ONCE IN A HOUSE ON FIRE
by Andrea Ashworth (b. 1969)
Li este livro há cerca de dois anos e impressionou-me muito. Trata da violência doméstica, um assunto grave mas que muitas vezes é tabu na nossa sociedade. Está já traduzido nas principais línguas europeias, mas ainda não apareceu em português.
Aus dem Engl. von Angelika Naujokat
FR - La petite fille de Manchester - Ramsay
trad. de l'anglais par Simone Manceau
volta, in una casa in fiamme - Feltrinelli
SP - Erase una vez una casa en llamas - Espasa
NL - Eens in een brandend huis - Anthos
SE - En gång i ett hus som brinner - Samhälle
NO - Ut av det brennende huset - Gyldendal
DK - Engang, i et hjem i flammer - Vinten
PL - Pożar w moim domu - Zysk i S-ka
drowned when I was 5 years old,'' Andrea Ashworth writes of her early years with
her sister Laurie. ''By the time I was 6, our mother's stomach was swollen full
of a third child. . . . A looming, red-faced man, quite a bit older than her,
stepped into our house for tea and was introduced to Laurie and me as our new
daddy.'' So begins ''Once in a House on Fire,'' Ashworth's mesmerizing and
poetic memoir of violence, abuse, racism and poverty that chronicles her
harrowing journey from Manchester to Oxford. Ashworth, who was born in 1969,
writes that her new stepfather turned out to be a drunk who beat her up and
molested her. Strangers on the street called the girls ''wogs'' and ''dirty
Pakis'' -- they had inherited the dark skin of their Maltese father. Their
mother was married again, this time to a man who abused all of them to the point
that the mother wound up in a hospital. Through the eyes of an anguished child,
Ashworth vividly depicts the abuse, physical and sexual; a disastrous move to
Canada; a life of poverty; and repeated rescue attempts by loyal friends. She
was sustained by literature; she saved ''serious swoons for James Joyce, Graham
Greene and Thomas Stearns Eliot,'' and writes that her mind soared ''over
sonnets and odes that make miserable things seem sublime.'' Encouraged by her
teachers, Ashworth was accepted at Oxford. Her sister Laurie escaped to a girls'
hostel, and her youngest sister, Sarah, who had taken to burning and cutting
herself because ''it hurts less,'' was considered for placement in a foster
home. Their mother, hopelessly self-destructive to the end, ''clutched my hair
and branded my forehead with a vicious, burning kiss'' and told Ashworth, ''You're
my hope.'' That hope has been fulfilled in this book.
B B C
Andrea Ashworth's memoir, Once in a House on Fire, recounts her story of growing up in inner-city Manchester in the 1970s and '80s. The story follows Andrea, her two sisters and her mother in their battle with poverty, domestic violence and the effects of depression.
The award-winning book has been adapted for the stage and is currently being made into a feature film. It's often used to inspire study and discussion in schools and universities.
As a child Andrea sought ways to escape through books and imagination, solidarity with her sisters and encouragement from teachers.
At eighteen, she won a place to study at Oxford University, where she earned her B.A., M.A. and D.Phil., and went on to become a lecturer then Junior Research Fellow in English Literature.
Andrea has written several anthologized short stories, essays and introductions to Penguin Classics, and her work has been featured in The Times, The Observer, The Telegraph, TheIndependent, The Daily Mail, The Guardian, The Times Literary Supplement, Elle and Vogue.
She works with several British charities focused on protecting children and adults from poverty and violence and is an advocate for literacy and education for those in need.
Recently awarded the Hodder Fellowship in Creative Writing at Princeton University, USA, she is now completing her first novel.
Hitting Home - Domestic violence
Why did you write 'Once in a House on Fire'?
I felt a desperate thirst to
read a book that might tell me something about my life, which felt so
topsy-turvy. I was looking for a story that might help me to see more clearly,
to understand what had happened, help me feel less alone and freakish because of
my background. In the end, because I couldn't find the book I was looking for, I
resolved to write Once in a House on Fire.
