Thursday, 31 August 2017

The Folly Of Fake Families

From the relatively tender age of eight or nine I began to throw myself enthusiastically into the exciting biosphere of Fake Families, inventing a variety of unlikely maternal replacements for my own mother who continued to fall far short of my youthful expectations, and a diverse range of phony siblings. Thus many happy hours were spent making notes of names and ages and details of the varied and very pleasing homes in which we lived. At times I simply moved us from 28 York Road to a six room eighteenth century weatherboard cottage on the outskirts of Gravesend such as the pleasant, rural communities of Shorne or Cliffe, first taking care to install a totally modern bathroom at great cost on the first floor landing. On other occasions we settled happily into a late nineteenth century house in Darnley Road with Art Nouveau stained glass in the ground floor windows and black and white tiling in the entrance hall. For a brief month or two, recalling a trip to Upnor on the pillion of my father’s motor bike, a newly created family took up residence in an ancient cottage in the High Street and enjoyed the envious gaze of Sunday afternoon visitors on coach outings to Places of Interest.

I usually gave myself a new and more acceptably middle class name like Penelope – but was affectionately known as Penny to my friends. Penny’s particular mother for some months was Julia, a famous pianist. Her stepfather Nick gambled, a habit that was tolerated by Julia with good humour because she earned so much money on her overseas tours that it didn’t really matter. There was also a younger brother called Sebastian who played the violin and was something of a prodigy causing Penny a lot of resentment which I happily discussed at school at some length at morning playtime. This Faux Family was loosely based on the characters in a Noel Streatfield book and soon bored my classmates at St Botolph’s because even the keen readers found Enid Blyton more to their taste.

When I tired of Penelope I became Stephanie (known as Stevie) living with a film actress mother, Fiona and an ubiquitous stepfather who hovered in the background, who went by the name of Cameron and was largely absent. He drove a white sports car, was a lawyer and spent most of his time in London but often flew to New York for reasons that I could not adequately explain except that the idea appealed to me.

When Stevie failed to deliver suitable stimulus I became the even more exotic Carlotta, secret daughter of King Juan Carlos of Spain, conceived with a maidservant. By this time I was a little older and becoming more familiar with irregular conceptions as one by one my older cousins began to encounter obstacles in life which my mother described as Getting Into Trouble if she sympathized with them or Taking Trouble Home to her Poor Mother if she did not. In Carlotta’s case, quite unlike the suiters of my unfortunate relatives, the generous Juan Carlos purchased a dog breeding business for his illegitimate daughter. It was situated at High Halstow and the breeds ranged from tiny toy terriers to giant wolfhounds. Carlotta lived there in a thatched cottage with two Spanish serving maids who helped with the daily exercise on the sheep levels. Every few months Juan Carlos visited and took Carlotta to afternoon tea in the village of Cobham, greatly impressing the villagers who somehow or other all realized at once that he had an aristocratic background.

By the time I had spent two years at Northfleet Secondary School for Girls and was about to go on to Wombwell Hall, I was living quite a number of fictional lives and in order not to become confused with regard to the various events taking place within them, I was forced to keep ever more extensive and meticulous notes on the detail of each. I was beginning to realise that being a committed fantasist was not straightforward and took more time and energy than most girls of my age would have been prepared to give to such a project. Homework became an irritating interruption and was frequently left uncompleted. On the other hand, whilst others were rebelling about early bedtimes I was more than happy to have early nights, particularly in winter, in order to give enough time to what I called Thinks, which was more accurately the hours of invention and planning concerning the progress through life of my many alter-egos.

My friend Molly from number 31 York Road, had initially wholeheartedly gone along with the idea of fantasy families but her own inventions did not change as frequently as mine did and generally involved Doris Day in one way or another, either as a mother or an older sister. As my own creations grew ever more complicated I could not help noticing that her enthusiasm began to wane which I thought was a pity. As for my confused classmates, I neither knew nor cared what they thought of the rapidly revolving characters I claimed were my closest relatives. My prime concern with regard to school was to ensure that my mother did not turn up to any of the Meet The Teachers evenings which fortunately were not organized terribly often in those days.

From time to time I casually made mention of my mythical stepfathers to my teachers and as I was not completely naive I was keen to avoid the possibility of them coming face to face with a woman they would at once realise was not likely to be married to Nick the Gambler or Cameron the Lawyer. To complicate matters even further I had made each mother a mere thirty years old, having conceived Penny or Stevie and their like as a teenager. The Real Fathers had usually perished in air accidents in the latter year or two of the war. Sometimes I cut out glamorous magazine photographs and claimed they were my mother, regardless of the unlikely possibility of her ever actually owning a mink coat or attending a film premiere in Leicester Square.

In my first year at Northfleet Girls’Secondary School, Sylvia Mason jabbed her forefinger at the woman in the latest picture (who was shaking hands with Princess Margaret I seem to recall) and asked me to explain how it was, if that was my Mum that we were living in York Road. This was an unfortunate question and I had to explain that we didn’t live there all the time but that my Mother liked to spend time there because she had been left the house by my real father’s childhood Nanny. My reading material had by that time greatly extended, and involved Edwardian family sagas of wronged women and lost fortunes. Sylvia’s obvious distrust of my story did not unduly bother me since she had herself told most unlikely tales about being an Identical Twin whose sister, Susan, was Brainy and now attended The Girls’Grammar and furthermore there were two other sets of twins in her family, boys of four and six. That seemed most unlikely to be true. My part time friend Shirley Munro said that Sylvia was known for her lies and it was because her family had recently been rehoused into a brand new Council House on the spanking new, wide avenued Singlewell Estate. It had gone to her head, she thought. Undeterred Sylvia continued to distrust my own stories and said that she thought I talked a Load of Bully Beef. Her Aunt used to live in York Road and had said for years that those houses ought to be condemned because there were no bathrooms and you had to walk up the back yard to go to the lav.

I told her she could think what she liked and that her ignorant thoughts did not bother me but I walked away with a thumping heart because this particular exchange had been witnessed by at least half a dozen interested Form One girls. On the other hand many of us at that time lived in houses that should be condemned, all without running hot water and bathrooms. However, I came to the reluctant conclusion that it would be prudent to stop producing magazine photographs of my mother.

Decades later I was startled when my brother admitted that he had indulged in very similar family replacement fictions. We each then claimed to wonder how and why the fabrications had come about, and asked each other what on earth could have prompted such gross deceptions and falsehoods. But even as we professed to analyse the matter we were both totally aware that the answer was straightforward and simple and that no mystery was attached to it. Unlike our friends and neighbours we each, even at a very tender age became wholly discontented with what appeared to be Our Lot.

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