlantic. Her parents, like Marion herself, adored him precisely because he was so very normal.

Marion was over thirty when she fell pregnant with Eileen. The verb was her habitual choice to describe the state and probably indicates an underlying associated guilt. It was only years later that Eileen would learn there had been a miscarriage in forty-seven, but this time the baby arrived to equal measures of celebration and relief, tinged, for Tom, with just a hint of never to be expressed disappointment that it was a girl. But they were still young.

Marion’s employer at the Wakefield shop was enlightened for the time and gave her leave with pay, but then she was a senior employee by then, manager in all but name. Her skills, especially in customer relations, were invaluable. We are already into the fifties and, of course, Eileen and Tom had already moved to Agbrigg, a bus ride from town, into a terraced house that was still rented. This apparent step down from the semi-detached heaven of the council estate grated with all concerned, but at least this place was not rented from the council. Marion’s mother volunteered to come and look after the infant three days a week so that her daughter could go back to work part-time.

A second pregnancy did not follow, which allowed a certain amount of saving. Tom was on a salary plus commission and Marion’s job brought her into contact with the town’s middle classes, who were grateful enough of her services to supplement her earnings with often copious tips. The food shop where she worked, in modern language, would have been called a delicatessen and sold the kind of high cost items that wealthier residents conspicuously consumed to assert their social class. With rationing of basics still in operation, the prices the shop charged were off the scale for ordinary folk, but the solicitors, the doctors, the business owners had already re-cultured their taste for wine, French cheeses and smoked salmon. The shop’s most successful line, however, was its own baking, which Marion supervised, and its pastries were simply the best in town, the best element of upper-end high teas, making the shop an essential resource for the financially comfortable.

Their house may have been rented, but they lavished care and attention on it as if it were their own. It was theirs, after all. A saying much used in the area during those years was, ‘Where there’s muck there’s money.’ Now if that had applied to the McHugh’s house, then they were poor indeed, for Marion was the embodiment, as were most other working-class women, of a forensic desire for cleanliness.

She worked full time, left the house soon after eight and was finished with the washing up after tea only by seven. But every surface was dusted every day, with ornaments lifted not merely negotiated, linoed floors at least mopped, and usually washed with a cloth on hands and knees. Each room’s central square of carpet was both brushed and then vacuumed - hoovered was the word, never Electroluxed, despite that being what she used.

She washed at least once a week but would almost gleefully ‘run the machine’ whenever any suitable textile displayed even a suggestion of mark or stain, there never being a need to inspect clothing, since once worn it was automatically in the wash. She used a cream finish, stand-alone Parnall that sported a rotatable mangle on top. It was kept at the top of the cellar steps and had to be wheeled across the kitchen to have its oft-used inlet hose connected to the sink tap.

Duly wrung as dry as physically possible with elbow grease, its cleansed load was almost invariably hung on a rack suspended on rope and pulley above the hearth so, especially when a sheet or tablecloth was involved, the family had carefully to avoid low hanging damp cloth when crossing the room, lest it catch a mark and need washing again. It was possible to hang the load outside, but the weather had to be fine, the hour early and, crucially, it had to be warm, or the newly cleansed items would collect specks of soot from other people’s coal fires. And, if you worked full time, a term that also included Saturdays, then the washing had to be hung out on Sundays, and that was not done, unless it proved to be a good drying day, in which case it was an opportunity not to be missed.

The machine would even empty its own water at the end of the process and all it involved was the disconnection of the inlet hose, its reconnection to a different nozzle, the repositioning of a selector switch, training the hose into the sink and switching on. You then waited for ten minutes with a mop in hand because it invariably leaked. Now that was progress, much less effort than filling and emptying a boiling tub mounted on bricks in the cellar that took an hour or so to heat up and another hour to empty with a hand pump.

