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We had an inspiring view from our drawing room windows. Princes Street, with its department stores and hotels, dense with pedestrians, omnibuses, tramcars and motors; the National Gallery, the Scott Monument, the Calton Hill; and below us the lush greenness and always busy pathways of the Waverley Gardens. They never seemed to be empty, these gardens; they were always populated by strolling families of Edinburgh folk, staring at the fountains, listening to brass bands, gaping at the humdrum flowerbeds. You would have thought they had never seen grass and trees before, so assiduously did they frequent the place. And yet the city is overwhelmed with views of the countryside, wherever you look. Stand on George Street and you have an unobstructed panorama of the Forth and across the wide water to the farmlands of Fife. Arthur’s Seat and Salisbury Crags form a backdrop to the east. To the west the gentle Pentland Hills …

I used to be annoyed by the seemly traffic of the gardens. I always, from my earliest memories, preferred the Old Town — the uneven, black, friable descent of the High Street, dirty and reeking as it might have been. The most modest fall of rain had the gutters overflowing with mud. Farther down the hill, past the North Bridge, the gray water would foam past the haggard derelict lands, the grim pubs, the fetid coffeehouses and “residential hotels.” Here the drunks, itinerants and prostitutes lived, plied their trade and whiled away their time. A castle at one end, a palace at the other and a cathedral in the middle. It was the spine of the city but also its large intestine, as it were, stretched out, coiled around the linked vertebrae — bile mixed with bone.

* * *

The child accepts his environment, however bizarre, as a norm, unaware of alternatives. It was a long time before I thought of my upbringing as anything out of the ordinary. Was I happy at Number 3 Kelpie’s Court? I suppose I was, in that I never thought of posing myself the question. Thompson and my father were irregular companions, Thompson at school, my father at work. I grew up, almost entirely, in the care and charge of our housekeeper, Oonagh McPhie. She had a succession of scullery maids who helped in the kitchen, made the fires, swept and cleaned, and Oonagh’s husband, Alfred, looked in every day to bring up coal if the bunker needed replenishing. But everything was controlled by Oonagh. During the day between breakfast and supper it was her demesne and answered to her sway.

She must have been in her mid-twenties when I was born. She was a braw, buxom girl from the isle of Lewis. She had dull fair hair, always worn up in a bun, and big strange protruding eyes with heavy lids. She was illiterate but had a tough, sharp mind. Her husband was a French polisher and they lived not far away in the Grassmarket. She had three children, two boys and a girl, all school age, but they were never in our house. Oonagh would arrive at six in the morning and leave after dinner at eight. How did she run her own household? What happened to her children? We never inquired. Actually I did, from time to time, but she always deflected my questioning: “Oh, they’re fine. They can look after themselves,” or “Why do you want to see my tiny place when you’ve got this lovely home all to yourself?” I did not persist. I was not really concerned, to tell the truth; all that was important was that Oonagh should be there, at home with me. I never remember her taking a holiday.

Of course, I loved her desperately, with an aching violent passion that even now can make my eyes smart. Can you blame me? I never called anyone mother in my life. By the time I was old enough to discover the truth, it was too late. I assumed everyone had an “Oonagh” who arrived in the morning and went home at night. What else could I do? My mother’s death wreaked its baleful consequences on me before I even knew it had occurred.

First memories. The rot setting in. Oonagh, holding me, saying something, crooning in her foreign Gaelic tongue. Oonagh looking at me. “Poor wee man. Who’s got no mammy? I’ll be your mammy, Johnny.” Did she unbutton her coarse blouse, heft out a breast for me to nuzzle, tug and kiss? From where do these imaginings come? Infant memories, buried deep? Did she ever … Did I ever press my small hot head to those cool, pale breasts?

One day — I am sure of this — I must have been seven, in the kitchen, Oonagh pinning up the flap of her apron, glowing white, new-starched, to her blouse, The thrust of her big bosom. Her raw hands smoothing the crispness round it. My huge eyes.

“John James Todd! What’re ye staring at?”

“Nothing, Oonagh … I mean—”

“Cannae take your eyes off my bobbies, eh?” Her hands unpinning. “D’you want a keek?”

I fled, burning-eared, breathless with embarrassment, Oonagh’s delighted laughter chasing me from the room.

My God, Oonagh had a lot to answer for — along with everybody else in that household. I look back now and understand that the prime function of a mother is to protect and shelter the unformed malleable character of her child. A mother’s constant unquestioning love gives the child a bland but fertile mulch of normality and ordinariness in which to grow and flourish. What chance did I have in that house? My strange father, cruel plump Thompson and Oonagh … I had to turn to Oonagh. She loved me, after a fashion, but I was the child of her employer. She cared, but she established limits to her caring. So the need flowed one way, from me to her. Fortunately, I seemed genuinely to amuse her; my presence, my personality, was somehow diverting, and if I could gain her attention she would happily preoccupy herself with me.

At first, I made the child’s mistake of thinking that I needed only to behave badly to achieve this, but Oonagh had powerfully deterrent penalties. She would flick my ears with her short hard nails — my ears would glow hot for hours. She would pinch me under the arm, squeezing the soft flesh below the armpit between blunt forefinger and sharp knuckle of her thumb. She would lead me from room to room by the volute of one nostril. She would crack me on the head with a particular wooden spoon — and my skull rang with a deep bass bell — and once, once only (once was enough), after a truly heinous offense (what on earth had I done?) she put washing soda on my penis. Three days of boiling, flaming agony that no water could quench (how could I tell my father?).

So my transgressions were few. I took to winning her attention by the idiosyncratic direction of my conversation, by making up stories. Once engaged, she would chat away herself and then, sometimes, would come the endearments — a kiss, a Gaelic pet name, a hug, the soft yielding crackle of a starched apron in my ear, my nose full of the mild oniony smell of sweat from her armpit. The embraces diminished as I grew older, but my need for her love never waned.

Because her affection was so disinterested, at first I experienced no jealousy when she became pregnant with her fourth child. I was six when it was born, a boy — Gregor. She would bring him with her when she came to work and prop him in an empty log basket in the corner of the kitchen. Did she breast-feed Gregor? Was that the source of my own false memories? (He was a large, ugly, though mercifully quiet child.) Did I mentally transpose positions with him? Was that where I saw those round stretched blue-veined breasts, Gregor’s snotty button nose against their gooseberry tightness?… Quite possibly. I was a jealous child. I still have that abrupt and destructive jealousy within me. It has cost me dearly, once, as you shall see. My neutrality towards Gregor swiftly disappeared. I hated him. He was the first person I hated.