Winter 1967—1968, Age 16
I awoke with a start as wind buffeted the caravan and rain drummed on the roof. The usual misty showers—a fine soft day as it’s called in Ireland—had turned into a torrential downpour. At the other end of the caravan I heard plink, plink, plink of water dripping. The oil lamp was turned down to a flickering orange flame and when I cracked my eyes open, I could make out Mother’s lumpy outline in the gloom. The drips were coming from an area shrouded in shadow a few feet away. My bed was warm and dry; I just needed to slip back into unconsciousness.
Mother stirred, sat up suddenly and barked in a scratchy voice, “For God’s sake Owen, wake up. Get some pots under those drips.”
She turned up the lamp as I scrambled out of bed and rummaged around for pots, buckets and bowls. I placed them strategically under the drops and dribbles that trickled off the ceiling. Thank God, the drips were at the other end of the caravan away from the beds. After a cold mad dash, I got back under the blankets and lay half asleep listening to the sound of water, half-dreaming of waves washing me out to sea.
It poured with drumming rain for four days and then settled into an incessant heavy drizzle. The drips filled buckets and pans and made it hard to cook. A musty smell of mold infused the air as damp permeated clothes and curtains. Getting under the blankets at night was like slipping into a bed of clammy seaweed. I got extra fuel from the hardware store, lit the circular wick of the paraffin heater and watched as the domed mesh glowed red. The heater generated a moist soporific fug and even during the day, I felt half-asleep as if submerged in a land beneath the waves.
Waking each morning, my first thought was: Get up; get ready for work. Then it came crashing back: the stupid bet, Dermot swallowing the green/brown concoction and Paddy lifting me by the collar and shoving me out the back gate. I tried to push the memories away but they were stuck in an endless loop, going round and round: Why did it happen? Surely Mr. O’Connor will contact me and sort it out. Nothing, not even reading, kept the thoughts from circling like hungry vultures.
Even shopping was not so bad—at least it was a respite from the drip, dripping and Mother griping. Clutching a girly umbrella, I hurried down Church Street, splashed through giant puddles, pushed and pulled by stinging gusts of wind. Now and then I’d shelter in a random door alcove for a few minutes preparing to brave the next onslaught. Finally, I could stand dripping in the warmth of a shop waiting to be served. With the rain like gauzy curtains, I could stay unseen and unrecognized—slinking around the streets in relative anonymity.
The dreary days dragged by and hope slipped away leaving a sullen listlessness. The fogged up caravan windows shut me in; the endless gray rain sat like a sodden overcoat weighing me down. Then Christmas came.
I hated Christmas; it was the worst: Mummy and Daddy at each other’s throats, fights with my siblings, false and frantic cheerfulness—and presents, far too many presents. I worried, and obsessed about buying useless objects for everyone. When the dreaded day arrived, I cringed with the feeling that my siblings were indifferent to my trivial gifts. Presents were a nightmare.
On Christmas mornings when we lived with Mummy (Dad was hiding at Ffrwd), we woke to find pillowcases—not stockings—jam-packed with stuff: multitudes of toys, bags of sweets and chocolate oranges. After we crammed our mouths with sugar we were ready to open the other presents, including the special Big Present. Beneath the frenzy of ripped wrapping paper, a lump of indigestible disquiet settled into the bottom of my sweet-stuffed stomach. It was thrilling, over-stimulating and somehow disturbing.
Later I learned the Christmas secret: all the stuff was stolen. Mummy forced my sisters to sneak toys and sweets out of Woolworth’s department store. For the bigger gifts, she took a trip to London and filched bigger stuff off the displays in Hamleys, the famous toy store. None of it belonged to us.
When our particular sodden Christmas day arrived, neither Mother nor I could pretend to be cheerful. We deep-fried a chicken in a pot of boiling fat and shared a box of Cadbury’s Black Magic chocolates—then the day was done.
The rain went on and on, and so did mother’s grievances. Our dire financial situation stirred up an endless stream of vitriolic complaints against Dad, Granny and the solicitor she called, ‘Mr. Fish-me-Face’. He controlled a murky trust fund left to us children by my Grandmother. Mother had raided that fund and constantly bombarded the trustee with long demanding letters—with limited success.
Sometime after Christmas, I made a decision: if I couldn’t escape my mother, I might as well get to know her. Worn down by her endless rants, for my own sanity I had to redirect the conversation to less wearisome topics.
I knew a few fragments of her life: she was born in London and educated in Switzerland and France. Her father was a barrister, later a judge, an unworldly man who died when she was twelve leaving a financial mess. After his death, she and her mother depended on the charity of her grandparents—the evil Learoyds, owners of Huddersfield Fine Worsted woolen mills in Northern England.