Windows were cleaned on a regular rota, but usually only the inside, since the panes’ outer surfaces were tended once a week by a specialist window cleaner, who went up and down both sides of the street, house by house, with his leathers and triangular wooden ladders that for some reason were always painted green. Having said that, a casual visitor to this street would regularly see housewives, females who were proud of both the name and the role, sitting on window sills, their bottoms in midair, two pane sashes pulled down to the thighs in case they overbalanced, washing, wiping and polishing their glass with their leathers.

All brass ornaments, silver jugs or teapots, if you had any, were attacked at least once each week with Brasso, with two dedicated dusters, an often-washed putter-onner and a more frequently shaken taker-offer, carefully stored in quarter folds down the side of the shoe polish box. The same concoction was also regularly and very carefully applied to the silver frame that surrounded the wedding photo, a postcard-sized black and white print, but hand coloured by the man with the studio in Little Westgate, where previous generations used to go to commission their posed family portraits. By the fifties, his business was already largely weddings and, increasingly, passport shots. The wedding photo, surrounded by its always gleaming silver, occupied pride of place in the middle of the mantelpiece in a front room that the family hardly ever visited.

And it was not only the inside that Marion cleaned. At least twice a week, rain or shine, she would brush and wash down the pavement in front of the house - washing was ‘up’ in the sink but ‘down’ on the pavement - as well as brush and scrub the steps front and back with water containing bleach or ammonia, whatever was to hand. Where there’s muck there’s money might have been a mantra for some, but where there’s means, there’s a means to be clean, and woe betide any woman who fell short of this communal judgment of standards, because that same shared opinion would attach the label ‘she’s not fit’ to anyone falling short. Imagine, then, the eventual consternation in the McHugh household when their only daughter later began to amass found objects she retrieved from dustbins and the gutter.

Eileen started school and made average progress until the age of seven and then one wonderful day, so full of joy and laughter she would remember it into adulthood, an ecstatic Marion took her on one side and announced that in a few months, before she was eight, she would have a little brother or sister. Well before Eileen’s birthday, however, their world was shattered as blood flowed and Marion suffered a second miscarriage. But things would not be simple. She needed surgery - a full hysterectomy with ovaries gone as well - no point in leaving those when the rest is gone - and for several months Marion was weak, listless and regularly ill. Tom was next to useless around the house and displayed what can only be described as an inability to discuss anything related to his wife’s body. The child, Eileen, for several months became her mother’s carer, unable to go with any predictable regularity to school, until an official-looking letter arrived threatening Tom with legal proceedings if his daughter continued to truant. She went back to school full time close to her ninth birthday, but she never caught up with the rest of the class. Less than a year later, when the children were labelled by their teachers as academic or other, she joined the latter group and did not even prepare for the eleven-plus. He never said it, but Tom did blame Marion.

And suddenly they were already into the sixties, those increasingly prosperous years that followed their being told they had never had it so good. Living standards were on the rise and, perhaps for the first time in the nation’s history, masses of the population were being raised to a level of perceived economic comfort of which even their own parents could not even have dreamed.

And things were on the up for insurance salesmen. Tom had spent much of the fifties worrying about his bicycle clips, essential items of his business uniform, since two wheels were his only option for transport around the extensive housing estates and back streets where people contributed their two shillings or half a crown a week to their policies. He had so many customers on some streets that he would park his bike by a lamppost, pedal-secured on the kerb, unstrap his stuffed briefcase from the saddlebag he could not properly buckle, pocket his clips and walk down one side and then back up the other.

By the end of the fifties, however, the company had replaced Tom’s bike with a car that came with a mileage allowance for fuel and so offered both an opportunity for moderate profit and free motoring for the family. And, by the time it was clear that Eileen would have no chance of going to grammar school, opportunities advertised by individualism had already been absorbed by the mass market toward which everyone felt individually and collectively directed. Ten years earlier, neither Tom nor Marion would have conceived that they may, one day, pay for the education of their daughter, but these were the nineteen-sixties and, after all, things were better when they were private, weren’t they?

