Handstands In The Dark: A True Story of Growing Up and Survival (8 page)

BOOK: Handstands In The Dark: A True Story of Growing Up and Survival
12.66Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

On one occasion, Margaret asked me to stay the night with her; my Uncle David was away and would not be coming home. She did not like staying there alone so I agreed. They only had one bed in their flat. That night, while I was asleep, my Uncle David Percy did come home; he crept into bed beside his wife and me. I awoke in the early hours of that morning to feel fingers creeping into my knickers. I thought it was his wife; I could not believe it. I sat upright to see my abuser’s face staring at me in the early morning light. His wife was asleep beside him. He did not care and carried on trying to pull me towards him. His new baby was in a cot in the same room. I jumped out of the bed and shouted:

‘Margaret! Wake up!’

The baby screamed.

My abuser hissed at me to be quiet and looked shit-scared.

‘Shut up!’ he whispered at me. ‘Shush! Shush!’

Margaret sat up in bed and I saw her eyes. She knew.
She knew

‘Are you all right?’ she asked me.

I stood in their cold flat and pulled on my jeans. I had the words of my Guidance Teacher, Mr Burgess, swirling in my head.
Go to the police. Don’t let anybody hurt you. Always go to the police
. I told Margaret that I just wanted to go home now; she tried to reason with me to stay as it was about 5.00 a.m. I turned to my Uncle and shouted at him:

‘If you ever touch me again, I’ll go to the fucking Polis, ye bastard!’ I turned to Margaret. ‘He was
me,’ I said and pointed at him.

Margaret looked at him with cold eyes; I walked out of the flat and ran all the way home. I will never know what he told her but, the next time I saw Margaret, nothing more was said. Nothing more was
said about it. She never asked me why I left that early to run back to my Mammy. It was as if it had never happened.

* * *

In the winter of that same year, I took a really bad attack of the mumps. They went away, but complications followed and I was petrified I was going to be put in hospital; I was scared of nurses touching me and doctors probing my body. I started being sick and sick and sick and lost too much weight and this, together with the after-effects of the infection, left me very weak. I would lie on a pull-down sofabed in the living room watching television; I loved
The Sweeney
because bad people always got caught and I would try to keep myself from vomiting all the way through the show so I could follow the plot. My Mammy was really concerned and I had many visits from our GP who gave me some health drink which I never managed to keep down.

On one particular night, I lay in the darkened living room with the smell of vomit on my bed and all I could see were Major’s eyes silently watching me as I tried to make it to the toilet. I could not stand up – it was as if my legs were too thin and shaky to support me – so I crawled on all fours until I made it to the bathroom door. Major slowly walked beside me all the way. I sat at the door and passed out for a moment. When I came round, I was dizzy and scared, but Major sat curled around me on the cold floor. I thought I was going to die. I didn’t care if I died or not, but I felt so desperately weak and ill. I made it to the toilet and crawled back to bed, with Major sitting there all night watching me and whimpering as I hung over the bed to vomit into a white plastic bucket. Occasionally, he would put his paw up onto the grubby candlewick bedspread and get me to rub his head as I lay there waiting for the illness to slowly work itself out of my body. I had always loved Major but never before needed him that much. He was there for me. He knew that I was ill and would hardly leave my bedside.

* * *

My brother Mij came to visit my sick-bed with his new, live-in girlfriend Cathy, and my Aunt Rita and Mammy’s Valium pals all came along to make comments about how skinny I was, how sickly I looked and what form of cure I should take.

‘Castor oil is what you need …’

‘Black treacle will cure you …’

‘You should get some good Irish stew down you …’

Dad also came to see me, as he was now back living in Glasgow and, during my time ensconced in the living-room pull-down bed, I was privy to most of the adult conversations that took place while they thought I was asleep. That was how I heard that Mij’s girlfriend Cathy was pregnant.
Was no one safe from the dreaded teenage mother syndrome?
The pregnancy caused more antagonism between Mammy and Mij. He was determined to make this relationship work, but he did not bank on Cathy being as headstrong and bad-tempered as he was. Their fights were just beginning when I started to come through the illness.

We now had Cathy staying, pregnant and feeling stifled in our dirty, overcrowded flat. There were seven of us living in two bedrooms and a living room. Then along came my Uncle James – Mammy’s younger brother – with his wife ‘Crazy Katie Wallace’ and their two kids Sammy and Jackie – and then we also had my Dad’s brother Uncle John on a temporary stay in our flat.

