Life of a Queen

Wendy Young

creative partner and reader Julia Pascal

Who was it that said we choose our parents? 

Jenny and Jim. Jim and Jenny.

My father was a Bevin Boy, worked the Yorkshire mines. He called my mother ‘a deaf and dumb cunt’. She caught measles when she was five, that’s why she was deaf. When I was an adult, I did a course in signing and I wanted to teach her. She said, ‘I’m not doing that, I’m not stupid.’


Did my mother know what he did to me? 

Smoke and beer. I was seven. She came in and saw him doing it to me on the kitchen chair.  Like a broom handle inside me.  He stopped and pulled his trousers up when she got hold of a breadknife. ‘I’m going to cut it off. I’ll kill you.’ They were screaming down the garden path. She took me away. To her mother.


In 1947, eleven years before I was born, Jenny, her waters breaking, walked seven miles in deep snow to give birth in Pindar Oak Nursing Home. That was the start of my brother Vincent. The end of my brother Vincent?  In 1967 he was home on leave, the best young soldier in his regiment in Cyprus. In Barnsley, a drunk driver killed him. My mother wanted him buried. My father stopped her.  ‘He’ll be cremated. That way you won’t be spending time wallowing at his grave.’


She tried to leave him, walking for miles, taking the two girls with her and leaving the three boys under the kitchen table. Walking, walking, walking, over cobble and in rain to my grandmother’s, seven miles away in town. He came and smashed down the door.  He begged my oldest sister, ‘Tell yer mam not to go t’police!’  


Jenny was well brought up. She worked in service.  If you see her in the photo, it is clear that she was very, very, very pretty. My father blamed my auntie Mary for introducing him to her, the ‘stupid, deaf and dumb cunt’. But Jenny was a lady. She would say ‘briefs’ rather than ‘knickers’. She never swore until she lived with my father. I once asked her why she married him. She said he had a good physique and she thought he was Prince Charming. 

Jenny was born out of wedlock. My grandma was twenty nine when she had my mother.  Jenny wanted to be a hairdresser but there was no money for her to train. That’s why she went into service, in a vicarage, then in town where she met Aunty Mary. She had also worked in a wartime munitions factory and in a clothing factory. Jenny loved glamour and fashion. It was her sense of art. Why did she get married? Because she was ‘deaf and dumb’? Because she did not want to be alone like her mother was? Because my father ‘had a good body’? 


Everyone told Jenny she was stupid because she was ‘deaf and dumb’. This was wrong. She was wise. She saved me. She refused thalidomide  – neurotic Jim would have said, ‘Take it.’ Jenny had to protect all of us from him; those of us who did not become like him. Christine, Ian, Malcolm, Vincent, Glenys and even the seven and a half month old unborn baby he kicked out of her womb – she nearly bled to death- told not to have any more but she had another four. We can guess how. And the one he murdered? I found the grave in the local church. The stone said ‘stillborn’ but it was murder. 


Jane was her name but she was known as Jenny. Jennifer. It is a form of Guinevere. The name of a queen. Now I am older, I think a great deal about Jenny. The white, working class story that nobody is talking about. I now see that she is a monument. That her life was a Greek tragedy. But there was no catharsis for her. No redemption for him. Do we choose our parents? Perhaps Jenny chose me. To tell her story.

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