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Thursday, October 28, 2021

Doing my ‘sexy’ numbers always felt wrong: Eileen Atkins on the ‘sleazy secret’ of her childhood

She was 39 and had given up all hope of marriage when my father, three years younger, who lodged in the house in Stoke Newington, lost his wife, Kitty, in childbirth. He was left a widower with his three-year-old daughter, Peggy, and asked my mother if she would help him look after her. “Only if you marry me,” answered my mother, and my father, always obliging, was dragooned into marriage.

This was not a love match. Neither my brother nor I ever noticed much affection between them, but they got on well enough together. Annie ruled the roost and Arthur clucked along. My half-sister, Peggy, told me that they had a good sex life, so maybe things got evened up in bed. In less than two years after they were married, they had two boys, Ronald and Reginald, and then my mother found that she was pregnant again. They couldn’t afford another child. My father’s wages as an electricity-meter reader were minimal, and even with my mother still working at home, sewing for a factory, there was hardly enough money. Having to look after her mother as well as two babies, she felt exhausted and unable to cope, so she had a backstreet abortion.

A year later, Reginald, known as Bubby, died of meningitis. My mother was convinced God had punished her, and her unhappiness cast a cloud over the whole family. Six years later, my father had an illness that required the loss of one testicle, and my mother, who flew into terrible rages (which, unfortunately, I inherited), accused him of being a useless husband. Apparently, he then threw her on the kitchen table to prove he wasn’t useless, and the result was me. That made us, with Grandma, a family of six and eligible for one of the newly developed council houses. So, as you can see, like a good fairy at my own christening, I granted three wishes.

I have only one memory of life before I was three, and that was of being thrown up in the air and caught again and again by my father, and I swear my small brain registered perfect happiness. My father was a playful, affectionate, childlike man who doted on me, and when I was young, I adored him.

The next thing I remember had a momentous effect on my life and I have a clear image of it. A gipsy came to the door. My mother was very superstitious and always bought heather from gipsies to prevent them putting the evil eye on her. I went to the door with her, clinging onto her dress, and there was this exotic-looking woman, swarthy, bejewelled with bangles and earrings, and with a bright scarf round her head, and a full, swishing skirt that showed coloured petticoats. The gipsy suddenly fixed her eyes on me. “That little one there,” she said, pointing a bony finger at me, “is going to be a great dancer – another Pavlova.”

That was it as far as my mother was concerned – the gipsy had spoken – I was to be a great dancer. She lost no time. I was taken to a dancing school the following week for my first lesson. I refused to “join the other little girls” and screamed to be taken home. She tried a couple of other dancing schools, but, refusing to follow my destiny, I screamed each time to be taken home. But my mother was persistent.

I don’t think it was only because “the gipsy had spoken”. My mother was a tall, overweight woman who had always thought of herself as plain and clumsy. There was no suppleness or softness about her – if you sat on her lap, her fierce whalebone corset was a buttress to prevent comfort, and she walked stiffly, as if clad in armour. Maybe there was a dancer inside her who wanted to get out that would only be assuaged if I pranced and pirouetted for her.

Finally, she found a dancing school that had the somewhat snigger-inducing name of the KY School, and these initials were emblazoned on our practice clothes. Madame Kavos Yandie, the owner of these initials, purported to be Spanish and had 11 letters after her name, all of which she was barred from using 20 years later when it was revealed that she had been born Kathleen Smith, from Peckham, and had never passed a dancing examination in her life.

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