To think back at all is to fall quickly, almost instinctively, on two names – Colin, the name of my adoptive father, and Maureen, the name of my adoptive mother – and on the significant word ‘adopted’, which has the weight of a name. Appended to this little trio of terms, like an intake of breath at the end of a short annoucement, is the nameless presence of the ‘birth mother’, as she’s mostly called by adoption experts: the first mother, that’s to say, also the eternal mother-in-waiting. But you wouldn’t – I wouldn’t – really want to say ‘my mother’ about either of these mothers, even though I do. Then there’s adoption. ‘My adoption’? It sounds like an affliction, or a misfortune, though it was far from being either.

Not looking for the person who gave birth to you until the two who brought you up are dead, or oblivious of the world, could be described as good manners. But something about postponing this business until I was in my fifties had also to do with the growing likelihood, I felt, that my natural mother was no longer alive. And that if I were able to establish anything about her, only one of us was liable to come as a shock to the other. I was adopted in the early 1950s, many years before the Children Act of 1975 made it possible for adopted people to inspect their original birth certificates – and thus to ascertain the name of their natural mother. Many women who gave their children up during the postwar adoption boom were assured that their identity would remain off the public record: not even the child in question might ever know. The 1975 Act undermined this confidence, which is one reason a person of my age who wants to know more about the past is assigned an adoption counsellor. It was my adoption counsellor who helped me with the machinery of my investigation and informed me of the name of my natural mother – Margaret Walsh – which my adoptive mother had only ever hazarded or garbled. But after a few days in the Family Records Centre in London, it was clear that there’d be work to do: the number of Margaret Walshes qualifying as possible mothers in the five-year period I’d delimited either side of my birth came to 102. The adoption had been done privately, without the mediation of an agency, and the court records – it turned out – were a model of reticence on all but a few points. When it came to formalisation in 1953, a year after the baby had been transferred, an effort was made to contact Margaret Walsh for procedural reasons. ‘At the time of reporting,’ the court record states, ‘it has not proved practicable to interview the mother personally. She does not appear very co-operative.’ I clung tenaciously to this summary description of Margaret Walsh – the nearest thing to a reliable description I’d ever encountered – and wove all kinds of conjecture round it. Eventually, as it often does, the conjecture would give way to a chant. I might find I’d been walking for an hour to a secret marching song: ‘the mother personally, the mother personally’.

I seem to see Maureen, Mother Two, walking up a set of steps onto a raised wooden deck in front of a shingled house with double doors leading into a boxy living-room. The blonde hair is well arranged, the eyebrows have been tended, making them dark and thin. She’s humming ‘I’d risk everything for one kiss, everything . . .’ But the memory isn’t accurate. That song was written much later, after we’d moved out of the house I’m thinking of. Mother Two seems resolute, indifferent to almost everything but the double doorway and the tune I can’t put my finger on.

And Margaret Walsh? Of her there is no image grounded in the memory of a real place. There is only the fact of a brief physical connection severed long ago. Mother One is elusive, which is perhaps what makes her interesting. There may also be brothers and sisters – and of course there was a father – with whom I have no material connection at all beyond blood. I’m still not sure why blood should matter or why we continue to repeat the platitude about blood and water. When I was younger, I didn’t like to hear it said that one was thicker than the other. I reasoned against it and finally denied it on principle.

For long periods of my childhood, I grew up with the fact of water. I was raised by a river. ‘Thick’ is a good word for the way water seemed to me when I was young and still seems now: sustaining, brown, benign – or white, decisive, invigorating, rushing over a weir, churning from the back of a boat. Having been adopted, I was spared the binding notion of blood, with all its passion and fatalism. I simply took the platitude and stood it on its head. I am no longer sure what to think, except that this interest in origins is a perversity on my part, like going back over a dispute that was settled years ago.

Doubly perverse because of my debt to water. I owe nothing to blood, but I owe a great deal to the eccentric couple who adopted me in London and then carted me off to a world of slippery landing-stages, locks and leaking boats, flooded fields and impassable roads; more than I owe to my lost progenitors: the absent father and the enigmatic Mother One, who conceived and bore me, and for one reason or another decided to leave it at that. And wouldn’t the wise course be to do the same – to leave it at that? There’s an unsettling sense that the urge to know more about Margaret Walsh is disloyal, not just to Colin and Maureen, but to the life I lived with them and the course that life went on to take. Not that I’m above disloyalty.

In the photo of my christening, Maureen has a hairband studded with pearls. She has made herself up to look like a stage rodent, maybe from a scene in a pantomime Dick Whittington. The baby is sullen and inscrutable: pointless to wonder where it thought it was. It is wrapped in a long shawl and at first sight preparing to levitate, though on closer inspection the opposite seems true: it has plummeted through thin air and Maureen, having broken its fall at the last moment, now has it in her arms as though it had been there all along. Colin, who is wearing a bowler hat and leather gloves and earning £1200 a year on the London Stock Exchange, looks as if he’d just got away with an ingenious robbery.

Secrecy was paramount. As far as Colin’s parents knew, Maureen had given birth to the bright new member of the family in a London clinic. This make-believe must have been hard to keep up, especially since Colin and Maureen had the use of a flat below Colin’s parents for several months of her slimline pregnancy, which ought by rights to have begun in the winter of 1951.

For Maureen especially, the adoption was a source of other, steeper fantasies, which she divulged in fits and starts. Much of what she said was unreliable, I see now. She liked to tell vivid and abrupt tales about her own past. But the elementary versions of the adoption story – the ones she began telling her little boy when he was about five – weren’t in the least deceitful. And perhaps her stories improved as they acquired more detail, in subsequent retellings. Or maybe they got blowsier, like Maureen herself, and altogether less reliable.

To the happy child, at ease by the water, there was something marvellous about the early versions of the story: the glimmerings of a fable, as I’d understand later, the tale of a life redeemed from hardship and poverty – a class fable, to be sure. But these early versions, and there are two I recall, were simple. They must have been well told, and carefully prepared for the ears of a small boy. In any case, they had a powerful effect on me: by the time I was six or seven, my sense of the world we lived in had undergone a dramatic enlargement, stretching beyond the river, and the apartment in London where we had to retreat whenever floods engulfed our riverside shacks, to a place full of obscure difficulty where a young woman, poor but kind, had given up a baby.

Maureen’s stories about her own early life were part of the rich improbability of our world. They were drawn from a store of fantasies not unlike my own. While she spent her time embroidering the daydream of an earlier, more splendid existence, I was happy enough in the pursuit of adventure on and around the extraordinary structure where we spent several summers: a dilapidated houseboat brought out of the water and set down about twenty yards from the bank.

I can’t put a year to it, though I imagine it now as an early evening in September. Maureen sat me down in the main room of the houseboat and explained that the word for a child with no parents was ‘orphan’. She was an orphan herself, she told me, and had been brought up by her grandmother. She said nothing about her parents dying, and I understood only that she’d been unable to stay with these people, whoever they were.

Did I know, she went on, that I was a bit like her – a bit like an orphan?


But I wasn’t really an orphan; I was like an orphan. (Possibly a little amphibious creature, a young boy might have thought, part dwarf, part dolphin.) When I was born, Maureen explained, I was extremely small and it was around that time, or that size, in my life that Colin had paid a visit to the hospital. Afterwards, the three of us had lived happily. A double happiness that was somehow threefold: Colin and Maureen were happy that he had gone to the hospital; and I was happy, surely, as a result of his doing so.

Maureen used the word ‘adopted’ – I imagine her saying, ‘You’re what I call adopted’ – and asked me to say it with her. I don’t think she mentioned anything about another mother in this, the first telling. Not long after this conversation, Colin appeared at the far end of the garden, having walked the ten minutes from the village railway station. He stepped through a diminutive wrought-iron gateway nearly overrun by brambles and known as ‘the main gate’. Quite possibly I thought he had been to the hospital again.