After I graduated from Oxford, my life seemed to be bursting with promise. I won a scholarship to Yale, in America, and it was then, when things were going so fantastically well, that I suffered a kind of seasickness. It was hard to reconcile where I seemed to be going to with where I was coming from.
I had always wanted to write stories and poems but I realized that if I didn't pin down the ghosts of my past, those blue-black butterflies would go skittering across anything else I tried to write. And I had to capture that spooky stuff, give it a good home on paper, in order to keep it from overshadowing my life.
What was it like revisiting all those childhood memories?
Memories would surge, vivid-beautiful and horrible-while I was writing Once in a House on Fire. There were times when I felt freshly terrified. It was painfully confusing to relive my childhood-flashes of knives against my mother's face; never enough money for milk and bread; my stepfather's fists clenching with an angry life of their own-while my grownup life was unfurling among the spires of Oxford. Sometimes I felt lost, thrown back to being a frightened nine-year-old, helpless. But I knew that looking back was the only way for me to move-truly, freely-forward.
When readers began to respond with such generous warmth to Once in a House on Fire, I discovered a new freedom from all the old fears of my childhood. It was a fantastic relief to feel heard, understood, to finally share the story. I feel lucky, and very grateful.
What would you say to children who are in a similar situation?
There are too many children
still trapped in dark situations. Please remember: you're not alone. It's
natural to be afraid, but you mustn't feel ashamed. Take responsibility for your
own well-being and happiness, not for the unhappiness and confusion and anger of
everyone around you. What's happening is wrong. You don't deserve it, and you
can live differently for yourself.
Try to talk to a teacher or some other trusted adult about what's troubling you. Or call ChildLine 0800 1111. And don't forget that-whatever your beginnings, whatever fears you might carry with you as you grow, however hard it may all seem-you can build your own world. You can make a good, bright life. You'll be free to be-and enjoy being-who you choose to be.
Why do you think it's so hard for people to tell anyone they're suffering domestic abuse?
I wish I had felt less ashamed and afraid of telling someone, perhaps a trusted teacher or a friend's parent, about what was happening to me at home. Even if things had remained as violent and frightening as ever, I think my sisters and I would have felt less cut off from the world and more hopeful about the future. Now there's much more openness about what goes on in troubled homes, though there is still too much secrecy and shame and suffering. Perhaps if we'd felt able, back then, to speak up, our lives would have become safer and brighter a lot sooner.
How does your mum feel about what happened?
My mum of course wishes from the bottom of her soul that none of the monstrous stuff had ever happened. She aches to be able to erase the past, to go back, now she's stronger, and make things different.
If there had been less shame and secrecy surrounding domestic abuse when we were little, perhaps she'd have felt more confident and supported in her efforts to pull away from her violent relationships. Perhaps she'd have been less inclined to blame herself for the explosions and misery, more ready to ask for help. Perhaps escape wouldn't have seemed so flatly, darkly impossible.
Physically and psychologically beaten women often feel they deserve their abuse. They become caught in a web of guilt, exhaustion, extreme fear, hopelessness and-the stickiest of all the web's strands-love. These combined pressures, not to mention overwhelming practical anxieities about food and money and housing, can keep people clinging to relationships that damage and even threaten to kill them and their children.
What would you say to women in the same situation as your mum?
To anyone caught like this, my mother and I together say: we wish you the courage to find safety and happiness. Don't underestimate your own strengths and don't be afraid to ask for help. Escape may seem impossible, but it's not. You don't have to live like this. You can change your life.
What influence do you think the violence had on your mum's relationship with you and your sisters?
The violence made my sisters
and me closer to our mother in some ways, passionately protective of her and one
another, and extremely appreciative of gentleness. But it also inflicted
long-lasting, invisible bruises, much worse than the obvious, physical ones that
looked so nasty but healed naturally: bruises of deep fear in my sisters and me,
and of guilt, as well as fear, in my mother. Hard things to outgrow: moving on
from that sort of damage involves the shedding of many skins. It takes a lot of
time and energy and loving communication.
