Excerpt for Sleeping With The Rabbits by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Copyright © 2017 by Susanne Defoe

Susanne Defoe has asserted her right under the Copyright Designs and Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.

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This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not by way of trade or otherwise be lent, resold, hired out or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior consent in any form of binding or cover, other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition, including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.

ISBN: 978-1-86151-805-7

In memory of my brother James, my best friend and soulmate – I miss you every day. Also my youngest daughter Catherine, without whose help and endless patience this book would not have been finished. Thank you for putting up with me. This is for you both.

I loved my mum and dad very much and they loved me, and for all the mistakes they made I miss them dearly. This is my story.



Chapter 1 Family Matters

Chapter 2 Growing Up

Chapter 3 In and Out of School

Chapter 4 End of Innocence

Chapter 5 Teenage Mum

Chapter 6 A cold Christmas

Chapter 7 Leaving the Nest

Chapter 8 A Tragedy

Chapter 9 Devon

Chapter 10 Betrayal

Chapter 11 A Bolt From the Blue


‘Born out of step,’ that’s what a friend said to me once – ‘I think you were born out of step’.

Until then I hadn’t thought of myself like that, but I guess it made sense. Looking back on my life, I realise that I didn’t really get it. Always struggling to make friends and at the same time not wanting to – crazy! I used to (and still do) look at other people and wonder how the hell they did it, you know, make friends and keep them. I am always in awe of the ones who have managed to have a long and happy marriage or relationship. I have knowledge of only one kind of love, a certain kind of love, and that’s the love for my children. I have no idea what it feels like to love another person within an intimate relationship and I envy those who have experienced that.

Memories I kept inside myself for years have now been put to rest by writing this story. Now I can move on, and if I feel that I am out of step at any time I just take five steps backwards and start again.


Family Matters

I was born in 1950, when my mum, Ellen, was 21 and my dad, Jim, was 25. We lived as sitting tenants with an old man called George– he had half the house and we had the other half. We had one bedroom and one sitting room, a scullery, no bathroom and an outside loo.

I grew up within a small community of shopkeepers in High Wycombe, we all lived in the same kind of house –no one was better than anyone else. The dry cleaner’s was next door, then the paper shop, hairdresser and barber, fish and chip shop, wool shop, bakers, butcher’s, grocery store and a petrol station. When I was hungry I used to pop next door for a bag of chips and maybe a doughnut. I loved doughnuts and still do. We used to get sweets every day, so I guess it could have been called a kid’s paradise. Mind you I did have to have nine fillings all at once when I was nine, and that was only in the 1950s.

We lived next door to my grandmother and grandfather, who owned a sweet shop and a café over the road, where my mother helped my Nan. I can just remember that café and my Nan cooking all morning; she did all the cooking herself on one cooker for about fifty workmen who came in every day. It was meat and two or three veg dinners and always a pudding, usually served up with custard. It was all homemade and the men loved it. I remember she wore a pinafore-type garment that she wrapped around her and tied at the back and she always looked very hot and tired. I guess she would have been in her fifties then, not a young woman. I have to admire her, as I know I couldn’t do it and I’m about the same age now as she was then.

The tables had green chequered clothes and the drinking straws were waxy to the touch and very long and thick, not like straws today. They stood in a tall glass and smelled old and musty. Funny the things you remember.

Later she sold the shop and it was turned into a greengrocer’s. I think that was mainly because my granddad had worked in Covent Garden Market for years and knew a lot about fruit and veg. I knew all the other kids whose parents owned shops, so I didn’t have to go outside the community to find friends. I was sheltered and protected by my family and friends and was not at all streetwise, which was a real problem as I got older.

My grandparents had come from the East End during the war. They were not liked much to begin with by the locals, but they were there to stay and my Nan lived and worked in that shop until she was 80, along with my mum.

My brother James was born in 1952, and as we grew we were always outside in the backyard making mud pies or climbing onto Dad’s sheds, stealing our next door neighbour’s prize flowers and hiding them until we got caught. My dad told our neighbour off for shouting at us –he used to fall out regularly with the neighbours over us. I thought my brother was a bit of a wimp, as he always had to be encouraged to do anything a bit naughty and was always saying “I’ll tell Mum”. I didn’t really take a lot of notice, though he was a bit of a mummy’s boy.

