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Donna’s Men

by Michael E. Lloyd

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Book III: At Home With Robert

Chapter 2: Salad Days

part 1 of 3

‘Thank you for letting me look at those first two sections of Peter’s diary, Robert. What an awful tragedy Jane’s death must have been for you all ...’

‘It certainly was, Donna. And its after-effects were great, as you’ll soon hear. But I wonder what you thought of Peter’s fantasy about her coming back to be with him ...?’

‘I really don’t know what to think of that, Robert. Perhaps I’ll get a clearer feel for it if I read some more of the diary ...’

‘Yes, I’d very much like you to do that soon. But shall I continue, for now?’

‘Yes, please.’

* * *

Well, I realised after Jane’s disastrous accident that I had loved her far more than I’d loved my little brother. I remember feeling not just sad, but totally devastated.

And I know I began to attach some blame to my mother, for allowing it to happen — which was totally unfair, of course — and to Peter for sitting himself on the wrong side of the pushchair. Which he hadn’t, poor kid ... they were both in their usual places, and I knew that perfectly well.

The one person I didn’t blame was Dad. His absence clearly made him guilt-free in my eyes. Instead, I felt huge sympathy for him. It seemed to me that he was as powerless as I had been at the time — and I was quite right about that, of course. However, I also made myself believe that he too considered Mum and Peter somehow to blame — which was quite ridiculous. I think I slowly got over that idea with the passing years.

But my deep sympathy for him, at the tender age of four, steadily turned into a life-long empathy between us. I soon became Daddy’s boy, and much later I certainly became a man’s man.

But Dad aside (and for many years I really only spent time with him at weekends), I think I detached myself almost completely from family life, and especially from Peter. Of course, I was not the only factor in that equation ...

Dad later told me a lot about Mum’s reaction to Jane’s death, and that’s when I first learned about Amy’s earlier tragedies. Because, of course, this was her third great loss in twenty years — first her father, then her husband, and now her only daughter. On that Christmas Eve in 1952 she went into a state of chronic depression and self-repression that lasted for twelve full months. I’ll never forget what Dad told me she said to him a few weeks after it happened: ‘I knew I should never have re-married!’ Can you imagine how that made him feel? But I think he suffered all of this, and Jane’s death itself, largely in stoic British silence, and just got on with the job of earning our daily bread and giving us whatever sympathy he was allowed to.

I can’t remember it too clearly, of course, but I’m pretty sure our house was a very, very quiet house that year. Certainly the few things I’d previously been doing with Mum, when she wasn’t busy with the twins, simply ground to a halt. There was hardly any conversation, and we had no telly yet to distract us. I think we listened to the radio occasionally, but only when she was willing to switch it on — and that was not often, compared with the year before. I remember that very clearly, because the previous autumn I would often sing along to the pop songs when I was sitting and chatting with little Jane. No, there was no song in our house in 1953. Just a sort of stagnation ...

And there were still no more walks with Mum in the park, or games together in the garden. Dad usually spent some time with me at weekends, but no other children were allowed to come round to play. He later told me that any sort of noise was basically taboo — it would have been taken by Mum as an indication of people actually trying to enjoy their lives a little, in spite of everything ...

And as for Peter, that year — well, Dad told me that Mum did the absolute minimum for him. Just enough to keep him clean and fed, and sometimes not even that at the weekends. And I’m sure I was no sort of big brother to him either. I’d lost Jane, and that’s all that seemed to matter. I can remember nothing of my relationship with Peter in that awful year.

In September, I started at the local Infant School, just before my fifth birthday. I was the second oldest in the class, and easily the biggest, and most of the other children seemed to look up to me as being very experienced and wise. I wasn’t really, of course, but I don’t think I did anything to disillusion them! That was clearly the start of my life as a minor celebrity!

‘Ha-ha-ha! It’s nice to hear you make a joke in the depths of this very sad story, Robert.’

‘Oh, I think we’re past the worst of it now, Donna. And I’ll try and make you laugh again, whenever I can. It’s very good to hear that too ...’

One day during my first half-term holiday, Mum gave me some very firm orders.

‘Right, Robert, you’re old enough now to have lunch at school every day. And I don’t want any arguments!’

‘But I don’t want to argue,’ I replied at once. ‘I’ll be far happier staying there, and playing with all my friends, than wasting time coming back here every day for another dull old lunch with you and your rag doll!’

I got a big smack for saying that to her. But we were obviously both satisfied with the deal, and that’s exactly what happened.

