Mum got the most ridiculous bees in her bonnets about things which I didn’t think she knew anything about at all. She had been clucking and tutting for about six years about a couple of ‘good time girls’ called Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice Davies and their role in bringing down the Conservative government and ‘ruining England’s reputation in the eyes of the world’. Even though I was only nine or ten at the time of the Profumo scandal and hardly understood a word of what was being talked about I heard the tone of my mother’s voice, saw the strangely glamorous photographs plastered over the front pages of the daily papers in the shops and immediately wanted to know why these pretty young women were causing such a stir and making my mother feel so threatened. All I could think, when I managed to find out more details from Dad’s discarded papers, was how much I wished I had been at those stately home parties at Cliveden, swimming naked with Lord Astor, meeting spies and ministers. I envied them all the front-page attention and flashing cameras that I imagined must follow them wherever they went. It all seemed infinitely preferable to my mother’s tedious daily routines around the house. Whereas Mum appeared to see the outside world as a dangerous and threatening place, it seemed to me like a treasure trove of potential adventures and I wanted to dive straight in at the deep end.
Mum was almost as disapproving of Jackie Kennedy for ‘marrying that awful Greek man’ after her first husband was shot, but I just saw pictures of yachts and nightclubs and headlines about stupendous wealth. I couldn’t think of anything better than being an iconic figure for millions of ordinary people, although I would have admired her more if she’d had a career of her own first, like Princess Grace of Monaco. What could be better than to be a great film star and then marry a Prince with his own Principality in the sun? Mum even hated the idea of Monte Carlo, ‘a sunny place for shady people’, she would mutter if she caught me staring at pictures of the fairy tale castle and harbour, obviously having heard someone else saying it first. But in any of the films or pictures I saw it looked pretty much like heaven on earth. Mum even seemed to shrink away from sunshine, not liking to open the curtains at the front of the house if she could help it. It was like she was frightened of the light.
‘I don’t want people knowing everything about our lives,’ she would say if I asked why we couldn’t open them and let the sun in.
I couldn’t imagine why anyone walking by would want to spare even a passing glance for our ordinary little house, and even if they did they wouldn’t be able to see through the net curtains, which formed a secondary barrier behind the chintz. She had also nagged Dad into planting a couple of trees in front of the house, which more or less obliterated the downstairs windows during the months when they had leaves on.
If someone rang the doorbell unexpectedly, like a postman or meter reader, she would be peering through the nets to check who it was before she would even open the door a crack to them, like they might be mad axemen out to rape and pillage innocent householders. I couldn’t understand why Dad put up with it, except that I supposed it gave him a quiet life because she never asked to be taken out and never wanted to invite anyone into the house. He was always amazingly tolerant about the whole stupid pantomime, making me feel all the guiltier about my own impatience with her irritating ways.
Both my parents thought I was stupid for plastering my room with Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn posters and fretted about the marks the Sellotape would leave on their precious wallpaper, while I was anxious to cover every hideous square inch of it with these glossy, perfect images from my dream world. How could they not understand why these women were goddesses stalking the earth amongst mere mortals, and that I was destined to walk amongst them? My mother would mutter about Marilyn being ‘no better than she should be’ and ‘no wonder she came to a sticky end, playing the sort of games she was playing’, and Dad would complain that ‘the woman never made a film worth watching’. The woman was the greatest film star ever, for God’s sake, and slept with a president! Mum wasn’t quite so down on Audrey, although she would swear that she couldn’t see ‘what all the fuss was about’ and thought she was ‘far too thin for her own good’. It wasn’t even worth arguing with such ignorance, so I sulked, sighed and rolled my eyes a lot instead.