IN THE BEGINNING, my mother took the form of a book. A 220-page paperback, with a cream and orange jacket, and the imprint of a small milk-bottle-shaped bird. A Narrow Street, boasted the sans-serif title that stood in for her eyes, and at the bottom, Elliot Paul. Or was it John Steinbeck and Cannery Row? I'm not sure. Mother came in many guises in those first weeks. And though the peculiarly shaped bird may just have been a black smudge against a less-black background (I had no depth of vision), I'm sure about the colour scheme itself; it did not change.
For some time I believed, as I gazed upwards chortling milk, that the book that was my mother radiated a mass of golden wavy hair. That it ate packets and packets of a certain digestive biscuit covered in chocolate. That it heaved and shifted and made low rumbling sounds, and sometimes sharp high barks. I was not unhappy: a steady stream of milk was being delivered. I was not cold; I was not hungry. I could rely on my mother to be constant in shape and unchanging in complexion. And then one day, she yawned and the book dropped from her face and everything changed.
I broke off from the breast in terror. For a start, Mother was enormous. Secondly, she was not orange and cream and black, and there was nothing perpendicular about her at all; she was white and gold and lacked precise edges. She had a large open mouth that was studded with small, terrifyingly precise teeth. And her face was made up of shifting contours and three-dimensional protuberances that broke and came back together again, expanded and contracted and merged, and provided no point of purchase at all.
This strangeness of Mother's was not a short-lived phenomenon. She never did congeal into a reliable shape. And so I have always seen her like this: a vast blonde topography I cannot comprehend the dips and falls of, woods I cannot see on account of all the trees.
MY SISTER, ORNELLA, does not believe any of this. She thinks it impossible to recall so early an experience. I do not tell her how much further my memories go. I do not tell her of my terrifying dream, the one in which I am inside a boa constrictor. I do not tell her how heavy I am in this dream, nor of the terrible pressure, which comes and goes, getting more just when it seems to be getting less. When it is there, it is unbearable. It sucks and squeezes. It displaces space and air. It is a kind of airlock or vacuum, all gravity and no gravity, everything and nothing. And just when I can no longer endure it, suddenly it is gone; I am infinitesimally small and terrifyingly weightless. I am a tiny speck of dust on the head of a pin. There is nothing to contain me and nothing to stop me from floating away. And this lightness is far worse, far more frightening, than the weight that precedes it. It is the feeling of the beginning and the end. I would like to but I do not ask my sister what it means.
I must forget these things. Forgetting is useful. Forgetting is a clever neurological ruse. It pays for the brain to be forgetful.
Ornella has made a virtue of forgetfulness, but even she is not entirely devoid of memories. She once confided the recollection of a particular pair of red baby stockings, and how, with every yank of gusset over nappy, she was propelled two inches across the floor on her backside. From then, she says, there is nothing in her ‘memory bank' until a grade-three skipping contest. Before she knew it, she was an adult. In between, I imagine large expanses of grey bitumen, tossed with greaseproof paper and orange peel.
I don't need to rely on memory alone regarding my mother and her books. There is evidence to back me up. Mr Knox, the bookseller, attests to the box of Penguins – he gave them to Mother; they were damaged or in some other way imperfect so he could not sell them, and she was so anxious, he said, that her brain would fall away.
The only memory I am prepared to concede is the one relating to Mother's vastness.
‘Owen,' Ornella says, shaking her head, ‘our mother was not a large woman. She was petite. Pe-teet.' When she says this, she brings together her thumb and forefinger, as though pinching out a lateral from a tomato plant.
The discrepancy must be due to childhood perception, for the one photograph I have of Mother at this time bears Ornella's claim out – she is not large at all; she is small and compact and wears a yellow terry-towelling dress with green buttons. I am in a carrycot made of woven blue and white plastic. Mother is not holding the carrycot; she is holding an orange leather suitcase. She is not going anywhere – not yet – and the suitcase, I now know, is full of manuscripts. Her legs are like a postman's: solid with muscle. And her hands are little paws; the fingers do not properly wrap around the handle. They are dough-maker's fingers. Pizza chef's fingers.
Shortly after this photograph was taken, I became Mother's enemy, for I had discovered my hands and fingers and feet. I remember the hard little shriek that came up from her throat. I can see her palm rise in the air as if to strike. I was a four-legged beast that clambered onto couches where books lay and ripped out frontispieces. I demolished the contents of the lower bookcase shelves, making no distinction between first and later editions. I chewed the corners of Thackeray till they were moist and soft. I flicked through pages – tick-tick-tick, with little hooklike thumbs – and then crushed them under my fist. When Mother settled down to a quiet afternoon read, the only thing I wanted to do was eat her book.
