In the summer of 1970, several months after moving into New College, we went on holiday to Wales.
We’d been on holiday once before in 1965, also to Wales, and it was wonderful. Full of castles, mountains, valleys, beaches (sandy and shingly), rock-pools, funfairs, my first camera (costing 10 shillings, a fortune!) and creepy tales from Welsh history.
Mum and dad had rented a remote, run-down holiday home for two weeks. It had no electricity, which only added to the excitement.
Marianne and I had shared a bedroom with Auntie Lily ,who joined us for one of the weeks. Each night, before we went to sleep, she recounted examples of her triumphant battles with authority and petty bureaucracy. ‘I told them, I did!’. All that we could see was the orange tip of her cigarette dancing about in the blackness, as she amplified her stories with invisible gestures.
It had been a great holiday!
But in 1970 my parents had acquired wealth and status. They booked us into a smart hotel for a week. There was pressure from mum right at the outset:
“Now! I want you both to be on your Best Behaviour. We don’t want to be Shown Up.”
They never explained to us what was meant by Best Behaviour. Empirical evidence suggested that bad behaviour was anything which caused them public embarrassment, which varied from one day to the next. The safest thing to do was to keep silent. If we did so, we were generally praised for Being Good.
Unfortunately, on our first evening in the hotel dining room, Marianne and I laughed and joked throughout the meal. I did it partly to escape the airless formality of ‘silver service’, which made me feel tense and awkward. Mum was unimpressed.
The following evening at dinner, she was in character as a headmistress. One of the activities of a school principal is telling children to keep quiet:
“Now! We don’t want a repeat of last night.”
With that, she picked up her dinner knife merely to return it to its original position. She repeated the procedure with her teaspoon and soup-spoon, as if she herself had been the creator of this tableau of propriety. With wide-eyed intensity that was bordering on the maniacal, she continued:
“We Must Always Do … What … Is … Right.”
“We Must Always Be Cor-rect.”
These had become her two favourite aphorisms. She usually followed them with a secret smile of self-satisfaction, her eyes turned downwards, no doubt contemplating the day when these noble words might find their rightful place in The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. It was alarming, the way she could say something so meaningless with such earnest conviction.
I don’t remember much else about the holiday.
I don’t remember much else because most of the memories are overwhelmed by events of our last night at the hotel. Against mum’s express instructions, I wet the bed.
I’d been wetting the bed since the age of six.
Mum’s first attempt to treat the condition involved visual feedback. She hung a calendar on my bedroom wall and, for each day, coloured the applicable square brown if I’d soiled the sheets, or left it blank otherwise.
This technique didn’t work. It made matters worse. I watched hopelessly as each fresh month deteriorated into a slowly expanding pool of brown. Thankfully, she abandoned the idea after a year or so.
In any case, the problem gradually diminished of its own accord. By the age of eleven it was happening about once a fortnight. Mum tried to eliminate it completely by stopping me from drinking anything after 5 pm. As dad explained:
“If you’re going to behave like a baby, then you’ll be treated like a baby.”
This didn’t work either. Clearly, my body had developed the means of retaining liquid for the sole purpose of maliciously evacuating itself in the middle of the night.
Once, during one of their periodic condemnations of me for crimes against bed-linen, mum accidentally let slip that dad had also been a bed-wetter in his youth. Disclosure of restricted information never went down well:
“We’re not TALKING about me. We’re talking about HIM.”
The inevitable Mood only lasted a few days. It could have been worse.
So, at 11 o’clock on the last night of our holiday, I awoke to that familiar sensation of wetness. Mum had instructed me to tell her “the very moment” if it happened, and I obediently took the walk of shame along the corridor to my parents’ room. When I gave her the catastrophic news, she was furious:
“You stay here with your father! I’ll go and sort this out!”
She ran out of the room in a state of frenzy. Dad began chain-smoking.
It worried me that he smoked. The dangers of cigarettes had become big news by 1970, and we were being festooned with images of blackened lungs. Like most children whose parents smoked, I worried. Foolishly, I made a remark about the number of cigarette-ends in his ashtray.
“It’s YOUR fault! It’s ALL because of YOU!” he replied.
I often said stupid things when he was on the threshold of a Mood, hoping there might be some magical sequence of syllables that would halt the transition. But there never was. The evolution was complete and we were in for several days of calculated viciousness.
Mum eventually returned after what seemed like hours. I don’t know for how long she was gone, but dad’s ashtray was now overflowing. She led me back to my room, where the mattress had been turned over and the sheets had been washed and dried. She stayed with me for the remainder of the night, waking me up every hour to go to the lavatory. She found expression for this inconvenience:
“This is the first time your father and I have been separated since we were married!”
In the morning, dad’s Mood was gaining momentum:
“WHERE DO YOU WANT TO GO TODAY?”
I couldn’t immediately think of anything.
“If you CAN’T think of anywhere to go, we’re GOING HOME! WHERE DO YOU WANT TO GO TODAY?”
My mind was still blank.
“I ASKED you a QUESTION! WHERE DO YOU WANT TO GO TODAY?”
In desperation I suggested we go to the seaside. It was the first thing that entered my head. We drove to the car park which overlooked the sea. There was a gale blowing. The waves were heaving and crashing. There was no-one on the beach. We sat in the car.
“WELL? Are you GOING in the sea AREN’T YOU?”
I didn’t want to go in the sea.
“It was YOUR IDEA to come here! GET IN THE SEA!”
I had no answer to this. My vocabulary didn’t yet contain phrases such as ‘under duress’. Even if it had, I wouldn’t have had the nerve to invoke such a line of defence.
“RIGHT! We’re GOING HOME!”
Aside from the sound of tyres skidding on gravel, and the crunching of gears, we drove the three hour journey home in silence. Angry, festering silence.