Eileen McHugh - a life remade

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Martin Colbrooke was the first contact I made. He proved to be an invaluable source of information on Eileen’s family background. In fact, given the near complete lack of traceable relatives of either Tom or Marion McHugh, I admit that the family story would not exist were it not for his reminiscences. It was Martin who also arranged my contact with his parents, whom I was able to meet when I made my second visit to Marion McHugh.

I had decided to remake Eileen’s life after the success of He’s on the other line… and my initial research provided me with no other contact from Crofton, other than Marion, who was by then in care. The New Hall that housed Browns School was demolished some years ago, but the school’s registration records are in the public domain and there, throughout the school’s existence, are the names of the families who served as caretakers. Birth and death records supplied the rest.

And the name is quite unusual. There was probably just the one family of that name in a village of under ten thousand people, so a search for the surname linked to the place name was always going to produce narrow results. But in the process of researching the area where Eileen lived, I have come to learn something of its nature and culture. And given the socio-economic status of the family and given that I knew he had attended what the British call grammar school, I really had only two possible schools that were likely to have educated the teenage Martin, Normanton and Hemsworth. Searches of Facebook and LinkedIn, alongside alumni records from the relevant years located just one likely candidate, a medic now living in Dubai with contact details listed online. The crucial factor that identified him was his age and his listing of Crofton as his place of birth. I knew he must have been in the same school year as Eileen, because there were cryptic but decipherable references in her notebooks about copying his mathematics work to submit as her own, because their schools were using the same graded textbook.

But having located my candidate, I thought quite long and hard about how I might approach him, concluding that an email out of the blue, apparently about an ex-girlfriend, some forty years after the event could be misinterpreted. He was listed on his company’s site as sixty years old and he was a partner in a private medical practice. He was also apparently happily married with three children of his own and no less than eight grandchildren. His self-description spoke volumes on the pride he clearly took in his family life. Alumni records show he graduated from high school in 1970 with four Advanced Level Certificates and moved on to a place in the University of Leeds School of Medicine. He stayed in Leeds after graduation, working in the Infirmary for a number of years before joining a private clinic in the same city. It seems that the clinic had a number of Middle Eastern clients and by the end of the eighties, he had moved to Dubai to become a partner in what appears to have been a highly successful private clinic, treating mainly expatriates.

I should not have worried about sending that email, which in the end was remarkably simple. I recall I had no title for my task at that stage.

Dear Martin, My name is Mary Reynolds and I live in New Jersey, USA. I am researching a book on Eileen McHugh, an artist who has suffered neglect and who, in my opinion, deserves greater recognition. Unfortunately, there is a paucity of material about her life and work, and though I have the important notebooks she kept as a student, I currently have little information about her private life in Crofton. I know that Eileen and you were friends in your teens. Would you be willing to share your reminiscences of her? We could communicate via Skype or email, but I am afraid I do not envisage being able to visit Dubai in person. I would of course be extremely grateful if you could help, but I have to declare at the outset that I cannot offer any form of remuneration, since this is a labour of love, rather than profit. Would you let me know if you can help? Mary Reynolds

I decided not to overuse the contact possibilities - social networks, professional networks, business contact page were all possible - and so sent just one message via the platform I could see Martin used most frequently. I was confident he would reply, but I heard nothing for a week, and then…

“Dear Mary…”

…the email began, formally, calculatedly following my precedent…

“I would be more than happy to share my memories of Eileen. How is she? Have you met her? Is she also in the US? And do you have any contact details? Please do let me know.

“It has been many years since Eileen and I were in any form of contact. The last time we met was quite strange. I remember it well. How could I forget…

“It was in June 1972, after a period of several months when we had not been in touch. We had by then gone our separate ways, I myself to University in Leeds and Eileen to art college in London. We met for just a few minutes and the occasion remains fresh in my mind, because I found it quite an upsetting experience. To be frank, at the time I was terribly shocked, so disturbed I immediately went to her family home up the hill in the Ashdene Estate to see if they knew what the problem might be.

“Eileen and I had met by chance that afternoon, momentarily in Cock Lane. She was walking up towards the bus stop and I was on my way down the hill, having just travelled from Leeds. We saw one another at distance near the bottom of the lane, roughly where there used to be a farm entrance on the right (as far as I saw things) and the junction to the left coming out of Ashdene. She was just crossing the road and I would have been about thirty yards away. I remember calling her name and waving and I also recall that she seemed not to see me. She was walking fast, not running, but clearly rushing. My precise words were, ‘Hi there, long time no see,’ and that was as far as I got. I can state without doubt that I was still smiling and saying repeated hellos as we approached.

