“Mum,” I said, knowing that my small voice couldn’t compete with Mrs Dale’s Diary playing at full volume on the wireless.
“Mummy,” I shouted as loudly as I dare.
“In a minute. I’m busy,” Mum replied.
“But Mum, it’s a ‘mergency,” I insisted.
“You’re five, Linda. You don’t know what an emergency is. Now run along and play with your brother. I’ll call you when tea’s ready.”
“But Mummy, it’s serious, pleeeeeease.”
“Now, that’s enough, Linda. Just go and do as you’re told. I’ll call you for tea when it’s ready.”
By this time, seriously upset about my very real emergency, I was crying, almost screaming, “Mummy, Mummy, you have to come, it’s really urgent. It’s Billy.”
“What about Billy?” Mum asked, exasperated by her daughter’s persistent whining and pleading. As with so many five-year-olds, everything in my short life was important.
“It wasn’t my fault,” I wailed.
“What wasn’t your fault? What’s happened?” Mum was starting to worry now.
“Billy wanted to look at the bird’s nest in the tree,” I sobbed, “I tried to hold his leg, so he wouldn’t fall, but his shoe came off…”
“My God, Linda,” Mum shouted, as the two of us ran out to the back of the old house and saw seven-year-old Billy’s twisted, lifeless body in the undergrowth below my bedroom window, “What have you done? What are we going to tell your father when he gets home? You know what he’s like – he’ll go mad.”
And that’s how it started. Mum called for an ambulance – too late, of course – and the police came and asked all sorts of questions. Dad was a lorry driver and couldn’t be contacted; there were no mobile phones in those days, and as Mum didn’t know what roads he was likely to use, the police couldn’t put up any of the boards they used to use to ask drivers to call them. Lorries didn’t have radios back then, either, so there was no way he could be contacted. As expected, Dad didn’t cope with the news at all well. Dad blamed Mum, and Mum blamed me, even though the police and doctors and counsellors, and even the judge at the inquest all said it was an accident and no-one’s fault.
Dad started drinking after the accident, and started hitting Mum. Mum and I moved away, and she and Dad divorced before I was seven. Mum was never the same afterwards, either. She withdrew into herself, had no friends and never involved herself in anything to do with my education beyond arranging for me to go to school.
She looked after me well enough; the maintenance money that Dad had to pay, together with a bit of money Mum earned charring, meant we always had a roof over our heads, and adequate food and clothing. No luxuries, though. Because I always had to rush back home to Mum, I never made any real friends, and everyone at school thought I was a bit of a loner. I was a good student, though; I always had good reports and did well in tests. I passed the eleven-plus and went to grammar school, where I gained nine ‘O’ levels and three ‘A’ levels.
I clearly remember one conversation with Mum, after I had been accepted for a place at Exeter University, where I was to study psychology. As I told her, my ultimate aim was to help families who had suffered the kind of loss we suffered when Billy died. I had finished my packing and was ready to leave for the rail station, to catch a train to Exeter to take up my university place, when Mum steeped in front of me.
“I know what you are trying to do, Linda,” she said, “you are desperate to assuage your feelings of guilt over your brother’s death; feelings that you are right to have, because you could have prevented it.
“All you needed to do was to hold his leg instead of his shoe. Surely you knew that his shoe might come off. If you’d only done that, my Billy would still be alive now, and your father and I would still be together.”
If I had a pound for every time I had heard that line, I would have been very wealthy by then. But it still made me cry every time I heard it. She was right, up to a point. I knew that it wasn’t my fault. I knew that no-one, apart from Mum, blamed me. More than a decade later though, I still felt guilty, still felt responsible. I had fought this fight too often, though.
“Mum, it was an accident,” I said through my tears, “I was five. I was helping Billy do what he wanted to do. I wouldn’t have thought about the mechanics of what I was doing, for goodness’ sake. Billy asked me to hold his foot, so I did. If my tears could bring him back, he would have come back to us a million times in the last ten years—”
“But they didn’t, did they? Nothing can bring him back. Nothing can undo what you did. Sure, you can cry about it as often as you like, but it will never bring him back. Your tears aren’t good enough.”
I cried bitterly as walked out of that house for the last time.