By John Burnside
John Burnside is a Scottish writer. He was born in Dunfermline and is one of only two poets to have won both the T. S. Eliot Prize and the Forward Poetry Prize for the same book. This is an extract from his memoir, A Lie About My Father.
A Lie About My Father is published by Vintage and is reprinted here with the kind permission of John Burnside and The Random House Group Limited.
A Lie About My Father
For me, memory begins in King Street, in the condemned house where my parents lived after they were first married. I was told so much about the time before I was born that I can imagine I was actually present at the death of my mother’s first child – a girl she called Elizabeth, after her own mother – or if not present at the death, then certainly for it. I seem to know this girl, first as a baby, then as a toddler , a girl who was just over a year ahead of me all the way through childhood. Pretty, fair–haired, but with my other’s dark, almost motionless eyes, she comes and goes through the movie home of King Street that runs inside my head, a child in a white hand–me–down dress standing beside me in the garden, squinting into the sun; a girl who set off for school one day and came home different, with ink stains on her hands and the smell of dried paint in her hair. I remember this girl because my father talked about her when he was upset, or when he came home drunk and sat in the kitchen muttering to himself. It was characteristic of how they were, I see now, that my mother never once mentioned Elizabeth’s name, while my father talked about her all the time. Even in grief they were separated.
I seem to know my ghost sister, but the truth is that she died before I was born. I could never find out how long she was in this world; some stories suggest she died in hospital after a few hours, or a few days; others that she lived for some time before succumbing to whatever it was that ailed her. I always felt kin to her, though, even when my father took me aside, this may have happened when we still lived in King Street, but it happened more often than I can recall, and it went on for years – and told me that he and my mother had had another child before me, and that her name was Elizabeth, that she had died and that he wished she had lived , and I had died instead. He always told me this as if it would come as a surprise, a piece of unexpected news about his, or my history, and he always went through the steps in the same order, with due solemnity, building up to those final, brutal words, which he uttered without the least hint of brutality, without anything that might, on the surface, be taken for malice. I think he thought, as he confided in my three-, or five-, or eight-year-old self, that I was supposed to feel sorry for him, that I was supposed to express my regret, not only for his loss, but for my own inability to reverse the twist of fate that had left him in such an unfortunate position.
After a while, I would see it coming. He would wait till my mother was out of the room, then he would tell me, very quietly, his voice just barely slurring,
‘You know something?’
I would shake my head.
‘You know, you had a sister once.’
I would wait. There was no point in saying anything. The first thing I learned was that there were times when you didn’t say anything, even if you were called upon to talk.
‘Her name was Elizabeth.’
I nodded dutifully. I knew all this. I knew what was coming. I just didn’t understand why.
‘And she died.’
Once upon a time there was a little Indian boy who lived by himself fin a cave in the mountains. He was all alone in the world, except for his friend, the timber wolf –
‘But you know what?’
This boy had no parents, only the wolf, whose name was –
‘It could have been you that died.’
Mungo. Chano. White Fang. I would try out names in my head, but I could never find one I liked.
‘It could have been the other way around. You could have died, and she could have lived.’
Lobo. Tonto. Silverado. I have no idea where these names originated. Maybe radio.
‘I wish – ‘
It was easy to block it out, after a while. I don’t think I really hated him – not then. I suppose his telling of the story, and my defences against it, became more elaborate as the years passed, and we got to know one another better. I was always taking his measure, figuring out what I needed to do in order to get past him. The best I could come up with was to tell my own stories, stories that countered his half-truths with the pure actuality of fiction. It was self-defence, nothing more; but what better defence than a story, set somewhere in the far north, about a boy and a dog and the secrets they keep, in a country of perpetual snow?
I asked my mother about it. I must have felt guilty about being so damned healthy.
‘Oh,’ she said, ’you were a blue baby. We didn’t know how things would turn out.’ She gave me an inquisitive look. ‘What has your father been saying?’
‘Nothing,’ I said. ‘He was just telling me about Elizabeth-‘
‘Well, you know about that,’ she said. ‘She was our first baby, and she died. So we had you instead.’ Even when I was very young, I knew she meant this well, but her words did nothing to make up for what my father had told me. It still sounded like I was second-best.
‘What’s a blue baby?’
‘It’s when – I don’t know. You had to be looked after by a specialist.’ She pronounced this word with all the reverence people of her class reserved for medical professionals. ‘You had to be put in an oxygen tent, when you were first born.’
I tried to picture an oxygen tent. I knew oxygen was part of the air. When I was older, I decided I had been strangely privileged by this oxygen-rich birth, as if I had come into the world with sky in my lungs.
‘Anyway,’ she would always conclude, ‘don’t listen to your father. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about, half the time.’
