Growing up I always fancied myself a bit of a rebel. I had a kind of an itchiness, a techiness – a feeling I was born into the wrong family. I mean I knew I wasn’t. One look at the family album told me that. Good, healthy farming girls from way back. And come to think of it, none of them looked too happy about it either. You could track the passage from youthful optimism to teenage dismay to matronly grinding putting-up-with-it in those pictures. Family stories abounded of struggling chest deep through fifteen miles of snow to borrow a cow of your brother because a we’un was sick and the mother like to die, only to be told, ‘you should have taken better care of your own herd, and thon wife of yourn is nothing but a brought-in-woman when all’s said and done.” Stories of Uncle Samuel setting off for Belfast with nothing but a silver sixpence his Granpa (another Samuel) gev him and him coming back ten years later a self-made man, having started one of the biggest accountancy firms in Belfast and buying himself a grand house in Annadale Avenue. With a billiard room. Stories of ‘your cousin Eileen, who went and married a Catholic from Castlewellan and after him dragging her down to his level, didn’t he drag her down to Dublin as well, only for her to discover he’d another wife and family in the Isle of Man?’ Parties where the men all sat in one room having a wee tot and impressing the hell out of each other with the same story they’d told the last time, “and I told him precisely where he could stick the ferrule of his umbrella” ha ha ha, while the women sat round in the parlour drinking tea and eating flan.
So I grew up, hating my parents and the neighbours and the clabber and the cow-shit and the endless drizzle. I hated school; spent half my childhood in the corridor outside the headmistress’s office. I remember in the infant class. there was this wendy house and I had a particularly annoying best friend whose name happened to be Wendy unless I’ve just made that up. I might have done. Anyhow, you could tell how things were in her house, which was very much the way things were done in my own house, because she kept up a continuous litany of “don’t do dat, don’t do that, don’t sit there, that’s Father’s chair, don’t stand there you’re your arms akrimble, dose dishes won’t wash themselves.” Finally I lost the rag and chucked the entire contents of the Wendy house out of the wendy house window. Ten years on I was jumping out the window myself. Our house was a bungalow but if I’d lived in Rapunzel’s tower I’d have found some way of getting out.
We were all members of a particularly hard line Protestant sect in our town, except for MacKenzie the Pigs, for whom even our vision of hell was too easy going. Church attendance was a sine qua non so of course I went, but I thought the whole lot of them were stupid. My father was a lay minister and to my mind the stupidest of the lot. When he got up to speak I wanted to die of embarrassment, When we all congregated for the obligatory cup of tea and home made cake after, I’d sit slumped in the corner, arms folded, monosyllabic. My poor mother and father had no idea what to do with me.
Anyhow, one Sunday when I was about to turn sixteen all the talk was of this young preacher going round in a big tent, how charismatic he was and – ahem – how easy on the eye, “or so the wife tells me” ha ha ha. So one Saturday not long after, the preacher came and pitched his big tent on the football field. So we went, the whole town, young and old, even McKenzie the Pigs, to hear him. And if it was hell fire we were after we certainly got it that day. He was tall and he was handsome with a shock of dark hair with a way of pitching forward over the lectern to berate the congregation that made you think he was going to end up in the front row. At the end of his act there were women speaking in tongues, men on their knees begging to be forgiven for God knows what and grannies getting up out of their wheelchairs for the first time in decades. Had St Patrick not banished them from Ireland centuries before, we’d have been grasping vipers. I, along with every other teenage girl in the place fell instantly in love with either God or him or both and we spent that Summer of Sixty-Nine on the bus, following his tent, the length and breadth of the six counties. Some of you may remember there was other stuff going on that summer, but it meant little enough to us. We felt somehow immune from it all. Like it was happening in another country. Somebody else’s business, certainly not ours. Remarkable, looking back.
So the months went by and being as how he was an elder of our church my father got to know the preacher pretty well, and pretty soon he appeared in our own front room to address our Bible study group. Now Bible study group was a thing I’d taken great pains to avoid up until then, to be honest I’d sooner have had a tooth out, but my interest in the Lord and his servant had been violently awakened so there I was, handing round the instant coffees and the sugar bread, my hair brushed wearing my good skirt, much to the relief and astonishment of my mum and dad. When the Preacher came and asked them if I’d care to see the new park just opened at Drum Manor, they all but threw me into his car. For my first ever date I thought it was a bit short on romance. He put his arm around my shoulder at one point, but it felt more like an arrest than a show of affection. How and ever, I brushed that to one side and when, three brisk country walks later, he asked me to marry him I didn’t give it a second thought. I was being rescued; from the farm and the cowshit and the mud and my parents. I couldn’t believe my luck .
