At the time, Mummy had gone into a deep depression after finding out about Dad’s affair.
We’d had to move to the north of England, ‘to start afresh’, she’d said, which meant tearing us out of schools again and having to find new friends, but our one consolation was that we could afford a much bigger house.
The only time Mummy wasn’t in bed with the pills was when she was in the kitchen or when Dad was around, which wasn’t very often.
He’d moved into the attic where he was busy on a new invention, but when she was out of bed and he was out of the attic, the two of them argued incessantly. If they weren’t arguing, it was the calm before or after the arguments. For me, the calm and quiet was just as bad as the agonising torrents of abuse.
Dad would tell us how he didn’t mean to shout and that he was only trying to help Mummy, but when the shouting started up again we all thought he was playing with our feelings, trying to get us on his side for no good reason.
As I was the oldest, he used me as a messenger to Mummy when she wouldn’t talk to him. I didn’t understand why Mummy always cried when I told her the things he’d said because they never seemed so bad to me.
I don’t think the pills helped at all. She looked so confused and limp all the time, unless she was arguing with Dad.
The day it happened, Mummy had made Sunday lunch and we were all sat around the kitchen table.
We’d tried to cheer Mummy up by complimenting her on her cooking but she was down in the dumps, lazily flicking bits of food around her plate.
Dad had hardly said a word (he always liked his food) but we could tell he was in a bad mood about something or other, most probably his invention.
I looked across the table at Jenny once I could stand the silence no longer, wondering if she’d sensed that it was ‘time’.
Jenny just looked back at me with one of her gormless, mouth-full smiles in an attempt to humour me, but when I saw that Kim had her head down as usual, glum-faced and expecting the worst, pretending to eat, Jenny’s funny-face seemed pointless.
When I saw poor Timothy in his highchair, I felt an undeniable sadness for him.
He’d become so confused about life that he was almost constantly shivering when he was sat down for food.
His beautiful blue eyes looked like they were on the verge of popping out, waiting for the first of the little jibes from Mummy or Dad. Round One, I called it.
‘Can you pass the salt?’ asked Dad.
‘Oh God, here we go,’ I thought to myself.
Jenny immediately went to grab it for him at the same time as me, so that Mummy didn’t need to get involved, but in the race to pass Dad the salt, I clipped the gravy boat with a finger and sent it flying across the table.
‘Oh, for heaven’s sake!’ bawled Dad, making the high-pitched sound his chair makes when he gets up.
Timothy’s knife and fork stood to attention as he steadied his gaze on the plate in front of him, his eyes jittering in their sockets, so I tried to calm him down.
‘It’s alright, Timmy,’ I said, but he couldn’t even turn his head towards me.
‘It’s hardly alright, is it?’ said Dad, standing over us. ‘That was the last of the gravy, damn it!’
The gravy ran slowly over the table amongst the plates, glistening like warm blood.
Mummy could take no more.
‘She only did it because she’s scared of you!’ she screamed at him. ‘All you care about’s your big fat stomach, isn’t it? So long as you eat half of what’s on the table, you’re just the haaapiest little boy in the world, aren’t you?’
Dad stood like a statue and squinted his eyes, which is what he does to stop himself from retaliating (he called it ‘counting to ten’), and then went to the sink to get a cloth.
‘Come on, you lot,’ he said, trying to diffuse the situation, ‘lift your plates and I’ll mop it up.’
Jenny, Kim and I did as we were told. ‘Thaaat’s it,’ said Dad, making a meal of it as we waited with our plates up, bits of gravy dripping back onto the table.
When I looked over at Timmy, I saw that he’d lifted his little plate up as well. It quivered in his hands and I could see from the gravy in his fingers that it was slipping away from his grip.
I went to take it from him and gently placed it back down onto his little fold-out table.
‘There you go, Timmy,’ I whispered in the silence.
Turning back with my own plate still held up, it caught the arm that Dad was still wiping the table with and it went crashing to the floor.
I went to get up but Dad had other ideas.
‘Just stay there, you stupid girl,’ he said, with a hand on my shoulder.
‘She was only trying to help,’ said Jenny, meekly and without looking at Dad.
‘Help? First she knocks the gravy over and then she smashes a plate. I’d hardly call that help, would you?’
‘It was Timmy’s fault for holding his plate up,’ squeaked Kim.
Dad stood still. He didn’t know what to say. Even he could see that Timmy was blameless.
Timmy’s eyes shot a glance to Dad, then welled up. He never cried, so the tears just juddered on the edge of his little lashes.
When Dad failed to come to his defence, he started to wriggle around in his highchair, desperately trying to get out.
