I have said he was a quiet baby; he was almost suspiciously mute, in fact. But one week he was colicky, or teething. He squealed and girned all day, his wretched noise even keeping me from the kitchen. Oonagh would pick him up, sing to him, swing him round, pat his back. She did other things to quiet him too — strange Highland customs, I suppose — like blow on his face or dip his feet in blood-warm water. I came into the kitchen for my tea — cocoa, herring and turnips. Gregor wailed in the corner, a grinding costive yell, his fat face livid with effort, fat little fists hammering in the air. Oonagh handed me the plate.
“Little devil,” she said. “There’s nothing for it.” To me: “Go ahead, eat up.”
She lifted Gregor from his basket, unwrapped the swaddling from round him and laid him naked on the kitchen table. I looked on in some astonishment He bellowed.
“Angry wee man,” she said. To me: “It’ll go cold.” I loaded my fork with herring.
Oonagh bent over Gregor and took his tiny penis in her mouth. He stopped crying instantly. He gurgled. One hand beat the air. His walleyes turned sightless towards me. He shook his head to and fro as if resisting some powerful narcoleptic force. His eyes closed. He slept. Oonagh sucked on for a minute, rhythmically. At one moment our gaze met. I was immobile, fork in hand, dry-throated. Oonagh rolled her eyes, as if to say, “Here we go again.”
“Right. That’s you seen to.” Gregor’s small rigid penis glistened, a thin pink cone.
To me: “Sssh. Don’t make a noise, whatever you do. Come on now, finish your tea.”
Oonagh, Oonagh … Did you ever do that to me? Was I ever so fractious that you had to quiet me with similar ministrations?… My God, those are dangerous years. When I look back on my childhood her influence was in many ways the most powerful and long lasting. If the child is father of the man, then Oonagh shaped me. She educated me. She was the first woman I ever loved, unreservedly, wholeheartedly, unconsciously. From one point of view Oonagh made me.
But that is unfair.… It was not her fault that my mother died, that my father employed her, or that I turned out the kind of person I am. She just did not help. And the ticking time bombs she placed in my psyche have been detonating ever since. *
I never really liked my brother, Thompson Todd. He was a plump child, with an oddly mature, jowly, sullen face. He never lost that corpulence. He had pale-brown hair and pale eyelashes. In the summer, when the weather was fine, Oonagh would take us sea bathing at Portobello, along the coast from Edinburgh. My first, fixed memory of Thompson — he was twelve, I was six, I suppose — is of being pinioned on the beach, my small shoulders beneath his fat knees, as he gleefully washed my face with sand. I had grit in my teeth all day. I have no idea why he did not like me. Normally, with an age gap of six years, an older brother will treat a younger with a fond enthusiasm — a favorite sidekick, an instant fan, almost like a pet — but Thompson’s attitudes then, as far as I remember, were either indifference or irritation. Perhaps, unconsciously, he sensed our enmity growing already; sensed the divergent nature of our personalities.
Unlike Thompson, I was an attractive child in my prepubertal years. I was small, dark and dark-skinned, slim, with an unusually large, almost out-of-proportion, head with a shock of glossy black hair cut straight across my forehead in an uncompromising fringe by Oonagh. There is a photograph of me, age seven, standing with Thompson on the beach at Gullane. Beside his bulk (his almost girlish breasts swelling beneath the horizontal stripes of his bathing costume) I look sticklike and frail against the bright sand. We are holding hands, untypically. I have just emerged from the water and my hair is wet and slicked back from my forehead. The altered hairstyle causes me to resemble my older self, in my twenties, in Berlin — gaunt, ascetic, cold, ill used. A stiff breeze flattens the grass on the dunes; sand grains sting the backs of my legs as I gaze fascinated, innocent, into that neutral enticing lens.
The camera was held by Donald Verulam, an acquaintance and sometime colleague of my father at the University. Donald was in his thirties, an Englishman, a bachelor and a lecturer in classics. He sat on some University committee with my father and a reserved form of friendship had grown up over several years and had strengthened since my mother’s death. Donald had a professional interest in medical history and had edited Vesalius’s De Humani Corporis and had published monographs on classical theories of reproduction and of circulation of the blood. He was very tall, well over six feet, and had the slight self-conscious stoop common to many shy, tall men. He had a bony handsome look about him, marred only by his long neck and a rather prominent Adam’s apple. His balding hair grew long at the back. He was a kind diffident man who came to dinner once a month and played golf with my father during the summer on the many links courses around Edinburgh and the Fife coast. These were the only “family” excursions I can recall from my early years. Oonagh, my father, Donald Verulam, Thompson and me. We went to Longniddry, Aberlady, Gullane and Musselburgh, and sometimes across the Forth railway bridge to Crail, Anstruther and Elie. We must have made a curious group: the two earnest men; strong Oonagh, effortlessly lugging a picnic basket (sometimes Gregor too); moody Thompson, with a catapult or a kite; and me, fervent with anticipated pleasure. And yet my merriment was always shadowed by a distant sadness, as if I sensed the disparity in this amalgam of personalities, realized that its very existence hinted at another life, one that I should have been living, had my mother survived the fatal day of my birth.
Donald was an accomplished amateur photographer. He had a new Houghton’s folding reflex camera, and after he and my father had played their round of golf they would return to the beach where we had had our picnic to collect us for the return journey. Then, more often than not, Donald would have us pose for his camera. Thompson could never really be bothered, Oonagh declined — suddenly superstitious — but I would obligingly stand on rocks, practice a swing with one of my father’s golf clubs or feed sugar lumps to donkeys — anything to aid Donald’s compositions.
The only photograph of my mother that we possessed (in a black-ebony and silver frame kept on my father’s bedside table) had been taken by Donald. It was only later that I discovered that he had taken many more.
I was not a clever child, academically speaking. I was alert, bright, chatty and energetic, but by the age of seven I could barely read. Thompson was by then attending the Royal High School, where my father hoped eventually to send me. However, it soon became clear that my difficulties in reading and writing were going to make entry into that strict establishment uncertain. Thompson had been taught to read, had been read to nightly, by my mother. Oonagh, as I have said, was illiterate. I spent my days with her as an infant and it was she who put me to bed at night. Without fail, I would ask for a story and she would tell me one. She spoke to me in Gaelic — old folk tales, I like to think — but I was completely entranced. The room dark, one lamp glowing, Oonagh’s haunch warming my side, and her soft lilting accent with its sonorous, soft gutturals. Oonagh’s square face crudely mimicking the effects of shock, surprise, horror, fabulous joy … It was more than enough. I am sure too that here lies the key to my development as an artist, that this was why my personality took the maverick course it did. In those crucial, early days my imagination was not formed by any orthodox literary or pedagogical tradition. Oonagh’s entrancing, meaningless tales and her big expressive face were sufficient fuel. I am convinced that it is this factor that separates me from my fellow artists, and it is this that makes my vision unique. Inchoate sound and dramatic expression were the foundations of my creative being. Sense, logic, cohesion, played no part. Oonagh’s mysterious voice and the bold analogues of her grimaces set my mind working independently. I owe nothing to any precursor, I had no tradition to guide me. What I saw in my mind’s eye was mine alone.