In his new novel “The Children Act”, Ian McEwan acknowledges various judges and their cases that are interwoven into his story, essentially of a teenager and a judge. He also writes that the characters, their views and personalities of his book bear no relation to any party in those cases. In part prompted by ‘The Children Act’, I’ve written a short story on a particular relationship:
“He stared at the document, a part of some personnel records from his youth. “He comes from a broken home, which may have something to do with his reserved personality. In due course he may develop ….. adequately ….”. The term ‘broken home’ was quite common, used to describe the background of children whose parents had divorced. It had social connotations too, back then, as though someone had marked your card, carrying some sort of stigma. It seemed so stark, so bleak, someone’s comment from decades before. He thought of its implications and wondered whether he had indeed fulfilled the writer’s expectation of his development.
Only last week a report, funded by the Department of Health and published by the Office for National Statistics, investigated “emotional and conduct disorders” in children caused by a breakdown of their parent’s marriage. On average the children were more than three times more likely to develop such disorders. Sixty years on, plus ça change plus c’est la même chose!
The thoughts whirled around inside his head, trying making sense of other people’s decisions that ultimately had affected him. Being sent off to schools where he boarded; had he felt ‘abandoned’, being left to the mercies of some educational establishment to mould him into something useful, to give him a rounded education? He remembered looking out of a closed school window on a dark Bonfire Night and seeing the fireworks over the city – untouchable and in another world. Abandoned yes, but such was the lot of so many young children here in Britain, where a culture existed, and for some still exists, that it was normal to send your children away ‘to be educated’. Confusingly, our ‘Public’ schools are actually private, and the free-for-all schools ‘State’! So parents actually pay to abandon their children? Sorry, that’s a tad cynical! He was sure they do it with the best intentions, but possible blind to the undercurrent of trauma and abuse. Only now one occasionally sees articles about “Boarding School Syndrome”, where survivors have dared to challenge the perceived wisdom of sending children away. “Stiff upper lip, what! Caruthers! Be a man and don’t talk about it.” So bottle it up and screw the lid on tight?
In amongst all the boarding school memories are the occasional flashbacks … of bedwetting, unexplained, parents called in and of hushed conversations, of sexual abuse, of being ridiculed and bullied, leading to a sense of abandonment …. the flashbacks like some lightning across a darkened sky …. illuminating events from the past for milliseconds …. not understood ….. and not forgotten. Traumatic! So this latest report brought it all back.
With little or no contact with his father, he accepted his step-father filling that role. As he grew older, he began to hear a rather one-sided version of why his parents had divorced, difficult to talk about, perhaps best left unsaid? Felt his father made little effort to stay in touch, such a gruff individual with whom it was difficult to communicate and who felt no need to explain his own actions. Did he, he wondered, even worry about it, just something that had happened? He had moved on, remarried, divorced again, and re-married. And that missed communication left an unfulfilled hole, certainly one that was not filled with love.
And then his father died, and was no longer able to respond. So he asked the widow:
“…… I have only my mother’s story of their marriage and why it broke up; Daddy never wanted to/felt it unnecessary to explain his side and I have always believed there was one. I had often thought of broaching the subject with him, felt I had a right to his explanation, as with the one-sided view of my mother I would maybe judge him unfairly; it never seemed the right time. ……….
……. Odd times, odd visits – but despite his remoteness, I always saw him as my father, needed to do that, was saddened when some time ago he suggested I call him by his Christian name. I like to think I did the right thing, but have often felt it was one-way.
Now he’s gone……… so this is a letter I realised I had to write.”
And she wrote back, suggesting that the father had been ‘hurt’ by his mother’s action to divorce him. Surely an action which he had brought upon himself? And the sting in the tail ……. in her will she wrote that, “having mainly ignored his father for so many years, he should not benefit from any part of the estate.”
But he felt exactly the same, ……ignored, …… abandoned. And now the widow has died, the door naturally closed, locked.”
We all know, I think, how difficult the ending of a relationship can be, especially when children are involved. Often the good intentions of fairness and communication get mired in recriminations and half-truths. Broken homes continue to cause angst among our children …… and I wish it were otherwise.
Slightly more than mere scribbles huh?!
Richard Yates – firstname.lastname@example.org