Read A Mother's Story Online

Authors: Rosie Batty

A Mother's Story (2 page)

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12 February 2014, 7.45 am

Luke floats out of his bedroom, late again. His hair is tousled, his mood sullen. It's going to be one of those days.

‘Morning, buddy,' I chime.

It's been only a few weeks since we returned from England. Five glorious weeks at home, visiting family, catching up with friends. Forgetting about Greg. And most importantly, coming to realise that my life doesn't have to be dominated by him anymore.

Not even my son's reluctance to eat his breakfast, get in the shower and generally get his arse into gear can break my spirit this morning. For the first time in a long time there's a sense of hope, a sense of clarity. It feels almost as if some sort of veil has been lifted and I can see a future starting to take shape – a bright, carefree, happy future.

The clock is showing 8 am. At this rate, Luke is going to be late for school. I know I should probably be more worried when he acts up like this. But he is only eleven, and last year was a tough year. Despite that, Luke seems to have turned a corner. He's really settled into school and is growing into a fine young man.

As I look across the kitchen bench at him hunched over his cereal, I catch a glimpse of those crystalline blue eyes through his mop of a fringe. My baby boy. My Luke. He may be growing up before my eyes, but he'll always be my little boy.

‘C'mon,' I say, rallying. ‘Shower. Now. We're going to be late.'

I bundle the dogs into the car and call for Luke to hurry up. It's 8.15 am. He comes flying out of the house, slamming the front door behind him, school shirt untucked and school bag flung over one shoulder.

School is all of 500 metres down the road – even closer as the crow flies. But this has been our routine for as long as I can remember. And these days, when it's a miracle if I can get three sentences out of him in one sitting, the drive is a chance to force some conversation out of my increasingly taciturn son.

As we arrive at Flinders Christian Community College, there's already a queue of cars. I think back to my childhood in provincial England. We were lucky if our dad was even there to wave us off at the door, much less chauffeur us to the front gate of our school.

I think I do an okay job as a mum, all things considered. It's hard to know without any real benchmark to measure it against, though I do sometimes worry I am too soft with Luke. But he's a good kid. Our lives are not exactly straightforward. It's never been picket fences and a nuclear family for us, far from it. And he's my only child. I won't get another go at this motherhood thing – so of course I am going to indulge him a little.

As the car idles, we joke about having to leave home earlier to beat the rush-hour traffic snarl in sleepy Tyabb on the Mornington Peninsula. He still has a wicked sense of humour, even if puberty is starting to dull it. We are simpatico, Luke and I. When all is said and done, it's me and him against the world. Just as it has been from the start.

When we arrive at the kerb in front of the main gates, Luke gathers his school bag and opens the door.

‘Bye, buddy,' I say. ‘Learn lots.'

He rolls his eyes and walks off.

And so, another day begins. I have some chores to do at home, some phone calls to make for the business and an optometrist appointment to reschedule. Oh, and if I have time, the Kreepy Krawly needs servicing over in Mornington.

As I pull out from the kerb and head home, I look in the rear-vision mirror and see Luke dawdling into school. I can't believe how fast he's growing up. It's eleven years since he was born but it seems like yesterday.

The Beginning

People say they have memories from when they were two or three years old. I don't remember that far back. My earliest memories are mostly of my mother. She died unexpectedly when I was six years old.

It's hard to say if I was close to my mother. I was so young when she died, it's so long ago now, and my dad has never been much of a one for talking. What I do have are vague recollections of a presence in my life that was loving, warm and nurturing. And then, all of a sudden, it was gone.

My mother was born Sheila Atkin. By all accounts, hers was a typical upbringing for a girl born in the 1940s in northern England. She trained to become a hairdresser, studying in Leeds. She met my dad through mutual friends. Geoffrey Batty hailed from a proud line of relatively well-to-do farmers in a village called Laneham. His dad was a farmer, his granddad had been a farmer. They raised sheep and cattle, and I can only suppose in the eyes of a hairdressing apprentice from Leeds, my dad presented as quite the prospect.

And so, they married and moved to Laneham. You could drive through Laneham today and barely realise it. Back then, it had a corner shop, two pubs and a church. To those who didn't live there and know its tight-knit community well, its most remarkable feature, other than being on a picturesque bend of the River Trent, was that it was near the town of Retford, which is on the London to Edinburgh train line. With a population of about three hundred people, it wasn't exactly what you'd call a thriving metropolis.

But when I was small, and my parents were my world, it seemed plenty big enough to me. I was born at Willingham Hospital in Lincolnshire on 9 February 1962. I was the first born of three children. There was me, Rosemary Anne Batty, my brother Robert, two years my junior, and James, who was five years younger than me.