So on a wet July day five days before my seventeenth birthday, I was married. Our church tolerated the odd nip, but my husband’s was hard line so it was a bit of a dry do. Wine, German, at the rate of one bottle to a table of eight, lashings of squash, both colours. Regarding my wedding night – suffice it to say a bottle of something or other might have made the whole thing a little less – disgusting. I woke the morning after in my little new dog-box of a house to the terrible realisation that my tall dark handsome rescuer wasn’t handsome after all and I had not in fact been rescued, just transferred from one detention centre to another. In the cold light coming through the kitchen window he seemed to have aged and shrunk. And he wore flannel pyjamas and tartan slippers.
However, whereas my infatuation had withered on the vine, the town’s infatuation flourished, bloomed and bore fruit – in no time he became an elder of our church and his word became The Word. I was the wife of a man of repute and the envy of all the little Wendy’s I’d grown up with, and I coffee morning-ed and tray-baked and fork-suppered with the best of them. I wore tweeds, I wore twin sets, I wore my mother’s cultured pearls; as far as the town was concerned, we were the Golden Couple. At home, I smoked and knitted and swigged on a bottle of sherry I had hidden under the sink. We were a couple of robots. On in public, off in private. Except for three Saturday mornings in the month when we fulfilled of the purpose of Christian marriage, starting around nine and finishing around ten past.
But no Christian baby resulted, and after five years of this attempted insemination I underwent a cursory examination by our local doctor who pronounced me infertile, thereby putting the disappointing tin-lid on what was a thoroughly disappointing marriage for both parties. I was twenty-one and he was forty and hatred had well and truly set in. But. What God had joined let no man etc. We were married. That was that.
Word got round in no time and I was pronounced neither use nor ornament by the world in general. My mother was ashamed of me. My father pitied me, but he pitied my husband more. The one thing I was good for was gossip and the local ladies, while expressing great sympathy for my condition to my face were clearly highly delighted behind my back – wasn’t it a dreadful pity, that gorgeous, brilliant man saddled for life with the like of her? Wouldn’t it break your heart to think of such a man of lumbered with that dumpy thing. Between you me and the gatepost I wouldn’t blame him if he strayed? Pity she couldn’t just, I don’t know, step out in front of a bus, or something? I smoked, I knitted. The sherry wasn’t working so I got some pills from the doctor.
Years passed and the church grew on a wave of Pentecostal fervour, spreading throughout the province and beyond. Congregations began popping up in all sorts of places and my husband went on a mission to Nigeria, bringing back with him three enthusiastic young converts. Now, in those days, we didn’t even mix with Catholics, leave alone foreigners and the women of the town didn’t know if they were on their heads or their heels. A committee was set up to organise hospitality for these young men. Now, although they would never have allowed you to call them racist these same women had been the little Christian schoolgirls who’d happily made life unbearable for the one black girl in our school, the same girls who’d dared each other to shout “nig-nog” at her across the road, who’d chucked peanuts at her head in class when the teachers back was turned, poor girl lasted a term. Now grown up they still retained many of these prejudices. But they made a great show of hands-across-the-seas broadmindedness and interest in our black brothers and spent many hours discussing whether or not Nigerians had flush toilets, whether they ate with a knife and fork, and what did they eat, anyhow? What was a yam? Was a chilli not just a pepper? Where could you get garlic between here and Belfast? Would coronation chicken not do? Was it rude to say darkie? Even in a jokey way? Was it not worse to say ‘Black’? Was “Coloured” more correct? This was 1970’s not the 1870’s but ours was a community that looked inwards, not outwards and it was all very new to us.
So, our little deputation arrived, three very young, very charming lads, looking as if they might die of the cold. We piled jumpers on them and fed them on our well-researched exotic cuisine, which they ate happily enough, but then they were happy to eat whatever was put in front of them. That’s the thing I remember most about them, that happiness. They were always laughing. And I so badly needed to laugh. And laughter is infectious. Enchanting. A form of enchantment.
They were all nice looking boys, but I’d never in my life seen anyone as good looking as Abeo. He was tall, loose limbed, built like an athlete, which is what he was. Muscles everywhere you looked. And I looked and I looked and I looked. Abeo. And I felt. And I felt things I had never felt before. And I have to say – I went completely mad.
He was lodging with the couple that ran the garage on the way out of town and if I took a walk out that way we always seemed to run into each other. The weather was so good that it could almost make you believe in the existence of a higher power or a lower one, for the devil seemed to have got into me. Abeo expressed an interest in the farm, so I showed him the farm. I showed him the cows and the chickens and the pigs. I showed him the tractor and the trailor. I showed him the stream and the spinney, I showed him the barn, I showed him both the high places and the low, and he embraced every one of them with great enthusiasm. Soon there wasn’t a haystack we hadn’t done it behind or a tree trunk we hadn’t done it up against. I threw caution to the winds and I felt no guilt. I knew Abeo would be gone at the end of three weeks; as far as I was concerned this was going to be the best three weeks of my life. And after all, I was barren. Wasn’t I?
