Root Memory

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Too Many Uncles

Betty Huddleston’s parents were the age of most of her friends’ grandparents; getting frail and relying more and more on their daughter to help out in the shop. Back then in the late thirties it sold ironmongery. Every morning, except Sundays, Betty was up at 6am ready to start her chores. First of all she prepared breakfast for her parents, Walter and Minnie, then cleaned the fire grates, followed by carrying out again all the items she’d carried in the evening before from outside the shop: brooms, rakes, paraffin stoves, tin baths and the like.

She’d been born at the tail-end of the Great War, only weeks after her elder brother Alfred had died in it. Walter Huddleston had been spared taking part, being too old, in spite of repeated attempts to pass the medical and falsify his birth date. Many of Betty’s friends had no fathers and no proper wage coming into the household. At least she had both parents and lived in reasonable financial security. Her heart wasn’t in brooms and dustbins though, it was in the racy films of Mae West and the sentimental songs of Al Bowlly.

Betty escaped into town to the pictures as often as she could afford to, avoiding the tedium of evenings spent watching her mother darn socks and her father straining to hear news bulletins on the wireless. The drizzle and dullness would melt away in her mind for an hour or two at the cinema while she soaked up elegance and sophistication from across the Atlantic. Mae’s brash beauty and risqué repertoire electrified Betty’s imagination and initiated her fascination with men – but she had little contact with them. Her parents would hear none of it. No boyfriends, they were a distraction, and no good would come of that kind of thing. Her hormones had disagreed strongly.

She yearned for romance, but none came her way until Betty was nearly twenty-two, when Harry Turnbull opened his suitcase on the shop counter one chilly Tuesday afternoon.

Harry was a busy commercial traveller aged twenty-eight. He was wiry, smart in both senses, and had a lazy eye – leaving him just short of handsome. But he possessed sweet-talking lips and persuasive fingers. Betty discovered these gifts during their first rendezvous in the outside lavatory that evening. Harry was well versed in telling girls exactly what they wanted to hear while kissing and caressing them. And Betty was no exception; in her case being a more than willing victim to his cheeky charm. Whenever he was in the neighbourhood they fumbled and squeezed in the privy, Harry ferreting ever further into her drawers on each occasion and taking ever greater liberties with Betty’s inexperienced body. She was in heaven.

Harry had seen when he was onto a good thing, what with the business and this blonde looker, soon winning over her parents and talking his way into helping out more and more in the shop; judging the whole set up as a nice little opportunity.

War broke out and Betty was left with a large lump in her belly and a new surname. Harry, full of patriotic fervour, had joined up as soon as he could, in the pursuit of imagined adventures overseas. Betty returned to keeping shop – the usual drudgery – cooking and tidying, until she was eight months gone.

Two weeks before Pam was born, Betty got a telegram. It contained the devastating news that Harry had died in France. He’d drowned. She later found out from one of his regimental mates that Harry had been the victim of a stupid accident: his lorry had overturned as it attempted to cross a Belgian river. He’d only just completed his basic training too; hadn’t even held a gun in anger. Not a hero’s death for him, mentioned in despatches for storming a German bunker single-handed or rescuing his injured C.O. from certain death behind enemy lines. Harry’s photo would now keep Alfred’s company on the mantelpiece, the two of them staring out resolutely from their frames across the modest room.

Betty’s parents closed the shop for the rest of the duration and looked after the baby while Betty worked her shifts at the nearby munitions factory. The money wasn’t bad there and they could all just about get by. With the long hours of repetition at work, and seemingly no breathing space between chores at home and other war work, Betty soon became depressed, and frustrated too. She wondered if that was it, just monotony and dreary common sense. Was her life over already? The bed was cold without Harry and she missed his arms around her. The love of her life was now out of her life for good.

That November was anything but boring. On the moonlit and frosty evening of the 14th, at around seven, all hell broke loose from the Coventry skies. Nervously responding to the sound of the air raid siren, Betty, baby and parents dashed to the protective mound of their Anderson shelter in the back garden. The first wave of Heinkels dropped incendiaries, the next wave hundreds of tons of high explosives, for hour after seemingly incessant hour. None of the previous air raids had been anything like as ferocious as this one. They were all petrified and believed it must be the end of the world out there, with explosion after explosion seemingly merging into one, shaking their defiant little hut, dust falling around them, while hearing desperate cries and fire engine bells from outside. Then, one massive blast.

