Authors: Kyo Maclear
For the Beaconsfield boys,
David, Yoshia and Mika
with big, big, big love
More than a thousand planes will arrive and depart today. One of them will be carrying Iris.
I have my instructions. I am looking for an eleven-year-old girl in jeans and pink basketball shoes. She will be carrying a red suitcase. Her black hair will be tied back. She has been told to look for a light-brown–skinned man wearing an old-fashioned hat.
Two nights ago the phone rang. It was Kiyomi, calling from New York. She was a sobbing wreck. Something had happened. There had been a car accident in Mallorca. Her mother was in critical condition in a Palma hospital and she needed a favour.
I pulled a chair back from the kitchen table and sat down, trying to take in the news and this voice speaking from the most distant reaches of my life, my childhood.
I understood she had to go to Palma immediately. Yes, of course I would take care of her daughter. Yes, I would pick her up when they stopped over at Heathrow. A week, yes, yes, she could stay, ten days, two weeks, fine.
So, here I am, waiting for Iris, trying to look undaunted, as if this is the kind of thing I do all the time, when I spot a small figure scanning the crowd, a yellow Post-it note stuck to the front of her grey windbreaker, pink basketball shoes on her feet. I take my hands out of my pockets and call her name. When she turns I lift my brown trilby in the air, waving it like a man greeting a transatlantic ship in another era.
It is a full minute before Iris reaches me at the Arrivals waiting area, tugging her red suitcase across the polished floor, dodging a porter rattling by with a load of broken carts. She drops her suitcase right beside a No Unattended Luggage placard, and strides the last few yards towards me. I watch an echo of her mother move through her body and it’s all I can do not to gasp. For an instant, I am no longer a man ten days away from turning fifty, I am an eleven-year-old boy who has come to meet my best friend.
I step forward and shake her hand. “You must be Iris,” I say.
“And you’re Marcel,” she says, with her New York accent.
For a moment, we are very civilized, smiling at each other.
She peels the Post-it note off her chest and hands it over. I read aloud:
“Marcel. Here is Iris. I am sorry I couldn’t come out to see you. Quick connection. Will call tonight.—K”
I crumple up the note and look at Iris to gauge how she’s feeling about all this. Abandoned? Wary? Excited? Indifferent?
The reality is that I’m in two places right now. One of me is standing with Iris. The other is hurtling miles and years away, remembering a trip I took at Iris’s age, when I travelled alone from London to Saigon to join Oliver.
“Let’s get your suitcase,” I say to Iris, noticing people nervously detouring around it.
It’s strange to remember myself at the moment before everything in my life changed, and at the same time to see Iris so confident and cheerful about embarking on her own Big Adventure. She and I have just crossed the Arrivals hall and are now riding the elevator to our parking level. Up close, I can see that she is not exactly like her mother. She has lighter eyes, definitely a smaller mouth, a tighter chin, and not a trace of secret worry that I can detect.
Feeling my gaze, she looks me full in the face and says: “One-quarter English, one-quarter Japanese, and one-half unknown.”
I can tell she’s in the habit of explaining herself.
A few minutes later, we’re driving east on the M4. Iris is sitting cross-legged beside me, looking sleepily out the window.
“So you were born here?” she asks.
“Just like my mum and the man from the bank.”
For a moment I’m confused, then I realize she means the man from the
bank. (Iris was donor-conceived. Her father was a law student: dark-haired, tall—a number, not a name.)
She continues, “My mum said the two of you were best friends when you were my age.”
I grip the wheel and nod, and notice that my palms are soaked with sweat. Thankfully, Iris is preoccupied. I glance over and see her reaching into the door pocket. She unwedges a few CDs, slips in a disc and skips several songs ahead.
A moment later, Iris is bopping along to the opening lines of “Spanish Bombs” by The Clash. By the time we reach the chorus, my heart is beating hard and fast. I see the song more than I hear it. I see a dark sky full of flares and shooting stars. But it’s
not just the song. Lately, the slightest breeze will blow images back into my mind, the past back into the present. The sight of a rippling flag will remind me of clothes drying on a line in another country. Lately, my memories will fill any hollow, any silence or blank, even an empty sky, a sky as white as paper.
