Me by Elton John:
Perhaps he was just in the garden to avoid my mother, in which case I couldn’t really blame him. Even when Dad wasn’t around, Mum had a terrible temper. When I think back to my childhood, I think of Mum’s moods: awful, glowering, miserable silences that descended on the house without warning, during which you walked on eggshells and picked your words very carefully, in case you set her off and got thumped as a result. When she was happy she could be warm and charming and vivacious, but she always seemed to be looking for a reason not to be happy, always seemed to be in search of a fight, always had to have the last word; Uncle Reg famously said she could start an argument in an empty room. I thought for years that I was somehow my fault, that maybe she never really wanted to be a mother: she was only twenty-one when I was born, stuck in a marriage that clearly wasn’t working, forced to live with her mum because money was so tight. But her sister, my auntie Win, told me she was always like that – that when they were kids it was as if a dark cloud used to follow Sheila Harris around, that other children were scared of her and that she seemed to like that.
She definitely had some deeply weird ideas about parenting. It was an era when you kept your kids in line by clobbering them, when it was generally held that there was nothing wrong with children that couldn’t be cured by thumping the living daylights out of them. This was a philosophy to which my mother was passionately wedded, which was petrifying and humiliating if it happened in public: there’s nothing like getting a hiding outside Pinner Sainsbury’s, in front of a visibly intrigued crowd of onlookers, for playing havoc with your self-esteem. But some of Mum’s behavior would have been considered disturbing even by the standards of the time. I found our years later that when I was two, she’d toilet-trained me by hitting me with a wire brush until I bled if I didn’t use the potty. My nan had, understandably, gone berserk when she found out what was going on: they didn’t speak for weeks as a result. Nan had gone berserk again when she saw my mother’s remedy for constipation. She laid me on the draining board in the kitchen and stuck carbolic soap up my arse. If she liked to scare people, she must have been overjoyed by me, because I was fucking terrified of her. I loved her – she was my mum – but I spent my childhood in a state of high alert, always trying to ensure that I never did anything that might set her off: if she was happy, I was happy, albeit temporarily.