By Andrew Maben
Four in the morning the labor pains began. It was 9:30 a.m. in Delhi. It would be a difficult birth. Labor went on through the day, until the doctors decided to intervene and at four thirty in the evening they dragged me out. Some four and a half hours earlier the Mahatma had been assassinated. Just two days ago a plane carrying nameless Mexican farm workers exploded in “a fireball of lightning” over Los Gatos Canyon, California. There were no survivors. Perhaps my reluctance to leave the comfort of the womb was based upon some presentiment of the world I was about to enter.
Reluctant to be born, I also displayed little enthusiasm for life. I was a “blue baby”, suffering from infant respiratory distress syndrome. It seems I didn’t feel like breathing, which all in all seems a remarkably apt reaction. It was two days until I saw my mother and was held in her arms for the first time. So in my earliest formative moments I was cared for, even nurtured, but not loved. Perhaps this has shaped my life. It certainly limns the boundaries of my emotional experience through most of my days. But, as we shall see, I am an ungrateful little snot, never properly grateful for what is given me.
The earliest perception of the world that I sucked into my consciousness and was able to retain is an impressionistic patchwork seized from the dance of nothingness that is the world in which we live. The scents and colors of flowers, green hedges, a fence, a narrow lane or alley, the songs of birds, warmth and a blue sky, sitting in a push-chair, contentment, perhaps curiosity. But all memories are fiction, stories told in an attempt to describe, explain, ascribe meaning to the world and our place in it. And so this is a work of fiction: I describe as faithfully as I can my memories of life, but I cannot know, and nor can anyone, if these stories describe reality, still less if they define truth.
Already I’m running into trouble. I spent some or most of my first year in Germany, where my father was a dentist in the R.A.F. serving with the occupation forces. Yet that memory must be of spring or summer, has always felt completely English. It must be from my second year, and I have another memory. Christmas, my first, my grandfather with what seemed a huge teddy bear, other adults laughing encouragement as I tottered across the room to hug the bear, and promptly fall, laughing, happy, on my ass. This must be the earlier event. Yet the other persists in feeling to belong in first place. Is this because the teddy bear still exists, offering corroboration, whereas only I possess the lane? Or is it a product of the very development of consciousness itself?
As more memories gather, at first in isolation, they gradually blur somehow at their peripheries into a continuum of existence, like the stars we recognize in the clear night sky, incognizant of, and indifferent to the many millions more unseen, the background radiation. Is this really how life is? I cannot recall the continuity of my own existence. The best I can do is pluck the recollection of incidents, events, from my life. Some significant in some way, some seemingly random and meaningless. Through the selection and retelling of these events I give an apparent order to the days of my life, present an attempt at a true self-portrait. How does my selection and telling of these stories color the way you see me, or I see myself? I elect to tell those things that may amuse or interest you, perhaps from their cumulative effect one of us may gain some insight, understanding, even a glimpse of some meaning in our life. I hope you will not, at least, be bored. I wasn’t. Most of the time.
I retell these childhood tales in the order they have arranged for themselves in my mind, which is not necessarily the actual order in which they really happened. Wherever I can, or can remember, or can be bothered, I will make some effort to clarify, but I make no promises. You have already been warned that this is fiction. There is some kind of truth here, for all that.
At the age of four I found a robin’s nest in my grandfather’s garden. One by one, knowing it was wrong but somehow unable to stop, I took the eggs and dropped them down the well, while the mother flapped frantically about, uttering cries of grief and frustration. “The devil made me do it” didn’t work for me then, or now, and I realized that there is some dark thing in me. I’ve been struggling with it ever since. I knew what I was doing was wrong, not because I had already had a sound ethical education from my parents, or anyone else. I could tell the mother was grief-stricken and appalled by what I was doing, but it was not just that, I knew. But if I knew, and I was not taught, where did the knowledge come from? Who, or what was it that recognized the darkness within, recognized it as darkness? What I did was against life, purely destructive. Perhaps a small thing, nevertheless at the end of the few moments the act took the world was measurably worse than it had been. I would like to be able to say that this recognition put an end to my acting upon these dark impulses, but that is not so. In fact I learned, which is to say taught myself, to enjoy cruelty. Good and evil may seem beyond what we expect of a four year old, yet I suspect that I am no rare exception, that this awareness is an essential component, perhaps the essential component, of our humanity. It is the beginning of the idea, which must be inherent in life in itself and in all its forms, that life is sacred. All ethics are born from this simple notion, all ethics can be distilled to this idea born in our very cells, our souls.
