Sunday, 17 January 2016

In Memory Of My Wicked Stepmother, 14 Years On

Two of a kind. Everyone who knew them, aside from her family, absolutely loathed them. They were as twisted as each other, and are in a better place now. Here's a snippet of how I remembered her in my memoirs. I'm sure her and her kindred wouldn't have much good to say about me, had they learned to string two words together.


If she was alive, she wouldn’t have a good word to say about me, and I have nothing positive or praiseworthy to say about her. We didn’t get along. It’s as simple as that. My mother had been dead six months. I’d just returned from an overseas trip where briefly I had found romance. O.B. appeared to have calmed down since losing his wife, and I erroneously got to thinking that maybe for the first time in his life he was beginning to realise just how vile he had been towards everyone for most of that life. Because of the way he had treated my mother, and because he had borrowed money from them which he had never paid back, the family wanted nothing to do with him. But old habits die hard. This new O.B. was an illusion, a turd temporarily disguised as a diamond to impress a female. O.B. could turn on the charm when he wanted to, but it was fake and rarely took long for the scum to float back up to the surface.
   He met a lady called Betty Clarke, and they started “going steady”. He asked me to meet her at his new local, The Oak Tree, a hundred yards from where we lived in Beech Road. Tall, thin and bespectacled, she looked how I imagined Miss Marple would have looked, extant of the Margaret Rutherford portrayal. That weekend Rick came back from London to visit his mother, though he spent most of the time “catching up” with me. We managed half an hour in The Oak Tree, enough time for Rick to assess the latest O.B. situation.
   “She looks like she’s a virgin,” he observed. “She’s probably got a mousetrap hidden inside her knickers. She’ll be no use to your old man!”
   I never found out if O.B. tried it on with Betty, or whether a wise birdy whispered in her ear what she could have been letting
herself in for. Within days they were no longer an item, and he announced her replacement, another Betty—Betty Usher, who I would very soon come to loathe, though I will always be grateful to her for introducing me to Jeanne.
   To call her a large woman would be putting it mildly. Neither was her real name Betty, but Edith.
   “You’ll now have two Ediths in your life,” she said. “Isn’t that nice?”
   No, it wasn’t. This Edith wouldn’t have been fit to lick the dust off the other Edith’s boots.
   “Edith Usher and Edith Piaf,” O.B. retorted. “She’s a good singer, is Edith Piaf!”
   I could have smacked him in the mouth for saying that! Here was the creep who had called Piaf a “mucky little whore”, and caused me to hide my records so they wouldn’t end up like Frankie Vaughan’s, at the back of the fire! What a hypocrite! And more was to come.
   I’m your mother now,” she cooed, one day when I came back from the cemetery after laying flowers on Mother’s grave.
   Like fuck she was!
   Betty wasn’t exactly in the Fanny Cradock class when it came to cooking, though she did slightly resemble a plumper version of Johnny’s muse. From now on, for O.B., most of what went on his plate came out of a packet or out of the freezer—the kind of food which not so very long ago, with his bigoted mentality, he had denounced for having turned Jack Wilson gay!
   From what I learned from Jeanne’s family, Betty had spent much of her previous married life being waited on hand and foot, and had kept her late husband, Joe, well under the thumb and chained to the kitchen sink. She was an absolute bag of nerves. Forever quivering like an oversized blancmange and rubbing her hand back and forth across her mouth while talking she reminded
me of a cross between Ada Shufflebotham—Les Dawson’s drag character—and the music-hall comic Rob Wilton performing one of his “The Day War Broke Out” sketches. When Betty walked into a room, she took in every nook and cranny with a cursory rolling of her eyes. Frank, Jeanne’s father, could not stand the mortal sight of her—and if Frank Elliss, who liked everyone, declared that he hated someone, it only figured there must have been something radically wrong with that person!
   Betty had four sons and two daughters who I met for the first time on New Year’s Day 1972—the day Maurice Chevalier died. Christmas had been a lonely affair. Rick had returned to London, I was still mourning my mother, therefore it had been just Kimmy and me. Finding myself in the midst of a large family, and in the so-called “season of good will” when an over-surfeit of amber nectar only too often brings about fake feelings of bonhomie, I felt as though I belonged.
   The French call this building castles in Spain. At the Ushers’ New Year party I bonded with the smallest person in the room, Jeanne Elliss, sitting alone in a corner like a timid little mouse. I’d had over twenty lovers of both sexes, yet when I wanted to ask Jeanne out on a date, I bottled it! Betty fixed things for me, though I’m sure I would have eventually got there without her help. I met Jeanne’s parents, Mary and Frank, and found them down to earth and charming.
