Kicking The Lid Off

Baby in neonatal incubator.

This is not me. Imagine this, but stroppier and ginger. THAT’d be me.

I was born on the 22nd of October, 1971 – my mother was very definite about that. The Aberfan Disaster, where a whole hillside had slipped and buried a school, with the loss of most of the lives inside, had taken place in a community just down the road from us on the 21st October 1966, and my mother, who was more of a hippie than her usual rock chick vibe would suggest, decided that celebrating the birth of her firstborn on the anniversary of the loss of so many children would be too much of a downer, and determined to ‘cross her legs’ if I got any ideas about showing during the day.

As it happened, I wasn’t remotely bothered about getting the whole ‘independent living’ thing started. I’m not sure whether that makes me an inveterate ‘Mammy’s Boy’ as we say here in South Wales, or whether I inherited the shiftless reluctance to move my arse from my father.

Ahh, my father.

My father was a local legend. Seriously, that was his vocation in life. His job of course was altogether more mundane – no-one ever made a roomful of people roar with laughter as a pipe-fitter and welder at the local hosiery firm. But in the pub, you could be anything – Lord of the Manor, Elvis Presley, Tommy Cooper – with a quid in your pocket or a pal to sub you, you could be King of the World in the pub, so long as you were up for anything. There you really could make a roomful of people roar or sing or dance or clap, you could light up and warm up their lives by the glow of your madness. Head-stand on a pint glass – not a problem to Brian ‘Good Bloke’ Howells. Any story you like, told and sold with a trademark twinkle. Any antic considered, so long as you put a pint behind the bar. Nothing too hot and nothing too heavy except real work and real life and the coldness of sobriety.

My dad visited my mother on the ward on the 21st. Sadly, none of my mother’s family clocked the looks from the nurses. The nurses, as it turned out, already knew.

Eventually of course the 21st took its bad associative memories and sodded off. My father had taken his own associative memories and sodded off earlier in the day. The field was now clear for me, should I be so inclined, to claim the 22nd as my own little slice of the calendar. I shrugged. I still wasn’t bothered.

My mother’s waters duly broke, as if to prod me into giving a toss. I shrugged again, and stretched my legs. Ooh, I can only presume I thought at some point, what’s this thing? It’s pretty. Wonder if it would work as a scarf.

My mother, I should say, was pretty big having me. The doctors, obstetrics not being then as advanced a science as it is today, had confidently predicted that I was twins until my mother was halfway through her pregnancy, when they’d bombarded me with X-rays and found out I was definitely just one Gigundababy. And despite my general apathy about the whole business, there were now people frowning at my mother – some of them to her face – and tutting that it was time Gigundababy got a bloody move on and came out to see them, so they could frown at him instead.

I wrapped the pretty thing around my neck, and presumably mourned the absence of mirrors by which to view my new fabulousness.

Now, here’s a fun fact. It wasn’t just obstetrics that were less advanced in 1971. Before a woman could be taken down to theatre to have her baby in those days, and in my town, it was necessary to get the consent of her next of kin – which in most ‘respectable’ cases back then meant her husband. No-one in my mother’s family had seen or heard from my father since he’d done his sodding-off the previous day. Which became A Thing round about then.

You know how it is when you go into a maze, or tie a neat bow. You think all you have to do is retrace your steps or undo your actions and you’ll be fine, but somehow it never quite works out like that. The doctors and nurses took increasingly stern and increasingly intimate looks at my mother.

‘Baby’s in distress,’ they announced. ‘Looks like the umbilical cord’s wrapped round its neck. It’s cutting off its own oxygen supply.’ Turned out I was an orange in the mouth away from becoming an embarrassing news headline.

‘Recommend emergency Caesarean section, save the mother. Baby if we’re lucky,’ they said. ‘Where the hell’s the father?’

Where indeed? In the age before mobile phones – in fact, in the age before widespread home phones in the South Wales Valleys – he couldn’t be found. Of course, there was the Kayser Bonder factory, where he worked. The nurse who was tending to my mother gave a sad, slightly embarrassed smile and a barely perceptible shake of the head. Her husband, as it turned out, was my father’s boss.

My mother was contracting, and was now in a degree of distress herself. She didn’t perceive the barely perceptible head-shake.

‘Bugger it then,’ said the doctor. ‘You’ll do,’ he decided, talking to my grandmother.

My mother’s mother was a woman built on the same general principles as a wardrobe – tall, broad and giving a meaning to the word ‘sturdy’ which you’d never considered before, but which once you’d seen her, would never entirely leave you. By 1971, she also had the temper of a Mediterranean-blooded undiagnosed diabetic. Which was fun. She thinned her lips at the doctor, signed the forms, fixed him with the sort of look you could slice bread with, and told him to bring back her girl, and the baby too, if he knew what was good for him.

As they began wheeling my mother down to surgery, she was still screaming for them to ‘Get Brian!’ In fact the words were still on her lips when here came Brian, happy as a hippie, swinging a carrier bag and singing Englebert Humperdink and Slim Whitman songs – it’s a family shame, but my dad was an excellent yodeler. We don’t like to talk about it. The carrier bag looked to be full of weird red and yellow and white goo. Had he brought a bag of offal into the hospital?

No, he hadn’t. Loose sherry trifle, yes. He’d thought it would be a treat for my mother and hadn’t bothered with any of that bowl nonsense.

My grandmother fixed him with That Look. He hugged her – it was my grandmother’s misfortune that her Looks only worked on the sober.

‘Brian, I swear if I had you in a room for half an hour, you’d go to your grave with my mark on you,’ she growled, for neither the first nor last time in my life.

‘Awww but you love me really, Peg,’ he said, laughing. I’m fairly sure only a sense of what decent people would think stopped her wrestling him to the ground and drowning him in his own bag of trifle.

I don’t know what happened for the next few hours – what can I tell you? They may not have been very socially progressive back in the 70s, but man, they did good drugs. When my mother woke up alive, and they brought her a tiny, five-pound, seven ounce scrawny, bad-tempered scrap of a thing with carrot-blond fuzz and a look of Churchillian disapproval, she freaked out. Where was her Gigundababy? I looked like a bright ginger miniature of Twinkle-Boy, but she demanded that my dad, who had at least had the decency to stick around and start sobering up, go and check where they put me, check the names on things, make sure I was real, and hers, and safe. He ambled off after me, and confirmed they’d put me in an incubator, and the names checked out. It wasn’t a nightmare – I was really It.

‘Gonna be a right one, our boy,’ he reported. ‘They say he’s got legs like George Best – keeps kicking the lid off the incubator!’ And he smiled at her. Twinkling.

Two weeks later – it was the 70s, you stayed the hell put after an emergency C-section – we were allowed home, and went to my gran’s. Gran had to walk from her house in the Gurnos – on one of the ridiculous number of hills of which Merthyr is composed – down to the town and then up to Penyard, on the pinnacle of an entirely different hill, to get my clothes.

The house was trashed. Bottles. Cans. Overflowing ashtrays. Rotting food. Evidence of either several all-night parties, or one extended bubble of celebration. And my dad. It turned out what the nurses had known was that he’d been fired from Kayser Bonder the week before I was born, and he’d used the severance pay to go on a spectacular bender. Now he was a father, with no money, no job, no prospects, and expensive legend-habit and a scowling ginger bundle depending on him, adding to the terrifying pressure of normality.

The following week, with her Caesarean scar still healing, he pushed my mother through the plate glass of the living room door, and smashed every other piece of glass in the house, feeding bottles included.

That’s the thing about living with a legend. If you’re going to survive, you’d better be born ready to kick the lid off.

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