We had what most would consider a pretty idyllic early childhood: raised in the English countryside, with fields for a backyard, a great big rambling farmhouse and plenty of farmyard animals. We had some of the locals working on the farm – Marlene the postwoman was our house cleaner. As we got older, people used to tease us. Because our farm was the biggest one in the village, we were seen as the big farming family. Since it was around the time when Dallas and Dynasty ruled the TV airwaves, they used to call my brother Robert ‘Bobby Ewing'.

One of my earliest memories is not wanting to leave Robert when I went off to school. We were as close as any two siblings could be. I can remember him playing on a plough and falling and cutting his eye open. I also distinctly remember James being born. I told Mum I wanted her to call him Paul. I seem to recall I was quite smitten at the time with a local boy called Paul Baker, the son of my primary school teacher.

Memories of my mum are scant. My first memory is of her caring for Robert and me when we got chicken pox. Sadly, though, the main memories I have of Mum are her arguing with my father. I remember her being upset and me trying to comfort her. At the time she died, their marriage was under a lot of strain.

I used to actively seek out people who had known her and could talk about her. Probably because Dad never talked about her, I made it my mission to construct my own portrait of my mum. I had the vague outline, and I used other people's memories and recollections to provide the colour and texture. She had a great sense of humour – but also a temper. I don't remember thinking I took after her, but when I was growing up, a lot of people said I was very like her.

Dad never really knew how to talk to any of his kids. He was the sort of father who was utterly dependable and stoic, but didn't know how to demonstrate his love for his children. He never discussed the topic of Mum and what had happened to her. And as a result, we never really asked him.

My brother James didn't even know how my mum died until, in the days after Luke's funeral, my dad spoke about her dying from a strangulated hernia and complications from peritonitis due to negligence. We weren't even told she was dead until after her funeral. I do remember the day she died, however. We went for a walk in the morning. James was in a pram; he wasn't even two years old. We got to the end of our neighbour's driveway, then Mum turned and went back.

The next thing I remember is her being in the bedroom surrounded by lots of people, including doctors. And I remember asking where it hurt and she showed me her tummy. The ambulance came and I have this vivid memory of her being carried down the stairs on a stretcher.

I asked our neighbour Carol, ‘She's going to die, isn't she?'

To which Carol replied, ‘Don't be silly.'

The last time I saw my mother, she was being loaded into the back of an ambulance. She died on 7 November 1968. She was thirty-seven years old.

When Mum went into hospital, us three kids were sent to our aunty and uncle's house to stay, in Brandesburton, a small village in Yorkshire. I remember playing with my cousins and saying, ‘My mum is coming out of hospital soon,' and them reacting a little bit oddly. I didn't know it at the time, but they already knew she was dead. It turned out everybody knew she had died. Everybody except her own children.

I remember Dad bringing us back home a week or so later. I remember him sitting us on his knee and telling us that Mum had died. I remember running out to Nanna Atkin and asking if it was true and she said it was. I ran to the neighbour's house and asked my playmate, William, a boy only a year older than me, whether he knew – and he did.

And in my little-girl mind, I remember being so confused. How could Mum have died without saying goodbye? Not one last cuddle, not one final kiss on the forehead. And so I decided they had all gotten it wrong. That they were clearly confusing her with someone else's mother. And I determined that I would only believe it when I saw her name on a gravestone.

In England, the ground is left to settle for several months after a funeral before a headstone is erected, to prevent it becoming uneven. And so I floated in this kind of half-reality, acutely aware that my world had shifted irrevocably, acutely aware that there was a sadness hanging over my family but not willing to think about why. In the company of my father who, in spite of his determination not to display emotion, and even despite the fact
their marriage was rocky, had lost a woman he had loved. The mother of his three children; his wife. When eventually I did see the gravestone, just over our hedge – the local churchyard was adjacent to our garden – I was probably too young to process it.

From an early age I didn't really feel like I could discuss Mum's death with anyone. I remember when I was at school, Mrs Baker, the teacher, would show me extraordinary kindness. When all the other kids were out playing, she'd allow me to sneak back into the library corner and lose myself in books. It was my escape, my comfort – I would lose myself in imaginary worlds. And that's been a pattern throughout my life – I have always sought the solace of books.

Dad never did cry. Or if he did, I never saw it. I suppose in those days dads didn't have a lot of hands-on interaction with their kids like fathers today. Nurturing was the mother's role. The most emotional I have seen my dad was when he came to Australia for Luke's funeral. It was as if he used the opportunity to grieve in a way he hadn't done before. I remember him talking about my mum to people after we had laid Luke to rest, which I'd never heard him do.

Neither I nor my two brothers have ever married. My journey as an adult has been to understand why I am who I am. And I have come to understand that the depth of trauma we suffered as small kids has taken a huge toll on all three of our lives.

Without a mother around, and with a caring but distant father, I turned instinctively to my grandparents and cousins to fill the emotional void in my life. As the oldest of my siblings, and perhaps also as the only girl, I was lucky in that I was able to seek it out more readily than my brothers were. I have always felt a sense of responsibility for them.