But there were other decisions to confront, some forced. They had moved to Agbrigg to avoid the stigma of living in a council house. In these years of progress, they were determined to achieve a status identifiably higher than that of their respective parents, whose example was admirable but whose achievements were not judged considerable. Continued residence in the council estate might entrap them within the same attitudes and lifestyle they associated with their neighbours. Both Marion and Tom felt they were destined for higher things. Renting a two-up two-down terrace near the rugby league ground at Belle Vue, however, represented only initial progress. This was later enhanced when, courtesy of government initiative and grant, they became proud owners of an indoor toilet and bathroom.

They had to divide Eileen’s back bedroom, of course, but the remaining space was judged perfectly adequate. But they continued to aspire to ownership, to dream of a new house, one of those modern-style semis with a garden that were increasingly promised by and came to symbolise the achievement of a post-war utopia. But it took the couple almost twenty years to achieve the economic stability that might finance the change and, coincidentally, that was achieved just as their daughter was facing the prospect of changing schools. If school and aspiration provided the pull, there was also developing nearby something the couple felt as a push.

Their town was still a manufacturing town. The coalfield was all around, but the city itself still made most of its money from textiles and engineering, a proud heritage that gave identity to an equally proud community, but an identity that was already reeling from competition driven by increasing post-war trade, cheaper transport and, crucially, cheaper people in countries that most British people of the time had heard of but probably could not locate on a map, places that most labelled ‘backward’.

After the war, works buses that ferried women - always women - to their six-day-a-week labour still ran, but fifteen years later the noisy, dirty and poorly paid work in the mills was already unpopular and, by virtue of a colonial heritage that still made the British proud, there existed in South Asia importable human resource that was both cheaper and more docile than anything locally available. Areas like Agbrigg became associated with the immigrants who worked to keep dying industries alive for a couple more decades. The town - and its press - was awash with stories of ten to a room, the smell of garlic next door and the need for shopkeepers to keep a bowl of bleach handy for the coins that were handed over the counter.

It was also an era when the new estates were springing up in what appeared to be a modern, semi-detached conformity, but a similarity that paradoxically looked like an expression of individuality and independence. To think, as Marion no doubt said to Tom as they looked at a map of their plot, we’ll have a garden at the back as well as one at the front! And it will be so much cleaner than these streets, which was a word that, without a capital letter, was a social class label, not a geographical description. In the towns - and especially in the mining villages that surrounded them - to live in the streets meant identification with the working classes, the poor, two-up two-down in terraces, smoking chimney pots, peeling paint, where the folk might even be mucky. It was a word that signified parallel lines of back-to-backs, blackened brick, old jobs that no-one now wanted and, in many places, residual war damage, dereliction and demolition. That is why the new estates carried proper names such as avenue, close, rise, walk and even boulevard for roads that were wide enough for a couple of Ford Anglias. On the Ashdene Estate in Crofton, there were eventually even a couple of garths, though there was no cloister in sight. And the outline plot that Tom and Marion showed to their daughter represented a materialised new life and new identity in a wholly new Weavers Rise, without apostrophe, the potential command forever unnoticed.

The area was white, solidly white. It was also middle-class, at the lower end, in the sense that the British hear as a synonym for ‘safe’. Though these newcomers to the area owned mortgages rather than property, they at least had created a vision, albeit a quarter of a century into a collective future, of being able to bequeath property and thus promise an inherited stability that surely none of their ancestors had ever felt.

It was a place where new cars that came with the husband’s job appeared in driveways every two years. It was where foreign holidays were discussed, contemplatively until mid-decade. It was where people were having estimates for double glazing, a new garage, a conservatory or an extension with a second bathroom. It was where do-it-yourselfers hammered, drilled and grinded through the quiet of fine weekends, to install fitted wardrobes, chipboard and melamine kitchens, storage radiators, crazy paving, garden sheds and little ponds with babbling fountains surrounded by pot figures from the garden centre. It was where lawns were kept mowed, woodwork was regularly painted, borders were bedded with lobelia and pansies and interiors were redecorated proudly in shades of white, the only colour that anyone would consciously admit.

