I was born at the Marston Green Maternity Hospital, Birmingham, England, on August 19, 1951. Along with so many other children, my birth promised a more peaceful world and the chance at family life and prosperity. England was in the midst of the post-war economic boom that promised steady employment and prosperity to those willing to work on the line in the growing factories. It must have been a disappointment that my arrival was anything but ordinary and steered my parents away from a quiet suburban life in the West Midlands.
My first home was 19 Blakenhale Road, Sheldon Heath. My grandparents moved into the house in 1949, and my newlywed parents joined them the following year.
Sheldon Heath is a suburban neighbourhood comprised of long rows of semi-detached council houses built after WWI. The house is still standing, just as I remember, although the outdoor lavatory, coal shed, Nan’s rock garden along the fence wall and granddad’s pigeon coops are long gone. There is a heath behind the house – a wild expanse of undeveloped land consisting of grasses, gorse, brambles, and thickets that I could see from the childhood-imposed limits of the back fence.
Pop and Nan moved to Sheldon Heath with their three children the year before my parents were married. Pop spent most of his adult life as a labourer with the railway. The move across town meant a change in employment and a change in his domicile. Driving a lorry represented a less arduous means of eking out a living for a man in his mid-forties. Nan and Pop were the adults in charge of my early existence, and Nan was the dominant force. She had a history of taking care of children as a mother and a domestic care worker for the state’s children.
In my earliest memories, I am at the centre of a circle of care. Nan is a large point of focus; she smiles and talks to me. She directs the others and gently teases me into compliance. Mother is in the background, and now and then, she holds me to her. We are in the front parlour that looks out onto the street. Aunt Eileen, the same age as my mother, follows Nan’s lead. Eileen began nursing at the Moseley Hall Hospital just months before my arrival. There is another adult present in my early memories, but I only see her image and can’t identify her. I learned in later years that this was my father’s aunt Lizzy, Nan’s older sister. My father is absent from my memory.
My mother, Nan, my aunt, and a public health nurse are holding me. I am kicking and screaming in protest. Their strong hands brace me. The more I writhe and scream, the tighter their grip becomes. They talk to me in soft tones, edged with irritation I can hear. I plead with my mother to help me and try to grab the needle from the public health nurse’s hand. I glare at my mother.
Nan speaks firmly but kindly, “Come on, Barry, stay still. It hurts more when you struggle.” My Nan has a way. I listen, snivelling through a runny nose, tears streaming down my face. It is the break they need, and the women confine and soothe me into tense cooperation. Mother lowers my pants, exposing my buttocks. The nurse jabs the needle into my rear end. There is deep pain as the penicillin (I learn much later) enters my buttocks. I cry hysterically. My mother pulls up my pants and takes me crying and onto her lap. I am begrudgingly comforted.
This ritual is repeated in some variation every month.
The house was a two-storey building with a narrow staircase leading to the second floor. At the top of the stairs was an indoor lavatory that I could use only at bedtime. At other times, when I was old enough, I used the outdoor toilet. My mother and I, and my father, when he was home on leave, occupied the back bedroom overlooking the heath. In the centre of the inside wall was a gas fireplace, a focus of fascination. On Christmas morning, a large sack would appear as if by magic. Colourfully wrapped boxes peaked out of the top. Father Christmas had made his delivery during the night!
There was a cubby hole under the stairs. It was a place where a child could hide for a time unnoticed. It was one of my favourite places, and when I could shuffle around or crawl, it became a hiding place for games of hide-and-seek with aunt Christine. She was nine years old when I was a toddler, and I represented a living doll to care for and nurture. I was also an intruder and a rival for adult attention.
The centre of life in the house was the front parlour. The room had a large window overlooking the street and the playground of Blakenhale Road School. On most evenings, Pop sat in his chair listening to the radio, with the accordion figured large. A serving hatch connected the parlour to the kitchen at the back of the house. I could watch Pop’s pigeons preening and strutting behind the wire mesh of their coop from the kitchen window.
There are photographs of me as a young child outside the house. I am small for my age and dressed in clothes that speak well of my level of care. I am a toddler sitting in a pram in front of Nan’s rose garden in one of the pictures. I am wearing a knitted outfit with a matching sun hat. There is a series of photographs taken a year or two later in which I am pushing a wheelbarrow filled with dirt. I am wearing shorts and Buster Brown shoes, seemingly unconcerned that someone was photographing me. The incident became a piece of family lore, part of my identity.
“You were such a hand full,” mom told me whenever we looked at the family album together. She told the story about the time I played in the garden in front of Nan’s house. I had my wheelbarrow and shovel and pretended to be a workman. Sometime that morning, I had dug up the roses and was carting them away when someone captured me on film. The story was that the plant bit me, and I had killed it and was on my way to bury it in the back garden. She told the story with enthusiasm, accompanied by laughter. I revelled in the sheer audacity and mischievousness of the child in the photographs.
My mother told other stories along the plotline of the “wheelbarrow in the rose garden” storyboard. In one version, my mother and I were riding on a bus to Coventry to visit her mother. We were sitting behind a lady with a hat decorated with flowers. On leaving the bus and for no particular reason, I grabbed the hat without my mother or the woman knowing. In another version of the story, it is Nan’s hat that I had taken. Each story’s denouement was that the hat was dead and needed burial in the back garden.
The back garden was like a magnet to my younger self. There was the expanse of the heath stretching out onto the horizon. There was the flutter of wings surrounding the pigeon coop outside the kitchen window that attracted my attention. Mother told the story that I climbed onto the window sill when I was a year and a half old to get a better view of the garden. In the next moment, I tumbled through the window and onto the pavement below. I have no actual memory of this ever happening. When I was older, my mother would part my hair and show people the scar on my head as evidence of how much of a hand full I was.
To hear my mother talk, you’d come to believe that I was an active child that was always getting into trouble. You would think that I was small and failing to thrive in those early years. She would have convinced you that I was talkative, well beyond my apparent age, using words I shouldn’t have known how to pronounce. At five years old, I looked like I was only two or three, and you would be shocked when I opened my mouth to talk in complex sentences. Beyond my earshot, you might have learned that I was a very sick child who would not live many more years.
I was in my second or third year when I went to a hospital for the first time. The children’s ward of Moseley Hall was brightly decorated with images of forest creatures, with broad smiles and cheerful expressions. Aunt Eileen brought me here with promises of ice cream once the doctor had a look at me. One by one, hospital staff wheeled other children and me into an operating theatre to remove our tonsils. Eileen made sure to get me ice cream, and after a few days, I went to stay with her to mend.
We moved out of the house at Blakenhale Road when I was four years old. My grandparents had provided the security needed to launch my parents into lives of their own. I had survived pneumonia several times, and my health had stabilized sufficiently to convince my parents to begin a life of their own. And besides, the reality was that there was little they could about my health, the solution which was several years into the future. Sadly, my parents’ backgrounds hadn’t prepared an easy road for them.