Yet nothing that Maureen had said seemed odd. She was my mother, and a generous mother, and descriptions of the kind she gave came easily – naturally, you’d say – in those days. They spoke eloquently, urgently, of the world as she saw it, and to a child, the way a mother sees a thing is mostly how it is. I recall being intrigued by our talk, slightly restless I suppose. And in that memory, which is only partly to be trusted, the evening sun shines through the back window of the main room; the flat roof of the houseboat – the piratical quarterdeck in the games I played – is beckoning.

She must have told her tale with delicacy. It was persuasive and straightforward and led me to conclude that all children were simply dispensed from a hospital. (I recall tiffs at school, before I’d reached the age of six, about how babies arrived in families: I was sure the tummy story was playground obscurantism.) Then, some time afterwards, at an inopportune moment when the weather was fine and there was a lot going on outside, parents sat their children down, described the comings and goings from hospital and coached them in the mastery of a new word: ‘adopted’.

I continued to wonder in a cursory way whether Colin had plans to bring home more children, and at the next telling, perhaps a few months later, when Maureen introduced the character of the little girl in London who’d given me up, my thoughts prowled across the water and established a tenuous link with the unfamiliar world in which I imagined her. But Maureen’s own potted autobiography was in many ways the star turn of these little talks and it gripped me. Her grandmother had taken her to Egypt (where was that? Was it in London?); pyramids (what were they?) towered above the desert (but what was that?). There was a stone animal, the ‘sphinx’, which I took for a long time to be a pair of something, such as slippers or scissors. Time had elapsed. Slowly? Quickly? I can’t say. At some point, Maureen and her grandmother had returned to England to live in a big house – but how big? Bigger than the houseboat or the flat in London? Bigger than both of them put together. Maureen’s grandmother had a horse-drawn carriage, driven by a coachman. Maureen used to ride in it, and the dalmatians kept by the old lady – ‘Dalmatians?’ ‘Spotted dogs’ – would trot behind.

Had I been older, I’d have thought of Maureen as an eligible young lady in an early 19th-century novel, pale and presentable, with witty conversation and a range of accomplishments. But her story took place some time in the 1920s, about a hundred years too late. Now and then, or was it once, she went skittering over snow and ice in a cold place called Chamonix, definitely near London.

Yet in the unfolding of this family origin myth, with its puzzles and enigmas, my own provenance and Maureen’s background were endowed with a fantastic, deceptive clarity. Adoption was the way all children came into their families. Very likely their mothers had all been to Egypt and surged up long gravel driveways in a jingling coach and four with dalmatians bringing up the rear, sometimes in ice and snow.

It’s not clear to me where Colin and Maureen were positioned in the abstruse stations of the English class system, though I believe it mattered to them very much. The money on Colin’s mother’s side came from dentistry: a relative with some distinguished patients, including – it was said – the Queen. On Colin’s father’s side there was no shortage of wealth either. I don’t know where the money came from, though I’ve an idea how it was spent. For it was also said that my grandparents were a prodigal pair in their youth and lost an enormous sum in Monte Carlo shortly after they were married in 1913. Ten years later, they lost the better part of another fortune at the same tables, so the story went. But like much that was said in the family, it was a partial truth: for the remainder of their lives, Colin’s parents were able to live in comfort and, occasionally, splendour. It was mostly in that splendour that I came to know them, Colin’s mother especially, who saw very little point in Colin and rather less in Maureen, though she took a great liking to me, and I to her.

Colin’s mother was open and apparently carefree, though she liked a dispute and loved a lawyer: often, as I got older, I’d come upon her writing long letters to her solicitor in the same difficult hand I’d enjoyed deciphering when I was a boy. The closing stages of her letters were especially tricky. The text moved down the last page in the ordinary way and then, on reaching the bottom, turned through ninety degrees to scale the right-hand margin to a width of three lines, turning again at the top, the characters decidedly smaller and the sheet itself upside down. Finally a swift descent was effected in the left-hand margin, finishing with a bump in the bottom corner, which always took the same affectionate form. It was only as she was coming to the end of a thing that Colin’s mother ever seemed to get the measure of it – which must have accounted for her vivacity in the last years of her life, as well as her love of puddings. I’ve no idea what she wrote to her lawyers about – wills possibly, contentious rights-of-way near her own property or minor disagreements with the local authority.

Colin’s mother was known as Mim. This is what everyone called her, though from an early age I thought of her in a cool, proprietorial way as my grandmother – something of mine more than anything of Colin’s. She was fond of birds. She put out regular supplies of lamb fat and bacon rind hung on a kind of clothes-line; she tamed moorhens and brought ducks into the house – through the main room, along into the kitchen, and sometimes upstairs – which was thought to be shocking. Dressed in a shabby, last-minute way, seldom without a hairnet to complete the dowdy effect, she was nevertheless oddly elegant, and gave the impression that at some point in the early morning, making haste and running riot had been the only options: there were the birds to attend to, there was the garden, and the solicitor. She looked a little like the end of one of her letters. Sleeves were prolonged by stray pieces of fabric which would then be wound around a forearm and tucked in at the first opportunity, such as a hole at the elbow. It was the same with hems, from which large flanks would fall obstinately free until they were retrieved and pinned freestyle onto her skirts. Higher up, a pretty clasp held her numerous cardigans and wraps suspended on the brink of disarray.

Her family – the Montague-Smiths – had undoubtedly looked smarter. They’d worked their way up in the world, and striven to maintain a position which she showed no sign of relinquishing, even though she dressed a little strangely, and kept a hot-water bottle under her coat, and was once found, during a visit by the family doctor, with three ducks in her bed. I find it comic, but disconcerting, to think that Colin and Maureen never explained the situation to Mim.

On one of my visits to Ladbroke Grove in search of a thought – even the ghost of a thought – about where to look next for Margaret Walsh (she’d given an address there as her place of residence not long after she’d had the baby), I realised I was very close to an old family friend of the sort that my adoption counsellor had suggested I track down.

I hadn’t seen my uncle Boris for years. I say ‘my uncle’, but this – like many of the kinships in my family – is an exaggeration. I knew this outspoken, clever, profane man as Buncle Oris and also as my godfather. He came in and out of my early childhood with a reassuring regularity – in London especially, but there were also visits to the riverside, where he spent Christmas with us more than once.

Colin and Boris met because they were good at cards. Colin had drawn up the official rules of Canasta, a new and fashionable game during his youth, and won the first world title in the 1930s, partnering up with a chancer by the name of Terence Reese. His passion, though, was bridge, and so was Boris’s. They had remained friends through the 1960s and 1970s, but as Boris’s career recovered from a cheating scandal – Reese was the partner – and he went from one success to another, Colin hit a low point and settled into a rut: a profitable rut no doubt, but he ceased to cut an impressive figure in the world on which he depended for a good deal of his income. The two men saw, and thought, much less of one another.

‘Your father’s game was terrible,’ Boris shouted, as he and his wife – much the younger of the two – showed me into the living-room.

‘Really, Boris,’ she protested. ‘I don’t think he’s interested in the details of Colin’s game.’

The flat was jumbled, not exactly untidy. Boris wore a silk dressing-gown and pampered an off-white poodle, a miniature with purple tear-stains under its eyes. I found him hardly changed, though he wasn’t far off ninety. The tremendous alertness and ruthless good humour were there, in perfect working order, even if the body was a little fragile and the irreverent lustre in the eyes a little dulled. And because he seemed to have emerged straight from my childhood, I felt the glow of the early Christmases with Colin and Maureen, the sense of unmanageable happiness at that time of year, like the happiness of a love affair. The first serious swearword I heard, I remembered now, had come from Boris’s lips, carved into the damp gaiety of a New Year’s Eve by the Thames, and delivered in the diamantine accent which went with the trim moustache.

