Read A Mother's Story Online

Authors: Rosie Batty

A Mother's Story (3 page)

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Growing Up

I don't know if it has anything to do with losing my mum at such a young age, but I was a tomboy growing up. I spent most of my spare time playing with my brothers and the boy next door, William. Being tough and able to hold my own in the fights that invariably broke out was really important to me. I focused more on trying to be the toughest I could be rather than a really feminine girl.

But I did like playing with dolls. I received my favourite doll from my godmother when my mother died – her miniature clothes had been made by Nanna Atkin. Her underwear was fashioned out of a dish cloth and her outfit was hand knitted. The doll was very pretty, with lovely long blonde hair and blue eyes. I found her recently in the back of a cupboard, and I remember as a girl keeping all my most treasured possessions in a little cupboard in my bedroom.

For a long time when I was growing up, I remember being ashamed I didn't have appropriate clothes. Because the job of buying our clothes fell to Dad after Mum died, my wardrobe
could best be described as ‘function over form'. Let's just say there wasn't much in the way of pink – or even dresses, for that matter. Of course, there wasn't the same focus on looking presentable or being fashionable back then. It wasn't a part of village life, and it wasn't really a part of a kid's life in 1970s Britain.

Not that I was overly fussed. It was all about sport for me at school. At my primary school, I was the best at sport by a long shot for quite a few years. Of course, it never occurred to me that this might have something to do with the competition at my tiny village school being not all that impressive. I was quickly cut down to size when I went to high school, no longer a big fish in a little pond. But I still managed to hold my own. Running was my sport, and my fondest memories of primary school were sports days where I won every race, be it running, egg and spoon or sack races.

When I was old enough for high school, Dad decided that it would be best for me to go to private school. I was devastated. Not only were all my friends going to the local public high school, but the new school was a Catholic school, while we were Church of England. And in those days, that meant something. So, at the age of eleven, and with nothing but fear and resentment in my heart, I was dispatched to St Joseph's Convent in Lincoln. In truth, Lincoln was only across the bridge from Laneham – not far away at all. But when my life had been defined by the boundaries of a couple of fields and the banks of the River Trent, it felt like another world.

My friends in Laneham were all horrified I was being sent away to become a ‘nun'. I was just really angry and, once again, forced to deal alone with what was a fairly traumatic experience in my young life. To make things worse, being Anglican in a Catholic school in those days meant the nuns went out of their
way to remind me how spiritually inferior I was to the other students, making little comments all the time about me being there at their indulgence.

I tried really hard at school the first year, and I won the class prize. At the end of first year, we staged a nativity play. I had been chosen to play an angel.

My teacher told everyone in the cast to get their mothers to help them sew their costumes.

‘Please, miss,' I said timidly to the teacher, fighting back tears. ‘I don't have a mum.' Not having a mum made me feel different.

After passing a nasty note in class to one of my friends, I was hauled before the headmistress, who promptly informed me, ‘You are only at this school because you lost your mother, not because we want you here.' At that point I shut down completely. By the time I reached my third year at high school I was a full-blown delinquent.

When I was twelve, Dad announced he was remarrying. As it turned out, I had met my new stepmother, Josephine, months before. She was from Dunedin in New Zealand and had met my father through a mutual friend while working in London as a nanny. That first time we'd met we got on really well. Josephine was kind and young (at twenty-eight she was almost closer in age to me than my dad, who was forty-two at the time), and in the confines of the village she was a breath of fresh air.

But when Dad told me he was getting married I laughed. I knew he'd had girlfriends, but it never occurred to me he would actually remarry. I had become used to being the only female in the house and now my status was about to be overturned. More significantly, I felt that Mum was about to be replaced, and that Josephine would take my dad away from me.

When Josephine first arrived, it was a huge adjustment for us kids. I'm old enough and sensible enough now to look back and see that it must have been just as difficult for her, moving in with three children and becoming a step parent overnight. But, over time, Josephine introduced some much-needed discipline and structure into our household.

