Get yourself a cup of coffee and maybe a biscuit…because this could take a while
Chapter 1 — before everything changed
As far as I can tell, the first few years of my life were unremarkable. I lived on a chicken farm in North Wales. My father was the manager and busy all the time. My mother looked after me and my brother, who is nearly 2 years older than me. Like any farm, the people who run it and the people who work on it spend so much time together that they become like family.
A lot of this part of the story is vague because I was so young, and have to rely on my father and mother to fill in the details. They both told me TOTALLY different stories about what happened. And of course, theirs is not my story to tell, so I will try and share the facts as much as possible.
Chapter 2 — the first thing to change
When I was somewhere around the age of 4 my mother and my father split.
My father’s story : She left him for the husband of a couple that were their close friends. She travelled down to London, taking my brother and I with her. This man was abusive, so my father travelled to London and brought us back to North Wales to live with him. He subsequently married the wife of the man my mother ran off with. This story seems credible because it would have been the 70’s, so for a father to get custody of the children would be unusual. Also, his new wife, my stepmother, hated my brother and I. That would also make sense if my mother ran off with her husband.
My mother’s story : My mother was born with a bit of her spine missing. Despite pain in her legs and back growing up, nobody realised this until she had be and my brother. The pressure of the pregnancy caused her a huge problem and she ended up going into hospital and having a spinal fusion. She spent a long time in hospital and the procedure just resulted in more pain leaving her disabled and limited for the rest of her life. This much is clearly true. My mother told me that while she was in hospital, my father moved this woman in. She came out of hospital to find she had no home, and was no longer able to see her kids.
My mother’s version of the story was the only one I knew until the last 6 years when my father and I reconnected. I guess, at the end of the day it doesn’t matter, because the net result was that my brother and I ended up living in a house with a woman that I later learned was an alcoholic, and hated my brother and I, and a father that was just up on the farm working all the time.
Chapter 3 — When it started going wrong
Because the farm was quite remote, we used to get a taxi to come and pick us up and take us to school. I remember standing at the gate in all weathers to wait for that taxi. I have no idea why we couldn’t wait in the house and look out of the window, but we never did. In the winter my thighs would be raw with chafing from the cold. I think that’s part of the reason why I won’t wear a skirt these days. Only part of the reason though. I’ll explain the rest later. It would also pick up a couple of other kids from a nearby village. Weirdly I remember going to school in the taxi, but don’t remember a single journey home from school.
One day, when I was around 6 years old, on arriving home from school, my brother and I were standing in a newly built porch area outside the back door of the house waiting to be let in. My stepmother opened the door, and saw a stain on my top from lunchtime at school. She hit me hard across the head. Apparently it was not ok to stain your clothes. This was a bit of a problem, because at that age you tend to make a mess often. It led to me spending a lot of time in the school toilets with those white, slightly manky soap bars that you had on the sink, and the green/blue paper towels, trying to frantically scrub stains off so that I didn’t get a beating. I wish I’d had Google as I would have been able to find easy solutions to getting rid of stains! She had a problem with dirty clothes it seems. A year or so later, I remember her getting mad at me over a pile of dirty washing. She picked up a pair of my knickers, and screaming at me, rubbed them in my face like a puppy being told off for weeing on the carpet. Apparently it was also not ok to let your underwear get dirty.
This was, of course, just the first misdemeanour. It soon became clear that pretty much anything could lead to a beating, and my brother and I tried really hard to follow all the rules and stay out of trouble. As any of you that have been hit in childhood will know, that doesn’t really work. You are not really being hit because of anything you have done. You are being hit because the adult has issues. Many years later, when I had my first session of Cognitive Hypnotherapy, this memory (eventually) came up as a significant one. Trevor, my therapist, asked what lesson I would pass down to the younger version of me to help her deal with this. My first thought was “Duck and run!”, which amused me no end, but apparently was not that helpful a lesson for letting go! Eventually I handed the younger me a copy of Trevor’s book, so she could understand that this wasn’t about her.
You would think that living through that would bring my brother and I closer together, but it didn’t. We never had a good relationship. In the early years we shared a bedroom. My brother would threaten me with x thumps if I did something he didn’t like. “Shut up or I’ll give you 100 thumps” he would say. If I didn’t shut up, he would add more. One day, in the taxi on the way to school, he decided to execute on his promise and pumelled the heck out of my arm. I turned up at school crying. School tried to find out what had happened but I didn’t tell. You never told. That was the rule.
The issues my stepmother had were clearly not limited to us. Her and my father would have raging rows at night. I would cover my head with my pillow and try and cut out the sound. I learned early on that you don’t cry. She would come in and hit me for crying. She would come in and hit me for coughing. I learnt the art of keeping in your emotions, and if you have to cry, you do it at night and silently. That is how I am to this day.
