When the letters came, that was when it all blew up – for ever. I told my parents, Win and John, that I’d been offered a place at St Andrews university, they warned me that I’d be out of my depth, mixing with people who had very different lives to me – more money, posh, snobs. I wouldn’t be able to keep up. This, they told me again, had been my perennial problem: I always wanted to mix with people Win and John couldn’t compete with – at the Guides, at the Duke of Edinburgh’s award scheme. Here was another one.
“This is just another one of your nine-day wonders, Deborah. College is more suitable.”
“I’ve changed my mind. I don’t want to be a teacher.”
“Why not? That’s a very good job. A good job for a woman. For a mother.”
“Aye. So I’m told.”
“Less of your lip.”
The arguing went on and on.
“We just think that your place is at home with us, until you’re married. You’ve got a place at Glasgow and at Strathclyde. You can easily go in every day, on the train.”
“But Mum. I don’t want to stay in Motherwell. You’ve been telling me how much you hate it all my life.”
Pursed lips. “This is your home, Deborah. Your place is here, with us. Your father and I forbid you, and that’s that.”
But that was not that. I’d been shocked by this encounter. I didn’t understand where they thought all of their encouragement of my schoolwork had been going. But I also knew that I was going anyway, and that, for all their talk, Win and John couldn’t stop me.
I accepted the place, applied for a grant and requested housing in a hall of residence. The atmosphere at home was pure, toxic hostility. I told Win that I intended to go away, but that I’d prefer it if they would “give me their blessing”. Win gave the anguished cry of narcissists the world over: “But what about me?”
This obsession of mine, Win explained, had destroyed her ideas about what her life would be like. She and I would be friends. I would get married, I’d have her grandchildren, and Win would be around to help me look after them. I told her that I didn’t want children. Eventually, John and Win announced that they had decided that I could go to St Andrews, but “only if I promised that I would come back home to live when my course was complete”. I made the promise and I knew that I’d be held to it.
When I got to St Andrews, there were new secrets to keep from my parents. Most stressful was the discovery that university and me simply didn’t get along. It was great to be away from home, if a bit discombobulating. But the rest, the education bit? I didn’t get it. What was it all for? I had nothing in common with the students. There was huge resentment between “town and gown”, and my sympathies lay with town. The loose crowd I eventually ended up in had a mixture of both: some former students who’d never left, some “townies” attracted in rebellion to aspects of student life – sex, drugs, rock’n’roll. St Andrews was still very hippy, even in the 1980s. People were always moving out to Crail, a little fishing village along the coast, because the sunrise over the sea was so amazing.
The hippies were preferable, however, to the Yahs. This was the name for the very posh English aristocrats who dominated the university and set the tone. It had been explained to me, early on, that St Andrews was full of posh English people because privately educated kids who didn’t get into Oxbridge viewed St Andrews as the next best thing. I’d nodded, even though I didn’t know what “Oxbridge” was. I didn’t know what anything was. I didn’t know why people kept declaring that they’d “probably get a tutu”. It wasn’t like everyone was leaping about, doing arabesques.
And no one understood a word I said. I had to repeat everything, sometimes many times. “No! Really? I thought that’s what you were trying to say. But I couldn’t believe it. You don’t have A PASSPORT? I didn’t know that was even legal. Surely you’ve been to FRANCE? ITALY?”
“What? You mean spaghetti hoops? In tins? Oh, no. I don’t think that counts as pasta.”
“Well, that’s a bit strange, I must say. You’ve lived in Scotland all of your life and you’ve NEVER BEEN SHOOTING?”
Yet, weirdly, even though these people were undoubtedly far more sophisticated than I was, a lot of them also seemed stupid. None of them even knew how to do a pan of chips, let alone put out a chip-pan fire, which as far as I was concerned were the basic survival skills. Their priorities were frivolous, their entitlement baffling, their conception of how the world worked hopelessly unrealistic. But what did I know?
