It had all started when Helen was just ten years old. At that time, she had been living in a small but cosy flat, with soft blue checked sofas and pictures that Helen had drawn on the walls. She lived with her mum, Steph, and a tabby cat who they had christened Bilbo, due to his short stubby legs which left him standing inches below all the other cats in the neighbourhood, like the hobbit in the story that Helen had read over and over again. Helen and her mum had lived a contented, uneventful life together in the East End of London; in a neighbourhood of which the nicest thing that could be said was that it was not the worst in the East End. None the less, Helen had loved the streets on which she rode her bike, had loved the playground on the corner near the flat, had even loved the pub out of which noisy men and women spilled every night, their loud laughter splitting through the silence of the night. They had spent their time chatting, watching (and singing along with) Disney movies, playing games, baking cakes and doing all of those things which mothers and daughters who enjoy each other’s company do together. Sometimes they would pack up a picnic lunch, get on the train at the station down the road and head off for the day. Sometimes they would go into London to look at the sights and visit the museums, of which the Natural History Museum was Helen’s favourite, with its dinosaur bones and models, and displays of stuffed birds and animals. Sometimes they would take the train in the other direction, and end up at the coastal town on Southend-on-Sea, where they would paddle in the murky sea, eat crab’s legs from a paper bag and play for pennies in the numerous arcades along the infamous Golden Mile.
Helen was a tall, gangly child, with blond curls and green eyes. Like most children, and many adults too, Helen had always wanted the opposite of what she had. She envied the girls whose straight hair hung down their backs, and whose blue eyes peered out from their pretty faces. The first impression that most people received of Helen was that she seemed to be made entirely of angles. She had a pointy nose and pointy chin, and elbows that stuck out and got in the way no matter what she did with them. Her mum had told her often that she was beautiful, and showed her pictures of tall supermodels with similar features, but Helen was disinclined to believe her. The other girls at school seemed to have no trouble keeping their elbows out of the way, and had rosy round cheeks, cute snub noses and dimples in their chins. She took to standing with one arm twisted around her back holding on to the elbow of the other arm, which made her feel less anxious about her arms flying out from her sides, but left her looking like a person trying to arrest herself.
Helen had started at the local primary school at age four, and had announced to Steph after the first week that she didn’t think she should go back anymore as she had much more fun at home with her. Unsurprisingly her mum had not accepted this proposal, and Helen continued at school, although her opinion of the place never veered far from her first impressions. She was a quiet, observant girl, often favoured by teachers for her ability to work unaided and with unwavering concentration. However Helen was not easily accepted by the other children, to whom she seemed snobby and aloof, although none of them could have put the observation into words. She often spent time sitting alone, staring into space, which made the other children nervous of her. During those times, Helen was lost in her own imagination, creating worlds and populating them with characters based on the people she saw around her. So she remained largely friendless, although was tacitly allowed to join in various games in the playground. Eventually she was received as a playmate by most of the girls, and gradually accepted as a member of a distinct group of friends, but she still coveted the close friendships that she saw the other girls enjoying.
When Helen was about eight, she had been invited to tea by Andrea, one of her classmates and friends. Andrea’s mum apparently wanted to meet all of Andrea’s friends so they went one by one for tea at her house after school. Helen was the very last to go, and she went with some anxiety. She had never been to another child’s house before and was unsure of what was expected of her in this social situation. She was relieved to find that Andrea’s parents were very welcoming and friendly towards her. As they all sat together at the dining table eating lasagne with garlic bread and salad, Helen found herself at the centre of attention as Andrea’s mum and dad questioned her extensively about her life. At first Helen was shy and gave the shortest answers that she could, but the grown-ups seemed so genuinely interested in her that her confidence grew and she became more talkative.
Helen had finished telling them all about her mum and the life they had together, about what she was interested in at school, about what she would like to be when she grew up (at that time she had wanted to work in a pet shop, a dream which had been swiftly forgotten a few months later when she had heard of astronauts). She was beginning to enjoy the attention, when Andrea’s dad asked her another question;
“Do you ever see your dad, Helen? Where does he live?”