My dad kept all sorts of animals in our back yard and garden. He bred budgies and had a pigeon loft, rabbits, a greyhound and a chicken coop. We also had a dog called Dusty, a cat called Tibbs and an aquarium with tropical fish indoors. I had two jackdaws that came everywhere with me and used to sit on the handlebars of my little bike. It must have looked like a zoo. Dad had wanted to become a vet. His family was so poor that he was sent to work as soon as he was old enough, but he sure had his animals. My dad would kill a rabbit or chicken sometimes to eat – that doesn’t sound much like a vet, but I guess times were hard and money was short.

One of my first memories was of climbing into the rabbit hutch and snuggling down into the straw to sleep. I can remember hearing my mum calling and calling me, but I didn’t answer. I just stayed there until they found me. My mum said they had been frantic because we lived on a very busy road, and I was only two and a half and I was missing for almost two hours. She never understood why I hadn’t answered her, and I don’t know either. She did say I was a very deep child and difficult to understand, not like James, who was an easy, happy child.

They never stopped me from sleeping with the rabbits after that, and they always knew where to find me.

I watched my dad bring a rabbit indoors once, holding it by its feet. It was so long and floppy that he put it into a cupboard and went off outside. I climbed up onto a chair, opened the cupboard and took him out. This rabbit was my friend and I had spent a lot of time with him in his hutch. I touched him and he felt cold, so I got some of my dolls’ clothes and dressed him up. I put a dress and cardigan, booties and a bonnet on him, then put him in my doll’s pram, tucked a blanket around him and took him for a walk. I pushed him up and down the back yard and I remember rocking him in the pram and talking to him.

Mum told me later in life that Dad had put the rabbit in the cupboard to keep it out of my way for a few minutes until he was ready to skin it. It had been for dinner that night, and when he saw it had vanished he had asked me about it, but I said I didn’t know where it was. My mum found it still in my doll’s pram the next day. I can just imagine the screams.

My mum said I was a strange child and I liked anything a bit gruesome to look at. I was always the first out on the main road if a cat had been run over to have a close look at it. I know what I was looking for; I was trying to see what made it work.

Another thing I used to do apparently was eat snails. I peeled them first of course, or I used to collect quite a few and line them up on the ground and jump on them one at a time. You must remember all this happened when I was very young –obviously I wouldn’t kill snails for fun now.

I remember when I was about four or five my Dad packing a small case with my clothes and telling me he was sending me to the naughty girls’ home. I must have really pissed him off about something. I was terrified, but we went out of the front door on to the main road and headed to the bus stop. A bus came along before we reached the bus stop and he started pulling me, along saying “hurry up or you’ll miss the bus”. I didn’t know where this naughty girls’ home was and I had never been on a bus alone before. I knew he was going to just put me on the bus and leave me. I don’t think fear came into it – it was just sheer terror and my legs wouldn’t walk, so he dragged me. I remember vividly the feeling of being abandoned and not wanted and helpless inside.

We got up to the bus stop and stood in the queue and I was sobbing and begging him not to leave me. I remember thinking maybe the bus conductor would know where the naughty girl’s home was so that I didn’t get lost. Then my dad just picked me up and carried me home, and told me that if I played up again he really would send me away. I remember him being upset when he took me back home. That must have been the first time I saw another side to my dad, the cruel side of him that he didn’t seem able to control. So it began; I had learnt not to upset him.

My brother and I had dummies. Mine was always tied around my neck, I guess so I wouldn’t lose it or maybe just to keep me quiet. We were coming up four and five when my mum decided to take them away. She waited until we went on holiday to Clacton and pretended to have forgotten to bring them. It worked. I remember being so tired that I didn’t care if I had my dummy or not. However for years after that I didn’t have a doll with fingers, toes nose or anything else that protruded from it, I had sucked and chewed them all off! Still to this day I like to chew rubber.

