Monday 13 November 2023

The Fall by Judith Skilleter, Pacheran - a Spanish digestive

It’s that time of year again – when the clocks go back. When we gain an extra hour's sleep but have to put up with a couple of days wondering if the real time is what your watch says or is it an hour earlier or an hour after.  We use sometimes an Americanism to distinguish between the spring and autumn hour changes - Spring forward, when we move our clocks on, and Fall back, when we move our clocks back. Fall being the American term for Autumn. Stella prefers to use the word autumn but the term “fall” always reminds her that she is a bit American, she is partially Yank.

It was her great grandmother who inadvertently brought US blood into their entirely Lancashire bloodline. It was 1943 when her blood great grandmother, Shirley, had a liaison with a US GI stationed in the UK but visiting Lancashire when on leave to look up ancestors. He didn’t find anyone from his past but his short lived liaison with Stella’s great grandmother left behind a permanent future – Stella’s grandmother Eleanor. Of course, after their one and only drunken coupling in an alley behind The Black Horse pub Shirley never heard from or saw him again. Did he die heroically during the Normandy Landings or did he sneak back to the USA as a conquering hero not aware of the mess he had made of someone’s life back in the UK?

Shirley was only 16 and she was horrified and scared and didn’t dare tell her mum or dad until her swelling belly became obvious. Shirley had been so drunk that she didn’t even know the father of her soon to be born child’s name. What a mess indeed.

In those days children born outside wedlock were less acceptable than nowadays; it was a shameful thing to be an unwed mum. Shirley was a fallen woman and was sent away to her aunt in Cornwall to have the child who would immediately be taken from her after the birth and adopted by a decent married couple who were struggling to conceive. How things have changed. And that was what happened. Shirley, four months, later gave birth to a healthy daughter whom she cuddled briefly before she was taken away by well-meaning but also disapproving professionals.

Shirley had given the baby a name, Eleanor, which the adoptive parents kept. And Eleanor Margaret Hickson grew up to be Stella’s grandma.

Ellie, as she became known, was delightfully happy growing up. She knew from early on that she was adopted but she didn’t care who her birth parents were, not one jot. She just was not interested. She adored Barbara and Lawrence Hickson so much she would never have considered hurting them by looking for her real mum and dad – to all intents and purposed Barbara and   Lawrence were her 100% mum and dad.

It was the next generation who went looking into the family history, Stella’s Aunt Fiona, the oldest of six children that Eleanor had with her husband Bill. Eleanor did not like this at all “She's been watching too many episodes of 'Who do you think you are,'” she grumbled. “Why rake all this up after all these years – and it’s none of her business. And thank goodness her grandma and grandad are not alive, they would be so upset”. Eleanor even told Fiona that whatever she found out she, Eleanor, was not interested and didn’t want to know – and she ought to be ashamed of herself nosing about in other people’s business.

Fiona was not deterred and after a lot of online searching and a telephone call to a niece of Shirley, Fiona found out that Shirley had not had a good life. She had returned home a few weeks after the birth and it was as if nothing had happened. The explanation for her long absence was that she had been away on holiday to Auntie Jill’s who had needed help because of illness. The baby was not mentioned at all at home. It was as if her daughter had never existed.  It was as if there was an order of silence throughout the family - if we don’t talk about it nothing must have happened.  There was no interest or even morbid curiosity within her family. But when Shirley went back to school she was teased and bullied mercilessly. Everybody knew.  And there were disapproving looks whenever she went out, from people she knew and even those she didn’t know. Shirley had a reputation that would not go away, a reputation that resulted from a few minutes drunken madness with an US GI who gave her nylon stockings. It was a huge price to pay.

Shirley left school early and ran away from home.  She ran away from the constant reminders that she had brought shame to her family. She ran away from the lack of love and kindness and understanding. She ran away from constant suspicion and disapproval. She ran away from a lack of forgiveness. She recognised that her family thought she had done wrong but how could that gorgeous healthy baby whom she held only briefly be wrong and why should she need forgiveness for this?

 She went to London where she lived in a series of squats, each one more squalid than the last, had a series of dead-end jobs and she had a series of equally squalid and painful relationships along the way. During all this time nobody came to look for her.

Shirley died in a road accident aged only twenty. By then she had had another child, also taken away by well-meaning professionals, and was once again pregnant. Her third baby died with her.

As for the Yank, the father of her baby, who knows who he is or where he is.

Fiona wrote all this down and left it with Eleanor’s solicitor should there be a time when Eleanor was ready to look into her past. For the moment Eleanor was not ready to look into her birth past, she did not want to sully her happy memories of growing up with Barbara and Lawrence. She suspected that there was something there that would not be good news. If anything Eleanor would have wanted to say “Thank you for giving me up –I had the best childhood ever.” But she also suspected that hearing those words would make someone she did not know very unhappy. Best left alone – for now at least.

And Stella, who is Fiona’s favourite niece and knows everything, is OK with that but a bit of her is intrigued, if not fascinated, by her US heritage. In the Fall of 1943 her great grandmother had become a fallen woman. Who would have thought what went on in her family all those years ago? Thank goodness times have changed.


About the author 

Judith Skilleter is new to writing fiction after a long career in social work and teaching. Her first children's novel The April Rebellion, has recently been published. Judith is a Geordie, who settled in East Yorkshire forty-five years ago and is married with nearly four grandchildren. 


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