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Book Club: Read The Pure Gold Baby
Read the opening chapter of our Book Club book of the week - Margaret Drabble's The Pure Gold Baby.
What she felt for those children, as she was to realise some years later, was a proleptic tenderness. When she saw their little bare bodies, their proud brown belly buttons, the flies clustering round their runny noses, their big eyes, their strangely fused and forked toes, she felt a simple sympathy. Where others might have felt pity or sorrow or revulsion, she felt a kind of joy, an inexplicable joy. Was this a premonition, an inoculation against grief and love to come?
How could it have been? What logic of chronology could have made sense of such a sequence? And yet she was to come to wonder if it had been so. Something had called upon her from those little ones, and woken in her a tender spirit of response. It had lain dormant in her for several seasons, this spirit, and, when called upon, it had come to her aid. The maternal spirit had brooded on the still and distant waters of that great and shining lake and all its bird-frequented swamps and spongy islands and reed-fringed inlets, and it had entered into her when she was young and it had taken possession of her. Was this the beginning, was this the true moment of conception? Was this the distant early meeting place that had engendered the pure gold baby? There, with the little naked children, amongst the grasses and the waters?
She had never heard of the rare condition which afflicted some of the members of this poor, peaceable and unaspiring tribe, and the sight of it took her by surprise, although Guy Brighouse, her sponsor and colleague on this expedition, claimed that it had been well documented and that he had seen photographs of it. (But Guy was a hard man who would never admit to anything as vulnerable as surprise.) It was then popularly known as Lobster-Claw syndrome, a phrase which came to be considered incorrect. (It is now more widely known as ectrodactyly, or SHSF, but she did not then know that. She did not then know any of its names. The acronym SHSF discreetly encodes the words Split Hand Split Foot.) In some parts of the world, with some peoples, in some gene pools, the fingers fuse. In others, it is the toes. In this part of Central Africa, it is the toes that form a simple divided stub or stump. A small group of forebears had produced and passed on this deviance.
The little children seemed indifferent to their deformity. Their vestigial toes functioned well. The children were agile and busy on the water, and they were solemn on the land. They punted and paddled their little barks deftly, smartly. They stared at the anthropologists gravely, but without much curiosity. They were self-contained. They posed on the edges of their canoes with a natural elegance, holding their spear-like poles steady in the mud. They did not speak much, either in their own language or in English, of which their elders knew some words. They were not of the tribe the team had come to study; they were a side-show incidental to the longer journey, and the team did not stay with them long or pay them close attention. They were a staging post. But in the two days that the group sojourned there, Jess (so much the junior of her team, so young that she was considered almost as a lucky mascot) observed the little children as they played a game with stones. It was one of the simplest of games, a kind of noughts and crosses, an immemorial game, a stone age stone game. Red stones, black stones, white stones, moved in a square scratched out upon the sun-hardened reddish-ochre mud. She could not follow the rules, and did not try to do so. She watched them, the simple children, playing beneath the vast African sky.
Bubbles rose from the mud of the shallow inlets, bubbles of marsh gas from a lower world. A watery shifting landscape, releasing its spirits through the green weeds. There were floating islands of tufted papyrus, a sudd that was neither water nor land. On the higher banks, the mud dried to clay. From the clay, the children had moulded toy bricks and thimble-sized beakers. They had placed them in a little circle in the rushes. A small party, awaiting small spirit guests.
The next day, on the team’s onward journey, she saw a shoe-bill. Their guides were pleased to have sighted this primeval bird, rare, one of its kind, primitive, powder-blue, much sought after by birdwatchers. The shoebill represents its lonely family. It has its own genus, its own species. Maybe it is allied to the pelican, but maybe not. Tourism was already making its slow way towards the lake, and the guides thought their troupe would be pleased by this sighting, and so it was. But Jess, although she liked the distinguished shoebill, was to remember the children with their simple stones and simplified toes. They were not on the tourist route.
They were her introduction to maternity. She went home, she continued her studies, but she did not forget them.
They were proleptic, but they were also prophetic. And she began to think, as time passed, that they reminded her of some early memory, a memory so early she could not recapture it. It had gone, buried, perhaps, beyond recall. It was a benign memory, benign as the children were benign, but it had gone.
