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My story starts out a long time ago, in a far-off land. I lived in a house by the sea with my widowed mother and sister. Some would call our light blue house a mansion; it was certainly grand. Father designed the house himself ; taking inspiration from an Alexandrine merchants house . As a Sea Captain he traveled the world, and had seen many houses. But one stormy night, the sea claimed him.
For ten year’s mother was inconsolable. Her ball gowns rotted in grand wardrobes, fancy slippers wore out and were not replaced. Dressmakers and tailors took their business elsewhere, when accounts were not settled.
We played like urchins, climbing trees, making camps from old furniture and drapes. My sister, fashioned books from scrap paper and string. We were both avid readers, but the library became our winter fuel. Each Christmas we were allowed one extravagance and invariably we chose the puppet show.
Dante’s puppeteers travelled the land with their show, but every Christmas Eve they stopped at our town. It was said that his oldest son was conceived in the local tavern. So the Christmas show was his way of saying thank you.
It was at one such show that mother met Mr Gaines. There was something familiar and reassuring about the handsome stranger who blocked her view. Much to our annoyance they fell into a deep conversation. But the smile on mothers face made it impossible for us not to forgive his intrusion.
Later we learnt that he was a Sea Captain, like our dear departed father. His wife had died during childbirth, leaving him a daughter to raise as best he could. Wet-Nurses would never replace her mothers love and for most of the year the sea claimed her father. So our little families were joined. Mother and Gaines married in April. We played the part of bridesmaids and little Cinderella Maid of Honour.
You may have heard a version of Cinderella’s story. The glass slipper, pumpkin coach and handsome prince. You will certainly have heard of the ugly sisters and wicked Stepmother. Mother died before this story became common currency. My sister and I have not been so fortunate.
Gaines abandoned mother for the sea soon after the wedding. He paid the bills and put food on our table. Gave us a step-sister who was unused to the rigor of everyday life. Our stepfathers idea of a household budget did not stretch to maids or serving girls. We continued as before, sharing the housework.
Cinders dreamed away her days, rather than help out. She allowed the kitchen to become infested with mice. Dressed in rags, rather than mend her clothes. But she always had time for this charming man and that charming man; who was always going to sweep her off those dainty little feet.
Life changed for us all when Cinders met James Dante. She performed beautifully for the puppeteer’s son, who reciprocated with a proposal of marriage. Nine months later, they exchanged vows at twelve midday. As the hour was struck, Cinder’s drew her father and husband close. We looked on, threw confetti and wished them well.
As time passed, stepfathers allowance grew smaller. His attention shifted to new grandchildren, and a business partnership formed with Dante. We made excuses for him, disguised our poverty as best we could. But it was difficult to ignore the gossip, spread by people who revelled in our misfortune. The Cinderella story, being the most untrue, was also the most popular.
Stepfather lived to a ripe old age, he saw mother buried in a pauper’s grave and his Grandchildren read the Cinderella story to their children. His will made no provision for the old family.
You may be surprised that I wish my stepsister well. As one of the ugly-sisters, I have many reasons not to. But she remains to me, the spoilt little girl who liked Pink dresses and glass slippers. Our lives had perfect symmetry, when we all lived together in a light blue house by the sea. It’s just a shame it was not happily ever-after.
Ten years ago I must have had a lot of energy. I worked forty plus hours a week, and was on-call one weekend in four. I was training for a marathon, so ran with a running club on Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. Sunday was the long one, close to twenty miles. And I also lifted weights, at lunchtimes and after work; on average three times a week. Yet with all this activity, I still had time for an evening class at London University and for socialising.
On Friday night through to Saturday, I looked after my four year old daughter. We had a routine. Meal at home on Friday, and a trip out on Saturday. The trip invariably involved a meal at a child friendly restaurant, a visit to the park (come rain or shine) and some down time at home.
Weekends, particularly Saturdays were also the time for children’s birthday parties: so when one of her nursery class reached the grand old age of five; I would either be dropping her off or attending. Weekend dad’s like myself tended to group together at such events; we were the odd one’s out I suppose.
I remember one such party was held in the street where the poetess Sylvia Plath, drew her last breath. I pointed the house out to my daughter, and mentioned the fact she was famous, but that was all. Anyway the memory is still there, implanted forever. The entertainment was a clown; the mere sight of him terrified my daughter. But eventually the lure of party food and balloons drew her closer to the action.
As she skipped towards her friends a weekend dad turned to me and said, “Party duty again.”
Party Duty November, 2003
Daddy is late again today. He hurries round forgetting things, picking up cushions, rummaging through his pockets, jangling keys and loose change. Daddy looks at me and says:
“I won’t be mad with you Dusty, if you went through my pockets and played with my keys. Are you sure you didn’t just take them out and hide them somewhere”.
He’s most confusing when he’s like this. All flustered, little droplets of sweat running through the furrows in his brow. He’s not angry with me though. But he’s starting to get angry with something, it must be those keys.
“No daddy” I say, “I haven’t seen your keys”, and even give him some helpful advice; “Maybe you left them at Nannies Dad”.
But that’s not right apparently, its just plain impossible he says. He asks me to explain how we managed to get home without them, but I can’t. He runs up stairs very quickly and starts slamming doors, then he shouts very loud:
“God help me”.