As I explained what I was about – Margaret Walsh, adoption and so on – Boris’s eyelids sagged with an air of indifference. From time to time, there was a convulsive arching of the eyebrows.

‘I’d be delighted to help you, dear boy,’ he said at the end of my short speech about curiosity getting the better of people.

He went on to speak in such detail about Colin and Maureen, about our little trio, about Maureen’s first marriage, about aunts I barely remembered, and people of whom I had no recollection, that for a moment Margaret Walsh began to look like a tremendous distraction. Wasn’t Boris heading up the only respectable inquiry – into the family I thought I’d known but hadn’t?

In any case, he thought it silly and tasteless to go about looking for your natural mother; part of me was inclined to agree. In the end this kind of thing was both insufficiently serious and insufficiently amusing; another part of me agreed.

‘I can’t tell you much about how you came to be Maureen’s son,’ Boris said, ‘but I can tell you something you won’t know about how she came to be your mother. Colin, you see, knew a man by the name of Graham, a good bridge player, and someone I saw quite a bit in the old days. He captained several teams, including the England team, at the major tournaments, and after he’d picked Colin for one of these events – I hasten to add he’d picked me before he picked your father – they became friends. We were all friends, I suppose. You may not remember Graham, but he was Maureen’s first husband, Peter and Jill’s father . . . you do, that’s good. They were Surrey people: they had a grand house in Caterham. Graham was a rich fellow, talented, energetic, generous; he’d made most of his money as a printer: he published the daily stock exchange results. Well, I was invited to Caterham for a weekend. I went down on my own and early on the Sunday morning I got up, looked out of the window and saw Graham setting off in his car: one of his cars, I should say – I think he was driving a guest to the railway station. Then I saw him come back. About ten minutes went by and the next thing I knew he came bursting into my room to announce that he’d found Colin in bed with his wife. A servant had brought me the Sunday papers and I browsed a bit fitfully, I must confess, waiting for the twelve bore to go off in the billiard room, but it didn’t. Then, when I thought the coast was clear, I went down to breakfast. There they were at the table, Graham, Maureen and Colin, tucking into the kidneys and scrambled egg as if nothing had happened.’

After my visit to Boris, I found myself dwelling on Mother Two, and on how little thought I’d given her. Yet there was no thinking about Maureen without the ghostly presence of Margaret hovering in the form of a question, and no turning to Margaret without the sense that she was being chaperoned this way and that by the things Maureen had said about her. It was scarcely a promising state of affairs. Nonetheless, to keep going over this ground might be to stumble on something useful; and in due course I did.

How and why had I come to think of Margaret as frail? It had largely to do with Maureen, I reasoned, and the story she told. The young girl – no, ‘the little girl’ – who appeared in the second or third telling hadn’t really assumed the shape of an adult. She wasn’t a mother in the sense I understood it then or later. I gathered or invented the frailty of Margaret on the basis of Maureen’s tellings. Even as she became an imaginative causeway into a bigger world, my notions about her were inflexible. First, she was in difficulty of some sort, constant and wearing, like waking up every morning to torrential rain or having to eat unappetising food; second, she was short; and third, like all the children I knew at the time, she wore sandals with a petal motif cut into the tops of the uppers. In other words I saw her as a playmate, a little older than I was, but nearer to me in age and disposition than Colin and Maureen, and perfectly ordinary: no sallowness in her cheeks, or rents in her clothes, that ordinariness unimpaired by her being in difficulty or – a linked circumstance – her being another of my mothers. For it also crossed my mind at about this time that I may have had several mothers.

No relation, either, between Mother Two and this would-be mother whom I might never encounter, except perhaps, as I came to realise later, vaguely, as an aspect of things: someone evoked when I was older by a poignant photograph of the postwar inner city, a pretty piece of crockery in a jumble sale or a discussion at school about illegitimate children.

Then my sense of her frailty took on another form. It was probably a few years later, in the 1960s, when the Victorian era was portrayed as a sulphurous hell in which every working-class child was driven up a chimney or down a pit and the world was run by a consortium of bullies with cold hearts and repressed appetites. And I have no doubt that when I was marched off with Maureen to see Oliver! on the stage, I recognised a little of my absent mother in the character of Nancy. Margaret had suddenly grown up – and she’d become robust.

Nancy faded from my imagination, but Maureen never quite gave her up: the strong girl with the heart of gold on whom misfortune scowls, in the guise of a dissolute bully. She was one of Maureen’s favourite stage characters – I’m not sure she’d read the novel – and Oliver! was one of her favourite shows. It was tender and harsh, and it was tender precisely because it was harsh, or was it the other way about? At the beating heart of the thing were a would-be mother in the form of Nancy and an orphaned child.

Only one heroine had mattered more to Maureen than Nancy. We’d been to see My Fair Lady during its first run in the West End, with the London cast, before I was sent away to school. That would have been 1958 or 1959. Maureen had promptly fallen in love with Eliza Doolittle. I remembered a lot about the show, and particularly Eliza’s brassiness, her startling aversion to nonsense. But somehow in the transition to love and culture – a gruelling passage that leaves her exposed – I think I had an earlier glimpse of Margaret, an equivocal figure, moving around in the shadow of Eliza, part hardy working-class, part subtle and precarious, as the young Julie Andrews must have seemed in the part.

I couldn’t have said any of it this way at the time, and the class fable – or is it a fable about essential human qualities? – was lost on me. But I grasped quite quickly how Colin and Maureen loved a cheeky Cockney. And how they fell about when Stanley Holloway sang ‘Get Me to the Church on Time’. Once they’d bought the soundtrack of the show, it became the theme music of our weekends, especially on Sunday mornings, an hour or so after breakfast, when Maureen would acquire her first target of the day, cruising the length of the living-room – ‘I could have spread my wings and done a thousand things’ – then banking suddenly in the direction of the drinks cabinet to obliterate a gin and tonic.

I felt oddly self-satisfied to have the pursuit of Margaret Walsh interrupted by the memory – a discovery in effect – of Maureen’s infatuation with Nancy and her passion for Eliza Doolittle. At the same time, it was as though three real people, Maureen, Margaret and myself, were converging fantastically on two characters drawn from the world of make-believe. It was the sort of convergence that takes place in dreams and it scared me somewhat.

There was nonetheless every reason to remain with Maureen. Quite apart from anything, I ought by now to have had a clearer idea who she’d been. But her own past had been hidden. She never would say how she’d been orphaned or who the superb son, or daughter, of her superb grandmother actually was. Perhaps this concealment and the deception we’d set in motion about my own origins had something in common; and if so, might not Maureen’s history be masked by the ampleness of her story about her grandmother? As a small boy, I’d imagined this old lady, whom of course I’d never meet, as a person of substance, framed by the big house with the driveway, and certainly as the key to Maureen’s salvation. I only had to think of the valises being packed for the mysterious journey to Egypt – I saw a stately kerfuffle with plenty of staff – to grasp the grandeur of the arrangements and what they’d have meant to the orphan girl who later became my mother. But once I’d gone away to school, I began a little priggishly, I think, to notice areas of murk and discoloration in Maureen’s tapestry story, as though it had been ravaged by moths or vandalised with a bottle of bleach.

There was the fact, for example, that Maureen did not enjoy writing and kept her correspondence with me to a minimum. By the time I was 12, I had it in my head that because she’d been brought up in a large house by a distinguished guardian, she should be a prolific letter-writer, or at least a regular letter-writer, like the mothers of my fellow boarders.

And then in our various homes, life was remarkable for its absence of writing paper, pens and envelopes. To think of starting a letter was to know you’d have to turn the place upside down with little chance of success. The only concession to writing I remember was a dead ballpoint pen with a bit of chain at one end, which had once been attached to a stand advertising a golf club.