She took home with her a treasure, a stone with a hole in the middle of it, a stone age stone that could make rain. It was a stone of the small BaTwa people of the lake. Had the children been of the BaTwa family? She did not know, but thought they might have been.
The BaTwa’s territory had receded and diminished. They had taken refuge not in the bush, as most displaced African tribes have done, but amongst the reeds and in the water.
Jess was to keep the rain stone with her all her life.
The pure gold baby was born in St Luke’s, a National Health hospital in Central London, an old institution now relocated in the suburbs. The building where the baby was born is now a moderately expensive hotel for foreign tourists. There is a mural in one of the public rooms evoking a medical past, with surgeons in white coats and busy nurses. Some guests think it in questionable taste. The smell of disinfectant has not been totally banished from the woodwork.
The quality of this small girl child was not at first evident. She looked, at first sight, like any newborn baby. She had five fingers on each hand, five toes on each foot. Her mother, Jess, was happy at the birth of her firstborn, despite the unusual circumstances, and loved her from the moment she saw her. She had not been sure she would do so, but she did. Her daughter proved to be one of the special babies. You know them, you have seen them. You have seen them in parks, in supermarkets, at airports. They are the happy ones, and you notice them because they are happy. They smile at strangers, when you look at them their response is to smile. They were born that way, you say, as you go thoughtfully on your way.
They smile in their pushchairs and in their buggies.
They smile even as they recover from heart surgery. They come round from the anaesthetic and smile. They smile when they are only a few weeks old, the size of a trussed chicken, and stitched up across their little breast bones with thread, like a small parcel. I saw one once, not so long ago, in the Children’s Hospital in Great Ormond Street in London. As I was introduced to her, and was listening to a description of her case and her condition, she opened her eyes and looked at me. And when she saw me, she smiled. Her first impulse, when seeing a stranger, was to smile. She was a black-haired, red-faced, wrinkled little scrap of a bundle, like a bandaged papoose, snug in her tiny crib. She had come safely through major surgery. She smiled.
I saw one of them in a long queue for check-in at an airport a year or two ago. You couldn’t miss him, or forget him. He was about eight months old, and his mother was holding him in her arms, his plump legs comfortably astride her solid hip, and he was smiling, and making free-range crowd contact, and stretching out his little waving neat-fingered hands to strangers, and responding to their clucks and waves. Other small ones in the line were grizzling and moaning and struggling and tugging and whimpering, bored and restless as they clutched their drooping toys or dragged their brightly coloured pink-and-blue Disney-ornamented plastic mini-wheelie-bags, but this one was radiant with a natural delight. His face was broad and blond and round and dimpled and shining, his hair a soft baby silken down. He entertained the long and anxious straggle of travellers. The mother looked proud and modest, as her baby was praised and admired by all. The mother was stout and plain and also round of face: an ordinary, homely young woman, the archetype of an ordinary mother, proud of her child, as such mothers are. But the baby was supernatural in his happiness.
You don’t know where they come from, or why they have the gift. Who gives it? You don’t know. We don’t know. There is no way of telling. It is from some profound and primal source, or so we may well believe. They bring it to us.
You don’t know what will happen to them in later years. Such radiance cannot last. So you say to yourself, as you watch their smiling young faces.
The pure gold baby, born in St Luke’s Hospital in Bloomsbury, was a pleasant child, no trouble to anyone. She attached herself to the nipple and fed rhythmically from the breast, she slept peacefully in her cot and breathed evenly, and her mother Jess delighted in her. She took her home to her modest second-floor flat in North London, which she rented very cheaply from a couple downstairs whom she knew from her earliest student years, and for whom she used to babysit on a regular basis. Although naturally exercised by the doubts and anxieties that beset young mothers, from the beginning she felt a love for, and confidence in, this child that took her somewhat by surprise. She had not expected motherhood to come so easily. Childbirth had been moderately painful, and was helped along with a little pethidine, but attachment came easily.
