So she took me to another doctor, who said the same thing. If you were to ever meet my mother you’d know pretty quickly that she is not at all the panicky person type. I can count two times when she’s been like that, and that was two times when she felt that the events that had ensued were her fault. When it comes to her children’s health and well being, for the most part she’s a ‘take a paracetamol and go to bed. You’ll live” type of parent. She only ever takes us to the doctors if she knows we need it. She took me to a third doctor. He checked my ears and sent me to a paediatrician straight away. I had massive fluid build-up in my ears and required grommets. They were put in and a few days later I was walking.
Just a quick note: the South African health system is more like the US system than the British one. You get insurance, or you get it provided by your employer. Which means that you can often see a doctor a lot quicker than you can on the NHS and being transferred to specialists takes a lot less time. It also means you can get useless vitamin B injections in the winter (without being tested for vitamin deficiency) and all sorts of stupid treatments you don’t actually need. The government hospitals aren’t that great, which leads to a massive disparity between the health of the middle class and wealthy and the health of the poor. I love the NHS, even though you wait longer to see specialists in non-emergency situations.
Anyway, back to the walking. Perhaps it was a bad idea for my mother to get me checked out by the doctor. I mean, obviously something needed to be done about my ears, but learning to walk meant I could get into all sorts of trouble. I’d been causing trouble in my nursery for quite a while. The ability to walk made this worse. I went through a phase of biting the other children. My mother, who worked at the same nursery, but in the pre-school section, had to apologise to the parents of these children. I also woke everyone up at nap times. I’ve always been someone who needs her sleep to be routine and relatively regimented. Even to this day I have an exact time I go to bed, because if I don’t go to sleep at a certain time I won’t get 8 hours of rest. I need 8 hours sleep. No more than that. Even as a baby, toddler and child I didn’t need a lot of naps. I’ve also always had to be very routine with my eating. No on demand feeding for me. Nope, I got fed at certain times of the day and that was that, because otherwise I wouldn’t eat properly or enough. No bottles at nap times or bed time for me.
The thing is, in the baby side section of a nursery there’s a lot of napping that goes on. There’s not much scope for flexibility. My mother would drop me off, the toddlers would have breakfast, the babies would have their bottles and down for the first nap we’d go. I wasn’t having any of it. Not only was I expected to go back to sleep so soon after waking up, but I had to do it to the sounds of other children sucking on their bottles. To express my displeasure, I proceeded to go from cot to cot, throwing mattresses out of the cots while drinking the other children’s bottles. I couldn’t walk at this point, but I certainly could climb out of cots and into other cots. I was not very popular with the staff.
I honestly don’t know why my parents had two more children after me.
Walking just made things worse. Once you reached toddler age and were toddling about, you were allowed out into the outdoor bit of the baby side. To quickly explain, the place my mother worked at was connected to a military camp, and so it was rather large by normal nursery standards. There were various different age group classes, split off into different sections. The older children section, from 2 years plus, was up the hill slightly. Everything was split off into different rooms where the different age groups went. The baby side was down the hill, past the principal’s office and behind the kitchens and dining room. The outdoor space was huge. The older children had a very large space to play in, with a top section where we were allowed to play in all of the time, a middle section that we couldn’t go to unless there were teachers there and the bottom bit that only after schoolers were allowed to go to when the other children napped. The baby side had its own fenced off area within the bottom and middle bits of the fields. The fence had slightly bent railings, with gaps the perfect size for a baby to fit through, if she twisted and squeezed herself through.
To be fair on the nursery workers, they’d not had a child like me before. They probably hadn’t thought to check the iron railings as, well, they’re iron so unlikely to be bent by puny little toddlers, and they’d never had any escapees before. I was the first. The other toddlers saw what I was doing and proceeded to follow me. All but one. She was a little chubbier than the rest of us and couldn’t fit through. Instead she sat on the ground and cried, giving the rest of us away. We were rounded up and brought back. I proceeded to keep escaping. After the biting, the Great Napping Revolt of ‘87 and the escaping, they had enough and expelled me from the baby side. At 18 months I was already a bit of a rebel.
I don’t know if this was before or after I got my head stuck in a gate.