It was the same with books. For Maureen, there were only three. The first was a Bible with a hard yellowish binding, ivory it was said, a baptism gift to ‘Jeremy’ and signed by the composer Haydn Wood – a friend of Colin’s parents, I suppose – who’d written the popular tune ‘Roses of Picardy’ in 1916. Above his signature, he’d copied out a few bars from the refrain, along with the words by Fred Weatherly. Maureen always kept a beady eye on the whereabouts of this Bible, in case it was valuable and she had to head out on her own one day. Once – I’d have been nine or ten at the time – I was persuaded by Colin to help her unpack after a failed attempt to leave him, and I found it among her belongings in a beige suitcase made by a company that Colin, by now a flourishing broker, was recommending to investors.

The other, far more important volumes for Maureen – the lapidary texts – were One Hundred and One Dalmatians by Dodie Smith and The Incredible Journey by Sheila Burnford. Her copy of The Incredible Journey was one of the few things that she managed to hang onto till the end of her days. It tells the story of two dogs and a cat, who wander through Canada trying to get back to their owners, even though their owners are no longer where they were when the mystifying and painful separation occurred. In the course of the journey, the pets get into trouble with the less domesticated species. There is courage and sorrow, loyalty and heartbreak: all animal life is there.

Scattered about the house – we never quite got round to bookshelves – there were a couple of titles by Ngaio Marsh, a batch of paperbacks by Dennis Wheatley and Ian Fleming and an incomplete, untouched set of Dickens in pale blue cloth bindings. Nobody went near the Dickens – Colin, a reader of contemporary paperbacks only, declared a hatred of him for his infatuation with the poor and his longwindedness.

Maureen venerated the Dickens like a bequest – a dinner service that should have accompanied its owner to his death – which is how I realised it was probably a gift from Graham. She kept a respectful distance from it at all times. But she liked the Dodie Smith – maybe it was the source of the dalmatians she remembered trotting behind, as she sat in her grandmother’s carriage. As for The Incredible Journey, she knew it well and could talk about the woes of its four-legged protagonists with the passion of an Arthurian scholar proposing a view of Camelot from the king’s kennels. She stuck with these books, I guess, because she enjoyed stories about families getting separated – mine perhaps no less than hers – and was relieved to think such stories ended more or less well. There is no question, either, what her preference would have been if she’d had to choose between a world full of human beings and a world full of dogs. I don’t know whether her managing to keep a grip of The Incredible Journey, long after she’d abandoned or mislaid almost every other possession, was evidence of the dog in her or the beleaguered human being. It proved nothing about her habits as a reader: her boy was right that Maureen had never been a book person. His mistake was to think that reading and writing were proper to mothers in the way that offices were proper to fathers, or that children didn’t really come ‘out of’ a woman’s body.

Then, when I was 13 or so, my sister Jill – Maureen’s daughter by her marriage to Graham – announced that our mother’s horse-and-carriage story was rubbish. In those days, I didn’t give the information any thought. Now, though, I wondered if it wasn’t linked in some way to her romance with the idea of the poor working girl, which seemed to shed a glimmer of light on her character, or at any rate on her story, though I couldn’t yet say what it clarified. There was the selfless, sturdy Nancy in Oliver! and there was, above all, the charmed, successful Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady (Maureen had certainly not read Shaw, for whom Colin evinced another of his hatreds). Nancy’s songs were very much a feature of Maureen’s repertoire, but with Eliza she had a daily complicity. Eliza’s songs, both before and after Higgins’s breakthrough, were forever on her lips. When she wasn’t singing them out loud, you might catch her whispering them, as though rehearsing some sweet flattery. So while all the songs seemed, in their different ways, to hint obscurely at my absent Mother One, they must have spoken to Maureen about someone far closer to home. And at some stage I must have wondered, as I was wondering now, whether that someone wasn’t herself. I must also have harboured a suspicion that the marriages to Colin and his predecessor, the personable Graham, had brought Maureen a long way from her own origins. As the dissimulated adoptee, I might not have been the only member of our threesome who’d come up in the world.

You couldn’t tell with Colin whether he was a covetous person given to ostentatious acts of generosity, or whether he had a core of generosity that was slowly overwhelmed, confining him to intermittent gestures of good will and prodigality. Either way, he was an excellent host and, very much to his credit in my eyes, a person who preferred to count the costs later rather than sooner. And so, in the middle of the 1960s, he indulged Maureen in a way that he never did again. Her dream was to become a flower-girl herself, only posher than Eliza in the first instance: more, in fact, like the original Liza, in the afterword to Pygmalion, who’s left Professor Higgins’s establishment, married Freddy Eynsford-Hill and opened a flower shop.

Maureen was already well prepared. She had begun working for a florist in South Kensington after I’d been away at school for four or five years and she’d gone on to run a stall in Rutland Mews East. It was a success. Colin raised a loan and they rented premises off the Brompton Road.

Maureen’s talent for arranging flowers was now obvious, dramatic even, and she was soon being patronised by London celebrities, whose names were a constant struggle for her. ‘You know, darling the actor!’ she’d say of Michael Caine. ‘The curly-haired one who kills all the nignogs with the hay tutus and enormous spears in that film your father likes, I call him Alfie.’

She sold arrangements to Jean Shrimpton, Alec Guinness, Tony Blackburn, and others whose names she got confused. Names of flowers, too, were a struggle, even though she knew exactly what she had in mind: myosotis, chrysanthemum and anemone would come out sounding like rare distempers in farm animals. ‘Pansies’ was always said with an involuntary smile, even when she was referring to the flower itself. Or she might remark of a gay client: ‘He’s what I call a pansy.’ And then: ‘I love pansies, they have a wonderful sense of humour.’

There was a glamour about the cramped shop that made Maureen glamorous too, even when she worked herself into a state of exhaustion, and as I thought of that time now, my teenage self seemed to be aligned with the little boy who’d prefigured him, both of them deeply fond of this person their mother. The brusque set of her face eased up, she wore less clogging foundation; the peekaboo eyes got bigger and took more in; her hours were often very long, and in the four months or so that I’d be home from school, I found her mostly cheerful. She was good with the customers and good at the back of the shop, cutting and dressing, primping the fussier commissions, going by instinct on the simpler, more elegant arrangements, standing ankle-deep in stems or shuffling through green, powdery windfalls of Oasis.

There was normally a bottle of something near the kettle – gin or, around Christmas time, champagne, which the clients liked to give her. But upstairs, after hours, the mood was gloomy. Colin wasn’t enjoying the new state of affairs; he complained of the mess; he’d rather Maureen was available to cook a meal at night; he felt she had no head for business. All this he made perfectly clear. She soldiered on regardless.

She could no longer afford hangovers: twice a week at five in the morning she’d have to be on the way to the market at Covent Garden to buy in stock. These trips were the high point of her week and when I was around I used to go with her. In the flower market, she seemed younger and funnier than I’d thought she could be, shy but oddly at home with the traders, confused about money, though sure of what she wanted to buy. For their part, they appeared to worship her. They fetched and carried for her with a mixture of deference and cheek – the caricature of the Cockney working man that she and Colin used to delight in – so that I saw her in quite another light than the narrow, unkind glare of family life. They called her ‘Mrs H.’ or ‘Maureen’. And she called them by their first names. She knew every one of them straight off, unlike the names of her celebrity customers.

The last time I recall driving back with her to Knightsbridge at seven a.m. in sparse traffic with an open box of white carnations on my lap and the tips of some loose gladioli prodding me in the ear, she was singing ‘Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?’ It’s the famous song that Eliza Doolittle sings while she darts about the barrows in Covent Garden at the beginning of My Fair Lady. A witty gloss on aspiration. But in which direction – up or down – was Mother Two hoping to go by then?

My father – not Colin, but Margaret Walsh’s lover – entered the picture via Maureen, at a time when the lesser tellings, or embellishments of the adoption story were in order. I’d guess I was 13 or 14. I’m not sure how the conversation went.