Those of you who are by nature apprehensive and suspicious will read this account as a warning, and you will be right. We worried for her, we, her friends, her generation, her fellow-mothers at the playgroup in the dusty old church hall in the quadrant. (I don’t think the word ‘cohort’ had at that time been co-opted from the dictionary for use in the sociological thesaurus.) We worried for her in the corner shop, as we bought our tins of beans and sausages, our biscuits and our boxes of eggs, our little glass jars of what we then thought of as nourishing and innocent Heinz baby food.
She was what we now call a single mother, and that was less usual then than it is now. We thought she would have a hard time, even though her baby was pure gold.
She was a single mother with an interrupted career, which she and we had assumed she would resume more actively when the child was a little older. It was the kind of career she could pursue, after a fashion, at home as well as in the field: by reading, by study, by marking papers, by editorial work on a small scholarly journal, by teaching an extramural class or two, by writing scraps of medical journalism for periodicals. (She became increasingly skilled at the last of these activities and in time was invited to write, more lucratively, for the mainstream press.) She kept in touch. She was an anthropologist by disposition and by training and by trade, and she managed to earn a modest living from these shifts and scribblings. She wrote quickly, easily, at an academic or at a popular level. She became an armchair, study-bound, library-dependent anthropologist. An urban anthropologist, though not in the modern meaning of that term.
The father of the child was never visible. We assumed Jess knew who he was and where he was, but she did not say, and nobody knew if he had been informed about the birth of this daughter. Maybe he contributed something to the child’s upkeep. But maybe he did not. Jess was not a silent or reclusive woman, and she loved to talk, but she did not talk about the man who had been, maybe still was, the man in her life. Was he a fellow-student, was he married, was he a professor, was he a foreigner who had returned to his homeland? We did not know.
We had vulgarly speculated, before the child was born, that it might be dusky. Jess had dark connections and African friends, and we knew she had once studied, if only briefly, in Africa. She knew more than most of us about Africa, which, between us, did not amount to much. But the child was fair-skinned, and her soft baby hair was light of colour.
We didn’t know enough about genes to know what, if anything, that meant.
Jess came from an industrial city in the Midlands, and had graduated from a well-regarded grammar school via a foundation course in Arabic at a new university to a degree at SOAS. SOAS! How magical those initials had been to her as a seventeen-year-old when first she heard them, and how thrilling and bewitching they were to remain to her, even into her late middle age! The School of Oriental and African Studies, situated in the heart of academic Bloomsbury. She knew nothing of Bloomsbury or of London when she arrived there, from her provincial home in white-white-white Middle England. (London in those days was full of young people from the regions who knew nothing of Bloomsbury.) SOAS was a sea of adventure, of learning, of cross-cultural currents that swept and eddied through Gordon Square and Bedford Square and Russell Square and along Great Russell Street. Jess threw herself into its waters, and swam with its tides. She loved her first year in an old-fashioned women’s hostel, she enjoyed her later bed-sitter freedom, cooking on a single gas ring and reading in bed by lamplight well into the night. Her happiness was intense. Her subject enthralled her. How had she happened upon it, so luckily? Surely, she led a charmed life. SOAS was frequented by handsome and gifted strangers from all over the world, scholars, lexicographers, chieftains, heads-of-state in waiting, and she was free to wander amongst them. It was a meeting place, if not exactly a melting pot.
At the age of twenty, walking along the ancient-and-modern thoroughfare of the Tottenham Court Road, using the august but friendly British Museum as a shortcut, sitting in timeless Russell Square on the grass in the sun, attending a seminar, listening to a lecture, shopping in shabby Marchmont Street, she was profoundly happy, her imagination filled with dreams of the future, with speculations about the lands she would visit, the journeys awaiting her, the peoples she would meet. The bomb damage of London was at last being very slowly repaired, with spirit if not always with style, and the streets of the late fifties and early sixties were full of promise and change and hope.