Using a few well-placed questions, I found I could direct her towards her labyrinthine memories. Evenings were best. As darkness fell, we lit the oil lamps and candles creating a soft hypnotic light that reflected off the gray hardboard walls. Lounging on our bed-seats across from each other, the sounds of dripping water faded into the background while mother told her stories.
One evening, I broached the subject that bothered me most: why had she married my father? They obviously hated each other. I had to approach the subject cautiously.
“How did you meet Dad? Wasn’t it during the War?” I’d seen the wedding photo: my father dressed in a smart Royal Air Force uniform and my mother, a smiling young woman with flowers in her hair.
Mother looked up over her blue spectacle and put down her book. “Yes, I was at Susan Morgan’s, your Godmother’s house in Wales. Mike was staying at Ffrwd on leave from the RAF. That was a bloody mistake—meeting your father.”
“What were you doing in Wales? I thought you lived in London.” I had to keep her from starting on a well-worn Dad attack.
“I went there to recuperate after the bombing. The doctors thought the countryside would do me good—I was still very weak. Susan was sweet; she put on a party for all her friends to cheer me up and your father came. I wished I’d stayed in bed!”
“You must have liked Dad when you met him,”
“Oh, he was very dashing in his pilot’s uniform—and charming in a diffident sort of way. I should have just slept with him. It was bloody stupid getting married—but we all did stupid things during the war. You never knew what was going to happen.” She hesitated a moment. “I suppose I was on the rebound. I hadn’t got over Jean-Pierre.”
“Jean-Pierre? Who was he?” I’d never heard the name before.
“He was my French lover—very dark and intense. We met at school in Paris and moved into a tiny flat together. I was only seventeen—but we were in love.”
Mother’s face lit up and her voice sounded almost gentle. I’d hardly ever seen her like that.
“I didn’t know you lived in Paris.”
“I was studying medicine at the Sorbonne. It was wonderful, so romantic—living in Paris—everything I ever dreamed of.” She took a sip of wine.
“You know, Owen, if it hadn’t been for the War, you might have been Jewish. Jean-Pierre was Jewish.” She laughed and fumbled around for a packet of cigarettes and her lighter.
“What happened to him?” I asked.
“He died.” Mother’s smile faded and her voice sounded flat, almost matter of fact. She lit a cigarette and blew a plume of smoke towards the ceiling.
After a moment’s pause, she continued. “The War broke out and Jean-Pierre joined the French air force, while I went back to London.” She took another deep drag on her cigarette. “He was shot down—only six weeks into the War and he was killed.”
Mother stopped for a moment, took a gulp of wine and looked at me, a fierce light in her eyes.
“I never expected your father to survive. I thought he’d be killed like all his RAF friends. Hardly anyone came back from those bombing raids. He should have died.”
I stayed silent, not knowing what to say. The bitterness was rising to the surface.
“You know what hurt most? We’d only been married six months and he left me. I had to live with that dreadful woman, your Grandmother. He could have got leave from the RAF if he wanted—I was pregnant with Veronica at the time.”
That sounded odd. Was she describing the father I knew? He was always there, always reliable in his distant sort of way.
“Why did he leave?”
“I started having fits—you know, foaming at the mouth and thrashing about. There was a hairline fracture in my skull from the bombing—the doctors missed it. My head filled with fluid and it put pressure on my brain. They had to put in a tube.”
She gestured at the back of her neck with the hand holding her cigarette. Ash fell on her shoulder.
“But he didn’t care. Couldn’t face it—too spineless.”
Her eyes glazed and she slumped back against the pillow. That was it for the night.
Was it true? Did Dad really abandon her when she was sick and pregnant? That would explain her anger—but I never could tell her facts from fiction. She’d rehearsed her stories so many times they’d become absolutely real for her. Dad surely had a different version but one thing was certain, she was terribly messed up by the War.
Coherent conversation came sporadically. Sometimes neither of us was in the mood or I was too disgusted to talk to her; other times Mother was too drunk. But over the next weeks I got more of the story.
Mother had mentioned the bombing and I knew she’d been injured by a German bomb.
“How did you get bombed?” I asked.
“It was London, during the Blitz. I was in hospital for a sinus operation. I’d had chronic sinus problems for years, so the doctors decided to scrape the sinuses out.”
She ran her finger down the deeply furrowed scar between her eyebrows, the one that looked like a permanent frown.
“The air-raid sirens kept going off but we didn’t take much notice. Hospitals weren’t meant to be a target for the bombers”
“After the operation I was feeling low. I’d made friends with this pretty nurse, about my age. We used to sneak a cigarette together, completely against the rules. She was a real sport, trying to cheer me up, sitting on my bed chatting—holding my hand.” Mother looked into the distance, a wistful expression on her face.
“The sirens went off and then it’s a blank—I don’t know exactly…” She looked confused.
“They told me a bomb went down the lift-shaft and blew out the ground floor of the hospital. My ward was up on the fourth floor. Everything collapsed, and we were trapped under the rubble.”
