‘You wouldn’t think they had anything in common… a wee Glasgow girl and a world famous painter. But they do.’
Extract from It Takes A Lifetime To Be Yourself
By Kay Carmichael
Published by Scotland Street Press
A Battered Woman and Francis Bacon
It was her fragility I first noticed. Every big city has girls like this; reared in poverty, undernourishment and fetid air. They’re like exotic, waxy orchids, pale and looking as if the slightest touch would bruise them.
I followed her down to the platform on one of Glasgow’s underground stations, she clutching a small girl in her arms – and it was only when standing beside her that I was able to see that she had indeed been bruised. Her right eye and temple had been most fearfully damaged. The flesh was swollen and broken, and she was trying to hide the whole misshapen pink and dark purple area under a fall of yellow hair.
She looked about seventeen. Her thin small body sagged under the child’s weight and both of them were dressed cheaply, but with care. The little one was a miniature of her mother. I was as certain as it’s possible to be without hard evidence that she had been battered the previous night by a man. Glasgow, it used to be said, had the highest incidence of wife battering in Europe.
On the previous day, in London, I had been to the Francis Bacon exhibition at the Tate. After an hour looking at those paintings I had come out, as one does after a powerful experience, seeing the world quite differently – seeing people’s faces in new ways: in this case their skin just holding together the deliquescent flesh. And for a brief second, when I saw this youngster’s face, I thought I was superimposing Bacon’s images on to her. But I wasn’t.
She carried her bruises and her child away from me on to the next train. If she had appeared distressed I would have spoken to her, but there was no sign of that. She was holding on to her courage and her pride, and my guess is that she was going to spend the day with her mother who would console her by describing her own and other women’s experiences of being knocked about.
Perhaps not. Perhaps she’d say, ‘Don’t allow yourself to be treated like that’. But she might be afraid of the consequences if she did that, both for her own life, because she might have to give her shelter, and for her daughter’s safety.
I keep thinking of that young woman. She’s all mixed up in my head with the Francis Bacon portraits. You wouldn’t think they had anything in common… a wee Glasgow girl and a world famous painter. But they do.
Twenty-three years ago I took my daughter on the first CND march from Dunoon to the Holy Loch. This year I took my four-year-old granddaughter. She was wearing a badge saying, ‘I want to grow up, not blow up.’
I once heard Isaiah Berlin say that any institution that fails to achieve its goals in 25 years never will. He reasoned that in that time it puts down roots in the established order, which make it impossible to truly challenge it. Is CND becoming the respectable ritualised opposition which makes us all feel less guilty, more comfortable, less compelled to take any personal responsibility for nuclear weapons in Britain?
Certainly our Easter demonstration was ritualised. We paraded neatly, marched tidily, made very little noise, did what the police told us. We listened to speeches and sang a few nostalgic songs in an orderly and – if truth be told – rather desultory way. Many seemed to be there from a sense of duty rather than conviction.
Three days later I went to Dunoon Sheriff Court to hear two Greenham women being tried for offences they were alleged to have committed last January when they had come up to support a Women for Peace demonstration at the American base. I remembered that day well. It was freezing cold; the snow was thick on the ground. I had returned from sweltering Bangkok the day before. In spite of that it was a joyful and creative experience.
Three months later they brought the same spirit to the bleak, vaulted, woodlined courtroom. The women and their three friends lit the place up like birds of paradise with their gay clothes, their odd hairstyles, their vivid personalities. They both pleaded not guilty but an irascible sheriff was unimpressed by what they had to say. He imposed swingeing fines. I was left with no sense that justice had been done.
One of them, a beautiful strong seventeen-year-old, charged with malicious damage, took over her own defence. She had, in fact, sprayed the women’s symbol on the American cinema wall … Already a rather grubby wall. She said, ‘It was not sprayed, as I have been charged, ‘maliciously’. It was sprayed in defiance, in strength, because of my love of life and of the earth. I contend that I have committed no crime – the malice lies within the walls of the base…’
I hope that if my granddaughter gets the chance to grow up, and not blow up, she too will love life as much.
It Takes A Lifetime To Be Yourself by Kay Carmichael, edited by David Donnison, is out now published by Scotland Street Press priced £10.99.
You can read another extract from the book here on Books from Scotland.
Insight into a new short story collection co-authored by Micaela Maftei and Laura Tansley.