by Chris Maitland
I had never called any adult by their first name until I met
She insisted that I call her Susan, not 'Auntie' - as was normal for
eight year olds addressing the friends and acquaintances of their
Her son, Duncan, was forbidden to call her 'Mum'. Like me, he called
his mother by her first name. His was totally alien life to that of any
other boy I knew - and how I envied him!
I envied him his itinerant fathers, the latest of whom was an Irish
sailor called Richard, a man so tall he used to have to stoop to get
I envied him the exotic modern things Susan would buy. I had never
heard of peanut butter until I tasted it at their house. Yogurt was new
to me, but familiar to Duncan.
I envied him the way that Susan understood children, and could behave
like one. When she redecorated their house, and stripped the wallpaper,
for a glorious week she encouraged everyone who visited to draw and
write all over the walls. We drew Thunderbirds and Batman and wrote our
names and jokes all over the plaster of the living room. Susan led us,
drawing a picture of a foot with wavy lines indicating smell coming
from it, which she labelled as belonging to Richard.
I envied him the incredible freedom he had.
Their house had two real duelling swords on the wall of the front room
which Duncan was allowed to get down and play with. I once had a
fencing match with him and he pretended I had stabbed him. He keeled
over, clutching a wound which he convinced me was spurting blood. I
almost passed out with fright. I did not see the joke when he revealed
it was a trick, and I never played with the swords again.
This was but the edge of a dark side to it all. Oddly the more
compelling for its darkness.
Susan said that there was a ghost in their small terraced house .
Sometimes at night, she said, she heard it moving about upstairs,
opening drawers. When she went to bed it would move the poker through
the last glowing embers of the fire downstairs. I didn't envy Duncan
his bedroom - I didn't like to be alone upstairs in their house.
From a very young age, I shared a kind of mysterious joke with her.
Whenever we visited, she would, at some point catch my eye, and give me
a very slow, deliberate wink, barely moving any other part of her face
but her eye. I would return this, as though we both shared some kind of
I thought that she was confiding her hidden but true nature to
Susan used to tell me she was a witch. This wasn't difficult to
believe, as she had been endowed with the physical appearance of a
fairly convincing one. She was tall, raven haired, with a thin and
rather angular face, which was framed by her flowing hair. She had a
rather severe mouth, which could as easily menace with a grimace, as
put you at ease with a smile. She had the most amazing ability to look
at a boy. She could look at you as a cat looks at a mouse. You almost
felt as though she might be drawing up plans to cook you.
When she showed me her crystal ball, which hung in a fine net in her
kitchen, I needed no further proof of her status as a
"In this, I can see all of the bad things which bad boys do."
she whispered to me. In later years I realised that her 'crystal ball'
was an ornamental glass fishing float but as a boy it was a sure sign
to stay on the right side of her.
One day, Susan was to demonstrate for all of us that Duncan's freedom
had a price. I never forgot it.
My life changed in 1966. Batman arrived on TV, and it consumed me, it
swallowed me whole.
My Mum made me a cape from a curtain, and a cowl from an old pair of
black woollen tights and I dashed around our estate, curtain-cape
flapping behind me, along with four or five other miniature
Batman wallpaper, plastic figures, bubble gum cards, comics and
bat-signal torches were eagerly snapped up in our house, but the Corgi
Batmobile was the Holy Grail - unobtainable, too expensive, and
permanently sold out in stores.
A beautiful die cast metal model of the car used on the TV series, it
was truly a powerful object of desire to an eight year old. It was full
of exquisite detail - shooting a tiny plastic flame from its rocket
exhaust as it rolled along. A minute red batphone nestled in the
cockpit between little figures of Batman and Robin.
Susan and Duncan turned up at our house one snowy February afternoon.
He could barely wait to get out of the car. The news was that Susan had
searched the whole of Cheshire for a Batmobile for Duncan - in vain.
She finally heard of a shop which had some in Manchester, so she had
driven them both up through the snow and bought it.
Duncan let us look at the car, and stroke its sleek black fins. We
entered that curious rapture which small boys know, when they examine a
toy by putting their eye up close to it, and turn it this way and that.
We rolled the car along the carpet in front of our large open coal fire
which made red reflections in its dark paint. The small plastic flame
shot in and out of the rocket exhaust at the back. The hand painted
figures of Batman and Robin could, with a bit of jiggling, be removed.
My brother asked if he could look at the tiny Robin figure. For no
obvious reason, Duncan suddenly refused. Susan heard this, and her
"Let him look at it, Duncan."
"Let him look at it Duncan."
Then came the warning.
"If you don't let him look at it, it will go into the fire, the car
and the figures."
Duncan was having none of it. The car had only been in his possession
for a couple of hours, and he was hanging on to it until he tired of
"I'm going to count to three. If you don't let him look at Robin when
I've finished, all of it will go on the fire."
My brother and I pleaded on his behalf. We didn't mind, we didn't want
to see the figures, it was alright, he didn't have to let us see, he'd
given us a go!
It was all futile, Susan had given her ultimatum and now there was a
point to be proven. She would not back off, and if Duncan did not
relent, then sentence would without a shadow of doubt be carried out.
My brother and I were in tears, we felt that we had a part in the
creation of what was about to happen, and could not bear it.
Duncan remained silent, still and obstinate, clutching the car with its
tiny plastic occupants tightly to him.
Susan reached three.
She laced into Duncan, grappling the car from him, his fingers hopeless
against her long varnished nails. The room was full of wailing and
screaming. With a single movement Susan threw the car into the middle
of the red hot coals which were playing lazily in the hearth.
We watched with disbelief as the metallic paint began to blister and
bubble. The plastic windshields ran down on themselves and the tiny
synthetic flame dripped into the real flames around it. The fire seemed
disinterested at first, and I prayed that one of the adults would
rescue Batman and his car.
By the time that Batman and Robin began to melt and horribly contort,
Duncan was already in Susan's car and about to leave. Despite my
mother's attempts to block her way, Susan had viciously pursued him
around the hallway - her adult blows raining on his head and
After they had gone, yellow flames began licking the car, and after a
few minutes, it was unrecognisable as the most desirable item of my
childhood. The absolute calm and almost matter of fact way that the
whole episode blew up from nothing left me realising the tightrope life
which Duncan walked every day.
It was never spoken of again. I was quieter than ever when next I saw
them, and secretly distrustful of Susan, who could dispense cruelty as
easily as orange juice. Duncan had a new telescope with which we were
going spying, but as he clambered up the grass bank in the park, I
realised that despite appearances, it wasn't without a care in the
world. It wasn't envy that I felt any more.
? Chris Maitland 2001