I loved Uncle John – a quiet, funny man with a sparkly character though he had always been a drifter and no one knew much about him. He would look after me and stop Mij from hitting Mammy; I think Mij realised Uncle John was not someone you messed with. He had spent some time in prison when he was younger but, unlike most of the people we knew who had been Inside, he never talked about it at all. He encouraged me to go to school, would listen to all my homework projects and discussed all my written stories. In return, I would steal cigarettes for him from my Mammy. She and Uncle John had a strained relationship. They would circle each other like vicious cats. Mammy would shout at him and accuse him of eating too much or getting in her way; he would never argue back; she would throw cups at him to get a reaction; he would just smile at her and amble away into his bedroom to read his books. This unnerved my Mammy, because she was used to – and liked – a man who fought back. We all lived alongside each other in a cramped, disjointed, dysfunctional kind of harmony.

Major enjoyed snarling at all the new legs as they came and went through our home; he would sniff round the new baby when Ann visited and she would panic in case he took a bite. But poor Major was getting old – he must have been about twelve years old by now and his limbs were getting stiff. One morning, he went out as usual around 6.00 a.m. but, this time, he returned limping. As the week went on, his hindquarters seemed to be getting more painful so my brother Vid took him to the RSPCA vet. Vid loved Major as much as I did and was distraught when he was told the dog had been bitten by a rat. It seemed Major had been fighting with vermin down at the burn where the Gadgies used to shoot rats. The vet advised that ‘The dog should be put to sleep,’ but Vid was determined to keep Major alive. Two nights later, I was lying in the living-room bed when Major came in all limpy and sore. I climbed out of the covers and hugged him. He looked at me as I stroked his hot, matted hair. He put his head on my knees and died, right there on my legs.

I screamed at the top of my voice.

Vid came running in and held Major with me. We both kept trying to rub him and make him alive again. We could not believe he was dead. Mammy even shed a tear as we stood round his dead body. I could not be consoled. I had to help Vid lift Major and we both took him to the old burn bridge and buried him in the mud. I spent months after his death looking at the one photo I had of him, missing him so much that it was a physical ache in my chest. He had been my only true pal, my protector, and now he was gone for ever. He haunted my dreams. In sleep, we would run together over the football fields; I would laugh as he pulled his leash from the door handle and swipe it at me. But the nightmares were still there, too. I would dream I was being buried under the floor of a cellar beneath a castle. It was dark and then I would be in a prisoner-of-war tunnel as if I were trying to escape from Colditz and I would get stuck in the tunnel. Always underground. I am trapped underground. I try to escape by going through a door, but the door is too small to get through and the tiny passage is too narrow to get through and I can’t escape.

* * *

By now, Mij had returned to his old ways. He would hit his girlfriend Cathy; my Mammy would batter Mij for hitting Cathy; Mij would then batter my Mammy for hitting him; and Cathy would hit Mij for battering my Mammy; so Mij would hit Cathy again; and it became a circus. Mij’s wee baby Debbie would sit there looking at everyone hitting everyone else and not even scream. Just look silently. Taking it all in behind her baby eyes.

During the week, Mij worked as a porter at Glasgow Royal Infirmary, so that gave us all some respite from his temper tantrums. He was still a fantasist. He boasted he had performed brain surgery on a patient; the man lived and was cured. And, one night, he brought home some equipment from the surgical wards. One of these items was a very sharp and scary scalpel. Mij wielded it, for fun, as if he were some homicidal heart specialist. A few nights later, in the midst of a heated argument with Mammy in our kitchen, he held the blade right up to her face, almost touching her cheek. I was so terrified he would cut her that I put up my left hand to stop him. He accidentally sliced through my wrist, just missing the artery, but blood spurted onto his face, onto the wall and down onto my Mammy’s jumper. As I turned my wrist, some blood spurted upwards and hit clothes hanging from the ceiling pulley. I had to be rushed to the Royal Infirmary with a dirty, very smelly pillowcase wrapped tightly round my wrist, which I’d done myself. Mij was frantic, Mammy was panicking and I just bled. I had to have the slash on my wrist sealed with butterfly straps and I still carry the scar.

I had, by this time, had more than enough of Mij’s violence. A few weeks later, I did run up to the Police Office and reported to the desk sergeant that my brother had been hitting me.

‘We cannae dae nothing unless ye charge him,’ the policeman told me.

