I was twelve when my mother Freda first experienced loss of co-ordination. I was sitting in the back of our Morris Minor convertible, Freda was driving with Sally beside her. No one was wearing seat belts because Freda said they were for cowards and conformists.
We were speeding with the top down, the three of us laughing and shouting over the noise of the wind, when the Morris lurched and drifted out to the crown of the road. The car behind us blared its horn, oncoming vehicles flashed their lights and the good mood we were sharing dissolved.
‘Sally,’ Freda called out, ‘something is wrong, I can’t drive the car.’
I remember her voice sounding calm and then frightened. ‘Sally, I can’t drive!’
Sally laughed, ‘Pull the other one it’s got bells on!’ she answered knowingly, but pushed at her hair as she always did when she was nervous.
We began to encroach into the right-hand lane.
‘Sally I mean it, my arm’s gone funny, I can’t control the car!’
Sally laughed again, in a more uncertain way, but still convinced that Freda was having her on.
Practical jokes were a part of Freda and Sally’s relationship. Both were tall, attractive women with fair complexions and dark curly hair. They were often asked if they were twin sisters. Their answers would involve parental death and orphanage escape, becoming more lurid depending on the gullibility of their audience. Freda, in her late thirties with a fuller figure, was actually ten years older than Sally who had a more boyish, slender look about her. In fact, apart from the good skin, dark eyes and hair, they didn’t resemble each other at all. You would have to know them to see past their vivaciousness, before you realised their commonalities were a product of their relationship. That as lesbians, like most long-standing couples, they had grown to reflect each other.
So Sally was not about to fall for a joke about Freda being unable to drive. I hadn’t believed a word of it either and when Sally’s wary disbelief gave way to real concern, followed by her grabbing hold of the steering wheel, I still thought my mother was being dramatic as usual.
Struggling from the passenger seat, Sally steered us away from the oncoming traffic and tried to guide the car to the kerb. She reached down to the hand brake and the car lurched back into the middle of the road throwing us from side to side. Sally yelled at me to hold my mother. Freda had fallen forward and was lying on the steering wheel, I reached over and pulled her back.
Freda first met Sally at our front door one Saturday morning. The bell rang and I went down the hall to see who it was. Freda was married to my father Johnny at the time. He was someone I rarely saw and now can’t recall, except for a few colourless images in the outback of my memory. Freda and Johnny had bought a terraced, three-story Bed & Breakfast in a sea-side town. Sally was answering an advert Freda placed in the local paper for a waitress. Standing on our front step, framed in the fluted glass panel of the door, her image was unclear. It was when I opened the door and she snapped into focus that life changed. She was the prettiest girl I had ever seen.
Freda’s poodle rushed out to jump on her.
‘Who’s that?’ Freda called out. ‘Watch out for Dandy.’
I watched Sally deal with the dog. She was tall and slender with a cherub face and a mop of dark chestnut curly hair, like mine and Freda’s. She was sixteen then and I was at junior school.
Freda came up behind me. ‘What’s going on? Dandy! Dandy! Get down!’ the dog ignored her as usual. Sally looked up and for the first time Freda saw her face. ‘Oh,’ she said quietly and gave her a long stare.
‘I’ve come about the job,’ she explained.
‘Good, come in.’ Freda enthused.
Sally walked passed us, her deep brown eyes full of curiosity. She smelled of soap. For mother and me, it was love at first sight.
Sally was given a week’s ‘trial’ and then a bedroom. She never moved out, Johnny did. I thought Sally was good fun, so did Freda.
The B&B was successful for a while, Post-war Britain was learning to enjoy itself again and Freda and Sally had a unique style of running a guest house, the visitors returning each summer season for the fun. Christmas and New Year were riotous, followed by the off-season dinner dances and cocktail parties. Everybody drank a lot.
