Strange bedfellows

With complicated family dynamics, Katy Massey struggled to find a place she called home – apart from in a boarding school and a brothel. The author recalls early life in Leeds

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I called my autobiography Are We Home Yet? because I was fascinated by the idea of home. My book follows me and my family’s story through both my parents’ migration to the UK, and our journeys through race issues, bereavement, the sex industry and mental health battles. I tell our story by focussing on my relationship with my French-Canadian mother Yvette, and how we managed to salvage a loving bond despite everything we went through. It is called Are We Home Yet? because the dominating theme throughout is my overwhelming need to find a place to belong.

The idea of home means different things to different people. It is where your parents live, or where your loved ones are. Whether it’s a place we return to every evening, or visit once a year for Christmas or family occasions, we all have an idea of home and what that place means to us. For many people it is a reflex, something they don’t have to seriously consider or think about.

They called me to look at the TV when a black person came on, so I could see myself represented

For me, creating a sense of home for myself, my partner and my little girl has been a struggle. I’ve worked toward it slowly. Now, at 50, I’ve just about managed to find a permanent sense of belonging. But my sense of being in the right place, and being able to relax there, is never entirely secure. To get even this far, my progress throughout my life has been halting and uncertain, marred by the mis-steps and mis-communications of my childhood.

I remember my family “home” as a half-way house, an in-between place, which never felt entirely mine. It was a liminal space. The reasons are complicated, as most family dynamics become complicated when you try to explain them. As I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s in Leeds, it would be fair to say my family had problems. I lived with my mother and two older half-brothers. Ricky, my mother’s first husband and my brothers’ father, was killed before I was born.

He was trying to intervene in an after-pub fight between two members of his extended family. Ricky was hit hard when a punch meant for someone else landed on him, knocking him to the ground. He sustained a fractured skull and never recovered consciousness. A couple of years later, I came along, the product of my mother’s short relationship with my Jamaican father, Cyril. I became the only brown child in a white, fatherless, bereaved family.

So, right from the get-go, I didn’t fit in (and just being conspicuous exerts a cost. You really can’t get away with anything). At the time though, I didn’t particularly resent it: quite the opposite – it was a sort of low-level fame. Everybody on our street knew Mrs Massey’s little brown girl. And I always knew I was different, but not in a bad way.

Kind and loving, my mum and my brothers tried their best. They called me downstairs to look at the television when a black person came on, so that I could see myself represented. We all watched The Shirley Bassey Show and The Fosters, then one of the few opportunities to see a black family portrayed on screen. I was seven or eight at the time, and Lenny Henry was an early crush because of his starring role. The sitcom only ran for two series, but it is a defining memory for me. I got to see myself, reflected back through the television set for the first time.

And, as a single parent with three kids, there wasn’t much money in our house, even though my mother worked full time as a secretary and typist. But although we had problems, at this point we weren’t a “problem family”. Forty years ago, a problem family was one where a police car was often at the door, truancy was commonplace, social services involved and autonomy was given up to outside experts – or “interfering do-gooders”, depending on your point of view. However, we were approaching this territory. The first focus of concern was to be for my brother Paul, nine years older than me, and a beautiful, blonde haired, green-eyed boy turned troubled youth.

My brother Paul’s life was a battle: to feel worthy, to feel happy, to feel hopeful. His depression encompassed everything (for depression it was, even if 35 years ago he never received a diagnosis despite GPs and social workers visiting). Over time, his way of looking at the world when he was afflicted by a dark mood transplanted his sunnier personality altogether. At his best he was a funny, interesting and brave young man. Sadly, I don’t properly remember this side of him. In my memory he is permanently dulled by his struggle against the darkness of his illness, tired out by the sheer effort of staying alive.

During my brother’s struggles, I came home from school one day to discover my mother’s new career as a sex worker. She was with a client in our house and I found I couldn’t enter the family home. I felt I was interrupting something private, something which couldn’t be spoken about (but, this being the 1970s, could be advertised in contact mags and the local newspaper’s small ads).

And of course, I was too young to take a decision about leaving. So at around 10 years old I became the person who took on the job of looking out for my mother – guarding the secret of her new job and generally being on hand as my brothers grew older and moved away. I never felt at home, comfortable, in that house again.

A sense of home, if I ever found one during my childhood years, ended up existing for me in two highly contrasting locations. The first was the boarding school I attended aged 12. My mother had more money after her change in career, and she spent some of this on paying for me to board at a school in North Yorkshire during term time. After a bumpy initial period, I settled in OK here, and the girls I shared a dormitory with became almost as close as family.

The second was the sauna my mother established just off Kirkstall Road in Leeds during the mid-1980s. It was a considerable step up to manage her own business and her brothel, Aristotle’s, represented a considerable achievement. She was a woman, alone in the sex industry, and Aristotle’s provided safe, good-value pleasure for its customers, as well as a safe, well-paid working environment for the working women there.

These women felt to me like aunties. I could sit and listen to them for hours, their stories were so fascinating. They were kind, tolerated my teenage moodiness and gave me cigarettes. They normalised the sex industry for me, taught me how to survive in a world as far removed from my privileged school as it’s possible to imagine.

Now I have a family of my own, I can see that I was not unfortunate. Life in my multicultural northern home was always interesting, even if death more than once visited our doorstep (and the spectre arrived suddenly, without warning or making arrangements first).

I wrote down my experiences in a book because it is a tale about how to hold fast to what’s important and make the best of it, perhaps finding love and belonging where you can, instead of where you might choose. And in a hyper-connected, social-networked world, stories like mine are easily squeezed out in favour of glossier, airbrushed, Instagram-able existences. In writing it, I found my family life had a richness and resilience that is still unfurling, out into my daughter’s future, and out into the world.

Are We Home Yet? by Katy Massey is out now on Audible, narrated by the author

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