While she was a victim, however, my mother was also, always, adamant that my sisters and I should never have to suffer as she did once we had grown up. She was determined that our futures would be safer and brighter and happier, as they have turned out to be.
As a child you should amazing resilience, how has your experience affected your adult life?
The darker aspects of my
childhood have probably made me shy of petty tensions and the big power games
that can often colour romantic relationships and other friendships. I gravitate
towards very honest relationships, based on mutual trust and respect and
affection, quite free of conflict. My love is inspired by a desire to be close
to someone, rather than fear of being alone.
In some sense, my background did me a great favour in showing me, very dramatically and often in terrifying ways, how I don't want to live and relate to other people. There was at the same time an abundance of love in my childhood, from my mother and aunties and especially my sisters. This sustained me through many chaotic years and is still the centre of my life.
How do you feel now about your stepfathers. Do you have any contact with them?
Towards my first stepfather, who was cold and cruel in all sorts of ways, I don't think I harbour any feelings at all. No anger, no pity, no love. But my second stepfather could be loving and vivacious at times, as well as monstrous and out of control at others, and I recently discovered, through a little, brief contact with him, that I still feel vestiges of daughterly affection for him. (But no fear, finally.) I wish he'd had a less traumatized childhood and a better education, so that he might have felt better about himself, which might have made him much less desperate and viciously angry at the world.
What are your feelings about perpetrator programmes
I salute any programme that encourages men and women to feel better about themselves and to behave with more respect and kindness towards one another. I also believe that, while it makes sense to focus energy and attention upon the victims of violence, who are often women and children, we aren't going to stop the cycle of explosions without addressing the roots of the trouble too.
We need to ask not only: why do some people tolerate violence against themselves and their children? But also, getting to the heart of the matter: why do some people feel compelled to perpetrate violence? And how can we help them to free themselves of these feelings, and thereby make their victims, their loved ones, free from damage and fear?
What are you all doing now since we left you in the book?
I'm delighted to say that my mother and sisters and I are very happy and well nowadays. The differences between our past and our present make me dizzy; I often have to pinch myself in the face of my good fortune.
I enjoy a very rewarding life (with a lovely and gentle man), teaching and writing. And I like to be involved, where I usefully can, with projects dedicated to helping children and young people in distress to improve their lives. I find it deeply rewarding to think that what happened to my family might end up making some good difference in other people's lives.
My mother has moved to Devon, where she looks after mentally disabled people and enjoys a peaceful and busy life that involves friends and laughter and venturing in a kayak on the sea! She still works too hard, but she is safe, optimistic and finally proud of herself.
My sister Lindsey lives a sweet life with her fiancé in Paris. She does translations and is a ballet dancer and an accomplished mountain climber.
My youngest sister Sarah, who lives in London, is a truly amazing, bright and lovely person. She pulled herself out of a terrifying childhood and has pushed through fantastic transformations to become first a full-time cardiac technician and now a university lecturer in the subject. At the same time, she is single-handedly raising a gorgeous little girl, my niece Hannah, whose happiness makes all our lives brighter.
Once in a House on Fire by
Andrea Ashworth, read by the author
(Macmillan £8.99, running time 3hrs)
Sunday October 7, 2001
When Andrea Ashworth was five years old, her father, a painter and decorator, died in a freak accident. Her sister, Laurie, was three, her mother, Lorraine, 25. The three of them made a dark-haired, tragic trio, secure in their terraced house paid for with the life insurance money. But the real tragedy of Ashworth's childhood begins when stepfather number one moves into their lives, later to be replaced by stepfather number two. Both men beat Andrea's mother until her youth and beauty die behind black eyes and sleeping tablets and years of marital rows that leave Andrea with a terror of home but a talent for excelling in every other aspect of her life: 'My fear of our house made everything else a breeze.'
