Before Getting Out, by Martin Clarke

They took to the bed,

bred,

three weeks: never bled.

It doesn’t look good on you

the stepfathers said.

They wanted me dead.

After the birth

the medical notes read:

        Promote good mothering

                Promote good mothering

                        Promote good mothering.

Zero six zero three. Easy to remember.

Take out the one from the area code.

First home just off Dereham Road.

It was nine days overdue

when it finally and silently came

bursting through

her fattening and aching and shaking

cunt.

He asked them to sew her up an extra notch

and they did.

 

Pauline

is what I call my father. His real name is Paul. It was something I started when I was a teenager, which he never questioned. I guess, initially, it was for the amusement of my younger brothers and it sort of stuck.

In the same vein, my mother – who is called Donna – has been renamed Donnald.

 

Kent

is where I had my first holiday. We went with Dianne and Alan, my grandparents, as though Pauline and Donnald were too young to make the journey alone. I’ve seen photographs of us on the beach: of me with dirty blond hair cut into a bowl, brandishing a yellow spade; of Dianne in her great floral skirt, reading a magazine on her lap. There is a memory of me browsing this particular photograph and calling out to my mother, “Is Nanny pregnant?” at seeing her bulging stomach, round as a beach ball.

But I don’t remember this. Rather, it is a memory of a memory. What I do remember is the living room of the place we stayed, and me sitting on the cold, hard floor, and Pauline placing a new toy down before me, larger and louder than anything I’d played with before, a train, choo choo chooing towards me…

 

Hilda

was the old lady who lived downstairs. On Friday evenings she often looked after me while Pauline and Donnald went food shopping at Roy’s. I went with them, sometimes, and it was there I first learned to roll my tongue. We laughed at Pauline because he couldn’t do it. But it was good at Hilda’s too because she had a perfectly round wart on her hand; if I pressed it, she pretended it made a beeping noise. For the rest of the time, I clambered about on a cushioned foot stool she owned.

“Basil bought me that to rest my feet on,” she’d say.

She always watched Play Your Cards Right, playing along at home with a game she’d picked up from the newsagent. She shouted “Higher! Lower!” at the television as Bruce Forsyth upturned each card in succession.

Years later, sometime after we’d moved, I was walking along Bowers Avenue and saw Hilda putting some rubbish in the bins outside her flat. I said, “Is that you, Hilda?” Only she had no idea who I was.

 

Julie

was the woman Pauline had an affair with. All I remember about her appearance is that she looked exactly like Mariah Carey – a Mariah Carey of the early 90s, that is, with dark brown and permed hair reaching below her bra strap. Later, I overheard Donnald saying that was why Pauline liked her. Donnald had similar hair but didn’t look like Mariah Carey.

Donnald worked evenings in a nursing home back then, and this was when Pauline and I went over to Julie’s. He had to take me with him and I don’t know how they met; perhaps it was at one of the discos Pauline did at weekends for someone’s wedding or birthday party. Often we’d arrive at Julie’s and sit in her front room, which was warm and brown, but before we left I was usually left alone to amuse myself for a short time while Pauline and Julie went to a different room.

It was just as Pauline was dropping Donnald off at work, one evening, when I asked, “Are you gonna put your arm around Mum like you did Julie, Dad?”

Later, I’m told, the conversation went something like this:

“I didn’t have sex with her, she only gave me a blowjob!”

“That’s even worse!”

 

Shadow

was the name of our Shetland Sheepdog. My parents and I took her for walks. Once they sent me off with her to look for sticks around Mousehold. Whenever they told me off she growled at them; when I cried, she nuzzled her wet nose into my face. She was going to have puppies but Donnald said she lost them. There was a bloody tissue around her paw when the vet clipped her nails too short.

When we moved to the house, I made a path for her in the back garden out of fallen apples. She didn’t use it.

It was around two-thirty in the morning when Donnald woke me up.

“No, no, no! She can’t be!”

I found her curled up in the back hall, her black fur just visible through her blanketed body. My mother went to throw her collar away but I wouldn’t let her. I loved her and she loved me and now she was gone.

 

Fish Diddies

is what I called fish fingers. When I first started school I had to see a speech therapist. According to my mother, I was like a stuck record at times, in that I would stutter so much on a particular word and never complete the sentence. To this day it comes out whenever I’m incredibly agitated or angry or uncomfortable. There were other words: Cornflakes were ‘Cockies’; Hoovers were ‘Woos’; Kangaroos were ‘Kangagoos’; Lions were ‘Yay-yars’.

I was always better at writing words than speaking them.

 

Champagne

once got me in trouble. It was a gift my mother was planning to present to my father for some occasion and she told me about it. I’m not sure whether Pauline’s affair came before or after what happened next but, as it was, neither Pauline nor Donnald had yet learned that I couldn’t be trusted with their secrets.

“You can tell me; you won’t get in trouble,” Pauline said. We were driving back from somewhere; it was late because it was dark and there were orbs of fuzzy light as we passed the streetlamps.

“Martin, don’t say anything,” Donnald said, turning around in the passenger seat and giving me a hard, knowing look.

It was after Pauline had parked and pressured me some more that I revealed, in front of Donnald, everything I knew.

