Sunday, 29 January 2017
Indelicate & Unseemly Knowledge
In the late 1940s in working class families generally speaking the adults around us imparted no information whatsoever about puberty or sex and we knew better than to ask questions. It may have been different for the middle classes but we, who knew our place in society, relied mostly on facts gleaned from local twelve year old girls who might have started to menstruate and couldn’t keep quiet about it, or those who had an older sister, married or about to get married or, even better, a newly pregnant sister, unmarried and still young enough to pass on a detail or two to those younger still. It was Joan Bedford, daughter of my mother’s closest local confidante, who told me what could possibly happen when mothers and fathers retired nightly to the marital bed. She was pink with excitement at the thought of passing on what she had recently learned. `Do you know what your Mum and Dad do when they go to bed?’ Our mothers sat drinking cups of tea at our kitchen table. `No – what do they do?’ I was only half interested because without the stimulus of other children, Joan was a very boring playmate. `They DO one another!’ she whispered, leaving me totally confused. When I belligerently demanded to know what she meant, Joan was more than eager to enlighten me. `Your Dad puts his willy into your Mum’s belly and that’s how you get babies. Men really like doing it but women don’t – they hate it but they have to do it if they want babies!’ Joan was breathlessly thrilled but I told her that it sounded most unlikely to me and then added, just in case, `Anyhow, I knew that already.’ The sad fact was that my understanding was so minimal I was not going to be easily convinced. Could it really be true? To test the information, a day or two later I passed it on to Brenda Stewart who said she did not believe me because she knew perfectly well that the midwife had brought her baby sister, Judy – she’d seen her unwrap the newborn from her bag. So I relayed the news on to Milly Foreman who said she didn’t think that was quite right but she would ask her older sister June if she could get her by herself. Later she came back with the startling news that a couple who wanted a baby first had to make an appointment with the Doctor. We debated what the purpose of the visit to the Doctor might be because Milly did not actually know. June had been vague. We decided between us that the most likely scenario was that he would blindfold the young husband and wife, so that they could not see as that would obviously be indelicate if the genitals were to be involved, then he would engineer whatever act was necessary – possibly even that described to me by Joan. That was that for the time being so I was totally unprepared for my parents’ joint verbal assault on me a day or two later as I wandered in from school. My father must have been on either an early or a late shift as he was in the kitchen painting a door, then drawing a metal comb through the wet paint to make extraordinary patterns. The effect was not unpleasing but the general atmosphere in the room was distinctly hostile. I looked from my mother to my father and nervously asked if anything was wrong and my stomach began to churn. What had I done? I asked again what was wrong. `I think you KNOW very well what’s wrong,’ My mother said at last. I stared at her at once fearful but uncomprehending whilst rapidly going through all my transgressions of recent days and wondering which one it was. Did they know I had kept the collection money I’d been given for Church? Or that I had thrown the new blue woolen and much hated Pixie Bonnet knitted by my mother away over a Springhead Road garden wall, and that it hadn’t been stolen by another girl at school? Did they know I had said Shit and Bugger twice to Peter Dyke during Silent Reading when he insisted on grabbing the book I wanted to read? My father combed wet paint furiously and did not look in my direction. `If I thought for one moment she had said that I would give her a beating she wouldn’t forget for a month,’ he told my mother. Whatever iniquity I was guilty of it was obviously Bad! I became dizzy with dread and black fingers of sick panic clawed their way from my stomach into the back of my throat. What terrible thing had I said? My mind raced as I tried unsuccessfully to recall everything I had said to everyone I knew over the past week. `Well what DID I say?’ I sounded like a whimpering animal even to my own ears. My mother maintained that I already knew what I had said and her cheeks were red-spotted with anger. My father nodded agreement, and the metal comb scraped painfully on the wood making classroom blackboard sounds. For once they were ominously in total accord so it must be a sin of truly gigantic proportions but my memory still failed dismally to recall it. I began to cry. `I don’t know what I’ve said – I truly don’t know what I’ve said.’ She fiddled with a milk bottle top on the table and straightened the sugar bowl, and looked as if she was struggling to even voice the depraved offence, finally demanding, `Did you tell Brenda Stewart that when grownups go to bed at night they DO one another?’ A bombshell! So it was true after all. They actually did engage in that unlikely act no matter how unlikely it had seemed. It had to be true or the re-action would not be so terrifying from them both. I felt hypnotized with horror. My unfortunate mother hated doing it but she did it anyway so that my brother and I could be born, and presumably my father, like all men, actually liked doing it. How could he? I was overwhelmed with disgust and decided there and then that nothing was ever going to induce me to do it and I would simply adopt babies in the unlikely event that I ever wanted them. I wondered if God really understood what these grubby grown-ups did when they retired for the night and if so why He did not do something to stop it. He of all people should be able to think up a more acceptable way to bring babies into the world. I said firmly, `I did not say that and Brenda Stewart is a dirty liar! But of course Brenda’s mother had already angrily confronted them both with the facts of the matter, dragging a tearful and protesting Brenda with her. She no longer wanted her Brenda to have anything to do with me. Brenda, it turned out, was being brought up properly and must not be contaminated by the likes of me who everyone knew was a child with a dirty little mouth. Not for the first time my unfortunate parents were advised to do something about me. Undeterred, I continued to lie. I told them Brenda was lying in order to protect Joan Bedford because I had heard that Joan Bedford was saying that kind of disgusting thing at school to people though I most certainly did not listen to filthy things like that and I would never, ever pass such information on to others. My father looked at me with distrust and and repeated that if he thought for a single moment I was capable of saying such a thing I would get the thrashing I deserved. My mother said she would most certainly investigate via Mrs. Bedford but all the same she thought it more likely it was me who was the liar. `Your trouble is that you lie all the time,’ she said, `And that’s why you’ll never have any real decent friends because you’re a born liar. Nobody will trust you.’ I could think of no cogent argument because this was true. `Well perhaps,’ I retorted furiously, panic subsiding a little now as I began to realise that establishing Joan Bedford as the possible initial culprit had introduced a lifesaving seed of doubt, `Perhaps it’s just possible that nobody in this house sets a very good example where lies are concerned.’ I astonished even myself with this sudden burst of daring. As my mother’s open hand flew towards my face, I ducked and she was only half successful. I was a little cow, she said, and what on earth did I mean. I looked meaningfully towards my father even though I knew that as far as duplicity was concerned my mother was no saint herself. Strangely, he had turned his attention totally to the half painted door. I wondered what he was thinking. He did not say anything more and seconds later, to fill the silence, began to whistle. A few days later I was in Joan’s back yard watching her dog Lily, newly delivered of puppies, feed them, something my mother would not normally allow because I might ask awkward questions about birth. In fact she was half correct and I might have done so a year earlier but I was now nearly nine years old and knew better than to discuss the arrival and subsequent suckling of new life, even puppies, with adults. I strained to hear what was going on through the open window. But when the what-grownups-do-in-bed story was repeated to Mrs. Bedford, she seemed to receive it far more sagely than my own parents, and said that kids picked up a lot of things they shouldn’t these days and maybe it was best to ignore it. Though she hastened to add that she did not believe for a moment that her little Joannie would have said such a thing, or if she did, she certainly did not understand what she was saying. Later, whilst pretending to practice times tables, I listened as my parents further discussed the episode. My mother said that although she still had a lot of time for Mrs Bedford in her opinion that youngest Bedford girl knew far too much and was just a bit old fashioned and this unfortunate situation wasn’t helped by knowing all the ins and outs of the bloody dog and the bloody puppies. It just wasn’t natural. My father looked towards me briefly and away again when I met his gaze determined not to blink. He said something vague in agreement. I was up to the eight times. I chanted a little louder, a little jubilantly. So I had been granted a stay of execution – even an unofficial pardon – a reprieve! I resolved that In the future I would be far more careful about passing on unusual snippets of information just in case they turned out to be true and part of that raft of indelicate and unseemly knowledge I was too young to be privy to.