‘Your father,’ Maureen seems to be saying in her amiable, speculative way, ‘was a waiter, I think, or a what’s-its-name, you know, a steward, on a . . . what I call a Scandinavian ship.’

‘What I call’ was one of Maureen’s most punctual expressions. It gave her a good deal of licence. She might use it while naming a perfectly familiar object, in which case it seemed to endow her with distinction and consign the object in question to everlasting banality (‘It’s what I call a lawnmower’). Or she might use it when she felt that what she had to say was true but difficult (‘He’s what I call a layabout’). Or she might flourish it like a white flag: I have a rough idea what I mean and you’d do well to follow my drift, because if you want to set me straight, I may have trouble following yours.

Scandinavia was a case of the white flag that didn’t quite mean surrender.

‘He might have been Norwegian, or you know. A Belgian. Or what’s the other one up there.’

In any case Scandinavia appealed to me.

‘He must have been dashing, darling,’ says Maureen, trying to cast him in an agreeable light. ‘I mean if he’s anything like you’ll be – you wait till that thing’s come off your teeth.’

Which helps with the dates, now I think of it: they had my teeth fixed quite late; and I used to take the prosthesis out to do boxing; and I boxed for the last time when I was 14. I was the child of a hardy Scandinavian sailor, which suited me fine.

As time went on, the rules governing Maureen’s usage became more mysterious to me. And then, instead of liking her as a boy likes his mother, I began to like her for her oddity, and the difficulty of predicting what she might say. In this much, her drinking was an asset: it spiced things up, and before it began to tell on her terribly, she was a slightly dangerous person to be with.

At the same time, she had a gracious way of putting those whom Colin thought beneath us perfectly at their ease, and in doing so, she too was clearly more relaxed than she sometimes seemed. Hours were spent nattering gaily with cleaning ladies or repair men. But from this rich, hospitable soil, intransigent opinions could suddenly erupt.

‘What they need,’ I heard her say many times about workers in dispute, whose union leaders might crop up on the news, ‘is the biggest dose of unemployment . . .’

And then it would tail off.

In fact her politics were non-existent, which is to say mild, and I’m not sure she knew what a trade union was. She might have said, for instance: ‘It’s what I call a trade union.’

At the time of the first 1974 election – my visits were by then extremely rare – she announced with dismay that the ‘socialists’ would shortly be in power.

Well into her evening refreshments already, she had assembled her band of pedigree dogs by the sofa: two or three toy Pekingese and a minuscule Yorkshire terrier, to which she’d given strangely raffish names. Bertie, Porchy, Suki, and another I can’t repeat. They were about as far as you could stray from a dalmatian while bearing the word ‘dog’ in mind. And bad advertisements, like the court paintings of Velázquez, for the effects of narrow breeding. The Pekingese, in which the central feature of the stove-in nose was prized, had been refined with so little thought for their oxygen supply that even the hardest heart would flutter with pity to hear them squeak and snort from one breath to the next like rubber ducks plunged to the bottom of a bubble bath and squeezed a bit at a time.

‘Yes, darling,’ said Maureen with an improbable passion in someone with no discernible politics. ‘We’ve come to the end of our, well you know how your father hates Labour, and I hate, I agree I suppose, if they’re going to do that, then it is the end. Which I’m sure they will! Which is horrible of them.’

I wasn’t clear what Labour had in mind for her.

‘You don’t understand,’ she said, unable to restrain the first tears of exasperation. ‘You’re so stupid! I wouldn’t mind if it was us they took away. But it’s the doggies they want to take. Can’t you see that?’

And now she was in crying in earnest.

‘Why would any government want them,’ I asked after a long interval, ‘when they smell so terribly?’

She appeared to rally.

‘I love them, don’t I, Porchy’ – blowing her nose and attending bravely to her face – ‘You may not think it’s possible to love a doggie but we do. And anyway it’s nonsense that they smell.’ She fixed me with her dwindling blue eyes. ‘When did you last have a bath is what Porchy wants to know.’

We sat in silence, a little embarrassed, deferring to the television, and the early election results coming through. The pets snuffled and gasped on the carpet.

‘Have a drink, darling,’ she said at last, smoothing down her dress. And as I stood up: ‘I think I’ll have a top up myself.’

‘It’s in Black August,’ she went on, still thinking of the dogs. ‘It’s a terrifying book. A . . .’ – always the slight pause before the heights of the sentence – ‘ . . . prophecy.’ And then, apologetically, without quite conceding defeat: ‘I don’t know. I’m not a clever woman. It’s by whatsisname, your father plays golf with him, he did The Devil Rides Out.’

She was thinking of Dennis Wheatley. Black August was about a vicious plebeian uprising which took its toll on the better neighbourhoods, and no doubt the better class of pet.

Much of Maureen’s life was spent in this squeamish, embattled frame of mind. Yet the next thing you knew, she was out on the town with her hairdresser, or entertaining the cleaning lady or the decorator with a complicated cocktail, and then a refresher. Or she’d be away on a pub crawl with people her husband had never heard of. If she’d lived by an industrial estate, she’d soon have found friends from the shop floors and warehouses, but like children who gulp down milk but shy away from cows, our family kept as far as we could from the sources of the many things on which we depended.

‘I like people,’ Maureen used to say when Colin reprimanded her for seeing this person or that person. ‘You’re a snob and I’m not.’

It was true that Maureen liked people, and it was this, more than her love of very small dogs, that accounted for much of her charm.

TTwo weeks with the registers at the Family Records Centre in Clerkenwell had produced a minor moment of destiny after several attempts to narrow down the impressive number of mothers who’d appeared at first sighting: the certificates I’d ordered as a result of a long inventory of marriages involving a Margaret Walsh in the few years after I’d been born would now be ready for collection in the Family Records Centre. I felt an urge for the place in any case; a need for the soothing, mechanical movement through the registers, quarter by quarter, shelf by shelf. Only it wasn’t clear what should be looked for next.

I paid for my certificates and took a chair near the entrance to the Search Room. In the first marriage certificate, Margaret Walsh married a housepainter at the Register Office in the Metropolitan Borough of St Pancras in 1956. She was a packer in a printing factory. Her father was a plumber; the groom’s father was a railway porter. But she was unlikely to be my Margaret. She was 18 on the day of the marriage and living away to the east in Islington. My Margaret was a West Londoner.

In the second, Margaret Walsh married an industrial painter at Our Lady of Sorrows in Paddington in 1956. She was a hotel receptionist. Her father was a gang-master and her father-in-law was a train driver in Ireland. The couple lived near Paddington Station in a terrace which had since ceased to exist. She might well have been my Margaret Walsh but I would have to open a line on the husband’s family to find that out.

Next came Margaret Walshe of Hammersmith marrying a clerical officer for the Coal Board in 1958 at the Church of the Most Holy Trinity, Brook Green. She was a ‘cosmetic consultant’. Both fathers – his a ‘licensed victualler’, hers a farmer – were dead. She was 25 at the time, which, if she were my Margaret, made her a few years older than I’d imagined. I tried to attach this new possibility to the structure of uncertainties and half-confirmed suspicions that I’d been working on, without the whole edifice pirouetting slowly to the floor. I underlined the address of the groom on the certificate, as though she might still be at that address, in Westminster, half a century later, working in the same line and advising her elderly clients about a new moisturiser.

Then came a St Valentine’s Day wedding, in high style as I imagined, between Margaret Walsh, spinster, of Baron’s Court – not far from White City – and a pie-maker’s stoker. The year was 1957. His father was a fisherman, hers was a road repairer. They, too, were married at the Holy Trinity in Brook Green. But her age counted against her.

By the time all four brides had been ruled out, I felt irked and exhausted.