In the morning, they ventured out tentatively. Next door had gone; simply a pile of rubble. Looking up, Betty could see the exposed remnants of their neighbours’ house; a chest of drawers clinging incongruously to the exposed bedroom wall. Their own home was relatively undamaged, save for a few slates missing and all the glass out from the windows; nets billowing through the shards. Workmen were picking their way through the remains, trying to clear the damage and search for survivors, as dispossessed gaggles of dazed women and children trudged by, pushing hand carts or weighed-down with bulging suitcases.

Surveying the scene, Betty had frozen on the spot. She’d noticed the unmistakeable shape of a human leg protruding from the pile of shattered wood and bricks. The leg belonged to Ida Stapleton, no mistake; not with those fluffy pink slippers. She never used her shelter, just use to sit under the stairs with her husband Alf during the raids; didn’t want the bother. Ida had given the couple a dish of vegetable pie the night before too.

After this, Betty knew it could happen at any moment. It didn’t matter if you prayed every night to Jesus or avoided walking on the pavement cracks – it was random. If one of those bombs was meant for you; that was it. Her attitude to life changed. The factory had bought it too and she had a few days yet until she was moved to work in new premises. It was time to let her hair down for once.

Later that week she picked her way through the blown and broken city centre and found a pub that was still open. Wolf-whistles accompanied her arrival. Most decent girls avoided entering such establishments by themselves. She demurely lowered her head and made her way towards the barman.

The place was full of soldiers and airmen as well as the usual civilian regulars. A mood of defiance had replaced the one of collective shock and total despair immediately after the raid. She could hear unfamiliar accents from some of the servicemen, and noticed they wore foreign uniforms. Betty lapped-up their attentions; they seemed so exotic and exciting to her – and knew how to treat a lady too, in contrast to the usual crude comments and cackles she got from most British squaddies.

Betty’s mood lightened by the drink and by the hour. One particular high-cheek boned Polish airman took her fancy. He made the most of the fact that he was on a mission the next night and, in addition to a few fractured phrases he’d learned, but mainly using hand signals and smiles, suggested they both slip out into the back yard. Betty nodded. They made their way past the revellers, out through the side door and into the cold air, walking to somewhere more private at the rear of the building.

In the shadows, his lighter lit their faces and they smoked and laughed for a while. Then they embraced and kissed. Her body tingled at his touch, and she imagined she was with Harry again. She didn’t know his name and he didn’t know hers – neither cared.

He gently pressed her against the wall, between two empty beer barrels, glanced around to check they were alone, and lifted her skirt. Betty wriggled to help the airman pull her best silk knickers down, as she didn’t want them ripped, side-stepped up onto a crate to put herself at his level, nonchalantly tossed her cigarette to the ground, smiled wickedly, and guided the airman in. Slowly, then more quickly, the two became locked into lovemaking; rhythmic creaks from the crate and squeals of pleasure from Betty echoing off the walls and merging with the muted cacophony from the bar. As they climaxed, a dog sniffed around their feet inquisitively. Betty and the airman straightened their clothes, kissed once more, twisted their shoes on the smouldering butts, and returned to the bar just in time for last orders.

A similar scenario would repeat over the next few weeks in town as Betty explored France, Belgium, and a little of Canada too. Afterwards, she would record details of the encounters in her diary, using a series of letter codes to describe the performance, size and passion of her lovers.

Inevitably she became pregnant. A bungled abortion performed by old Ethel from down the road left Betty unable to bear any children in future. It turned out to be a mixed blessing. At least there was one thing now she didn’t have to worry about while entertaining her admirers. And there were quite a number more to follow over the coming weeks and months.

Betty renewed her patriotism and found herself relieving boy soldiers from Blighty of their virginity. Quite brazenly now she was sneaking them back home after her parents were safely in bed; baby in the box room. Mr & Mrs Huddleston were by now quite deaf, so she made few concessions to quiet during the night. After they’d kissed and come, Betty often found these lads crying into her bosom, terrified at their imagined fate and fearing the light of dawn. She was kind and tender with them, calming their nerves with her soft and encouraging words until they fell asleep.

It was during this period that Betty found another talent: singing. She would stand up on a chair next to the piano in pubs and NAAFI halls every week. She was a natural. Towards the end of the war, and after it, she started to spend more and more time with the various entertainers that passed through. The chaps she sang with taught her some piano, guitar and even drums. Betty built up a following, so much so that she was able to augment her factory wages quite handsomely from the performances.

