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 19

I'm not sure when I first realised I could be so affected by colours, that seeing a particular pink, or yellow or blue was comparable to taking a small dose of MDMA or a shot of vodka neat. My first remembered experience of being stoned on colours was when I was about 5, in the big department store my Mother and Nana went to on Saturday afternoons for a tea and fashion show. This was the end of the 1950s and the choppy waters of the 1960s were looming ahead. But for the meantime, suburban ladies of taste and style in Portsmouth put on their best and with elaborate displays of faux-langour, sipped Ceylon and nibbled mille-feille in the lushly carpeted salon of the department store, which aside from tea had a catwalk on which the slimmer and prettier sales assistants modelled the latest modes with numbers tied to their wrists.

Margaret is wearing the latest tweed ensemble by Monsieur Christian, note the tailored pencil skirt, silk bow neck blouse and matching hacking jacket, in this year's must have heather shades, intoned a hatchet faced floor manageress as Margaret assumed a haughty look far above her station and minced down the catwalk in her Bally stilettos as Pompey matrons pursed their Revlonned lips in consideration of this offering.  There were no men to be seen and in those days they would have had to be dragged their by wild horses. There were women's things, and men's things. Neither sex was particularly interested in the others sanctum.

I have no idea why I was taken to these Saturdays, unless it was that my cousins, who lived with us, baulked at babysitting. One of my cousins loathed me and the other was a Mod art student, so her Saturdays were taken up with vinyl boots, Quant haircuts and dogtooth check pinafores and of course, scooter boys. Anyway I loved going because I was given the heavenly treat of vanilla icecream and hot chocolate sauce. This was served in a stainless steel bowl and was exotic and decadent past all belief.

As the various mannequins drifted down the salon, in costumes for daywear, evening wear - Glenda is wearing an ice blue crushed chiffon strapless ballerina length gown by Elegant Modes, with a charming diamanté accent on the bodice and matching bolero - tennis wear and cruise wear, I watched transfixed. Such beauty seemed unearthly and the straight faced Pompey girls in American Tan stockings, angels from the celestial realm.

But one day, after my ice cream, I grew a bit bored. My Mother, Auntie and Nana were as usual smoking like trains and debating the cut of a beige Cashmerette swing coat with a Mongolian Lamb collar, when the devil whispered in my ear and I wandered off. I don't know why, as I wasn't that kind of child normally. I was far too afraid of being abandoned in the dark woods, since my female relatives were very fond of saying 'you can go off people, you know' if they were annoyed and I walked on eggshells trying not to put them off me and send me to the Children's Home, which was the other threat.

But this day I mooched off and wasn't immediately missed. I sauntered out of the Salon Du The and through the plush, scented rooms full of glittering paste jewels, strings of cultured pearls gleaming on mermaid satin, dinner rings like delicious sugar drops, brooches in the shape of diamond Scottie dogs with pink enamel bows round their necks.

I wound through the cosmetics counters laden with Rose Frosted Rose Gold nail polish, Tangerine Flip lipstick and beautiful boxes of perfumed face powder by Guerlain. There were sertied ranks of crystal flagons of Tweed by Lentheric, Tabu, the 'forbidden perfume' by Dana, my mother's favourites, L'Heure Bleu by Guerlain and Joy, 'the most expensive perfume in the world' by Jean Patou, that reeked of Lily of the Valley. It was a heady mix, and I staggered on, slightly drugged.

Eventually, feeling rather tired, I found myself in the evening gown section. I crawled under a rack of frocks, housed in a dark wood cabinet like all the dresses, and fell into a doze looking up at the glorious, glorious colours and textures above me. Ruffles of sapphire, rose, jonquil and silver. Glints of sequins glittering gold or iridescent on fuschia dupion or flame satin. Icy turquoise embroidered with bullion arabesques and an off white heavy brocade with diamanté embellishments. Softer shades of Ashes Of Roses, Eau De Nil and Ashes Of Violets, beiges that ranged from pale cream to deep tan. Ghostly greens as tender as the first tiny leaf of spring and a thousand shades of pink in a net petticoat. I was dazzled by chartreuse and cerulean.

I was also wholly unaware of the huge uproar that had happened when it was discovered I was missing. The shrieks and vapours of my Mother were of operatic quality. Not that she was that concerned for me, I'm sure she was but she was much more concerned that people would think she was a bad mother. Salesgirls were dispatched like bloodhound to sniff me out and my Nana prophesied in Welsh that I'd been abducted and they'd never see me again. High level management descended from their offices and supplied my mother with complimentary coffee, raising her caffeine levels to nuclear. I lay in bliss, wrapped in colour, oblivious.

Finally, a sweet young salesgirl in her white blouse and black pencil skirt found me and sat down on the floor next to me. You have got yourself in a pickle, haven't you, she said. Mummy's looking for you, come on now. Pretty, I said, pointing at the dresses. Yes, pretty, she said, you can have all of them when you're grown up. Then she took my hand and returned me to the Furies in the shape of my female relatives.