“She walked past me almost without pausing. All I got was an expletive spoken in anger. ‘I’m finished with this f…...g place.’ There was a slight pause as she spoke, closer to a shout than anything else, but by then she was already past me. She turned and marched off up the hill, head down, without a backward glance.

“I was baffled and also quite hurt. I thought I had done something. I repeat that we had not seen one another for some time, about a year as I recall, but after we split up, we had always been polite with one another and happy to socialise. There was no acrimony. I went straight to her parents’ house and rang the bell. Her father answered.

“‘If you have come for Eileen, she’s gone,’ he said and closed the door.

“I turned away to leave and the door reopened. It was Marion McHugh this time. ‘Martin, she was here just now. Have you seen her? If you see her, tell her she left her bag. It’s got some of her books inside. She’ll probably need them. Can you take it to her?’

“I thought for a moment. Perhaps I could take the bag and run up to the bus stop at the Cock and Crown. Maybe she might still be there. But then I thought I had better stay out of this. Whatever had happened, it clearly had nothing to do with me, so I thought I had better just leave it, let sleeping dogs lie, despite the fact there were no dogs, and no-one was asleep.

“I remember saying, ‘I just saw her. She was walking towards the Cock and Crown. She’s probably still there. You could drive up there with the bag. You’d be quicker than me.’ As I left, Mrs McHugh closed the door. I walked a few yards back down the hill and then waited to see if Tom would take the car to try and return Eileen’s bag. I waited five minutes or so, but there was no activity whatsoever that afternoon in Weavers Rise. I assumed there must have been some argument and concluded I was better staying out of it. It’s bugged me over the years, because we had been close, Eileen and me. We had been real friends, so that last meeting has stayed with me.”

Re-reading Martin’s message now forces together previously unnoticed pieces of the jigsaw. I subsequently learned from Charlotte that Eileen had planned to stay for just a weekend. She had taken no luggage, having decided to rely for a change of clothes on what she knew was still in the wardrobe at home, as she still called it. All she took with her was a plastic bag containing the sketchbooks and notes she needed to begin the redrafting of her year two final assignment. And she had already made a start while on the train heading north from Kings Cross. The books show a clear fresh start, where she was newly determined to work through her ideas with greater rigour and already displayed a greater focus on communicating her ideas to her teacher. She had decided against hitchhiking for this visit because she was conscious of how short a time there would be with her parents before the start of the overland trip and so she wanted to avoid any possibility of delay. The question of how her daughter’s sketchbooks had come to be in Marion McHugh’s personal effects had often occurred to me, but I had found no answer until I reabsorbed Martin’s revelation that Eileen had simply forgotten to take her plastic bag when anger cut her visit short. And it was perhaps the guilt at feeling that anger that prompted Marion to keep those same sketchbooks in her box of memories for over forty years.

“I never saw her again. I have to admit that I also never saw either Tom or Marion again. There was no acrimony, but there was a barrier, as much from them as from me. I now realise they just did not want to encounter anything that would remind them of Eileen. To this day, I have no idea whether that was as a result of guilt or lingering hatred. Something serious happened that afternoon. I presume it must have been something to do with her life in London, or money, or the difficulties she was having with her studies. I still have no real idea, but, if you want an opinion, I would guess it was to do with her lifestyle, which had been concerning them for some time. I cannot confirm, because, as I have said, we had no further contact. I had been so close to them in my teens, but further communication between us was just not to be.

“We were both eleven when we first met. She was new to the village, though at the time I did not know that. She was just a first-year pupil in a new intake in our school. I say our school, but of course I did not go to school there myself. She started at Browns, where my parents were caretakers. Our house was in the school grounds, so we lived on site.

“Eileen regularly used to stay late, an hour or more after class, so she was often still around the school when I came home from my own school. I assumed she was a latchkey kid, that both her parents were still at work, so there was no incentive to go straight home. I was right about that, but, as I soon learned, wrong to ascribe that as the reason for her extra hour at school. We began to greet one another and then talk. Her parents generally did not get in from work until nearly six and she lived only a few minutes away up the hill in the Ashdene Estate. It was well before the end of that first term, perhaps as early as the October, that she told me that she was new to the village and had made no friends. I told her she should come along to the school in the evenings, where a group of us used to congregate. I still remember the smile that the invitation prompted.