I remember when my mum died being scared of going to bed and crying whenever it was bedtime. And I remember Dad
telling me, ‘Don't cry – you have to be a big girl for your brothers.' Despite the fact I was only six years old, I learned how to not cry whenever I was sad or in pain, because I didn't want to upset my little brothers, and because I wanted to please my dad. So there I was, in bed at night in a big, dark, cold farmhouse, sad, alone and too scared to get up and go to the toilet in the night. For a period of time I routinely wet my bed, which was obviously an embarrassment. After Mum died, all three of us kids went through a phase where we routinely soiled ourselves, and we were made to feel ashamed of it. Decades later, when I was studying for a community welfare degree, I discovered it was a common response to trauma. Soiling occurs whenever there are periods of emotional distress. I can talk about it now, but was so ashamed of it as a child.

Dad was just not capable of showing emotion. My dad didn't have an especially good upbringing from his parents. I think even he would admit they were emotionally neglectful. And so, Dad did the best he could with the tools he had been given.

Dad loved my mum's family. She came from a big family with four brothers, and they were all close in a way Dad hadn't experienced with his own family. They were demonstrative with their emotions, and I suppose he was drawn to them because of it. Once Mum died, Dad made sure we still spent plenty of time with Mum's family. All our school holidays were spent in Brandesburton. We would either stay with Nanna Atkin or with one or two of the aunties. All of us cousins adored our grandparents, and they ended up being a formative influence in all of our lives.

My grandfather taught me how to write letters and wrap presents. He taught me the importance of writing cards to people and the power of the written word. When later I was sent to boarding school, he would write to me regularly. He taught me things that maybe my dad was unable to.

But it was Nanna Atkin who made the most lasting impact on my childhood and adolescence. Her name was Gertrude Atkin, and she would go on to live to one hundred. She taught me to be curious about life and people. She taught me, above all, that family was paramount. Nanna was really proud of her family – from humble beginnings her sons all did well, building their own businesses. And of course she had loved my mum – as a mother loves her only daughter.

Nanna Atkin always had lots of friends. Life around her was never dull. Even in her sunset years, she kept her ‘marbles', as she called them, by watching quiz shows and playing Scrabble. Fiercely independent, she lived in her own home to the end. She didn't go to church regularly. She was a Methodist, though, and while not a strict one, religion did inform the way she lived her life. I grew up going to Sunday School and being connected to the local church.

Nanna Atkin hailed from the era where you changed clothes in the afternoon in preparation for dinner. She never wore a pair of trousers in her life. She always wore a bit of lipstick and she never got drunk, only ever indulging in the occasional glass of sherry. She never had a lot of money and never in her hundred years did she travel overseas. For a large part of my childhood, Nanna Atkin and my grandfather ran a fish-and-chip shop, and I remember helping them with the chip machine and prepping the newspapers for wrapping.

She always had a great sense of humour. I remember sitting with Grandma and Grandpa Atkin watching
The Benny Hill Show
The Black and White Minstrel Show
Dad's Army
. Most of all, I used to love listening to their music. Jim Reeves was a particular favourite, and we'd sit together on the settee, playing Scrabble and listening to him warble, the crackle of needle on vinyl. When I was older, Grandpa would sometimes make me a ‘snowball'
(advocaat and lemonade). Even as a teenager, I sought out their company and enjoyed being around them. Most of the time we would just sit. It was enough to be in one another's company. Nanna would sew or embroider and Grandpa would read the newspaper or watch television.

We'd eat Yorkshire pudding at Sunday dinner. She was a really good cook, my nanna, a complete mistress in the kitchen of a very traditionally English repertoire. Nanna was never one to moan about ailments. When she no longer had the strength in her arms to mash the potatoes for dinner, she would put the saucepan on the kitchen floor and use her body weight. And she was always up for new things. She learned how to use a microwave at the age of a hundred – and very pleased with herself she was too.

More than anything else to me, she was a connection to my mum. Without ever really knowing or acknowledging it, I suppose my desire to spend time with her was borne of a desire to get to know the mother I never knew. And she would talk about Mum, reminisce about her as a girl and often remark how I behaved or looked exactly like her. And I took enormous comfort from that.

Nanna Atkin really wanted to turn a hundred – it was a milestone for her. And she made it, too. She had a lovely party, but because I had just given birth to Luke I was unable to go. Six months later we did manage to travel to England, and Nanna at last met my little boy. She got to see him roll over for the first time and that was really special and important to me. For the longest time during my adulthood, Nanna Atkin had badgered me about finding a husband and settling down. For her to see me so happy with Luke meant the world to both of us. I suppose she knew – just as I was beginning to understand – how becoming a mother would so utterly fulfil me.

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