6 min read

Family Comes First

Young parents face the truth about the street they've chosen to live in.
Family Comes First

Lindsey and David’s first car was a Yugo, a subcompact, heap-of-junk hatchback. The door handle fell off and they laughed until they cried and then they bought a brand new Renault 5. Everyone came over to look at the car. Laughter echoed down the street. Retirees watched on from open front doors, proudly. Young couples rested their babies on the bonnet and took photographs.

Lindsey and David had not been married long when they bought 12 Cobden Street for £12,500. It was all they could afford, but it was theirs. The dead-end street was lined with tiny terrace houses and full of Navy folk: jennys and jacks, stokers and clanks, dabbers and greenies. Money was tight, but people looked out for one another. When the fathers were home from sea, their children ran from one end of the street to the other screaming with delight.

Lindsey and David paved over the small back garden of the terrace house and parked the Renault 5 on the clean concrete. Goodnight, they said to it, every evening. It was their first expensive thing.

When the car got broken into, Lindsey tried to laugh it off. These things happen. The thieves looked through the briefcase David had left on the back seat, discovered it to be empty, and threw it into the back garden.

There was nothing in it anyway, Lindsey said.

The empty briefcase was now just standing there in the back garden. Lindsey found it oddly amusing to see it there, out of place. She left for work as David swept up the glass and went to see a man about replacing the smashed window.

When the front door of the neighbours down the street got kicked in for the third time, no-one laughed. Lindsey wondered if it was the same people who broke into the car and offered to help fix it up. But the two gay men decided not to repair the splintered wood this time and left for a different town.

*

Lindsey’s parents were suspicious of the boy David Leigh. They weren’t sure why he couldn’t hold down a proper job, one with a salary. Was he incapable or unwilling?

Lindsey’s father had built up a dry-cleaning business from scratch after the war. It became successful and was frequented by famous actors, London celebrities, and even royals. Then the business was stolen from him by a fraudulent partner who embezzled everything and disappeared. That’s how easily homes and livelihoods could be lost.

When he got the news that Lindsey would be the first in her family to go to university, her father impressed upon her the need for hard work and financial independence. She graduated with honours and relocated, a fresh-faced twenty-one year old, to the south coast, to Gosport, a naval town whose livelihoods depended on torpedos and turbines, submarine navigation systems and coastal battery units.

Lindsey met David in a naval research lab. Statistics was her qualification, data analysis her specialty. She loved the sea. The summer job assisting a naval researcher in Gosport formed a perfect Venn diagram.

David was a postboy at that time, a recovering delinquent, born there in that windswept borough. He was always happy to deliver something to someone, to see a man about a window.

The relationship moved fast. Before Lindsey knew it she was riding on the back of his motorcycle throwing caution into the howling sea gale, screaming with joy above the din as David turned round in his seat to impress the gleeful beauty riding pillion. When he crashed into some roadworks, they laughed it off. She didn’t tell her father.

The storms quietened down and the couple started to take long walks together along the Solent, listening to the merchant vessels navigating the double tides, feeling a freedom they’d never known.

*

Lindsey graduated from her summer placement and secured a full-time position at a naval electronics company. It was a job to phone home about. The salary covered the mortgage.

David began selling double-glazing on commission, charming clients. The money was irregular, but on a good month they could invest something in the house. They bought a home stereo and a television. These were things that they now owned. They were owners.

They invited the neighbours round, played cards, and talked for hours with them about their babies. They gossiped about Chris over the road who had renovated his place and hidden all the wires from the stereo in the walls. They looked at their own snaking mess of wires and rocked in their chairs with laughter. Lindsey and David planned weekend trips and thought about a baby of their own.

*

One evening, Lindsey and David went for a long walk through the gold and green floodplains that circled the town. They came home exhausted, went immediately to bed, and fell into a deep sleep.

As they slept, the burglars removed each slat of glass from the louvre window at the back of the house in absolute silence. They went about their work efficiently, dismantling the fledgling home, ferrying each item out of the window: TV, radio, jewellery, chequebooks, wallets, purses. Anything they could carry and sell, departed.

Lindsey opened the living room door in the halflight of morning to find that the entire house had been ransacked.

When she phoned her father, he quietly advised her to leave.

I like it here, she protested, my friends are here. This is our home.

Think about it, he said and put down the phone. That night, and every night after that for the rest of his life, he made Lindsey’s mother take her handbag up to bed with her.

Lindsey sat at the dining room table, scratching mortgage repayments onto a notepad, testing hypotheses, locating the standard deviation. Out in the Solent, the high tide receded.

One year later, I was born.

*

I grew without complication. I slept fine, ate well, cried and gurgled as a baby should. Carol from three doors down crocheted a blanket for me. My hip rotation slowly sorted itself out.

Money grew tighter, my parents pared back on buying things for the house. They didn’t go to the pub of an evening and stayed in instead, taking photographs of me sitting with Mum on the motorbike, photographs of me crawling after Elsa the beagle who they had bought after the burglary. Their lives had a new centre.

I remember nothing of these years of course, but my mother speaks of them in glowing phrases, her voice excited and warm. You never forget your first, she says. It was such a special time.

My siblings joke of course, make fun of it. Here he comes, mummy’s favourite. Golden boy! My parents could not possibly have imagined they would have had five more children after me.

I have visited 12 Cobden Street since. The street is still there, even though developers have drained the surrounding floodplains and replaced them with an enormous housing estate. This place made me who I am and yet I remember nothing of it.

Next door to our old house, across the small alleyway, down which my parents squeezed the Renault 5, is another house. It has mock-Tudor stylings; deep-set latticed windows, and diagonals of stained timber on white pebble dash. The wide, corner door betrays it as a former pub.

The family who lived there mostly kept themselves to themselves, Mum says. Whispers on the street said the son was difficult, perhaps in trouble, but the daughter was a good girl. The father was often away overseas.

I was only a few months old when the son, high on drugs, threw himself through the first floor window. The whole road heard the noise as the boy fell into the street in a shower of splintered glass, but no-one opened their doors, no-one came out.

The boy’s mother, tired of finding her purse light, a limit having been reached, called the police. The officers arrived quickly. The boy was still lying in a heap in the street when they picked him up. They handcuffed him, read him his rights, and held his head down as they sat him in the back of the patrol car. The boy’s mother never came out of the house again.

I imagine my mother, Lindsey, standing at the window, letting the curtains fall closed. She is shutting out the voice of her parents, the I told you so tone of her father. She is thinking about the friendliness of people, the motorbike rides, the freedom, the nest of wires, the redecorated bathroom, of me growing up. In her head, a regression analysis is taking place, an evaluation of the street and these incidents, dependent and independent variables, rows of data stacking up.

There is no anxiety, she is perfectly calm. She is not worried about the housing market or the volatility of David’s income. She is invoking reason and predicting futures, favouring causality over correlation, knowing she will make it work.

She moves to the back room to check on her sleeping baby, me, and makes a decision in an instant. These are not bad people, but it was time to move.


Thanks to my editors Heather Eddy, Araminta Robertson, Peter Houston and Chris Angelis. And thanks to Julia for turning our house into a home.

This week's writing was particularly challenging. I found it hard to find an angle into a time before I was born. There are important details and character exposition here that will need to be expanded and improved before this is ready for the memoir. But it is a fundamental part of the story, and this is a good start.

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