“For the purposes of your research, I suggest you might seek out any of the following:

John Abbott, whose family owned the farm towards the bottom of Cock Lane.

Alan and Evelyn Arundel, twins, obviously non-identical whose father was the local bobby. They lived in the police house on The Avenue.

Jenny and Anne Croft, identical twins who lived in a bungalow on Church Hill. Their father used to work in Ringway Airport, Manchester. It was very unusual in those days for anyone in the village to work so far away from home. I’m sure someone will still remember the family.

Mickey Crabb, who lived in a house on Slack Lane, one of the houses in new estate, where Eileen herself lived. His father was another policeman, though Mickey himself, I think, finished up in prison.

Denis Grant whose family lived in the big house at the junction of Doncaster Road and New Road. His parents ran a shop in Wakefield which traded under the family name.

Kathleen Spence, who was on Pontefract Road. Her father was a Justice of the Peace. She went to university in Hull.

Julie Small, whose family had the fish and chip shop across the road from the Cock and Crown.

There was Dave Smith who lived on Doncaster Road. His dad was a baker. He went to Newcastle University to do economics and then became a teacher.

“We were all about the same age, give or take a year. There were others, but I remember these people were the core of our group. We were quite a mixed bunch. I can offer no more than names, I’m afraid, because the last time I saw any of them was the year I went to college in 1970. We lost touch as soon as we went our separate ways for education, boyfriends, girlfriends and the like. Other blokes joined us when we needed to make up the numbers for football, but the list above was really everyone who used to call themselves the Boathouse Gang. We adopted the name because we used to meet occasionally in an old boathouse at the back of Crofton Dam.

“Eileen was not the only newcomer to the village in our group. I suppose we gelled quite well because most of us had only light roots in that place, so we were always flexible and welcoming. We had to be because the area was changing so fast with all the new building. As an eleven-year-old, Eileen was quite small - she always was small-framed, I suppose - but she was very athletic and remarkably strong. We did a reclamation job on the boathouse - cleared out all the rubbish, made a makeshift roof, cleared the stream next to it. Eileen was always willing to get her hands dirty, to wade into the stream to get old pushchairs or rusty bicycle frames out of the mud. She could also climb trees. She was what we might have called a tomboy until she reached thirteen or so. She impressed us all so much that we had a nickname for her, which was Nazrat. You will notice that’s Tarzan backwards. I apologise for the way we thought in those days. We were young…

“A strong memory is how Eileen was always very conscious of her status, or what she perceived as her lack of it. Most of the group were at grammar schools. There were a few who were at the secondary modern - Julie, for instance, who was always going to graduate into the family business, so had no time for education, and Mickey Crabb, although he probably did not go to school all that often. It’s worth remembering that we were from the new part of the village, where most people were owner-occupiers on the new estate. The older part of the village, with the terraced houses and the ‘original’ working-class population, was up the hill beyond the church. It was an area called the Lump (I am not joking) and the streets there had really imaginative names like First, Second, Third… In that area, there probably was not one family with a child in grammar school. I diverge…

“We were just another group of teenagers. The boys played football, cricket in summer. A couple of the lads went to Air Training Corps in Wakefield once a week and then would come to sit with us in uniform. The girls chatted a lot, went for walks and sometimes went into town together. We even had barbecues because our boathouse had a large stone hearth.

“But I suppose Eileen felt she did not fit in. She was something of a loner. She was not standoffish or snobbish, quite the reverse, in fact. But she was always conscious of going to Browns School, which was a private school and so her experience was always different from anyone else’s. The rest of us frankly couldn’t have cared less, but she did keep raising the issue.

“It was perhaps made worse for her because when we weren’t playing football or meeting in our den at the back of the dam, we would often meet in the school grounds because my parents were the caretakers. I think she rather liked the status those evenings around the school gave her, because she could become the leader. She knew her way around the building, which strangely I did not, despite living on the premises. I used to go into the school occasionally to find my parents, but generally I only went inside when Eileen led the way. Of course, she was in there eight hours a day, every day. She would invariably make a beeline for the art room, where her work was always on display. She wanted to show us everything she did.

