Our extract this week is from Nanny, Ma and Me: An Irish story of family, race and home by Kathleen, Dominique and Jade Jordan.
The truth began to dawn on me when we were on the train to Holyhead. Mum didn’t seem her usual self. She was doing that thing where she looks off into space, and you can nearly see her fretting. She was staring out the train window, totally distracted, cut off from us and the world. And I looked around at our belongings. I had brought my pillow with me. It was my little bit of comfort from home. But Mum had a lot of stuff – far more than she would usually carry.
This trip to Ireland was completely out of the blue. We usually talked about it for weeks beforehand, but she had sprung this visit on us suddenly. It was all too quick, so I was suspicious. What’s going on? I wondered. I eyed the big blanket. She was always fond of it. To this day, she insists on having it over the end of the bed, and it’s a terrible multicoloured flowery-looking thing. ‘Why are we bringing that blanket and our radio?’ I asked. ‘Oh, I just thought we might need them.’ ‘Why?’ ‘Well, you never know.’ Mum didn’t want to answer any questions. She didn’t even want to meet my eyes. ‘How long are we going for, Mum?’ ‘We’ll see, Dominique.’ My heart began to beat a bit faster. Oh God, I thought. What are we doing? Mum was never organised at the best of times. She was always a little bit scatty.
I started to worry that whatever we were doing, she hadn’t thought it through properly. ‘Mum, how long are we staying?’ ‘Oh, I don’t know. I’ve been thinking that we might stay a bit longer than usual in Ireland.’ ‘Stay in Ireland? Where?’ Silence. Mum looked out into space as if she didn’t hear me. ‘Why are we doing this, Mum? What’s happened?’ ‘Nothing’s happened, Dominique. What are you worried about? You always love it in Ireland …’ This exchange went round in circles. I couldn’t get a straight answer from her about anything on the entire journey. She wouldn’t say what happened, and she wouldn’t say how long we were going to stay in Ireland. My brothers were upset too. Holidays were fine but they didn’t want to move to Ireland. I was always happy to go to Ireland for holidays, even though it was weird for us.
People used to stop my mum all the time and quiz her. ‘Are they adopted?’ they’d say, nodding towards us. Or else they’d be like, ‘Is her hair hard to manage?’ Or ‘Do you have to oil her skin?’ Or ‘Can I touch her hair?’ ‘We’re not pets!’ I always wanted to say. ‘I’m not a pet!’ But that was not polite. Even as a child, I thought the comments were bizarre and not very polite either. Still, we always had fun on our holidays in Ireland at Aunty Margaret’s. But this was not a holiday. I sensed this trip was something different entirely, and Mum was being very secretive. All my things, everything I owned, was in the house on Billet Road in Walthamstow. My school, my friends, my entire life was in London. Ireland was fine for holidays, but London was my home.
The next morning, we went from the boat to the train, and when we pulled into Westland Row, we began tramping through Dublin city centre. I was tired and in a bad mood. I still hadn’t a clue what was happening. We followed Mum down Gardiner Street, down Marlborough Street, back around into O’Connell Street. An easterly wind cut through us, and people eyed us curiously. It was little wonder. We were an unusual troupe – a woman and three Black children carrying our belongings down the main street in Dublin on a spring morning. What are we doing? I wondered. The sky was steel grey, and I was freezing. I remember all the dust, litter and dirt blowing around us. I just wanted to go home. I wanted to get back on the train, catch the next boat and go home.
‘Where are we going, Mum?’ ‘We’ll see.’ Looking back, it must have been too early to check into a guesthouse, and Mum couldn’t afford to bring us into a café to wait. We had to keep wandering until later in the day when Mum could check in somewhere. In the end, she found a B&B in one of those tall Georgian terraces on Gardiner Street in the city centre. I looked around our room in alarm. It had a lumpy bed, a rusting gas heater and a fluorescent light that highlighted every crack in the smokestained ceiling and walls at night. Worst of all, everything looked like it hadn’t been properly cleaned in years. God, I hated dirt. I had a mania for cleanliness even then. The next morning, Mum had all these red blotches on her face and neck. ‘What’s happened to your face, Mum?’ I asked. She looked at her mottled complexion in the mirror, and she looked like she was about to burst into tears. ‘It must be from stress,’ she said as she gazed at her reflection.