One day I was in the park with my nanny. Near the pond was a thick stand of bamboo, I squirmed through the tall stalks and found that inside there was a network of linked gaps between the plants, offering a passage. I pushed on, an intrepid explorer, and found a treasure at the very center. One of those simple fishing nets made with wire bent and twisted in a circle with a few projecting inches thrust into a piece of bamboo. It was as if it had somehow, magically, grown there, as if it were waiting for me to discover it and make it mine. When I emerged proudly bearing my trophy, nanny was hard put to believe me. Who knows where it came from, how it came to be there? No doubt there is a simple, rational explanation. Still magical it made a deep impression on me.
Every Christmas my grandfather threw a works party at the factory for all the employees and their families. The highlight was the arrival of Santa Claus with gifts for all the children. My gift was not enough for me, not after I saw another boy was happily holding a Rotocopter. In the car on the way back to my grandparents’ house someone must have noticed my less than delighted reaction, and asked if I liked my gift. Evidently I saw an opportunity, as I burst into tears and snuffled “I wanted a ROTOCOPTER.” I told you I’m an ungrateful little snot, didn’t I? I was ashamed of myself at the time, but that didn’t stop me accepting as my due the Rotocopter that I was given the next day. It didn’t stop me from playing with it, but there was always a sour feeling of shame.
I was four when I got tonsillitis and went to the hospital to have my tonsils out. All I recall of this is the immediate aftermath of the operation, which must have been early in the morning. I remember woozily waking from the anaesthetic to see all the other children in the ward spooning down bowls of porridge. My favorite breakfast, yum! Soon a nurse appeared at my bedside, bowl in hand.
“I’ve brought you some lovely ice cream,” she beamed.
A short aside here to remember that it’s 1952, “austerity” is still the name of the game, rationing still in place, and “ice cream” was cold but had only the barest nodding acquaintance with cream, which is commonly understood to be the high-fat component of cow’s milk. As I understand it, “ice cream” at this time, like margarine, was in fact manufactured from whale blubber. Whether or not this was in fact true, and I believe the prominence given whale hunting in various picture books of the era bears the rumor out, it certainly tasted that way. Greasy tasting with an unsettling grainy texture and lingering on the tongue and palate with an unpleasant persistence, it was quite frankly, disgusting. But hardy Britons were expected to, and did, “grin and bear it”. Although I must confess my gratitude that the rationing of the the war years, lasting into the early fifties was largely, if not entirely, responsible for the healthiest generation the United Kingdom has ever seen. But back to my hospital bed.
“I HATE ice cream. Can’t I have porridge? Everyone else is having porridge.”
“No, the coolness will soothe your throat.”
“I don’t mind, I’ll wait for the porridge to get cold.”
“No, dear, eat your ice cream, there’s a good boy.” Implacable.
Somehow I forced myself to down the awful cold greasy paste. Until we started going to Cornwall for our summer holidays, and discovered a Swiss baker who made perhaps the most delicious full-cream ice cream ever, I would only consume iced lollies. Do you blame me?
That afternoon Mummy came to see me. Her hands were full of something concealed beneath a draped tea-towel. She carefully set her burden down on the bedside table before bending to kiss me. Then, smiling shyly, she lifted the towel to reveal a green plastic mould of a crouching rabbit. Very carefully she lifted the mould. For a moment there was a perfect pink blancmange rabbit crouched quivering on its platter. Alas, disaster! The vibrations of the car had undone the coherence of the gelatine. Before our eyes the rabbit collapsed, disappeared into a shapeless pink sludge. Such a bewildered, disappointed, unhappy face, a look that I would see echoed in another beloved face, oh, so many years later – but we’ll come to that when the time comes.