By the early fifties, both of her elderly parents had died. Baby Pam was now in her teens and becoming a bit of a handful. Betty decided to re-open the shop, though she was adamant it wouldn’t to be an ironmongers again. Instead, she decided on a pet shop. She’d enjoyed keeping rabbits when she was younger, until they’d eaten them during the war; a welcome addition to their meagre meat ration.

After a slow start it did good business, and was a popular venue for children to come and point, giggle and “ah” at the animals and birds. Betty entertained them with creatively concocted tales based on each creature, with voices to match. Before long, many of the kids were pestering their parents for white mice, goldfish and gerbils.

Betty continued with her club act and found herself eroded romantically by a sequence of relationships with passing musicians. Pam had way too many uncles. The overnight visitors ceased though once her daughter married Gordon and they all began living together. Well before Pam abandoned him and little Nigel, Betty found herself physically attracted to her son-in-law, but did nothing about it, save for the odd teasing comment.

Alain hesitated for a few moments before speaking. “Yes... that is an unusually frank and intimate record for you to happen across. How did you feel after you read it, Nigel?”

“Well, like I’d invaded her privacy in some way, I suppose. I mean, I don’t know for whose benefit she wrote it all down. Suppose it could have been to just get it out of her system or something – who knows.”

“None of these concerns stopped you from continuing to read them, no?”

“You’re right, it didn’t feel right, no, but I was... intrigued, I guess.”

“Did you discover anything else?”

“It was obvious after the first couple of letters that my nan and my mum had kept in touch; I’m sure my dad didn’t know anything about it. I found photos of my mum in some of them. One was a wedding portrait; it couldn’t have been long after the divorce from my dad came through. Then another one was of a baby – a boy – and others of him as a toddler. Then, much later, more pictures; a girl in those. It made me feel odd.”

Alain rubbed his bottom lip with his right index finger.

“What do you mean exactly by, ‘odd’?”

Nero furrowed his brow as he spoke. “Well, that there was this other life my mum was living: other kids, another husband. I felt cheated in a way, like I’d missed out or something. I resented it, that I didn’t have her in my life.”

“That’s understandable. So you felt you had a right to know more?”

“Of course. Yes.”

“Did you have an address for your mother from the letters?”

“Yeah, I decided to drive down and see if she still lived there.”

“And was she?”

“Yeah. It was in Bournemouth. I found the address, drove down there, and parked in the road outside. It was a big, smart bungalow; sort of Spanish-style – a bit naff to be honest – painted white with fake shutters, and a newish Mercedes convertible in the drive. I sat there for around an hour wondering if I should go through with it: would she recognise me? how would she react? That sort of thing.”

“I see,” Alain nodded.

“I nearly talked myself out of it and drove back, but I plucked up the courage and went and knocked on her door. A youngish guy answered it, wearing a dressing gown; about thirty, I suppose. Asked him if there was someone called Pam living there. And I remember him turning and walking back inside, shouting her name. Then, there she was. I sort of recognised her from the photos. She was still slim and attractive, like in her photos, in spite of looking older; a bit craggy. I guess she’d have been about fifty then, but good for her age. Still blonde and manicured with a kind of ‘celebrity’ look to her, even though she was shuffling around in a dressing gown – it was the afternoon.”

Alain nodded again.

“Then, a bit slow on the uptake, I twigged that there was no way he was her son. A weird feeling suddenly came over me at the thought that my mum had more than likely been doing it with this young bloke. It was clear a bit later when he brushed her hip; a quick caress with his hand as he kissed her and walked out to the car. Anyway, I ended up explaining who I was and that I’d got her address from the letters. It was difficult to tell how she’d taken the news. She didn’t say anything for a while, just invited me in from the front step. To cut a long story, there wasn’t any tearful reunion hug or anything. We just talked for a while and I told her that Betty had died and did she want to come to the funeral. She had a bit of a cry and then explained that she had half expected it, as Betty had mentioned her illness in letters.”

“And what sort of emotions were you feeling at this point?” asked Alain, leaning back in his chair, his head tilted to one side again.

“Sort of numb, I suppose. It was like it wasn’t really happening to me.”

“A dissociative response, I imagine. You were reacting to a stressful situation; a way of coping with it. Were there other emotions?”

