It’s a cliché to say I was always the black sheep of the family, but I suspect I’ve always been on the outskirts.
Our family isn’t close. Not in the sense that we all ‘phone each other regularly, hang out together or share secrets. We fall out regularly, there are so many bitter skeletons in the closet that it would take a book to list them all. Unplanned pregnancies, children out of wedlock, violent husbands, alcholism, therapy… my family isn’t what you’d call stable. It’s taken me most of my life to feel a part of it all; I never felt like I belonged. Like a lot of kids, I used to wonder if I was adopted; which is ridiculous, as I have my mother’s promient nose, her large hips, my dad’s muscle-bound calves and the undeniable blue-grey eyes. I have the red hair, the pale skin, the temper and I’m prone to addiction.
My mother has brown hair with streaks of grey, cut into a graduated bob. She has deep wrinkles from smoking, an addiction to buying books she doesn’t need, and rarely eats. She’s skinny; a size 6 at most. She nearly always wears bootcut jeans, black ankle boots and flowery blouses. She’s prone to taking things the wrong way and is quick to anger, nag, and pick holes. She’s been married twice; to her childhood sweetheart (who died recently), and to my father. She left her first husband for a man who worked with computers. Her excuse is that she knew she would never have the life she wanted while she stood in the same kitchen every day, doing the same things, listening to the same songs. When she left her first husband, she moved to the town I was born in with my half brother and sister, and bought a newly-built semi by the sea with her boyfriend. I don’t know much about her history; only that she was brought up by her mother and father, her brother died when he was young of something like cerebal palsy, and her father died of cancer when she was 15. At this point, she gave up her Catholic faith and became a bit of a rebel. Like me, she has fibromyalgia, and also suffers from arthritis, bouts of depression and, I suspect (although she’s always denied it) an eating disorder.
My father is short, grey-haired and is losing his memory. Years of alcoholism have left him with yellowish skin, trembling hands and bloodshot eyes. When I was little, I was a total daddy’s girl; I adored him, worshipped the ground he walked on. My mother and father seperated before I was born, and so I spent my weekends having ‘dad time’ – he taught me to ride my first bike (a Raleigh Bluebird), he showed me how to catch tiny fish with a net, how to row a boat, how to build a fire. At the age of fourteen, I discovered he had beaten my mother. Until then, I didn’t know he was an alcoholic, had no idea of the violence of his past. I sat in a small office in a child psychiatric unit, listening to my mother give an account of our family’s history of mental illness; anything which could explain why I had lost my way. Suddenly, everything changed. I was confused. I loved my father, yet despised wife-beaters. Our relationship now is fragile, almost non-existant. I know one day he’ll die, and I’ll regret my coldness towards him.
W (my eldest sister) inhabits a world I can never hope to break in to. A world of £100 haircuts, Bobbi Brown eyeshadow, designer shirts and business meetings. Physically, we couldn’t be more different; we’re the same height, but she’s tiny, a size four or six. Her nose is small and snub, whereas mine is long. Her lips are wide, unlike my tiny, geisha mouth. Her teeth are perfectly straight and white, her jeans cost a fortune and her voice is peppered with Southern tones, from living in London and Yorkshire. She manages a number of famous bookstores, driving hundreds of miles every week. Recently, she bought and restored a cottage in a well-to-do area of the midlands, filling it with White Company and Laura Ashley fabrics, Emma Bridgewater crockery and a bath I could never hope to afford. We don’t speak much; she makes me feel inferior. She’s somebody I could never be, and although I don’t really want to be like her (her lifestyle makes her selfish and materialistic), I envy her opportunities.She doesn’t believe in disability or mental illness; everything is a weakness to her. She studied English literature at university, where she developed an obsession with exercise, losing huge amounts of weight. She runs marathons, and although she eats like a horse, I suspect her relationship with food isn’t as healthy as she’d like to make out.
