Picture: My mother, 1968

A room filled with midday sun; dust motes, delicate and backlit are waltzing by the French windows. I am three years old maybe, so light as to balance on the sliding paper tray of the oak desk, and then my mother scoops me onto her hip, half-hoovers, half-dances, the record player's needle undulating gently to the swell of a guitar. At dusk, my brother Daniel and I sit on stools at the foot of the large arm chair as she reads books to us: Burglar Bill, Moving Molly, The Tiger that came to Tea. She had to us as children, an indefinable magic, so playful and willing to enter into the worlds we'd imagine into being. Night blue eyes, a coltish face, a brush of dark, wilful hair; small but mannish hands (“peasants' hands", she'd say proudly). Beyond the French windows, our garden, the golden lozenges of evening light on grass, honeysuckle by the shed, the pine that seemed to stretch to the clouds, and that Daniel and I believed was the very one described “when the tree bends, the cradle will rock”.

When I was born, Daniel - 16 months older – embraced my arrival from the start, and I think that is a testament to the outflow of love, never rationed, so absolute, that our mother gave us. I, in turn, wanted to be Daniel, and despite secretly coveting those patent Mary-Janes that I had seen at Clark's, gleaming and hard like boiled sweets, requested red velcro trainers instead, to match my brothers'. Almost every photo finds us side by side, smiling shyly, conspirators, twins. I remember shared codes, magic words, signs and short hands invented to seal off our unique universe. Radio programmes that we presented on cassette tape to our captive imaginary audience, I always the impulsive one, and sweet Daniel, the calmer voice of reason. Despite everything that came to pass later, it was that love between us - familiar to me as my own skin - that I could sometimes, painstakingly, call him back towards even after words had lost all meaning, even when his face and hands shook with the effort of being alive.

How one evening we covered the floor in islands of books, pirates leaping over treacherous stretches of sea-carpet, fishing for sea horses, which I knew to be elegant and melancholy. How some anxious nights as a child I would crawl into Daniel's bed awaiting our mother's homecoming, ears strained for the unmistakeable harmonics of her car pulling up – it's prow safe to harbour. And how, smelling of winter air and white wine and perfume, she'd climb the stairs and kiss us goodnight, laughing fondly at our relief for her return.


When I was 6, we moved without much warning into a new place with our mother's fiancé, Michael, and all was upended; Daniel and I were separated into different rooms, on different floors within that cavernous damp house. Our mother retreated to her bedroom, furiously tapping out multiple drafts of her theatre script, and drifting about us with a newly distracted air. Michael went away a lot to Turkey, or China, and returned with novel gifts - golden candlesticks, fez hats, frankincense. He taught me how to count to ten in Cantonese, and the fundaments of chess. But other than that, Daniel and I weren't entirely sure what he was there for. At the back of the house, the yard was marshy and dark, and a magnolia tree dominated it's small lawn. A few days of glory, and then it's pale candelabra fell upon the turf, rotting and grey for weeks to come. One day, our mother burst into tears. I remember the curtains pulled to, despite the daylight, rows of overlapping daisies that in that moment made me feel both angry and sorry for their unknowing ugliness. We stood flanking her, unsure, afraid, an edifice quietly crashing down. Does every child feels that way the first time they see their parent cry? The sudden awareness of an incomprehensible, adult terrain in the midst of the known. She left Michael and we moved on again.


Our mother was never one for conforming which was bound to make for a childhood full of excruciating episodes. The complaining in restaurants and haggling over prices, the unrestrained crying or laughing so publicly and unpredictably; in short, unforgivably Middle-Eastern, a constant affront to the esoteric laws of English propriety to which my brother and I were acutely sensitive. The inexpert pliés and arabesques of her free dancing made us writhe with shame, always the smoking (John Player extra mild), hippy rebel to her bourgeois origins. Contradiction articulated in that fine boned face and stubby hands: Cleopatra inking blue black lines onto lids, mouth just ajar with the strain of a steady hand, exquisitely feminine, artfully seductive. But this, we knew, was a temporary ruse for the man of the hour. Her real self swore like a sailor, drove demonically down bus lanes at the height of rush hour traffic, rejoiced barefoot and toe-deep in tile grout, crouched among the dusty matrix of wires and valves, the aortas that pumped life about her ever-changing homes.

Three years now since I touched her face, and sang close to her ear, and dabbed her lips with wet cloth. And even half-paralysed, her right arms busied itself about me, her only daughter, tugging my t-shirt to ensure that no draught could chill my lower back.

[Death is a foreign country. It is anywhere but here. Ships sight it dimly, a purple horizon smudged into the shore, such deceptive shallows; it's sun a cold, white sliver, pushing through the herniated disc of the clouds.

A foot tapping over, over, counting out the weeks, and months, blank mouths, no time. Unending and never beginning. Horatio to Hamlet: The ghost that 'might deprive your sovereignty of reason/And draw you into madness'. We hid secrets among crockery and went stealing through the sleeping house. Daniel in the Lion's Den: “God has Judged Me” You who carried me through a field of nettles despite the stingers that welted your legs, both of us too small to see the lichen gate that eventually led us to safety. Beloved Daniel.

I awake with a sun breaking in my heart, it's yolk in my mouth].

#childhood #brother #mother #writings #musings