As a very small child I grappled with a concept that I could never have put into words or even referred to – it took the form of a vague picture to do with thin sticks of something together with massive clods of something else, a sort of clay or heaving doughy substance – a concept or picture which seemed to be about the bigness and smallness of things, the sameness of where we were and what we did, together with the immense significance of these repetitions. I would lie in bed with these proto-images revolving in my mind as I ran my finger along the stitched edge of a blanket that I was very attached to, each stitch shaping a cell of softness between the thick threads.
And then there was a change. When I was about ten the lights were suddenly turned off in my familiar life. When the lights were turned on again the world had changed. I was in a different country, hearing a different language, with a different family and different parents. My address was no longer Westcliff-On-Sea, Essex, England but Woluwe-St-Lambert, Brussels, Belgium.
Some of the reasons for this change are still unknown to me, but the way it came about is simple.
My mother managed clinics in local hospitals for children with cerebral palsy. There was one clinic in the cottage hospital in Westcliff, and there my mother attracted a band of volunteer helpers who were usually other mothers also in their twenties looking for something to fill the days. Some of these volunteers became her friends.
One of these volunteers was Elsie.
Elsie had come to Essex from Newcastle to escape from a former husband, and she had brought her two young children with her. Matthew was my age, and Laura was a year younger. They were all living with Elsie and her new husband in a cramped flat overlooking the estuary about a mile from our house.
They became a fixture in our circle. They would come to our house after school. Or I would spend an afternoon with Matthew in the flat above the cliffs, watching Tintin cartoons on the television and reading Matthew’s Asterix comic books while Elsie and my mother gossiped in the kitchen. We understood that Elsie did not have much money – the flat was small for a family of four, Matthew and Laura shared a bedroom, and the children’s toys filled the tiny living room.
Elsie’s new husband was Belgian. To me he was an alarming man, tall and narrow with a dark, rat-like face and a drawling accent. Sometimes he would grab Elsie without warning and kiss her. “Get off me you beast,” she shrieked. But Matthew said Gerard was ‘very clever’ and much to be preferred to the father they had before. When they went on holiday it would be to visit Gerard’s family in some Belgian town, and they would come back with Belgian foods like pork sausage and soft cheeses which were not to be found in the shops of Westcliff.
Gerard worked on building sites and road maintenance jobs. He would come home in the evening covered in white dust or streaked with tar. We were told that he had some professional qualification but it seemed that this had no value in England. So as Elsie explained he did ‘whatever’. And then Gerard was offered a white-collar job with a chemicals company in Brussels, on terms that were not to be refused. From one day to another the life in Westcliff was cancelled. Elsie and Gerard and the children packed everything up and moved to Brussels.
That Christmas we visited them. My father drove us to Southend airport where to our astonishment the Austin was loaded into the gaping front of a Carvair ATL-98 passenger plane, a short-lived aircraft that could carry up to five cars. Somewhere on the other side of the English channel we landed, and drove the car to Brussels where Elsie and Gerard were living in another tiny flat, a faceless modern block in a cul-de-sac that seemed to be mostly garages.
It was unusually cold in Brussels, and on Christmas Day snow began falling early in the morning. By the afternoon there were feet of snow. On instructions from Elsie, Matthew and I trudged the pavements looking for a bakery that was open. Seemingly miraculously although every other shop was closed the boulangerie was indeed open, and we returned with bread that had been sliced to order in a special machine, an innovation that I had never before seen. By that time it was growing dark, and on the way home we spent some time looking through the lighted windows of a large and luxuriously appointed house, entranced by what we supposed must be one of the fabled new colour televisions. We gazed and pointed in awe at the flickering picture with liquid colours. This continued for a while, perhaps not long, but long enough for it to dawn on us that we were actually looking at an illuminated tank of tropical fish.
Disappointed, we set off back down the street. We passed a distinguished looking elderly man in a furred overcoat and hat, who held up his hand in the falling snow. He pointed to a piece of dog shit on the snow, and said “Merde! Merde!” And then he made off into the night, apparently well satisfied with his work.
For our Christmas dinner Elsie chose to serve us spaghetti Bolognese with salad. As this was one of my favourite meals it seemed very satisfactory, despite the fact that the paper Christmas decorations that Elsie and the children had made fell from the ceiling lamp and into the steaming Bolognaise just as it was about to be served.
My father took a different view. He was already suspicious of Elsie and Gerard, partly because during the previous summer they had stayed at our house while we were on holiday, leaving it in what my father considered to be a state of disarray. ‘Got back to find house a mess’ he had noted in his pocket diary. ‘Kitchen dirty. Plates not washed. Window broken. No note. No apology.’ The Bolognese in place of turkey and roast potatoes was the last straw. He insisted that we leave Brussels the next day, one day early, but my mother talked him out of this plan. Later the story of the disastrous Christmas, embellished with damning details of the shortcomings of Brussels as a city and Belgium as a country, was told and retold, and always with the punchline, “spaghetti Bolognese!” Followed by a silence.
However, the friendship survived this trauma. Contact with Belgium continued. Elsie and Gerard moved to a house in the suburb of Woluwe-St-Lambert. And half a year later I was living there too.
Elsie and Gerard had risen in the world. The house at 17 Avenue de Septembre was a tall, brick-built building in a dateless Flemish style with three high-ceilinged stories and a garage with cellars – the ‘caves’ – just below ground level. There was a steep paved ramp down from the street into the garage. On sunny days an ice-cream van would park in the street and sell home-made ices, the most delicious of which was ‘framboise’. We would beg Elsie for change to buy framboise ices, and then we would show off to other children in the street by playing the garage-rollerskate game, which involved skating up to the ramp at pavement level, then executing a tight turn and tipping on to the ramp and careering down into the garage space. The challenge of the game lay in the raised kerb at the bottom of the ramp. You had to jump over the kerb in your skates, then level out at speed and shoot across the oily floor, hands outstretched to manage the dead stop at the far wall. If you failed the kerb jump you tipped straight over onto the floor, often cracking your head on the concrete. Laura refused to play because the game was ‘stupid’, but that was fine because it meant I could use her roller skates. It meant I could be part of the life of Avenue de Septembre, Woluwe St Lambert, part of the house that looked like something Vermeer might have known and painted, part of a story of which I did not know the beginning and could not guess the end, but which was different.