Very often drunkards came to visit Nan. She made her own wine; her brewery was in her bathroom and I remember the distinct smell in that room. She boiled loads of red apples and rhubarb with sugar, and added raisins and other fruits too. Once everything had been brought to the boil, she added the yeast and poured it into ten litres buckets where she left the ingredients to ferment for several weeks, before she poured it into bottles and stored them away to mature. Nan was famous for her wine. Everyone called her “the mad wine woman on the hill”, which was an exact description of Nan! As I mentioned before, it was impossible to buy alcohol on Saturday and Sunday in Norway, so when the local guys had hangovers after binge drinking, they went to Nan to buy their “medicine” to prevent them from getting sober—that’s when the hangover kicks in, they said.
Normally, they just came to buy one bottle of wine from her, but she had ulterior motives. She was crazy about men and she always invited them in so she could sell them more bottles. She let them try the wine and have a drink with her. Then it was a done deal; of course the men started to drink, and the party was on. Nan would get all dolled up for the weekends, putting on her best clothes, and her bright red lipstick, with her red plastic pearls and matching earrings and bracelet.
Sometimes Nan even tricked the young lads into bed with her after getting them so smashed they didn’t know where they were or what they were doing. They only realized the next morning what they had done, and they could be seen running out of Nan’s house with tears in their eyes. Nan loved the stream of people that came to her house during the weekends. She used to say to me, “I tell the men, if they want ‘some,’ they can have ‘some,’ but I make sure to send them to the bathroom first to wash, because I can’t stand having sex with a smelly man. You know most never wash and are very dirty. I sometimes get put off how dirty they are and then have to satisfy myself alone. You know, I become so lustful at times, I have to use other methods.” I tried not to listen to Nan when she went into the dirty mood of just talking filth. I always felt disgusted, with my stomach turning, and I felt totally sick hearing my own old Nan talking about her so called “sex life” which she described to me in detail.
I remember when Nan had a lover from Finland. His name was Yrjan. He was a funny guy. He was quite tall, medium build with black hair combed back, and he had big black eyebrows and a huge smile stuck on a wrinkly face. He didn’t know a single word in Norwegian and Nan didn’t know a word of Finnish. Nan was shouting at him all the time about all the spies who were speaking to her through the walls and how there was a plot to kill her, but Yrjan didn’t have a clue what she was on about. He just laughed all the time when Nan was shouting, shaking his head and pointing to the bottle, indicating he wanted more wine.
I had just started to learn English the year before, and now I wanted to learn some Finnish because I was fascinated with new languages. I picked up a few words and I can still remember them today. When Yrjan was there, I always made sure not to go out; I had learned he would give me money. When he got very drunk he emptied his pockets of change and gave it to me. I quickly hid the money so Nan didn’t see it. Sometimes there could be as much as 40-50 kr (£4-5) which was well needed. I quickly found out that this was an easy way to get money.
One day I sat in the kitchen together with Nan and Yrjan. They were both drinking, and I was listening to them trying to communicate whilst laughing my head off. Nan had decided that she wanted to be generous to me this day and was showing off to her lover what a wonderful Nan she was. Nan poured me a glass of red pop, which was called fairytale pop. I used to love that pop. I had just finished my glass of pop when Yrjan started to fill my glass with red wine without Nan seeing it; he put his finger to his mouth indicating for me to not say anything to Nan while the well- known Yrjan smile covered his face. I thought this could be fun, I get to drink wine too. I just poured the wine down in one go, making sure Nan wouldn’t see what I was doing. ThenYrjan poured me another one. Apparently that is how they drink in Finland, I thought; they don’t mess about.
I had at least four cups of wine within one hour. Then out of nowhere I started to feel very weird and dizzy. I felt my stomach turn and I thought I was going to be sick. I got up to go to the toilet and I staggered across the floor. Nan screamed out, “What is the matter with you? My God, you are as drunk as a skunk! How on earth did you get drunk?” I just made it to the toilet before I threw up. Nan ran after me and by now she was laughing her head off over how drunk I was. She laughed and bent over and crossed her legs and laughed some more before she wet herself.
She loved playing doctor so she ran into the kitchen and found her box of medicine in the cupboard. She picked up an Alka-Seltzer that she dissolved in water and commanded me to drink. She was laughing all the time while I was mourning how sick I felt. The ceiling was spinning and everything went around and around. In the end I could not resist laughing myself. I was only 12 ½ years old and drunk for the first time, in the great care of my Nan.