Listening to the thin-voiced
Ashworth recount the horrors of her childhood seems the most natural thing in
the world. She is neither arrogant about her achievements nor self-pitying in
describing the hours spent at her mother's bedside when she was too 'tired' to
get up and make the children's tea. Nor is she shouting out for sympathy when
the listener learns how she ironed her dirty school uniform to make it look
respectful. Her lavish use of adjectives bring a light to the dark landscape of
Manchester in the Seventies ('a stony row of brooding chimneys, next to the
giant industrial ones that rose up like kings and queens on a chessboard'), and
humour to an otherwise pitiful tale.
EMERGING WOMEN WRITERS
Once in a House on Fire by Andrea Ashworth, Copyright 1998 by Picador--A Review by J.M. Barnett
It should come as no surprise when a 29-year-old fellow at Oxford University writes her first book. The surprise lies, in this case, in the subject matter. Once in a House on Fire, only recently released for sale in the United States, is the memoir of Andrea Ashworth, who grew up in a world of abject poverty and unceasing household violence. Her father drowned in the 1970s when she was five and her sister was just three. Soon afterwards their mother married a brute who physically abused both wife and children.
The "family" moved to Canada, where, in a beautiful setting, the new stepfather continued to torment his victims. After selling the family jewelry, Andrea's mother took her daughters back to industrial Manchester, where she tried to survive without a husband. Eventually a second stepfather entered Andrea's life. When the brief, friendly courtship ended, including a prison stint for burglary, he turned out to be every bit as violent as the first stepfather. Throughout the turmoil, as Andrea's mother vacillated between throwing out the bums and yielding to their every whim, Andrea and her sister maintained their self-esteem, their empathy and their determination to succeed in their studies. At twenty-eight, Andrea Ashworth became one of the youngest fellows at Oxford University. She is now working on her first novel.
Once in a House on Fire, for all its horrific scenes and foul language, is actually a story of triumph. Knowing that the story is true makes it more chilling, more thrilling than a novel. Sensitive and observant children may often find refuge in the world of science and literature. Not many of them, however, survive brutal hell, serve as role models and share their experiences movingly as Andrea Ashworth does in this, her first book. If you liked Anna Quindlen's Black and Blue and/or Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes, be sure to read Once in a House on Fire.
"Writing this was a real sanity-saving exercise."
Andrea Ashworth is speaking about her book "Once in a House on Fire" which has been praised by reviewers such as Carol West of the NY Times, who called it a "mesmerizing and poetic memoir of violence, abuse, racism and poverty."
Dr. Ashworth, born in England in 1969, is one of the youngest research Fellows at Oxford University, where she earned her doctorate.
Her choice of nonfiction as her first work was a matter of wanting to deal with her past, and then be able to move on to writing fiction. She is currently working on her first novel. "I wanted to get my memories out because I wanted to pin them down, so that all those ghosts wouldn't go streaking across the novels," she explains.
"The reason I called it a memoir, and shaped it that way, although it's in the form of a novel, and I tried to write it in a very entertaining way, was because I wanted to be fair to the reader. I think a writer has a contract with her readers, and I thought it would be misleading and perhaps coy to call it anything other than a true story," she says.
Ashworth notes she did not start writing this chronicle of her early life until after she had left England. "It gave me the luxury of time and distance to look back, and contemplate what had happened," she says. "I was hit by the incongruity, by the weirdness, of where I was coming from, compared to where I seem to be going."
She recalls as a girl writing "lots of poems and stories and so on, which was very much disproved of by my stepfather. He was always very threatened by literacy, and also by expressions of warm feeling. Most of what I wrote was dedicated to my mother."
She found journal writing as a child was a kind of emotional buffer against the abuse and difficult circumstances she experienced. "I wouldn't have known that's what it was then, but I know I found it a very sweet pleasure. And I found reading and writing a sanctuary."
Ashworth thinks the process of writing fiction, on the other hand, is "hugely different. It's a massive challenge, and a luxury, to be free to make it all up. The great thing is, I don't have to go back to all the dark and scary places that I had to troll through in 'Once in a House on Fire.'