Chapter 4 — and there is more…
I think my stepmother tried to ignore us as much as possible. Because we were in fear of being hit all the time, we did what we were told, stayed quiet and didn’t ask for anything. On the weekend, if the weather wasn’t nice, we sat on the sofa in the living room and watched TV. We weren’t allowed to change the channel which meant we usually watched Tiswas on a Saturday because it was my brother’s favourite, rather than Saturday Swap Shop which I preferred. If the weather was nice enough we were outside. We weren’t allowed to go in, not even for the toilet. We only went in when called. This was perfect for developing a robust bladder, which set me up nicely when I had to do long haul flights and didn’t want to use the toilets on the aircraft!
Outside we had lots of space to play. We had a toy chest which was full of wet, musty smelling toys. There was a doll’s pushchair which I loved, and my brother loved his Dinky toy cars. Because we weren’t neglected due to poverty, we had toys and stuff that normal families have. There were areas of grass all round the house, and a large field behind it with a mound that must have been made up of the dirt from when they build the sheds etc. for the chickens. One of my brothers favourite games was to make a track around the molehill that he could drive the cars up and down. When he’d finished he would stick the car down the hole in the middle of the molehill and cover it up. Years later my half sister found those cars. But more on that later on in the story.
One of the nice things about the mound behind the house was that it was really overgrown. All across the top of it were long reeds and dock leaves. We could make paths through it and make a sort of maze. All around the mound were stinging nettles. My granny taught me that when you get stung by a nettle, you wet a dock leaf and rub it on and it will stop the sting. I’m sure if you made a poultice out of the leaf it would work, but just spitting on it and rubbing didn’t seem to do much. Although it gave me an action I could take so probably stopped any complaining.
One day, for some reason, my brother decided to push me down the side of this mound. I rolled, like you would if you were rolling down a grass hill — on my side. As a result, my face rolled in the nettles and got covered in stings. I went crying to my stepmother to tell her what my brother had done. She hit me and told me to stop complaining. That was another lesson learned. Don’t speak out. What I was feeling was not important.
Chapter 5 — and more again…
My stepmother was the person who was responsible for looking after us because my father was up in the sheds working. My stepmother hated us, so looking after us didn’t really fit well with her plans. This means we weren’t fed well. We were like skeletons in fact. I have grown up with food being very important. My husband makes fun of me for being able to tell you what I was eating in every memory I talk about! There are a few significant memories that come to mind around food (in no particular order).
One of the things that I struggled with later in life is the realisation that everyone knew what was going on at home. At the trial of my abuser (more on that one later), both the prosecution and the defence brought up how there were school and social services records of us being starved and covered in bruises. My abuser used the argument that he had to teach me how to have a bath because we arrived so neglected and dirty. If everyone knew, why did noone do anything? I knew that school probably knew. This memory of food involves a giant vat of custard.
All through my life, school was my happy place; my escape. It’s ironic then, that later on, when I was 17 and my childhood issues caught up with me, the way it manifested was in a weird sort of morning sickness (that I now understand was a panic attack) that meant I couldn’t actually get to school for the last year of my school life.
In primary school I had school dinners. I loved school dinners. It was food yes, but it was nice food like jam roly poly and custard. In this particular memory, my brother and I had stayed behind after everyone else had finished eating. One of the dinner ladies was at a table with us, and she had one of the big pots that they did the custard in, and we were getting second, third and maybe even four helpings ladelled into our bowls. Many years later I had a chance of doing work experience with school. I always wanted to be a teacher so I chose to do it as a teacher. The nearest school to me was the one I went to as a child. There was a catch however. My half-sister was now old enough to be attending that school, and my father refused permission. I went to meet with the headmaster to try and persuade him that I wouldn’t say anything, but he, like many people in the village, were bought in to keeping my father’s secrets and he refused permission aswell. When I visited the school though, the dinner ladies recognised me and were delighted to see me. They talked about how they used to wheel me around on their trolley with me asking them to push faster.
The next two food memories are connected. Sometimes, when the weather wasn’t so good so we couldn’t be outside, but my stepmother didn’t want us in the house, we would go up to the shed and sit in the office / staff room. We would sit at a table and be given crayons and that paper with the perforated sides that was used in dot matrix printers. We were left alone in the office while everyone got on and did their work. My brother would go into the cupboards and find the jars of jam and we’d scoop it out with our fingers.
One day we discovered chewing gum that was trodden in to the tarmac on the long driveway leading from the gates by the house, to the sheds. We discovered that if you picked this out of the ground it still had a minty flavour, so we used to pick it and chew on it.