He swears and curses, which makes no sense, especially if he’s wanting help from God. I say a little prayer, so God knows that Daddy did not really mean to swear, he was just mad with those bloody car keys.
I always find that moving around during times like these is a bad idea; I just get in his way. So I sit down, on the sofa and watch some TV. But the TV just makes him more annoyed when he gets downstairs. He asks me to stop watching TV and concentrate.
“Now try and remember if you’ve seen the keys anywhere, please Dusty”.
I just shake my head, I see a picture of the keys in my mind, but they are suspended in the air, in some nowhere place. Then I have a brilliant idea.
“What about the spare set Dad”.
A smile flashes on his face for a second, then it crumbles, like a melting snowman.
“Great Dusty, I’ll just travel to Birmingham and get the spare set from mummy. We’ll get the train, bet she will be really happy to see us, Not!”
I was half believing in our trip to see mummy, then he had to go and spoil it. I think Daddy realises he’s said the wrong thing and makes an excuse:
“Mummy’s working in Birmingham, and wouldn’t be too happy if we turned up at her audition. So lets see if we can find those keys and get ourselves some proper lunch, before the jelly and ice-cream”
I really love The Diner; you know the best thing about it are the seats. They have two types: Big red and white leatherette bucket seats (that’s like a plastic leather), they remind me of the back seat in Dad’s car, but without seatbelts and crumbs. Then they have tall stools, round a counter, which snakes through the centre of the restaurant. The stools are covered with red leatherette and have a shiny silver stalk, but I hardly ever get to sit on them. We always sit in the booths, which have two bucket seats and a Formica topped table in the middle. It looks like a big bag of multi-coloured jelly babies, were squashed up and poured into the tabletop mix.
“Good enough to eat if you were Formica man,” I accidentally say out loud, which makes our waitress laugh.
This is my treat for finding Daddies keys, we found them together so he chose the prize, and later I get to go to Rosie’s birthday party. Not that I was not always going, its just Dad sometimes says rash things. When he’s mad, then forgets all about them when he calms down. Like when he said Rosie’s party was cancelled because we had no car. I wanted to cry when he said getting a bus was out of the question, because of the cold. But he’s only thinking of me, after all what would Mummy say if he brought me back with a runny nose.
Dad made me take off my coat and hat, and sat there in his favourite chair, staring at the blank telly.
“Why don’t we look on the table downstairs” I say. But he just fiddles with the remote control. I see his finger mover over the one button, the one for kids TV. Then he comes back to life, like a DVD going from paused to play.
“Let’s take a look downstairs” he says, like it was his idea. So we both raced down the three flights of stairs to the cold hall. On the way I saw a picture from the night before; dad stopping at the letter table in the hall, putting down his car keys and reading the post. Then I saw the keys, twinkling on the letter table. Dad shouted:
“Great, how did they get there,” and punched the air. I did the same and danced round and round, singing “Daddy’s found the keys, Daddy’s found the keys”, until he told me to hurry-up and get my coat on.
He’s talking to the blond haired waitress now. She’s the one he always talks to; she looks nothing like Mummy with her big eyelashes and lipstick. And she always says the same thing, like a talking doll. Dad always laughs as if it’s the first time he’s heard her story. She likes to guess our order, which makes me want to change mine, but I never do: the baby-dog and chocolate malt are just too scrummy. Daddy leaves lots of change for her and sometimes makes me run over with his payment. She pats my head as we leave, which makes me mad, but I say nothing because Daddy’s in a good mood.
Its Christmas , but there is still time to sneak in an e-book into the stocking, why not include something topical and original !
Available to buy on kindle : click here for amazon.
The original draft of When Dad Lost His Job, was written in fury. It came as I meditated on the on the cost of Margaret Thatcher’s funeral, and the fact that more and more people are reliant on food banks to feed their children.
I passed the text on to couple of friends; both female, one’s an economist, the other a teacher. There were two main points of criticism: one, it was too depressing and quite scary (in the original both parents are unemployed and one develops a serious illness). And the second point of criticism was the book offered no hope. The move at the end of the book had the child estranged from her grandparents.
Family configurations vary; many children have one or more grandparents. Many are cared for and given a safe-haven by a grandparent. Books tend to shy away from the sad reality that biological parents do not always make fit parents. I, like a lot of children from my class and background experienced a grandparent as a surrogate parent. Not only did I receive the usual gifts of sweets and toys from my grandmother, she also provided clothes, food and shelter.
The child in When Dad Lost His Job may not live with her grandparents, but her life is sustained by them. It’s grandmother who pays the parents household bills, and the grandparent’s caravan provides a holiday. They provide much needed hope and financial support.
Real world examples of this are happening every day. I know of a family who without the support of a grandparent in her 80s, would have been forced to default on their mortgage. And for those without such support: there are food banks and squalid temporary accommodation. There’s hopelessness hard to imagine if you only breathe the rarefied air of Westminster.
When Dad Lost His Job, contains no dedication, but if it did I would dedicate the book to my grandmother: a woman who supported a whole family of unemployed brothers during the last depression; who lit a fire for her (shoeless) pupils to warm their feet; and who taught me how to be compassionate and humane.
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Available to buy on kindle : click here for amazon.
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