OME FACTS ARE UNDISPUTED:
I know that the woman who came to be my mother was admitted to Princess Beatrice Hospital at Finborough and Old Brompton Road. Masked nurses attended to her. The man I would eventually know as Oliver was banished to the corridor.
I was born two months prematurely on February 2, 1952, born at a fortunate moment, in a country at peace. Oliver always said this when I asked him about my birth. The international newspapers were full of old vendettas and brand new wars and there I was: a happy spot in an anxious world.
Oliver understood that outside world. Columns of earth blown into the air. Advancing tanks. Mines and booby traps and wrecked land. People who had watched their loved ones move, then not move. Men that could steal away all you loved.
The dangerous outer world, the safe inner world—like most protective parents, Oliver feared a meeting of the two. He had survived the worst of the Blitz. Twelve years later, everything he did, everything he thought, was because of the war. He knew that sometimes
invitation or not.
I arrived on this earth with a dark mat of hair, full lips, and an unaccountable “blush” to my cheeks. The doctor worried that I looked jaundiced.
“There’s no reason for his colour to be so … ardent, is there?”
Oliver shook his head.
Two orderlies were adjusting my mother’s bed, rearranging pillows, fluttering clean sheets. They paused briefly to study the man—tall, pale, with sand-coloured hair—before returning to their task. Oliver knew what they were thinking. They had seen a lot, these nurses and orderlies recently recruited by the National Health Service to work in the “mother country.” They had seen hairless babies born to hairy parents, and cone-headed babies born to flat-headed parents. They had also seen other babies whose skin colour didn’t match their parents.’
Oliver sat down and cradled me on his lap while my mother slept. He studied the hair on my head and placed his finger at the centre of my palm and watched my beige fingers close like a flower sensing night. The hospital room was very white—white walls and white sheets—and Oliver must have felt alien in it. Perhaps he thought it would be easier to blend in once he brought me back home to the flat in Orme Square, with its faded pillowcases and mismatched dinner set.
With some embellishments, this is the story I gleaned when I was younger. It took me a long time to realize that it was a story with many missing pieces. When I asked Oliver to help me fill in the blanks, his voice would crackle and drift away.
He wanted the story he shared with me to be harmless and straightforward. He wanted it to be heard but remain unquestioned. He was a reporter, not a storyteller. I did my best to accept his dry facts and concise responses, but with only half
a story, I moved through my early years unsettled. I disturbed the ghosts of the past because it was the only way I knew not to become a ghost myself.
I would ask, eager to hear more about my mother, my birth.
“I told you,
we came home.”
“But where was my father?”
“He passed away six months before you were born.”
“But my mother, what happened to
I learned that my mother grew too ill to hold me. She was too sick to nurse. She would be in hospital for many more months.
Oliver explained that I was far too young to remember my mother.
Anyway, I do have a memory and here it is: a slamming door and a vibration. My eyes bolt open. The mobile spins and gently seesaws above my head. A painted white rabbit teeters up and down. Through the slats of my crib, I see my mother get smaller and smaller. In her wake, there is a fading scent of milk. My senses remember, even if these memories had no meaning at the time. Even if I was too young to interpret Oliver’s tears: large, wet beads that fell to the floor.
This is the keyhole. And if I linger here, in my memory, I see us and I see her and I know that she was the first to leave.
Poor Oliver. He had not expected my mother to desert him. He thought he could make her stay. Even after she left, he kept hoping. He refused to speak her name but he stored her boxed belongings in case she returned. He kept her dresses hanging in the closet for years, holding the shape of a woman who was there and then not there. He also kept her set of keys on a hook,
her favourite teacup in the cupboard. But above all he kept me, her son.
Then, when he discovered that parenting was not a remedy for grief or guilt, that the work of holding a child as a captive for love was too great, his interest began to wane. It was not conscious neglect, just a slow, daily dimming of awareness. But, anyway, that was later.
