I was born at 4 Townshend Terrace. Not remarkable you might think, but kind of important to me. Some people pop into this world in a hospital ward, safe and clean and cold. Places in which you are encouraged to have a ‘birthing experience’, involving partners and vomiting.
I arrived in the same way as millions in less developed parts of the globe, in a real home, in a familiar bed and was instantly tied for life to the women around me. The frightened helpless creature who was my mother, instinctive, warm and firmly part of a physical world; and the strange, strong paternal grandmother whose extraordinary will drove so much of my early life. So there is nothing remarkable here. Accept the memory keeps coming back. I don’t imagine for one minute that I remember my birth, or do I? There is a taste, a smell – there is something.
Let’s go back a few years to the first glimmerings of this memory. I stopped once on the road between Leeds and King’s Lynn in a street just beyond Ely Cathedral. I had a liking for Victoriana and there was a row of antique shops, just in front of the Cathedral. If you haven’t seen this crazy improbable Cathedral, well you should. It looms up out of the flat land, spotlighting flying up the buttresses. It looks out of place in the small town, like something aliens have left behind on one of their visits. It was build by the Normans in the 11th century on the site of an old shrine to Etheldreda, an early saint. Legend has it that she died from a tumour on her neck, thought to be a punishment for wearing necklaces. My kind of girl!
These grubby little shops sold the things I was seeking, wooden dressing table mirrors, with neat little drawers. Later I found them to be full of woodworm and consigned them to the bin with my early poor taste. In one shop I found a picture. It was a lithograph of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Beata Beatrix. This evocative picture of the sad Elizabeth Sidal intrigued me, not less because after her early death Rossetti placed a book of his poems under her hair and went on an orgy of grief. He later had her dug up to retrieve his poems. Somewhere, inside me I knew the picture and as I looked at others by the Pre-Raphaelite artists, I got a kind of twang of remembrance. The twang reverberated for a few years as I lived a life that was not dissimilar to Elizabeth’s and the Pre-Raphaelite muses; full of men just as cold and selfish. But I lived and first my grandmother died and then my mother and then the memories started to get unlocked.
One day I found myself outside 4 Townshend Terrace working out exactly what I was going to say to those inside. As I sat for a long while on the bench by the Long Pond, which ran the length of the street, I could taste something that I never identified, perhaps a mixture of damp mould and lavender. It was not unpleasant. It just tasted odd. I had never asked anyone about my birth; I just accepted the plain facts, time, date and place. And now there was no one to ask.
I knocked on the door and little scene played out. I was acting – I had lost that ugly accent years ago, but needed it back for fear they would not understand me. A woman opened the door and I could see in her eyes the suspicion. Too well dressed to be from the council and definitely not from around here – well not anymore. How do you tell someone that you would like to stand in her bedroom for a few minutes? I did and she laughed, that coarse, country laugh full of cigarette smoke. I looked beyond her at the end of the staircase going up and the small lobby, which led to the kitchen. The house had changed, but the walls were still were they had always been.
Still laughing she told me to wait at the bottom of the stairs, while she wobbled up them. I think she was going to make the bed. After a minute she called me up and stood back to let me go in. I stepped backwards a lot of years. The room was the same. Same as what? – well I am not sure, but it was as if nothing had changed. There was a mark on the wall where the wooden picture rail had been, no longer a fashionable addition to such a little room. The casement windows had lost their diamond-shaped panes, replaced by new clean glass to let in light. The walls were still white – unremarkable.
This was not what I saw. I saw the pictures – ahead of me was Millais’s The Boyhood of Raleigh; two well dressed little boys, one a miniature Walter Raleigh sitting by the sea, while a seafaring figure in bright red baggy pants pointed to distant shores. To my left the small lithograph of the tragic Elizabeth and to my right under the window, a dark wooden dressing table displayed the magical china set hand painted with gypsy caravans. China trays and candleholders, jars and pots for creams, and most beautiful of all were three hairbrushes with porcelain backs. Above the bed was the awful picture of The Scapegoat, by Holman Hunt – a sad bedraggled goat on the shore of the Dead Sea. What a dreadful choice for a bedroom. It must have been so fashionable in the days when my grandparents married, adorning on the walls of the working classes. The woman was asking me about Australia and I was giving the travel guide replies, but we weren’t looking at the same room. I was looking at a polished wooden bed, high and old fashioned, with a white linen counterpane of cutwork, embroidered with love and daisies. She saw a modern low bed with leatherette padding and a lemon fleecy cover.
I saw, then quite clearly that the world was not a better place and I was silent.