When I was a little girl, in the late afternoon or early evening right after the sun set—or what my father referred to as “the gold coin slipping down a slippery sky to float in darkness until morning”—I would edge open the window in the bedroom that I shared with Julia. No matter what the temperature outside, I would crouch to put my ear close to the opening so that I could hear the tinkle of the piano in the Three Bears, a pub down our street in Guildford. During the colder months, when Julia came in, she would scream at me for putting a chill in the room, but she would never tell our father because she knew he likely would take a strap to me for wasting heat and costing us money. Like his father and his father before him, he believed “Spare the rod and spoil the child.”
In our house money was the real monarch. Everything in one way or another was measured and judged in terms of it. We could easily substitute “Long live our savings account” in our royal anthem for “Long live our noble queen.” I suppose that was only natural and expected: my father was a banker in charge of personal and business loans. He often told us he had to look at people in a cold, hard way and usually tell them that they didn’t qualify because they didn’t have the collateral. He didn’t sugarcoat it, either. He made sure they left feeling like they had cost the bank money just by coming there to seek a loan, for he also believed that “Time is money.” He called those whom he rejected—who had convinced themselves they could be granted credit despite the realities of their situation—“dreamers.” And he wasn’t fond of dreamers.
“They don’t have their feet squarely on the ground,” he would say. “They bounce and float like loose balloons tossed here and there at the mercy of a mischievous wind.”
Sometimes, when I looked at people passing by our house, I imagined them being bounced about like that, and in my mind I would tell them not to go to see my father for financial assistance, to go to another bank. My father was so stern-looking at times that I was afraid to confess I had experienced a dream when sleeping. He might point his thick right forefinger at me and say, “You’re doomed to be a balloon.”
He wasn’t a particularly big man, but he gave off a towering appearance. When he walked, he always kept his five-foot-ten-inch body firm, his posture nearly as perfect as that of the guard at Buckingham Palace with his meticulous stride, even though my father never had military training. He was truly our personal Richard Cory, “a gentleman from sole to crown,” just like the man in Edwin Arlington Robinson’s poem. And that wasn’t simply because of the similarity of his surname. Even on Saturdays and Sundays, he would put on a white shirt and a solid blue, gray, or black tie, no matter how warm the weather. When I asked my mother about it once, she said he simply felt underdressed without his tie. Then she leaned in to add in a whisper, “It’s like his shield. He’s a knight in shining ties.”
He didn’t care that so many men his age dressed quite casually most of the time, even at work. But I’d have to admit that when he stood among them, he looked like someone in charge, someone very successful and very self-confident. He did everything with what my mother called “a banker’s precision.” He shaved every morning with a straight razor, making the exact same strokes the exact same way, and never missed a spot. Sometimes I would watch him make his smooth, careful motions as if he was another Michelangelo, carving his face out of marble. He had his black hair cut or trimmed more often than other men, and he wouldn’t step out of the house wearing shoes unless they were shined almost to the point where you could see your face in them. He always carried an umbrella, the same one he had since our mother and he married.
“He brought it on our honeymoon,” she said.
But I gathered that he didn’t keep it and care for it for romantic reasons. It would have been a waste to do otherwise. He felt justified carrying it no matter what the weather.
“The biggest unintended liar in the U.K. is the weatherman or woman,” he would say. He used the umbrella like a walking stick on sunny and partly sunny days, but he was always poised, like an American western cowboy gunman, ready to snap it open on the first drop that touched his face and defeat the rain that dared soil his clothes.
Other people saw him this way, too, as Mr. Correct or Mr. Perfect. Those who couldn’t get any bank money from him called him Mr. Scrooge, but everyone would agree that he lived strictly according to his rules.
“Your husband moves like a Swiss timepiece,” Mrs. Taylor, our closest neighbor, told my mother once. She was fifteen years older than my mother and had thinning gray hair. In the sunlight she looked bald. Her face had become a dried prune, but her eyes still had a youthful glint, especially when she was being a little playful. “I’d bet my last penny that he takes the same number of steps to work every morning, maybe even the same number of breaths.”
