Patricia Har-Even, solicitor's secretary from London, educated South Hampstead High School, graduate London University. Studied part-time at Middlesex University whilst working full-time as an academic secretary. Now living near Safed in a beautiful, lonely part of the Galilee hills, a volunteer librarian with time to write. Accepted by Bar-Ilan University for the 2012/2014 Shaindy Rudoff MA program in Creative Writing.
The Ice Age
I could hear her scream, it pierced my soul.
The station smelled of smoke and people smelled of talcum powder or body odour (porters who hauled cases onto the luggage racks overhead). My mother wore fur, with ears and a fox face draped round her shoulders, and a blue tweed suit. The scream was so loud the guard’s flag dropped an inch and his mouth opened. He didn’t move, but neither did his flag, and two passengers turned from each other’s eyes and mouths and looked at my mother. A boy, a youngster in brown jacket, hatless, touched my mother’s arm.
“What is it, are you ill, shall we get a doctor?”
“My sleeve, it’s caught in the door. I thought I’d caught my arm for a moment, silly me. Sorry I made such a fuss.”
I closed my eyes and wished she wasn’t always embarrassing me. People came up to the compartment door, and a man in uniform in a cap with gold braid round it.
“Are you all right, madam? We need to start this train. Do you feel faint?”
“I’m perfectly all right now, stupid mistake, my sleeve … torn.”
A loud whistle screamed; then that wonderful feeling of sliding away, getting faster, never going back.
In a white hotel room inside a white hotel I stared a block of lined paper with holes at the margin and lifted a fountain pen onto Line One. I laboriously wrote a story about my uncle, whom I quite wanted to marry, although I knew you couldn’t marry your mother’s brother because it says so in Leviticus. Uncle was thin, gentle and didn’t talk all the time about being in the war. He had books about art and pictures of buildings in his bedroom, and a funny sort of quiet laugh. I changed the names and called the story a name I can’t even remember now but even so my English teacher didn’t think it was worth entering for an essay prize. I kept the twenty raggedy sheets of ruled foolscap paper until I was married, then threw it out on day when I found it at the top of a wardrobe. I’m glad I haven’t got it; juvenilia makes me angry. After getting a scholarship to grammar school and a teacher prophesied about my having promise – well, I never did anything except marry someone steady and kind, and have children. I often feel angry, then gobble cake. Maybe I still have the story in a tin box, but I won’t look, as there is no point setting yourself up for disappointment.
“I hate you, I absolutely hate you!”
This time it was yelling, and I was gasping with shock and pain. The best thing was to let your body go floppy and give in until the smacking stopped. My father hit my legs, slapped them really hard and hit me round the shoulders and across my back. No point resisting. I can remember the hard feeling of injustice being done to me, but never showing how much he was hurting me and know that I could never hate him more than I had and loathed him now. I was 17, and if they wondered at school why I wasn’t doing my homework, well maybe the other girls in my class didn’t have fathers who beat them, though I would die if anyone found out.
“You think you’re so posh, don’t you, at that fancy school!”
“You wanted me to go there. You were pleased I passed the scholarship; I thought you were proud of me.” I was crying now.
“Talk so fancy too, don’t you, think we’re not good enough for you?”
He slapped my face and threw me on the divan bed in my bedroom, with its funny smell of mildew, and windows with icicles making flower patterns on the glass.
The boiler needed to be stoked with coal in the mornings. Daddy would shovel coal in and slam the door shut. Even so, it was often very cold. I can’t remember where they kept the coal, oh yes there was a hut outside, it would have been in there. Men came with a lorry and delivered it. Lots of vans came; sometimes a baker’s van opened, revealing bread wrapped in white paper. The milkman was the best. He drove a cart pulled by a brown horse, and the animal left fragrant piles of hay up the road by the stream. We had Jersey milk with an inch of yellowish cream on top and a shiny gold top on the bottle or bottles with a red top where the cream was all mixed in.
When I was little I went to school with a big girl called Mandy, who held my hand and helped me over the shallow water on the way. I loved that little river, which had a name, Mutton Brook. In grammar school I learned that twelve thousand years ago there had been an ice age when the whole of England was covered in snow and ice for hundreds of years; but the extent of the ice stopped at Mutton Brook in Finchley. I didn’t really believe it, but it made my home seem an important place in history. When I was five years old, before they put up a small bridge, I used to have to wade across in leather lace-up school shoes. There were big flat stones in the water and you stepped across that way. The running water was clear; you could see right through to pebbles on the bottom.
Just before my mother got pregnant in 1959, when I was 17, I was sent away on a summer holiday to Luxembourg, to get me out of the way I suppose. I was an awkward girl with a nose that bent a bit to one side, and with frizzy fair hair, though I had a long neck and a small waist. I was nothing special to look at, but I made friends with a young fellow called Jimmy who came from Catford in South London. Deep down, I knew the friendship wouldn’t last, after he informed me that he didn’t like my make-up. “Oh”, I said, “shall I change the colour of my lipstick?” “No, I meant your psychological make-up, the way you are.”
I don’t know how Daddy found out about our relationship, because one afternoon he came after me to Charing Cross station.
“Come on, let’s hear what your prospects are. What exactly do you have in mind for my daughter?”
“Well sir, I’m in the paper business.”
Daddy’s eyes opened wide. “Shop of your own, have you?”
“Not yet, sir, but I will one day. At the moment I ‘m still on the factory floor at Basildon Bond, but I’ve got prospects.”
“Got your own flat?”
“I live with my mum. She works in a stocking factory but I try to help her out if I can.”
The tea shop was very dark and smelled of cigarette smoke and wet coats. Dad pushed me out in front of him, leaving Jimmy pulling nervously on a Woodbine. When we got home he sent me up to my room and started hitting me. The secret was to relax and think about something else. I found it quite a good technique later on for coping in childbirth.
I now know that Daddy wasn’t quite right in the head, after being in the war in Italy when he had to see a lot dead bodies and get them ready for being buried. It was enough, I expect to make anyone angry about life. I suppose he had a lot of frustrations, too, about being shorter than my mother, and from a poorer family, and having to work in a smelly Chapel Market dress shop for a domineering father-in-law; and not having money in his own family. His brother was killed bombing Germany, whereas Mummy’s brother was a conscientious objector. I make excuses for him now, but I wish he hadn’t taken it all out on me.
After the beating was over and my mother had stopped screaming – “Stop it, Lionel, stop it, she didn’t really mean it!”, I took my exercise book out of the middle drawer, in the built-in wooden dressing table with the floral cotton skirt, and wrote a poem about the contempt and hatred I felt and how I would love Jimmy for ever though it turned out I never saw him again.