Back then, I didn’t understand why he’d stopped crying since our arrival at the new house, but I know now. His crying had gone unanswered for so long that he didn’t see the point in it.
Dad walked over to the sink to clean the cloth.
I thought the sound of running water would put an end to the whole thing and went to squeeze Mummy’s hand while Dad couldn’t see. Her hand was cold but I didn’t have time to warm it up.
From my seat, I bent down and started to pick up the pieces of my plate from the floor, using my other hand to stroke Timmy’s arm.
It was easy to collect everything together and scoop it up in my tablecloth, which I left it under my seat to pick up later, but Dad noticed.
‘Give me that,’ he scowled, grabbing it from under me.
A sharp nervous tingle shot up my spine as he called out and Mummy saw me judder spasmodically.
‘That’s it,’ she said under her breath, which was always how it started. ‘That’s enough! You hear me?’
Dad turned to face her from the sink. ‘Oh, the ogre finally awakes,’ he said with lashings of his trademark irony.
‘You have to spoil it, don’t you!? Eeevery siiiingle tiiiime! You just can’t resist, can you!?’ she shouted, slamming her cutlery into her food.
‘The pills are working then,’ he said snidely.
‘You’re a fine one to talk, sat with Frankenstein up in your attic!’
‘Just caaalm down, dear,’ he said with a half-grin. ‘Remember what the doctor said about your anger.’
‘My anger? Look at you. You can’t even sit down with your own family without making a scene! You’re eeevil, that’s what you are.’
‘That’s it, dear, get it aaaall out, it helps,’ he said, imitating a psychiatrist.
There was a silence for an instant, which I saw as my time to take the children away from the madness.
Lifting Timmy from his highchair, I signalled to Jenny and Kim to follow me out and they quietly got up and walked over to the door with us.
As the door swung shut, I could hear Mummy start back up on Dad.
‘Look what you’ve done now! My poor children can’t take this for much longer!’
‘Oh, so you do care about the children! So why do you spend your whole life in bed, then?’
‘It’s because of you, you bastard!’
‘That’s right blame it aaall on me.’
Jenny and Kim followed Timothy and I outside to the garden.
The fresh air and warm summer breeze was a perfect tonic to the icy cold atmosphere in the kitchen.
I could hear traffic go past from behind the hedges that enclosed the garden and felt grateful that life existed beyond the confines of home.
We sat down together on the lawn and said nothing. I stroked Timothy’s hair and we looked into each other’s eyes.
His seemed to be telling me something but I couldn’t understand what, so I gave him my playful eyes and started to gently tickle his ribs.
‘I hardly ate any of mine,’ said Kim, scowling.
‘Oh, stop moaning, Kim,’ said Jenny. ‘You know what they’re like.’
‘Jenny’s right, Kim,’ I said, ‘we’ve got to be strong.’
‘Shhtchwong,’ said Timothy. ‘Shhtchwong.’
Jenny and I looked at each other, our mouths and eyes agape.
‘Did you hear that?!’ she asked.
I nodded excitedly, for this was the first time Timothy had said a real word.
I looked at Timothy, wide-eyed. ‘What did you say, Timmy? Was it strong?’
‘Shhtchwong,’ he said, shaking his head with the surprise for being able to say it again. ‘Shhtchwong, shhtchwong, shhtchwong!’ he said, louder and louder.
Jenny and I stood up, amazed that Timothy could finally speak.
‘Shhtchwong!’ we cried. ‘Shhtchwong!’ again and again, jumping around him in a circle like the Red Indians on the telly around a fire, repeating his first word as if it was an apparition.
Kim didn’t move. She just sat there watching with a sideways-smirk on her freckly face as Timothy looked up at us, revelling in his moment of glory.
‘Come on, Kim, join in,’ said Jenny, but she was having none of it.
When we’d calmed down, we dropped to the ground in a heap.
I took Timothy in my arms and perched him on my chest as we lay looking at the sky. ‘Shhtchwong,’ we repeated together. ‘Shhtchwong.’
Kim walked off past the greenhouse where Dad grew tomatoes, disappearing up the path that chased around the house towards the frog pond.
After a while, I sat Timothy up and looked over to Jenny, who was daydreaming at the sky.
She must have known what I was thinking because she took the words out of my mouth.
‘When’s it all going to stop, Alice?’ she asked, still looking at the sky.
‘Hard to say,’ I replied, ‘but don’t hold your breath.’
We both laughed and Timothy joined in.
Jenny looked up and noticed that Kim wasn’t there.
‘Where’s Kim gone?’ she asked.
‘Probably to the pond. She likes it there,’ I replied, plucking a blade of grass from its root one at a time.
‘Kim,’ said Timothy.