“Not really. Not until I was driving back. I felt ‘on edge’, that sort of thing.”

“And next?”

“Well, she turned up at the funeral a few days later, all dolled-up like Brigitte Bardot or something: all blingy Gucci sunglasses and a tailored black outfit with a short skirt. Everyone was looking at her and whispering to each other, wondering who she was. It was obvious my dad had recognised her, though I hadn’t told him I’d made contact. He ignored her completely, and she didn’t attempt to approach him either; just left as soon as the service ended. The whole thing made me feel tense. And that was the last I saw of her. It didn’t feel right to keep in contact somehow. She’d got her own life going on. When I’d spoken to her the first day she’d told me she’d been married twice and had three kids altogether, all grown up. The last husband had owned a big builders’ merchant business in town; he was a lot older than her. He’d died a couple of years before and she got the lot; pretty comfortably off. I’d read in the letters that she’d only stayed with that first bloke she ran away with for a few weeks, until she found out he was married.”

“It must have been difficult keeping all this about your mother and your grandma inside you for all these years, Nigel?”

“I don’t know. It’s like I flicked a switch somewhere and put it to the back of my mind. But yes, for some reason, just recently it’s been getting to me a bit.”

“Do you feel that your dad and Betty loved each other?”

“I’m not sure. They were certainly comfortable together.”

“I see. How did your dad react when Betty died?” said Alain softly.

“He didn’t say a lot, but he was obviously withdrawn – lost, almost. He seemed to spend all of his free time messing about in the garage after that.”

“And you?”

At this point, Nero’s mobile pinged, informing him of a text message. No surprise, it was from Lorcan. He’d be there at 11am. He quickly replied an “OK”. A twinge of tension ran though him at the prospect of them meeting later. Nero looked at the time on his phone before putting it away. It was just before ten. With luck, the grilling should be over by then.

“Sorry about that,” said Nero, with what he hoped was a disarming smile.

“You were about to tell me how you felt when your grandma died.”

“Well, sad of course. I mean, yes, she was more like a mum to me really. As I said, she sort of was and she wasn’t. And I don’t suppose I’d have got into music without her. Once she’d seen that I had a bit of a flare for the guitar she invited me to go along and accompany her on a one of her songs at a working men’s’ club gig. I was dead scared, standing up in front of them all, but I got my nerve together. We did Cry Me A River.”

“Ah, I know the song, but can’t recall who –“

“Julie London, in The Girl Can’t Help It. Well, the proper version, with Barney Kessel on guitar,” informed Nero, with unsolicited detail.

“Yes. You’re right. I know it now. So you are a musician?” asked Alain, looking absorbed.

“Not for a while.”

“What made you stop?”

“Lack of interest,” replied Nero reflectively.

“You became bored with it?”

“No. The record-buying public first, then me,” replied Nero, looking down at his hands and wondering how to occupy them.

“You went out of fashion?”

“It happens, doesn’t it; flavour of the month one minute –”

“You were in the pop charts, yes?” ventured Alain.

“Well, I wouldn’t have called what we did ‘pop’ exactly, more the arty Post-Punk end of things, but yeah, we did get into the Top 50 briefly, and the album sold quite well for a while,” Nero bragged slightly, illustrating a less than stellar career.

“Ah, good. That is something. It must have been an exciting time for you.”

“Well yeah, at first, it was unreal. But you kind of get into it; just started to feel normal after a while. You know, you struggle for years, posting demo tapes to Peel and playing to about six people, supporting in toilets; that sort of thing. Then it all takes off and all of a sudden you’re travelling here and there playing live, recording new tracks, getting interviewed by music journalists and stuff. No time to yourself in the end.”

“Your father and grandma must have been pleased.”

“Dad just thought it was a flash in the pan and I was wasting my time. Nan was a bit more encouraging, but she said I should have something to fall back on. She was right.”

“What, learn a trade, exams, that sort of thing?”

“Yeah, I suppose.”

“And had you not?”

“I left school as soon as I could, at sixteen... or fifteen, I don’t remember.

Dropped-out and shared a squat. They both thought I was just throwing my future away.”

“What did you do for money?”asked Alain.

“I got a job in a hotel: washing-up, portering – you know.”

“When was this?”

Nero combed his fingers through his hair as he thought back. “Mid to late seventies, I guess. Around the time the punk thing got going.”

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