“Her work was both on the wall and off the wall at the same time. It seemed that soon after joining the school, she formed a close bond with Miss Wallace, who was the art teacher. There was only the one. Miss Wallace clearly thought Eileen was exceptional. A couple of years later we talked with her about Eileen’s work and she used words like ‘vision’, ‘perception’, ‘insight’, ‘expression’, none of which meant a thing to a science student like me. I remember that it was Miss Wallace who made the impression on me. I was about fifteen. Miss Wallace was an absolute ‘stunner’, as we used to say. Such a shame…

“Eileen made collages out of bits of junk. She would stick orange peel on a card and call it a painting. She would repaint a rusty pushchair and it would be sculpture. She would empty a waste bin, rearrange the contents and call it collage. Often people doing things like that offer reams of explanation or justification, but Eileen never did. She just did it - lots and lots of it. She hardly even wanted to talk about her work until later on, when she wanted to talk about nothing else. We would have been mid-teens when we became closer. We talked a lot about what she was doing and I thought I might find out more about what motivated her, but I didn’t. It was if she was merely trying to leave her mark on things.

“Before we knew it, we were teenagers and our lives seemed to change. Living through it myself, it all seemed gradual and slow. When I saw things happen to my own children, I was surprised at the speed things happened.

“And so the group also changed. Julie was the first to get herself a steady boyfriend, so she disappeared from the scene for a while, until everything fell apart a few months later and she came back into the fold. She was paired up again a few weeks later and declared she was getting married. She was just over sixteen.

“I have to admit here that by the time I was fourteen, I was utterly besotted with Eileen. Obviously, she had changed by then. The hard edges that earned her the nickname Nazrat were still there, but they surfaced less often. She had her hair cut in a mod style and parted it at the side like Twiggy. She was still small, but well-proportioned in all the right places. She suddenly became very feminine and I was smitten.

“I can see now that puberty forced our group apart. Until then, we were always willing to operate as a group, to cooperate in the best sense of that word. But a promise of maturity encouraged us to compete, as if suddenly the selfish logic of our genes imposed its own rules. For the first time in our lives, perhaps, we were simultaneously embarrassed, self-conscious and yet self-promoting. And so, some of us paired off and, usually for no more than a week or two, we did our own separate - or joint - things. We were awash with gossip, wallowing in whispered ‘He’s going out with her’ or ‘She’s thinking of going steady with him’ or just as often ‘They’ve finished’. Emotionally we were on a roller coaster called adolescence. Looking back, it was all completely innocent for the most part, until we reached fifteen or sixteen, and then it was anything but. One of the twins got pregnant and disappeared for a week or two. A couple from the group came off a motorbike, with the girl quite badly injured.

“And some of the relationships lasted longer than others, but none longer than ours, myself and Eileen. We were going out, which actually meant staying in, for over two years. She got to know my parents very well and likewise for me with Tom and Marion. I went to football matches with Tom and I often went there for Sunday lunch, which was something of a ritual in their house, always with homemade Yorkshire puddings and a joint. That was a piece of meat, by the way! We had not yet reached that stage!

“It was assumed by both sets of parents that we would stay together, but then we passed the official school leaving age, the ripe old age of fifteen, and decisions loomed. We stayed on at school, but it would be our chosen paths, or more accurately their different characters, that would eventually force us apart.

“I had already started A-levels and I had chosen my subjects to enable me to get into medical school. I suppose you could have called me focused. Academically, however, Eileen was nowhere. She wasn’t stupid. And she certainly wasn’t slow. She could apply herself when she wanted, but she seemed unwilling to engage with things on other people’s terms. She wanted everything her way and on her own terms. That makes her sound selfish, but she wasn’t - unfocused would be more accurate. I think she had poor advice. She always was going to do art, but nobody had bothered to convince her that art college had entrance requirements just like other colleges, that to get a grant to do higher education at that time meant securing a place on a recognised course leading to a formal qualification. By the time she realised she would need O-levels at the least, it was too late. She researched the options only after she reached fifteen and by then the only route open to her was via the technical college.

“The college was in Wakefield, so for the first time in her life, Eileen actually had to get out of bed at a fixed time each day and travel some distance. In Agbrigg, before they moved to Crofton, she attended a primary school that was just a couple of streets from their house and of course in Crofton she lived barely five minutes from Browns. When she started at the tech, she had to be up earlier in the mornings, walk to the bus stop and do the same in reverse in the evenings. In town, the college itself was quite a walk from the bus station. It was all quite a shock to her system. After her first week, she was so tired she could barely stay awake beyond eight o’clock.