I started to ride horses around this time. At the end of school each day, I would go straight to the riding school. I've always had an affinity with animals. Whether it's a consequence of having been raised in a rural setting or whether I gravitated to the company of animals to fill the void in my emotional life, I can't say. All I know is, as long as I can remember, I have had a host of pets – rabbits, dogs, goats, cats, chickens and donkeys. There's something uncomplicated and wonderfully straightforward about the love of – and for – an animal.

Love for a different kind of animal reared its head in my early teens too: boys suddenly became far more interesting as I reached the ages of thirteen and fourteen. The timing may purely have been coincidental, but it was also around this time that I started to get into trouble at school.

Looking back, I am sure becoming a troublemaker was in no small part in reaction to my unhappy home life. I was confused and scared, and I felt I was having to navigate it all on my own, so I acted up at school. At the end of my third year, I received a report that was so appalling I didn't have the gumption to show it to Dad and Josephine. Instead, I began petitioning to become a weekly boarder.

And so, for the last two years of my school life I spent the week at school and the weekends at home. It was the best thing I could have done. The sisters ran a tight ship, with Sister Winifred waking us each morning at the crack of dawn by ringing a
big bell, whereupon we had to sit bolt upright in bed and start reciting the Hail Mary. Despite being an Anglican, not only had I picked up the arcane rituals of the Catholic Church with startling alacrity, but I threw myself into them, relishing the structure and certainty they seemed to provide. And while I wouldn't describe myself as a religious person now, I developed a spirituality that I cherish and that nourishes and comforts me to this day.

We would study before breakfast, then trot off to class. For reasons I'm still not entirely sure about, we were not allowed to shower mid-week, and were allowed only one bath a week, so my hair would become so greasy.

Despite enjoying a marked rise in my academic fortunes, and starting to take home impressive grades, I nevertheless determined to leave school at the age of sixteen, having passed a handful of O levels. The declaration that I'd had enough of schooling went largely unchallenged as I had secured myself a good job.

Not even Sister Winifred had the energy to oppose me, a decision made easier, I daresay, after she caught sight of my latest hairdo. Deciding it was time to up the fashion ante, I had gone off and gotten a perm at the local hair salon. They were very fashionable at the time, difficult though it is to believe now. My head turned into a frizzy mop. Dad didn't recognise me the first time he saw me with it. Sister Winifred took one look and declared, ‘Batty, you look like a washer woman.' It took a month for the perm to ‘settle'.

Months later I started working as a junior bank clerk in nearby Retford. I probably thought at the time that I was the very model of a modern working girl, revelling in the independence and what I can only imagine now was a piddling weekly pay packet.

Meanwhile, back on the home front, things were about to take a dramatic turn. Five years into their marriage, Dad and
Josephine welcomed my half-brother, Terry, into the world. We all adored him. I couldn't stop hugging him. I was seventeen years old and suddenly helping to care for a newborn, and I couldn't have been happier. I would come home from work and immediately take him off Josephine's hands. And over time, caring for Terry served to bring us closer.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the world of high finance in the rural branch of a small bank failed to fire my imagination for too long, and so I began to wonder what lay beyond the stone walls and green fields of English village life. It was this natural curiosity that Josephine had always fostered, that led me to a new life in Austria. I had spied an advertisement for an agency placing English au pairs with European families, and I recognised it as my ticket out of there. And so, with only a backpack and a hopelessly inadequate grasp of German, I decided to head to Innsbruck to work as a live-in nanny.

I spent the first few weeks after arriving crippled by homesickness. By day I was looking after a two-year-old and a four-year-old whom I couldn't understand, and by night I cried myself to sleep. But I was too proud to tell anyone, a trait that would prove hard to shake later on in my life.

