Mère knew, as mothers do, that I was born a writer. Why else would she bear me so literarily? Jet clouds blossomed in the failing sky of the hesitant Kentish morning, forcing a premature midnight, and rolling something like black ink spilled on blotting paper. Although I am to be later labelled precocious, most notably by my tutor/mentor at St John’s and also within the Observer's astute review of my debut novel, And Thereby Hangs a Tail, on this, the occasion of my first being, frustratingly I am yet able to hear, deaf to the waves of sound passing through the pregnant air, shivering heavy with portent, penetrating my mother’s womb like post-IED dust through desert streets, to shiver my nascent, rubber-like ears, the ears of a doll and as pretty too.
Mother refused all analgesic, for what use is the numbing of physical pain, if the continued torture of my father’s absence can only be blunted by the grand anaesthetic of death’s suffocating nothingness?
(She later discovered that, during this auspicious time, Père had taken a beard and was working as a deckhand/ poet in situ for an industrialist wealthy enough to indulge a pretension towards verse, off the coast of Jamaica. Mère often jokes that she only wishes this had also been Père’s location during my conception. To this observation, my repeated laughter is that of a loyal, indulgent daughter, for, in truth I don’t comprehend how this might be possible, not least as my mother is infamously unable to cope with unsteady flooring. I remember, with no little shudder, that vomit-stained Turkish rug in the much-missed, ankle-troubling bedsit afflicted by Pisa-like subsidence in Stoke Newington. This sharp angle, due to London’s accursed clay, gave the building the appearance of a lovable drunk, but more of that later.)
Truly, my mother loved my father. And in that way that only those born in the shadow of the Second World War can. With the love of a book to a bookmark, an artillery shell to a cannon. If I were writing about her, rather than me, I might trouble Microsoft Word’s failing memory with a vain attempt at expressing, with mere words, this love, comparing it to a Song Thrush’s adoration of dawn, perhaps, if, indeed, Song Thrushes sing at dawn. They most certainly sing. And so did my mother.
Might Mère have feared the apocalypse? Or else the arrival of the demon child, much heralded by Hollywood’s dark, satanic thrills? The charcoal sky, its thunder sounding as if the gods of antiquity had finally bothered to rise from their dead-handed slumber, lightning walloping as if dearest Mother Earth twitched in her death throes, a final desperate effort to remove herself from the Sun’s orbit and so bring an end to the dreariness of it all. Bad weather, indeed. Brontëweather, as I call it. And, in a year marked not only the cinematic release of The Omen but also the growing geopolitical tension between the binary numbness of the US/USSR, countries sharing two letters but little else, if she didn’t fear my birth heralded End Times, she may well have expected me to be the last truly British woman likely born. Yes, it was the summer of 1979, Thatcher, that awesomely coiffured snake oil salesman of consumerism was PM and my mother was not and had never voted for Thatcher, would never vote for her, because, following Wilson’s first premiership, she had lost faith in a political system that promised to deliver the white heat of technological progress, but couldn’t even organise the dustbin collection. Consequently, she refused to sully her artist’s hands by drawing an X in any box. Indeed, she never wrote out the letter again, claiming the massed Xs of civilization to be a grand trumpet salute to King Nihilism.
The atmosphere of operatic portent was undercut by the eventual place of my birth. Dismissing the broken mattresses of the NHS, Mère had visualised a sacred congregation of water, piss, blood and baby formed in an antique paddling pool in the kitchen of our terraced, ex workman’s cottage, in Orpington. When push literally came to shove and Aunt Cordelia refused to answer my mother’s many and repeated telephone calls - it was later revealed that A.C. was being violently fucked in a privet bush by her part-time gardener, full-time lover - the sight of the paddling pool and the Pavlovian responses it summoned in my mother, namely childhood pissing within its plastic rings in an attempt to warm water her own father, a man as tightly faced as he was tightly miserly, refused to ever fill with even the most lukewarm of liquid because heat cost money, ask Neil Armstrong - she rushed, as a Zeppelin from a holding warehouse, into the street, a pregnant Blanche, throwing herself prostrate at the kindness of strangers’ feet and in particular the feet of strangers who might own motorcars and knew the way to Orpington Hospital.