“How did you get out?”
“It must have been hours. I woke up and it was all black. The nurse was crying, a little ways off. I couldn’t see her but I could hear her whimpering like an animal.” Mother hesitated and a tear trickled down her face though her voice remained clear and precise.
“I called out to her and she answered. We talked about being rescued—then it got quiet. I knew she’d died. Her cold hand was still holding mine—her arm must have been ripped off in the blast.”
Mother got very still; I stayed quiet. Then she continued.
“I almost gave up, but I heard the digging and cried out. They got my head uncovered but I was trapped under a beam—it’d saved my life, made a little space for me to breathe. I remember talking to the warden, a nice man with a big smile. He gave me a puff of his cigarette.” She sucked deeply on her own cigarette.
“Then the sirens went off again, and the warden said he had to go to the shelter. But he put his tin hat over my head. I would be dead if he hadn’t… The next load of bombs covered me up with rubble again. That tin hat saved me. When they finally got me out, it had a massive dent in the top.”
Mother looked worn out and took a long swallow of wine. An edge came into her voice: “That’s enough. I’m tired. Go to sleep.” The end was abrupt and final.
Her story was like one of those old black-and-white War movies: wailing sirens, dust, fires, destruction everywhere, broken bodies, wardens running for cover. I couldn’t get rid of the image of Mother holding the severed hand of the nurse. I didn’t know what to think, didn’t know how to feel.
After that night, Mother wasn’t in the mood to talk. She drank more, complained of headaches and swallowed handfuls of Veganin. Strangely, as her mood darkened, I began to feel lighter.
The rain stopped. I’d always been teased for being clumsy and impractical, but maybe I could do something useful for a change. I decided to try and fix the roof before it started pouring again.
The hanging bell tinkled as I entered Curran’s Hardware. Every wall was crowded with shelves, each shelf crammed with boxes reaching up to the ceiling. Mr. Curran was behind the counter, a familiar figure in his khaki canvas coat. I knew him from buying paraffin for the primus and heating stove.
“Good morning, Mr. Curran—weather’s clearing a bit this morning. Do you have anything to mend the caravan roof? It’s been leaking badly.”
“Ah yes, a terrible wet winter. Once the water gets in, it’s hard to it keep it out. I’ve got this new-fangled aluminium tape just arrived—you could try that. Now let me see, where did I put it?” He climbed a stepladder and fumbled a box from an upper shelf. “Here we are. Give it a try. It might do the trick—no guarantees mind you.”
I left the shop with two fat rolls of sticky silver tape at a cost of one pound two shillings each, enough money for Mother and me to live on for days. Back at the caravan, with only a couple of concrete blocks to stand on, I covered whatever cracks I could reach. Mother called out random unhelpful instructions through her window.
Finally, all the tape was used up and I stood back to admire my handiwork. The caravan looked like a soggy gray box poorly bandaged with silver ribbon. That night it rained and the water still dripped, but not so badly. I’d made a difference.
Since I was sacked, Mother had badgered me to ask Mr. O’Connor for a reference. A letter of recommendation was surely my only hope of getting another job–but I couldn’t face it. The thought of walking into the hotel and seeing a look of shock or pity was more than I could stand.
Mother harried me; I squirmed, resisted and refused. Then something inside me shifted: I’d swallow my shame and ask for help.
Early one morning I slunk across the Square and up O’Connell Street. The O’Brien brothers never came before noon, but I still hesitated at the door. Inside, Eileen greeted me with muted sympathy and I asked to see Mr. O’Connor. He came out unsmiling and took me to his office—a sinister rerun of our first meeting.
“How are you Owen? What can I do for you?”
He looked tired with dark lines under his eyes. Despite the O’Briens, I knew he was on my side. I liked this man and desperately wanted to please him.
“Not too bad, thank you, Mr. O’Connor.” Tears stung the backs of my eyes.
I mumbled my next few words. “I was wondering if you could give me a reference—you know, to help get a job?”
“Of course. That’s the least I can do.” He said without hesitation. “Come in on Tuesday and I’ll have it ready.”
I thanked him, shook his hand and left the hotel with my head down, fighting back tears. Still, a sliver of brightness had peaked through the dark clouds. Next week, the reference was in my hand and I read it over and over to reassure myself it was real.
The Ormond Hotel,
To Whom It May Concern,
Owen Evans worked as a lounge waiter and barman at the Ormond Hotel from August 21st 1967 until December 15th 1967. He was reliable, conscientious and hard working.
I would recommend him for any position of trust.
My knowledge of my mother is unusual, you might say unnatural. Do we really want to know the grimy details of our parent’s lives? Are we comfortable seeing them as spotty adolescents squeezing their pimples or imagining them having passionate sex on the kitchen table? No, it feels like being a voyeur! Parents are not people in the same way other people are people. The numinous garments of the parental archetypes—Great Mother and Wise Father—are meant to shroud these two ordinary people with veils of privacy and mystery.