I could scarcely bear to see that look in her eyes. And I really didn’t care that much about the vanished rabbit. Then as now I was far less concerned with the the presentation of food than the sheer pleasure of eating a tasty dish. And pink blancmange topped my four year old’s list of tasty dishes.
“Don’t worry, Mummy. It will still taste good. They made me eat ice cream for breakfast, it’ll take the taste away.” Smiling back her tears, she spooned a heaping bowlful, which I wolfed down and asked for more. Somehow from this incident I developed a habit of trying to suppress my own sadnesses and disappointments to try to help loved ones and friends cope with their own. This is probably less from any genuine altruism than some kind of martyr complex, a wish to appear so self-sacrificing that others would want to offer me the same kind of sympathy. As a strategy I must say it has only been partially successful at best.
At five, off I went to kindergarten. It meant walking up Station Road to the High Street and then an eight mile bus ride to Taunton and another walk to the convent. The nuns were, I imagine, strict but fair. The place had an air of gloom, and to me the nuns in their black habits were rather menacing figures. I remember nothing of my lessons. The dreadful food is another story, and I still vividly recall carefully picking the more or less edible meat and potato from a tepid heap of boiled cabbage which was slowly oozing oleaginous green liquid onto the plate. Having salvaged all I could, I pushed the plate aside.
Here comes a nun: “Eat your cabbage, Andrew.”
“I don’t like cabbage.”
“It’s good for you. Eat it.”
“It makes me sick.”
“You’re not leaving this table until you have eaten every bite!”
We’ll see about that… I pushed a slimy green mass onto my fork, let it slide into my mouth and forced myself to swallow. Oh well, she couldn’t say she hadn’t been warned. I gagged, my stomach lurched horribly and I vomited the entire meal back onto my plate and the table around it. I’m quite sure that this is what has kept me from ever daring to eat oysters on the half-shell.
It was at the convent that I met my first friend, Peter. In the summer he taught me to pluck honeysuckle blossoms and suck their nectar. A small pleasure that I continue to enjoy to this day. Peter also gave me my first taste of crime. The nuns had a small kitchen garden, and one afternoon we evaded our overseers and went on a commando raid to loot the gooseberry bushes. Ah, the thrill of doing something forbidden! We slipped under the fence, crawled on our bellies through the rows of vegetables, herbs, fruit bushes, careful to maintain cover all the way. We came at last to a gooseberry bush concealed from sight in all directions and sat down to gorge. Well Peter gorged. This was also my first experience of gooseberries. He handed me a ripe one and I eagerly plopped it into my mouth. Ugh! The texture of all those little hairs on my tongue and palate was not at all pleasant. And the taste. I spat it out. I suspect there was some lesson about crime and its rewards that I took away from that episode, but damned if I know what it may be. Peter left the convent at the end of that summer term to go off to boarding school, and as we said goodbye, I never expected to see him again.
At some point during these childhood years I learned to read. Did I teach myself, as I have often been heard to claim? Honestly I have no recollection whatsoever of acquiring this skill that has meant so much to me that it seems almost to have been a part of me since the very beginning. Books have been my refuge, my solace, my inspiration, my vice, my joy, a spur to action, a goad to thought, an excuse for indolence. I cannot remember a single day of my life when a part of my mind was not caught somewhere between the covers of a book. I have always been a compulsive reader. If there are written words anywhere in sight I will obsessively read them. Thomas the Tank Engine and his friends, Beatrix Potter’s fanciful animal tales are some of my earliest memories. Later Toad of Toad Hall left me, I recall, with a strange feeling of loss, a vaguely threatening sense of estrangement. But it was The Just So Stories that entranced me. I have returned again and again to Kipling’s fancies, have always felt an oddly comforting affinity for The Cat Who Walked Alone. Later of course would come the Jungle Books. I spent many hours when I was supposed to be sleeping, head beneath the covers, reading by the light of a torch.