   O.B. married Joe Usher’s widow less than three months after meeting her. So far as I know, theirs was a happy marriage, not that this prevented O.B. from dipping his wick elsewhere and more than a few times, according to various family members, and the psychotic streak would always be there. I guess old habits really do die hard, but as much as I despised her, I would like to think that he never subjected his new wife to the physical and mental torture he had inflicted on her predecessor.
   Shortly after O.B.’s marriage, Dave Lindsay, the caretaker at Wath Grammar School, died suddenly. O.B. was promoted, and he and his new family moved into the bungalow in the school grounds. He was now in charge of thirty domestics, and I know for a fact that he tried it on with at least three of them. On one occasion he tried to molest one young woman and, rather than call the police, she sent her husband around to give him a good hiding. I would have paid good money to see that!
   On 21 March 1972, Jeanne and I got engaged. By now I had moved into the Usher house—my choice for no other reason than I really did feel at home there. Almost at once, the rot set in. I was sharing a room with three others, and separated from my bed by six feet of carpet was a stepbrother who liked his beer, but couldn’t always keep it down when he’d drunk too much.
   Salvation came on 10 April, when I announced that I’d found a new job at Colvin’s boutique in Sheffield. I would be earning more, which meant that I would be able to contribute more to the family budget, but pay-day would be Saturday instead of Friday. Betty was squashed into her armchair next to the fire, knitting. She always seemed to be knitting—Frank said that in a previous life she must have had a stool next to the guillotine.
   “Fine,” she declared. “But you’ll still have to give me your board-money every Friday, like everybody else.”
   This would have proved difficult, if not impossible. I was usually skint two days after pay-day. Betty would not budge.   
   “Either I get my money Friday, or you find somewhere else to live,” she hissed.
   Then O.B. chimed in, “He’s always been an awkward bugger. But this time he’s right, Bet. He can’t pay you what he doesn’t have. You have to give and take.”
   “And this is my house,” she snarled. “It’s my house, and my name’s on that rent-book. Anybody that doesn’t contend with my
rules knows what the options are. And I mean anybody!”
   She looked straight at O.B. when she said this, suggesting that even he was on shifting sands! Then I remembered what Frank had said, when taking me aside at our engagement party. Betty had been in the front room, amusing the other guests with her Rob Wilton act. 
   “You’re one of us, now, Dave. That woman’s always had a screw loose. She had her husband fetching and carrying like a skivvy. If you’re ever short of a roof over your head, you know where to come.”
   I went upstairs, shoved a few things into plastic carriers, and returned to the living-room. O.B. was silent—probably expecting his blushing bride to give him his marching orders should he say one word out of place. Betty was knitting more ferociously than ever, grumbling to herself because in her state of extreme neurasthenic agitation she kept dropping stitches. I told them I would be back later for the rest of my stuff, and for Kimmy. At this, Betty hauled herself to her feet—her eyes narrowed to slits as she lunged at me with a knitting needle. She missed, plunging her weapon into the sofa. I left, Kimmy at my heels. Half an hour later I was in Mary and Frank’s living-room, nursing a glass of brandy. Kimmy was sprawled out on the sofa like he’d been there all his life. Frank told me how surprised he was that it had taken me so long to leave “The House of Usher”.
   I found out that O.B.’s silent act had been just that, an act, and what he’d said after I left: “It’s a good job he took his dog, otherwise I’d have had it put down and dumped the body on the Ellisses’ doorstep, just to teach him a lesson.”
   The Ellisses were a good couple—loyal, never judgmental, caring, always willing to lend a sympathetic ear. The salt of the earth! They became my new parents and will always be regarded as such, even though they are long gone.
   O.B. and Betty attempted several reconciliations after our son Marleau was born, none of which worked. For every two steps taken forwards where we seemed to be getting somewhere, Betty took ten backwards by dragging out the “big wooden spoon”, as Jeanne called it, and stirring up the past. They stayed married for over twenty years until his death in December 1993.
   Betty, who had been fond of calling my mother-in-law “a candidate for the funny-farm”, developed Alzheimers and also ended up in a nursing home. She followed O.B. to the grave a few years later, and had been dead for two years before anyone told me, not that I cared. She wouldn’t have shed tears, had it been me.

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