Saturday, September 11, 2010
Forever told never to wash our dirty laundry out in public, my sib’s and I were better schooled than to ever discuss our private home life to strangers - “Stranger’s” being everyone outside our immediate family.
But I found it a strange expression all the same, seeing as how our dirty laundry always ended up being washed in public.
Every other Saturday I lugged our family wash to the coin-operated “Laundrymatt”, and barring rain, staggered back with the wet load, too, which Ma then pegged out across the road for all and sundry to see.
Much as I didn’t like the Laundrymatt, (there was usually a queue for the machines, and the grown-up’s there often cut in before their turn, bumping me right back to the end of it), I felt even worse hard done by having to stand watch over it dry. Part of my duties involved retrieving the load in should it rain, as well as to keep an alert eye out for any passing clothes-bandits. Embarrassingly, these were usually kids, and ones I knew, who saw it as a great game to have me chase them through the streets, attempting to wrestle my Da’s long-john’s from out of their thieving mitts as we went.
Yes, this irony of us literally always washing our family laundry out in public hardly escaped me. Taught to mistrust everyone, growing up in a house filled with secrets, I took to leading two separate lives - the one I knew at home, and the other more carefree one, the life I created for myself outside of it.
Used to more freedom than was wise, I rarely returned home before dark – invariably latching onto a school-friend to invite me round for tea, I’d later usually drop by the public library, poring over my homework, or losing myself in a book until closing time. If it was summer and still light, I’d often catch a bus, didn’t matter to where, and pretending I’d lost my fare home, throw myself at the mercy of the Conductor to allow me to ride free. Surprisingly, this worked well far more often than not, and I soon acquired a sound knowledge of the many outlying boroughs surrounding my neighbourhood.
This routine saw me well in my first year of moving up to the posh school, but regrettably, regardless of how hard I applied myself, my performance there only ever came out as being consistently and hugely average. There was only one area left where I occasionally shone, however, to my greatest good-fortune, it happened to be in the self same class in which the wondrous Ms. Brown held lesson – English Literature and Composition.
Bear in mind, teacher’s to me were not to be trusted, “stranger’s”, they were apt to pry into matters which, as far as my parents were concerned, lay firmly out of bounds. Although her approval delighted me, I kept my responses muted. Distancing myself to keeping my head down, I spoke only when spoken to, delighted yet wary, I preferred to keep my worship from a distance. And worship her I did. She singled me out for praise, always drew me out in class, and should we pass each other in the corridor, she never failed to hail me with an encouraging word.
This may have been Ms. Brown’s first teaching post, certainly she was young. She didn’t wear the intimidating black cloaks which most of the others did, and she wore her frizzy, waist-long, strawberry-blond haystack hair loose and wild. Seriously over-weight, she favoured wearing Caftan’s, and held a passion for Shakespeare, poetry, humour, FOOD (oh God, did she love food!), honesty, her cats, grand piano concerts, plays, and every single other thing which might bring joy to her world. Christine Brown held an insatiable appetite for life, one she happily and unconditionally spread, if ever there was a one born to teach, it was her. Her enthusiasm lit up the skies.
She decided I should have a reading list (perhaps my trips to the library were not quite the secret I liked to think?), and brought in her own books for me to read. Only one at a time. Once read, she would give me another. This reading selection blew my socks off. I doubt many teachers would recommend Electra, Physician heal thyself, or Rosemary’s Baby to a twelve year old. She gave me credence of maturity to understand and digest the subjects at hand, she never spoke down to me as most adults were wont to do, and most importantly, she respected there were areas of my life I couldn't yet, or perhaps ever, allow her entry into, - but she let me know it would be quite safe to trust her should I ever feel ready and willing to.
I think Ms. Brown saw a lot beyond that which I let her see.
She paid for my first trip to a theatre, telling me that booking a group allowed her concessions for a free seat. A white lie to save my dignity, knowing I had no hope of coming up with the money, she paid for me herself, refusing I miss out. That performance mesmerised me, I had no idea such a world existed. The entire two acts had my mouth a-gape.
“You think this is good? Ha! Just wait ‘til I take you to see the Ballet..”
And she did. I virtually died and went to heaven watching Swan lake.
Afterwards, the entire group of us all piled back to her flat for hamburgers and chips. Rumour is, she got suspended over that, though she denied it. I do know she eventually left under some breaking-the-rules cloud, and it completely ripped my heart clean from my chest, leaving this wide, gaping hole in it's place. Years passed for it to heal.
See, I had been so very, very close to confiding in her. I think I was just about ready.
I wonder where you are now, Christine Brown? I sure hope you know what an enormous, lasting impact you had on my life.