I was not a good brother to my little sister Claire. Poor thing. She was the victim of that same dark impulse. Two events in particular continue to haunt me because of the sickening pleasure I took, and hated myself for taking, in them.
One night as we prepared for bed, Claire’s curiosity and unquenchable thirst for adventure prompted her to climb up and fetch a bottle of cough syrup from the medicine chest. She loved the taste, she said, and proceeded to chug down the whole bottle before climbing into bed. In moments she was sleeping, and I slipped from the bedroom to go downstairs to tell my parents. Let’s be clear, my sole motive was to get Claire in trouble and to enjoy being witness to her punishment, which I had a feeling would be severe.
“Yes, dear?” asked Mummy.
“Claire just drank the whole bottle of cough mixture.”
I had expected anger towards Claire, and a reward for myself. But this was not at all the reaction. Both parents developed stricken, anxious faces and hurried to her room. They roused her from her slumber, put her on her feet and proceeded to walk her around the bedroom in circles, talking softly, solicitously, ignoring me. I sat on my bed, watching, resentful, this was not what I wanted. But of course I could hardly say. And even while consumed with these ignoble thoughts, I was fully aware that they were base, ashamed on that account, perhaps, but only to the degree that I took care to keep them hidden. My only regret was not over my own craven nature, but that my desire had been thwarted.
The other episode began, we both remember, with my teasing her. She would become so angry, pouting so hard that her chin became corrugated. It was all but impossible to resist, and frankly I made little or no effort to do so. Daddy had invented the phrase “boot face” to describe her pouts, and the sound of those words enraged her. Here her memory and mine diverge, and this is surely where I learned of the fictional, or at least provisional, nature of memory. I know that my recollection is the correct one. And she is equally secure in the knowledge of her own veracity. But if neither of us is lying, where is the truth hiding? Anyway, she was chasing me around the house. She will tell you I was chasing her. She missed her footing as she rounded the corner. There was a large rusted nail projecting from the brick wall that separated us from the neighbors. I heard her yell and turned in time to see her head crash into the wall as she fell. She picked herself up to sit on the ground. The blood was gushing from a gash on her forehead. At least I had the decency to be scared, though how much of that fear was over her state and how much was at the prospect that I might be punished perhaps you can judge. Perhaps you will be more generous to me than I am, but you’ll probably not feel so well disposed in a moment. I ran into the house yelling for Mummy, who came running.
“Claire’s hurt herself.” I led her outside, where Claire was still sitting in the same spot, weeping, blood all over her face. Mummy scooped her up and carried her to Daddy’s surgery. They called me a few moments later.
“Come on, Andrew. We’re taking Claire to the hospital.”
Daddy drove, while Mummy held Claire on her lap in the front seat beside him. I sat alone in the back, quietly seething. Furious at the attention Claire was receiving. Angry that my afternoon’s play was being curtailed for the sake of a visit to the boring hospital.
“She’s going to need stitches,” a doctor pronounced.
“Sit here and wait for us, dear,” said Mummy. “The doctor’s going to make your sister better.”
I sat on the straight backed wooden waiting room chair. I swung my heels. I looked at the boring posters on the wall. I probably counted tiles on the floor, I liked to count things when I was bored. For that matter I still find myself counting my paces as I walk, counting the constellations of dots in acoustic tile ceilings. I was bored. I was resentful. Then I recognized Claire’s anguished cry, rising to a shriek of pain as they put in the stitches. For each stitch a shriek. And with each shriek a mean spirited, gloating thought from me: “Good. Hope it hurts. Serves you right.” How I dared imagine that she in any way deserved this pain I cannot begin to explain to myself. I will make no attempt to justify myself to you. I expect you’ve already come to the conclusion that I was indeed a rather nasty creature. In which case you may recognize something of the same kind of feeling in yourself as you read on. On the other hand maybe you will feel sorry for me, but if so, thank you anyway, but pity is never what I needed, and besides by now it is much too late.