I came home from school one afternoon to find a furniture removal lorry parked in the street. Stern-faced men in blue dungarees and white pinafores were emptying the house. Freda and Sally sat on the floor in the guest dining room, drinking from a bottle of wine. I asked if my things were being taken as well. Freda shrugged and took the bottle from Sally. I went to investigate, men pushed past me on the stairs carrying beds and boxes. My room was empty so I wandered around the rest of the house playing with the new echoing spaces. I found Dandy in the kitchen. He lay quietly and watched me while I hunted around for something to eat, but there was nothing. I went back to the dining room. Nobody had spoken since I came home, so I didn’t ask any more questions, I just sat down next to Sally and waited. When the men finished empting the house they closed up their lorry and drove off. They didn’t shut the front door or say goodbye. Sally closed it.
‘I’ll have to live with Terry.’ said Freda.
I remembered him as one of the party people in the winter.
‘What about me?’ asked Sally.
‘Give it a while,’ Freda answered.
‘Why can’t Sally come with us?’ I questioned. They looked at me and Sally smiled. Freda was irritated.
‘Take the dog for a walk on the beach,’ she said. ‘Make sure he gets tired.’
‘Do we still have the lead?’ I asked. Freda looked away.
‘It’s hanging up in the kitchen. Take him for a long walk,’ Sally advised.
When I came back, Sally was gone. Later in the evening Terry arrived. He was a large red-faced man with blonde hair and big hands. He smelled of animals and sweat. His jacket and trousers were dirty and his heavy shoes covered in mud. He and Freda kissed. As we left, the electricity meter ran out. Freda picked up the dog and cried.
We moved into a three-bedroom bungalow on an overspill estate. It had front and back gardens we didn’t use or look after. Our neighbours were friendly in a disapproving kind of way, but Freda’s effusive nature soon won people over. When they understood Terry was a gamekeeper, he was forgiven his dirty van and dead wildlife hanging in the garage. The smell and the flies from the tureens of guts he neglected to dispose of, were discussed. Terry promised to clean it up more often. He was stuffing animals he explained.
Sally returned while Terry spent more time in his back room practising taxidermy. She moved into Freda’s bedroom and they bought the Morris Minor. In the evenings they would drive around the country roads. If they went driving after midnight I would be rustled out of bed to accompany them. I would sit in the back while they took turns to drive, singing to each other and swigging from wine bottles. Sinatra, the Beatles and Delia Murphy were their favourites. Neither of them could sing, but they made up for it in volume.
I wasn’t aware of my role as chaperone, I just enjoyed the fun of being out late. It was the swinging sixties but it didn’t swing as far as probable prostitutes or lesbian couples. My presence let them hide in plain sight.
Two months after Sally moved in, Terry moved out. It was not a planned exit. He’d been working on a series of rodents, while injecting a weasel with formaldehyde he jabbed the needle into his own arm and in reflex jerked away with the syringe still stuck in him. His room was cramped and he slammed his arm into the wall injecting himself. His yells of panic brought Freda to his room, she phoned for an ambulance and told him to be calm. He was pushed out of the house in a wheelchair and we stood and waved goodbye as he was driven away. Half an hour later Freda realised someone should have gone with him, she and Sally were convulsed. The next day we set out in the Morris to visit Terry in hospital, which was the day Freda’s illness became manifest.
We began to slow down. Freda’s foot had jammed the accelerator and was released when I pulled her back. Sally yanked on the hand brake and hauled the car over, hitting the kerb. The impact burst a tyre as the car mounted the pavement throwing us around but not causing any serious injuries. We were taken to the same hospital as Terry. Sally and I were released later that day and Freda was kept in overnight for observation. She didn’t visit him. A few days later his brothers came to the house to collect his belongings and clean out the garage. We didn’t see Terry again.
Later I would realize those minutes before the crash were the last time the three of us had shared an unclouded place of light-hearted humour. Afterwards there was always an uneasiness that hovered in the background.
Freda recovered initially, then slowly deteriorated, becoming increasingly depressed. She and Sally broke up a couple of times before Sally finally left. She would visit occasionally, but Freda was jealous of Sally’s health and popularity. After a while she stopped coming. The last time I saw Sally she was driving an MGB. There was a young, good-looking man with her and they were laughing. She didn’t see me.
City Lights is another great story from John Lee Langton.