Janet Galloway - This is Not About Me

A PAIR of too-heavy drawers hangs from a garden washing line in Saltcoats. Janet Galloway, mother of Janice, is propped upright in a foldaway chair, her bare arms extended as if she is expecting sun. She is wearing earrings and a necklace that might be pearl. A show of knees.
Her black short-sleeved dress could be her Sunday best. She is in her 20s, perhaps, but there is no date on the back of the photograph her daughter is showing me.
We are in a Glasgow café, and Janice Galloway is in killer boots. Black-and-white pictures poke out of a creased brown envelope, their yellowed edges frayed and damaged by time. In one, the nine-month-old Galloway sits for a studio portrait, her hair drawn up in a clump of curls. She can't walk yet but the expression on her face suggests she would like to. Her mother has left the room: the infant is looking at the already-closed door, a little frightened. The present-day Janice Galloway is full of laughter, the small child turned woman. In one hand she holds a coffee, in another her former self.
This Is Not About Me is not the book Galloway intended to write. The story she had in mind was to be about other mothers, not hers, and other childhoods, not her own. In some ways, she says, the book wrote her, the headaches and nausea beginning long before she realised she was pregnant with the idea. The kicking-screaming result is a memoir, and a novel, that she prefers to call "just a book".
"I realised to my surprise that it was my mother I was writing about," she says. "As a writer, you just need to shift your head out the way and let whatever is rising subconsciously come out. It's a story about human nature. How you work out who you can trust, what you can trust, and the biggest question of all - what the hell is going on?"
The book covers Galloway's life from conception to the age of 12. The writing, like all of her writing, is pared down, chisel-perfect - noticeable in the first instance until it dissolves behind its subjects. Names have been changed, but not her own. Her mother, Janet, becomes Beth; her father, James, becomes Eddie. Rebranding them was necessary to obtain the distance she needed, the feeling that these people were archetypes with wider currency. "What interests me is commonality," she says. "And what we all share is utter f***ing confusion." She has written semi-fictionally before, in her award-winning novel on the life of Clara Schumann.
Galloway's sister Nora, in the book, is Cora - a single consonant changed, only two strokes away on the keyboard, a minor key played with Galloway's right hand instead of her left. Nora was born 17 years before Galloway, whose mother was 40 when she conceived her and mistook the pregnancy as a sign of "the change".
Abandoning her husband and son in her early 20s, Nora landed with Galloway and her mother in the boxroom they shared above a doctor's surgery in Saltcoats, the surrogate family home after her mother and father split. She describes Nora at one point as "beautiful, beautiful, beautiful", her hair dyed with the blue-black rinse that Elvis was rumoured to have used. She would lock Galloway in wardrobes, bash her in the face, and, on one occasion, set fire to her hair. Often she threatened worse, typically in response to praise being lavished on her younger sister. Contact between the two was lost many years before Nora died of emphysema in 2000, their relationship in a state of disrepair.
"I only heard she was dead because one of her sons made diligent efforts to try to tell me, which he did through my publisher," she says. "We were never motivated to find each other." She died 20 years after the publication of Galloway's first novel, The Trick Is To Keep Breathing, which she would have left on the shelves of the library. "A friend of mine met Nora years down the line and she said I hear our Janice is writing for a paper', but whether she knew about my prose writing I'm not sure. It wouldn't have been very interesting for her. She didn't read books by women." At one stage in the book she holds a hot spoon against Galloway's neck, causing a welt. Inevitably, she comes across as a baddy, but determinedly not as a bully. "She wasn't really in control of how she behaved," says Galloway. "It's only occurring to me now that Nora may have been suffering from some form of manic behaviour pattern. But certainly, she had her problems."
The envelope opens: another photograph. The five-year-old Galloway is at a family wedding with a bouquet of flowers and shiny sandals. Her proud, slightly bashful-looking father is behind her in a suit, his eyes on his daughter and not the camera. His hand is cupped just behind her head, almost touching, but frozen at a distance for all eternity. Galloway's mother stands next to him with a fur hat, gloves and a handbag.
"Women in their 40s don't tend to look like this now," she says. "Bad dentistry, bad skincare. I'm clearly in the prized position of being a flowergirl - and I still have a taste for exotic footwear. He doesn't look well there," she says, examining her father. "He's got that west coast of Scotland boozy skin. He must have been dead within a year-and-a-half."
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