Writing What I Don’t Remember

July 28, 2022 § 10 Comments

By Helen Bouchami

For the first two years of my life I lived, with my parents, in the coal cellar of my grandparents’ boarding house. In the immediate post-war years, housing was scarce, but other rooms in the house, proper bedrooms, were available but kept locked, reserved for visitors who might seek respite from the ‘dark satanic mills’ of inland Lancashire in this, their favourite seaside resort.

I suspect this experience had a profound psychological effect on me, the more potent for being unconscious. But how to write about what I don’t remember?

At a Rebirth Your Book writing retreat in Tuscany last October, a prompt by Dinty W. Moore led me to tackle this very challenge.

What were my sources?

  • What my father told me
    That although our living quarters were in the cellar, we had a bed – just one – in an attic room, too small to accommodate a cot. So, I wrote:

At night, my parents plucked me from the cot and carried me up the cellar steps, then two flights more, to the tiny room beneath the eaves, barely large enough for the one double bed.

  • Written materials
    From a short story my father wrote, using the cellar as a setting:

The whitewashed brick walls bore pencilled scribblings where the previous occupant, an undertaker, had calculated coffin measurements – length, width, depth –here a six-footer, there a tiny baby. So many lives reduced to scrawling on a cellar wall.

  • My mother’s recollections
    She described the animosity with which were treated. My grandmother often locked her (and me in my pushchair) out of the house, shouting abuse through the door, and if, when passing through the kitchen, I ventured a ‘Hello Grandma,’ she turned her back.

Was I so unappealing as a toddler, so unworthy of a grandmother’s doting attention, unwanted, unloved? I would later understand that the sins of the father had been visited upon me, but not before I internalised these messages, made more powerful because of my lack of childish understanding.
 It must be me.

  • Locale Visits
    I’ve seen the boarding house from the outside (my grandparents later moved)

The only daylight penetrating the gloom of the basement came from a grating, standing some two feet above ground level, and casting prison-bar shadows across the bare floor.

  • Photographs

From tiny black and white images, I know my parents took me to Blackpool’s Stanley Park.

There I sit, a tuft of fine dark hair sticking up in a quiff, plump legs splayed beneath the skirt of a white dress, my hands reaching for a beachball. My father lounges alongside on the grass, formally dressed in jacket and tie.

  • Research
    I know the park well from later visits, and online research confirmed that the buildings and layout hadn’t changed over the years. But before I speculated that feeding the ducks might have been an obvious activity for a toddler, I also discovered that bread rationing was in force.

At the nearby boating lake, ducks and swans clamoured for crusts but few, residents, or visitors, could spare any bread from their ration. And the art deco café, overlooking the formal Italian gardens, guarded by two stone Medici lions, could offer no more than a cup of tea while post-war privations endured. But whatever its limitations, the park offered respite from our living quarters, where hostility seeped out of every brick of that house, that cellar.

  • Imagination
    Otherwise, I relied on my imagination, signalling it as such

Though neither of my parents mentioned it, I don’t imagine a coal cellar offering en-suite facilities. Perhaps they made use of a guest bathroom. I picture my mother, in her flowered tabard apron, bent over a bathtub scrubbing clothes or bathing me, straightening occasionally to ease her back, her belly big with my yet-unborn brother.

Or about the bed, I speculated-

It was probably my mother’s before her marriage. She had arrived at the boarding house in search of work at the age of fourteen, freshly escaped from the convent orphanage where she had been confined since she was six, until this, her last, and finally successful, breakout. Knowing her love of reading, I imagine her escaping the drudgery and ostracism of her day in the pages of a book. Would my grandmother have afforded her the luxury of a bedside lamp, or the use of electricity into the later hours, or did she read covertly, by torchlight under the blankets? By the time the war started, my parents were courting, but even on leave periods, I doubt that they ever shared a bed before marriage, given my mother’s convent conditioning and my grandparents’ disapproval of this match.

But almost certainly, this was the bed in which I was conceived.

These sources: photos, visits, research, photos, what I’d been told and what I’d read are at least as reliable as the personal memories from which I create my memoir – a scaffolding, the warp threads of my canvas, though which I can weave the weft of my imagination, adding detail and colour.

Helen Bouchami is a UK-based writer and author of a memoir, Am I Still a Mother? When not writing, she keeps busy squandering her grandchildren’s inheritance on travel, the arts and good champagne. Find her on Twitter.

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