But with the symbolism telling in the mother of a writer who has appeared on two Booker longlists before the competition was demeaned by the inclusion of Americans, with their dynastically-obsessed literature, and one once both under forty and ‘worth watching’, the only stranger outside, and not truly a stranger outside but a Glaswegian named Donald, with access to transport, was the milkman.
Milkmen are by necessity a sensitive lot. Each and every house at which they deposit their milk demands a different order of milk. Through intimate knowledge of an individual’s milk order, it is possible to understand not only their dietary preference but their very soul, that milk of human existence. That fateful morning, the morning of my entrance, he was quick to drop his ledger-book, push back his cap, and understand the beautiful, plump Kaftan-wearing woman who emerged wailing and gnashing her teeth from Number 9 had more on her mind than an extra bottle of semi-skimmed.
'Nae have to warry' he said, gripping my mother's porcelain wrists, taking hold of both the pregnant woman and the situation.
The Glaswegian accent has always struck me as forged by poetic industry.
Mother surrendered herself to fate and found fate to be a series of upturned milkcrates. Blue, they were, a false herald of a baby boy according to society’s fascistic sexual colour apartheid.
'Had we better not head to hospital?' asked my mother, nodding at the idling milk float, her propensity for alliterative speech not inhibited by the imminent birth of me.
'She cannae go fast,' said Donald, indicating the milk float's restricted speed. 'And aye can alreddy sae yon bairn's head.'
And so it fell to innocent, glorious Donald, now lost in the incarnadine sea of the myriad foot-soldiers of historic service folk, postmen, firemen, cable guys, all anonymous, penis-baring, and lost, in my mind’s eye, they share the same dead-eyed grin, but not skin colour, of Legomen - note the masculine suffix in common, to be the original seer of my virgin head.
Never one to push unnecessarily, my mother has me to slip from her loins into the (dairy) world much like a penguin diving into the pristine, ice-dusted waters of the Arctic.
'I hope she's a fool,' she managed to express, in between unplanned heaves of violent sobbing. Although she had attempted to remember FSF's plagiarised description of sad Daisy's daughter, the overwhelming ennui of being thrust into the motherhood had retarded her usually superlative memory.
'She's ne a boy, alright,' said Donald, now attempting to catch the afterbirth in a glass pint bottle. That he failed is one of mother's eternal regrets, and also caused her crying to cease. She had hoped to prepare placenta to be eaten, using the experience not only to make a symbolic point about the circularity of life but also to pitch a 1000-word article to the Guardian or Woman's Weekly at the very least. Instead the flesh, looking not unlike a discarded, undercooked, doner kebab was left kerbside for cats lucky enough to be marauding this way.
I am told that most babies scream upon their entry into the world of flesh. I think, perhaps, that this offers proof of reincarnation. I, however, was/am less obvious. I plough my own furrow, etc. As Donald leant over a crate of silver-topped pints, offering my pinkness to Mère as an Aztec presenting a virgin sacrifice to his Pagan gods, I, merely looked upon the sweat-broken brow of my mother and released a long, knowing sigh.
'What's ha nayme? asked Donald.
Mother made Donald repeat the question until she comprehended quite what was being asked. We were in Kent, after all, not Lanarkshire. When finally she understood, she wiped a splash of gore from my forehead, and replied -
'She is smaller than I visualised. I shall therefore call her Hermia.' Donald was nonplussed, being a milkman rather than an artist, although neither my mother nor I would ever deny the proud fidelity of the proletariat. 'From A Midsummer Night's Dream. Hermia is short.'
'Macbeth,' said Donald. 'Nae there's a play.'
God, should you exist, bless this milkman.
Donald was lost in reverie of the Scottish play as my mother muttered what she could remember of a Native American prayer over my face. It was at this point that I shed my first tears of being. From the off, I have possessed an intense dislike of the American cultural hegemony, be it ersatz Indian or Cormac McCarthy.
To this day, Mère claims to suffer the scarred indentations of the milk crates on her back. Especially when the weather is turning.