A fictional story inspired by a true story
“Ruth, your garden is turning into an eyesore.” he said. Hands placed on his hips, looking at me like a man prepared to not only give a multitude of advice on how a garden should be kept, but in his busybody way, come right in and sort it out for me.
So I have a lot of bird feeders! What does it matter how many? Or that I have a few bits of rubbish standing in a corner, an overgrown bush, here and there. I’m an old woman. At eighty two, I’m entitled to be a little untidy. I told Eddy, he should respect his neighbours, keep his eyes on his own patch, stop looking over the fence.
He doesn’t understand. He’s young, he hasn’t lived my life. If only he knew how many years I’ve dreamed of having a garden of my own. I have good reason for feeding the birds, but he doesn’t know about that either, where it began, why I can’t stop. Hate and disappointment are my main reasons. I know it sounds strange. But when you know a person, when you’ve heard of what they’ve gone through, it all makes more sense. Once you understand – judgement has no place. I need those bird feeders, to keep me right. To hold my mind in balance.
It was reflections that first stirred hate in me - my own reflections. They always let me down. Even as a girl, I never appeared how I expected to look. A mirror or a photograph showed me another version of who I thought I was. What I felt on the inside, fiercely disagreed with the outside. My thoughts were of a pretty girl, but mirrors proved me wrong. I wasn’t pretty at all. My features were plain, and caused no-one to look at me once, let alone twice. If I could have got away with it, I would have gladly smashed all the mirrors in the house and never looked at my reflection ever again. If I had dared be so destructive, my mother would have known it was me. I would never have succeeded in blaming my brothers or sisters.
Mother knew of my despair, but wouldn’t hear me talk of it. My negative view of myself was unacceptable. She pulled me in front of her dressing table mirror and said firmly, “Look my darling Ruth, you are who you are. You may not be a princess, but why say you’re ugly?”
“Because I am!” I cried, “I look like a boy.”
“Never! You’re a girl, do you hear me? Nobody would think you’re a boy. None of my babies are ugly, not one! Precious jewels, all seven of you. I don’t wish to hear another word about ugly, or looking like a boy.”
She bought me ribbons for my hair. Beautiful soft cotton ribbons, the colour of red wine. She insisted with ribbons as pretty as those, there would be no excuse to feel unattractive. Once again she drew me in front of the mirror. Embarrassed, I watched her tie those ribbons in two ridiculous bunches on my shoulder length mousey brown hair. She did her motherly best to persuade me, forcing the answer out of me, the one she wanted to hear – I was pretty. I agreed, just to make her feel better. I felt like a boy – in ribbons.
I remember catching my reflection in a small stream while on a country walk. My unremarkable face looking back at me from those gentle ripples of water. It wasn’t what I wanted to see. I was twelve years old and still hadn’t blossomed into the girl I imagined myself to be. At school, the pretty smart girls emotionally skinned me alive, for failing to be as they were. They made me feel a disappointment, even at failing to being their friend.
It seemed to me attractive girls always got what they wanted. I wished for boys to pull my hair, and follow me home after school, even if it was just to annoy me. They never did. And when we stood in a circle to play Farmer’s In His Den, every girl in the school was chosen as the farmers wife, but not me. Even my two sisters, who weren’t great beauties, even they got their chance to stand in the centre of that circle, knowing they were pretty enough not to be excluded.
I decided there had to be a change. There was no point in trying to behave like a girl, if I was going to be rejected for failing. So I reinvented myself. My appearance remained a girl, of course. I still wore dresses, skirts and pretty ribbons, but I sought to destroy everything that ridiculed me for not owning a pleasing appearance. I became like a boy, the worst kind of boy.
I discovered being a girl who behaved as a cruel boy was a frightening sight for smart girls. Anyone in the school playground so much as looked at me in the wrong way, I’d be after them. Pulling hair, biting skin, punching, kicking, or demanding they hand over the packed lunch their loving mothers had made. In no time at all, I’d become the school bully. I was hated by almost everyone. But strangely, I loved the hate. Their hate was for my alarming personality, something I’d chosen to be, not because I’d missed out on the blessing of good looks. I was hated for being frightening. Their fear gave me power over emotion – something pretty girls didn’t have much of. My transformed character diverted pain and left me free of dwelling on what I looked like.
Becoming the school bully had a few disadvantages. I may have been clever at manipulating and scaring pretty girls, but I had no idea how to get away with evil deeds and not be caught. When a pretty girl was found crying in the playground, five pretty ones would run to her side, then more, and more. Ten pretty girls, gathered around the tearful one. Ten pairs of glaring eyes all accusing me, but not one girl dared to even speak to me.
My offensive behaviour often found me standing in front of the overbearing headmistress with my palm outstretched waiting to receive lashings from a cane. Miss Fellows had a very sharp swipe, never leaving any evidence, except the memory of pain. But on one of those occasions I decided I’d had enough of punishment. After all, it wasn’t my fault I failed at being physically adorable, and it seemed to me I was receiving an unreasonable hiding, for being unattractive.
Just before the cane slashed across my perspiring skin I made a sudden wild dash for the door. Flew through the hallway, and ran down the flight stairs at such a speed I tripped and rolled down the last four steps. Fear and adrenalin so great, I didn’t feel a thing. Miss Fellows howled like a banshee, filling the halls with rage, demanding my return. I laughed – I’d lost all care. I was running for freedom, nothing could stop me.
I sprung out through the main entrance like a frightened squirrel, sprinted across the playground and ripped open those iron gates as if they had been made of cardboard and ran so fast my soles barely touched the ground. I didn’t stop until pavements and people disappeared and I stood in open country. Far from home, surrounded by sheep, cows, and deep rolling hills. Miss Fellows still echoing in my ears, but the confines of the school gates long gone. No accusations, no disapproval or stinging canes. What freedom! What peace I found there!