If the Family Records Centre allowed people to burrow back into the walled-off parts of their clan warren, it also gave them plenty of scope to invent the bigger thing for themselves in the form of an ethnic past. The mouths of larger tunnels beckoned, even in these certificates. Standing at the edge of a word like ‘farmer’ and peering over, I could feel the down-draught whispering to me about Irishness. Fisherman, farmer, gang-master, ‘Railway Engine Driver (Eire)’. So much for the grandparents. Then the first-generation exiles: housepainter, industrial painter, stoker – all the Margaret Walsh grooms, bar the Coal Board clerk, were caught in the attitudes of a tough immigrant drama.

Later I spent hours envisaging those lives glimpsed in the certificates. Hard lives, some of them. I mapped them onto everything I knew about migrations from Ireland. ‘Irishness’ was an attractive thing to me. I was too guarded and unattached to think that any of this had a bearing on Margaret’s boy and the person he’d turned into. But it did have a bearing on Margaret.

After Colin’s death in 1991, Maureen had gone into sheltered accommodation – an attractive, expensive block of flats off Holland Park Avenue. There she’d taken to drink in a big way, bigger than ever before. She’d scarcely settled in when Jill came up to London.

Jill and Maureen were by now very much alike.

The Jill of my childhood had been a stubby girl with pigtails, a sweet, bemused sort of person. When she wasn’t at boarding school or off at her father’s, she’d spent her time at riding school or gymkhanas. She’d been mad about horses and later about teenage boys, especially boys with a tendency to bolt.

I knew her no better, possibly less well, than I knew our nannies, but by the time I’d grown up, things had turned out badly for Jill, and when she started coming to London to see Maureen in the first stages of her decline, she, too, was flailing at the edge of her own undoing. She’d become as slight and haggard as her mother, with the same mannerisms, the same blonde hair – though Maureen’s was greyer and thinner since Colin’s death – and the same way of taking pleasure to desolate extremes. Both were now known for extravagant feats of bad behaviour after a drink or two, which is how they entertained one another on Jill’s visits, returning in due course to the flats in Maureen’s new residence, ringing every bell on the console and subjecting the staff to what was later described as ‘racial abuse’.

A few weeks after the management had issued a stern warning, I was summoned by a nurse on duty at the flats. Maureen had been missing most of the day.

‘I’m afraid your sister’s decided to visit again,’ the nurse said over the phone. She spoke with an air of foreboding which nonetheless suggested the worst was already well underway.

Maybe I should threaten to disown Maureen and Jill, I thought as I got in the car. Possibly shout and wave my arms at them in a show of consternation. But by now there were no family ties substantial enough to revoke. Should I shout and wave my arms anyway?

Driving west along Notting Hill Gate, I thought I saw them. I stopped the car on a yellow line. No doubt about it at this range. Like a spent, delirious swimmer who’s crawled up the beach to the wrong bathing hut, Jill was hammering on the glass door of a restaurant while the waiters rapidly secured it from the inside. Maureen, meanwhile, was sitting on the pavement with her shoes off, legs stretched out over the kerb, as though she were lounging on the Deauville sands. It was nine at night. The traffic was humming down to Shepherd’s Bush.

After that, Maureen had been moved on. She was now two establishments further afield, well out of London and well out of range. We’d last spoken in the middle of the night, when she was still allowed to keep a dog, a neurotic miniature in the same style as the others. She’d called me to say that she’d packed a suitcase for him – I knew immediately she meant the dog – but she couldn’t recall the way to his school. ‘He’s a sweet chap but he can’t sit here with me all day, not now the holidays are over. Is that unreasonable of me?’

‘Are you sure you’re not thinking of Jeremy?’ I asked.

‘Yes, of course. D’you take me for a fool?’

‘No, but this is . . . You’re on the phone to Jeremy now.’

‘Don’t be ridiculous. Who?’

‘You’ve muddled me up with your dog,’ I went on, ‘and it’s gone two in the morning.’

‘I’m so sorry.’ She sounded mortified. ‘I had no idea it was so late. Now just remind me who this is again, and I’ll have one of the staff here ring you back.’

The following morning she called again. Was I in a position to cover the cost of the dog’s education? ‘Just this term anyhow, until we’re sorted out and we’ve talked to the bank.’

‘Consider it covered,’ I said.

‘Oh thank you, darling,’ she said with a sigh of relief. ‘He’s such a lucky little chap.’

As a small boy, I’d tended to take Maureen’s affection and run with it. The ease of the taking and the fluency of the movement were proof, I supposed, of Maureen’s kindness as a mother: she was good with small children in the way she was good with flowers, why not? But she was terrific, I saw now, with make-believe. Jill’s assertion that the grandmother stuff was all nonsense had failed to make a proper impression on me. Now, I found, Maureeen’s nonsense was seriously interesting. The orphaning, the trip to Egypt, the skiing in Chamonix, all of that was in the way of a fairytale about her past. She’d founded an emblematic home from home, a stunning house, on the heights of upward mobility, from which to survey what she’d made of herself. And paradoxically, because of that fantastic establishment, her marriage to Graham became a little more real and a little less like the fairy-tale it must have seemed for the working-class girl I’d begun to believe she was.

When Maureen divorced away from extraordinary wealth and married sideways, she stuck to her story. And the further she got from her childhood, the more committed she grew to the fairytale. Was that why it became more deeply felt in the telling?

Her switch had been a bad idea from the outset. With Graham, she had been a bridge widow, and she’d originally met Colin – in one version of the story – in the lobby of a bridge club. Colin wasn’t going to abandon the bridge table for a happy marriage. But he was better-looking than Graham, more wicked and debonair, and so at first Maureen may not have noticed that her sideways move involved a downward gradient. But the more conspicuous it grew, the plainer it would have been to her that her first marriage was indeed a dream come true, which she’d thrown away for Colin’s wastrel charms. At that point, I guess, she’d begun to look back on the years with Graham as a benign enchantment, part make-believe, part not.

Meanwhile, everything that had been asked of her as Graham’s wife was still expected of her. The la-di-da voice had to be kept up to the mark. The drinking needed a bit of discipline even if the parties never stopped.

The returns, on the other hand, were fewer. There was nothing like the same degree of ease. Colin’s cars broke down, his plans were erratic and in London his parents were too close by. His shacks in the country were chilly and damp. Even his income was liable to dry up when he had a run of bad luck at cards or in the City.

On a train from Finsbury Park, after a mission I forget, I fished into my bag, the bag which now went with me everywhere, swelling by the day with photocopied documents, applications for birth certificates of possible siblings, press clippings, fliers, jottings, which I couldn’t bring myself to throw away. Reviewing the notes I’d made on the court records, I saw that Maureen had told the child welfare officer she’d undergone treatment for TB for many years. Then I came back to the verdict on Margaret Walsh, whom it had not ‘at the time of writing’ proved ‘practicable to interview personally’. She did ‘not appear very co-operative’.

For a moment the two women, my two mothers, were staring at one another across level ground with something resembling sympathy, or solidarity, Maureen made good, and Margaret – who knows? Then Maureen was singing ‘Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?’ in the kitchen of the houseboat, with her apron on and her blue eyes – fidgety in those days – roaming this way and that. Her special song, her signature tune, was always done in Maureen-posh, as if the irony of it had somehow been folded over and pressed flat. On stage and in the first recording, Julie Andrews had managed the Cockney accent; in the film Audrey Hepburn made a hash of all her gorblimey dialogue. In our local productions of My Fair Lady, staged impromptu in every living-room, kitchen and bathroom of every flat, shack or cottage we ever lived in, starring the inimitable Maureen Harding as Eliza Doolittle, there was never a chance that she’d get anywhere near Eliza’s original accent. It would have given the game away.

