The one place where I can picture my mother clearly, and be absolutely sure it is an image from my own mind, is in the orchard. She is sitting under one of the apple trees for shade, which is very sharp around her, so I know it is summer. One of the kitchen chairs is tucked under a tree, and next to it is her red-and-gold raffia sewing basket. She is sewing name tapes onto grey school uniforms. I am spying on her from inside a herb bed. The plant is a kind of spurge. The seed pods warm up and tighten and thin in the sun until they pop, sending the seeds out in a shower.
I am racing two of them, betting on the one next to me to be the first to pop. There is a rug on the ground near to her, with some plates on it. I have taken a spoon with jam on it and I am licking it clean where I am sitting. My mother says, “Marianne, don’t put that back into the jar now you’ve licked it.” I believed my mother had supernatural powers of sight and hearing. She encouraged this belief. Especially when it came to my helping myself to food. There is a pile of grey tunics and red cardigans and round-collared school blouses on the ground where she has finished sewing in my name. If I am good she will let me play with the leftover name tapes: with their curly red script they make excellent doll’s bandages in toy hospitals. Tiny dots of felt pens fill up the gaps and look wonderfully gory. This could be any summer from when I was four to when I was eight.
I am guessing this is when I am seven, the year I read Harriet the Spy – I spent a lot of that summer spying on my parents from the spurge beds. Every year the uniforms would appear in a huge green plastic bag, every year she would sit in the garden and sew them with my name, then they would be hung in the landing cupboard ready for September. Sometimes I was allowed to dress up in the complete outfit and parade in front of my father. But I never went to school.
Every year my father’s birthday would come round in the middle of September, and somehow I would still be at home. I did ask one year if I could go. So I was taken to play with a family nearby, who had a daughter called Pippa at the village school. She had a special room called a playroom and six very thin dolls with long, matted hair and lots of different outfits. I was especially impressed with their shoes. None of my dolls had shoes. I asked Pippa what her parents were called. She said, “Who?”
“Your parents, your mum and dad. What are their names?” She looked blank. Then she said, “They don’t have names. Only Mummy and Daddy.” I laughed out loud. ‘But what about when they were children? They must have had names, when they were babies, even!’ She looked blank again. When my mother came to take me home Pippa was still angry with me. In the car on the way home my father asked if I would like to go to school with Pippa. I said, “I don’t think she’s very good at conversation, but her dolls are very nice.” My parents exchanged a long look. I knew it meant I was not going to school. Something to do with the word “conversation”.
I checked the next day and the uniform cupboard was empty again. I have no idea what happened to all those school clothes. They couldn’t have returned them to the shop, with my name sewn inside them all. When I finally did go to school, at the wrong time of year, carelessly, because no one could work out what else to do with me, we could not find so much as a white sock or a red cardigan anywhere. The landing cupboard was full of sheets and towels and outgrown baby clothes. My father seemed as puzzled as anyone. How had she hidden them? She couldn’t drive. How would she donate them? Did she burn them? I had to go in the middle of the week, in the middle of a term, in my bright green corduroy jeans with the pink heart-shaped patches on the knees and my home-knitted jumper with rows of colourful beads in loops around the cuffs.
By the time we had sat in the head teacher’s office with my father trying to fill in the forms while Joe cried and spat out his dummy, it was halfway through maths. I followed the head teacher into the classroom and stood in front of the teacher’s desk. Everyone stopped talking. The other children stared at me. I knew why they were staring. They were wondering what was wrong with me. I was wondering myself. I could tell by their faces that they thought it was because of my funny clothes and my hair falling out of its bad plaits that my father did not know how to do up tightly, and the teacher could tell that too. When she said, “I am sure we would all love to have a special jumper like that, Marie,” I knew for a fact I was bad.
I was so bad I had to have my name cut short, and my jumper wrongly made. I didn’t even correct her on my name. She said, as I had missed so much, starting school now, perhaps it would be better for me to sit with the younger children. I towered over the other children at my table, an awkward giant in my colourful clothes, and found that none of them were any good at conversation. I realised right away that invisibility was the only way to survive there, and being taller by a head and shoulders than all the others at your table, with a name that is too long for the teacher to bother with, and beads on your cuffs that click and jingle against the tabletop, makes you bad, bad, bad.
I wouldn’t have stayed long on the tiny infant table, bashing my knees against the underside of my desk, if only I hadn’t forgotten how to read. I remembered the things I had read before she left. I knew by heart the Ladybird history book about Elizabeth Fry and the prisons. I could describe the urchin Smith and all his layers of clothes printed onto his skin because he had never taken any of them off. But I couldn’t work out why none of the words on the pages they gave me at school made any sense to me. Was it some kind of trick? I said I only knew how to read English, like in the books at home. Could I bring those instead? And even when it was proved to me they hadn’t been playing some kind of cruel game, that it was my own mind that had done this to me, I never lost my suspicion of them.
I still looked at them sideways from under my too-long fringe and muttered spells to protect me from their disapproval. For the first time, too, I knew that no one in my family would understand a word of what I needed to say about it. Once I arrived at school, I was on my own. I learned to shrug, and say it was alright, really, I supposed, that I could not remember what I had eaten, or read, or what we were learning. It was all beyond them.
Excerpted with permission from Pearl, Siân Hughes, Picador India.