When Kate opened her eyes on Sunday morning, she decided to take the day off. No painting, housework or worrying about things she had no control over, like who had been in her flat. That last one might take a bit of work, she thought as she made her way to the kitchen to put the kettle on. A cup of tea would help her decide what she was going to do today.
She was nearly out of milk and noticed there wasn’t much to eat in the fridge. She should go shopping.
Sipping her tea, she watched the sun streaming in through the window, bathing the room with wide bands of gloriously golden light. She absently watched the dust motes dancing in a shaft of sunlight as though they were alive.
She had the idea to take her camera and walk to the park. She went there often, as the lake and trees had become a source of inspiration for her artwork, and Kate enjoyed feeling like a photographer. She could pick up something to eat on the way back.
For some reason, the sunlight was evoking memories of her childhood in Kent. It was one of the few memories that didn’t make her cringe whenever she thought of them.
After a long run of unsuccessful foster parents, she had ended up at a boarding school in a tiny village called Birchington, somewhere near Margate. She was just ten years old, skinny and withdrawn; and instantly felt at home for probably the first time in her life. Schooling was included for her age group and in the good weather, lessons were conducted out of doors, which were pleasant but didn’t help her to concentrate in the least.
Kate was the eldest and soon found herself helping with the younger children. She didn’t know it at the time, but an unpaid helper was just what the place desperately needed.
Coming from the disappointments and hardships of her life in London, Kate was in her element. When she turned eleven, she had to attend an all-girls school. It was close enough to cycle to, and although she had misgivings, Kate found she liked being in the all-female environment.
Little flashes of memory played like a newsreel in her head, and Kate found herself trying to think back to the two occasions when she thought she had nearly died. Were they as dramatic as she thought, or was she simply remembering things as a child would, filtering out the unimportant and focusing on the dramatic?
She remembered that first day of term when she awoke in pain and feeling sick. Matron had tried to drag her from her bed, thinking her a malingerer, but soon called an ambulance when it appeared Kate was not making it up.
Her appendix had ruptured and it was serious, they had to operate in a hurry, and wasn’t there a priest there somewhere?
She didn’t remember much about the occasion; only what she had been told. Another incident stood out in her mind like a beacon for the truth. It was when she caught one of those foreign influenza’s, and she must have been quite ill, for the following Sunday in church the vicar said a blessing for her in front of the whole congregation. So it must have been serious.
She also remembered her mother had not visited her on either occasion.
So that accounted for two lives, had she used up any more?
While she was growing up, Kate had tried to convince herself she did love her mother, despite the fact her mother demonstrated repeatedly she could not possibly love her daughter, not in the way that mattered anyway.
When she was a small child, it had been easy to explain away her mother’s behaviour. All those times she had been sent away, dumped on the mercy of strangers had seemed quite natural to Kate as if it was something all parents did. She wondered why she thought it was all perfectly normal, and then she had nothing to compare it to, did she? Many of the kids at school were in the same boat, or worse.
Kate had found it necessary to become a ghost, an invisible and silent ghost. The years she spent at school were the worst. The other children sensed there was something wrong with her and instead of avoiding her, drove her mad with their constant tormenting. She desperately wanted to be a grown-up, free to follow her own instincts, and she knew deep down nothing would make any difference, not then and not ever.
She considered suicide, desperate to leave a world she didn’t seem to belong in, never once considering there was nothing wrong with the world, it was she who didn’t fit.
As she grew older, her soul seemed to shrivel up and die and she became like a caged animal, eating and sleeping, doing only what was necessary. She loved no one, cared for nothing and knew she was different, an alien in an unforgiving world.
Kate always wanted to be part of a family; it seemed to be the perfect way of life. She would spend hours as a child out in the cold and dark, combing the streets of London or wherever she happened to be, looking in countless windows, searching for a family who might take her in. She was fascinated by everything she saw, the peaceful and normal life everywhere she looked. Sometimes people noticed her but when they didn’t, she would knock on the door and simply stand there, trying her best to look lonely and appealing. She didn’t have to try too hard; she must have looked as desperate as she felt.
