AUTOBIOGRAPHY: THE MEMORY BOX

 

The Memory Box is my memoirs, currently being serialised on Facebook in the Group of the same name, where readers are free to share their thoughts, memories and photos.

 

This resource will allow those not using Facebook to read the text and will be updated periodically. 

  • Joolz Denby

Episode 1

Updated: Nov 25, 2018

As I said, I was born dead. Not only dead, but yellow from jaundice, with a face marked with red weals and a pointy head from forceps. During my home birth in the Officer's Quarters in Colchester Barracks the bed collapsed and Dada, in his best Mess uniform,  rushed into the bedroom then rushed out again and fainted. At 6' 5" it must have been like a great tree being felled in the forest. Then I had to be transfused with his blood (mixed with whiskey) not once, but twice before I grudgingly agreed to live. I wasn't the ideal baby. Dada once remarked he'd never seen such a furious child with such a piercing stare and my mother, Ma, just couldn't find anything about me to love. She'd never wanted children - might spoil her figure and detract from her beauty. That's not being bitchy, she actually thought that and said it out loud, often. At 11 she told me withering I was a condom failure anyway, just in case I ever entertained the delusion I'd been wanted. The dog Senta had a better idea of mothering that my Ma, may she rest in peace. My father adored me though, which was good, though he had to feign manly indifference or my mother would lose her shit big style and did, often.

As Dada - ex military, ex Territorial SAS - travelled a lot after Ma made him leave the army because despite being from a military family herself, she was bored and wanted him to be an executive. She had a vision of herself giving exquisite little dinner parties whilst attired in a darling cocktail frock tinkling about handing out industrial strength gin and tonics. She read a lot of Women's Magazines. To say my Dada loved my mother is an understatement of colossal proportions. He quite literally sacrificed himself to protect and care for her, to ensure she never suffered the consequences of her actions or was criticised in any way. He sacrificed his only child, too. I have often wondered why such an intelligent, humorous, kind man would be so besotted. How could he have deliberately ignored how my mother treated me - and others, come to that. I don't have any answers. I wondered if he knew some terrible dark secret of her past that might be reason to wrap her in cotton wool for the rest of her life, but if he did it's lost now. All I saw in Ma was a narcissist who felt she had married beneath her and given birth to a complete disappointment. My Dada's way of compensating for all this was to encourage me to read everything and anything, and teach me all the military skills he possibly could, as if I were his son. I was a quick study and quite talented, as it turned out, at unarmed and armed combat. Hardly impressed my Ma though, who was much more pleased at my precocious artistic ability with make up. Not that even such a useful skill really changed her mind about me.

From the off I did not fit her chic, suburban vision. I took after Dada, tall, big framed, brainy. Fat and surly, in Ma's view. I had twisted legs too, a slight but visible spiral from the hip that disrupted my muscles, turned my kneecaps inwards and made my ankles look broken as my feet tried to revolve back to front. You'd have though I'd done it on purpose to be annoying. Ditto when I got acne. It was as if the sky had fallen in on her, not merely an adolescent getting spots. She had the doctor - who was madly in love with her and obeyed her every command - put me on Tetracyline for a whole year, side effects from which stained my teeth grey and reduced my innards to cottage cheese. She dyed my hair at 10 to a more 'interesting' copper and started dieting me in earnest at 11, ensuring I could never have a normal attitude to food, ever again. At 13 she had the doctor put me on 30 mg of Valium a day as I was 'a trial'. She hit me with hairbrushes and her pointy-nailed hand. Once, she kicked me down the stairs. On another occasion, bored and angry, she brushed my long hair so hard and jerkily she dislocated my neck.  She routinely tormented and bullied me psychologically. I was treated as a rival for Dada's affection as if I were a grown adult woman. If crossed, she faked a suicide attempt. I read her diaries after she died of Alzheimer's related illness. I wish I hadn't.  So much bitterness and so hard done to. Some months after her death my father killed himself. He couldn't live without her. Just before he died he told me he'd known how she treated me. He was sorry. Much as I loved him, and I adored  him, he wasn't half as sorry I was that he didn't even try to save me.

So I can't say I had much of a childhood. I recall a few pleasant Sunday afternoons whilst Ma ironed with the radio on. She didn't really have a sense of humour but we listened to comedy shows like Round The Horne and I laughed until my sides ached. It was nice being in the same room as her while she worked, the beautiful smell of hot clean cotton, the rhythm of her movements. I had my dizzy yellow Cocker spaniel, Cleo, the epitome of the dumb blonde and my fierce guinea pig, Sweep. I loved them passionately. One day I got home from school and Cleo wasn't there. No one said why, no explanation, but she was gone. Then Sweepie. Gone. We didn't have pets after that, though I knew Dada would have loved a cat. That's how it was. Things happened and that was that - no questions allowed. It taught me to accept things that happened to me personally without question and eat my grief - it also fostered a burning hatred of injustice in regards to others because I knew how they felt.

