Sun can make or break the school holidays. It has always seemed temperamental to me, even when small. Sometimes without warning, it cloaked your day, leading to those warm honeyed memories of childhood that stay with you into old age. The sort that will pitch you under a checked blanket at eighty-five, sitting in a well-worn armchair, telling grand kids about prickly, hot summers and fond adventures. Other days, it hardly showed up, not even a whisper of a sun-kissed pucker on the corner of an elbow. I remember one long, hot summer. August, 1989. Margaret Thatcher had been in power for ten years, and The Bangles sang ‘Do you feel the same‘ on the stereo in the corner of the room.
My sister and I rushed out every morning. Ivy was a wisp of a thing, dressed in a checked green sundress and brown leather sandals. We’d call for Christopher. He lived next door to us in a house just like ours: 60’s pebble-dash, three bedrooms and a coalhouse, with his parents and a baby brother who screamed in his pram every day in the garden. Christopher was thirteen and lanky with ash blonde hair, and wide blue eyes. He liked joining us over the fields, especially when we grabbed nets and stood with trousers rolled up or skirts tucked in knickers fishing in the stream. Ivy wasn’t keen on him, “too old” she often moaned and she got in awful moods because she thought I loved him. To Ivy, if I loved him, then I couldn’t possibly love her, her logic was simple and so she walked around with her mouth in an angry pink line and waited to catch us in a secret kiss.
The kiss never happened, not because we bowed down to the demands of my possessive little sister but because Christopher vanished. We had been out all day, over the fields. Mother had made us a picnic lunch. My sister and I had potted salmon sandwiches from M&S, (which mother told us was posh) and a Kit Kat. Christopher had a cheese roll and a orange Club. We threw the checked blanket down on the spiky grass and ravenously ate everything, slurped warm lemonade from the bottle, then lay down and inspected the ice-cream clouds that passed over our heads.
Christopher had closed his eyes, and so had Ivy, and for a moment I wondered whether I could hold this moment in my mind forever, snatch it somehow and keep it like a shiny reel of film I could look back upon in years to come. It occurred to me that day that memories made you rather than you making them.
The lights were on in his porch when we arrived home. Christopher’s mother stood in the door with her big hair strangled into a bun, wearing a scowl. All the adults appeared stuffed with frustration back then. I had watched the news and it seemed to be about Thatcher, she was ‘destroying things‘ except I didn’t quite understand what. I took my sisters hand and went inside. Mother was darning a pair of black socks at the kitchen table. The threads in them looked silver beneath the light. She looked up and put her needle down, stared at me, then returned to her work. Her eyes were red, and her hair had worked its way loose.
“Your mother’s fine, leave her,” Father said, striding into the room and ushering our mother upstairs, said she had a “bad head” and needed to rest. He then tapped us both on our heads, told us to make a sandwich and ushered himself out the front door.
My father drove trains for a living. He, too, seemed cross with Margaret Thatcher, kept mentioning “privatization” but I didn’t understand what this meant either. He seemed frantic with worry about his job, most days, but still he went off to work. Sometimes he would even have to go back out at night. I saw him once with a leather bag and what might have been a hammer stuffed under his arm. He would creep back into the house like a tall, familiar, shadow. I would hear his key in the door. Smell his honeyed pipe. Hear the clink of glass as he poured himself a brandy.
Father came back a few hours later. I heard him get out of his car, the shut of the door, the click-clack of his heels on the pavement. When I peered out of a thin crack in the curtains, the sky looked the colour of Aniseed Balls and darkness crowded in at the edges. I could hear a tawny owl in the woods skimming the floor for fat-bodied mice and the restful call of a wood pigeon. The smell of the honeysuckle wafted into the bedroom through the slightly open window.
“I want you out of the house all day,” Mother said when we walked down the stairs for breakfast the next morning. When I asked why, no answer seemed forthcoming. She just said they were busy. “Christopher is lost, we think.”
“Lost?” My sister and I sat up very straight. Mother had said lost in a very flippant way, almost like saying “turn off that lamp” or “pass the sandwiches”.
“What do ya mean, lost?” I shouted. I had a pain in my tummy.
“He went out last night, didn’t tell his parents, and when they checked his bed this morning….”
”He’s not at home?”
“No, he’s very naughty. He will get a good thrashing by his father when he does turn up, I’m sure.”
“Chrissie wouldn’t get lost.” Ivy piped up, spooning warm egg into her mouth.
“Don’t call him that!” I remembered how much he hated it.
“Anyway, finish your breakfast.” With that, mother left the room.
“Has Christopher come back?” I enquired as soon as I pushed the door open that evening, but mother shook her head. Her hair, always washed, look greasy I noticed, hanging limply down her back and she had lines around her mouth that I hadn’t noticed before. “Where do ya think he is?” I tried to ask but mother snapped her fingers and told us to go and wash for tea.
We saw the police there one morning. Two bobbies crammed into stiff uniforms with shiny silver buttons, standing on the porch talking to Christopher’s mother. We watched her let them in. I wondered what they would ask, what they would say over the pot of tea she offered them. I stopped, and thought that perhaps she would be too upset to offer tea, and maybe she simply sat there crying, with her husband sitting next to her on the arm of the chair, his hand on her shoulder, whilst the police took a description and asked for details.
