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  • Published: 16 April 2019
  • ISBN: 9781784708344
  • Imprint: Vintage
  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 304
  • RRP: $26.00



Part One

A Table Full of Strangers

In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals. We were living on a street in London called Ruvigny Gardens, and one morning either our mother or our father suggested that after breakfast the family have a talk, and they told us that they would be leaving us and going to Singapore for a year. Not too long, they said, but it would not be a brief trip either. We would of course be well cared for in their absence. I remember our father was sitting on one of those uncomfortable iron garden chairs as he broke the news, while our mother, in a summer dress just behind his shoulder, watched how we responded. After a while she took my sister Rachel’s hand and held it against her waist, as if she could give it warmth.

Neither Rachel nor I said a word. We stared at our father, who was expanding on the details of their flight on the new Avro Tudor I, a descendant of the Lancaster bomber, which could cruise at more than three hundred miles an hour. They would have to land and change planes at least twice before arriving at their destination. He explained he had been promoted to take over the Unilever office in Asia, a step up in his career. It would be good for us all. He spoke seriously and our mother turned away at some point to look at her August garden. After my father had finished talking, seeing that I was confused, she came over to me and ran her fingers like a comb through my hair.

I was fourteen at the time, and Rachel nearly sixteen, and they told us we would be looked after in the holidays by a guardian, as our mother called him. They referred to him as a colleague. We had already met him—we used to call him “The Moth,” a name we had invented. Ours was a family with a habit for nicknames, which meant it was also a family of disguises. Rachel had already told me she suspected he worked as a criminal.

The arrangement appeared strange, but life still was haphazard and confusing during that period after the war; so what had been suggested did not feel unusual. We accepted the decision, as children do, and The Moth, who had recently become our third-floor lodger, a humble man, large but moth-like in his shy movements, was to be the solution. Our parents must have assumed he was reliable. As to whether The Moth’s criminality was evident to them, we were not sure.

I suppose there had once been an attempt to make us a tightly knit family. Now and then my father let me accompany him to the Unilever offices, which were deserted during weekends and bank holidays, and while he was busy I’d wander through what seemed an abandoned world on the twelfth floor of the building. I discovered all the office drawers were locked. There was nothing in the wastepaper baskets, no pictures on the walls, although one wall in his office held a large relief map depicting the company’s foreign locations: Mombasa, the Cocos Islands, Indonesia. And nearer to home, Trieste, Heliopolis, Benghazi, Alexandria, cities that cordoned off the Mediterranean, locations I assumed were under my father’s authority. Here was where they booked holds on the hundreds of ships that travelled back and forth to the East. The lights on the map that identified those cities and ports were unlit during the weekends, in darkness much like those far outposts.

At the last moment it was decided our mother would remain behind for the final weeks of the summer to oversee the arrangements for the lodger’s care over us, and ready us for our new boarding schools. On the Saturday before he flew alone towards that distant world, I accompanied my father once more to the office near Curzon Street. He had suggested a long walk, since, he said, for the next few days his body would be humbled on a plane. So we caught a bus to the Natural History Museum, then walked up through Hyde Park into Mayfair. He was unusually eager and cheerful, singing the lines Homespun collars, homespun hearts, Wear to rags in foreign parts, repeating them again and again, almost jauntily, as if this was an essential rule. What did it mean? I wondered. I remember we needed several keys to get into the building where the office he worked in took up that whole top floor. I stood in front of the large map, still unlit, memorising the cities that he would fly over during the next few nights. Even then I loved maps. He came up behind me and switched on the lights so the mountains on the relief map cast shadows, though now it was not the lights I noticed so much as the harbours lit up in pale blue, as well as the great stretches of unlit earth. It was no longer a fully revealed perspective, and I suspect that Rachel and I must have watched our parents’ marriage with a similar flawed awareness. They had rarely spoken to us about their lives. We were used to partial stories. Our father had been involved in the last stages of the earlier war, and I don’t think he felt he really belonged to us.

As for their departure, it was accepted that she had to go with him: there was no way, we thought, that she could exist apart from him—she was his wife. There would be less calamity, less collapse of the family if we were left behind as opposed to her remaining in Ruvigny Gardens to look after us. And as they explained, we could not suddenly leave the schools into which we had been admitted with so much difficulty. Before his departure we all embraced our father in a huddle, The Moth having tactfully disappeared for the weekend.

So we began a new life. I did not quite believe it then. And I am still uncertain whether the period that followed disfigured or energised my life. I was to lose the pattern and restraint of family habits during that time, and as a result, later on, there would be a hesitancy in me, as if I had too quickly exhausted my freedoms. In any case, I am now at an age where I can talk about it, of how we grew up protected by the arms of strangers. And it is like clarifying a fable, about our parents, about Rachel and myself, and The Moth, as well as the others who joined us later. I suppose there are traditions and tropes in stories like this. Someone is given a test to carry out. No one knows who the truth bearer is. People are not who or where we think they are. And there is someone who watches from an unknown location. I remember how my mother loved to speak of those ambivalent tasks given to loyal knights in Arthurian legends, and how she told those stories to us, sometimes setting them in a specific small village in the Balkans or in Italy, which she claimed she had been to and found for us on a map.