Talking of minty flavour, there was a lovely lady that worked on the farm called Mair (pronounced Mire). I always remember her being very kind to us, and she would give us polos. Many many years later, I ended up living just a few miles from the farm where I grew up. One day on a walk, I found the house where Mair lived and visited her. She was quite old by then and a bit confused by me I think, but I think she was happy to see me
My father and stepmother would occasionally take us places with them. My father was in to bikes and often had sporty little cars. The one I remember was a Triumph spitfire I think. It’s not really a family car! My brother and I would squeeze into a little bench that acted as the backseat. We went to Caernarfon in this car one day. My parents bought fish and chips and went and parked up by the boats to eat them. They didn’t buy any for us. They sat and ate their food while we sat in the back starving.
On a Sunday my stepmother would do a full sunday dinner. She had a pressure cooker, and from the middle of the day, as my brother and I played outside we could hear it. It filled us with dread. You’d think it would be a good thing, to anticipate food, however there was a problem. My brother was a really slow eater. This meant that a sit down meal was hell, because not only was he getting shouted at and hit for eating too slowly, but he and I were not allowed to leave the table until he had finished all his food. Most of the times our meals were not sit down meals as a family, but every Sunday we had to go through this torture.
Chapter 6 — The one escape I had
There was one place that was an escape from home life. This was my granny’s house. My granny lived in different places, but they were always pretty remote. She would take a really long walk with her dog every day no matter what the weather. According to my mother, we were only allowed to go and stay with her once we were old enough to join her on these walks. She taught me so much; about variable winds, the little bug that lives in the middle of cuckoo spit, how to fix nettle stings with dock leaves, how to yell “Dos adre!” (go home) to dogs that ran out of farms barking at us.
On hot days, we’d stop half way into the walk and find a river and paddle in it. The feeling when you had numb feet and put your socks on to carry on with you walk was amazing. In fact, I strengthed and stored that feeling and attached it to a thumb squeeze for when I ran the London Marathon in 2012. It meant I finished without sore feet (my legs were excurciatlingly painful though!)
She also did fab food. My mother said she was a rubbish cook but I loved her flat yorkshire puddings, and the porridge she made that had dark muscavado sugar sprinkled on top and drizzled with evaporated milk. I’m drooling thinking about it. And the crumpets toasted on the real fire that she always had roaring away.
When we weren’t on the walk, my brother and I would play happily. They had an old caravan at one of her houses and we would take the cushions off the bench seats and pile them up on top of each other and bounce. They were good times and all my memories of being at my grannies, bar one, are great.
My grandfather was a fisherman. He would come and fetch us to take us up to her house. He drove a while transit van that stank of fish. I hate fish to this day, and smoked fish and haddock make me physically sick. He was an erratic driver, often driving with one wheel on the cats eyes in the middle of the road to keep himself straight. The vans at the time had one long bench seat, or at least a single for the driver and a 2 seat right next to it. My brother always made me sit in the middle, between him and my grandfather. It was only in later years that I realised why — he would have his hand down the front of my pants while he was driving along. And that’s also the source of the only bad memory I have from being with my granny. I remember walking into the dining room. He was sitting at the table, and had his tongue out slightly. Under the table he was exposing himself and holding it and wiggling it around. I ran out again straight away, scared. Years later, when I was living with my mother, I told her about what he’d done.
Chapter 7— My mother reappeared
As I got older, my mother came back into my life. I’m not sure exactly how old I was when I first visited her. She was at my grandparents house (my mothers parents) .
My mother’s parents were lovely. My great grandfather was an admiral in the merchant navy, and a classic black and white photo of him sat in the entranceway to their house. My grandad, Albert, was a 6 foot tall gentle old man. He used to sneak me a £5 note behind his back when I visited. He was great with his hands and had both a hornby radio running around his garage, and a larger train running round his garden. It had a paraffin steam engine that he made which went through his greenhouse as a station. My mother and I would make little characters for the station out of clay. Every evening he would have a glass of guiness and head down to his shed in the garden and chat to his friends all over the world on his CB radio.
My grandmother was half his size. Every afternoon we would have afternoon tea and she would make cakes and a pot of tea. She had a thing on the wall with tealeaves that you pushed a button to get the tealeaves into the cup. To this day I don’t drink any hot drink down to the bottom of the cup, because when you make tea with tealeaves, there will always be a few in the bottom.
I walked into my grandparents living room to see a strange woman sitting on the sofa. I don’t know how old I was or who took me there. My mother was obviously very pleased to see me. I didn’t recognise her. To me she was just a stranger that was trying to gush over me. It must have been really hard for her to have her kids not recognise her like that. Over the years after, my mother met a new man and we went to stay with them during the holidays. These visits were a welcome break from our normal home life, but they were also a bit strained. It felt like we were staying with strangers.