While I was looking into the past of Margaret Walsh and getting nowhere, Maureen traded in her own non-existence for a full-dress death. My brother Peter – Maureen’s son by her marriage to Graham – told me the news over the phone. At the crematorium in Leatherhead, near Peter’s house, the River Mole had burst its banks. The cloud had lifted after several days of heavy rain. It was a cold, bright autumn day. Floodwater sparkled on the lawns below the ceremonial building, built in the style of a supermarket, and there were shiny slicks either side of the cloister, where you half expected to find a cash machine in the wall. Looking across the water, I remembered Maureen, struggling with the dank existence to which life with Colin had swept her off, a life of misty Thames-side billets – the life I’d loved and she hadn’t – involving power cuts and winter flooding that submerged the lawns for weeks at a stretch so that the only access was by boat across the drowned rose beds. I thought of the ritual lighting of paraffin stoves to dry out the rooms; and then I wondered in a vague sort of way whether all this damp around the crematorium would make it hard to get a good blaze going under our mother.

Peter had transferred some old 8mm footage onto a videotape, which he ran at the brief, jovial send-off after the funeral. There were glimpses of just about all the fallen, including Maureen and yes, I think maybe Boris as well, and poor Jill.

It was a touching occasion. In the old reels, Maureen looked charming and funny, with a range of hats and pretty dresses, period pieces in their own right, and in most scenes, she was somewhere quite smart: a private club in Maidenhead, a golf tournament in another redoubt of the home counties, or a good full-scale wedding, with a marquee. Under the various hats a ripple of fair hair, a flash of a smile, but the pale blue eyes always a bit elusive. And there she was at a family event, maybe a christening, with Colin and Graham, the three of them chattering away – bring on the kidneys and scrambled egg – then breaking off to stand motionless as people did in those days when they realised a movie camera was pointed their way.

Peter gave me a handful of oddments before I left, in a John Lewis bag with white and green stripes, folded over and taped down. There were some photos, he said, and some papers he thought I’d find interesting.

He used Maureen’s old formula: ‘The photos,’ he said, ‘have what I call sentimental value.’

I had no carbon-dating system for events and conversations in our family, but some time in the late 1960s, I guess, Maureen let it be known that ‘the little girl’ who’d given birth to me was in fact ‘a little Irish girl’, and that she’d been serving on a counter when she fell pregnant in 1951. She seemed to think the shop was a branch of Woolworth’s. There were plenty in Britain by then.

Maureen and I had been regular visitors to our local Woolworth’s in the early 1960s, where dreary cover versions of chart hits were available on the Embassy budget label. Maureen herself was so spendthrift and exuberant on these outings, so pleased to saunter round the counters, that she might simply have assigned our little Irish girl to Woolworth’s on a festive, one-world impulse: everyone could be happy in Woolworth’s – shop girls, customers and little boys. Which cast doubt on her announcement, I thought. Still, it would do to be going on with.

Then she gave out the name of the girl: Marjorie Welch or Welsh, or possibly Margaret, or wait, it could have been Mary. Something Irish in any case. Somebody Welch beginning with M.

She repeated the story about a Scandinavian father working on ships, whom I now cast in a less glamorous light. No longer a Viking, and only just a seafarer: a person whose main distinction, aside from leaving Mother One in some distress, was to manage a tray of cocktail sausages in gale-force weather.

A year or two later, there was a more important disclosure. I was having supper with Colin and Maureen at one of Colin’s shabby, expensive clubs in central London, when Maureen asked me, out of nowhere, if I’d felt ‘awkward’ about being an adopted child. I was taken aback by the question, and Colin, who preferred not to talk about our family’s peculiarities, was visibly ruffled.

‘Come on, darling, these are lunatic questions,’ he said. ‘Our son has come to see us, which is unusual enough, and I’ve brought you to the club for dinner. Let him relax for heaven’s sake.’

‘No,’ I put in, resolutely. ‘I’m glad I was adopted.’

‘That’s good, darling,’ Maureen said, ‘because I adore you really, you and the doggies of course, you are the only thing I ever, I mean in my entire life, really ever ever.’

Colin tapped the wine bottle and raised a knowing eyebrow.

‘No,’ Maureen protested, ‘No, I won’t have that, Colin. I’m not sloshed, not in the . . .’ And then: ‘That little Irish girl, you know, darling, what’s-her-name, little Moira Welch, she had other children. After you, I mean. And she came to us . . . well, not her . . . but we were’ – short pause – ‘approached I call it, more than once, and I was asked if we wanted to adopt more babies, if you see what I mean. And those little babies, you see, they were your sisters. Your father thinks I’m tight.’

‘My sisters.’

‘Oh I wish I’d said something,’ said Maureen with the whole Dalmatian Plantation fantasy creeping unmistakably over her, as she imagined a litter of amenable puppies rolling at her feet.

I was charmed and aghast. Colin lit a cigar and blew the smoke past Maureen’s ear.

‘This is nonsense,’ he said.

‘Why didn’t you adopt them?’ I found the question impossible to stifle, even though it must have sounded sharp, or peevish.

Something was said about the cost of educating children, and then, on the subject of when these approaches were made, Maureen grew vague. Perhaps when I was four or five years old – or was it earlier? Colin said nothing and as quickly as it had blown up, like a squall over the half-eaten cutlets, the matter was dropped.

Leaving the club, I helped Maureen into her coat and brushed the dandruff from the shoulders of Colin’s suit before she could make a vengeful, attentive fuss about it and perhaps fall over in the process. I was always struck, when I performed these rituals of departure, how small both Colin and Maureen were. It must have got harder, as the years went by, to keep the origins of their little boy secret. How does a pair of miniature horses pretend to the rest of the menage that the giraffe in their corner is the straightforward outcome of a good day’s rutting?

Maybe the sisters were tall as well.

Neglect: this was what defined most of my dealings with Colin and Maureen in their old age. And during my frantic excavations of West London for archaeological evidence of Margaret Walsh, I’d started to want to send them off – Colin and Maureen – in some way that did them justice. It was an uncanny thing: the digging around for Margaret had resurrected them, and they wanted putting away again. I managed that with Colin, but then matters took an extraordinary turn and there was another resurrection.

The discovery that Margaret Walsh was alive – along with her five other children and 21 grandchildren – was followed a couple of months later by an arrangement to meet up. I agreed the date and the place with Mary, a new cousin I’d acquired. It was the best sort of February day in London, an import from childhood, with skies rushed in from Colorado, the blue of summer through a muslin chill, a few elegant contrails to the west. There was snow besides, a fresh fall the evening before, and I came up out of Warwick Avenue tube station to find two long belts of white, almost undisturbed, under a sparkling patina of frost that ought to have melted. The meeting was set for noon. I was early, and paced around the green cabmen’s shelter on Warwick Avenue, then up and down the row of taxis parked in the reservation. There was almost no traffic. A bit past noon I began to get edgy. I had a number for Mary’s mobile and took a look about for a phone box. A couple more minutes and it was obvious that Margaret had decided to back out. I could see how it went. No, she’d said firmly, not appearing very co-operative. Mary said: What do you mean no? You have to now. She said: I don’t have to do anything if you please, Mary. Mary said: It’s ten past twelve and if you’re not coming I’ll go on my own. She said: You go on your own then, would you Mary.

Mary said: ‘Hello stranger.’

It was a cautious, dependable formula.

They’d been stepping slowly on the trudged-down causeways of icy pavement, to come around the Church of St Saviour. I’d spotted them soon enough, even without my glasses, and moved quickly towards them, thinking three on this beautiful, treacherous terrain is better than two, quick or she’ll slip and that’ll be the end of everything. I bent breathlessly to kiss Mary on the cheek, and Margaret, who seemed small and a little delicate, but there wasn’t a moment really to get the measure of each other before we were all concentrating on the ice, as we set off up Clifton Gardens arm in arm, with Margaret in the middle. If I was a steadying hand to one side of her, how was it I had the impression of being steadied myself? Probably a form of nerves.

We became friends in the course of that meeting and now we see each other when we can.