Lectures, like everything else at this ancient university, seemed needlessly medieval. I stopped going to them, not long into my first year. I was unable to face them, yet full of guilt about it. I’ve had anxiety dreams about squandering my university years for all of my life since then until 2016, when they stopped. This was when I stopped living in a domestic environment where I constantly felt undereducated.
But I couldn’t face telling my parents that St Andrews wasn’t right for me, couldn’t bear to tell anyone else the bizarre – to all of them, I felt sure – fact that my parents hated me being at university. I just had to tough it out. My pride wouldn’t let me admit to Win and John that they’d been right and I’d been wrong. I phoned home every Sunday without fail, telling my mum that everything was great. John would answer the phone very occasionally, but he’d hand over the phone to a hovering Win pretty quick. “Hello? You all right? I’ll get your mum.”
The duty of keeping in touch would be mine alone for ever, and if I forgot to phone on a Sunday I’d dread phoning to apologise. One time, when I’d let it drift for an entire week, and when Win finally called me, her voice dripping with angry contempt at my neglect and disrespect, I shat on a newspaper on my bedroom floor rather than tell her that she’d woken me up at shameful Sunday noon. I feared her. The incident is such a perfect example of infantilisation that it doesn’t even qualify as a metaphor.
When Win wasn’t managing, with some dark genius, to deliver a silent treatment over the phone she would usually ask me if I’d got a boyfriend yet, very brightly, and I’d always say no. Which was true. I was terrified of getting into a situation where I was alone in my room with a man, because of things that had happened early on at St Andrews.
I was too naive back then to call it what it was, which was rape. There had been a corridor party in the hall of residence. Lots of people had come, including one guy who’d chatted to me and made a suggestive remark. I’d laughed it off. “Maybe later. If you’re lucky.” Much later, after the party had long dispersed, after I was in bed, drunk, half asleep, he slipped back in through my unlocked door, took off his trousers, got into the bed, silently fucked me, got up, put on his trousers, then left. I felt that I’d deserved this experience of “sex” for “leading him on”. No doubt he did, too. I told no one.
After my first year, in order to stay at St Andrews I had to do summer resits. Win and John were furious that I’d failed. I told them that university studies were really hard, which they were not. I passed the resits and asked Mum and Dad if I could go to Edinburgh to meet a friend – also Deborah – who was living there, and spend the weekend with her as a little reward. They reluctantly gave me permission. Which was a bit weird, since I was almost 19.
I went to Edinburgh, we two Deborahs went to the pub, and there I fell into conversation with a man dressed in biker leathers. He seemed delightful, chatty and friendly. It turned out, as we all walked home, that his flat was just along the road from Deborah’s, and he asked us both to come up, meet his flatmates and have a joint or two. Other Deborah said she was tired, and I went up to the flat. No flatmates. But that was fine. We talked. We smoked a couple of joints.
When he leaned in to kiss me, that was fine. But things started going too fast.
“No! Please!” I said, becoming desperate, and added, as the magazines advised, “I have my period.”
By this time he had my arms pinned behind my head and my body pinioned under his. I couldn’t move.
“I wish I’d known. I could have had some of the chapter round as witnesses, got my red wings.”
The total change in his character, the full engagement of biker culture, the calculated nastiness and horror, was like a blow. Gripping both of my hands with one of his, he started to punch my head. There were moments of unconsciousness, and every time I came round he’d bash me on the head again, until he was done.
As we lay on the bed and I silently sobbed, he said: “Don’t I get a cuddle?” Petrified and revolted, I let him put his arms round me. I waited until he was deeply enough asleep and crept out. I wandered the streets for hours, thinking about going to the police and how unlikely they were to take my word against his. When it was late enough in the morning I went back to Deborah’s, pretended that I’d had a nice time and said that something had come up, so I had to get the train back to Motherwell right away. I wished that I had the kind of mother I could tell about such a thing. But I didn’t.
I learned the old-fashioned lessons from this rape, lessons that place the blame on the victim. I stopped drinking alcohol. I started to dress differently, in a long, voluminous tweed skirt and Edwardian-style high-collared blouses. I opted for natural-looking makeup. And I decided, most dysfunctionally of all, that what I needed was a boyfriend to protect me.