"But of course, the hard thing is that in making it all up, I have to conjure its reality for myself, and seduce myself into the fiction. I sometimes find myself sort of resisting, saying, well, here is a character and she has ten fingers and ten toes, and now let's walk her across the room. So that's been interesting. I have a very funny relationship with this different kind of writing, because it doesn't cause me any pain.
"My apprenticeship in writing was a very painful one, so it seems strange, a little bit like walking on the moon: I'm not quite sure where all the gravity went to. It's disconcerting, having to make up a story, but it is mostly incredibly liberating and fun."
Various kinds of journal writing, including the memoir, have been suggested as a way to access creativity. Julia Cameron ("The Artist's Way") advises writing "three pages, longhand and stream-of consciousness, first thing in the morning" as a "form of meditation" and "spiritual windshield wipers."
Many writers and therapists commend journaling as an effective strategy for healing and personal growth.
This form of writing may also have additional benefits: recent studies by psychologists and immunologists have demonstrated that subjects who wrote "thoughtfully and emotionally about traumatic experiences" showed increased T-cell production; a drop in physician visits and generally improved physical health.
Ashworth found some writing of the book challenging in terms of just living her life as an adult, but confirms it has been a positive and creative act overall,
"I wrote this book partly because I had itchy fingers, and wanted to write other things, and didn't want them to be polluted by the past. But also because, quite simply, I thought I would go mad if I didn't. It's made a huge difference."
"I have to say that the catharsis of writing it was painful and messy," she continues. "And there were times during the writing of it when I'd be so immersed in the past: I'd have to call up friends and say, sorry, I can't come out tonight because I'm only nine years old. I couldn't go out and do the normal, sort of grown-up things, I felt so trapped.
"When I finished writing it, instead of feeling elated and liberated, in fact I felt very burdened by this thing in front of me. I had to confront the gap between this beautiful thing I wanted to write, and the thing I had written.
"It wasn't until the book was published and read, and people started responding to it and to me, that I began to appreciate the book's beauty, and began to feel more friendly toward it.
"That's been the catharsis, in fact, having the book read and shared with people who have, or have not, the same kinds of experiences. I get thousands of letters, and only about a quarter, if that, are from people who have suffered anything really comparable; other people find other things in there, and others identify with the happier and funnier aspects of it. It was hard, of course, but I tried to write the book with a lot of buoyancy and fizz and color."
Ashworth adds more about her drive to write: "When I was a teenager, and felt trapped and so on, there were no role models and nothing for me grab onto. So partly I wrote the book with that sort of invisible audience in mind. And the great thing is that in England the book is reaching lots and lots of children, and I've been doing a lot of things to stimulate the truth and creativity in children.
"I think that's incredibly important. And it's a really vital, and fun, cause. I do things like short story competitions, and guest editing magazines for children, and so on. All that is incredibly therapeutic for me. That's really where the recycling has happened, the feedback.
"In America I've done these sorts of things only in a very localized way, with a couple of libraries and so on. But I am getting feedback that some teachers are picking it up, and introducing it to students. In England, it's actually getting into the curriculum."
Writing her book, Ashworth affirms, "Exorcised the ghosts, but also exercised my creativity. Memoir is still a pretty fresh and new form in England. When I wrote it, there wasn't a tradition, it wasn't established, so it was very new. Though in America that's not the case.
"Although I'm now a novelist, I've discovered that in the past couple of years, talking about the book (and I've traveled all over the world, and people in strange countries respond to my work, which is very thrilling), everyone wants to know 'what happened next.'
"Including my mother, although she obviously knows - she wants to carry on reading. And partly because I now feel safe and confident and happy enough talking and thinking about my past, I would like to pick up from the moment when I arrive at Oxford.
"Again, it will be a true story, but in a kind of entertaining fictional mode. I want to pick up sort of how a person recreates herself. Because everbody does that when they leave home anyway. But how do you do that when you were nearly destroyed at home?