I think everyone thought I was trying to escape to see my mother. After all, she was only a few metres away from where I was, it would make logical sense that I would be trying to find her.
I wasn’t. I was trying to get out. There was a big wide world out there, and I wanted to go and see it. The fences were inconveniencing me, and I was going to find a way through them. This lead to the one day when I caused most of the nursery to panic.
The nursery was surrounded by some pretty heavy duty fencing. It was far too high to jump over, not very easy to climb up and almost impossible to climb under, unless there was a hole in it. I’ll come to that later. The gate was pretty tall, but it wasn’t solid. Instead it had gaps in it. The same sort of gaps that that iron fence had. This gate was what was separating me from that exciting world outside. I had to try it. I stuck my head through and…got stuck.
From the way my mother describes it she was internally panicking while trying to remain calm on the outside. Here was her daughter, her only child, with her head stuck in a gate. The other teachers and nursery workers gathered round, forgetting that there were quite a number of other children requiring supervision out in the playgrounds behind. My mother reminded them all of that fact and tried to shoo them away. Running through all the scenarios in her head, she figured the only solution was to call the fire brigade and get them to cut me out. From the sounds of it I was in no such panic. My small little brain was trying to figure this conundrum out. Out there where my head was sticking out is where I wanted to be. I didn’t want to go back in the direction of the rest of my body. Besides, my ears were preventing me from doing this. As my mother was about to call to get me cut out I twisted my body to the side, popped my shoulders and the rest of me through and started running as fast as I could across the military hospital car park. Relieved, and probably rather concerned I may be hit by a car, my mother opened the gate grabbed me and brought me back.
I like to think that tales of my escapades were passed down from the toddlers I was in the baby side with to the toddlers that came after me. I like to imagine that, as the adults watched on, stories of how I almost got away were gurgled from one toddler to another. In my imaginings they made a pact to try and succeed where I had failed. A few years after my escape attempt, one of the teachers turned to see a group of nappy clad toddlers waddling across the car park. They almost managed to get away with it. It was obvious that they must have gotten through the fence somehow, as the gate had since been replaced by one more difficult to escape from (as well as the cots in the baby side being placed further apart from each other for some reason). Herded back into the grounds by the teachers they let them go in order to see where this baby sized hole was. As expected, each of the toddlers headed straight to where they’d escaped from. The hole was repaired. To my knowledge that was the last escape attempt from the nursery school.
My escape attempts stopped. I no longer terrorised the other children by stealing their bottles and keeping them awake during nap time. I was still a little terror, a tantrum throwing little minx who wanted to get her own way no matter what. My mother has a theory that I was just really, really bored, as I started behaving as soon as I went off to school and started learning.
My parents struggled financially in those first few years of marriage. My mother was fresh out of college and working her first full time job when she found out she was pregnant with me. Apparently she was only three months into her new job. It must have been pretty daunting to have to tell your new employers that you’re pregnant soon after starting, especially considering the lack of employee protection in those days. My father moved from his managerial position to working as an insurance salesman at some point. I’m not exactly when. They had a little flat, just the right size for a family of three, but not anywhere nearly big enough for the family they wanted.
When I was 2 years old we moved into our first house. Number 36 Applemist Road, Ottery. I’ve found it on Google Street View and wondered if the owners after us kept the orange tree I’d planted in the back garden. They certainly didn’t keep the hedge my father planted and lovingly cared for, or the carnations he grew for my mother. I doubt that they kept the rest, as the front garden is nothing but grass now. It’s funny how, even when something is no longer yours, you still feel some sort of ownership over it, and feel insulted when the changes you made, the memories you had, are painted over. Or, in our case, grassed over.
Little did I know that a big reason for this move was because our family of three was to expand to a family of four. If I had known this, and if I had understood this, I probably would have protested and stated that we were fine the way we are. As will become clear in Chapter 2, I wasn’t really big sister material for a very long time. I mean, why did my parents need another child? Surely I was enough of a handful for them, as it was.
It’s probably a good thing I had no say in the matter. I can only imagine how unbearable I would have been if I hadn’t had to learn how to compromise and cope with a sibling who couldn’t always be pushed into doing what I wanted to do.