After a few weeks I made more and more friends up north, but they began to notice that I was wearing the same clothes all the time. They asked me if I was going to change my jeans soon. “Why you are wearing the same ones?” They bombarded me with questions. I didn’t dare to tell them I had no other trousers. The only other trousers I had were split up the seams and falling apart, with big holes down the inside of the legs. They were home made, and were worn out. I always put up a tough front, so I just said, “I like these and that’s that. They are Levis.” I didn’t say I had inherited these jeans from my cousin Ken, he had grown out of them and it was the only real jeans I had.
I had only worn home-sewn clothes, but now I was becoming more aware that everyone had denim jeans, and the other mums didn’t make clothes. I didn’t want to get bullied for the old fashioned clothes and I was happy that I at least had one pair. I had already started to steal chocolate, but I didn’t have the courage to steal clothes for a couple more years after that.
Eventually some of my new friends, the kids I found in the streets also started to bully me and say that I was dirty. I was very hurt because I thought I was clean. Nan made me wash my face and hands and down below every evening before I went to bed. She had given me a flannel for the face and a flannel for down below. She showed me how to wash myself by stripping herself naked in front of me and she washed herself first while I was looking at her. Then she stood by my side making sure I followed the same procedures she did, face first, then other parts after.
I was really embarrassed by the kids calling me dirty and now I started to notice that my clothes were dirty after one month and I also realised that I had not taken a proper bath either. Nan didn’t have a shower, just a bath tub. I asked Nan if I could please take a bath. She strictly refused, and said I had to wait till she was taking her bath and I could go into the water after she was finished. After a few days finally Nan decided to take a bath, but before she climbed into the bath tub she washed her private parts by the sink. She said it is very unhygienic to climb into the bathtub without washing your private parts first.
Nan enjoyed herself for one hour in the bath. I had to help her scrub her back and finally it was my turn to climb in. She added more hot water for me, and it was so lovely with the bubbles that appeared when she added the hot water and the smell of pine bubbles was all over me. The bubbles soon went out and the water changed colour to very dark brown. Nan came into the bathroom after a few minutes to check on me and I saw she got the shivers when she saw how dirty the water was.
“My God,” she yelled, “Why are you so dirty? My God, you have been wandering around my house like a dirt bag! Let me look at your clothes.” They were, of course, filthy, and after my well needed clean up, she got out a bucket and filled it with soap and water and I had to wash my clothes at her kitchen sink. There was no way she was going to wash my clothes; I had to learn she said. I was getting older and this was the way of life. I had to scrub the clothes till they were clean, and rinse them in cold water till there was not so much as a bubble or a slight dirty colour left. Clear water was the indication that the items were properly cleaned.
I was never allowed to take my own bath at Nan’s house; I always had to use the water she had been in first. Later on during my teenage years when I visited her, I became very fussy. I felt it was disgusting and could not stand the thought of using the same water as Nan used, even though she washed herself beforehand. She still smelled of urine. I mostly managed to take a shower at Wilma’s house.
After six weeks, Mum and Dad arrived. They had finished their harvest and now had two weeks off. They would never stay sober on any of their holidays. They were binge drinking and arguing on and off throughout the whole holiday. If they didn’t fight each other, they found someone else to fight with. It was no problem for me, though because I stayed out of their way. I was out most of the time, running around in the streets doing all sorts of things.
The summer came and went, and normal routine began again in the autumn when school started. Being at Nan’s for the summer had helped stop the continuing coughs that bothered me all the time while I was home. But arriving home I was soon back to normal, my throat and chest were sore from all the cigarette smoke. As the climate became cooler and autumn appeared, I used to get throat infections. I was never taken to the doctor and given medicine of course, I just had to ride the illnesses through as always. I had over the years also struggled with loads of ear ache which made me cry all night with pain.
When I had pain in my throat, I used to take a mirror and check and see if my tonsils were red and the little thing that was hanging right at the back of my throat. One day while I was examining my throat in the kitchen mirror my sister Mary walked through the door. Mary was home for a short visit. She asked, “What you are doing with your mouth wide open like that?” I told her that my throat was really sore and I wanted to see if it was red, because I knew what was coming next if it was red. She said, “Let me have a look,” and when I opened my mouth for her to get a good look, she gasped in shock and asked me if Mum had seen it. I said no, she never looks at my throat, and Mary said in anger, “Well, Mum needs to look at this right now.”
