My Mam’s hands are what I remember most about her. She always had a bottle of Vaseline Intensive Care next to the little lamp on the coffee table. She drank tea. Coffee was what people on the telly drank. She would rub the sunshine-yellow cream in every night. They were scorched, chafed to a red-ness that no amount of cream would ever soothe but she kept on, said it helped take away the burn from the fibres. She was proud of those hands, best seamstress in that factory, she proclaimed. Those posh lads down in London wouldn’t get a nicer suit jacket if they tried.
I hated those posh lads down in London. Look what they’d done to me poor Mam’s hands.
Dad was a voice at six o clock. ‘Home!’ he would boom while we struggled into Pyjama bottoms that rode up to the knee and washed our faces in ice-water in the sink. He would grab us as we ran toward the outhouse and rub our faces with his whiskers. Then he’d smack us on the arse and finish his pie and we would take the bucket upstairs and fight over whose turn it was to empty it in the morning. Dad always looked mucky. I liked to sit on his lap and pick the dirt from his fingernails with the cocktails sticks from Mam’s party cupboard.
On my first day at school, our teacher wrote a word on the blackboard. She asked us to put our hands up if we knew what it said. Mam read to us every night. I’d lean into her fluffy dressing gown and follow her finger across the page. My hand shot up. When the teacher pointed at me I beamed with pride. ‘Knowledge.’ Such a big word for a five-year-old. At playtime, Rachel brown and her big sister, Leanne called me a scruffy, swotty, bastard and kicked me so hard I skidded across the playground and lost a bit of my front tooth.
On my first day at school… I learnt to keep quiet.
Mrs Calvert was kind. She let me into the library at lunchtime. I could borrow any book, she said. I showed Mam. She said Mrs Calvert should treat us all the same and I should learn to stay out of trouble. When I was ten, my sister grassed me up. Mam came upstairs and shouted at me for crying when Aslan died.
‘What the frig is an Aslan?’ she shouted. She took the books back to school the next morning. I watched through the glass while she shouted at Mrs Calvert. She clouted me later when I asked what was the point in teaching us to read if we couldn’t do any actual reading.
When Dad left and Fridays were Mam’s night out, I would stay in and read all night, listening to Motown records I’d bought with my wages from the pet shop. It was a shit job but Mam said you only get stuff if you earned it. She would come in late and lean against the wall, unfocused and spoiling for a fight. That last night, she flicked the light on an asked me why I was such a weird little bastard. She stumbled under the bed and pulled out the notebook.
‘I’ve read it ya know… ya daft little diary. Who the fuck do you think you are? fucking university? London? We not good enough for ya round here, then?’
I left the next day. Went to dads for a bit . He never asked about the split lip. Got into to university. Failed. Slept with those posh boys in London in those nice suits and watched them marry posh girls in nice dresses from pretty villages in Suffolk or Hampshire.
Still I kept quiet. I travelled and had fights and more shit jobs and I had a kid and had my heart broken … and still I kept quiet.
When I went home to bury Mam, I found that diary under the bed in the spare room. And ten others. She had kept them all. I found a set of Narnia books with a post- it note for my daughter, from Grandma. At the time, she was just ten weeks old. I gave them to her on her tenth birthday. My hands were shaking. I had to go into the kitchen afterwards to wipe away the tears. I found the people in my home town, older and worn, yet still the same. The familiar places and the warmth of the accent and that salted tang of the North-East coast.
I found a flint-sharp grit in my belly and memories long ago buried. ‘Knowledge.’
My knowledge, the things I knew. Not the things in story books or in London, or Kenya or Seattle or Spain or anywhere else I’d searched for truth. Not in the lies I’d told the posh boys, almost believing them myself. Right there, in my Mam’s back bedroom.
Days later I started to write.
Much later, I signed up for a course at the Open University, ‘Creative Writing.’ After six years of study I will graduate in May. And now? … Well now, I won’t keep quiet. I have finally found my voice.
Kathy Hoyle is a Creative Writing student with the Open University. She loves to write short stories and flash fiction and links to her published work can be found on twitter @Kathyhoyle1. She is currently working on a novel based on her working-class childhood. She will write for chocolate.