However, when a parent is difficult, disturbed or disabled, the family is forced to organize around that disturbance—to support, compensate, deny or reject. In the case of my mother, the archetypal veils were completely in tatters. She no longer fulfilled the role of motherhood; her children had learned not to expect to be mothered, so essentially she was cast out.
For her part, while she enjoyed being pregnant and breastfeeding her infants, she disliked children, their endless demands and neediness. Her constant complaint, “If it wasn’t for you children…” says it all. By age two or three I knew not to expect much from her. By sixteen, I’d begun to view here as a disquieting phenomenon, a Sphinx-like enigma that I’d need to unravel if I was going to survive psychologically.
Mother was not simple. She did not easily fit the different categories or diagnoses professionals attach to those who are difficult. As a psychologist, I understand her many labels: alcoholic, drug addict, hypochondriac, depressive and most encompassing, narcissistic personality disorder. She was certainly a narcissist—grandiose, lacking in empathy, with a strong sense of entitlement and a tendency to project onto and take advantage of others. She was also intellectually brilliant and loyal to those she felt close to—though they tended to fade from her life.
In the 1970s, she was court-ordered into a Cardiff psychiatric hospital after my father went to prison. I visited her occasionally and one time, a youngish male doctor invited me into his office and proceeded to inform me she was being discharged. In a conspiratorial manner, he explained that she had a personality disorder: she was disrupting the ward and demanding medication and they were not equipped to deal with her. I nearly burst out laughing: my mother was too much for a psychiatric hospital!
Psychiatric diagnoses do not explain; at best, they describe a particular cluster of symptomatic behaviors. Classification cannot capture personality, let alone the spirit and presence of a person.
I had the honor, the burden and the Hell of being cooped up with Mother day after day. I probable knew her better than anyone else in the world—her obsessions, her childlike humor, her strangeness and her stories (only a portion of which are detailed here). I cannot say I got to like or love her, but I did understand her and that eventually allowed me to accept who she was—unique and impossible.
Mother was horribly traumatized. With so much loss and PTSD, it is little wonder she anesthetized herself with drink and drugs. A brilliant only child whose mother was a self-involved compulsive gambler (the ostensible reason the grandparents kept control of finances), she lost her adored father when she was 12, her lover and career when she was 17 and apparently her husband six months after getting married.
An only child who expected to be spoiled and coddled all her life, she found herself in constant physical pain—directionless, penniless, burdened with six children and a ‘useless’ husband. Her life should have been one of ease, comfort and accolades; she could have been a successful multilingual physician. Instead she became a psychological disaster, one of millions of casualties of war.
Working as a UK psychologist in the 1980’s, I come across the literature on frontal lobe syndrome, and had an aha moment. Damage to the frontal lobes of the brain may not affect intelligence but it severely impacts a person’s ability to moderate emotions and recognize social cues. A frontal-damaged brain gets fixated on one idea and cannot move on; it become emotionally reactive, socially inappropriate and rigid in its thinking. 
Mother’s brain was damaged in the bombing and possibly re-damaged by the hydrocephalus: high intracranial pressure that causes seizures. That brain damage was more than enough to push her over the edge, to rigidify her personality and make it nigh impossible for her to change.
That is the saddest part of being a child of a mentally damaged parent—they seldom change. My mother’s difficulties were not identified or treated. I grew up thinking she was doing bad things on purpose, that she could choose to be different if she wanted to. In reality, she didn’t have the capacity, resources or support.
We should never condone abusive parenting, but we can understand how it comes about, its dark historical roots in trauma, ignorance and deprivation. As a society, we have to help parents become better at parenting. Then each successive generation will not have to struggle so hard with their mental health and wellbeing.
Not knowing your parent is ill means you harbor a sense of betrayal and let down. When a parent does terrible things, when he or she is abusive, neglectful and critical, you have no choice as a child but to put up with it. Bad parenting leaves psychic scars and a deep well of resentment.
Someone said: One of our hardest tasks in life is to forgive our parents. Understanding is the first step on the long road to forgiveness. We do it, not to whitewash our parent’s flaws, but to be free of the inner constriction of resentment. I learned from my mother that bearing a grudge and nurturing hatred leads only to bitterness and self-torture. To be free we have to let go and forgive.
Read the next chapter: 13: Seeking a Fortune
 “The orbitofrontal syndrome is the most well known and consists of major antisocial behaviors such as disinhibition, emotional lability, and impulsivity. In some cases, changes are severe enough to lead to new onset of criminality.” Chow, Tiffany W. ‘Personality in Frontal Lobe Disorders.’ Curr. Psychiatry Rep. 2000 Oct; 2(5): 446–451.