The beginning. But which beginning?
I could start with my birth. My birth, my untimely entrance into the world, on the hottest day of 1977, when the sun seemed to hang unmoving in the sky, and the washing hung in the back gardens of the estate like limp tongues, and my mother’s body, as if exhausted, gave up and dumped its cargo two months early, letting me slither out unceremoniously, limp, half-baked, wrinkled as a burst balloon, into my grandmother’s hands.
No - stop. That’s not the beginning at all. I need to go back further - to the car park of the Pony and Trap on a January night, a pea-green Ford Escort with steamed-up windows, in which my mother blinked up at the roof, and my father grunted, and the gassy smell of the new upholstery and the damp wool smell of her coat and the beer on his breath made her stomach roll, and she had to open the door to be sick, just as, at that moment, I was conceived.
No, no. That’s not right either. I’m doing this all wrong. The fire, the paper mill fire, the fire that burned my father’s friend alive, the friend whose funeral brought him down to Devon, where he met my mother for the first time. That was the beginning, I suppose. The spark. The spark that caused the blaze.
Not that it was a spark, really - more an ember, slow-glowing, flicked from the foreman’s cigarette, drifting in lazily through the slightly open door into the mill’s recycling room, where bales of shredded paper stood in stacks, white and silent as ghosts. If only the foreman had bothered to close the door. If only the breeze hadn’t been blowing in just the right direction to funnel that ember through the two-inch gap, onto the loose shreds of paper, blowing just softly enough and steadily enough to encourage the paper to catch fire, just strongly enough to fan the flames. If only, if only. Then the fire wouldn’t have consumed the stacks, roaring through the mill, trapping Martin Delaney in a corner of the warehouse as a blazing two-tonne roll of paper crashed down in front of him, blocking his exit. Then there would have been no funeral, and no wake at the Pony & Trap pub, and my father, in a black suit, wouldn’t have ordered a pint from the pretty barmaid with dark curly hair, and he would never have taken her out to his Ford Escort three hours later, and I would never have been conceived, or born, and the things I did would never have been done.
One ember on a breeze, and here we are.
Thinking like this makes me dizzy. All these moments folded within moments, like a set of Chinese boxes, Russian nesting dolls. Matryoshka. Mother.
My mother only had one arm. One real arm, anyway. She had a plastic one. My father, in the pub, didn’t notice at first, too fixed on her face. But then he saw it hanging stiffly by her side as she put his money in the till, and he glanced at it again as she handed him his change, and she saw him look, and her cheeks burned, even though she was used to people looking and didn’t usually mind. But she minded when this man did it, because this man had blonde wavy hair and an accent (Scottish, but she thought it was Irish at first), and a smile that crinkled his eyes up in a way that made her face heat up and her stomach feel strange.
(Being a barmaid was a strange choice of work for a one-armed girl, you’d think, but she did it well. Her plastic hand was open in a sort of flat pincer-grip, and she could slot the handles of pint mugs onto it, and with the other one she balanced trays and counted change and played a mean leg of darts, too. And besides, the regulars all knew her as John Legg’s crippled girl, they’d watched her grow up, and they were patient with her.)
Thalidomide. She got off lightly, considering. I’ve seen pictures of other babies in medical textbooks, their eyes covered with black boxes, some with no legs, just feet twisted up in front of their stomach; some with little flippers for hands; some with no limbs at all, just a head on a torso. Some were deaf or blind. And some just didn’t survive.
My nan had gone to the doctor about morning sickness. It was a male doctor, as they all were in those days. Dr. Baker. He was middle-aged and having an affair with Diana, the young, red-haired receptionist with the mole on her upper lip. The sight of my nan, her bulging belly straining against her cotton sundress, made him uneasy. He was being careful with Diana, but the other day things had got carried away, and they’d forgotten to take precautions, and now he was worried. Of course, if he had to, he could fix things - but what if she wanted to keep it? He was regretting ever starting this affair. Although his mind wandered back to the other night in his office, the warm pliancy of her thighs, undoing the buttons on her satin shirt, and he felt himself stirring.
"I’m suffering terribly with it, Doctor," the sweaty and pallid woman was saying (in her Devon accent it came out ’dark-tur’). "I can’t keep anything down. In the mornings I’m bent double over the toilet for an hour or so."
The stirring in his trousers quelled. Diana’s thighs vanished. The woman was looking at him.
"I’ve got two young’uns I’ve got to look after, and I can’t get nothing done when I’m feeling like this. Is there anything you can give me for it? Please?"
He looked at her, her pale face, the beads of sweat on her upper lip, her hands twisting a handkerchief in her lap. He reached out and patted her knee.
"Don’t worry, Mrs Legg," he said. "I’ll write you a prescription." He turned to his desk, the desk onto which, two nights before, he’d lifted Diana, and began writing on a notepad.
"Distaval," he said. "It’s a new drug, very safe. Virtually impossible to overdose on, so you needn’t worry about your little ones getting into the medicine cabinet. Take it twice a day, with meals. It may make you a little drowsy, but it’ll stop the nausea."
He tore the slip off, handed it to her.
She smiled weakly. "Thank you, doctor. Give my regards to Mrs Baker, won’t you? We missed her at the W.I. last week."
Mrs Baker hadn’t gone to the W.I. last week because she’d been having a hysterical fit over the smell of perfume on Dr Baker’s shirt. He told her she was under emotional stress and was imagining it, and had suggested a course of Zolpidem to calm her nerves, and she had slapped him.
He rubbed his cheek absent-mindedly.
"Of course," he said. "Goodbye, Mrs Legg."