MY EARLY PREOCCUPATION with eating, and the iron constitution that allowed me to digest, unharmed, seventeen pages of Balzac's Cousin Bette (a book that goes on far too long, in my opinion), was a source of great pride to Papa. He boasted of how, prising open my teeth one day, he'd dislodged a shilling-sized lump of Balzac, a three-inch-long piece of hessian and a two-pound note. The laundry powders were removed from the linoleum floor, and one-penny pieces were attended to with great vigilance.
I was unstoppable, ate everything in my path; it is surprising I was not enormous. And therein lay Papa's second source of pride: for while I was no giant, the charts all clearly showed me to be ‘above average'. This was an evolutionary triumph of the highest degree, because Papa was small, as all the men in his family had been. Not notionally small like Mother – really small. Barely five foot. He had expected the tiniest of offspring. He kept my first suit of clothes as testament to his triumph, but they do not strike me as big, only as very soiled and very little worth preserving. They are in a trunk with his father's war medals and a miniature silver-plated soup ladle Papa received for charitable services undertaken under the auspices of St Vincent de Paul. May 1961, says the soup ladle: the month in which he fed a record number of homeless and impecunious men in the electorate of Cleborne.
I have memories, too, of the kitchen where this charitable feat was executed. These memories are bigger and more boisterous than the ones relating to my mother. They feature what seem to be vats of capers and anchovies (though surely they are only large tins), slabs of bacon and orange freckled hocks that resemble orthopaedic shoes.
There I sit, amid the ruins of a record-winning stew, pinning currant eyes to a potato.
Mother is there too, somewhere, with a book hidden behind a menu, and a tray of liqueur plums hidden behind that. She would've had a bag by her side that contained items necessary to me: a cup with a lipped lid, an overnight diaper and a pair of pyjamas. Let no one say she did not care for me. She did her best to ensure the world's requirements regarding offspring were met.
But see, I have returned to Mother again – that is how large she looms – whereas, really, in the kitchen she was a marginal presence. The only true personality in the kitchen was the kitchen itself. Sometimes secret and cavernous, sometimes airy, sometimes panoramic, it was a marvel larger and more alive than either parent, and equal in wonder and illumination only to the library in the house of Mr Parish (though Ornella, I know, loathes this room, considers it a study in torture). In place of Mr Parish's books and paintings, the kitchen had coils of sausage and knots of garlic, colanders and tongs and spoons with holes in their handles. I have never been able to decide which of the two environments, the library or the kitchen, was the more exotic. But ultimately, the kitchen smelt better; I never liked the odour of shellac and turps I associate with the rooms of Mr Parish's house.
My earliest memory of the kitchen does not involve Mother or Papa, or any activities they might have been engaged in. My earliest memory involves a space between activities and people. A safe space, where puddles formed and dried and formed again and a curious cottony mould grew on the lino. I remember crawling into that space – I could not yet walk – to retrieve a morsel of food. I seemed to remain there for hours.
There was warm enamelled steel on one side of me, whirring gently, and cold steel on the other, still. And I remember how secret and safe I felt, pressed in between those two contraptions, like a cat under a house in a storm. I swallowed the morsel that had lured me in, and discovered that the curious cottony mould could be unrolled from the lino and made into a ball, and wedged between the steel contraption and the floor. It was then, while so occupied, prodding and wedging and blowing my hot dark breath against the metal, that I felt one of the contraptions begin to move. A pair of white clattering shoes appeared at its far side, and the cold contraption began to roll towards the warm one on its casters.
I felt a slow clamping pressure against my stomach and my ribs, a great squeezing that grew more and more intense. My chest compressed and my shoulders jammed up to make space, but there was no longer any room, and I suppose I must have made an oozing sound or a squealing sound, for suddenly the steel lurched violently away on the cold side, and the loud white shoes were upon me, and I was lifted into arms that smelled of oranges and cologne. And the bearer of the arms rocked me and pressed me into her neck and said, ‘My God! Oh, my God!' – and that was Ornella. My first memory of Ornella. She was only just an adult, but she held me with more ferocity than my mother ever had. I loved her immediately. It was a spellbound kind of love: distinct and fully realised and entirely trusting.
Yes, I know, it's impossible, but the only talent I have ever truly had is this capacity for preternatural recall.