I had met Crispin in my first year. We exchanged banter and soul-baring. Together we’d had actual, consensual, intense, affectionate sex – which for me was a first, and a highly significant commitment. Somehow I managed completely to ignore for the three years of our relationship what seems laughably plain now – that he was unfaithful throughout. For maybe a year and a half I concealed the relationship from my parents, who still insisted that I was responsible for remaining in touch with them, because I’d been the one to leave the family. It also meant I had to spend every holiday with them.
Christmas 1982 therefore saw me at home, interminably watching telly with John and Win, and my brother David. We’d already had our subdued and puritanical Christmas, just the four of us, a turkey crown and elaborate disappointment with the gifts I’d brought. One night, at about 2am, in the dead purgatory between Christmas and New Year, I was roused from sleep by my father and told I was needed downstairs. There, sitting on an armchair in the living room, was my tearful mother, holding in her hand a letter I’d written to Crispin, my bag – in which I’d put the letter, stamped, addressed, ready to send – at her feet. They routinely opened letters that were sent to me. I’d asked them not to, but Win had explained that since they were my family I should have no secrets from them. Opening letters that I was intending to send, though – this was new.
Thus the most terrible inquisition of my life began.
It was obvious to them, Win said, like St Peter for the prosecution on Judgement Day, that I was sleeping with this man. Did I not understand what I had done? Did I not know that I was ruined? No decent man would look at me now, let alone marry me. I was 20 years old. My protests brought nothing but greater anger. Finally, my father spoke.
“This man has lied to you and tricked you. You are no better than a common whore. He does not respect you, or he would not have done this to you. I know this because I know what men are like. Because I am a man. You are a stupid, disgusting little fool and there is nothing more we can do to help you now. You have wrecked your whole life. You are worthless. You must stop seeing this man right away. After that, we’ll have to decide what to do next.”
Oh, God. The self-loathing of it. The sadness. What an unfortunate, unlucky pair: so keen to shore up the other in their mutual horror of something as simple as sex – something that should, when they had so much trust and honesty between each other in all other ways, have been a time of physical freedom.
I see it all, of course, from somewhere on the living room ceiling. Me on the settee, switching like a traffic light between tears, attempts at self-justification and fury, aware more than anything else that, unlike a traffic light, I was powerless before the relentless refusal of my parents to allow me to live in the world as the world was, to let me make my mistakes, and maybe even to comfort me when things went awry.
My parents were the jailers that I loved. The attention that I got from them, whenever they had the chance to pick my bones clean? It was still attention. As a girl I’d had it, even if it was trammelled by their beliefs about the kind of attention a girl should receive. As a woman it had become so rare for the three of us to sit together and talk about me. This feeling of powerlessness under my parents’ unflinching belief that I’d let them down. This was what it was to be loved. That night my mother rounded things off by adding, as some kind of double-edged sweetener, “I love you, Deborah. You are my daughter, my firstborn, and I will always love you. But I’m afraid I don’t like you. Not at all.”
I left on the first train after that night of reckoning, for Edinburgh, and a happier start to 1983 with Crispin. Then I got pregnant and had an NHS abortion on my own, tended to by disapproving Edinburgh hospital staff who took it upon themselves to provide moral education along with medical services.
I’d already finished university by the time the miners’ strike began in 1984. I was living in Edinburgh and, like most people from mining families, I was going on the demos, helping with the collections, attending the fundraisers.
I was on a government scheme, too – the Enterprise Allowance Scheme – and got £40 a week to help me start my own business, which consisted mainly of doing posters for local bands. I thought I was doing OK, but this odd but honest toil didn’t cut any ice with John and Win. I’d explain that building a career took time. They’d snort. “This is a career then, is it?”