Or from the fleas, I thought, but I didn’t say anything because I could see how worried she was. I felt anxious too. Someone needed to take charge, but I didn’t know what to do except urge her to get help from another adult. ‘Why don’t we go to Galway to stay with Aunty Margaret?’ I suggested, but Mum seemed to turn a deaf ear to this. For the next three days, the tension levels rose in our rented room. Mum counted and recounted every penny in her purse and got quieter and quieter. We followed her around the city, where we sat in beige waiting rooms among rows and rows of people in plastic chairs. We waited for her to be called to a hatch or into a room where she handed over pages of documents to endless officials.
‘Why don’t we go to Galway to stay with Aunty Margaret?’ I asked for the umpteenth time. After all, that’s what we normally did when we were in Ireland. We spent two weeks of our summer holidays with Aunty Margaret in Galway every year, and I loved it. My friends at school in London thought I was mad to be going to Ireland. They believed that I spent my holidays dodging tanks and guns and shootings on the streets. They asked me why I wasn’t worried about bombs going off all the time. I couldn’t explain what it was like to them. The conflict in Northern Ireland was all they ever heard about the country.
Oranmore in Galway was a hugely different world to London. Aunty Margaret would open the door of her rural cottage in the morning and drive us out. ‘Get out from under my feet, all of you!’ she’d cry. Together with our cousins and other local kids, we would take off for hours at a time. We’d clamber over stone walls, stalk horses and donkeys in fields and chase down winding lanes to stony beaches. I experienced a way of living that I never did in London. I loved the sense of freedom and adventure for those two weeks. I figured everything would be OK if we could only go to our Aunty Margaret’s place.
I knew she would look after us, but Mum couldn’t be persuaded; she had other ideas. ‘We’ll stay in Dublin for a while anyway,’ she said. ‘But where, Mum? Where are we going to stay? We can’t stay in this B&B forever!’ I may have been young, but I sensed how vulnerable we were. I knew from a young age that us kids weren’t welcome at Mum’s mother’s. I never called her my grandmother. She was Mum’s mother, but she was nothing to me. She didn’t like us, and she didn’t want us around. When my mum’s brother died in the Royal Air Force in Germany, Mum was told she could come home for the funeral but not to bring me.
Margaret must have told me, or maybe I overheard her and Mum talking about it, but I heard this story when I was about four or five, and it never left me. I often wonder what they thought I was going to do – after all, I was only six weeks old. I can honestly say, even at my age now, this story plays on my mind. To this day, it has a way of making me feel unwanted. Back then, I wasn’t quite sure why Mum’s mother didn’t like us kids, but I was certainly aware that she didn’t want us. Anytime we came on holidays to Ireland, my mum would call to visit her, usually just before we went back to England. Even when we were small, we knew we couldn’t go into Mum’s mother’s house. We had to sit on the wall outside and wait for our mum to come out. It was often for a long time.
It might have been for an hour, maybe more sometimes, and even though we were kids, we felt it. We felt hurt; we felt degraded. We didn’t entirely understand why this was happening, but it felt wrong. Today, Mum prefers to say she doesn’t remember any of that, of us waiting on the wall outside, but she does. It’s just that she prefers not to think about it. That’s why I couldn’t understand why Mum had brought us back to Dublin. There was nothing for her in Dublin, nothing for us. The days went by, and the contents of Mum’s purse dwindled.
She kept saying that she was talking to the housing people in Dublin Corporation, and she was sorting out a place for us to stay. I just wished we could go home. In London, I went to Sydney Chaplin school, a big concrete block of a modern school, on Folly Street in Walthamstow. I wasn’t that fond of school, but now I longed for it. Will I ever see my school again? I wondered. My best friend, Kimberley, lived around the corner. What is Kimberley thinking? Is she wondering where I am? Does she think I kept this all a secret and never told her? I worried that I never had the chance to say goodbye. I had just disappeared off the face of the earth. Larry? Did I miss my dad? He had nothing to do with us, Jade. I barely knew Larry. We hardly ever saw him.
Nanny, Ma and Me by
and Jade Jordan is
available now, published
by Hachette Ireland