There was a long pause as Helen sought for words, at the same time trying to swallow the piece of garlic bread in her mouth. She could feel Andrea’s parents and older sister Kate, as well as Andrea herself, all looking at her, waiting for her to speak. Finally she replied in a small voice, “I don’t think I have a dad”.
Andrea laughed scornfully. “Everyone has a dad, don’t you know anything?” she said, and Helen’s fragile confidence plummeted. She wished she was somewhere else, anywhere else where she wouldn’t have to think about this. Kate laughed too and said “Maybe the stork dropped her by accident and she fell down a chimney into a house with no dad!” Andrea laughed so hard at this comment that she sprayed a mouthful of juice over the table. Years later Helen could still remember the way that she felt as she sat at that table listening to the laughter of Andrea and her sister; a hot feeling of shame which began in the pit of her stomach and rose tingling to the very top of her head.
“Andrea, don’t be mean to your guest,” said her friend’s mum, “now, who wants pudding? There’s apple crumble with custard.”
“Yum, my favourite”, said Andrea’s dad, and the conversation moved to the safer ground of favourite foods. Helen sat quietly for the rest of the meal, unable to get Andrea’s words out of her head. The more she thought about the subject the truer they seemed. All of her friends had dads, and even the ones who didn’t live with their dads saw them at weekends or during holidays. So why didn’t she have one? And if she did, where was he?
She had broached the subject with Steph the following evening, having spent the whole day mulling it over in her head, even getting into trouble with her teaching for not concentrating on her school work.
“Mum, why don’t I have a dad? Everyone else has one; all the other kids at school have dads even if they don’t live with them. Why don’t I?”
Her mum put down the book that she was reading and took a deep breath, winding a piece of her hair around her finger.
“Well,” she said, “that was sudden. What makes you ask that?”
Helen told her about the previous evening, describing the conversation and how it had made her feel so embarrassed and confused. Her mum came over to her and gave her a hug.
“Sweetheart, I’m sorry that happened. And I’m sorry that I haven’t ever told you about your father. Then at least you would have had an answer to the question.”
“So I do have a dad?” Helen asked incredulously. “Where is he? Why haven’t I ever met him?”
Her mum pulled her closer and held her tightly. “You’ve never met him because I don’t know where he is. I have seen him since before you were born,” she said sadly. “He was my boyfriend for a few months, but he was young and he didn’t want to settle down with a child. We were both young, and we hadn’t planned to have a baby. But I’m so glad that I did have you because you are the best thing in my life, and I wouldn’t change anything that happened, because then I wouldn’t have you.” She squeezed Helen harder as she spoke. “I know this is probably hard for you to understand. Just remember that he was not a bad man. He just had a lot of things that he wanted to do with his life. He wasn’t ready to bring up a child.”
“Why couldn’t he at least have come and met me?” said Helen, “he wouldn’t have had to live with us. I could have spent Sundays with him and gone on holiday with him like the kids at school whose parents have split up. Why haven’t I ever even met him?”
Even as she asked the question she realised the answer. Tears came to her eyes.
“He didn’t want to meet me, did he? He’s never been interested in me.” Anger surged up in her. “Well, I’m not interested in him either! We’re better off without him!” The words were spoken with fervour but Helen could not stop the tears from spilling over, and she buried her face in Steph’s shoulder and wept under the rejection that she had never known about until this moment.
By the time Helen was ten, she had accepted that she would never know the man who should have been her father, and she was happy, for she had her mum, and the two of them were best friends. Helen had decided that she probably would have been unwilling to share her mum with a father even if one had shown up.
She also had Mrs Howard, the lady who lived in the flat opposite them. Sometimes when her mum was doing an extra shift at work, Helen would spend the evening with Mrs Howard. Steph worked in a nursing home where she looked after old people who could no longer look after themselves. Helen had visited the nursing home a few times, and had been scared by the sight of all those old people, falling over the sides of armchairs, dribbling or snoring, unable to do anything to care for themselves. Steph had told her that they deserved respect now that they were old, because they had lived full lives. She said that they had worked hard, raised children, fought in wars, and needed to be treated with dignity. That was why she wiped their backsides and changed the strange adult nappies that they wore, why she fed them and pushed them around in wheelchairs, chatting merrily all the time, telling them stories about Helen, about things she had heard about or read in the newspapers. Helen wasn’t sure that she would ever want to do a job like that, but she had been proud of her mum for the way that she saw the value of each person and treated them so kindly.
