When I’m out with my sister walking the dogs our conversation invariably turns to childhood.
This week, for reasons I can’t recall, we were talking about desserts.
“I don’t remember mum making many desserts,” I said. “Apart from the chocolate sponge with chocolate sauce.”
My sister was incredulous and proceeded to spend the majority of the hour-long walk recalling all of the various puddings we’d eaten when we were young. Admittedly, I remembered most of them when prompted.
Talking about our parents sometimes makes my sister melancholic. She often uses affectionate phrases about them which are not words I naturally reach for.
Walking along the path by the side of the school Flynn is sniffing by the hedge looking for bits of sandwich strewn carelessly by the children as they wander home when my sister asks,
“What would you say about your childhood? Would you say it had been happy?”
In the question, I hear an expectation that I’ll tell her it was.
“No.” I answer, “I would say that my childhood was very unhappy.”
She seems a little taken aback, perhaps by the suddenness and ferocity of my reply.
Once, shortly after my mother had died and we were tidying her house readying it for sale, we were sitting in my dining room having eaten dinner together for the first time in probably twenty years.
My sister said, “We didn’t have a bad childhood did we?”
My brother agreed.
I said nothing but thought. “I bloody well did”.
At the time I didn’t understand why they remembered things so differently. Maybe it was happier for them, or maybe they just wanted to remember it that way.
Feeling as if I owe my sister more than a violent rebuff I give a little detail.
“I was unhappy because I hated the fact that mum and dad spent all of their time arguing with each other. Mostly I felt as if I were, at best, caught in the crossfire and at worst totally invisible.”
“Oh Graham, I didn’t know that.”
I go on, “I spent most of my childhood afraid that mum would leave us. Then I grew up and wondered why she hadn’t”
The words hung in the air with the shiny black elderberries.
My sister changes tack.
“Mum always felt she was closest to you. She used to say that you were the only one on her wavelength and that me and Adrian were ‘just like your father’.”
“That’s because I always worked hard to get onto her wavelength. It felt much safer than staying on mine.”
It was an unusually hot day for mid-September and it seemed to be getting hotter.
The conversation lulled as we made our way up through the trees and back towards the main road.
Changing the subject I ask my sister if she’ll walk Daisy at the weekend when I am away training. She agrees and asks me what the conference is about. I tell her it’s called “Intimacy – The Impact Of Attachment On Adult Relationships”.
A wry smile bounces between us.
Before we part, she says again,
“I’m sorry Graham, I didn’t know.”
I say that I’m sorry too, that it’s taken over forty years to tell her.