Solitude was my default mode from the start. I was the only child of immigrant parents traumatised by their experiences of WW2. Years in a Nazi labour camp had made them fearful of the outside world. ‘There’s no such thing as friends’ and ‘trust no-one’ were my father’s mottos. I grew up hearing tales of death, destruction and betrayal as we ate dinner.
At the age of three I developed polio shortly after being given my first polio booster. I spent six months in hospital where I learnt to speak English. Much of my time in hospital was spent in isolation. In the sixties parents were denied free access. Visits were few. My mother would hide in the rhododendrons outside my window, wave and blow kisses. When I heard a nurse coming I would signal to my mother so she could hide. Later I remember being in a room on my own and beyond a large glass partition was the main children’s ward where they all seemed to be having great fun. They had balloons and toys. There was colour and noise. I longed to be one of them. It took a huge chunk of my adult life for me to realise that the perceived communal happiness beyond the glass was, in reality, an illusion.
My illness had left me with a limp. One leg was thinner and weaker than the other. I became my mother’s shame…no longer the perfect child, I was now the family scapegoat. We moved from a rickety terraced house overlooking the railway line to a suburban bungalow up a dead-end street. There was a garden with an old apple tree. I would climb up to a high branch and look for God. He was never around. At the village primary school I could not join in with PE classes. I would sit on the sidelines and watch. Sometimes I would play piano while the others danced around the hall. I was the smartest kid in class. I was marked out as different, the foreigner, the cripple but also someone special.