Love is creative and redemptive. Love builds up and unites; hate tears down and destroys. The aftermath of the ‘fight with fire’ method…is bitterness and chaos, the aftermath of the love method is reconciliation and creation of the beloved community…Yes , love-which means understanding, creative, redemptive goodwill, even for one’s enemies-is the solution
I have just reached ninety years of age. As I sit here on the cold hardwood ipe bench, pondering over those years, wondering if I could have lived my life in a better way – maybe a better education, more personal successes, or a more loving husband, the melancholy begins to overwhelm me. Then I think of my three boys and can’t for the life of me imagine how it could have ever been different. To have wished for a better life would have seemed a betrayal of the three lives I created and all of the subsequent grandchildren and great grandchildren. No, I can’t wish for having had a better life, but maybe just a more loving and considerate husband.
In my hand I hold a little scrap of paper. On it, many years ago, I wrote a little poem, during a time of particular despair. It had been one of those numerous times when Basil had ridiculed me in front of the boys. He was loud, the boys laughed, and I cried inwardly.
I am just a verbal punch bag,
So use me if you can,
Because I am a woman
That is picked on by a man
Kicks and blows won’t hurt me,
But words, they do bite deep.
When they hurt my feelings,
I cry myself to sleep
I’m just a verbal punch bag,
Of that, there is no doubt.
And as I’m getting older
My time is running out
I’m just a verbal punch bag,
The butt of husband and sons.
So when the Good Lord calls me
They can pick another one
They have sapped my spirit.
Of Courage I’m bereft.
So I just sit and suffer,
For I now have no fight left
I stood to leave, holding back the tears of regret, trying to focus on the good times. Oh, where did those years go? Suddenly my thoughts were interrupted.
“Madge! Is it really you? What are you doing here? I thought….”
It was Win, my sister. I certainly didn’t expect to see her here, especially on such a cold damp day. She had always hated the wet weather. At first, we looked cautiously at each other, judging how the reaction would be. I saw purely love and affection, the kind that only sisters can share. Within seconds we were hugging, laughing and making little sense as we spoke over each other, asking questions faster than could be answered. Eventually we sat down on the bench and became calm, almost morose, as we began to recount those awful days which resulted in our permanent estrangement thirty years earlier.
Win’s husband, Les, was a generous man. He had always been kind to me, too kind in retrospect.
After Les and Basil were demobbed in 1948 money was scarce. The young men and women had been at war almost as long as they could remember and there was a deep longing for normality to return. Simple pastimes, such as a walk along the canal bank, watching a film on a Saturday afternoon, or enjoying a relaxed meal without the threat of sirens, warning of incoming destruction, were sought by everyone. To settle down, get married, buy a house and have children became the only dreams of thousands of young people, tired of the horrors of war. As money was so tight, Win and I agreed to a double wedding at the local church. New houses were being built in the same street as my home, and we persuaded Les and Basil to buy two joined semi-detached houses. We were very happy…..but not for long.
Les’ kindness towards me was soon to be misinterpreted by Basil. He was jealous of everything and everybody. I soon became pregnant with my first and my short working life was over for good. Win and I were close. We were next door neighbours and our children grew up together as if they were all siblings. I was too busy to think about myself or my life. I cooked, washed, shopped and cleaned. Soon, by the time I was thirty, with three growing boys and a hardworking husband, it was all I could do to keep them fed and healthy. If any of this was appreciated, I never saw a sign of it. I only saw complaints or ridicule.
Les observed all of this, of course. Gradually, as the years went by, he would sometimes come for a chat and bring some cider to cheer me up. One day when Basil came in from work his first words were, “Evening Mother, what’s cooking for me and the lads?” He must have had a rare pang of conscience, turning back to peck me on the cheek.
“Have you been drinking?” he blurted out.
“Les came round with a bottle of cider and we sat outside in the garden. It was really lovely.”
I watched as he raged instantly. His face was red with jealousy.
