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“I think I do … I feel … I feel a bit more lively.”

“Grand! Well done, Johnny, there’s your quid.”

During my regime I would let myself out surreptitiously and wander round to the Grassmarket and buy a couple of sticky buns from the baker. I felt no guilt. It made Father happy and it distracted him from my case, as it were, for a time. I feel very sorry now for those patients — the frail amputees, the feeble inmates of the isolation wards — upon whom I conferred the added discomforts of thrice-daily boiled turnips or constant salted fish as they struggled fitfully to convalesce.

By some standards I must have been quite a lonely child. Periodically, my father made an effort to integrate me into the social lives of his colleagues’ families, but none of the friendships that ensued seemed to last very long. I recall twin boys with whom I played fairly regularly for a year or two until one died of diphtheria. And there was a girl — Lucretia Leslie — to whose house I was often invited. I cannot remember much of Lucretia (a violet dress, a cute chubby face) even though we were fast friends for a good while, except that we definitely did not expose our private parts to each other. At school I was reasonably popular, but because I did not live in Barnton I was unable to extend my acquaintance with my school chums beyond classroom hours.

For a while I hung around Thompson, while he was in his mid-teens and I was approaching double figures. I was not welcome. He tolerated me, no more. Anyway, as he entered his final year at school his extracurricular activities took up much of his time. He was captain of his school debating society and was prominent in one of the quasi-religious, paramilitary organizations for boys (I forget which) that seem to proliferate in Scottish cities. He was a sedulous churchgoer for some years (my father was not) and I remember him going on trips to convocations or rallies. Once to Birmingham and once, I think, to Antwerp.

Looking back on Thompson’s indifference I wonder if it was a subconscious resentment of me, like my father’s. Thompson had been six when his adoring mother was taken away and replaced by a bawling baby brother. Did he, somewhere in his being, blame me for this crucial deprivation? My mother’s death was the start of all my misfortunes. Possibly it made Thompson what he was, and what he is today: a cold, selfish, conceited philistine without a drop of fraternal affection in his body. And very rich.

So I was left largely to my own devices: Oonagh, my rare friends, my hobby. I wonder what I did before I got my camera? Played with Oonagh, I suppose. She always seemed to be there with young Gregor — her last child, as it turned out. Should I tell you anything more about Gregor?… I treated him rather as Thompson treated me. In fact, Oonagh showed me more kindness than she did her own child. She called Gregor “snotty-beak”—he seemed always to be in the grip of a ferocious cold, summer and winter, his top lip glossy with phlegm. Gregor.… It seems hardly worth it. He drifted out of my life shortly after. Later I heard he married, joined the merchant navy. Is he still alive? Are you out there, Gregor?… Gregor need not concern us; he was around then, that was all, and he is one of the few people in my life to whom I bear no ill will.

Oonagh. Oonagh was the tender nexus of my universe, although I never reflected on it at the time. When I arrived home from school, breathless from the hike up from the station, it was into the kitchen that I turned.

“Here he is,” she would say and that would be it. I would sit down, my plate would be set in front of me and we would take up our conversation from where it had been left off.

Around the time I learned about Donald Verulam and my mother — the summer of 1912—there was a slight but discernible shift in the relationship between me and Oonagh. By then she must have been in her mid-thirties, still a handsome strong woman, her protruding eyes as restless and shrewd as ever. She moaned with more regularity about the cold, her back, the doings of her offspring. We had had the electric light installed in the apartment now, and what with Thompson and my father more often out than in, her duties were not onerous.

What brought on this change? One day, one week, one month something was different, that is all I can say. She was more guarded, that is the best I can express it. Our easy discourse continued but now I seemed to sense a watchfulness behind it that had not been present before. Why? It was my growing older, I am sure. She missed nothing, and perhaps she sensed one moment the first adult glance I bestowed upon her, felt in my love for her the undertow of carnality. At thirteen I was counting every pubic hair as it appeared, scrutinizing my chin and armpits. I was a rapt participant in the usual trade of smut and sniggers at school. I once barged into Thompson’s room one morning to find his bed a small thrumming tent, Thompson’s eyes firmly shut, an urgent pout of pleasure on his lips. I knew what he was doing. I had been trying it avidly, vainly, myself. So was it the shadow of the adult that fell between Oonagh and myself? In any event, things were never entirely, unreflectingly the same between us again.



“Do you know Mr. Verulam?”


“What do you think of him?”

“Well … I don’t think much of him.”

“Why not?”

“He’s English, isn’t he? Do I need another reason? Daft laddie.”

“Did, ah, did my mother like him?”

“I haven’t a notion. Now, get out of here, ’fore I dot you.”

I did not believe her for a moment, and her evasiveness confirmed my now burgeoning suspicions. She disliked him because she knew something had gone on. I was aware too that I would get nothing further from her. I needed another source of information and I had a good idea where I could get it — Mrs. Faye Hobhouse, my mother’s younger sister.

Faye was two years younger than my mother but had married earlier. Her husband was an Englishman, Vincent Hobhouse, a solicitor and magistrate, who lived and practiced in Charlbury, a small town near Oxford in the Windrush Valley. Faye had a look of my mother, but was taller, with a slightly ungainly pear-shaped figure. She had a pretty, even-featured face, which was given a further louche attractiveness by her heavily shadowed eyes. She always looked as if she had not slept for three days, no matter how bright and alert her demeanor. It seemed to indicate another, covert side to her personality: a latent promise of depravity beneath the veneer of dutiful wife and mother. In due time I came to find almost everything about her — her heavy hips, her small breasts, her dun curly hair — almost overpoweringly attractive.

We did not see much of her and Vincent Hobhouse, or her three children, my cousins — Peter, Alceste and Gilda. I remember only two visits before this summer of 1912. They came in early August. Vincent Hobhouse had taken a lodge near Fort William for a shooting party. Vincent had one of the fettest faces I have ever seen, a prodigious jowl making his head quite round. From the front you could not see his collar, not even the knot of his tie. I often found myself wondering how he tied it in the morning, imagining him having to lie on his back across a bed, his head lolling over the edge like a corpse’s to allow his fingers unimpeded access to his throat. He was a quiet, charming man, prone to melancholy. He had always been stout but apparently after his wedding he had blown up like an abbot. I could never understand why he ate and drank as much as he did; it seemed quite contrary to his nature. He and Faye were an oddly matched couple but they seemed ideally content.

Faye took a genuine affectionate interest in my welfare, rather spoiling me in fact, and, unlike the other members of my family, never giving rise to any suspicion that she blamed me for my mother’s death. Indeed, I heard later that she had offered to adopt me, but my father had declined, averring that he and Oonagh could be trusted with my upbringing.