Saturday, September 12, 2009
The people over the road from us have net curtains. I've been staring at them for days now, wondering why I am so attracted to something that I dislike so much and the only conclusion that I can come to is that I am truly British.
My nationality has been in debate for a while between my husband and I, both of us shifting as new discrepancies surface. I was born on my mums and dad's bed in our house on Coronation Road- not to be mistaken for the Coronation Street. Ours was in Birmingham, halfway between London and Manchester and famous for an accent that everyone ridicules, a grotty train station, Cadbury's Chocolate and HP Sauce. It was a typical ex-council house street, with grey pebble-dashed houses with tiny uniform gardens and tight little porches with squeaking doors. But we weren't like the neighbours. We stood out you see, because my parents were 'the foreigners'. Fresh off the boat from Toronto, no really, my dad was terrified of flying so they caught the boat, their accents and weird ways of doing things confused and amused the street in the same breath.
Most of the neighbours were kind. We got hand-me-downs from Jean Smith when her kids outgrew their clothes and if mum needed to go out she would take us in. 'Uncle' George in the house opposite took us all, mum and dad included, under his wing and told stories about being in both wars; submarines and fighter planes. So my parents settled in, lived normal lives, but they didn't do things the same way as everyone else. They didn't eat the same foods, didn't cook the same way, didn't read the same papers, didn't watch the same TV and didn't go to the pub or get fish & chips on a Friday night or watch the football on a Saturday. And Mrs. Woodcroft next door was watching.
Here's where the net curtains come in. My mum started teaching antenatal classes from our home in the evenings. A group of couples would come around during early pregnancy- at that point where it would take a keen eye to notice the 'bumps'. Then every other week they would come back, the same couples, their bumps getting bigger, heavy breathing, panting even, and laughter in the lounge as someone got stuck down on her floor mat or as the occasional loud fart slipped out. And Mrs. Woodcroft was watching, which we knew because her net curtains were twitching. Then Jean Smith came up to tell my parents that the truth was out....via Mrs. Woodcroft, and the whole street knew. We were holding wife-swapping parties. And judging from the multiple pregnancies, no one was using contraception. That pretty much summed it up. If something was going on in your house, everyone knew. If something was going on in your marriage, everyone knew. If you said something odd, or cooked unusual food, or made your own bread or had wife-swapping parties....everyone knew.
Years later, when I was living in Liverpool on a street that looked exactly like Coronation Street- the TV one, I was the only one without net curtains, yet I was probably the one with the most to hide. I wasn't well- spent my days in bed or sitting in the yard chain smoking cigarettes or painting in the back room upstairs. One day, the window washer, wooden ladder flush against the glass stuck his head through my open window as I was standing in front of a canvas, paintbrush in my hand to tell me about the bloke up the road who painted amazing oils. And there was a lady down the street- wasn't sure what number- who did these intricate pencil crayon landscapes- I should check them out.
I got my gossip from the kids who I paid to weed my front garden. They told me about Mrs Biggs who always ate lunch on her own at the cafe and Mr Jenks three doors up who beat his dog after he'd had to many beers, and his wife pretended not to notice because she had her own problems. She wore a wig because all of her hair was gone.
And then I got really sick and decided to end it all. The ambulance came and they wrapped my wrists in tight bandages and walked me barefoot into the street and I remember that there were neighbours coming outside to watch so I closed my eyes. Later one of the kids told me that the woman opposite had taken photos through a crack in her net curtains just in case it made the newspapers, which it didn't because I didn't do it properly. They watched, they talked, they took photos on extreme occasions, but- and this is the thing- they were there. When my kitten got lost everyone helped push notes through doors and I got cheers when he turned up safe and well. When I got a boyfriend, the street was happy because now I'd got someone to look after me. And on New Years Eve 2000, we all tumbled out into the road and pulled fire-crackers and ate cake and poured each other shots and it didn't matter who did what or ate what or who smoked, or who had little strips of scars down her arm because we were all just there, in that moment and I was a part of something. I bought net curtains the next week, a sign that I no longer had anything to hide.
It's a decade later and the people across the street have net curtains which you don't see much around here -with their lacy edges and sticky dust. I think I miss them. I can't stop staring because I'm wondering if there is someone behind them watching the street as it spills it's secrets.