Mary marched into the sitting room where Mum was sitting watching TV. She shouted to Mum, “Have you not seen Laila’s throat?”
Mum gazed up to see what Mary wanted, and said “What are you talking about?”
“Come here and have a look at this.”
Again I opened my mouth for Mum to get a look.
Mary said, “Can’t you see that there is hardly any room in between the tonsil for anything to pass. I don’t think you can even get a thin pencil between there.”
“My tonsils have always been that big, and there has always been that little room in between them,” I told her. I knew that because I had always wondered why I had those two huge bulks in the back of my throat and wondered how the food could pass.
Mary said, “If Laila doesn’t get treatment for this she will not be able to pass any food through that small hole, and also if the tonsils swell up more with all the throat infections she is having she can risk choking and not getting enough air.”
A few days later Mum arranged for me to see a doctor. My throat was not so sore anymore when I arrived at the clinic, but the doctor took one look at me and told Mum that my tonsils had to be removed ASAP. He would refer me to the hospital, and write a note on the referral—high priority. I was very excited! I was going to the hospital; this was going to be so cool. I had only been to the doctor once when I had broken my arm in school when I was nine years old. I don’t know how many weeks I waited before I was admitted to do the surgery. But I know it had become winter because I remember that the ground was covered with snow.
The day I was due in Mum drove me the 90 miles to the hospital. It took three hours to get there. We also had to cross a fjord with a ferry. I was very excited because Mum stopped at a shop where she bought me a pair of fluffy slippers and a lovely night dress I could wear at the hospital. It was a blue night dress with picture of a pretty girl holding a bunch of flowers in her hands wearing a beautiful hat. (I have kept the nightdress to this day).
I had to arrive at the hospital without eating since the night before because they were going to put me to sleep. I don’t remember much when I first woke up. All I remember is I had a lot of pain and I was unable to swallow. I was very excited when I was offered ice-cream to eat, but it was too painful to even manage to swallow that. Mum had waited for me to wake up after the anaesthetic but eventually Mum had to leave me at the hospital and drive the long journey home. Mum said she would come and pick me up in seven days and that she could not afford to take the long journey just to come and visit me at the hospital—that would be a total waste. The doctors said I had to stay in the hospital for that long before I could go home. I don’t know why it was so long, but I guess in those days they did things a lot differently.
I didn’t think much of Mum leaving then, but I did after. When Mum left I was all excited; it was all new and I liked it at the hospital. I didn’t mind Mum leaving me for seven days, and I never expected her to bother to take the long journey to visit me either. But after one day I became very restless and emotional. I became aware of all the other kids having their mums and dads visiting them and making a big fuss over how brave they had been to have gone through with surgery. The parents brought little gifts for their children and special treats and hugged and squeezed their kids to comfort them. No one came and visited me at all, and I didn’t hear from my parents for the whole week I stayed at the hospital.
Again I was filled with embarrassment and great sense of loneliness, the same feeling I’d always lived with. I was longing for a mum like the other kids had, and I wanted to be a little girl too. But luckily I was never short of a plan to deal with the hurt that I was feeling. I subconsciously decided to distract myself by exploring the other units of the hospital when the parents were around. Staying away from the ward when parents came made it easier for me not to feel so lonely, and to stand out. I thought that no one would know that I didn’t have visitors. When seven days had passed, Mum finally came and picked me up and we went home to my great relief.
The year passed by and I was longing more and more for the day to arrive when I could finally leave home just like I’d planned for so many years. Nothing much happened the year I was 13, just the same routine over and over again, going to school, coming home, doing homework. I spent the evenings sitting at the dining table doing drawings, watching some TV and going to bed. Of course Mum and Dad had their binge drinking seasons on and off, and the same hell broke loose in the house each time. But Ted was minding his own business, hanging out with his mates, going to parties, and off to football training. He had lost interest in making my life hell, which was a great relief. Still I didn’t care anymore. All I could think of was being 16 and finishing school, so that I could leave that God-forsaken place and move as far away as possible. I thought that if I left home all my problems would go away and I would not hurt any more. I couldn’t have been more wrong.