I first met Shelley at playgroup. I was new to the area, pregnant and with an energetic toddler. Her little boy was very quiet by contrast; lost in a world of his own whilst my rumbustious boy cannoned round the room. We exchanged smiles, identifying each other as outsiders from the rest of the chattering mothers. I wasn’t able to work out why she was isolated from the group but was warmed by her friendliness, especially when it was time to go and it transpired that she lived just around the corner from us and was also pregnant.
We pushed our buggies down the road together and, surprisingly candid for a new acquaintance, she told me that she had a daughter from her first marriage, that the marriage had ended because her husband beat her, but that she had now married her childhood sweetheart and that he was the father of her son and the baby she was carrying.
Shelley wasn’t as well groomed as some of the other mothers; her conversation was simple and honest. The love she had for her children was obvious from the way she spoke to them, but drawing on my past experience I could see that her little boy wasn’t just quiet. There were definite signs that he had some kind of developmental delay, something was wrong.
We often walked to or from playgroup together. We didn’t go to each other’s houses; she would have been very welcome at mine but her house was first on the route and as she seemed reluctant to ask me in, I didn’t want to put her in an awkward position. We sat together at playgroup and although no one else spoke to us, it didn’t matter because, with one ear on their conversations, I knew that Shelley’s simple words were more honest and interesting anyway.
My baby boy was born first and I stayed away from playgroup for a while, learning to juggle the needs of two small children within the safety of my home. By the time I made it back to playgroup, Shelley was absent having also given birth to a boy.
I saw her in the street about a month later and was slightly taken aback at her appearance. The dowdy cotton shirt and leggings uniform adopted by so many of us mothers at the time had been replaced by a ripped black tee-shirt, black jeans and Doc Martens. Shelley’s shoulder length hair was dyed black and cropped close to her head and she sported a piercing in the side of her nose and another in her chin.
She was accompanied by her daughter, her silent son, her equally silent husband and the new baby in a buggy. I stopped to say hello and tried not to show my curiosity at this change in her appearance.
Smiling, Shelley told me that she and her family were on their way to church. A church I’d often seen in passing and wondered idly what denomination it was. Shelley didn’t say – and I didn’t ask – if her transformation had come before the call to church or after. She looked happy, and I felt that having experienced the small minds and sneers prevalent in many older established religious communities when faced with the unusual, that the people attending Shelley’s church must be very accepting and open by contrast.
Shelley stopped going to playgroup and attended one at her church instead. I had a new group of friends who invited me to their houses and to other social events. Occasionally I would see Shelley in passing; we’d wave and smile but she never stopped to talk. Her hair went through a rainbow of colours and the piercings increased, as did the tattoos.
My eldest started school and we frequently saw Shelley at the school gates. She was pregnant again and her youngest boy displayed all the energy that his older brother lacked. The other mothers avoided Shelley, clustering in groups and turning their backs on her when she approached. Most of the time my husband and I dropped our son off and collected him together, so I wasn’t subject to the approval or disapproval of the mummy clique in the way that Shelley was.
After the birth of her fourth child – a girl – Shelley’s appearance became even more unusual. Talking as someone who cried when having their ears pierced at the tender age of twenty-three, the increase in piercings and tattoos confused me and I wondered why Shelley felt the need to adorn her body in this way. Her husband did not seem perturbed by these changes, and he continued to dress in jeans, tee-shirt and a khaki parka that he never seemed to take off. Shelley still smiled and waved when she saw us but we had moved to a house about a mile away and no longer saw her on the journey to and from school.
My eldest was in the same class as her eldest son. In the way that young children do, he occasionally remarked that the lad was quiet and had a special lady to help him in classes. My boy remembered going to playgroup with Shelley and her son, and I believe that it was this early acquaintance that led him to take a protective stance towards Shelley’s boy throughout their years at school together.
The children progressed through primary school and without fail, Shelley and her family attended the Christmas and end of term productions, sports days and the annual fair. Without fail, heads turned, elbows nudged and snide comments were made just out of Shelley’s hearing. She seemed impervious to it all; almost serene.
With the birth of another baby, Shelley now had three girls and two boys. They walked to school in a strange crocodile; her eldest daughter and the two boys in school uniform, the toddler and baby dressed as most other small children of their age, with Shelley – in bondage trousers and a ripped tee shirt that showed off her mostly religious tattoos, huge wedge boots and a face covered in piercings – always at the head of the group. Caring and attentive, she shepherded her family across the main road, ignoring the hoots and cat calls from passing motorists.
Primary school was bad but high school was worse. At primary school people were used to Shelley but the move to a large high school that took in half a dozen primary schools brought several issues for Shelley and her family. Her eldest daughter had managed three years without other students identifying Shelley as her mother, but her younger brother had to be brought into school by Shelley and collected by her or his father. Other children were cruel about him and to him. They were even more cruel about Shelley’s appearance.
Towards the end of my older son’s time at high school, along with other proud parents, we attended an evening of entertainment in the school theatre. Shelley and her family turned up at the last minute; the children were dressed conventionally but Shelley sported a foot high black mohican; the sides of her head were closely shaved and tattooed and the wedge heeled boots were at least twelve inches tall.
A silence fell as she led her flock into the crowded auditorium. Every eye was on her. With the exception of her eldest son – now formally diagnosed with autism – all the children hung their heads in embarrassment.There would have been room for them to sit together if other parents and their children had swapped seats but no one would. They just stared; stares of hostility sparked by – fear? Confusion? Or envy?
Shelley’s daughter went off the rails after leaving school. She ran away from home and ended up living with her abusive father. He hadn’t changed.
There was no available provision for Shelley’s eldest son. Cut loose from school he became increasingly frustrated and frightened. His fear took the form of aggression, generally directed at his mother. They tried so hard, Shelley and her husband, but with a new diagnosis of schizophrenia, they could no longer look after him and he was sectioned under the Mental Health Act and went to live in a secure facility.
My youngest son tells me that he is still in contact with Shelley’s younger son; he works with his father in the plumbing trade. Now both my boys have left school I don’t see Shelley, unless we happen to be driving past when she is taking the youngest children to school or collecting them.
The mohican is defiantly high, the tattoos and piercings have almost obliterated the Shelley that I remember.
It isn’t really my place to find reasons for Shelley’s behaviour or even to ask why.
Tattoos and piercings are very much a personal thing.
Perhaps it is linked to her early exposure to domestic abuse?
Perhaps she was testing those around her – especially the people at her church or the sniggering parents at school?
How did she feel when she heard the whispers, saw the sneering glances,was openly rejected by the other parents?
Did this rejection make her want to become more outrageous?
I don’t have the answers – just a bunch of psychological theories that may or may not apply.
Whatever. I wish her well.