People always treated her kindly and made her welcome, but still called the police to take her away. No one had ever wanted to keep her.
Most of what her mother subjected her to was sad, some neglect and some simply child abuse. Would a mother get away with leaving a small child outside a public-house at night for hours on end these days?
Or those times when she vanished for days at a time, leaving Kate to fend for herself and take herself to school?
One such occasion resulted in Kate presenting herself at the local police station. She was about eight years old and had been on her own in the grotty bedsit with precious little food or money for the best part of five days, and for once she was sick of it.
Kate knew her mother would have a blue fit and she would be sorrier than ever to have involved the police, but she was hungry so something had to be done. What if she never came back, she thought. That idea didn’t seem to bother her as much as it should have done, as long as someone fed her now and again.
The police were kind but distant. They didn’t know what to do with her and it showed. She didn’t remember much about what happened, just that they managed to find her mother and she was madder than a wet hen.
Kate was quite used to her mother’s anger as a rule, and on that occasion, she was scared she might kill her.
The worst times in her childhood were when she was left with strangers because her mother didn’t want her around. The best of them simply ignored her, and the worst of them considered her their new sexual plaything. When this started to happen more often, especially as Kate grew older, she knew she had to leave and make her own way in the world.
She was barely fourteen when she found a shabby little bedsit and for the first time in her life was officially on her own. She worked in a local greengrocers shop, living on chips and discarded fruit, as she started to make plans for her future.
The first few years were tough, and Kate didn’t care. She was making her own decisions, and if she made mistakes along the way, so what? The fact they were her own mistakes seemed to make all the difference in the world.
She had numerous jobs as she tried to find something to do. From the greengrocers she tried Woolworths, then Sainsbury’s. Office work was next and it bored her rigid.
Then she found a small and friendly tailoring firm where she learned how to cut patterns, use a sewing machine and create designer outfits that cost a small fortune. It was an interesting and different kind of job and she loved every minute of her time there. This was where she made her first real friend, a girl of the same age called Eileen Jenkins.
Through Eileen, Kate was introduced to a different kind of family. They were incredibly poor, living hand to mouth, but seemed to be happy with their lot. They were forced to live on benefits because Mr Jenkins wasn’t well enough to work. Their house was a mess and the younger children were always grubby, and there was so much love between them you didn’t notice the broken furniture and shabby surroundings.
Mrs Jenkins always insisted on feeding Kate, something that made her feel guilty, and though the place was shabby, all the children looked well fed and healthy. Unfortunately, this friendship was not destined to last long for Eileen was looking for a rich husband; something Kate didn’t want to be involved with. Despite all her best intentions, she was introduced to Jack Holland on the day of Eileen’s wedding. He had a good job, something to do with the property market and seemed nice enough, but she kept her distance as he was an old flame of Eileen’s, discarded when his prospects seemed inadequate.
The tailoring job was the first one to cater to her artistic side, but still didn’t quite satisfy the need in her to create something special of her own. None of the jobs had paid much and though the rent on her bedsit was cheap, she usually found herself with nothing to eat long before the end of the week.
She found out quite by chance the local cinema needed an usherette, so for the first time was earning enough to live on.
Kate smiled as she remembered that time of self-discovery; she had experimented with many things and most had proved to be a disappointment. She didn’t make friends easily and most of the people she met seemed to instinctively know this and didn’t try too hard to be her friend. She met many men in her search for the right one and only succeeded in finding many wrong ones, as they all seemed to want just one thing from her. And after trying that too and being thoroughly disgusted, she gave up looking.
All her life, something had always been wrong, wrong place, the wrong person. Something was always wrong, never close to being acceptable. Some people called depression the ‘black dog’ and sometimes it did seem as though she had a pack of them following her around, sniffing at her heels. Almost as if she wasn’t meant to be happy and God knows she had tried.
Sometimes she would get close, managing to achieve a sense of calm, almost contentment, especially when she was doing something that called for total concentration like her painting.
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