In response to my impossible memories, Oliver has his own reluctant offering. He tells me that on December 6, 1952, the very evening my mother left, I came down with a violent fever. He says I held my ear, unleashing a cry of pain that tore right through the flat. He stayed beside me, keeping watch. He applied cool compresses through the night until my whimpering finally tapered off. By morning a faint pink flower had leaked onto my pillow. My eardrum had ruptured.
My mother’s departure and my ear pain distracted us from the fog developing outside the window, but over the next few days a great mass of icy air moved off the English Channel and dropped like a gigantic lid over London. As households burned more cheap coal to stay warm, great plumes of sooty smoke and thick factory exhaust mixed with the fog. The haze was trapped near the ground by the frigid, motionless air above.
The fog turned a strange yellow, then orange, then black.
The gilded winged statue
at Buckingham Palace retreated into mist. St. Paul’s was a hazy outline, ghostlike in the gloom.
at the Sadler’s Wells theatre was terminated midway because the audience could no longer see the singers on stage. Pedestrians noticed how everything below the waist disappeared. Knees, shoes, dogs became indistinguishable. The Great Smog was days and nights of people and things passing
out of sight and existence. It seemed a fitting time for a mother to evaporate.
Then, on December 9, the wind swept in. Layers of gauze lifted. The wind restored knees and hands and dogs and gilded statues. It even restored singers to stages. But it did nothing to bring my mother back.
Later, I would picture the Great Smog as a mother-devouring beast. I would pore over old news stories and imagine what might have happened to her. Maybe she was the one who fell into the Thames and drowned. Maybe she was the one who collapsed from cardiac distress, or the one who lay down with the asphyxiated prize cattle at the Smithfield Show in Earls Court, or the one who was run over by a soot-covered bicyclist in Camden.
T IS ALMOST DUSK
. I do not recall much of the drive from the airport, but Iris and I have finally reached the flat in Shepherd’s Bush. I live in a large Victorian terraced building, with high ceilings and oak hardwood flooring. Sarah and Adam, the friendly couple downstairs, run a small yoga studio, and as we pass their door I can hear the slap of sticky mats being unfurled on the floor and the springy strum of sitar in the background. Having fallen asleep in the car, Iris is bleary-eyed, and follows slowly as I lead her up the stairs and through my front door and down the hall to the small room at the end that will be hers.
The sinking sun filters through the colourful art deco windows, leaving wavering puddles of blue, red, yellow on the floor. I am an inexperienced host but I have placed my happiest plant and a plush Qantas koala on the desk, so I’m pleased when she walks over and gives the koala a drowsy poke. I want Iris to be happy here. I owe that much to her and her mother.
She plays with something around her neck while I explain how to work the window latch, the blinds and the clock-radio. She moves between puddles of light, stepping on red, then yellow, then blue. A moment later, I hear a tiny click and turn to look. It’s an oval locket between her fingers. I recognize it, the pattern of scrolling vines and leaves etched on the outside. I don’t say anything but my face must be asking a question, because she clicks it open again and shows me two tiny photos: one of her mother and another of her grandmother. We’re both silent. Then she clicks it closed and curls up on the new IKEA daybed.
I don’t know when those pictures were placed inside but I still remember writing the note that used to sit in that oval belly.
ouy evol I.
I wrote those words for Kiyomi. My mirror.
We often gave each other gifts. Kiyomi wished for lockets and charm bracelets. She was drawn to tarnished heart-shaped things that beamed tender, claiming messages. What she gave me in turn were her strange and beautiful pencil drawings. One by one, she tore them out of her notebook for me. They were full of odd creatures and spare and solitary people. When we were separated by distance, they arrived every few months, wrapped in tissue paper. She occasionally signed them
as a joke. But over time, their sheer number overwhelmed me. They came to represent all that was unspoken between us. It was hard to believe that such small sketches could point to such vastness, such silence.