E (my other sister) is more like me. We both have too many teeth, rugby-player’s calves, wide hips and a tendency to put on weight (although she’s incredibly skinny, as she refuses to eat most foods). We both suffer gynecological problems; she’s infertile, and every course of IVF she’s had has failed. At 5ft nothing, I used to call her my ‘little big sister’. E has a history of choosing the wrong men (addicts, violent men, users and cheaters) and is incredibly insecure, although she’d never let you know it. Her skin is often the colour of fence paint, thanks to liberal applications of fake tan, her hair is bleached bright blonde, covering her natural mousy brown. Her eyes, unlike the rest of the family’s are brown. We fought like cat and mouse throughout my childhood and teens, and even now we get snappy with each other, but we’re starting to develop some sort of relationship. Like me, she has a history of eating disorders, alcoholism and self-hatred, although she’s never been under psychiatric care. Also like me, she used to run away from home a lot, blaming our mother for her problems and difficulties in life. In many ways, we’re scarily alike.I know she resents me; I’ve heard her say so.
C is my ginger-haired, 6ft tall, soft-as-shit brother. He lives with his wife and three children in a house which the death of his father (my ‘stepdad’) paid for. Before buying the house, he was seriously in debt, struggling to feed the childrenor run his car. His wages as a train driver are pretty high, higher than average, but his wife’s obsession with keeping up with the neighbours meant all the money got poured into huge flatscreen televisions, sofas, computers and Sky TV. I adore my brother; he introduced me to a lot of the music I love today; Madness, Bad Manners, Faith No More, OMD. His repeated playing of Cry Little Sister from the film The Lost Boys when he lived with us introduced me to my favourite film. It was his porn collection I learned about sex from. His room I found my mother crying in when they had an argument. I hate his wife; hate is a strong word, but I can’t feel any other way. He only married her because she was pregnant, he looked so unhappy on his wedding day. In fact, I refused to go to the wedding, only turning up for the reception and refusing to speak to her. She turned him into a doormat. He’s always been soft, but she controls everything. She’s mouthy, outspoken, has no problem with swearing in front of their children and is currently undergoing anger management (which I doubt will work). I haven’t seen my nieces or nephew for years; she said I was dangerous and crazy, and shouldn’t be allowed near them.
B (my stepdad) was a wonderful man. I never used to understand why my mother divorced him. She said it was because he was boring, although she never stopped loving him. I have more understanding now; as much as he was lovely, he was too nice. Quiet, obsessive, and nice. She didn’t want that from life, and who am I to judge? He was a constant feature throughout my childhood. Every Thursday he would visit, bringing After Eight mints and nature books for me. I would climb under his huge, knitted jumpers and listen to his stories of working on the railways, of his trips to Llangollen and the old lady who lived next door. When I was fifteen, we got a phone call in the middle of the night to say he was in hospital, having been attacked by two teenagers. Over the next few weeks, it became clear that he was severely brain damaged; able to speak, but unable to remember our names or how to get dressed. He went from being a proud, kind man to an angry, unpredictable mess overnight. He’d been kicked repeatedly in the head, leaving him almost unrecognisable. And for what? Nothing. No money was taken, he wasn’t mugged. It was done for a laugh. Medication and therapy returned parts of his old self, but he was never the same man. I confess; I was sometimes scared of of the change in him. Last year, he died of cancer. It spread through his entire body, eventually taking over his brain and leaving him in a hospice. I never, ever want to receive a phone call like the one I got when he died. Although we all knew he was going soon (it was decided to deny him food and fluids, as he was in tremendous pain and incredibly confused), he hung on for long enough for me to wonder if perhaps miracles exist. They don’t. I miss him terribly.
I don’t speak to the rest of my family. They’ve all let me down in various ways, from my aunt who promised she’d always be there for me and who then dropped me like a stone when my mental health declined, to my uncle who sold my stepfather’s beloved train set. I don’t have any grandparents alive, and barely know my father’s family.
I always swore than if I ever had children, I would be different. I would break the family habits. I would give them the childhood I missed out on.