I was born with very black hair like my dad; my brother had almost white hair like Mum had had when she was young. She grew my hair quite long most of the time and I would not let anyone brush it but my dad, so you can imagine what sort of a state it was in by the time he got home after playing in the yard and with the mud if I got a chance. My mum said I looked like a gypsy child, and my dad said I used to wait outside on the pavement for his work coach to drop him home. He said the other men’s children that came to wait for them were so clean and tidy and then there was me with my long black hair mangled up and muddy face and clothes, but I was waiting for him to brush my hair. He never pulled it or hurt me, so I knew he loved me. At night I used to get into bed with Mum and Dad and twist his hair with my fingers all night, and he used to complain the next day because he couldn’t comb it for the knots in it. When Dad wasn’t around I used to twist my hair (even more knots). I still do.

It must sound as though my mum neglected me, but that certainly wasn’t the way it was. She was a nervous wreck, not that I knew it at the time; I thought it was normal to go to the doctor’s every other week with my brother, and to have so many clothes on in the winter that I couldn’t put my arms flat against my sides, and not letting us eat fish in case we choked on a bone. She was always so busy looking after us and cleaning the house, smelling the food that she had just bought in case it was off, then throwing it away and getting something else. To us it was normal.

Mum had no spare time to play with us much, in fact I don’t remember her playing with us at all, but she did read to us sometimes. I don’t know what made my mum the way she was. She was such a worrier, maybe it began after my dad contracted polio when we were just babies and all sleeping in the same room as each other. No one knows why we didn’t catch it. Mum said Dad had had a headache which just got worse and worse. He became really unwell and had to go to bed. Then his neck became stiff and mum called the doctor, who said it was most likely the flu and to keep him warm and give plenty of fluids. The next day he was worse again and Mum said he was banging his head on the headboard with the pain, so the doctor, a different one, came back and sent for an ambulance and rushed him to Stoke Mandeville Hospital. They never told Mum at first what was wrong; I don’t think they knew. Mum said she got her sister, Auntie Maggie, to look after us while she travelled to the hospital, which was quite a bus ride, to see him. That’s when they told her he had polio meningitis. He was so ill he had to go in an iron lung for ages and they said he might never walk again. Mum said she remembered sliding down the wall she was standing against at the hospital, it was such shock. Polio in the fifties was a killer, and she was so worried that we would catch it; I was three and James was two.

They told her to go home and boil all the bedding, blankets, sheets, pillows everything that we slept on in the bed and cots. It was January and freezing, and she couldn’t do that because she had no washing machine and no way to dry things; all she had was a sink where all the washing was done, an old copper to heat the water and a big old mangle in the back yard. I can imagine what sort of a state she must have been in. Mum told me that if it hadn’t have been for her sister, Maggie, she would never have coped. She told my mum to get the coal fire going as big as she could, and brought down all the bedding and held it in front of the fire until it began to scorch, even the pillows, as it was the next best way of killing the germs.

Mum looked to her sister a lot for help and Auntie Maggie never let her down. She was a strong character with a big personality and she didn’t seem to be afraid of anything, even putting herself at risk of catching polio herself and having children of her own that depended on her. I loved you Auntie Maggie.

Dad nearly didn’t recover. He came home some months later, but he was never really well after that.

My grandfather died in 1955, so I didn’t really get to know him, although I have vague memories of him standing just inside the shop door with a roll-up ciggie stuck to his bottom lip while he talked, and of him pouring some of his tea into his saucer for me to drink and sucking my dummy. I wish he could have lived longer. I think my brother and I would have benefited from that. As it was I had my grandmother, who wasn’t like a grandmother at all. She had her shop and work is what she did best, so she wasn’t your typical Nan who knits you things and takes you on picnics, but she was the only grandparent I knew.

She took me to the pictures once to see a very old film (I can’t remember what it was called) and to the Isle of Wight. She loved the island and had a brother there who had a hotel, but I never got to meet him or his family; they were either away or out when she took me, and she had never let them know we were coming. We didn’t use the phone much in those days. We used to head for the one-armed bandits. She had a real addiction to them – you know the sort of thing, go in with a fiver come out with a pound. But I only ever remember winning, not losing. We would travel all the way down there on the train and then the ferry just to stand in an arcade all afternoon and then go home. But she enjoyed it and it was a day out of the shop.

