As the Twig Is Bent (March/April 2006)

Friday, 01 April 2011 07:57

Openmind March/April 2006 

On the lower deck of London buses there is a space for wheelchairs, prams and pushchairs. Sometimes this space becomes a stage where all kinds of dramas are acted out. I was in the audience for one of these dramas when I was sitting facing this space and two women, locked in an intense conversation got on the bus. They had with them a baby in a pushchair and three children, boys aged, about eight, seven and six. Whatever these children did, they couldn’t interrupt the women’s conversation for more than a moment. The baby became restless and cried, and one woman, whom I took to be the mother, extracted a bottle from her bag and pushed it in the baby’s mouth, all without ceasing to talk to her friend. However, the baby did get more of her attention than the oldest boy who pressed himself against her and tried to interrupt her conversation with a repeated question, but she ignored him and several times pushed him away.

The bus was crowded and the three boys had to cram themselves into small spaces in order to stay near the women. They soon tired of this, and, as soon as there was space, they started to climb up and stand on the handrails. The woman sitting beside me and I watched anxiously, fearing that the bus might suddenly stop and the boys crash to the floor, but the mother and her friend paid no notice at all. The smaller boys soon found this climbing too difficult, but the oldest boy was proud of his skill and tried to get his mother to look at what he was doing, but she did not.  

She did, however, pause in her talking long enough to give the seven-year-old boy a fifty pence piece. This only increased the oldest boy’s entreaties. When she ignored him he moved to the side of the bus and kicked it several times as hard as he could. She didn’t notice, so he returned to pressing himself against her and asking her for his money. This time she tried to silence him by picking him up as if he were a toddler and putting him on her lap. At first he tried to comply, hoping that this might lead her to actually talk to him, but he was far too big for her lap and he had to wriggle free. With this the mother looked at the woman sitting beside me and said, ‘I don’t know what’s wrong with him. He’s a terrible trouble to me.’ Shamed at being brought to a stranger’s notice, he moved away from her and stood silently for a while, but no doubt the thought that his brother had been given some money forced him to try again to get his mother to talk to him. He became more insistent, and finally she looked at him and began to explain in that ‘trust me, I’m your mother’ tone of voice (the tone that some women MPs adopt when talking to us, the public) that she couldn’t give him any money because she needed what she had for their train fares. He was unconvinced, so then she told him that on Saturday, if he was good, she’d give him some money. He said, ‘No you won’t. You’ll trick me and you won’t give me any.’ 

Children see other people through the prism of the way they have learned to see their parents. I grew up expecting that all women would be as untrustworthy as my mother, and that all men would be as kind and caring as my father. It was great surprise to discover that there were some women I could trust, and an even greater shock to discover that some men can be faithless and unkind. I had to learn how to make careful discriminations about people, but I know that many people go through life never questioning their habitual way of interpreting what other people do.  

I left the bus before the drama being played there had come to an end, but I left with that feeling of pity that dramas create in us. I pitied those children, but I also pitied those little girls who, as grown women, would encounter the eight-year-old grown up. He was a good looking boy, blond and blue eyed, with a tall, strong body. Women would fall in love with him, and he would see in them his mother, a woman whose serious attention he couldn’t attract, who patronised and babied him, and aroused in him great anger, a woman whom he couldn’t trust. It wouldn’t matter it the woman who shared his bed was in fact kind, loving and trustworthy. Until he came to understand what he was doing, he would see in that woman only what he had learned to see.