Usually her mum worked early shifts while Helen was at school and they would arrive home at around the same time, but sometimes one of the other members of staff would go on holiday or became ill and her mum would have to work an evening shift. On those days, Helen spent the evenings with Mrs Howard. Mrs Howard was old, but not old like the people in the nursing home. She could still do the cooking, cleaning, shopping and everything else necessary to look after herself. She had grey hair and wore flowery dresses that Helen’s mum would never wear because they weren’t stylish enough. It was very important to Steph to always be ‘stylish’, a word which she used a lot, with varying meanings.
Helen enjoyed spending the evening with Mrs Howard when her mum was at work. They would cook dinner together and Helen would tell Mrs Howard everything that was happening at school. Mrs Howard would tell Helen stories about her grandchildren. She had eleven of them, and according to her stories, they were the funniest, cleverest, kindest children who had ever lived. Helen doubted that they were as perfect as Mrs Howard said they were, but she enjoyed the stories. All of Mrs Howard’s family lived far away, some of them as far away as Australia, but they were always sending her letters with new stories and photos.
One of the days when Helen’s mum was at work, Mrs Howard was telling her a story about one of her grandchildren, who had pushed his sit-on car out onto the quiet street where he lived, turned a corner and found himself on a busy road full of cars. Undaunted, he had driven his little plastic car down the side of the road as the cars whizzed past him, until a passerby noticed him and pulled him onto the pavement. Mrs Howard was laughing, although she was obviously relieved that her Grandson had not been harmed.
“Daft kid,” she said fondly. “My husband would have laughed and laughed about that. It’s just the kind of thing he might have done when he was a boy.”
“I didn’t know you had a husband, Mrs Howard. Where is he?” Helen asked, looking around as if Mr Howard might pop out of one of the kitchen cupboards. She had never heard Mrs Howard mention a husband before, and was surprised that he might exist. She suddenly remembered a television program she had seen where a man had kept his crazy wife locked up in the attic, and she wondered if Mr Howard was locked up somewhere, perhaps even watching her as she peeled the potatoes for their tea.
“Bless your heart, child”, smiled Mrs Howard, “He died long ago. Did you think I was keeping him locked up somewhere?” Helen blushed at Mrs Howard’s perceptive remark, and tried to laugh.
“No, of course not,” she said, concentrating hard on the potatoes on the table to hide her red cheeks. “How did he die?”
“He died of a serious illness, called lung cancer,” answered Mrs Howard, sadness audible her voice and visible in her face. “He smoked too many cigarettes in his life, and in the end they killed him.”
“I learnt about that in school,” said Helen, proud of her understanding of the situation. “If you smoke too much your lungs fill up with black tar until you can’t breathe anymore, and then you die. They told us to always say no if someone offers us cigarettes, because they would make us so ill.”
“They’re right”, said Mrs Howard, nodding vigorously to show her approval of Helen’s teachers. “Don’t ever start smoking, Helen, and if I ever catch you with one I’ll lock you up as if you were a crazy husband!” She winked at Helen, who had the uncomfortable feeling that Mrs Howard could read her mind. She wondered if Mrs Howard had also seen that program on the television. She decided that it would be good idea to change the subject.
“What was your husband like, Mrs Howard”, she asked curiously.
“Fred was a man”, said Mrs Howard mysteriously, “with everything that being a man consists of.”
“Like what?” prompted Helen, intrigued by Mrs Howard’s answer.
Mrs Howard smiled fondly and Helen realised that she was remembering her dead husband. “He was stubborn”, she said warmly, “and proud, and he hated to admit that he was wrong. Or that he didn’t know something. He could build shelves and nail them to the wall or fix a broken car engine, but he didn’t have a clue how to cook a decent meal. He had disgusting habits, like picking his feet and chewing his food too loudly. He was hopeless at expressing emotion, and was easily scared by me getting upset or emotional. He was impulsive and wasteful, and he didn’t know how to use the washing machine”.
