Letter from Childbirth: Blast from the Past

Photograph Source: mattbuck – CC BY-SA 2.0

The following imagined scenarios are based on fact. I was born on a sunlit day in the middle of the afternoon just in time for tea. Should this matter? I will leave that to you. This was in the village of Bamburgh in Northumberland, a rugged and windswept part of north-east England, just south of the Scottish border, Scotland being my mother’s country. Her family were from Skye. At any rate we lived by the sea. I had five sisters. I was the first boy — the only boy — and presumably now saw my mother in a very different light to how I had all those months cooped up inside the so-called motherland.

To the sound of an inky-blue and shock-white sea crashing enthusiastically on the beach, my five sisters were springing in and out of focus for me. I developed a preference for knocked focus. Either way, it was a house of love. A house of love reviewed through a willing portal.

Northumberland used to be a kingdom. The kingdom was called Northumbria. This was quite literally the land north of the Humber. Here there had been conflicts galore — Romans, Anglians, Celts, Vikings, Normans. At one stage, Bamburgh was like a ring-side seat for almost every major fight in the land.

Bamburgh Castle — its coveted castle — stood atop a tall volcanic rock. Grand and majestic, it was one of the largest castles in England, its shadow re-imagined now as reaching the entire village.

There were no knights on these castle ramparts — if anything, it was like a heavily-coiffed duchess. Just lots and lots of armour and sharp pikes, tall halls, faded drapes, cold drafts.

The castle had in fact been rebuilt by Victorian arms manufacturer William George Armstrong. Armstrong died in 1900 one of the richest men in Europe. Effectively, it had been reinvented and not much was how it seemed. Everything was in a state of agitated reinvention, perhaps like the aristocracy itself, an elaborate and imperfectionist’s lie.

Little of this did any of us in my parents’ bedroom know at the time but the Americans were at that very moment and on that very day letting off a massive atomic explosion in the South Atlantic.

Major powers at the time did things like that. Through some weird kind of logic, they had worked out that if you wanted to save the world, you first had to know how to destroy it. A man called John Pilger later worked out that.

I was the only fall-out that day in the north-east of England, certainly as far as my sweet family was concerned.

My mother, of course, knew a thing or two about childbirth, having given birth to six young ones. Already she was standing with her hand on her back, peering achily through the window. This was towards the North Sea. ‘This is Peter,’ she reminded everyone, as a kind of afterthought. Had I — it — been a girl, I — it — would have been called Barbara, or so my mother added. Today, of course, there is another Barbara Bach, or Lady Starkey, an American actress and former model who married Beatles drummer Ringo Starr — ‘All these places had their moments, with lovers and friends I still can recall.’

It was now my father’s turn. As I also choose, he picked me straight up, a confidence to one twirl here, a lift almost to the ceiling to a second. He was like the happiest person in the room.

This all took place in the haven of Kristianslyst, a Danish name. Kristianslyst was a house just off the Links Road, the Links Road running parallel to the beach, to and from the neighbouring village of Seahouses. Ours was a part-Danish part-Scots family in an English house.

I would learn in time that Kristianslyst actually meant Christian ‘desire’ or ‘lust’, the home of my late paternal Danish grandfather Johannes Bach in Northern Jutland having been called that. This was right across the roaring blue North Sea right in front of the house, and heard from the bedroom, as if the house itself had been chosen because of this very fact, as if the Bachs had this whole crazy North Sea thing all sown up. Our Danish family were mostly politicians and farmers. My grandfather Johannes Bach — who later called himself John Bach — was the first such family member to cross the North Sea. Well, if you didn’t include all those longboats and horned helmets one thousand years earlier, when the Danish ‘great army’ captured York in 866 and many of these people settled in what was then a Greater Northumbria. My grandfather died before I was born.

Presently the midwife placed me on a towel on the bed. It was a talented manoeuvre.

Just then, a gust of wind blew open one of the gable windows. ‘A ghost?’ said my father. He peered out, the sun on his face, clocking the large number of seagulls in the sky, before slowly but confidently shutting the window. Seagulls, he was still thinking. Was that a storm on its way? Usually the case with lots of seagulls in the sky, no? Not that storms came to disrupt, he told himself. Some cleared people’s paths. Didn’t they?

As I now have it, my five sisters were all still watching this from the foot of the bed, my mother and the midwife now washing me. This was done with a white cloth and a bowl of warm water. This was before they placed me naked and warm on a second dry white towel. ‘It’s a willy!’ grinned my father, still trapped in disbelief that after five girls here before him was a boy.

The beach in Bamburgh was beautiful. It was parked just on the other side of the dunes. Long and white and golden were the sands. They were more like a landing strip for all that was good in life than a mere simple stretch of perfect nature. People found themselves on this beach in more ways than one.

My father held me aloft again, this time like a trophy. There were just the two of us. It was my first full day on earth. I have him traipsing with me through the reeds, a kind of radiant September blueness everywhere. We were veering northwards, soft wet sand now beneath his two bare feet.

He stared at the sky, then at the blue-on-blue horizon. So much for the storm, he may have been thinking. He aimed for the south-facing black rocks around the Baggy Pool.

On one of the more prominent ones was the image of a painted white stag. Why it should be there was never convincingly told. Some said it was painted by Italian prisoners-of-war. Others that it appeared one day after a stag jumped into the sea. Some even suggested it was a harbinger of bad luck. That, at least, made sense.

On the far side, constantly refreshed by the tide, was the Egg Pool, to the family the greatest pool of all.

There was much splashing and peals of laughter there during the holidays. Had my sisters not been at school, they would likely have been in the water.

We paused under the powerful shadow of the local white lighthouse. Each night, in steady combination with Longstone, Inner Farne and Holy Island lighthouses, it would flash across the sea.

My father resumed walking — spotted by a distant neighbour who would later say she had seen us both.

Wind, breath, pace. Bounce. A wipe of the chin. A shot of spirit from a silver leather flask. Salty air. Crashing waves. That is how I think of my father. He was like a Viking without a longship.

On our way back, with his body reflected on the wet sand, he stared out at a passing fishing boat called Providence. A large cormorant stood on a rock, hanging its wings out to dry.

My father crouched down, careful not to drop me, before dipping a hand into the cold water and dabbing a finger on my tiny forehead. It was like a ritual that was not a ritual. I choose now to create it as a moment of pure love.

One day when two years later when I was two, I managed somehow to open the door from the house. There appeared no one around and this I felt was already working to my advantage. As I crossed the rain-splashed road, a wet piece of paper blew up and hit me in the face. Another reminder of the unexpected. My movement was more of a waddle than a walk.

The rain washed my face and tickled my nose. I kept wiping it with my knuckles and wet fingers. When I wiped my eyes it made a blur. This made me think of my sisters.

The dunes meanwhile were like a large green mat draped across the sand. The reeds in the dunes were pointy and sharp and I struggled to push them away. Some took great pleasure in pricking me. At one point I tried spitting sand from my mouth.

As the sound of the crashing waves grew louder, I was thinking how much I loved nature’s drama. These were were waves higher than any human I knew.

Eventually I reached the water’s edge. I felt pleased I had made it there alone. The waves were by now so loud and so furious. I was shivering and stood vulnerably in the water.

I didn’t know a search party had been called out to find me. I am told I was pointing to the sea when it arrived. I remember nothing but am told I was calling out. Could it have been for my mother?

You see, she was dead. She had been dead for over a year now. She died when I was one.

I love the sea.

Peter Bach lives in London.