Whenever possible my tiny, wizened maternal grandmother was imported from Portsmouth to mind me, though I was often just left alone for long periods. My Nana was extremely depressed having lost her son and her husband before I was 5. She gave a whole new meaning to the idea Welsh people are melancholic. Ma made my father cut his mother, Nana Bunty, out of the family for 20 odd years because Nana Bunty criticised her once over some little thing. That was Ma all over. No one was allowed to criticise her, even constructively. There was no 'constructively'. You either did what she wanted or she screamed and screamed and screamed until you were worn out and gave in. Or she gave you the dreaded  Silent Treatment. She once refused to speak to or feed me for 6 weeks. I lived on boiled rice and what I could cadge off friends. She was an absolute narcissist. And here's the point: nothing I did ever met with her approval. Nothing. If you've been through that you'll know what it does to you. If you haven't, you'll never get it and I'm glad you didn't have to suffer it.  But you'll have to take my word for it when I say it was just grim. It meant I grew up with no healthy boundaries of self care, I existed solely as a kind of slave who made her coffee on demand and was a handy scapegoat, constantly disapproved of,  and always hoping in my secret heart she'd change miraculously and become my ideal mother. That she'd love me and hug me. That she'd praise my paintings of mermaids and the poems I wrote that were published in the school magazine. That everything would be alright. That never happened. However to be fair, she was a wonderful hostess at parties, of which she threw many,  always looked amazing and glamourous and was an excellent cook. Lots of people thought she was fabulous and told me how they envied me, having such a beautiful, fashionable and gracious mother. That included my various boyfriends, who she set out to flirt with and who fell for the lashes, the lippie, L'heure Bleu by Guerlain and the famous tanned cleavage. 

So, anyway, puberty hit me like a sledgehammer.  Not only were there the spots and the tits, there was major, serious depression. I was a self-harming, anorexic, depressed teen poetry prodigy tipped for poetic stardom by my  teachers, lodged with a malevolent beauty queen, my only potential ally absent and myself being educated in possibly the most demented low rent private girl's school going. It made St.Trinians look prim. Attempts were made to send me to an NHS child psychiatrist but I just laughed, hollowly.

I started going out to pubs and clubs at 13. I was tall, well built, good at make up, stylish and clever so I never got asked how old I was. Not even when the police raided the Alex for underage drinkers and I was sitting there with a half of cider and my Greek woven shoulder bag full of a dismantled hand gun and 500 trips of acid I was passing along from one dealer to another so I'd get an invite to the cool party that weekend. I honestly thought I'd wet myself, get caught and go to Girl Borstal that time. But they didn't look at me twice. 

No one at home ever asked where I was going, I'd just say I was going over to a pals or to the teen disco at the local church hall at weekends. I hid my fear and loneliness behind a tightly woven hide of smart talk and comedy. I took acid every weekend and speed whenever I could get it. I didn't smoke dope because I didn't smoke. Ma smoked 40 a day. I wasn't going to be her. The hippies and bikers I hung with knew I was a kid, but hey, Baby Chicks were cool.

I was eventually and inevitably targeted and what we would now call groomed, by a handsome, wiry, dirty-blond long haired 20-something and taken on a 'date' to the lover's lane type wild bit of the Valley Gardens in Harrogate, where we were then living. I was mad with excitement. My pals were insane with envy. I thought me and the hippie, with his cool, faded pink grandad t-shirt and low slung hipster loons clinging to his skinny brown hips and flat stomach, love beads and intoxicating smell of patchouli, pheromones and fags would snog. Hopefully a lot. Maybe he'd tell me what a cool, hip chick I was, and give a strand of his beads. And we'd be boyfriend and girlfriend. I was just 14. I was a virgin. Unlike girls today, exposed early to films with full on sex scenes, TV shows about sex, teen mag articles about the technicalities of anal and porn on the Internet, I knew jack about sex or what men thought. I thought this was romance and freedom.

