I arrived at the big house in seventy-nine; it had central heating radiators and a large bathroom with two baths and two sink units. A dozen small partitioned shelves held our hairbrush, toothbrush, flannel and towel. The youngest children (assisted by the older girls) would use the bathroom first, and then would be sent to bed around seven-thirty. We would proceed to use the bathroom in order of age, each being allowed twenty minutes to complete our ablutions (which also included washing that day’s underwear by hand, using an excessive amount of detergent powder, even though there was an automatic washing machine downstairs).
There was a large playroom, with a television set and a cheap record-player; each child had a small locker for personal items (the only security being a small magnetic catch) where I kept a couple of cheap paperback books. When I first arrived, I had no belongings, and would occupy myself by reading Smash Hits – even now, when I hear ‘Duchess’ on the radio I am effortlessly carried back in time.
I tried to understand three-dimensional geometry and Shaw’s Pygmalion, laboriously going over my notes at the Formica dining-table while the other kids played in the garden. On summer evenings, I would go into the garden and jump off the swing; one day I missed my footing and landed on my face, causing a long and painful nosebleed.
Some of the other residents had been in the house for years. Pauline and Gerald were both fourteen; they ran away one night and were brought back about ten days later. Because they had become infested, we all then had to undergo nightly hair-washing with an evil potion called Lorexane. The lingering fumes of this stuff were so strong that none of the staff could bear to give us a goodnight kiss.
There were, on nearly every weekday, several visitors to the big house; usually Social Work professionals, or officials from the local council welfare department. Father McKillop would also call in to visit the house mother. He was a nondescript person in a grey suit, who I didn’t take much notice of. One afternoon, the house mother asked me to run an errand for her; Father M had left earlier that day, forgetting to take with him the printed notices for our summer fete. Could I take them down to the church?
I made my way there, with a bag full of assorted paperwork; Father M was pleased to see me. ‘I’ve just rung to say I’d go back, and they told me you were on your way down; very good of you. Won’t you stay and have a coffee?’
I declined; the house mother was unlikely to approve of me socialising with the cloth, since I had always refused to attend church. So I made my way back to the house and just resumed my homework.
A few months later, I was coming down the stairs and spotted Father M in the hallway. ‘Ah, there you are’ he said, ‘I’ve got one of my trainees with me. Can you come and say hello?’ So I went into the senior lounge, where the house mother would sit drinking tea and smoking Silk Cut cigarettes which she stubbed out I a heavy glass ashtray; I recall once being rebuked for washing this object in hot water. ‘Always wash the ashtrays in cold water’, she snapped, ‘Otherwise it makes them smell funny.’
The house mother stopped chatting as I walked into the room; ‘Oh, Mark; come and say hello to Trevor. He’s working with Father McKillop over the summer.’ Trevor put down his cup and we shook hands awkwardly, as the house mother began telling him about my situation. I was studying for O levels, she explained, and not getting much support from my teachers; would he mind giving me a hand with some homework?
So once a week, much to the annoyance of the other children, I would gather my textbooks and spend an hour in the office, where Trevor would gently point out the errors of logic and grammar that littered my work. He relied on exam help notes, which he borrowed from various friends; and soon I stopped being anxious about the standard of my work, instead looking forward to his visits.
We (the resident children) had been arguing about the relative merits of popular musicians; the girls adored Sting and the Police, while Peter worshipped ABBA and Martha liked the Bee Gees. I mentioned that I admired the work of a singer called David Bowie, and one of the girls immediately yelled ‘Well of course you do! Cos he’s a queer, just like you and that boyfriend of yours!’
This prompted a burst of laughter from the other kids; I was furious, and chased her out of the playroom. A few moments later the house mother came in demanding to know what all the noise was about. All five of us began yelling accusations, which brought the other three members of staff rushing in, and the house mother barked that she would deal with us later on.
When I called into her office later, she informed me that Trevor would not have time to visit the house; did I fancy the idea of spending time at his flat in the evening for our study sessions? I eagerly agreed. The thought of going to someone else’s home – to see how normal people lived – was completely fascinating.
My bus journey was about fifteen minutes, and it was just beginning to grow dark by the time I reached the stop where Trevor was waiting for me. We walked together, chatting about my day at school, and some recent news items; since he was one of Father McKillop’s trainees, I found myself being subdued and conservative, keen to avoid making any juvenile remarks.
‘Here we are’, he said; and opened the front door to a four-storey Victorian town house. He pushed a white button and the hallway was flooded with grey light revealing unopened letters, wellington boots and a small threadbare mat. ‘Oh, these are for Jenny’ he said, looking at the mail ‘There are four of us – you might run into the others later.’
We made our way up the narrow stairs and Trevor unlocked another door, which opened to his bedsit. I had expected large mahogany wardrobes, crystal decanters, and quilted smoking jackets. But the room had a pair of scruffy Formica cabinets and a desk with piles of paperwork, along with a single bed. One wall had a poster of a famous reggae singer, but on the other wall he had pinned a series of A4 sheets covered in geometrical designs.
‘Anyway’ he began, ‘we can run through a couple of past papers if you like. I’ve got two physics and one maths. Have you got last week’s notes there?’
‘Er, yeah…’ I stared at the diagrams on the wall behind him, unable to make any sense of them, but convinced that they would reveal enormous, significant secrets to anyone who studied them carefully.