The shop was always the same, open at nine, closed from one to two for dinner then closed at five thirty. Every late morning Nan would go down the road to the fruit and vegetable suppliers. She usually took me to help her carry any special deals back that she could get, like a box of mushrooms or tomatoes. She had a grip like iron and she would grab my hand and hold it so tight on the five-minute walk there that I used to have pins and needles by the time we got there, and it had no colour in it, so as I got older I used to make excuses so that I didn’t have to go with her.

My dad and Nan never got along. There was always a lot of tension between them and as my mum worked for Nan she was always trying to please both of them, and they were both very fiery people. It must have been a nightmare for my mum. Mum was very close to her brother and sister – they were lovely people and I was very fond of them both. They were nothing like my mum, who was quite a few years younger than both of them, but looking back at that time I think they kind of looked out for my mum. I had quite a few cousins and we were all very close in those days.

My dad’s family wasn’t close. They were always falling out with each other, so I never knew them very well. One of my dad’s sisters had a son five or six years older than me. He was around for a couple of years, during a time when my dad and his mum were speaking and getting on OK, and that’s when I got to know him. Being older than me, he was like a big brother to start with, until he started to do things to me. At first he made it seem like a game, but as time went on he would threaten to tell my Mum if I didn’t let him touch me. Although he was only eleven, maybe twelve, and I was five or six it was abuse, and my life after two years of it was never the same again. He stole my childhood, and everything seemed so different after that. Thank god my dad and his sister fell out again and I never saw them again. I never told anyone about it. Only my brother knew, as he made him stand lookout.

Apart from that time my life up until 1960 was for the most part very happy. They were the best days and I long for them sometimes, but everything changes and eventually we moved away from the little old house next to my grandmother’s shop. We didn’t move far, a mile or so, but it seemed a long way to me. I had left infant school and gone on to middle school and then had to change to another school because of the distance.

I hated it. I was bullied daily, in school and out of it. We had come from a small community and small schools to what was to become a great big sprawling estate with kids that were streetwise and not at all like me. I stood out in the crowd with my blue coat and matching hat that Mum had bought me in London. My brother didn’t escape either. He was such a quiet, passive and happy boy, until about six or seven boys got him on the ground and beat the hell out of him when he was nine. After that he changed and got worse every year until he was completely out of control. He was in trouble with the police from the age of twelve and expelled from school at fourteen.

Some of the worst days were at that middle school. I was hit and punched every day by some of the girls. I had always been quiet, but now I had become so withdrawn that I couldn’t even look up. I remember one of the boys in my class mimicking me. He put his hands deep into his pockets, hunched his shoulders and looked at the ground and said “This is how she walks”, pointing at me while everyone laughed.

I know it sounds crazy but I had no friends at all, for two years. When I got home I just used to stay in. Sometimes I would go out on to the playground at the bottom of our garden. Now and again I got away with it and nobody noticed me, but sometimes one girl in particular would come up to me and push and punch me and pull my hair. I was so scared I didn’t even cry out, even though she hurt me so much she left marks on me. She was one of the local bullies at my new school and she lived about six doors away from my house, so she got me at school and at home as well. When she used to see that she had gone far enough, just before reducing me to tears she would stop and stare at me until I walked away with my head down. I just went back indoors and stayed there until the next day at school, when it started all over again. I was so withdrawn and afraid it’s a wonder I ever went out. I remember checking out of my bedroom window to see who was out on the playground before I went out. When I saw she wasn’t there I used to go out and try and have a swing or go on the slide.

One day after checking the playground out I went out and sat on a swing. There were three older girls there, about fourteen years old I guess. One of them lived down my road and had always smiled at me so I felt safe, but when I got out there and I looked at her and smiled she ignored me and was whispering to her friends. She started to come over to me and got right up to my face, then pulled her hand back so far and slapped my face so hard I fell off the swing.

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