"I do want to go back to it, but I won't until I finish this novel, and I'm working on some more short stories, too. So I will do it at some point in the next couple of years. I'm actually looking forward to it."
When I was a little girl
This week a survey found that 1m British children suffer violence at home. Author Andrea Ashworth, who was abused as a child, is at least glad it's out in the open
Wednesday November 22, 2000
When I was a little girl, my mother wore sunglasses a lot of the time - even when it was raining. Under the glasses, her skin would be swollen and sometimes cut. My sisters and I watched each bruise go through its sickening rainbow - scarlet, purple and yellow, green, black and blue - before her face was itself again.
My father had drowned when I was five years old, my little sister three. My mother married a new man, with whom she had a baby, and from that moment we lived in a terrifying, topsy-turvy world. My stepfather would hit us, about the head and in the face, for any reason or no reason at all: a splash of spilled water, a misplaced sock, even the sight of my sister or me reading a book. Occasionally, when he was especially careless, I would be thrown into a concussion. If my mother cried or tried to stop our stepfather from hurting us, he would turn on her. We regularly saw our mother being throttled, punched in the face, hurled against the wall or the floor and threatened with boiling water and knives.
After each explosion, my stepfather would thrust his hand over my face until I gagged. He whispered foul, graphic threats to let me know just what he would do if ever I, the eldest child, opened my mouth to tell. He made me terrified of confiding in my own mother about his private assaults on me. I never dreamed of telling the world what went on behind our stripy green curtains.
At school, my nickname was Smiler. I scooted around the playground, a vivacious child, giving my teachers no cause for concern. Even without my stepfather's threats and the clamp of his hand over my mouth, I would not have dared - back then - to appeal to a teacher or any "outsider" for help. I put my smile on, over the secrets, and waited for it to be knocked off again when I went home.
Why? Why didn't I say a word?
In the first place, although my sisters and I lived in daily terror, it never occurred to me that we could, or even should, expect anything different. Children can be marvellously, but also dangerously, elastic, adapting to adversity, growing to regard it as normal. As I grew up, I began to realise that what went on in my family was not normal but quite horrific. Seeing this, I was struck dumb by a deep sense of shame. Domestic abuse was not, in the 70s and early 80s, something to be discussed in public. I had never even heard of terms such as neglect or abuse, let alone imagined them being applied to my family. Moreover my mother and sisters and I suffered a sense of guilt about what was done to us, as if we deserved it. Like many victims, we were caught in a web of silence, woven from sticky strands of guilt and fear, desperate hope, shame and, stickiest of all, love.
Just before I left home at the age of 18, I climbed into a tiny aeroplane, took off into the clouds and turned green, going through loop-the-loops and barrel rolls on a sponsored aerobatic flight that helped to raise money for the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. I wasn't sure why I was doing it, why I had chosen to support that cause, what that cause was exactly. I puked my insides out on the third loop and came down giggling, feeling drunk. I was still someone behind whose big smile lurked an agonising story.
Suffering in silence, my family and I went through experiences that are, in all ways, unspeakable. This shroud of silence, psychologically suffocating and literally lethal, was - and is - one of the most insidious aspects of domestic abuse. Especially for children whose voices are small. The NSPCC's latest survey reveals that child abuse is, as we ought to have known, and cared about, all along, shockingly widespread. Children desperately need to be rescued from daily torment and from futures in which they will recycle mental, physical and sexual abuse, painfully reliving it, and passing it on.
Thanks to the passionate and messy work of charities like the NSPCC, thanks to a salutary swing in the media's searchlights, thanks to our efforts to look at and understand ourselves as a society, stories like mine are no longer so shamefully suppressed. Families do not have to fester in secret. Smashing the silence is a crucial first step in smashing a cycle that we have lived with too quietly, too long.