“I’m going to put a stop to this right now,” he shouted as he left the house.
I could hear the shouting through the walls of our joined houses. Les had added fuel to the fire, by suggesting that if Basil treated me better, he wouldn’t see any need to try to cheer me up. Basil hit him, and told him never to set foot in our house ever again. I still saw Win during the day, but something was broken. She no longer wanted to be in the house any more than was necessary. Her first loyalty was to Les, and rightly so.
There were many other similar rages over the years, many to do with the possessive nature of Basil towards me. I sometimes wondered if he saw me as his personal property, rather than an separate human being, with emotions and feelings. Eventually, after the children had grown, Win and Les moved away. I never saw them again, except for weddings and funerals. Even there, contact was kept to a polite minimum.
Not wishing to bore the reader with all of the details, but in order to give some understanding to the situation, I will provide one more anecdote. After the boys had all left home, I wanted to return to work. I was forty-five and naturally needed something to occupy myself. I arranged and went for an interview at the local Mothercare shop. A few days later a letter arrived to tell me that I had been offered the job and to start next Monday. I was so excited to be able to start something fresh.
When Basil came home, I was pleased to be able to tell him that I had the job and he no longer needed to do so much overtime. I couldn’t even get as far as explaining the salary or working hours before I saw that familiar redness rising from his throat.
“I am the bread winner in this house,” he screamed at me. “I earn the money. You clean and cook. That’s the deal. There will be no job. I’m not having you meeting all kinds of people, who will put big ideas into your head.”
“But…” The slap cut me off. I flopped into the armchair stunned and cried.
And so it was to be. I should have left, but with both of my sisters gone from my life, I was too afraid and alone to start a new life. From then on, the domination grew and I succumbed to becoming the sole personal possession of my once dashing husband.
So, after thirty years of being apart here was Win, sitting next to me. We discussed it over and over again, but the past can’t be altered. We hugged as though we were afraid to let each other go.
“Did you ever hear from Dolly?” Win asked.
“No,” I replied. “I think John tried to keep her away from us after Mum died.
My eyes caught sight of a person coming towards us. At the last minute she did an about turn in the other direction. I was sure it was Dolly, but surely such coincidences can’t happen. We had only just been discussing her. I didn’t even hear myself shout, “Dolly”.
She turned around, looked at us nervously and when I was sure she was going to run away, she turned back and came towards us.
“I…I…I thought it might be you,” she stammered. “I see you are both together, just like always”.
We explained that we hadn’t seen each other for nearly thirty years, that we were three sisters kept apart from each other by stubborn men. We told Dolly everything, about the cruelty, the possessive jealousy, and the fights.
Dolly listened quietly. “Our men have certainly a lot to answer for. After all, the reason we lost contact was also due to the men fighting over Mum’s will, an inheritance that none of them had any rights to, as it was none of their business. But still, they had to put their ore in as always, resulting is a massive family row.”
“Where is John,” I asked, realising that I hadn’t yet asked Win about Les either.
“He is very ill with cancer, but the doctors said that it is a very slow form, and he should live quite few years with the illness. He is on a special medication. He even asked for my forgiveness for keeping us three apart all those years. I guess his own mortality has forced him to think about his life and try to atone for his mistakes. I forgave him of course. How about Les and Basil?”
I explained that Basil was as strong as a lion and would be around for quite a while yet. Win told us that Les had passed ten years earlier.
“Where the hell is she?”
Basil sat all alone. Madge seems to have been gone for ages. He wanted his dinner. The doorbell rang. “It must be her,” he thought. “No,” he thinks again, “she doesn’t ring the bell.” He hears the key turn in the lock.
“Hello Dad. How are you feeling today?” Jim said, as he threw his coat on the back of the chair.
“Where is she? I want my dinner.”