‘Well, I’ll charge him, then,’ I replied.

An officer came down to our house to confront Mij and I was beyond caring what reaction this would cause. Mij was sitting on the living-room couch.

‘This wee lassie came up to see us because you’ve been hitting her,’ the policeman said.

‘Ah well,’ Mij replied. ‘She was cheeky.’

cheeky,’ said the policeman. ‘Hit
, ye big fucking fat bully. Stop hitting her! If you lift yer hand to her again and she comes tae me, I’m gonna jail ye.’

Mij sat there looking petulant and put down. Afterwards, they all went mental with me.

‘Ye fucking grass!’ Mij yelled at me.

‘Ye fucking brought the Polis here!’ Cathy yelled.

‘That’s all we need,’ my Mammy told me. ‘Our Mij going to jail. Ye know fine well that he’s been in trouble before. You’re a fucking dirty bastard. You’re a bad, bad lassie, Janey.’

By now, I really didn’t care. I felt I had just managed to escape one man who abused me sexually for nine or ten years; I was not about to take on another who abused me physically. That weekend I surpassed myself. My Dad was in Shettleston and I went down to The Waverley and told him, ‘That cut on my hand. It was Mij. He held a knife to my Mammy’s face. I got in the way.’

He put down his pint, walked up to our house and threatened to beat Mij up if he touched any of us again. As usual, when Dad left, Mammy stuck up for Mij and gave me a real mouthful for having ‘grassed’ on her favourite abusive son. I tried to understand but couldn’t: it was the same way she had reacted when she learned her own brother was a paedophile.

* * *

I was still very small and skinny for my age. I had no shape or breasts nor had I menstruated. My body was still a child’s.

‘You’ve got nae tits!’ boys would shout at me in the street.

I was glad to look androgynous, as it meant I avoided any real sexual attention. My social life, though, was beginning to pick up. I was slowly starting to gain a little confidence in myself and was making new pals; I went to school discos where we danced to Mudd, Showaddywaddy and the Rubettes. I had always hated the Beatles and the Rolling Stones because my Uncle had often played their music in the background while he abused me. My own taste was now folk music, Yes, Genesis and watching
The Old Grey Whistle Test
on TV, when I could. I even snogged a few boys because I knew, if you snogged someone, you could become the centre of attention by talking about it later.

Vid’s best friend Charlie had now moved in to join Vid, Mij, Cathy, their small baby Debbie, Uncle John, Mammy and me in our already crowded two-bedroom flat with one small living room, one usually broken non-functioning bath, no hot running water and a skanky kitchen. We had to wash in the kitchen sink and heat up hot water in a pot. Vid and Charlie had been friends since they were tots but were total opposites. Charlie was a Catholic and supported Celtic. Vid was a Protestant and supported Rangers. Charlie – aged 17 – was a flash ladies’ man who looked after his appearance, bought really expensive clothes, always dressed cool and wore Denim Deodorant for Men; Vid had to rely on his gift of the gab.

A lot of the local kids were starting to sniff glue: getting high by inhaling the fumes of strong solvents. I never understood this and always avoided people who did it, but some of my pals had also started drinking alcohol. I tried this but it wasn’t for me either: it made me feel sick and I disliked the feeling of having no control. I also refused to smoke cigarettes because the smell of nicotine on my fingers reminded me of my Uncle David Percy. So my pals would slag me off:

‘You’ve got nae tits, ye don’t smoke, ye don’t drink, what’re ye gonna dae if ye ever
grow up?’

My teenage years were relatively simple in comparison to what some other teenagers got up to – I was not moody, not stroppy, had no real interest in make-up or sexually revealing clothes. I had no need to get involved in the usual conflicts between parents and kids that reflect the child’s need to appear adult; I was not a virgin. Around me in the streets, the punk era was beginning. I had worn ripped clothes with safety pins in them for years out of necessity, now middle-class kids were paying fortunes to buy them from designer shops. They were paying to look poor. I didn’t like punk fashions or music. I loved Supertramp, Steely Dan, Abba, Meatloaf, Kate Bush and many more non-punk singers. Dad bought me a cassette tape recorder so I could sit in my room and tape Radio Luxembourg, which had very bad reception but played fantastic music. The result on my cheap machine was listening to good music interspersed with foreign-language voices breaking in from other European stations.

BOOK: Handstands In The Dark: A True Story of Growing Up and Survival
12.66Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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