I spent my first five years in a Legoland suburb of London at the end of the Piccadilly Line. I was born at home, 2am on a Tuesday morning, I believe, with a transparent membrane covering my head — a ‘cowl’, the midwife called it, explaining to my mother the traditional belief that a baby born like this could never drown, and should therefore spend his life at sea.
The injections they stuck me with gave me gastroenteritis, which my mother later told me nearly killed me, and, ironically, asthma, which gave me many miserable nights heaving for breath in an armchair next to the banked embers of a coal fire, the only form of heating in that house. On winter nights ‘Jack Frost’ decorated the windows with amazing leaf-patterns. Ice on puddles cracked underfoot in dendritic patterns like lightning. My mother bought me an expensive coat — it was certainly heavy, made of dense, tight wool or tweed, and once it was on I couldn’t take it off because it fastened with those huge leather buttons that were impossible for a child to force back through the nautically stitched buttonholes.
I had a recurring nightmare. It was always the same: I’d be riding on my toy tricycle through deserted streets. Then I would hear a strange cracking sound behind me, like ice breaking, and I’d turn to look and see that the streets and pavements were cracking and caving in, like a hollow chocolate egg. The suburb — the whole built environment — was revealed to me as flimsy, brittle, temporary, like a stage set. Underneath the streets was a vast ocean, into which everything was collapsing. I could see the surface boiling and steaming like breath in the cold air. Then I’d realise that the cracks were coming my way and would soon overtake me, so I turned and pumped the pedals furiously, desperately trying to outrun the collapse-wave.
Of course it caught up with me, and tilting slabs of paving dumped me backwards into the frothing sea — but as I sank down through the water, I felt completely relaxed. The coat I hated so much seemed to keep me warm, and I found I could breath deeply and easily. The coat seemed to be holding enough air to stabilise me in the water, so that I was floating in place. There was dim green light streaming down from the surface above, but I couldn’t see far in any direction. I breathed, hovering there in the dim green light, quite relaxed but unable to do anything except look around at the surrounding murk. My red tricycle had disappeared into the darkness beneath me, and I was suspended far beneath the surface, like a parachutist dangling from a tree. There were no shoals of fish, not even any trash from the collapsing suburb, all of which had rapidly sunk and disappeared: only the primordial chaos, the immeasurable abyss.
And then, as my eyes adjusted, I began to discern vague shapes in the outer darkness, which slowly grew until they emerged into the murky green light. A great whale, as long as a train, looking at me sideways from its elephant eye as it cruised past. A huge manta ray, flapping its wings so leisurely, leaving spinning vortices meandering in its wake. Then a hideous white shark, looking at me without interest as it followed at the same steady speed. But even that raw, gaping mouth and blank, dead eye didn’t frighten me. Rather, these creatures fascinated me, as nothing in my life so far had done. Hovering there a hundred feet beneath the suburb, I decided in my dream that I would become a diver when I grew up, and study these strange and enormous structures which had coalesced so silently out of the darkness.
And then I would wake up.
I was born a dozen years after my mother’s father had died, and I am not half the man he was, even though I looked, they told me, just like him. I was his ‘spitting image’, my mother said, almost a doppelgänger. The strange thing is that my grandfather, Bert Evans, really was a seaman, who became a tug-boat pilot and then Harbour Master at Liverpool docks while still in his thirties. Later he was put in charge at Southampton, the south-coast port which was pounded by nightly German raids for many months. Overwork, lack of sleep, stress, bad diet, and all the rest of it caught up with him and he fell sick with tuberculosis, but refused to leave his post. Perhaps there was no one else available who could do the job. He battled on through his illness, and it killed him before the war was over. He was 44.
His wife, glamorous Lavinia, remarried with indecent haste to Bert’s older brother, who had children by another marriage, in the process incurring the deep and lifelong hatred of her only daughter, my mother, who was twelve when she lost the father she adored. At seventeen she won a scholarship to study music, at the Royal Academy in London. She had talent and work-ethic, but the point of her hours of practice was to get herself out of her mother’s house as soon as possible.
Except that Lavinia decided to move with her to London.
So Barbara got married.
Her first son took after her husband’s side of the family.
Her second was born with a cowl which meant, traditionally, that he would be a seaman. And turned into the spitting image of the father she’d lost exactly half a lifetime earlier.
He was intelligent and sensitive, and spent much of his early childhood fighting for breath, as his grandfather must have done as he drowned in his own blood.
I didn’t spend my life at sea — though some would say I’ve been all at sea for most of it, and certainly not one to be trusted to guide any vessel safely to its berth. But the dream does have a kind of predictive power, evoking an alienation that seems to have been there right from the start.
I’ve always been fascinated by the ocean, and what lies beneath — those giant, half-discerned shapes materialising out of the darkness.
And the streets and walls, somehow not real, tumbling into the water… that sense of flimsiness and superficiality about the human world I found myself in — that has only grown stronger and stronger, to the complete incomprehension of everyone around me. There is a sea beneath, unfathomably deep. No point in pedalling. Breath, deep and easy. It’s coming.