By contrast, my family keepsakes were sparse. Oliver got rid of all photos of my mother but one, a lamentably bad picture. The exposure is all wrong. It is full of unnaturally bright whites and outlines so dark they seem etched. Oliver once
consoled me by saying it looked
but such merits were lost on me as a child. I wanted a simple family snapshot, not a Man Ray, but having no choice I made the best of it. Eventually I came to see my mother in this woman whose features were so indistinct.
If my birth father’s portrait was incomplete, I knew it was death that had made it so. It was easy to forget about him for months and even years at a time. But my mother was another story. I knew she was alive to be found, and exactly why she had left became the lingering mystery of my childhood. A small part of me did nothing but sit by the door waiting. How does one coax a wayward woman home? A bowl of milk? Prayer? I tried every way.
And while Oliver never spoke poorly of my mother, in fact rarely spoke of her at all, others did. They said all kinds of things. I could see it excited them to speak of her. She had run away. She had been sent away. She had been swept off her feet. They said she was too beautiful, too friendly, too vain. People who barely knew her implied she had done something shameful—something
—and had fled the memory of that shame. A neighbour said that a woman would have to be crazy to do what she did, that she clearly had a serious mental disturbance. I learned that some mothers are idealized while others are hated. But the lesson in the end was that I was somehow everyone’s business, a public commodity: a poor rescued orphan.
As for Oliver’s own position: he was simply an Oliver. An Oliver who sometimes lost his temper, who cooked oatmeal for breakfast, who did the washing up and came to my assistance. He was never Father or Daddy or Papa. (Later he would explain that the reason he never encouraged paternal names was that
he didn’t want me wishing he was someone else.) For a long time I assumed that an “Oliver”—like an uncle or guardian—was another stripe of caregiver.
Simpler memories are of Mrs. Bowne, Oliver’s “Blitz mum,” the woman who took him in as a war orphan after he lost his own mother (his father died at Dunkirk). She steadied us in those weeks and months after my mother left, having arrived from Beckenham on our doorstep toting two cardboard suitcases. When she spoke, there were often small gusts of menthol and the clicking of a hard cough candy against her back teeth. (Today a slight waft of menthol instantly transports me to childhood and gives me a lovely tingling in my chest.)
Mrs. Bowne brought us special treats. A jar of blackcurrant jam and sweet cakes. A tin of chocolate squares. A bag of malt balls. She held me on her lap and gently brushed my knotted hair with even, vertical strokes, indifferent to the whorling pattern of my scalp. She kept her own straight silver hair twisted up in a bun, exposing the skin of her neck, the texture like crinkled tissue paper.
As a former primary school teacher, she believed that a strict program of education—involving the cultivation of impeccable table manners, a knowledge of the proper literature, good grooming, and, most of all, a faultless facility with the English language—was an absolute necessity. I sat for hours with picture books in front of me while she chopped vegetables beside me on a cutting board, stopping every now and then to underline a word with a carrot stick or celery stalk.
Beanstalk. Butterfly. Black sheep
—that one prompting a halt and a look of apology.
Her views were mostly charitable. She did not share her husband Mr. Bowne’s notion of the White Man’s Burden: that
it was only through heaps of instruction that those of darker hue could hope to keep their ignorant and undisciplined genes in check. In Mrs. Bowne’s opinion, it wasn’t me who was backward, it was
It was more: “God forbid we send him into the unenlightened world, ill-prepared to conjugate.” I gave myself over to her completely. She was the smartest person I knew.
At some point, she decided that alphabet flashcards would be the first step in my ascension. She showed me that language could be an architecture. The letters and words stacked on top of each other, shaping rooms, building spiral staircases around feelings, sculpting the fragments of my inside talk into something firm and concrete. As time passed, I began to crave the sound of her approval. “Bravo, Marcel!”
Oliver gave Mrs. Bowne a talking-to. He said she was approaching my education with the zeal of a missionary, clapping and stamping her feet. He didn’t want me to become her Eliza Doolittle–Jungle Boy–Caliban.