Helen was confused. The words Mrs Howard was using were describing a horrible man, but there was love in her tone, and she was smiling. Helen looked at her questioningly.
“So was he horrible then? Why did you marry him if he was that bad?”
“My dear, he wasn’t horrible, he was a man,” Mrs Howard chuckled, “You’ll find that almost every man is like that when you get to know him. But many of them are wonderful too. Fred was. He was kind and considerate in all the ways that he knew how to be, and he loved me. He made me very happy. I loved him, and my dear, when you love a man you don’t mind all those other faults so much. And don’t forget, there are lots of things about women that men don’t like too. When people fall in love and get married they have to learn to live with each other despite all those annoying things.”
“I’m not sure I like the sound of marriage”, said Helen thoughtfully.
“You’ll feel differently when you’ve grown up and fallen in love”, replied Mrs Howard, “Now, are you done peeling those potatoes? I’ve got boiling water over here waiting for them.”
The conversation had moved onto lighter topics as they continued preparing the tea, and Helen hadn’t told Mrs Howard that she had not being talking about her own marriage. When she had said that she didn’t like the sound of marriage, she had actually been talking about her mum. She sometimes worried that her mum would get married, and would bring a strange man into their life, and after talking to Mrs Howard she was even more worried. If her mum fell in love, she would not notice all the things wrong with the man, and only Helen would see them, and she would have to live with the horrible creature that Mrs Howard had described. The man would try to be her father, and then maybe her mum would even have another baby. There would be no more evenings watching movies, no more trips to the seaside together. Her mum would forget about her as she looked after the baby and mooned over her husband.
Helen was sure that she would never want a father, or a baby brother or sister, or anyone else who could invade the perfect life that her and her mum had together.
She had said as much to Steph one evening, while they were curled up together on the sofa eating strawberry ice-cream. Her mum gave her a funny look that Helen did not understand, and said nothing for a few moments. When she spoke, her voice was quiet and hesitant.
“But Helen, sweetheart, don’t you think it would be nice for us both to be part of a proper family? Not to just be the two of us all the time?”
Helen looked at her with alarm.
“No”, she said, “I think we are fine the way we are. We are a proper family and I like being just the two of us”. Her voice was rising as fear pushed its way upwards in her mind. The strawberry ice-cream that had tasted so sweet a moment ago now stuck to her tongue with cloying sickliness. “Why? Do you want someone else to live with us? A man? Are you getting married? You can’t, you can’t. I won’t let you change things”.
Her mum reached towards to pull her into a hug.
“Ssh, it’s ok, don’t get yourself all worked up now”, she said comfortingly. “I’m not planning to get married, not at the moment anyway. Don’t worry about it”.
Helen looked up at her, as the realisation dawned on her that her mum might not find their situation as perfect as she did. “You would like to though, wouldn’t you?” she asked with some trepidation. “You said not at the moment, which means that if you met someone you liked, you would marry him, wouldn’t you? You don’t want to be just the two of us always, do you?”
Her mum sighed. “You’re right sweetheart. I would like to get married. I think it would be good for you to have a dad, and I would like to have someone to live with, to talk to after you have gone to bed and to spend my life with when you’ve grown up and moved off somewhere else. But I would never marry someone if you weren’t happy, if you didn’t like him. I love you too much to risk making you unhappy. And I do like it the way we are now, just us two. After all, we have lots of fun, don’t we?”
“Yeah, we do”, said Helen with a grin, “and let’s have some fun now. Can we put ‘Beauty and the Beast’ on and sing the different parts?”
“Only if I get to be Beauty”, laughed her mum, “I’ve been the Beast the last five times we’ve watched it!”
Later that evening, after they had sung themselves hoarse along with the movie, after Helen had drunk a big mug of hot chocolate, after her mum had tucked her into bed and kissed her goodnight, Helen drifted off to sleep confident that no man would ever come to disrupt their lives. After all, her mum had said that she would never marry anyone that Helen didn’t like, and Helen was determined that she would never like any man who wanted to marry her mum.