There were two drainage ponds, known as the Basins, not far from our house. We would often go for walks that way. The path ran between the two ponds, bordered on each side by an old and rusted iron fence. The end of one fence had long since lost its post, and the horizontal bars were all bent and twisted in such a way that I could stand on the bottom one while grasping the top. Once in position, I was able to set myself swinging and bouncing, a most enjoyable ride. Or it was until the day that I jumped off and the top bar swung away from me, but then rebounded. The end of the bar smacked me in the mouth. Hard. It hurt. A lot. Yes, you are certainly allowed to say “Serves you right.” I think I agree with you. I put my hand up to my mouth, it came away all covered in blood. and there was a hole where just now one of my front teeth had been. In my mind’s eye I suffered stoically and walked bravely home, but it does seem more probable that I bawled every step of the way.
I seem to have had a real penchant for bouncing. Bouncing has caused me, one way or another, a rather disproportionate amount of grief. Is there some kind of metaphor here? As my story unfolds, you may come to feel that there is. I certainly wonder about it myself. But if in fact it is so, where did the metaphor come from? Would that not mean that some outside author is somehow writing my life? It beats me, and that is quite enough metaphysics for now, so back to bouncing and its rewards.
I was jumping up and down on my bed, kicking my legs out behind me to bounce on my stomach. It was really fun! I did it over and over again. Perhaps I got dizzy. Perhaps I got over confident. I kicked by legs back one more time. As I fell I could see that I had rather misjudged my move, and that there was nothing to be done but watch as the bed board rose to smash me, yes of course you’ve guessed, in the mouth. There went my other front tooth.
That Christmas I sat on my grandfather’s lap as he sang to me:
“All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth,
My two front teeth.”
My big teeth grew back soon enough. Unfortunately they were big teeth, and they could not find room to politely grow in a properly vertical direction, finding it necessary to set off at a pronounced angle. The effect of these huge protruding teeth was endearing to adults, no doubt. I can still hear, or imagine hearing, the coos of how sweet. But in the snake pit that is the world of children I was marked, I was different, I became a target. I hasten to say that when I speak of the snake pit of childhood I am not so naive, blind, stupid, as to think that the adult world is some kind of improvement. Indeed finding that the adult world promotes the vicious impulses of children into the bitter fruits of war, crime, this has colored my whole life.
And later, after my grandfather had died – the news of which had prompted me to ask, “Mummy, does that mean Granny woke up next to a skeleton?” – at my grandmother’s house, sitting quietly on the floor, playing. Granny was playing bridge, and one of her friends at the card table remarked, “Isn’t he good?” To which my grandmother, “Oh, yes. He has the patience of Job!” I had no idea who Job was, but her words felt somehow ominous, almost a curse.
There are of course many more memories than these few. Some are perhaps worth a passing mention. I was a shy child, not to say timid, but not fearful. The fear came later. I certainly had my vicious and selfish side, but I was aware of it, which may not be so usual. And at least I seem to have had also enough decency to be ashamed of my baser nature. Did our picnics at Stonehenge conjure an interest in the ancients and their teachings? I do remember standing in the garden to watch the Bristol Brabazon fly overhead. Is this the source of my childhood fascination with flight? And does its ignominious demise somehow prefigure the fading of that particular dream? Who can tell? I had few friends, though I think that was due more to circumstance than nature, and the habit has stayed with me.
One childhood nightmare has remained with me, not because its content was that terrifying, in fact it is comical in retrospect. Its form on the other hand terrifies me to this day. I awoke one night from a disturbing dream to find a rooster perched at the foot of the bed, eyeing me with obviously malevolent intent. I knew I was wide awake. Yet there he was. I screamed. Mummy came and the rooster disappeared. But I was left with the certainty that I can never be certain in my perceptions and knowledge of the world. And if you think a child can not think these thoughts, well, insofar as a child may be unable to find the words to describe the thought that may be true. But the gift of language lies first in its ability to give at least the illusion that by naming things we can control them. And simply because a thing can not be named, that does not mean it can not be known, can not be feared. Indeed such things are the depthless well from which all our fears are drawn.