Mother One, Mother Two

Jeremy Harding

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 full text of this memoir is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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