At the end of that year, Dad got hold of a little second-hand bicycle, cleaned it up and renovated it, and gave it to me for Christmas. He helped me learn to ride it in the back garden over the rest of the school holiday. Mum never once came out to join in the fun, but I did sometimes see her watching us through the window, and I suspect that’s when she began to get better. Because she suddenly pulled herself together at the very start of 1954, soon after the first anniversary of Jane’s death. Dad eventually told me exactly how it went ...

‘Walter, I’ve decided I need to start devoting myself to Peter’s education. Robert’s having lunch at school now, and he’s coping very well there and doesn’t need any more help from me in the evenings.’

‘You’ve actually given poor Robert very little attention over the past three years, Amy ...’

‘That’s just not fair. But I’m not going to argue with you — I’ve made my New Year’s Resolution and I’m sticking to it. Once I’ve got him off to school each morning my days are completely clear, and Peter’s now going to get all the love and care I’ll never be able to give to Jane.’

And though I knew nothing of that conversation at the time, I noticed the change in our home life immediately. I was already Daddy’s boy, but that was the day Peter became somebody’s boy at last. And now, year by year, our alienation from each other would steadily increase, and my jealousy of him would grow stronger ...

* * *

In the spring, Dad was paid for a big repair job in kind — his customer gave him a second-hand television which was on the blink. Of course he soon got it working properly, and fixed up an aerial, and it became Mum’s birthday present. I’m sure that was another major factor in her steady improvement. She used to have it on whenever there were programmes being broadcast, and Peter always watched it with her, of course. I think he got to be a telly addict even before I did ... but I certainly lapped it up too, after school and at weekends.

And Mum had let me start riding my bike on the pavement near the house. Each day I went a little further up or down the street, till I was covering the full length. But then I nearly hit the elderly lady who lived next door, as she came out of her front gate, and she complained, and that evening Dad told me I must only ever ride on the road, and not on the pavement. Of course, that suited me fine ... I couldn’t have engineered my freedom any more easily!

In the summer we all went off on a week’s holiday to Clacton — the first we’d ever had together (and there were precious few proper ones throughout our childhood). Dad told me later that it was another idea of his to try and get Amy back on her feet again. Trouble was, it was awful weather — cold and rainy — and there was very little to do there. Mum stuck it out, mainly trying to carry on with Peter’s reading lessons, while he just complained all the time (far more than he suggests in his diary!), and Dad got really unhappy because his generous plan had turned sour and nobody seemed grateful. Once again I felt far sorrier for him than I did for Mum, and he told me later he really believed he had failed her by giving us something so imperfect.

He still played with me in the garden at weekends — football was always my favourite game — and at last we were allowed to make a bit of noise as well!

I went up into Year Two at school without blinking. It had become my second home, and I was still perfectly happy there. I wasn’t very interested in the lessons, but I loved all the playtimes and sports!

The following spring, Mum and Dad could see I was very confident and capable on my bike, and they let me start cycling round the local streets to visit my school friends. That gave me a wonderful further sense of release from the confines of that still rather dull house and home.

* * *

In the early months of 1955, Peter began asking me lots of questions about things on the radio and TV news. I usually didn’t know the answers, and I certainly didn’t care about them. I ended up getting very shirty with him, and he finally stopped pestering me. In fact he never again asked me anything like that after his fourth birthday. And I remember noticing an abrupt change in his behaviour that day, especially at his party. He usually enjoyed them so much, but this year he was very, very subdued.

Of course, that turned out to be the day he started his diary. I never knew about that, as I said before: he must have hidden it away with all his stuff in the bookcase in our bedroom, and frankly that was a place I hardly ever went to myself! When I eventually found the typed version amongst Mum’s treasured possessions — after her death almost fifty years later — and read all the insights he attributed to Jane’s conversations with him, I decided he must have had an even greater imagination and better ear for the news and so forth than I had ever believed!

Or maybe Jane’s spirit really was there with him, from that day onwards, giving him all the life answers he needed! Hah!

Another thing I noticed that year was how over-protective Mum was towards Peter, compared with the way she had given me almost free rein at his age. And equally how clinging Peter was. I suspected he would not have been willing to strike out on his own, or do anything adventurous, even if he’d been allowed to, but of course he was always complaining about the restrictions she placed on him.

And Mum was now giving me less and less attention with every week that passed. My games of football with Dad in the evenings and at weekends were the only real family life I had at that time.

Peter talks in his diary about how tedious it was to visit our relatives. I have to say I felt much the same in my early years. Although in reality we really didn’t go out very much at all. I learnt later that Dad would have been happy to travel more often, money permitting. It was always Amy who preferred to stay at home.

And the more I learned, on those visits and in talking later to Dad, about the tragedies and the challenges of family life .......

But on second thoughts I won’t say any more about that now. I’ll come back to it later.

To be continued ...

Copyright © 2010 by Michael E. Lloyd

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