I can't remember what happened when I was given over to the maternal bosom but  the slaps and screaming waited until we got home. Nothing was ever done in public by 'nice' families in those days. None of this yelling into a phone in the shopping centre for all to hear or posting your divorce step by step on Facebook. But whatever they did to me didn't matter and whatever lesson they meant to teach me didn't stick. I didn't wander off again, true, but I wasn't put off colour, far from it.  My Nana's famous yellow Peace roses could send me dizzy for hours.

There's a story attached to those roses. One I've never figured out. My Nana's house in Cosham had an enclosed back garden and her beloved rosebed was in front of the back door leading into the garden. To the side were the spider haunted outside toilet door and the garage side door. One year in a mad fit of trying to be normal, my mother organised a birthday party for me with other children. I'd have been about 6. Lizzie was not invited though as she was thought common. The day dawned and I was released from curling rags and dressed in an unpleasant flouncy dress, white ankle socks and strap shoes. I loathed it all. Red Feather, my alter ego, brooded over his tomahawk and contemplated escape on his painted pony, Cascade. Alas, my mother won and I was forced to smile like a nice little girl rather than the ravening savage I was inside.

Various parents soon arrived with their uncomfortable offspring and the cocktails flowed freely. This was the 1960s and everyone smoked and drank round children, it was normal. So was smoking on planes and in the cinema. How quickly we forget. Us children got massive sugar rushes from the cake my Nana made, with her signature frosting of butter creamed with granulated sugar and cocoa powder. We screamed and hooted round the garden until told off for making a noise and disturbing the neighbours.

Eventually, one of the more daring boys in his black lace-ups, grey shorts, white shirt and red bow tie on elastic, began swinging on the outside toilet door, clinging astride the outer edge, hanging off both doorknobs. The arc of his flight took him across the end of the rosebed. Naturally, he fell off, into the roses. And onto the hideously sharp, dark and  wicked old 6 inch carving knife my Nana used to prune with, and which she had left blade up, handle in the soil, amid the foliage.

The blade went straight into the boy's thigh. There was a short, gaping silence then the screams brought the adults out again, first to complain then to scream themselves. It's a jumbled mess of red faces, mouths wide open, my mother's stark white face and my Nana, completely expressionless. The ambulance came, the parents and children left. I never heard of the little boy again or what happened to him. I never saw any of those children again. I never discovered why my Nana had left the terrible knife, blade up, out in the garden during a children's party.

No one, to my knowledge, ever spoke of it again. Secrets folded like origami over what had happened, sealed with silence and the instruction never to tell. I lived in a house of secrets, of dark corners full of unspoken things that shifted and chittered out of your line of sight if you tried to look at them. Never say your mother hit you. Never mention the blade in the earth. Never talk about your fear. Never look into those corners. We were a nice family. People thought well of us.

It was the perfect background for me in regards to X, who's pathological secret keeping, even when there was absolutely nothing worth keeping a secret about,  dominated his life. The sense of control inherent in that is obvious, but so is the shame instilled in him by his upbringing and later his schooling at the Public school he was sent to. Not that he had anything at all to feel shame about at all, the opposite in fact, but that's the point, isn't it? None of us should be ashamed of our looks, or our sexuality,  our intellect or our class, it really is monstrous, life-crippling bullshit that we are, but we are. X was ashamed of what he considered weakness, of what he was taught was weakness, but was in fact normal emotion and ordinary human vulnerability. Showing 'weakness' was a crime. Showing emotion a sin.

So I continually dashed the rage and pain that churned inside me like a tsunami against the granite of his public school stoicism. That may sound awful, and I'm sure he got completely fed up of it, but his calm settled me down and my unbounded bloody furious energy galvanised him to jump from a 'nice chap' with a 'sound future' into a passionate and charismatic rock star, commanding audiences worldwide and making wonderful music for them. Without me, he'd have been a social worker. Without him, I'd have been a lost soul or dead.

Bound as we were, we stood on the precipitous edge of something akin to  glory. It's hard to describe what it's like being an embryo artist. You turn and twist in the confining caul, knowing there's something else, something bigger than the scratchings and doodles, the skeleton leaves of songs you're fumbling at, that in that great blue bowl of sky, somewhere, is the thing you really want to make. It's there, if only you can learn, and train yourself, and do whatever it takes, make whatever sacrifices you have to, to get it.

It's not fame. Or money. People think it is, but it's not. Those things are a distraction. I've been infamous all my life, as a survivor of assault, gossiped and pointed out as a ruined girl, as a gang princess strutting in my leather and rags, as a performer presenting my power and glamour like a gift that enraged the abusive and envious, as an artist and writer with no bloody social skills who made lifelong enemies in the Arts Establishment. Being famous isn't anything like what people think it is.

It's a conduit that brings useful things for the work. Because the work is blood, it's life, it's everything. And X and I were on the brink of it.

We held hands, and jumped.


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