I nodded. I knew she was right, but I wasn’t sure which half of the time I should ignore. If it had been all the time, I think I would have managed better. But things were never that straightforward. All his best lies were half-truths – I suppose the grain of truth in each of his stories helped him to remember, if not the lesser details, then at least the general arc of the plot – which meant there was something there to be sifted out, something that might have revealed him to me. I suppose, at the time, I wasn’t quite ready to give up on that possibility – as my mother so obviously had.
I still don’t really know what a blue baby is. At the time I thought it meant that, when I was born, I almost died. This, oddly enough, was something of a comfort to me: it was something I had in common with my ghost sister, something special. It was as if a part of the soul I’d had at birth had been traded off for my earthly survival, as if part of me had gone into the beyond with Elizabeth. I’m told blue baby syndrome is fairly uncommon nowadays, that a blue baby is a child born with a congenital heart defect that causes a bluish coloration of the skin. Sometimes it happens that red blood cells in the infant’s blood are destroyed by the mother’s anti-bodies, and this can also cause cyanosis. Whatever the cause, my problems could not have been serious, because I was soon at home and, according to family lore, my father was dandling me on his knee, singing me old songs, delighted with his new son.
I hear these memories, like stories being told in my head, but I never see them. Growing up, I was always anxious about memory, at some undercurrent level: it wasn’t, for me, a philosophical question, when I asked myself what a memory was, and why my own memories were usually so vague. When somebody said to me that they could see some incident happening in their minds eye, I had no idea what they meant. Was it like a film, running on some screen behind the eyes? Was it only a figure of speech? Why did one thing – a smell, a taste – suggest something else – a moment, a girl’s face – when there was no obvious connection between the two? Was I defective in some way? I remembered – I still remember – so little. I have a very weak notion of time. An hour can pass without my noticing. A day can pass. Or a single minute can seem to go on for ever. This was true then, and it was more exquisite because, as a child, I was never sure I would emerge from a moment’s foundering, just I was never sure where the time had gone, when an hour, or a day, skipped by.
I do know, however, that my first real visual memory is of Smokey the Cat. The dilapidated houses on King Street were pretty thoroughly infested with rats and house mice. I’m told that this never bothered me, that my mother found me in the garden one afternoon, when I was three years old, watching a rat foraging around the coal bunker, and she noticed that I wasn’t afraid, just fascinated. I have no recollection of this, naturally. What I do remember is that my mother had a horror of all animals: rats, mice, cats, dogs, horses, cattle. She was also worried about the risk of disease the rats posed – with one dead child, a blue baby and, in a yearor so before we left King Street, a new baby girl to look after – she wanted to be rid of them. The irony was that, according to the accepted wisdom, the only reliable method of eliminating rats in such conditions was to go out and get a terrier, or a cat.
Which is where Smokey came in. My mother agreed to having him out of necessity, but she didn’t like the idea. Naturally, Smokey sensed this immediately and decided he wanted to be my mother’s special friend: no matter what she did, he would follow her around, or jump suddenly into her lap when she sat knitting. Worst of all he would bring her little gifts: half-dead mice; songbirds; even, on one occasion, a large, rather lean rat that lay twitching on the floor till she gave Smokey permission to finish it off. I think she did her best to appear gracious, but the outcome was preordained from the first: disgusted woman, disappointed cat. My mother never did understand the concept of pets. She found it deeply unsettling that a cat could mistake her, at some basic level, for its own kin. At the same time, she couldn’t help feeling sorry for the rats and, no matter how hard she tried to disguise this sympathy, the cat usually got the sense that all was not well, and so felt – who knows what a cat feels? Betrayed was how it looked. Still, it never gave up. For so long as we lived on King Street, that animal followed my mother around with its tender, half-killed gifts. When we finally moved, Smokey did not come with us. I think he suspected it was some kind of trick to finally rid him of his hunting instinct. Or maybe he guessed that, where we were going, we had no use for him, and he didn’t want us to forget him by degrees till, like most cats, he finally became invisible. After we moved, after we had settled, we noticed that he was gone, but nobody missed him.
Nobody, that is, except my father. He went out from time to time to try to find out where the cat had gone. King Street wasn’t far away, and he would begin his search at our old house, checking the gardens round about, then tracing a path past the shops and on to the farm road, then up through the beech woods, past Kirk’s chicken farm on the left and the dense woods on the right. He did that for quite a while, but he never found Smokey. I remember finding it a little strange: for as long as Smokey had been there, taken for granted, my father had paid him only the most passing attention, but now that the animal was lost, he couldn’t quite put him out of his mind.
This extract is from A LIE ABOUT MY FATHER by John Burnside, published by Vintage in 2006 and is reprinted here with the kind permission of Random House Group Ltd.