I always feel it whenever I go
back to Manchester, this feeling in my tummy, it's as though there's this jigsaw
being worked out, down there, trying to figure out exactly what happened and why,
and also what will I find when I get there. I thought that what went on inside
my house was normal, I knew it wasn't good and I knew it was awful but I thought
that it was only to be expected. And I knew that if I spoke up and let on to
anybody outside the house what was going on, then my stepfather would explode
even more violently.
Growing up in inner-city Manchester in the Seventies and Eighties was a hairy time for my sister and me because we were darker and so we were victims of a lot of racism. The most disturbing kind of racism that we experienced came from right inside the house. My father was half-Italian and half-Maltese and he died. My step-father was white and he would refer to our dead father and to my sister and me as 'wogs' and 'pakis' and so on, and in the street these were the same sort of names that were thrown at us. That cliché, 'Behind closed doors' was only too real in our house because as soon as the front door closed and the curtains were drawn, awful things could go on.
Sometimes my sisters and I
would run for the police, often barefoot and shredding the souls of our feet.
The police would come and my mother and stepfather would have covered everything
up and the police were only too happy to pretend that it hadn't happened too.
They'd leave and as soon as the door was closed behind them, my stepfather would
attack my mother even more.
Well, we moved around so much that most of our photographs were lost but those that we did keep, my mother would hack with the scissors when one father went out of our lives and another person was coming in. My mother would cut out the head of the old man so that the new one wouldn't become irate.
There was a phase when we were especially low, when we had very little money and often didn't have enough to eat. We found ourselves camping as a whole family in a single room and sleeping on bare boards with black bin bags sellotaped across the windows to serve as curtains. And constantly moving from one place to another and unrolling the sleeping bag in a fresh place. My mum used to refer to us as 'the three sausage rolls'. And I remember always feeling this sort of hole, this sort of sloshing watery feeling in my tummy because we were hungry when we went to bed and my mother would give us water to try and fill up in that way.
I used to write endless love
poems to my mum: 'Dear mummy, I love you more than mashed potato, more even than
God'. And I'd fill these poems with all the most beautiful things I could think
of like birds and rainbows especially, so, from the very beginning, I knew she
was this complex, quite awesome spirit.
When my second stepfather came on the scene my mother came back to life - her hair and her eyes would glisten again and she'd make jokes and have a wonderful sense of humour. And we all adored him. When he was around, music would be playing all the time and the house would just feel alive. When my mother was happy, she'd put on motown records and after she'd finished the cleaning, she'd get all dressed up then sing into her spiky hairbrush.
There'd be a period of honeymoon, when things seemed to be going well. And then something would go wrong and suddenly, it would be a downward spiral. It was truly shocking to realise that my mother was trapped in a cycle that was bad for her and bad for us. It was after my second step-father had first attacked my mother that I began to wonder what was going on and whether what was happening wasn't just to do with one nasty ogre of a man and might have something to do with my mother. I remember seeing this tiny little bruise, cherry shaped and almost pretty, on her face and my instinct as an eleven-year-old child was not to ask because I was afraid of what the answer might be. Nobody said anything and I think that's because when I was growing up in the Seventies and even in the Eighties, people didn't talk about domestic violence and it was a phrase I had to get used to much later. It was something that was hushed up and as a community I think, maybe we were ashamed of it.
School was a real sanctuary. I
always hated going to school just because I hated leaving my mother at home and
would wonder and worry about her all day, but I adored school because there, the
rules were predictable. School was strict but you knew what was right and what
was wrong. It wasn't until I had got away from Manchester, had gone to Oxford
and then gone on to Yale, that I had the lethal luxury of time and distance to
think about the past and to look back and think, what happened, and moreover,
how did I survive that. And it was really that impetus that made me sit down and
One of the things that I thought was important was for people to be able to read Once in a House on Fire and take away from it a real sense of hope which is what sustained all of us and what helped all of us to get on and get out. And that's why I called it Once in a House on Fire, because I wanted it to have a poetic and lyrical aura, a sense of a fairytale, albeit a badly screwed-up fairytale, but one with a happy ending.