One night, a few nights later, as I lay in bed, I heard raised voices. I crept out of bed, pulled on my dressing gown. The voices carried in the dark. I opened the door gently and slipped across to the top of the stairs.
Father’s voice rose up from below, they must be in his living room.
“What could I do?” he shouted. We never went in his room, he didn’t like children in there, cluttering up the place.
“I don’t know.” Mother’s voice was all but a whisper. “But what now?”
“I think you should go away with the children until things calm down.”
“No, Dennis, no.” My mother cried and rushed away.
I think I will remember the day Christopher returned forever. It’s engraved on my mind, in the same way that we usually remember falling in love or getting married or bringing a new child home wrapped in a woollen shawl. He turned up at half-past- six. We all watched him open-mouthed as he struggled across to his house. People said after how he looked a sight with his muddy, torn clothes, bare feet, and the big angry gash across his head. In a normal setting, I might have been able to see him, rush out of my door into his crowded house and ask what had happened and maybe things would look far worse than they were and we might have been able to go fishing the following day, or take a picnic to the fields, but that failed to happen.
My mother stood by the window, holding the net curtain away from the glass, peering outside. When I asked what the matter was, she let go of the net and it fell back stiffly against the glass as if clogged with secrets. She marched off down the hall without speaking and began preparing super.
“Can we speak to, Mr Hopper?” The police officers now stood on our doorstep. Ivy hovered next to me, pressing her hand into mine.
Father came out of his room with his pipe in his hand, a perfect curl of smoke in the air in front of him. He patted our heads and shoved us away. We pretended to walk off but really we stayed just behind Mother as the police officers said “Sir, there has been an allegation.” I expected them to ask what sort, but no one spoke, they simply led him away.
Father didn’t come home. I stood by my window all night, watching the sky. For many hours, it looked impenetrable and I felt that it might fold me into its gloomy waves like a lost doll. By the time, I heard mother moving about downstairs, I had not had any sleep, my blue eyes looked red and puffy, and my face powdery white.
Christopher called to me as I left the house. He had a big white bandage wound tightly around his head. He ran across to me, grabbed my hand and pulled me into the coalhouse. Ivy moaned and I told her to be quiet, that I wouldn’t be long.
“What happened? I could hear noises coming from his house, crashes and bangs.
“We’re getting out.”
“What?” I stared at him.
Christopher stood there, moving from one foot to the other. “Look, it’s bad.”
“What is?” I felt really confused. “Who hurt you?”
Christopher looked at me and down at his scuffed shoes. He said “Your dad.”
Ivy had been listening and now she said “what about my daddy” in that little protective way she had about her. We both looked at her, said nothing. I felt sick and dizzy and the air felt thick and I wondered what he meant when he said “your dad.” I took a deep breath and asked the question.
“I saw him, he had to shut me up.” I didn’t hear the door open. Her hands grabbed both of my shoulders and threw me out of the coalhouse. I dropped Ivy. She hit the concrete floor with a thud and wail. My knees were cut and I had a graze on my cheek.
I began to exclaim that I didn’t know what I had done, but then another police car appeared. They walked up the path towards us, and asked us to go with them. My sister began to sob and folded herself into my skirt. I looked around bewildered. My mother came out of the house carrying a little brown suitcase. She was dressed all in black.
“Mum?” She wouldn’t look at me, would not speak. “Mum?”
“Your mother will go in another car. You both come with us now, please.” I looked across at Christopher, bowed my head, followed the adults to the car.
We were taken to a police station that stunk of urine and sweat. They put us in a little grey room with a grubby desk and three plastic chairs. They put cups of pop on the table. Neither my sister nor I touched them. They asked us questions that I didn’t understand and ones that made my little sister cry.
After a few hours, a woman in a sombre grey suit knocked on the door. The policeman, a big guy with a saggy face, struggled up from the chair. They both stood outside, discussed us in whispers as we sat there trying to lip read. She had a briefcase and a wad of papers. After the policeman left, she tried to talk to us, when that failed, she took us by our broken hearts and put us into her car, told us we would stay with foster parents, whatever that meant. My sister cried hysterically. I held her in my arms. “We will be okay,” I whispered over and over again, not believing it. “We have each other.”
The story appeared in the papers the next day. A picture of my parents, looking just like I remembered them, elegant and respectable, dressed in smart, clean clothes with perfectly styled hair, except their images looked different. The sharp black and white making them look sinister, their features pinched under a yellow light.
We never saw our them again. They sent visiting slips through the post but we slipped them in the bin, couldn’t find a place to anchor ourselves amongst the deceit. After a few months living with a family called ‘Johnson‘ – old, loved a stew, she adored Lilliiput Lane Cottages, he liked Commando comics – I left school and got a job in a factory, packing toilet rolls for eight hours a day. Ivy lived with me over the other side of town, rougher than where we had once had lived, but we toughed it out. We didn’t speak about what happened. Everything we believed in had been a perfectly constructed myth, that my parents had created, like the finely crafted brushstrokes of a master artist. We had lived a lie. If we didn’t know who they were, did we even know ourselves. It’s a question I still ask myself when I stand in the window at night, when I can’t sleep, looking out over the terracotta chimney pots and up at the sky. It’s more polluted here, less clear but I still watch it change and remember that night, waiting for my father and realising now, at that very moment, ordinary life had come to an end.