1990s >> 1997 >> no-1117-september-1997

Short Story: My Mother

It is only now that I am so much older that I can appreciate what a tenacious character my mother was. She foraged and ferreted for her family. She knew little about politics apart from what she heard from my father, but what she did know was that for some reason the system was biased against her and so she was determined to outwit it whenever possible.

Mum was the youngest of a large family of brothers and sisters. Her father was a policeman and her mother gave music lessons and ran a corner shop, but she had a reputation as a psychic too and was renowned for miles around for “charming” off warts. I remember that in my grandparents’ house there were framed pictures of the Royal Family and also one of Jesus, other than that I can recollect no special pervading philosophy. So into this environment came my father, a well-educated young man from a well-off Scottish background, and of course he was a committed communist.

My mother was attending a secretarial college but she was never to use her secretarial skills because when seventeen she met my father. They were married quite soon, and about a year later my eldest brother was born, but Mum once told me that she was very naive with no experience of the working world, and even less idea of how to be a wife and mother.

During the Second World War years when my younger brother and I were to be evacuated (for the third time) to some, as yet, unknown destination, Mum got a list from our school instructing her about what clothes we should take with us, and I remember that she looked at this list, sighed and said sadly, “I haven’t got the money for any of these things.” But I think now that the solution was already in my mother’s heart.

She took us into town to a well-known department store, and with the help of a kindly assistant, got us to try on coats, shoes and blazers, and then when the assistant had disappeared temporarily, to tend to another customer, she took us each by a hand and led us calmly out of the store and into the street where we caught a tram home . . . still clad in our glorious new clothes. Now at the age of nine I knew that society did not allow people to have anything for nothing. On the tram I said in a small voice, “You didn’t pay, Mum.” She gazed out of the tram window, a pretty woman, ageing prematurely, “Hush,” she said, “They’ve got more than I have. They won’t miss it.” And that is how it always was with her.

Whenever she felt it to be absolutely necessary she would steal, and always from department stores, never from individuals or small shops. Maybe she took to heart Dad’s pronouncement that “property is theft”. I remember one freezing winter’s evening when there was no coal and no wood for a fire, she left the house, was gone for about an hour, and came back carrying several planks of wood. To this day I do not know the identity of the person whose fence she dismantled and I know it was the ONLY time she deviated from her forays on department stores for theft of a more personal nature, but I still think of the warmth in the house that evening.

To earn a little money Mum played the piano in pubs. I can see her now sitting at the piano, beers lined up on the lid of the instrument, whilst a perfect arch of ash hung down from the cigarette dangling from her lips. But at home she played Beethoven, Chopin and Strauss and we had some wonderful musical evenings. Later she had a dance band, there was a little more money and we were marginally better off.

She was ever conscious of what she thought of as her husband’s intellectual and social superiority. Though witty and amusing herself I know that she constantly felt eclipsed by Dad’s confidence and knowledge, and as we all grew up and the eldest left home she often became depressed. Then she would steal things she most certainly did not need. One day she was stopped by a store detective and there was a court case, but mum beguiled the magistrate into concluding that there was not enough evidence to prove theft. She insisted that the goods she had stolen were still hers and infuriated the store detective by demanding them back. And she got them!

But the last memory I have of Mum is when she was eighty-five and received a summons for non-payment of her Poll Tax. She was at this time very frail and becoming progressively nervous of going out and of crowded places, and yet she braved a court in South East London where hundreds of others gathered to protest and there she voiced her feelings about the injustice of the Tax. She died two years later after a lifetime of struggle.

Heather Ball