Instead of the swooney snogfest I'd anticipated, he tried to rape me, panting, sweaty and telling me we were 'going to ball' and not to be a 'dumb chick' about it, his dirty nailed hands round my throat, strangling me. As he let go of my neck for a second while he tore my cheesecloth blouse and fumbled with my jeans zip, a man walking his old yellow Labrador interrupted him with a 'oi, you! What you doing eh?' Startled, the hippie bolted leaving me semi conscious on the ground. The Lab wandered over and drooled on my face a bit like Labs do. Then the man called his dog back, looked at me, and  walked off and left me without a word. As I lay in the long grass I saw the sun dropping gold on the seed heads swaying above me and smelt their sweet dusty dirt smell and felt my childhood shredding away into the blue, blue sky. I knew implicitly I couldn't tell anyone. So I didn't. Like many other girls in that situation at that time, I kept my mouth shut. I told Ma my eyes were bright red from a bad case of pink eye which was 'going round school'. The doctor agreed. No one asked about the flecks of haemorrhage on my cheeks. Possibly they blended with the spots. I covered the bruises on my throat with a fashionable black crepe Isadora scarf. No one asked. No one knew, I felt sure the hippie would never tell because as I was so ashamed and guilty, he must be even more so. It was my fault after all. I led him on somehow, I made him mad. I caused it. I sometimes wonder now, what sort of life I'd have had if I hadn't been a good soldier. If I had run home screaming and crying. If the police had arrested the hippie. If everyone had rushed round comforting and protecting me. But I knew Ma would blame me and be incandescent with rage and Dada would be torn between looking after her and caring for me. And it would hurt him. So I didn't tell. I protected him. And that potential other life died in the time it took me to get up, brush myself off, stuff all the terror, shame and yes, disappointment with life, down deep into a locked box inside me and stagger to the Ladies in the park. I didn't tell for over 40 years.

But of course, the hippie didn't keep quiet at all. He was indeed mad, but at me for denying him what he saw as his rights - he'd bought me a frothy coffee at the Mont, after all. So he told everyone I was an easy mark. So it happened again and again and again until I was finally raped whilst under the influence of acid by an older, straight bloke called Steve. Then by a chemistry student who lured me to his flat with the promise of raw alcohol from the lab.  It was long years of being beaten and treated like scum by various men - kicked, hit, bitten, having my face bounced off the dashboard of a car for having my hair cut without permission permanently knocking my front teeth a bit backwards and breaking my nose. And no-one ever said anything. I mentally tortured, gaslighted, abused and shamed - you name it. I found excuses for it all. I never told. I thought there must be something wrong with me. That I wasn't a proper girl. That I was wrong inside somehow and not fit to be the partner, or even friend, of anyone decent. I never sought help - and I didn't know I should. I just accepted I was damaged goods who should be fucking grateful if any man, however much of a bastard, took an interest in me and gave me approval, a view echoed by my mother who added gaily that men would never like me anyway, as they didn't like brainy girls. And, she added, don't look to other women for friendship. They're all cats and full of envy and spite. I'm not sure how it squared that I was hideous and revoltingly clever, yet at the same time the object of envy. But that was Ma. Never let logic get in the way of a good put down. She never had close women friends, by the way, which should tell you a lot.

So there I was. Extremely intelligent and well read, with a semi eidetic memory and a genuine talent for poetry and art, drunk  in love with words and colours, horribly damaged, agressive, strong, out of control, wild and driven. Absolutely lethal. Feral even. Dangerous both to myself and others.

I loved animals though. And I had nice hands and feet, if that helps.

Then I married a Satans Slave.

Yes! I absolutely did and on the whole he was very nice. I loved motorcycles and rode my own - obviously an incipient Lesbian according to Ma - and I met the future ex husband at a local biker club. We had a short romance before he proposed after taking me to see The Exorcist. During our time together he kept the usual hitting to a bare minimum. It was at this point I finally learned that the fact I used my considerable combat skills to fight back when fucked with meant I deserved being beaten. Nice girls fainted and wept. I was far too terrified of being got on the ground and my head kicked in to faint etc. So I always fought back like a cornered Tasmanian Devil. I 'brought it on myself' apparently.

Anyway, the future ex wasn't an actual Satans Slave when I met him, he was just a normal grebo, tall, redheaded with that true, thick, shiny, long auburn hair and matching beard, a bit of a blessed noodle and covered in freckles. He loved animals too. And he loved bikes and building bikes and he loved me. I think he really did - until he found out he couldn't mend me as he did his Norton. Anyway at some point, having seen the actual Slaves materialise out of the dark like leathery phantoms one night at a biker club, he said how much he'd like to be one. As we lay in the moonlight on our narrow bed, I ruminated a bit then said OK, I'll make you into one. I thought, how hard could it be? And if I did, if I worked hard, got him what he wanted, proved how clever and useful I was, I'd win his approval, he'd love me forever and I'd be happy. I honestly thought that. Take note of this by the way, it's a recurring theme.

