Wednesday, November 08, 2006

The history boy - part 1

Seeing Alan Bennet's The History Boys the other week prompted me to look back at my own university experience.

In 1966 I was living with my mother, my aunt, uncle and cousin in a council house in Tranent in East Lothian. At that time it was a small rural town still dominated by the culture of coal mining, the countryside around dotted with shale bings and derelict pits.

I'd managed to get a place at Aberdeen University studying English Literature. At the time around 4% of the population went on to higher education, a small percentage of them from state schools. Aberdeen was the furthest I could get from home while still remaining in Scotland. I never looked at the syllabus, only the geography.

Before I left I went to say goodbye to my mother.

She glared at me, her eyes twinkling with resentment. "I don't know what you're going there for," she said, "University's not for the likes of us."

Auntie Mary was busy in the kitchen, as she always was. "I wish you'd get a proper job instead," was all she said. She looked worried, even more so than usual.

Uncle George carried my suitcase down to the bus stop. It was my mother's old case, the one she took with her whenever she went into mental hospital. It was tied up with string. When the bus came, Uncle George shook my hand and gave me a pound note. He didn't say anything but I felt the weight of expectations resting on my shoulders. I knew I didn't dare screw this up.

Once the train crossed over the Forth Bridge my mood lightened. I was going on an adventure. I was free at last, for the first time in my life. I couldn't wait for the future to arrive.

I worked hard that first term, as it turned out much harder than I needed to. The exams were easy, something of a disappointment in fact. In the end I didn't feel I'd learned as much as I had expected. In hindsight this isn't so surprising since my preconceptions of university life were wildly unrealistic, based almost entirely on Brideshead Revisited. I did make plenty of friends though, despite my shyness. These guys were different from me - all middle class, they were mostly English and self-confident and clever. Consciously I began speaking in a different way, more refined, more like them. I began to believe that I had never been working class at all. I even fantasised that I was a foundling, that one day my real mother and father would turn up and rescue me. Rescue me from what? From myself, I guess.

When I came home at Christmas things were not good. My mother was refusing to come out of her room. She had her meals delivered to her on a tray. Although you never saw her you could hear her through the paper thin walls, continuously rumbling away, bemoaning her fate, cursing the world and everybody in it. Living with her was like living on the side of a volcano. When I visited her she berated me for not answering her letters (it was true; I couldn't bear to open them. I didn't want to be reminded of her). She glared at her reflection in the mirror as she spoke, frantically combing her long black hair, tugging at it, pulling out handfuls. She said she had worried herself sick about me the whole time. It was, as usual, all my fault.

That night I heard her walking around her room. Every fifteen minutes or so I heard the floorboards creak as she crossed the landing to the lavatory. Her presence filled the house like a ghost, a restless, unhappy spirit. This went on all night, the cistern continuously flushing and re-filling. Apparently she had been behaving like this ever since I left.

In the morning when I went to visit her she said she was going to kill herself. She said she couldn't stand the sight of me, to clear off and leave her alone. She wished she'd never had me. She wished she'd never met my father. She wished she'd never been born.

Her behaviour was nothing really new but the intensity was greater than anything I remembered before. I was scared. I decided to get the doctor in. I cycled across to Ormiston and told him what was happening. He came to see my mother in the afternoon. That evening an ambulance arrived to take her away to the mental hospital in Haddington. She screamed at me as she left.

At that time - seven years after he had died - I still believed I had been responsible for my father's death. I had now committed my mother to a mental hospital. I didn't feel like a very loving and dutiful son.

In the middle of January I went back to University but somehow everything had changed. As I crossed the Forth Bridge I stared down at the white horses through rain-lashed grimy windows. What was the point of going back, I thought? What was the point of any of it.

2 comments:

  1. Chris9:27 am

    Wow - a pretty amazing post. If you decide to base a new book around any of this I think it would be powerful stuff.

    Keep posting please!

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