Well, no. As it turned out I was not. Abeo and I parted tearfully in the hayloft. The next day he was on a plane back to Lagos and I never heard from him again. Before long, I started to feel sick and trotted innocently off to the doctor who declared that nature had at last taken its course. Soon it was all over town. My husband accepted the congratulations of his congregation with very good grace. Of course, whatever suspicions he may have had about Abeo, his own prejudices would have made it inconceivable to him that his wife could have done it with a black man. As for me, I knew there was an outside chance that Abeo wasn’t the father but I had the strongest feeling that he was. I invented a ‘complication’ that had to be dealt with in Belfast, not something that the local hospital could deal with. I hadn’t got a plan, perhaps I was going to have the baby adopted, perhaps I was going to run away to sea, I had no idea and no one to ask. I’d get on the bus to Belfast a few times, but when I got there I just walked around for a couple of hours and then got the bus back. I was so happy to be pregnant. I looked at baby clothes and prams. I knew I was living in a dream world, but it didn’t seem so bad, compared to the real one. In the end I found an adoption agency – said I’d committed adultery and that my husband wouldn’t raise another man’s child. They were sympathetic and told me of a place near London that would help. I didn’t contact them straight away. In my heart I knew something dreadful was coming, I just wanted to enjoy the few months of happiness that lay before me.
Well, it turned out that among the women of the town suspicion abounded as to the provenance of the child and one of those helpful little birds must have whispered something in the husband’s ear because around the six month mark there was a letter by my toast plate one morning, laying down an ultimatum. He couldn’t bring himself to speak to me, deep sense of personal betrayal etc etc etc but his main concern was for the reputation of the church, to which no stain or scandal was to be allowed to attach. In order to maintain strict secrecy I was to go to England for the birth. If the baby was white, I was to bring it home, if not, I was to give it up for adoption and say it had died. Imagine reading those words.
So I went to the home just south of London. They were not unkind but then they’d a list of people wanting to adopt as long as your arm. It was a difficult birth and I was pretty much out of it for the final furlong. I just remember the nurse placing this unbelievably beautiful creature in my arms. Full head of curls and honey coloured skin, like some enchanted South Sea Island princess. I was simply overwhelmed with love. But later that day the matron came in looking solemn. She accused me of lying. The couple she’d got lined up felt very let down, they’d no interest in taking a black baby. Moreover none of the couples on their books would and had they known that there was even a possibility of a black baby they’d never have accepted me into the home. Did I not realise what I’d done? People wanted blond blue eyed babies, they’d trouble enough getting couples to take a baby with red hair. My baby would have to go to a children’s home.
At that home they let you nurse your baby for the first six weeks. I tried desperately to figure out a plan. But I’d no money and knew no one outside of Northern Ireland. I couldn’t think how we’d both survive. But that’s no excuse. I could have wrapped you up, take you home and brazened it out, of course I could. I would have had to endure gossip and never being spoken to again and all kinds of attendant horrors, but they wouldn’t have seen me starve, in fact they’d probably have paid me to get the hell out of it. No. I gave you up because I was weak. I gave you up for the sake of appearances. So as not to bring disgrace on my mother and father, to save the face of a husband I despised and a church I no longer believed in. So as not to disturb that miserable little pool of respectability and prejudice that I called home. So, after six weeks they came and took you. And I slunk away home and told everyone you had died. Of ‘the complication”. I’m not asking you to forgive me for I don’t deserve it. I gave up this beautiful gift of heavenly warmth and love in order to return to the cold and the rain, to the house of a man who never so much as looked at me from that day forward. I made the worst mistake of my life and I’ve paid for it every day of my life since.
Anyhow, ten years ago the miserable bastard who, you may thank me, is NOT your father died. I sold up, came here. I’m living round the corner of the old mother and baby home where you were born, though it’s posh flats now. And I know it’s stupid – you could be anywhere – Paris, Australia, New York, Africa – but every day I go down to the high street and have a coffee, staring out of this window hoping to catch sight of your face. Your beautiful face. If you were to walk up the main street of my home town I’d know you straight away, for you’d still be the only one with black curls and golden skin – but here. I see you a hundred times a day for there’s people here from all over the world and they’re all working together and living together and thank God loving together and making beautiful babies together, as if it was nothing at all.
I’m in all probability wasting my time, might as well put a message in a bottle and throw it into the sea, but the social worker or whatever she is, says she’s found your file and can add this to it, so if you every want to find out at least you will know where you came from. And that you were loved and wanted and oh my God you still are. And that there’s a farm in Tyrone waiting for you to claim it. Your father was very interested in farming so perhaps it’s genetic? Meantime, I’ll keep looking out for you. Love. Your mum.