I did, in fact, make him into a Slave. It really wasn't that hard. Coming from a military family helped at lot as it's all very hierarchical -  Officers and Other Ranks. I understood that. Naturally my darling ginger noodle swiftly became an 'officer' with my training and support. At one point, at my actual wedding in fact, the then President of the Slaves, who was in love with me and protected me from my own stupidity on many occasions, but who was married irrevocably to a terrifying woman called Big She, took me aside and with the warning never to tell, which obviously I'm ignoring, said the only reason he took my husband was because he couldn't take me. Because I was female. It didn't matter how clever I was, what a good soldier I was, how much of a true believer I was, I was a girl. No dick, no colours. The story of my life.

The marriage didn't last long, a few years notable only for the complete bafflement of my husband, who on discovering I was a typhoon not a gentle breeze, immediately went away working for months on end and did his share of prostitutes, amphetamines and drink with his fellow contractors. Meanwhile, alone in our cold water flat in a village perched on the edge of the moors I indulged my full tilt boogie, no holds barred, full metal jacket attempts to destroy myself with drugs, drink, weapons, and innapropriate and abusive affairs. No wonder the poor hubbie finally gave up trying and hooked up with Fat Maxine From Morecambe. She must have been a bloody relief.

He did one very special thing for me though before the end. Out of love and compassion. A redeeming and blessed thing for which I will always be grateful. I had fallen into a terrible depression and in desperation gone to my GP. The man took one look at my dirty patched jeans, studded belt and leather jacket and decided I was an anti-social danger to others. Which was not true, as I was only a danger to myself. He had me sectioned. I was to report to the mental hospital the next day. That night I sat apathetic and crushed on the old sofa knowing my life was over. I knew what was coming. ECT. Electro Convulsive Therapy or torture, as it actually is. I'd tried ringing my parents for help. Ma answered and was furious, warning me never to tell anyone, it was so shaming. In silence me and the blessed noodle watched a film. By pure chance it was about a young woman committed to an asylum and given ECT. It was very affecting and tragic. The noodle turned to me and asked if it would be like that. Oh yes, I replied. Then I started crying again.

The next day we rode our bikes to the hospital. We accidentally parked by the back entrance and had to walk through the hospital to where I was to be assessed. The noodle was very quiet as he watched the poor patients we passed  grapple with the horrors of their lives. I was numb with terror.

Eventually I was assessed and was about to be admitted. The noodle asked where he could safely put my bike as they said after a while, I could possibly go home at weekends. The doctor shook his head and said given the medication I'd be on I couldn't safely ride a motorcycle. The blessed noodle asked how they'd know what was wrong with me if I was 'all drugged up'. The doctor smiled and said he thought he knew his job, thank you and I'd be fine. I felt I'd die of fear.

Then suddenly, the noodle asked if he could have a last moment alone with me. The doctor smiled indulgently. OK, don't take too long though he said, and went out of the room. I was weak with hopelessness. The blessed noodle took me in his strong, freckled arms. He smelt of warm caramel, old leather and engine oil. When I say run, he whispered, run. What? I said. You heard, he said - now RUN!

And we did. Nurses and doctors flying, trolleys knocked over, schizophrenics twirled as we belted out through the corridor at full speed - and then we were out and on the bikes which for once started first kick. We fishtailed out and onto the asphalt in a cloud of dust. At home he wrapped me in an old blue blanket and held me while I wept, then barricaded the door against the police and the doctor who came round to fetch me. He said he wouldn't let me go back there, it wasn't fit to house whippets never mind a poor confused girl. They pushed a form through the cat flap. He signed it and pushed it back. It said he was responsible if I killed someone. He made me promise I wouldn't. And I haven't. This is a true story and the blessed noodle a true hero.

So that's why I still love my first husband, not that I ever saw him again after the divorce. I hope he was happy and led a lovely life filled with animals. He did a great service to that 'poor, confused girl'. He was indeed, a blessed noodle.

And then, dear readers, after finding Punk, and working weekend nights as a bouncer at the local Punk disco, the first woman bouncer in West Yorkshire, I went with a pal to a low down after-hours drinking hole frequented by students - and met my Fate.


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© JOOLZ DENBY - ARTIST - TATTOOIST - WRITER - POET - BRADFORD, WEST YORKSHIRE, UK - JOOLZDENBY00@GMAIL.COM