Initial fears shared by both Marion and Tom that Eileen would not settle into her new school or indeed the area were soon dismissed when she met that nice boy Martin, whose family lived in the house within her new school’s grounds. Back in Agbrigg, Eileen had always been an outdoor type. She could play in the street. She could go for walks over Heath Common with her friends, often as a far as Warmfield and then back down Pineapple Hill, which was a very long way indeed, a trip that was not completely without worry for parents because there were main roads to cross.

But because Eileen’s schooling had been so severely disrupted at such a crucial time, she seemed not to develop lasting friendships. And when the area started to change, these parents became reluctant to allow her far from home, because she might even meet some of ‘them’.

And so it was with some relief they found, not even a term into Browns, that their daughter had not only settled in and found at least one teacher she liked, but she had also been admitted to a very pleasant group of young people, almost all from nice families, who socialised around that same school in the evenings. Everything was close by, apparently under control, and safe. It really could not have worked out better, except for Marion, who felt she never really did fit in.

Marion did, however, meet Martin and she was immediately impressed. In her estimation, he was exactly the kind of boy that her daughter needed, being honest, straight, clean, focused, responsible and, above all, steady. They even, perhaps for the first time in their adult lives, invited him, a total stranger, into their home and rather liked having him come and go as he pleased. In some ways, they adopted him as the son they didn’t have and, despite Eileen’s inexplicable but still tolerable obsession with art, things were very much on track. For sure it would be some years in the future, but they could certainly envisage the two of them settling down, having a family of their own and thus effectively reproducing their parents’ lives in a different decade. But things were changing ever faster. And there came a day when Marion was aware of changes in her daughter, only some of which she found welcome.

A mother knows. A mother knows how to read changes in her daughter. And she knows what they mean. There are some things you just can’t hide. Whether Eileen was aware of Marion’s assessment, we don’t know. That Marion was at least partially reassured that her daughter’s relationship with Martin had moved further along its intended path towards permanence we can be sure. On reflection, Eileen must have noticed that her mother had registered these incremental changes and must have understood that her reaction was to extend even greater freedom and accommodation to herself and Martin. She must also have recognised how much her later estrangement from Martin had devastated her mother. This is my speculation, but I am sure you will agree that what I describe is completely credible and, despite there being no material evidence, perfectly explains how and why the relationship between mother and daughter changed for the worse and never recovered.

Marion had two miscarriages. We know that the second, at least, was probably life-threatening. She went through labour and delivered. Was she told it was a boy? We know that Eileen, as a child, had to look after her mother, that Marion was incapacitated for the better part of a year, that Eileen missed schooling and never caught up. So, it is just possible that Tom’s analysis of Eileen’s academic failure might just be correct that it had all been caused by his wife.

We do know that Marion had psychologically almost adopted Martin as her own son. And then Eileen ditched him. I have not a shred of evidence, other than the considered reflections of Martin’s parents, with whom I met several times. But I do know that, uncharacteristically, Marion started taking extended sick leave from work, from the city centre food shop where she had been employed for decades, In those years before she took her early retirement at fifty-five, she suddenly became a liability, having previously been nothing less than a pillar of dependability.

Of this we are sure, because Martin’s parents, who, on their own retirement, moved into a house just doors along Weavers Rise from Marion’s home. They deliberately chose the location because of the friendship they had developed during the years when Eileen was seeing Martin and, when Browns School closed in the eighties, it just happened that there was a house for sale up the hill, just two hundred metres away from their existing home in the school’s grounds.

In later years, they would provide significant assistance for their neighbour. By the time Marion had vacated her home, they had already been doing odd jobs, gardening, cleaning and shopping for her for several years. Indeed, it was they who first alerted Martin to the fact that Marion had developed, alongside her depression and agoraphobia, significant symptoms of dementia. And it would be their son who would eventually oversee her transfer into care.

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