“Oh, most probably,” my mother replied, not in the least offended. No one could tell when she was, anyway. She was that good at keeping her feelings under lock and key when it came to anyone who wasn’t part of our immediate family. Like my father, she believed that your emotions and true feelings were not anyone else’s business. “Arthur believes ‘Waste not, want not. A penny saved is a penny earned.’ He knows just how many dips in the hot water one tea bag will go, and he won’t tolerate waste. He always says any man who watches his pennies can be as rich as a king.” She did sound a little proud.
Mrs. Taylor pursed her lips and shook her head slowly. “He’s like a doctor of finances,” she admitted. “When my accounts are a bit sick, he always has a remedy to suggest, and it always works.” She laughed. “I’ve gotten so I try not to waste my energy when I’m walking, even from one room to another. I’m afraid Arthur will see and take me to task.”
One day when I was accompanying my father to the greengrocer, I actually counted his steps, and the next day when I watched him go off to work, I realized that he did take the same number to the corner. For a while, everywhere I went with my mother and sister, I counted mine. I watched other people, too, but no one on our street paced their gait with the same accuracy each time as did my father.
Years later, when I was in secondary school, I’d sit by the same window in our bedroom and remember the things that had fascinated me when I was a child, seemingly unimportant memories, like the way my father walked. I’d hear the same music, see similar things, and smell the same flowers, but my reactions were different. I realized that everything had been more intense back then. Even the same colors had been richer, darker, or lighter. It was like thinking about the world in the way a complete stranger would see it. Maturity steals away the baubles, bangles, and beads and leaves you terribly factual and realistic. Nothing was more than it factually was anymore. I thought that was sad. A part of me, a part of everyone, should be a child forever. In a child’s eyes, everything is also bigger and more important, especially his or her home. When I look back on it now, I realize how small ours really was.
We lived in a brick two-story, two-bedroom, end-terrace house that shared a common house wall with Mrs. Taylor’s house. She was a widow who lived alone, even though her daughter and son wanted her to live with one of them. She said every time they visited her, they began with the same request, but Mrs. Taylor was stubborn and determined not to be dependent.
“I’ll be passed around like a hot potato the moment I express an opinion,” she said. “When you find your place in this world, dig in.”
If I was present, she would nod at me after she spoke, as if she was alive to bestow her wisdom only to me. Maybe that was because I was more attentive in comparison to my mother or my sister. My father once told me never to ignore what people say no matter how insignificant it first seems. “It’s the doorway to their secrets. Somewhere between the lines, you’ll see what they really think if you listen with both ears.”
My father had me believing that it was good to be suspicious of anyone and anything because everything was such a mystery. Shadows falling from passing clouds were there to hide Nature’s secrets. People avoided your eyes when they didn’t want you to see their deepest and truest thoughts. That was the real reason no one wanted to be surprised when he or she was alone. They wouldn’t have time to put on their masks and disguise their real feelings.
“Look at a man’s shoes first,” he told me when I was older and more interested in boys. “If they’re nicked and scuffed, that tells you he’s disorganized and irresponsible. Even a poor man can look neat and clean. If a man doesn’t respect himself, he won’t respect you.”
It did no good to tell him that most of the boys in school wore sneakers now, and everyone’s were scuffed. To him what was true a hundred years ago was true today. The truth simply wore different clothes. “Scratch the surface of something, and you’ll see it hasn’t changed no matter what color the new paint. What was true for Adam and Eve is still true for us. Don’t fall for shallow and unnecessary changes just because they are in fashion at the moment.”
My father was truly more like an Old World prophet, suspicious of so-called modern innovations.
He was like that with all the things in our house, demanding order, defying what he thought were needless alterations. He could tell if my mother moved a candlestick on the mantel or a chair just a little more to the left in the living room. He hated when she changed where something could be found in a closet or a kitchen cabinet. He believed that in a well-kept house, a man could find what he wanted even if he had suddenly lost his sight.
My father wouldn’t rage if something had been moved without his knowledge. He would simply stand there with his arms crossed against his chest and wait for my mummy’s explanation. If it wasn’t good enough, he wouldn’t move or look away from her until she had put it back where it had been. No one could say more with silence than my father could.
She’d shake her head afterward and tell me, “Your father remembers where each snowflake fell on our walkway last winter.”
