My father died on January 12, 1966. British Airways offered to fly us back to England free of charge and whilst this option might have been seized upon with open arms by a grieving young widow with three hungry mouths to feed, my mother had other ideas. The summer of ’66 in Christchurch was warm and sunny, she had made new friends and had no wish to go back to a wintry England and the place that held so many memories of her beloved husband. So we stayed. She bought a house, enrolled us into schools and got herself a full-time job.
I settled into my new school and quickly began to make friends and so did my sister. But my other sister spent a lot of time alone and her untidy appearance did little to help her fit in socially. She would have been a prime target for the school bullies, but I think her twin’s presence probably protected her from that. My mother’s attempts to get to the bottom of her problem ended in failure. The poor girl underwent group therapy, took anti-depressants and saw various doctors, yet no-one could shed any light on what might be wrong with her. And none of us dared mention that there might be anything wrong for fear of it degenerating into an angry shouting match. We simply learned to tread very carefully around her moods hoping we didn’t accidentally activate a landmine and cause her to go off into a maelstrom of angst and upset.
That she had her own anger issues to contend with goes without saying, and the fact that she never received any proper support or treatment in those unenlightened times is woeful to say the least. As a mature adult I realise this, but the silent anger I felt at never really being able to openly excel at anything knowing it was going to upset my sister led me to an irrational belief that being good at things would inevitably cause everyone to hate me. It also made me very fearful of confrontation, so I always tried to be a peacemaker, often at the expense of airing my views and having my own needs met.
Aside from this, mine was a happy childhood. Mum had a few boyfriends, but she was a fiercely independent soul and never re-married. We weren’t wealthy by any stretch of the imagination, but we didn’t want for anything. She was very much the DIYer, whether it be whipping up clothes for us all on the sewing machine or knocking up built-in furniture for the bedrooms. Every summer we’d pack up the Vanguard, tent on the roof rack and explore different places in the South Island. I loved it.
When I was thirteen my sister set off on a one-way ticket to England. It was a very brave move for a twenty-one-year-old who had only ever done factory work in Christchurch and Mum was very worried about how she would manage on her own. But she did. After a few initial speed wobbles, she eventually got a job in an office and coped remarkably well in her own space away from the family. A few months later the other twin, who had completed her primary teacher training, also left New Zealand and both girls made new, but separate lives for themselves in England.
Meanwhile I hurtled recklessly into my fun-filled teenage years. I was judicious enough to know when I was getting perilously close to derailment and I’d steer myself back to normality before I went completely off the tracks, although I did do some pretty dumb things. I was always in the top classes at school but never studious enough to be at the top of those classes. Except English. I loved writing and I’d often write humorous skits that my friends and I would perform on stage. I loved acting and singing but most of all I loved to make people laugh. I was however, painfully shy and would get terribly embarrassed and turn scarlet if I became the focus of attention. I hated this and no matter how hard I tried to overcome it, I never managed to conquer it, so that most of the time I remained a red-faced basket case.
After three years of high school I decided that I’d had enough and left school without any idea of what I was going to do. I wandered into a one-year course at the Technical Institute studying Shorthand Typing and Office Machines. The office machines are museum pieces now and shorthand was soon to become an outdated skill but there were laughs to be had and I was too busy having fun to worry about mundane things like studying toward a potential career path.
At weekends my friends and I would go out partying and drinking and during those years I had predictable teenage disasters with boys given that I had no understanding of how that whole dating thing worked. With no father and growing up in an all-girl family, I had never known what it was like to have a male figure in my life who cared about me. I had literally no experience with this weird and unfamiliar species. Having said that, the specimens we knew were pretty weird and I should have been intelligent enough to realise that there were much nicer men out there than the macho gorillas we were hanging round with. But I just carried on blissfully making the same mistakes and getting the same results.
It should have been no surprise therefore to find myself pregnant when I was sixteen. I was beside myself and had no starry-eyed illusions that I was going to bring up a baby, particularly with the father who I never told of my predicament. I finally plucked up the courage to tell my mother who skilfully took control of the whole messy tragedy and arranged for us both to fly to Auckland where I had an abortion.
Shortly after this unfortunate incident I got glandular fever after which I became plagued by frequent episodes of tonsillitis. This was interspersed with an ongoing series of dizzy spells and panic attacks which I desperately tried to downplay whilst all the time feeling so disorientated that I seriously believed that one day I would simply slip into a coma of anxiety and never return.
I didn’t of course. Instead I met my future husband who was so different from the boys I had met during my teens that I was completely blown away.