Jim sat gently down by his father’s side, preparing himself for yet another hour of sobs and tears, as he explained that his Mum had passed away two weeks before. Basil was a religious man. He believed in an afterlife, a place in heaven. Although he never attended church, suggesting that it was only for people who wanted to wear their beliefs on their sleeves, he always prayed and spoke to his God.
“You mean….she’s gone?”
Jim had explained to his father every day since his mother died, but Basil couldn’t store the memory. Whether it was due to his lack of acceptance or his worsening dementia was never clear.
“That means that she is up there, without me. She could be with anyone!”
His throat started to become crimson, and his lips trembled with anger. It was the same ritual every day.
The following day Jim arrived expecting a repeat occurance.
“Hi Dad, How are you feeling today?”
Basil’s eyes were almost closed, his head drooped, and shoulders slumped.
“Dad? What’s wrong?”
Basil raised his head slightly and just muttered, barely audible, “she’s gone”.
Jim sat quietly, placed his arm around his father’s shoulders and tried to console him. He was relieved that they no longer needed to go through the daily ritual, but this feeling was mixed with sorrow for his Dad, who finally accepted that his wife of 68 years was gone for good.
Two weeks later Basil died. As soon as he had understood and accepted that Madge was not coming back, he stopped eating or drinking and set his mind to following his Madge to wherever she was. Only Jim knew the real truth, a truth so mind-blowingly perverse, that he dare not tell a soul for fear of being ridiculed, or even worse vilified. His father wanted to reclaim his position as sole owner of his wife. Jim could hear it now. “Who knows what she will be getting up to up there, filling her head with all sorts of nonsense?”
I sat with Win and Dolly for a long time. The years fell away and it was just like when we were children again. We laughed, hugged and cried with happiness. After so many years, to reconcile all of those differences, seemed like a dream come true. We decided to meet again at the same time tomorrow.
The next day Win and Dolly were already on the bench chatting, as I came along. They were giggling mischievously, reminding me of the naughty tricks they would play on us when they were young. I watched them for some time, before they had seen me. I revelled in their joy and thought about how easily it had been to wash away the past. We were like children again. If only we weren’t so old. And then, astonishingly, I realised that we were not so old. We were all young again. Win was the beauty she had always been. Dolly had that crooked tooth that had marred her teenage years until she’d had a crown. I looked down at my slim body and legs, free of the ugly blue veins. How could this be?
I joined them on the bench. This was the reason that they had been so jolly, revelling in their appearance and happiness.
We met every day for the next two weeks, always the same time, although time seemed to be of no real importance any longer. The hours, days, weeks and years, all were blending into the now.
One day, as we were laughing and recounting our stories of our awful husbands and their ruinous jealousies, I was suddenly aware of a look of complete horror on Win’s face. She was staring as though she had seen a ghost. We all looked in the same direction to see a young, smart, handsome Chief Petty Officer striding towards us. We knew who it was. How could we mistake his appearance?
“I’m back. You are coming with me,” he ordered.
“I…er…I’m here with my sisters Basil. Isn’t it great? We have found each other again after all these years.”
“Enough of this nonsense. They are probably filling your head with all sorts of rubbish. You are coming with me.”
The girls looked at me, waiting to see what I would do. They knew only too well, that I had never had the courage to stand up to him.
“I’m staying here,” I said, “Now that I have found Dolly and Win again, I will never give them up”
“I said you are coming with me.” He grabbed for my arm and I prepared myself for the familiar pain and the bruises that would follow. However, there was no pain. There would be no bruises. His fingers passed through my arm, as though it wasn’t there.
We all took a while to understand. He could no longer hurt me. He no longer had any power over me. I looked at my sisters and began to chuckle. They joined in the fun, and soon all three of us were laughing hysterically. Basil was no longer in control.
His throat became crimson, rising slowly up into the cheeks and his lips began to tremble in time with the clenching of his fists.
Two men appeared from nowhere, dressed in pure white suits. They each looped an arm through Basil’s and in a very quiet but controlled tone, whispered “this way sir, if you please”.