University, as far as they were concerned, and just as they had warned, had been a waste of time. I found it stressful, continuing to defend my decision to go, trying to prove that this wouldn’t catapult me out of the family as they’d predicted. I decided when my Enterprise Allowance money ran out – you got it for two years – that I should go down south, where the jobs were, just for 18 months or so. Get some decent experience for my CV and, hopefully, some money. If I’d been told then that I’d never live in Scotland again, I’d have assumed that I was conversing with a lunatic.
I climbed on to the overnight coach to London, and found a squat to live in. I got a job as a typesetter, then a job with a trade magazine for sales directors. (In top Ronseal style, it was called Sales Direction.) There I met Tim, with whom I formed the most normal and equal long-term relationship I’ve ever had. Within a couple of years of arrival in London I was the proud chatelaine of half a one-bed flat in Brixton. All was well. Except that Tim still hadn’t met my parents. My mother agreed that I could bring this latest sexual exploiter of her child to visit for the weekend.
Win had decided that since we were blatantly living in sin, it was silly for her and John to insist on separate rooms. So Tim and I slept chastely in the hideously uncomfortable double sofa bed. I may even have erected a wall of pillows down its middle.
In the morning, when Tim had gone for a wee, Win slipped into the spare room and said arrangements would have to change because John had been up all night, vomiting at the idea of his daughter being in bed with a man under his roof. Tim was astounded, and not a little put off. I got pregnant again shortly after this. This time I went private. I didn’t need the dour Scots of the NHS to make me feel guilty again. Every time my parents made a seismic intervention in a relationship, I ended up pregnant. I didn’t set out to do so deliberately. Maybe it was a way of forcing commitment in my relationships, to please my parents. Their disapproval dogged me, in ways I didn’t understand or acknowledge.
I’d thought that when my dad died in 2007, Win might move down south, to live near me. But she was too distressed by the loss of her husband to countenance the idea of a new phase in her life. She found the courage to visit me in London one time after John died, then never came again. Instead, I’d go up a lot. I never stopped hoping that, with Dad gone, with her loyalties less divided, Win might have conceded that I’d grown up in a different time to my parents, that being “a career girl” and having sex before marriage, were not such terrible things.
A few years later, Win was diagnosed with kidney cancer. I took the train up to discharge her from the hospital where she’d had her operation, the same day my own radiotherapy for breast cancer ended, and spent a week looking after her. There was simply no one else who could do it at that time. And I wanted to. I did still want Win to view me as a good daughter.
The second-last time I ever saw my mother was in 2013, when we spent the afternoon in New Lanark, a place my family loved. We still hadn’t had the talk, the one I always longed for, that would straighten everything out. By then it was, all of a sudden, far too late. It was the first time Win had been out in the world for more than a year, after being diagnosed with secondary kidney cancer in the bone. I’d gone up to the hospice where she was being looked after, hired a cab that took a wheelchair, put some lipstick on my mother and a shawl that she’d crocheted, and gone to the place where we’d always been happy. Win was so glad to be outside again, so glad to see the sky and the water and the tea room. We had lunch in the pub, and Win ate with exquisite relish. She was happy to be with her daughter, there in New Lanark. It felt uncomplicated. It felt like we loved each other, in the simplest and easiest of ways.
She died three weeks later.
There wasn’t a happy ending for me and Win, though. It was lovely, the second-last time I saw her, down at the Falls of Clyde. When I turned up the next day though, the Sunday, Win said she didn’t want to go in the taxi again because it was too expensive. I’d paid for it, not her. I think she felt that I was throwing money at her, as if she was a problem. She said instead that she wanted me to push her down to Airdrie town centre in the very rudimentary wheelchair to look around the shops. I explained that the hospice was at the top of a steep hill, that I didn’t think I could manage it, that the shops would be closed anyway and that I didn’t mind paying for a taxi at all – quite the reverse. I’d love it. She sulked until I gave in and took her down to Airdrie, finding it hard to stop the wheelchair from going too fast on the way down, sweating with the effort of pushing on the way back up. We were both in bad moods when we parted, and I never saw my mother again.
• This is an edited extract from Motherwell by Deborah Orr (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, £16.99, and also available as an audiobook). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p on all online orders over £15.
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