Our house had been in my father’s family since his grandfather had bought it. My parents had lived in an apartment with Julia until my grandfather’s death. My grandmother had died five years earlier. The house had an open hallway in the entry, with a family heirloom, a five-prong dark-walnut rack for hanging coats and hats, on the wall. Our living room was on the left. We had a brick fireplace, but we didn’t use it as much as other people used theirs. My father had read an article that revealed that fireplaces sucked up the room’s heat and sent it up the chimney along with the pounds we spent on heating oil. He called it “quid smoke.” There was another fireplace in our dining room, and that one was used even less, usually begrudgingly after my mum’s pleading when we had dinner guests. The dining room had a large window that faced the rear of our house, where we had a small plot of land that my father insisted be used to grow vegetables and not used as our little playground.
“There’s no value in anything that doesn’t produce or have the capacity to produce,” he said. He would often stop in the middle of doing something and make one of his wise pronouncements, even if I was the only one in the room. It was as if he had to get his thoughts out, or they might cause him to explode. He always lifted his heavy dark-brown eyebrows and straightened up before making his statements. How could I not be impressed, even if I didn’t agree with him? He was Zeus speaking from Mount Olympus.
At the rear of the house was a patio big enough for us to set a table and dine alfresco in the summer. There was a rear gate that opened to the street behind us as well. Julia and I took that one on weekdays because it put us closer to school, and by this time, she was mimicking our father’s own ten commandments, one being, “If you can get somewhere in a shorter time with less wear on the soles of your feet, take it. Make your shoes last longer.”
My father permitted my mother to plant flowers along the edges of the yard. She had magic hands when it came to nurturing Blue Dendrobium or Minuets. She planted Mums Surprise in front, where we had evergreen fern as well as Leylandii hedging.
My parents’ bedroom was on the first floor, and ours was upstairs. Their bedroom was nearly twice the size of ours and had two views, a side view and a rear view. My mother was proud of her kitchen, which had a Bosch gas stove and oven, an integrated Bosch dishwasher, and a Worcester Bosch combi boiler. We had a basement that my father converted into his home office and another bathroom. Both the upstairs and downstairs had the original wood flooring, which my mother cleaned and polished twice a week.
My father believed that if you took care of old things, they would never be old. People would think you had recently bought them. “Treat everything as if it’s destined to become a valuable antique, and you’ll never go wrong,” he said. “Nothing, no matter how small, should be neglected.”
We were a short walk from High Street, which was the English way of saying Main Street. Julia, who eventually became the elementary-school teacher she had intended to become, was always showing off her knowledge, even when she was only fourteen. She loved correcting my grammar and leaped to explain things before our mother could take a breath.
“High Street, you know,” she told me once, “is a metonym.”
“A what?” I said. I was all of ten.
“It’s when something isn’t called by its own name but by the name of something closely associated with it,” she recited.
“Oh,” I said, still not understanding, or, more important, not caring.
“It’s like calling Mummy’s best dishes china. It comes from its association with Chinese porcelain. We often say ‘the crown’ when we’re referring to the queen. Understand?”
“Yes, yes,” I said, before she could go on.
“I’ll ask you the meaning in two days,” she threatened, because I dismissed her so quickly.
We were quite unalike in so many ways, most of all in how we looked. Julia took after my father more. She was bigger-boned, which gave her “forever wide hips.” Her hair was lighter than mine, more a dull hazel brown, and no matter what she washed it with, it was always coarser. She had light-brown eyes and a bigger nose and wider chin but thin lips. I felt sorry for her when people would remark about my good looks and completely ignore her. Sometimes, it felt like we were from two different families.
Ever since I could remember, people would flatter me about my raven-black hair and violet eyes. They called me a young Elizabeth Taylor. My hair was naturally curly, and along with my high cheekbones and full lips, it made me “movie-star material,” according to Alfie Cook, who was two years older than me.
When I was in the seventh grade, he vowed he would someday be my boyfriend. He stood there and predicted it with the authority of the prime minister. However, he never was my boyfriend, because I never wanted him to be. He was too serious about it for me, and that diminished any romantic possibilities. He was that way about everything and had his whole life planned out when he was just a little more than fifteen. He did accurately predict that he would go to school to become an accountant, just like his father, and when he graduated, he would become part of his father’s company.
