In foreign hotel bathrooms, the sight of a bidet still makes me twitch, and I blame my mother. See, in 1976 (I was eight) we had our first (and last) foreign holiday to Austria (see The Sound of Bloody Music ) and in the Hotel Hohe Munde in Seefeld was a bidet, an object I had never before encountered. Being an inquisitive child, I asked its purpose.
I was deflected. I was told not to ask again. Perhaps she would explain it to me when I was older.
I could not imagine what terrifying use this object might have that would so unhinge my child’s mind that it needed to be kept secret from me. I assumed that this was therefore because it fell under the category of the-thing-I-mustn’t-know-about, i.e. sex.
My mother did not believe in sex education. I’m not sure she believed in sex. Eventually I had to shoplift a Miriam Stoppard manual from WH Smith, which I mistakenly kept in my school locker before it was discovered, heavily annotated and plastered over the corridor walls by the resident wags.
All this was happily resolved once I got to University, of course, although there were some residual effects. My second girlfriend there (Karen the Fridge) happily romped in my bed pretty much every night during term-time, but holidays remained awkward. Her mother had a strict sour-faced not-under-my-roof policy so when there, we had to snatch afternoons when parents were in absentia and dodge her irritating younger brother. My mother had the same attitude but worse, the house was never empty so whilst I notionally slept on the sofa in the living room, I was required to sneak up to the bedroom (my bedroom ffs) in the wee small hours. This worked fine until the fateful day we fell asleep, only to be woken next morning by said mother looking as though Korea had just personally declared war on her. She did not speak to me for days. Karen was not welcome to return (presumably because she had corrupted me). We were 21 for god’s sake.
This may have all been to do with the fact that my parents had not in (my) living memory shared a bed. When I was six my mother explained to me that she had not, in fact, wanted a third child and if she had had her way I would not have been born. Further, my unhappy existence was entirely down to the fact that my father had “forced himself upon her”. This was pretty much the only sex education I was ever to receive from her.
Although, to be fair, with two elder brothers and a two-bedroomed house, there was a brief period when I was required to sleep on a camp bed in the corner of my parents’ bedroom. I remember once (and only once) being woken by a commotion. For some bizarre reason my father had climbed into my mothers bed and they were being very energetic when considering the time of night. I thought it best to keep quiet, but was unable to hide under the blankets, transfixed by this bizarre spectacle.
With my own children I resolved to have a more liberal approach. From my time working at Waterstones I knew there were several picture books available as instructional aids for the under tens (like Sammy the Sperm. Swim, Sammy, swim!) so my then-wife and I ventured down the local library to pick something appropriate we were both happy to use. We were astonished by the multitude of options so asked the kindly librarian (we were familiar customers) for a recommendation.
“Well, I like this one best…it doesn’t beat around the bush”