Monday, April 28, 2008

'Yes, you've won, Doodie, but I'm not beaten yet!'

I am still enjoying Rosemary Sutcliff's autobiography, Blue Remembered Hills which is chock full of little vignettes and pleasures. She is recounting her various neighbors in the new home in which she lives, terrace housing at one of the British Naval ports to which her Captain father is assigned. Recall that she was substantially incapacitated by childhood rheumatoid arthritis though at this point in the story she has now recovered to the point where she is able to move about on her own.

There were Doodie and Pixie from the far end of the terrace. What their real names were, I have no idea. Pixie deserved something better, being quite a pleasant if non-descript five-year-old. But Doodie aged seven was an obnoxious little boy, swollen-headed, silly, and a bully to boot. He had a tin sword, which some misguided person had made for him. I had a wooden sword, much treasured. My father had bound the hilt with string, like the grip of a real sword, and painted it gold. The gold came off in my small hot hand, but I loved it none the less for that. Doodie got me cornered one day, his tin sword to my wooden one. It was a somewhat uneven fight, and I was driven back to the wall, Doodie executing a kind of triumph dance in front of me, shouting, 'I've won, Rosemary! I've won!' The battle fury of all the heroes of all the books my mother had read me swelled in my bosom, and nerved my arm. 'Yes, you've won, Doodie,' I shouted back, 'but I'm not beaten yet!' and fetched him a final thwack with Excalibur.

Alas, it did not split his head open, it did not even leave a scratch; and I have a horrible feeling that the story would have had an ignominious end had not some adult appeared on the scene, causing Doodie to withdraw rather hurriedly. My mother, who believed in letting things take their course, and had heard the exchange from the drawing-room window above, was suddenly and unexpectedly proud of me, and showed me her family crest on a silver spoon; a wolf bleeding from the mouth, and under it the motto, 'Laesus non victus', and told my father when he came home. It was all very pleasant at first, but rather puzzling. And then there began to be a faint dismay.

As I have said before, disabled children often have an odd unawareness or only partial awareness of how it is with them. They know that they cannot do certain things which other children can do. They know, as it were, in theory, but they have not yet got the full impact. Soon, all too soon, they become aware of subtle social barriers, the full implication and likely effect on their lives, the loneliness. But at nine or ten many handicapped children, myself amongst them, are at a stage where I put Drem, when I came to write Warrior Scarlet thirty years later. Drem, who knew that he could not use his right arm, but had never considered the possibility that it could in any way prevent him from taking his place among the warriors of his tribe.

So I did not really understand that my mother's real pride in me was because I had taken on the non-handicapped world on equal terms (not even equal, my sword wasn't tin!) and if not beaten it at its own game, at least refused to accept defeat. I did not suffer any sudden and shattering realisation, even then; but none the less, it was the beginning; and Doodie was the cause of it; and I did not love Doodie . . .

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