You think it’s all about my childhood. Me, I think you’ve soaked up too much Freud but as you’re asking nicely, I’ll try you with a childhood memory:
I’m walking down a street, pushing a pram.
You want to know where this street is?
I don’t know. It could have been Crewe or Milton Keynes or Abergavenny-y-Fenni for all I can remember. I pushed that pram down streets in all of them. It was a street. Let’s just go with that.
My sister’s walking next to me, holding my hand. She’s wearing a plain white dress, not a speck of dirt on it. Me, I’m in jeans and a T-shirt that don’t fit and look like they’re about to fall to pieces.
That’s not accidental. If you see an eleven-year-old boy and a seven-year-old girl walking down a street, maybe you look twice and maybe you don’t. If the girl looks like a bridesmaid at a cheap wedding and the boy looks like he hasn’t had a bath in a week, I guarantee you’ll look twice. Then you’ll see my baby brother in the pram and you’ll start asking yourself questions.
Every head on the street turned toward us. Most turned away before they answered their own question. Most people want to think they’re good guys, but they don’t want to get involved with other people’s problems. They knew that if a good guy answers the question we’ve planted in their minds, he can’t go on walking past. If they want to walk past and be a good guy, they have to look away before they think about it.
Psychology, see? It’s not about how long you were in nappies or how you remember your mum’s boobs. It’s about who you are and who you want to think you are, and what you’ll do to cross the gap between them.
Being the good guy is much harder than pretending to yourself that you are the good guy, so hardly anyone does it. Hardly anyone isn’t no one. There’s always someone sooner or later.
It would be someone who didn’t have to be anywhere in a hurry. I’d guess they were usually retired, but then I was eleven. Everyone over thirty looked ancient to me.
On the day I’m talking about, it was this nice old lady. The usual sort, with a kind smile and a gentle voice asking if we were lost, poor dears. She actually said that: ‘poor dears’, like she thought she was Mary Poppins.
I kept schtum. Pulled my sister closer to me like we were scared, and tried to push the pram round her. We had the moves down. It makes them wonder what must have happened to make us so scared of a nice old lady, which makes sure a nice old lady won’t let it go.
It worked, like it always does. Her mouth was still smiling but her eyes were frowning as she asked us what our names were and if I knew my address.
My brother started howling then. Even at one-and-a-half, his timing was perfect. I followed his lead and yelled for help. My sister did her bit, turning on the waterworks. Between us, we were making enough of a racket to make it really difficult to walk past and still tell yourself you’re the good guy. Some people were still looking and looking away, but plenty were slowing down, wondering what was going on.
That’s when mum came storming in. No one saw where she came from because everyone was looking at us, or deliberately not looking at us depending on how good they were at lying to themselves. No one noticed she’d been on the same street the whole time.
She marched up to the nice old lady, screaming about what she was doing to her babies. I was holding my sister, who was making as much noise as my brother. Noise, that’s the key, noise and drama. Give everyone enough of a show that they don’t wonder why a mother who is screaming about her babies has hardly looked in their direction.
Now came the clever part. Somehow what starts with mum yelling that the nice old lady was hurting her babies would always end with the nice old lady emptying her purse. After it happened, the nice old lady wouldn’t be sure exactly what she’d paid for, she’d just be happy that was over so she could go and recover over a cup of tea. The truth is, I don’t think mum knew exactly how she did it either. She just worked the situation until the nice old lady thought coughing up the cash was the only way to avoid getting dragged down to the local copshop as a childsnatcher.
But you asked me for a memory, so I’m not talking about how it worked. I’m talking about this one day. In fact, we’re talking about the last time we did it because when the nice old lady reached into her handbag, it wasn’t a purse that came out, it was a warrant card. Maybe she wasn’t so old after all.
I didn’t know what a warrant card was back then, but mum did. She scarpered, and that was the last any of the three of us have ever seen of her.
So now you know that my skills, the ones you’re trying to understand, weren’t things I learned because I was brought up in care. I had them before I went to my first foster family. You also know why you’re not sure how you came to put that fifty quid in my hand, but if you’ve been paying attention – proper attention – you’ll understand why your best move now is to cut your losses and leave it where it is.