 

Joseph

was who I played in the school nativity. Here the issue was that, to their cost, the school never held auditions for the part, and I never mastered exactly when to present the baby Jesus to Mary. I remember an exasperated Mrs Davies giving specific instructions to hand Mary the baby after so-and-so had finished speaking. In one rehearsal we filed into the hall, me with my arm around Mary, and as soon as she sat down I slid the doll out from underneath her seat and thrust it into her arms.

We prayed and sang hymns in the show. My favourites were ‘Away in a Manger’ and ‘On a Starry Night’. There was a boy I knew, in one of the other classes, who never prayed or sang hymns with us because he was a Jehovah’s Witness. He was already called Joseph, so why didn’t he just give Mary the baby? Donnald and Dianne always came to these shows, watching with all the other proud parents, but Pauline never did because they were during the day when he was at work.

As for Jesus…

I was prodded in the back with a stick, on the day, when the moment came to deliver Mary’s baby.

 

Maxine

was the only Empson girl remaining once the mother died. That we knew about the Empsons at all was mostly because I hung around with the son. Matthew said something one time about putting a card on his mother’s grave, which seemed odd to me, thinking that it would get wet or simply blow away. The thick slick of gel in his hair hardened his curtains. He once, in anger, bound his arms tight around me, squeezing the air out of me, for revealing something he’d said to me about a girl he thought had nice legs. To say sorry he told me I could have any item from his bedroom. Only the Empsons were poor and didn’t have nice things, so I took the only book he had: a miniature, pocket-sized thing about history. This was in spite of the advice from the other kids from the estate, who reckoned I should have taken the glue stick.

The Empsons lived across the road from us. It was late morning, and Donnald and I had been to the city to find me something new to wear for my cousin’s birthday party later that afternoon. I was at home, modelling my matching light-coloured shorts and t-shirt, when I insisted I play outside in my new outfit. There was one condition:

“Make sure you don’t get dirty.”

And so I found myself in the Empsons’ front garden, talking with Matthew, when Maxine appeared and stood in the doorway. Her blonde hair was long and straight, rattail-thin and dirty; she wore baggy clothes and dressed like a boy.

“I mustn’t get dirty,” I said. “I’ve got to wear this to a party later.”

Maxine didn’t say anything, nor did she acknowledge that I’d just spoken. Instead she went inside the house for a moment and returned with a saucepan of water. In an instant it happened, and I knew that it would the moment she appeared with the pan balanced out in front her and I made to get away: the entire cold contents, poured down my retreating neck – a slick splash down my back – and I burst into tears.

“What did I tell you?” Donnald said.

 

The Police

is who I called during an argument between Pauline and Donnald. It was mid-morning on a Saturday and the lounge was bright. Dianne was there.

“I’m calling the police!” I said, picking up the handset and punching three hard nines on the dial pad.

“Look!” Dianne said, pointing.

My mother said nothing and replaced the receiver.

In the evening Donnald explained to me how, earlier that afternoon, someone from the emergency services had telephoned back to check everything was okay – all because of what I’d done. I wasn’t sure if she was telling me off.

 

Wayne

was the man my mother had an affair with, and the man who later became my stepfather. He had straight, black hair past his shoulders; he played squash on Tuesdays and pool on Thursdays. He lived off Bowers Avenue in a block of flats called Seaman Tower. I stayed there once, after Pauline and Donnald had another argument.

At school I was friends with a girl called Bernadette; her mother, Sasha, became good friends with Donnald and so we spent a lot of time in each other’s company. Sasha was Wayne’s sister: that’s how he and Donnald met. I first knew of him when I needed to use the toilet at Sasha’s one day, only I couldn’t because he was in the bathroom washing his hair and I didn’t want him to see me wee.

 

Turtle

was the name I gave to Pauline’s friend, Ian. I was in the bath when I came up with it, talking to my mother, and it was something Donnald and Pauline began floating about which caught on quickly. And it came out of nowhere, for Ian didn’t really look like a turtle at all, but had a face like a brick and dyed his hair with Just For Men.

After Pauline and Donnald officially separated, Pauline spent a lot more time with Turtle down at the The Artful Dodger. Turtle, it seemed, had never really had a girlfriend or a family, and could be found in the pub most Friday and Saturday nights. It was 1995 and whenever ‘Back for Good’ by Take That played, my father stepped outside until it was over.

 

Moving

was a collective effort the day my father left: myself, Pauline, and perhaps his new girlfriend; definitely Donnald, Wayne, and Dianne; maybe my uncle made an appearance. Pauline wasn’t the only one, you see: while he was moving into a flat on Half Mile Close, Wayne was leaving his flat on Bowers Avenue to move into our house the same day. Once I knew about Pauline’s leaving, I referred to it as ‘getting out’, until the day of his departure came, when I said, ‘You’re getting out today, aren’t you? Go on, get out then.’

He forgot things, mostly records and tools he would try and persuade me into retrieving for him later. While Pauline was moving into an empty place and mostly took his personal belongings with him, Wayne was moving into our already furnished home, so he had things he didn’t need or couldn’t bring. This meant Pauline took his cooker; in exchange, Wayne got a wife.

 

Leaving

was something my father, at some stage in the process, had to explain to me as something he would be doing. We had an audience: Donnald, Wayne, and Dianne, all watching as Pauline sat me down in the lounge. It was evening. Pauline’s voice cracked when he spoke; I remember fragments of a talk he gave about how he and Donnald didn’t love each other anymore. No one else said anything. He cried, then I cried, and then we cried together.

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