“I’ll probably be married by twenty-three and eventually have three children, more if one of them isn’t a boy. Got to carry on the family name, right?”
I thought that having such a definite plan for yourself meant you had no ambition. Ambition required more risk, more exploring. Of course, my father believed Alfie was the most sensible boy in my school, but I don’t think I was ever interested in sensible. To me, being sensible meant denying yourself what you really wanted or wanted to do. There were always good, logical reasons not to buy something or not to do something. I learned that truth from my father after listening to his review of people who came in for loans. He always considered what would be practical, and more often than not, he didn’t take any risks.
It’s always easier and safer to say no, I thought when I was older, but people who live on noes never explore and never discover. Maybe they need fewer Band-Aids in life, but without any risks, they had less of a life to me. These were my secret thoughts growing up. I don’t think there was a day when I didn’t fear my father looking at me more closely and then leaping to his feet, his accusing finger pointed at me like a revolver, crying, “You’re a balloon. My daughter is a balloon!”
I stopped worrying about it when I was older. I was too intent on becoming a professional singer. Even in grade school, I stood out whenever it was time to sing. Everything seemed to move gracefully for me, carrying me toward that one goal, so I believed it was meant to be. I didn’t demand it or even compete for it, but I was quickly singled out in chorus.
Julia blamed herself for my pursuit of a singing career in defiance of my father. She had taken me and my girlfriend Helen Dearwood to the Three Bears to eat. We both could order a pint with our food. Before we were finished, they started the karaoke competition. Helen urged me to go up, and Julia didn’t stop me. And after I sang, the pub’s owner invited me back to sing. I did a few times, and then he offered me ten pounds for Friday and ten for Saturday. My total singing time wasn’t more than a half hour or so in the beginning, but gradually, I sang for longer periods.
How many times would I hear Julia say, “If I had only stopped you that night”?
“It wouldn’t have mattered. When you’re destined to do something, you do it,” I told her, but I think she liked blaming herself. Maybe it made her feel more important in the family and definitely more aligned with our father’s view. When she continually said that, I began thanking her for taking me to the Three Bears, and that put a stop to her mentioning it. I didn’t think it was something anyone should be blamed for anyway. When my father wasn’t around, my mother took some credit for my singing, revealing she sang when she was younger, but quickly added she would never have considered singing as a career.
“Such a thing never entered my thinking,” she told me. “And if it had, I’m sure it would have popped like a soap bubble.”
When she said that, I thought I heard a note of regret, not that she would ever admit to it. There was something terribly sad about her whenever she reminisced about her childhood. I could almost smell her thinking about missed chances. I often wondered, if she could have a second go at it, would she still have married my father? She was surely pretty enough to attract most any man. Whatever good features I had, I had inherited from her. But that was all I really wanted to take from her.
Most girls would want to be something like their mothers, but deep in my heart of hearts, I knew I didn’t. My mother was full of compromise. She lived solely to be sure my father was happy and content. I loved her, but she was too eager to think less of herself. It’s often a good thing to think about someone else before yourself, but there are parts of yourself that you must cherish and nurture if you want to be proud or simply be satisfied with life as you know it. I would never tell anyone that my mother was really unhappy. She was; she just didn’t realize it, or want to realize it.
I knew I would never be happy if I didn’t set out to see where my future was. Hopefully, it was waiting for me on a stage, behind a microphone, or in front of a television camera. When I left my house that day years later, it was as if someone who had been living inside me for all my life had finally fully emerged. It was her body now; she was taking the footsteps to the taxi, she was boarding the airplane, and she was looking out the window when the New York skyline appeared and, although no one else could see it, fireworks were exploding in the sky.
Emma Corey was coming.
Get ready, world.
This rebirth didn’t happen overnight, of course. It took me years to work myself up to the point where I could be so independent and determined. As soon as I was sixteen, there was a second big event in my life that helped me become so. My father knew who owed the bank money, and because of that knowledge, he had influence with many of the smaller businesses in Guildford. As soon as my birthday celebration was over, he informed me that he had found a nice weekend position for me at Bradford’s Department Store on High Street.