My employees were a wonderfully stereotypical Austrian family who were kind enough in their way but perhaps a little dull for my adventurous twenty-year-old spirit. Mercifully, not long after arriving I met Sue, another young English girl au pairing for a local family. We hit it off immediately and set about exploring Innsbruck by night, a far more interesting and entertaining place than you might imagine. Mind you, coming as I did from the bustling metropolis that was Laneham, an outpost of the Soviet Empire in Siberia would have looked cosmopolitan. I was so fantastically unworldly that I used to wait
for Sue outside her apartment each night wondering what all the scantily clad women were doing lounging against street lamps. Sue and I would go to the nightclubs of Innsbruck until five in the morning then come home, get the kids off to school and sleep until their pick-up time.

It shouldn't have come as a huge surprise (and yet it did) when the family and I had a falling out. I discovered they had been phoning home to my parents, complaining about my extracurricular activities. I threw an impetuous strop of the kind only a twenty-year-old in a foreign country who doesn't know a soul would, and packed my bags and left. I was furious, I was homeless – and I was determined more than ever not to go home.

Not long after, I was placed with another family in the even smaller Austrian town of Thaur. It was a pretty little Austrian village, but even more isolated than Innsbruck. I read a lot and smoked a lot of cigarettes. As my language improved, I got to know many of the local Austrians around my age, including Richard. He was a few years older than me and rather conveniently lived in the apartment downstairs. He was extremely good-looking, didn't speak a word of English and took me out a lot. We found ourselves conducting one of those wonderfully wordless romantic affairs that are the exclusive preserve of young travellers everywhere.

Richard had a false leg, having lost one of his limbs in a motorcycle accident, but he was one of the best skiers I had ever seen. I liked him because he never moaned about his disability. If he wasn't skiing, he was rock climbing or dragging me to Munich for Joe Cocker, Chris de Burgh and Supertramp concerts. (It was 1982. They were the height of cool back then.) In Thaur I also met Coleen, another nanny who lived a few doors down. Coleen was from Vancouver and we became good
friends. Together we would travel down to Riva del Garda in Italy's lake district, hunkered down in my tiny Renault 5. I loved Austria for its neat collection of cookie-cutter buildings and general orderliness, but the ruggedness of Italy – the unkempt houses, the comparatively impetuous and passionate people – also really appealed to me.

Once my Austrian nanny contract came to an end, I bade farewell to Thaur and Coleen and met up with my friend Alison in Geneva. We spent two or three months driving around Europe together. Through the French Alps, across what was then called Yugoslavia and down along the Adriatic coast my little Renault faithfully carried us. We had about two pennies to rub together between us, so a lot of time was spent eating bread and sleeping uncomfortably in the front seats of the Renault.

Whenever we could, we would find an out-of-the-way campsite and pitch our little two-man tent. On one occasion, we arrived at dusk, put up our tent and only discovered it was a nudist camp when we woke in the morning to the sight of countless naked middle-aged German people hunched over campfires, cooking their breakfast. We went topless as a gesture, but were too self-conscious to join the crowd.

By the time I returned to Laneham, I was twenty-one years old – and a whole lot more worldly and experienced than when I'd left. All roads in town traditionally led to the Butchers Arms. It was the pub to which everyone my age gravitated. Walking into the Butchers and ordering a gin and tonic was always, for me, when I knew I was home.

I had been back from Europe only a day or two when, one evening, I recognised a bloke I had once had a serious flirtation with. Nothing untoward, of course, because I had become a
good Catholic boarding school girl, but there had always been a mutual attraction. His name was Phil, he was my age and he was an uncharacteristically good-looking farmer from the local area.

Before I had gone overseas, Phil had had a serious car accident. The passenger in the car he was driving had been killed, and Phil had ended up on life support. He lost his arm in the process. He was still the same cheeky, flirtatious guy that I remembered. As he chatted me up, I was impressed that, in the face of something that could have knocked him down, he had picked himself up and was forging on with life. Phil had been brain-damaged in the accident, which had slowed down his speech. He wasn't the same bloke I had known two years previously, but he still had the same glint in his eye – and he was still good-looking. So Phil and I started seeing each other.

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