With the departure of our father, our mother’s presence grew larger. The conversations we used to overhear between our parents had always been about adult matters. But now she began telling us stories about herself, about growing up in the Suffolk countryside. We especially loved the tale about “the family on the roof”. Our grandparents had lived in an area of Suffolk called The Saints, where there was little to disturb them, just the sound of the river, or now and then a church bell from a nearby village. But one month a family lived on their roof, throwing things around and yelling to one another, so loudly that the noises percolated down through the ceiling and into her family’s life. There was a bearded man and his three sons. The youngest was the quiet one, mostly he carried the pails of water up the ladder to the ones on the roof. But whenever my mother walked from the house to collect eggs from the henhouse or get into the car, she saw him watching them. They were thatchers, fixing the roof, busy all day. At dinnertime they pulled down their ladders and left. But then one day a powerful wind lifted the youngest son so he was tilted off balance, and fell from the roof, crashing down through the lime bower to land on paving stones by the kitchen. His brothers carried him into the house. The boy, named Marsh, had broken his hip, and the doctor who came sealed his leg in plaster and told them he could not be moved. He would need to stay on a daybed in the back kitchen until the roof work was completed. Our mother’s job—she was eight years old at the time—was to bring him his meals. Now and then she brought him a book, but he was so shy he barely spoke. Those two weeks must have felt like a lifetime to him, she told us. Eventually, their work done, the family gathered up the boy and were gone.

Whenever my sister and I recalled this story, it felt like part of a fairy tale we did not quite understand. Our mother told us about it without drama, the horror of the boy’s fall removed, the way things happen in twice-told tales. We must have asked for more stories about the falling boy, but this was the only incident we were given—that storm-filled afternoon when she heard the thick, wet thud of him on the paving stones, having torn through the twigs and leaves of the lime bower. Just one episode from the obscure rigging of our mother’s life.

The Moth, our third-floor lodger, was absent from the house most of the time, though sometimes he arrived early enough to be there for dinner. He was encouraged now to join us, and only after much waving of his arms in unconvincing protest would he sit down and eat at our table. Most evenings, however, The Moth strolled over to Bigg’s Row to buy a meal. Much of the area had been destroyed during the Blitz, and a few street barrows were temporarily installed there. We were always conscious of his tentative presence, of his alighting here and there. We were never sure if this manner of his was shyness or listlessness. That would change, of course. Sometimes from my bedroom window I’d notice him talking quietly with our mother in the dark garden, or I would find him having tea with her. Before school started she spent quite a bit of time persuading him to tutor me in mathematics, a subject I had consistently failed at school, and would in fact continue to fail again long after The Moth stopped trying to teach me. During those early days the only complexity I saw in our guardian was in the almost three-dimensional drawings he created in order to allow me to go below the surface of a geometry theorem.

If the subject of the war arose, my sister and I attempted to coax a few stories from him about what he had done and where. It was a time of true and false recollections, and Rachel and I were curious. The Moth and my mother referred to people they both were familiar with from those days. It was clear she knew him before he had come to live with us, but his involvement with the war was a surprise, for The Moth was never “war-like” in demeanour. His presence in our house was usually signalled by quiet piano music coming from his radio, and his current profession appeared linked to an organisation involving ledgers and salaries. Still, after a few promptings we learned that both of them had worked as “fire watchers” in what they called the Bird’s Nest, located on the roof of the Grosvenor House Hotel. We sat in our pyjamas drinking Horlicks as they reminisced. An anecdote would break the surface, then disappear. One evening, soon before we had to leave for our new schools, my mother was ironing our shirts in a corner of the living room, and The Moth was standing hesitant at the foot of the stairs, about to leave, as if only partially in our company. But then, instead of leaving, he spoke of our mother’s skill during a night drive, when she had delivered men down to the coast through the darkness of the curfew to something called “the Berkshire Unit”, when all that kept her awake “were a few squares of chocolate and cold air from the open windows”. As he continued speaking, my mother listened so carefully to what he described that she held the iron with her right hand in midair so it wouldn’t rest on and burn a collar, giving herself fully to his shadowed story.

I should have known then.

Their talk slipped time intentionally. Once we learned that our mother had intercepted German messages and transmitted data across the English Channel from a place in Bedfordshire called Chicksands Priory, her ears pressed against the intricate frequencies of a radio’s headset, and again from the Bird’s Nest on top of the Grosvenor House Hotel, which by now Rachel and I were beginning to suspect had little to do with the effort of “fire watching”. We were becoming aware that our mother had more skills than we thought. Had her beautiful white arms and delicate fingers shot a man dead with clear intent? I saw an athleticism as she ran gracefully up the stairs. It was not something we had noticed in her before. During the month after our father departed, and until she left at the beginning of our school term, we were discovering a more surprising and then more intimate side to her. And that brief moment with the hot iron poised in her hand in midair as she watched The Moth remembering their earlier days left an indelible perception.