“Now I am not blaming the college for the changes in Eileen. Neither am I blaming directly her fellow students, not even that particular group of five or six that rebelled. But still I believe that all involved should share the blame for what happened, myself included. The course was lax and unstructured. It was poorly taught and hardly supervised at all. The students came and went as they pleased. They would start a session of life drawing timetabled for nine sometime before ten and before eleven they were all in the coffee bar, which they did not leave until it was time for lunch. The contrast with my fully-timetabled week to get through four A-levels could not have been starker. I remember trying to persuade her to leave after she had been there a term, because I could see changes for the worse in her work. I can remember being called a boring, predictable scientist as a result. After two years of being close, words like that lodge quite firmly in the memory, so you may quote them, if you wish.

“Eileen began to stay late at college. Of course, she wasn’t actually at college. She said she was finishing work, but I soon realised it was nothing of the sort. She was with a group of students who liked to hang around the town centre. They congregated in a couple of coffee bars in the street behind the Strafford Arms and then later they used to go to a pub ‘early doors’. Especially if the weather was bad, the temptation to sit longer somewhere warm was significant.

“Two things happened that forced us apart. Firstly, I knew she had started a relationship with one of the students in that social group. I knew she was sleeping with him. She was seventeen by then and there was a marked change in the way she responded to me. I can remember her talking of someone called Frank. Now I am not usually a competitive type, but I knew immediately that I was being replaced in her life, and I got quite depressed. It felt like she had made a decision about my future and was implementing it without actually telling me anything. She was strewing clues along a psychological path, like a trail in a paperchase, and it was up to me to pick up the messages and understand them.

“And the second problem was the drugs. She started to smoke dope. She even asked me for money on a couple of occasions and I gave it, until one day I saw her by chance on her way home from college. She was sitting in the bus shelter at the top of Cock Lane, which was the place where you would wait if you were going into town, which of course at that time she wasn’t. I had just come from school - late as it happens after an exam, getting off my bus on the other side of the road, and I asked her why she was waiting for a bus into town. I thought we would be seeing one another that evening. She said something about having to wait a while before she went home. I could smell the dope. I helped her up, but she could barely stand because she was drunk as well. She got angry and told me to leave her alone. I did.

“We formally split about a week later. I was very sad. Let’s be clear, I was devastated. My mother was ready to go to the McHugh’s. She was angry, thinking it would affect my studies, but I persuaded her not to go. Eileen’s parents were never told the truth about what she was doing. With the benefit of this hindsight, it probably would have been better if my mother had gone that day to see Marion and Tom. It would have alerted them while there was still time to influence Eileen.

“I can honestly say that - at the time - I loved Eileen. While she was fresh, innocent, young and interested, she was magical. But she became bound up with herself, a complete introvert that shouted ‘stay away’ via her behaviour. It has never failed to interest me why so many so-called extroverts raise an outward projection of their personality as a barrier that then protects their desire to be apart. And that is precisely what Eileen was doing. I felt that I could not get near her, and I think her parents were having the same problem. She began to inhabit a world created by those who influenced her, and it led to nothing. She finished at the tech. There was never really any question that she would graduate from the course with her certificate, because there really wasn’t a course to follow. It was a complete rubber-stamping exercise, where you knew you would be passed on to the next stage. But then, I was just a scientist with a closed mind, I suppose…

“Her group of so-called friends from the technical college broke up when they went their different ways and I think they were never in contact again. Eileen was determined to go to college in London, for some reason. It seems that her Frank was only interested in selling her dope, so he simply disappeared when the customer moved her business. I went to university in Leeds, which meant I could continue to live at home and save on rent, so our lives diverged.

“Despite being ditched by her, I still have very fond memories of those couple of years we were together. I had my first sexual experience with her, and it was, or so she said, her first time as well. There were many times when we were very happy indeed that her parents were never back home before six!

“So that day we met on Cock Lane, the day she had just had her argument with her parents, was another two years on from our parting. We had probably met only once or twice in the meantime, and never alone. Our split was profound. At least it was for Eileen. And, after that day, I had no further contact with her of any kind. I have often wondered what happened to her, but never seriously enough to have tried to look her up. I assume you know where she is and are in contact with her. The tone of your message, however, implies that you have no contact with Eileen herself, which suggests she may not still be with us. Could you please share anything you know with me, if it’s all right with her, of course? I do hope things worked out well for her, but I have to admit a certain pessimism.”

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