FIONNA INWARD ALLEN
The Judy Blume Book Club
It is 1991 and you are not allowed to make phonecalls from the landline before 6pm.
My best friend and I smell like The Body Shop (her White Musk, me Ananya). We have the same shoes from Dolcis and in her bag there is always a Mason and Pearson hairbrush. We are still a year or so away from experimenting with brown eye-shadow, hair flicks and shimmery beige lipstick by Cover Girl.
I have started listening to The Cure and get up early to record them being interviewed on TV-AM. I already have about 6 full VHS tapes of Top of The Pops and The Chart Show. Soon I will start liking Take That because… well, hormones can do that to your musical taste.
There are so many copies of Smash Hits in my bedroom I begin swatting summer flies with them. A bluebottle stuck to Neil Tennant’s left eye will remain there for the next 10 years.
I have 53 penpals. I wear a pair of fake Doc Martens and a black t-shirt with tiny mirrors and embroidery on. Mum lets me start dying my hair cherry-red but I am still waiting to get my ears pierced. Soon I will be wearing skull scarves and later, Fruit of the Loom sweaters. And jeans with big turn-ups.
I miss playing with Barbies.
I have never kissed anyone but love-bites start appearing under the school uniformed collars of my peers. The word ‘fingering’ frightens me.
In my private world I have started fantasising about a boy from the village. He is from a religious family and rings church bells at weekends. In two years I will kiss a boy called Pascal on the French Exchange, our braces clanking together. Pascal will write me a letter 15 years later and I will add it to my other love letters. The letters I don’t think I will ever receive because I am too skinny, too shy.
I am reading Judy Blume’s ‘Are you there God, it’s me Margaret?’ but my breasts are still invisible. Even talk of a training bra seems futile. The woman in me feels a very long way away, but I am already so eager to meet her.
It is exactly 30 years later. I have a 2 year old son and am in the process of separating from his father. I am trying to get my writing published and trying to remortgage the house. Life is exhilirating and challenging.
Men have been a disappointment but I’m not disappointed. I just wish someone had told me not to focus on them earlier. My love letters are fading yellow in a box somewhere and for the first time in my life I don’t care if I never receive another. I realise my son is the love of my life.
I am in touch with my best friend from school but we are now so different. I still know her old landline number off by heart. I never did get big breasts but I’m okay with them, even after breastfeeding.
I decide to start a reading group called The Judy Blume Book Club.
My Granny died this month.
She was not the kind of person you imagine when you hear the word ‘granny’. She was not the kind of grandma hiding in fairy tales, usurped by a big bad wolf. Or described in Roald Dahl stories. My granny was not a dunker of biscuits.
Granny was political, a pusher of Noam Chomsky books. She ate eggs and spicy sambol for breakfast and was briefly a filmstar in China. She married 3 times – divorced once (in the 1940s) and hid Sri Lankan Tamils in her cellar. She lost students in the Tiananmen Square Massacre of ’88. I have a picture of her shaking hands with the president of China – Zhou Enlai – in the 1960s.
I believe in every past generation there have been the women whose mischief and spirit have presented so profoundly in their DNA that, despite the dangers, it is simply impossible to hide it. My granny was that sort of woman. She was also formidable. Sometimes scary. She could be mean.
Whoever she was, she led me to myself. She showed me that a woman could travel, paint, write stories, divorce, survive. Whoever she was to others, to me she was always beautiful and kind.
When we met for the 3rd time – which was the first time we’d met as adults – I held onto her arm all the way back from the airport, watching her smiling dimples in the rear view mirror as she bathed in my unconditional love.
The next morning we sat down for breakfast together and recognised one another. She would shape the contours of my future and I would heal the wounds of her past.
And there were a lot of wounds.
The first when my Granny was just 13 years old. One night, during a card game at her father’s London flat she was raped. Granny fell pregnant and despite the context of the child’s conception, she passionately wanted to keep it. It never occurred to her to be ashamed of her baby. But her mother had other ideas.
My granny and her burgeoning body were sent to her grandmother’s house in preparation for the birth. A healthy baby girl was born and Granny was besotted. But a month later, having been sent back to London briefly in order to fix up the flat with her father, the baby was removed. On her return to the house an empty cot met her and the unexpected news that the baby had died. Years later, after a refusal she ever mention ‘that episode’ under her mother’s roof again, my now grown-up Granny and her old Nanny deduced that the baby had been sent away for unofficial adoption. She never met her daughter again.
My Granny healed these wounds through her paintings. Sometimes one of her Ex-husbands would even pop up in the background as a leafless, gnarly tree.
We wrote letters back and forth for 30 years: her on lined, lemon paper, me from whatever city I was now living in. Our letters were mirrors, filled with stories and drawings, with sadness and friendship. On the news of her death, I have such a strong desire to find my old letters in her Canadian care home and match them with hers.
My granny was 98 when she died. She lived the biggest life I’ve ever known: no time for Netflix or washing the car on Sundays. She unknowingly handed me a map on our first meeting when I was 5 years old that told me: women could be clever, brave, stubborn, angry and adventurous. That women could make mistakes.
If I have another 50 years ahead of me I hope to use that map more often.
1924 - 2022