With our father’s absence our house began to feel freer and more spacious, and we spent as much time with her as we could. We listened to thrillers on the radio, the lights left on because we wanted to watch one another’s faces. No doubt she was bored by them, but we insisted she be with us while we heard foghorns and wolf-like winds across the moors and slow criminal footsteps or a window splintering, and during those dramas I carried in my mind the half-told story of her driving without lights to the coast. But as far as radio programmes went, she was more at ease lying on the chaise on Saturday afternoons, listening to The Naturalist’s Hour on the BBC and ignoring the book she was holding in her hands. The programme reminded her of Suffolk, she said. And we would overhear the man on the radio going on endlessly about river insects, and chalk streams he had fished in; it sounded like a microscopic and distant world, while Rachel and I crouched on the carpet working on a jigsaw puzzle, piecing together sections of a blue sky.

Once the three of us took a train from Liverpool Street to what had been her childhood home in Suffolk. Earlier that year our grandparents had died in a car crash, so now we watched our mother roaming their house silently. I remember we always had to walk carefully along the edge of the hall, otherwise the hundred-year-old wood floor squawked and squealed. “It’s a nightingale floor,” our grandmother told us. “It warns us of thieves in the night.” Rachel and I always leapt onto it whenever we could.

But we were happiest with our mother on our own in London. We wanted her casual and sleepy affection, more than what we had been given before. It was as if she had returned to an earlier version of herself. She had been, even before my father’s departure, a quick-moving and efficient mother, leaving for work when we left for school and returning usually in time for supper with us. Was this new version caused by a release from her husband? Or in a more complex way was it a preparation for withdrawal from us, with clues of how she wished to be remembered? She helped me with my French and my Caesar’s Gallic War—she was a wonder at Latin and French—preparing me for boarding school. Most surprisingly, she encouraged various homemade theatrical performances in the solitude of our house where we would dress up as priests or walk like sailors and villains on the balls of our feet.

Did other mothers do this? Did they fall gasping over the sofa with a flung dagger in their backs? None of this would she do if The Moth was about. But why did she do it at all? Was she bored with looking after us on a daily basis? Did dressing up or dressing down make her another, not just our mother? Best of all, when first light slipped into our rooms, we’d enter her bedroom like tentative dogs and gaze at her undressed face, the closed eyes, the white shoulders and arms already stretched out to gather us in. For, whatever the hour, she was always awake, ready for us. We never surprised her. “Come here, Stitch. Come here, Wren,” she would murmur, her personal nicknames for us. I suspect that was the time Rachel and I felt we had a real mother.

In early September the steamer trunk was brought out of the basement and we watched as she filled it with frocks, shoes, necklaces, English fiction, maps, along with objects and equipment she said she did not expect to find in the East, even what looked like some unnecessary woollens, for she told us the evenings were often “brisk” in Singapore. She made Rachel read out loud from a Baedeker about the terrain and the bus services, as well as the local terminology for “Enough!” or “More”, and “How far is it?” We recited the phrases out loud with our clichéd accents of the East.

Maybe she believed that the specifics and calmness of packing a large trunk would assure us of the sanity of her journey rather than make us feel even more bereft. It was almost as if we expected her to climb into that black wooden trunk, so much like a coffin with those brass corner edges, and be deported away from us. It took several days, this act of packing, and felt slow and fateful in its activity, like an endless ghost story. Our mother was about to be altered. She would evolve into something invisible to us. Perhaps for Rachel it felt different. She was more than a year older. It may have looked theatrical to her. But for me the act of continual reconsidering and repacking suggested a permanent disappearance. Prior to our mother’s leaving, the house had been our cave. Only a few times did we walk along the embankment of the river. She said that travel was something she would be doing too much of in the coming weeks.

Then suddenly she had to leave, for some reason sooner than expected. My sister went into the bathroom and painted her face a blank white, then knelt with that emotionless face at the top of the stairs and circled her arms through the railings and would not let go. By the front door I joined our mother in an argument against Rachel, attempting to persuade her to come downstairs. It was as if our mother had arranged things so there would be no tearful goodbyes.

There’s a photograph I have of my mother in which her features are barely revealed. I recognise her from just her stance, some gesture in her limbs, even though it was taken before I was born. She is seventeen or eighteen, and snapped by her parents along the banks of their Suffolk river. She has been swimming, has climbed into her dress, and now stands on one foot, the other leg bent sideways in order to put on a shoe, her head tilted down so that her blond hair covers her face. I found it years later in the spare bedroom among the few remnants she had decided not to throw away. I have it with me still. This almost anonymous person, balanced awkwardly, holding on to her own safety. Already incognito.

Warlight Michael Ondaatje

A mesmerising new novel from the internationally acclaimed, bestselling author of The English Patient.

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