I don’t know what age I was when an official lady visited our house, but I’m told I was around 8. It turns out that because of my age, what I said to that lady changed the course of life for my brother and I. My stepmother told us that someone was coming to speak to us, and that we were not to tell them anything. If the person asked where we wanted to live, we were to answer that we wanted to remain living with my father and stepmother. My brother and I went into the living room on our own and sat down to talk to a lady that was waiting there. I don’t remember most of the conversation, but I do remember her asking us where we wanted to live. My brother did as he was told and answered that he wanted to remain where he was. I, on the other hand, said I wanted to live with my mother! Apparently my brother carried the guilt of this for many years after, but he shouldn’t have. Because I answered that way, and I was at an age where I was legally allowed an opinion, my mother was able to choose not to send us home after a summer holiday, and was able to retain custody.
After the lady had gone, my father took me up on to his knee, and gently told me that he was disappointed that I didn’t want to live with him. He said that if I didn’t want to be there, then he didn’t love me any more.
At the time, I remember thinking “Oh” but nothing much more. I think maybe I was still too focussed on how much nicer it would have been to live with my mother!
Chapter 8— A sister
The timeline is really hard to pin down when you are talking early childhood, and when you have no parents or adults that can give you an objective view of what happened. Apologies if it’s all a bit confusing. Imagine how it is for me!
Anyway when I was around 8 years old, my stepmother and father had a baby, and I gained a sister. I remember helping out with bathing her but not much else. She was clearly loved, unlike my brother and I. After all, she was my stepmother’s child, and we most definitely weren’t.
When my sister was around 6 months old, we went to stay with my mother and her husband in Stockport for the summer holidays. At the end of the holidays she sat us down and asked “Would you like to live here with us from now on?”
It was a bit of a no-brainer. Stay there where we were fed, cared for, not hit and not living in fear, or go back where we were not wanted. Obviously we said we wanted to stay there! Now remember that conversation I had with the lady where I said I wanted to live with my mother? Because I was 8, that meant I had the right to choose. The reason my mother could keep us was because I said “my mother” when asked where I wanted to live.
My sister would have been about 6 months old when we left for good. This meant that she wasn’t old enough to know about us.
Chapter 9— Kidnapping.
Once we went to live with my mother, my father disowned us and had nothing more to do with us.
Apart from once.
My school was at the bottom of the street we lived in. Because of the age difference, I went to primary school and my brother started his first year at high school / secondary school. One day there was a phone call to the school and I was sent home straight away. It turns out that my father and my grandfather (the one that molested me) had travelled up to Stockport to take us back. I think they’d tried and failed at my brother’s school first which is how my mother knew.
I never understood this. I knew my stepmother hated us. Why would they want us back? I later learnt that it was probably the idea of my grandfather who was worried about me telling on what had happened.
I did tell my mother actually. She said she reported it to the police but many years later I learned that was a lie. That lesson came at a significant personal cost which I will tell you about later.
Apart from that one incident, we no longer had anything to do with my father. In fact, the next time I saw him was when I was around 14 and visited to get him to let me do my work experience in the same school where my sister was. He was horrible to me, and refused permission.
My sister’s story is not mine to tell. But what I can tell you is that she was brought up as an only child. She had no idea that she had a brother and sister. She kept finding the cars that we’d buried in the molehills but my father denied all knowledge of any kids. She wasn’t starved and she wasn’t beaten. They even had family holidays. But obviously my stepmother had her issues so it wasn’t really harmonious. No one was allowed to talk about us, including my granny. She went to the same primary school as us, with the same headmaster. Nobody told her.
As she told me: One day in high school, when she was around 16, a school friend asked her how her brother and sister were doing. She said she didn’t have one. They said she did. She went home and asked outright and my dad told her that was actually true. It was hard for her to find out about us, but she eventually tracked us down and was able to write to us and we met up.
Obviously it was a bit weird because I’d always known she existed but she didn’t know about us. I can’t imagine the sense of betrayal to realise everyone in your life has been lying to you. I am still flabbergasted that my father was able to get so many people to buy in to keeping the secret, especially on Anglesey which is a very close community.
It’s been a rocky road in our relationship over the years. We share a father but not a life. Our experiences in childhood were totally different. She has 3 kids, the eldest girl is the same age as my child and it’s been great for them to reconnect over the last couple of years. Because of the way my childhood has played out, my child has not really had much family in their life, so it’s nice for them to hang out with cousins.
I had no contact at all with my father until 6 years ago when we reconnected on the recommendation of my sister. He was, however, in touch with my brother for many years before, even supporting him financially at one point.
It was just me nobody wanted to have anything to do with…