Jenny and I laughed. ‘Yes, Timmy.., Kim, your sister. That’s two words you’ve learnt now, you clever boy!’
But Timothy looked down as if something was the matter.
He gave me his glum look and then looked up again, pointing to where Kim had walked off.
‘Do you want to go and find Kim?’ I asked, and he nodded ‘yes’. ‘Off you go then. Go and cheer Kim up.’
Timothy always wanted to be in Kim’s good books but she never seemed interested, always pushing him away and glaring at him.
I watched as Timothy waddled off in his nappy to cheer Kim up, and then lay back to join Jenny and the sky.
We said nothing, delving deeper into thought.
As I lay there, I started to think about the family and how we all fitted in.
There was Mummy, who had fallen into a deep depression and couldn’t seem to muster the strength to forgive or forget the past, and then there was Dad, who had had an affair and lost his job as a research director at Cambridge University.
Mummy had recently told me that he was still in love with his mistress, which was apparently the reason he was so mopey and angry.
He holed himself in the attic, putting all his time into the invention, which he reckoned would make him a millionaire and cause Cambridge to regret sacking him over the stupid affair. I don’t think Mummy wanted him to succeed with the invention because that would mean that he could pursue his mistress, who was a rich American married to one of his old colleagues.
Then there was me, the oldest of us four children.
Aged eleven, I gave myself the role of family peacekeeper, putting myself between Mummy and Dad when they went at each other. It was like being a boxing referee, but they never actually hit each other. It was only ever with words but I can't say words are any less destructive than hitting. We're all prone to depression now, one way or another.
School was OK but I could never feel comfortable enough to invite friends around to the house, even when they begged because our house was so big. I was quite a morose child and longed to be free from the family.
Jenny was nine and acted as my second-in-command. She and I were best friends and spent a lot of time together, mostly because of our age. Jenny was more of a tomboy, while I was prissey and romantic. She enjoyed school and didn’t mind bringing friends back to the house, which I resented, probably because she didn’t give much thought to what Mummy and Dad were like. She blocked it off really well.
Kim was seven and hated being around Mummy and Dad. She resented my bond with Jenny and always wanted to join in with what we were doing. As much as we tried to include her, it always seemed like she was in the way, trying too hard to be part of the gang, so she’d get angry and storm off in a huff. She had no time for Timothy and was insanely jealous of the attention Mummy and Dad gave to him, acting as if he wasn’t there most of the time. Kim nearly died of meningitis when she was two.
Timothy was the only boy, and Mummy had always wanted a boy. She had to have an operation on her brain after his birth, which took her away from us for quite a while. Dad was hardly ever around, what with his affair, so I had to take on Mummy’s role for a while.
Timothy was only two, and when I started to think about him, I suddenly got up and looked around, wondering where he’d got to.
Just as I got up, I saw Kim racing towards us on the lawn. ‘Quick! Quick! Timmy’s fallen into the pond and I can’t get him out!’
Jenny and I ran as fast as we could to the pond, sharp stabs of horror jabbing at my half-awake, sun-drugged mind.
I plunged my hand in to where Kim pointed and instantly got hold of one of his reins. I pulled him out using all my strength and put his limp body face-down over my thigh.
Holding onto his legs, I instinctively eased his body downwards and across, pressing his stomach against my thigh, praying that it wasn’t too late to save him.
After what seemed like an eternity, water started to pump out of his mouth.
‘Get Mummy!’ I screamed at Jenny, who ran off as fast as she could.
Mummy came within seconds and took hold of Timothy. Being a trained nurse, she patted hard on his back and when she could hear him spluttering and catching his breath, she wailed in agony for him.
Dad was there, too, repeating the words, ‘Oh my God, oh my God,’ as Mummy held onto her only son for dear life.
When I saw Timothy’s eyes, shocked but definitely open, I cried up to the sky and wept.
Even Dad was crying, which none of us had ever witnessed, holding his wife and boy close to him, blubbering like a baby.
Jenny was in shock, sat tightly with her knees up to her chin, swaying this way and that over by the greenhouse.
When I looked over to Kim, hiding behind Mummy and Dad, she had her eyebrows down to cover an expression that I will never forget.
That day, when I almost lost my brother, love in our family was reborn.
Mummy and Dad, having found a reason to love and hold each other again, stopped arguing and we saw how kind they could be to each other.
Mummy stopped taking the pills and started working at a school for backward children.
About a year later, Dad’s invention was a success but he never made the millions. Cambridge didn’t call, either, begging for him to return, but he didn’t care by that time.
The arguing started back up but peace was restored for long enough to give me the strength to keep going.
I have Timothy to thank for that.