It’s winter 1974 and I’m in the bathroom at 15 Methuen Street. The bathroom is downstairs, next to the kitchen, and the bath is filled with washing up. There’s about two weeks’ worth. I’ve lumped it all in together – greasy frying pans and china cups, knives and forks and beer glasses. I’ve squirted it with half a bottle of washing up liquid and turned on the hot tap. Now I’m kneeling on the floor, wiping the soapy crockery with a dishcloth and piling it up on the bathmat to dry.
It’s my first visit to stay with my friend Suze and her mum in Southampton. We arrived half an hour ago. Suze unlocked the front door and called for her mum, and we tramped down the cold, damp corridor towards the kitchen.
Mari is at the kitchen table. She’s slumped over it, droopy-drunk with a soggy Woodbine in her hand. She half-greets Suze and me, wheezes and looks vague. She’s a tiny, bird-like woman, with short, straight yellow-and-black hair. She wears a long white cardi, black slacks and large, black-framed glasses. And she is surrounded by dirty dishes.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a drunk woman before.
My own mum got tiddly one Christmas, giggling on the way home from the village panto, saying that if anyone lit a match anywhere near her mouth she might go up in flames. This is different. Suze is angry and, for once, lost for words. She stomps upstairs in some kind of confusion. And I, taking a look at the wreckage around me, decide the best thing I can do is wash up. It’s good to be practical in these sorts of situations.
Suze and I are 12. We go to a ‘progressive’ boarding school in Devon. Neither of us has the type of home-life that might imply. My dad is a judge in Hong Kong; hers is a Communist bus driver. Yet, birds of a feather, we are somehow drawn together. For me – naïve, withdrawn and awkward – she brings freedom. Racy, naughty, clever, gobby, she pulls me out of my shell and shows me another world.
A few weeks after we meet, we have a heart to heart in the bathroom. “Is it the same thing with your mum as it is with mine?” she asks. I’m not too sure, so Suze plucks up courage to go first. Her mum is an alcoholic.
I’m don’t know what to think. Truth be told, I’m shocked at the thought of my prim and proper mum as an alcoholic. I think I’m a bit jealous, too. If Suze’s mum is an alcoholic, surely she can just stop drinking and she’ll be OK? “No, it’s not the same,” I eventually say. “But it may be similar. My mum is mentally ill.”
Me and Suze are cockney rebels. We follow the band of the same name. We also get drunk, smoke dope, bunk off classes, shoplift, hitchhike and run away. One day, we decide to skip double-maths and hitch to Southampton. We walk down to Staverton and get a ride to the A38. Almost immediately we are picked up by a lorry driver. As we settle down in the cab, I can’t quite believe what we’re doing. The maths lesson is still going on, and here we are, bombing down the dual carriageway in a lorry! There’s a shelf behind the seats for sleeping. Suze chats to the driver like a grown up. He doesn’t pry – he treats us to a fry up in a motorway cafe and drives us 150 miles to our destination.
Mari is surprised when we knock on her door. More than that, though, she’s pleased to see us. She asks how my mum is and says I’m welcome any time. She phones the school to say we’re safe. We’ll have to go back tomorrow, but until then we’ll have fun. Mari is the opposite of my mum. She reads the Morning Star. She listens to Radio 1. She makes tea with teabags and toast out of white sliced bread. That evening she takes us to her local – a tiny front room of a pub with wooden benches around the walls. She buys cider for herself and Snowballs for us. She introduces her friends, Paddy and Tipperary Jock. We all smoke roll-ups. No one bothers about us being under age. This is a forbidden world yet I feel happier, safer, braver and more at home here than anywhere. Mari’s teaching me something that will stay with me forever – you find kindness and generosity in the most unexpected places.