“Mr. Bradford himself has seen you walking to and from school and thinks you’re a perfect fit for his perfume counter. You can take that as a compliment,” he added. “He knows you’re still in school, of course, so you’ll work nine to five Saturday and Sunday. He’ll pay you twenty-five pounds a day at the start. In six months, if you work out, which I’m sure you will, he’ll raise it to thirty quid. That’s a tidy sum for doing nothing more than squeezing scents at women who think an aroma will overcome their ugly faces.”
“Oh, what a terrible thing to say, Arthur. Beautiful women wear perfume, too,” my mother said.
Daddy grunted, which was really all he would do when Mummy corrected him.
“What about church on Sunday?” my mother asked.
“She can go to the early service if she wants.”
My father was not really a churchgoing man, but he did attend services on Sunday occasionally, more, I thought, to chin-wag with some of the successful businessmen who did business at his bank than to pray to be forgiven for his sins. He looked at everything in life from the point of view of profit and loss, even prayer.
“When will she do her homework?” my mother asked him. “They get homework to do on weekends.”
“In the evenings. She has both free.”
“I’m singing on Fridays, Saturdays, and probably Sundays soon at the Three Bears,” I told him.
He stared as if he was trying to decide if I really was his child.
“They give me ten pounds, Daddy,” I said proudly, but mainly to measure it in the terms he would appreciate.
“Now, let’s see how good you are in math, then. Here,” he said, holding out his right hand, “is Mr. Bradford offering you twenty-five to start, and here,” he said, holding out his left hand, “is your ten pounds at the pub. How much more will you have if you work at Bradford’s and do your homework at night, forgetting about the pub?”
I looked away, and then I smiled. I held out my right hand. “Here’s my twenty-five quid at Bradford’s, and at night,” I said, holding out my left hand, “is my pub ten. That gives me ten on Friday, Saturday, and maybe Sunday, thirty-five on Saturday and thirty-five on Sunday at Bradford’s added to it eventually. And when I get my raise, that becomes forty a day. So I’ll do my homework early in the morning on Saturday and Sunday or at night when I return from the pub. I could be up to ninety quid over the weekend, including Sunday and my pay raise.”
“We have Sunday tea. Forget about the pub on Sunday,” he snapped, annoyed that I was using his kind of logic successfully. “It disrespects your mother and me to miss Sunday tea.”
“Subtract ten, then,” I said with a shrug. “I’m still ahead quite a bit.”
“If you’re tired when you are at work at Bradford’s and drag yourself around yawning in the faces of customers, he’ll let me know bloody fast,” my father warned. “You don’t embarrass me out there, hear?”
“Yes, Daddy. Don’t frown so much. You’ll get wrinkles and look like an old sod.”
I glanced at Julia. She was always astonished at my cheeky way of responding to our father. She would never have dared utter the smallest defiance. Secretly, I thought she wished she was more like me.
Ironically, in the long run I really had my father to thank for enabling me to go to New York. He’d never have given me a penny for the trip, but by working in Bradford’s and with the additional pounds I made singing in the pub and other places, as well as gifts of money on my birthdays, I was able to save a tidy sum, enough to give me the confidence to go forward. My father thought my miserly way when it came to spending my own money was simply due to his good influence.
Probably some of it was his influence, but I wouldn’t dare thank him, although at the moment I was leaving and he was raging at me, I was tempted to do it. I wanted to throw something back at him that would put him on his heels and stop him from stringing along his threats. He’d stutter and stammer like an old car engine.
I always tried to swallow away the images and words of that day. It wasn’t how I wanted to remember my father. Although he was a stern, unforgiving man, he was generous when it came to dispensing his wisdom, and I would never deny that he was doing so to ensure our welfare. Probably, that was the most I missed from him or about him the day after I had left my family: hearing his advice, his prophetic declarations and firm conclusions. No matter where I went, I would hear his voice often. And in New York, I would meet many men who reminded me of him.
I suppose the greatest bit of wisdom he didn’t have to preach to me to get me to believe was that no matter where you go or who you become, you cannot really escape your family, not that I ever really wanted that. They are forever part of you, and whether you realize it or not, they determine who you really are.
But I would meet people, including the man I eventually would marry, who lived to do just that, escape their own families and, in a true sense, escape who they really were.