Sometimes, you read something that so perfectly expresses itself, that the words become ingrained in your mind for the rest of your life. I had that experience with the following passage from Roald Dahl’s The Twits, read when I was about six.
If a person has ugly thoughts, it begins to show on the face. And when that person has ugly thoughts every day, every week, every year, the face gets uglier and uglier until you can hardly bear to look at it.
A person who has good thoughts cannot ever be ugly. You can have a wonky nose and a crooked mouth and double chin and stick-out teeth, but if you have good thoughts it will shine out of your face like sunbeams and you will always look lovely.
Whenever I think of it, I always, unfailingly, think of the Hard Faced Bitches of high school. Does every comprehensive have them? There was a clique of them in my year at City of Norwich School, who liked to spend breaktimes in the Year 9 toilets, smoking Embassy fags and slagging off most of the other girls in the year. They ignored me for the most part, because I wasn’t competition – as a teenager my own face was magnificently sour and unattractive to boys of my own age – and a few of them were in my formgroup. There was always some enormous drama engulfing one of their number, usually involving someone else's boyfriend, a houseparty and the morning after pill, and they didn’t care who knew about it. Their faces were permanently scowling, lips pursed, eyes narrowed. They existed in a permanent state of pissed off, and by Christ, could you tell.
Every day they could be found in a haze of cigarette smoke and Impulse bodyspray, shirt unbuttoned almost to the navel, pushup bra on display, skirt rolled up until it barely skimmed their bum, slagging off most other girls in the year and proclaiming that they didn’t give a fackin’ fack (blatantly untrue, they gave lots of fackin’ facks, indiscriminately and often, with no thought for birth control). The rest of the girls in my year were queasily intimidated by them, terrified that one day they would be target of the Hard Faced Bitches. It happened a lot, you see.
We’d be minding our own business, sitting around the table in Room 9 at lunchtime when one of the Hard Faced Bitches would march in on vertigo-inducing heels and ask the room at large ‘Where’s that fackin’ slaaag Debbie Jones? Ave you fackin’ seen ‘er?’ Debbie would cower, and try to hide under the table. The Hard Faced Bitch (now joined by the rest of her posse) would march over, poke a finger at Debbie’s face and then issue a stream of fackin’ invective at her, usually something or other about she’d heard that James fancied Debbie, and f Debbie knew what was good for her, she wouldn’t touch him, because everyone knew that Hard Faced Bitch #3 was TOTALLY going to have a crack at him in Chapelfield Gardens on Saturday (I avoided these evenings – for some reason, hanging out in a park, drinking cheap cider, puking behind a bush, and then getting fingered by Ian Wilson didn’t appeal).
When the Hard Faced Bitches left CNS after GCSEs, the rest of the girls heaved a collective sigh of relief and thought our days with them would be over. But for me, it’s turned out to merely have been an interval. The Hard Faced Bitches are back. And it’s impossible to ignore them. Because now they have children at school with The Blondies.
They’re not the same Hard Faced Bitches, of course. But they share certain characteristics. A love of trowelled on orange make up, larded with aggressive blusher. Cheap knock off boots. Clustering around the school gates to smoke their faaags (I’m a smoker by the way, so I don’t judge them for smoking, just where they choose to do it). An inability to keep their voices down (again, I have a large laugh, but talking is done at normal volume). And their insistence on every other word being fackin’ this and fackin’ that (look, I know I swear A LOT – arsefaced twatboil, anyone? – but not like them, sprinkling every sentence with expletives like confetti). Their faces, always appearing to be itching for a reason to call someone a beeyatch and give them a slap. And most of all, their behaviour.
Let’s get it out of the way now – I am not an Ace Parent. By nature, I am chronically lazy, disorganised, and I procrastinate. My house is messy, I am very bad at the routine stuff and I definitely do not do the things most parents do as a matter of course. On the other hand, my children are happy, confident, and very secure that I love them. That’s my parenting priority. I might forget to send in dinner money, but I will always go to parent teacher interviews. Maybe forget to check if faces have been washed before we do the school run, but never neglect them when they want to talk to me. There have been some monumental fuckups along the way, which have resulted in tears all round, but emotionally, I am there for them. Unconditional love is an utter bastard at times, but that’s what being a parent is, surely?
So it angers me when I see how the Hard Faced Bitches treat their children. The mum who has her toddler on reins so short that he dangles like a marionette, toes lightly scuffing the pavement, and she doesn’t notice. The families where despite never speaking to any of them, I know all of the children’s names, because at hometime every day there are bellows of ‘OY! AYNGEL! CHARLIE! GET BACK ‘ERE!’ The mums who are so engrossed in gossiping in the playground they don’t notice that one of their children has escaped onto the pavement of the busy A road, and when they do notice, they tell the child off for wandering. Things like that on a daily basis. I just can’t understand it. Why have children if you, on the surface, seem to care so little for them? Even when they do things that might seem nice, it's not long before the contempt shows itself.
Like the incident at the ice cream van last summer. I was behind another mother in the queue, and we were chatting. Then we saw something that still chills me. One of the Hard Faced Bitches was handing out ice lollies to her children – a toddler in a pushchair, an older toddler holding onto the pushchair and an older child, perhaps around six. She shoved a lolly towards the toddler in the pushchair, who was unable to reach it. The Hard Faced Bitch tutted, smacked the toddler on the back of the head and then said ‘HERE, shit for brains’, dropped the lolly in its lap and started walking off, briskly. The toddler next to her couldn’t keep up, and fell over, flat on his face. ‘FUCKS SAKE!’ Hard Faced Bitch picked him up, plonked him on his feet, ignored his cries, and carried on walking, her crying toddler now howling, and trotting to try and catch up. The other mother and I stared on in horror, and she said to me ‘What hope do those kids have? Really, what hope?’
Last week, I was standing with The Girl at the junior school, and one of the Hard Faced Bitches was stganding behind me, having a vigorous conversation on her mobile phone. ‘I’m fackin’ not fackin’ havin’ that, I’m fackin’ done wiv bein’ treated like fackin’ shit’ is a key phrase I remember. A few other parents heard, and we all exchanged significant eyemeets, and then looked down. Next to the Hard Faced Bitch were two of her children, both pupils at the Infant School. Children of that age shouldn’t look as defeated as these two did.
And then this afternoon. After I’d picked both Blondies up from school, we had to go to the shop to get a few things. A boy I recognised nodded to The Boy and they both said hi. Before they could say anything else, one of the Hard Faced Bitches swept past, grabbed her son by the arm, yanked him over to a car and shoved him inside, slapping his face. ‘I FACKIN’ TOLD YOU TO STAY IN THE FACKIN’ CAR YOU LITTLE PIECE OF SHIT. WHAT THE FACK WERE YOU DOING? I DON’T GIVE A FACKIN’ SHIT. SHUT IT’ There were a few more slaps as she spoke, with the palm of her hand, and the back of it.
We stared. Lots of people stared. But not one of us said anything to her. No one intervened. Were we waiting for someone else to do it? Were we too worried that we’d get a volley of abuse back? Were we scared that if we said something to her, it would only make things worse for her children? Whatever it was, it’s not something I’m proud of. Because if no one speaks up, then what hope do those children have? Really, what hope? What kind of adults will they grow up into, when the only lesson they are being taught is that they are a pain, a pest, a nuisance? When there seems to be no love from the people who should love you best? And other people see what's happening, but do nothing? What lesson does that teach them about their importance, and their selfworth?
I don’t know what to do. But I can’t do nothing about it any longer. This isn’t high school. This isn’t the Hard Faced Bitches scaring off other teenage girls. This has to stop.