A few weeks afterwards, I was able to get together with Maureen for a sort of send-off. I thought I’d have a drink with her, as it were, and at home one night I opened a bottle of wine and set it by the stove, while I examined the contents of the bag my brother Peter had given me on the day of her cremation. I’d found it by chance and meant to let it lie, but the vague hope of recovering the ‘ivory’ Bible with Haydn Wood’s inscription got the better of me. Among the consolation prizes there was a hairbrush, a faded Polaroid of a small dog and a 1998 desk diary with no appointments. Also a photo of Maureen and Colin, thirty or forty years earlier, doing nothing in particular at a golf club, somewhere in Berkshire, I guessed. Finally, two pieces of paper – Maureen’s birth certificate and Colin’s death certificate – that Peter must have got from his own files and put in the bag. I thought for quite a time about the fact that Colin had wanted his ashes thrown in the river after his cremation, but that Maureen had never let on what she’d like done with hers. After the cremation, they’d gone to Peter and his wife, who were puzzled how to proceed.

I took a long drink and refilled the glass. Refilled it again. And on the third refill, Mother Two seemed to be saying: I’m sorry, darling, but would you top me up?

Of course, I reply. Shall we go on with the story of your remains?

Well, isn’t there something a little gayer we could talk about?

In the end, I went on, Peter and his wife asked us over for lunch in Cobham and then, when the children were distracted by their ice creams, Peter’s wife suggested we should tip your ashes into the lake at the end of the garden, just beyond their little swimming pool.

And as I ran my eye along the contents of the bag, spread out on my table: You know it’s frightful, darling, but I don’t recall any of this.

Peter hadn’t wanted to go down to the lake with us for the ceremony, but I went with his wife and I tipped your gritty, reconstituted cinders out of the tub. For a long time there was a stubborn, milky cloud just below the surface, like the technical bit in the old antacid commercials on ITV. And then I remembered how you hated water.

You, of course, remembered so little in the years leading up to your death. Peter said that Alzheimer’s had been mentioned. In any case, you’d drunk too much, year on year, to keep a grip on your thoughts. Then again, you’d led a various life and couldn’t be expected to recall the whole of it.

You won’t remember the last time we were in a car together. It was Peter’s idea to bring you out from the old people’s home for a barbecue. He felt, in his well-meaning way, that you ought to meet my children. The lunch had gone well. Even so, after you’d had a bit to drink, you took off on some dark assignment of your own. For an hour or more, nobody knew where you were. Peter took the car and found you a mile up the road. You had a habit of vanishing from the establishments where you were interned, or if we took you away for a light lunch in a nearby pub, of flouncing out of the Ladies and blazing a trail to the middle of nowhere, often with the idea that you were making for ‘home’. (Which of the many places you’d lived in with Graham and Colin and then on your own was that?) You’d become the fourth animal protagonist of The Incredible Journey, only you were doomed to travel on your own.

Peter was relieved he’d found you, but you and he had so enraged one another that we decided I should take you back to your real home, the old people’s home, before matters got any worse. I put you in the front passenger seat of my car and after a few miles, you asked me about Peter: ‘Who was that horrible man?’

‘He’s your son Peter,’ I said.

‘I’ve never heard such nonsense in my life. He tried to’ – short pause – ‘abduct me. Kindly take me home.’

‘I’m taking you home,’ I said.

Five minutes later you began welting me over the head and shoulders with a retractable umbrella. You were terrified. You thought I was driving you to your death. There were a few years yet but in essence you were right. When you told me to let you out, I used the central locking. I urged you to calm down. You’d have ejected at 60 miles an hour and probably at 90. You screamed and I screamed back. It was almost like being in love. It was the M3, we were in the middle lane, and once I’d thrown the umbrella into the back, you started trying to drag up the handbrake.

In Chichester, the nearest town to your incarceration – the one before last – you complained of the heat and I lowered the nearside window. At a set of traffic lights, you managed, in a single, rapid manoeuvre, to open the door and totter off along the pavement. I watched aghast. You looked a bit like Mrs Thatcher – it was the scurrying gait, always about to pitch you onto your face, and the shouting, which I could hear even as you made off and the lights refused to change for me.

You hurried into the forecourt of a big petrol station. I followed you around and stopped the car. I approached the attendant to ask if I could use the phone. You took a bearing at the edge of the forecourt and set off unerringly, like a dog, in the direction of the old people’s home.

‘Yes,’ said the attendant, ‘I’ll get the number for you. It’s Mrs Harding, isn’t it? I’ve had her here a few times. I generally ring the home and let them ring the police.’

The last time I set eyes on you, not counting the cloudy starburst of mother resolving in Peter’s lake, you were being coaxed into a police van by a pair of amiable Chichester coppers who seemed to know you well.

I drove back to Peter’s to collect the family. And I kept thinking on the way that the friendly attendant at the garage reminded me of something. Coming off the M3 for Oxshott, I began to hear the traders at Covent Garden in the old days. It was ‘good old Mrs H.’ again, the way they’d always said it, and the way the garage man had said it now, like music hall, the refrain that never dies. Whoever you were, you went down big in the right quarters.

To savour the last moment with you that I can make sense of, I have to go back again to that sunny afternoon at Peter’s before you did a runner.

It was earlier in the afternoon, it was hot. You’d got caught up in the ritual of a family barbecue with only an inkling of why you were there. Could it possibly be your birthday? How old were you? Peter plied you with gin and tonic. My children seemed to you unaccountable but charming presences. You had some vague recollection of their mother. Peter put the two-year-old next to you at the table in the garden, under the parasol. If you listened carefully, through the bicker of moorhens on the lake, you could hear the sound of traffic coming off an A-road somewhere, buffeting the ghost of the English countryside.

I prised a slab of lamb from the griddle and put it on your plate. You set about trying to cut it.

Your hair was lank, drably plastered about your ears and neck. Your eyes were if anything smaller than I recalled, their heavenly blue was gone to the world, like the skies of the painters, which don’t gaze back.

‘I can’t eat this, Peter,’ you said, addressing no one in particular.

‘Let me cut it for you,’ Peter’s wife suggested.

You thought: I’d like another gin and tonic.

‘Yes dear, what a good idea,’ you said. ‘That’s what I used to do for my doggies. We all found it easier cut up.’

Peter’s wife took the knife and fork and sliced away at your meat. You patted the small child who was sitting next to you, as I cut up his.

‘Is there any tonic water?’ you asked judiciously. ‘I fancy a top up.’

‘No gin I suppose then, Mother?’ said Peter as he reached for the Gordon’s, fixed your enormous fizzy drink and dropped in a slice of lemon.

‘Thank you, darling,’ you said, gazing out at the lake. ‘Isn’t this lovely here, Peter, we’re so lucky.’

The child to your right, gingerly poised on a white garden chair, set his fingers to the edge of the table and pushed. Then he was rocking. Better not, I cautioned, from my seat to your left. And sure enough he began to plummet, slowly, like a creature in space, the garden chair tumbling with him like a damaged module. You too were in space, intently there, toying with the salad on your plate. Your gin and tonic was in front of you, and in the distance, behind it, the luminous bodies of kith and kin whose names you’d forgotten; beyond them the outer vastness of the lake.

We all watched as your hand shot over the falling chair to the falling boy. In a series of spasmodic, instinctive gestures, you’d got hold of a little wrist in one hand, then a little arm in the other, and in a trice you’d let go of the wrist so as to seize a part of the chair, as though you and he were beyond the pull of gravity. I watched him start floating back into position. We all continued looking on, frozen at our placings round a large, white plastic table where the sunlight beat down on a dish of dressed cucumber. We were like ground control technicians, thousands of miles from the pinprick drama. Moments earlier, a lifetime possibly, you’d been wondering who these children were, and what to do with the bit of barbecued meat in your mouth. Yet here you were, suddenly called on to act, levering the small boy and the vivid plastic chair back into alignment so that the mysterious mission could proceed, without a hitch, through the timeless hush all around you.

An hour later and you’d made off.

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