Some of the big men of the future were products of SOAS and the LSE and the Inner Temple. They had occupied the square mile of colonial educational advancement, and they were now in the process of rewriting history. Jomo Kenyatta, Seretse Khama, Kwame Nkrumah... the potent memory of their names hung thick in the air of Bloomsbury and Fleet Street, the big names of big beasts, the stars of the savannah, the giants who would bestride the post-colonial world. But there were also all the lesser people: the witty Indian students, the tall aspiring South African boys who had graduated from Rhodes or Cape Town, the Guyanese intellectuals, the Burmese mystics, the vegans from Mauritius, the twins from Jakarta, the would-be white middle-class dervish from Southport – all united in human endeavour, all part of the family of man. The variegation of the human species delighted Jess, and she was in love with all those peoples.
We lived in an innocent world.
What did we mean by ‘innocence’, you may ask?
When Jess was a schoolgirl in Broughborough, not many people she met had heard of SOAS or indeed of anthropology. It was chance that revealed them to her and set her on her course and her life’s long journey.
Her father, who worked in Town and Country Planning, had acquired during his travels with the RAF in the Second World War some little booklets of beautiful hand-coloured drawings of native peoples. He had been offered them in a bazaar in North Africa and, much pressed to purchase, had bought them for a modest sum. He felt sorry for the vendors in those hard times, for the boys with boxes of matches, for the old men who offered to shine his shoes, using their own spit for polish. These booklets, in their modest way, were the equivalent of the dirty postcards and obscene playing cards bought by other soldiers, sailors and airmen to while away the hours of boredom. Maybe he had purchased some of those too, but, if he did, he did not leave them lying around for his wife and his two daughters to discover. The People of Many Lands were not on display either, but neither were they hidden, and Jess came upon them in one of the little drawers in the middle of an old-fashioned fret-worked oak bureau-cum-bookcase that stood in the bay-windowed 1930s drawing room of the Speights’ home in Broughborough. They were too small to stand easily on a bookshelf. They were bound, or so she was to remember, in a kind of soft fawn kid-like leather. With the tender hide of a young goat of the Atlas Mountains.
The illustrations were a wonder to her. She found them interesting partly because of the nudity on display, so rare in those days – here were bare-breasted Africans, Papuan New Guineans with feathers, scantily clad Apaches and Cherokees, tribesmen with teeth filed to sharp points, brave naked denizens of the Tierra del Fuego. There were no visible penises, though there was a discreetly oblique view of a lavishly tattooed South American in the Mato Grosso wearing what she was later to identify as a penis sheath. But there was everything else a curious female child might wish to see. There were elongated necks, and dangling ears, and nose bones, and lip discs, and bosoms that descended like leathery sacks or wineskins below the waist, and little conical breasts that pointed cheerfully upwards.
These portraits were much more touchingly human than the photographs one could see in the National Geographic magazine at the dentist’s. Jess did not like those photographs: they seemed rude, intrusive and inauthentic. She did not like the way that the groups were lined up to grin: it reminded her of the procedure of official school photographs, always an ordeal, and menacing in its regimentation. But the artist’s work in her father’s booklets was delicate, attentive, admiring. The men and women and children were dignified, strange and independent. Maybe they were idealised: she did not at that time think to ask herself about this. She did not know what models were used. Were they drawn from life? Or copied from other books? She did not know. But she was captured as a child by the mystery and richness of human diversity.
Each figure had a page to itself, and the colours were pure and clear. The scarlet of these people’s robes and adornments was as bright as blood, the green as fresh as a leaf in May, the turquoise new minted as from the Brazilian mine, the silver and gold as delicate and as shining as the finest filigree. The skin tones were shaded in pinks and ivories and browns and chocolate-mauves and ebony. None of the extreme body shapes repelled, for all were portrayed as beautiful. They came from an early world, these strangers, from a world of undimmed and unpolluted colour, a world as clear as the colours in a paintbox, and Jess longed to meet them, she longed to meet them all.
These figures, these people from many lands, led her on eventually to SOAS, and thence to the children by the lake with lobster claws, and thence to the birth of the pure gold baby, whom she named Anna.
Jess is ageing now, but she is still, to middle-aged young Anna, a young mother.
Jess has not travelled much since Anna’s birth. She has left the field. As a student, she had pictured herself eagerly wandering the wide world. But she has been constrained by circumstance, like many women through the ages, constrained largely to an indoor terrain. Her daughter must come first, and for Jess maternity has no prospect of an ending.