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An excerpt from

Donkey Burgers

Nick Blake

I have often thought "there but for the grace of god" about people whose circumstances were almost indistinguishable from mine. Everything seemed quite normal at the time and as is often the case it is hindsight that offers its eventual services in distinguishing the quotidian from the unexpected. It is often hard to recognise the peculiarity of one's own life. Perhaps the novelty of the paths less travelled by is less obviously apparent when they are the only ones available. On looking back and resting a while at a turning point, I feel ready to take account of the journey. It is an easy thing to postpone such an account for hope of a better or more complete ending, but the most complete ending given is one which renders writing oneself impossible.

Some events may be misremembered or exaggerated, so this should be treated as fiction as a rule. Names have been changed to protect the innocent and guilty alike, though the complexities of life mean they are often one and the same. As much as the events recorded here have rendered me very much not in sound mind, and the wiring of my brain skews my perceptions in ways both obvious and subtle, I feel this is on the whole an accurate summary of how a special needs kid overcomes obstacles inspirationally, and what comes next.

Most of what follows is true, but being truthful so publicly may be seen as being rude. So names may be slightly different, streets moved next door, the dullness sucked out so the anecdotes sit in a vacuum. Trips to the shops for groceries have by and large been omitted, unless accompanied by something entertaining, which hasn't really occurred that often. So, this is a novel.

A Hospital. 3am. Snow. A nun. A cake. These were the circumstances of my birth. It was around 3am in Southmead Hospital, where my mother was celebrating her birthday by covertly eating a cake in labour. A nun was there due to our family showing up on the records as being Catholic, or at least culturally so. This was true to an extent, much in the same way that a cat flap is to an extent a door. So the nun was present and providing some support to my cake-filled mother, in spite of the protestations that her presence was not really necessary at this time. This didn’t last long before the nun was distracted by some falling snow in the dark autumn night.

It was late November, the late 80s, late night or early morning depending on your outlook, the later Thatcher years, hanging somewhat between things. Everything in the family seemed to hang between, or at least be split somehow, in much the way that families often are. In dining habits, Christmas and body language everyone was Italian. We would eat noisily and well, talk loudly and at the same time and bring out panettone when the occasion called for it. In outlook and most other things there was a disappointment of Englishness. To be specific, this is the maternal side of the family. The paternal side, with the exception of my father and a few glimpses of other relatives, remains by and large a scattering of anecdotes and facts. I think perhaps there was an ambassador or matador or cellar door or some kind of door a few generations back there, but that’s by-the-by.

My mother's side was known as the Meuccis, an Italianate name that many cold callers would try to pronounce as 'mousy'. From my father I got the name Blake, a much simpler surname that brought with it fewer aural difficulties but many tired jokes about being related to famous poets.

There was for a time success and wealth in some of the branches of the Blake family - three things that were not passed on to my father. Instead, his father deemed him a disappointment and found himself a different family. This and my father's failed musical inclinations led him to a lifestyle that financially independent New Yorkers might wistfully call Bohemian.

There are few memories of this time, being as it was the new-born phase of my life. One can only assume a lot of crawling and gazing in wonder at a strange new world. I was an eerily quiet baby. That much I know for certain. A doctor speaking to my panicking mother on the phone refused to believe that my eardrum had burst on account of my total silence and yet there it was, dangling from its rightful home like some sort of fleshy jewellery.

 

Our home was a flat in a converted chapel near the docks, which was imaginatively dubbed The Chapel for the duration of our stay, which amounted to about ten years. Though it still looked from the outside like a house of God it was a humble abode, and the utilitarian interior struck all ecclesiastical thoughts from the mind upon crossing the threshold; Herman Melville levels of white were punctuated only by well-trodden plain floors and the earnestly red shine of each flat's door. On each door was a large number in bold Sans Serif type. There were about six of them in all, two on each floor up a winding square staircase that led to little of interest. Everything seemed flattened by an almost conspicuous plainness, a glaring absence of the lives that went on within each set of rooms. In that old house of God marked with a peak that once meant to point to sublimity everything simply was. Ours was the fourth flat, on the second floor.

Inside there was a narrow entrance hall. Turn left and you’d be in my bedroom, which I shared with my brother. There was a large window there from which we would watch the sunset. There were two beds and some books and scattered toys. Walking in the opposite direction now. On the left, my mother’s bedroom. It had a large bed covered in throws and wooden shuttered windows and sometimes smelt of freshly burnt incense. Just across from it was the bathroom. I remember a sink, a bathtub, a cabinet with mirror and a sickly yellow glow from the lights. Onward then to the living room and kitchen. There was a little sofa and a TV with four channels, a big tapestry of earthy tones hung up on the back wall and a very modest kitchen. There was barely enough room to move around in it with two people. It was a bare little place, but like the bedroom it faced the evening sun and when we headed to bed the white walls turned to gold.

The local school and the chapel stood at the bottom of what then seemed like an impossibly tall hill, covered in Georgian buildings with distant ceilings and countless flourishes upon them. I have since been informed by both experience and condescending San Franciscans that Bristol does not, in fact, contain any truly tall hills. Still, it seemed to anyone small enough to be pushed in a pushchair an impossibly tall hill. My brother pushed me, in one of my earliest memories, in a small pushchair of red and white up and along the side of that hill. It felt that some combination of the pushchair, my family or the world itself would soon lean over too far and everything would go tumbling down. That was the first time I remember feeling afraid. That is not to say that fear is an altogether dominant emotion from here on in, just that few people get to remember so precisely their early memories, and that one happened to be of fear.

The school and the local area were named for the hot wells that were famous in the area, though now mostly confined to Bath. It was a short and dreaded walk from the flat, but that is not a story to be told yet. First, you must meet the family. I lived with my brother and my mother, as you might have guessed. Our parents hadn’t been together for some time. My mum was somewhere between a punk and a hippy in her youth, and shacked up with my dad for a few years in the 80s as they seemed to share some sort of idealism, which turned sour. This is simply what I have gleaned from many conversations years later, not what I recall personally. It is in fact my grandparents, more than anyone else who defined the parts of childhood I choose to remember.

Nonno and Nonna, as we called them, were from two rather different worlds. Nonna came from Barnstaple, land of the free, home of the brave, born into a family devoted to teaching and the navy. She passed her 11-plus and came up to Bristol in order to study art, having just missed out on Slade on account of failing Theology. Nonno, on the other hand, was most definitely not much of a Barnstaple person. He was born in San Piero Ponti, a one horse town just outside Florence. His family had the horse, but given how little they had it was often more of a hindrance. He told me once of how he would bring it to the town's watering hole and let it have its fill, often to the expense of everyone else in the village, himself included. This made him distinctly unpopular as a child. He worked whatever job he could, though had a run of bad luck; the gold leaf blew away at a printing press, and the prospect of being dizzied with cleaning alcohol didn't hold much favour with him either. After the war, he sent off for jobs in Belgium and England, both in mining. England got back first, and that was that. They were infatuated with one another, and after some tap-dancing in mining boots and listening to Nonna's favourite blues records they were wed and ended up getting an old GPs surgery on a crossroads.

At weekends we would stay at their house. I would ring the doorbell, then run and hide.

“Oh hello dear, and Tom you’ve grown. Now is that everyone, hm?”

I jumped out and yelled “ROAR!”

“Aah oh no a monster! Oh, you got me again. Come on in”

It was a ritual that went on for many years. I would be picked up and held and carried up and down stairs and between rooms until the day came that I was too heavy to be carried about up and down stairs and between rooms. It was funny how the rooms of that house felt - like a playground where all sorts of adventures could be had. Now they've all grown so small, just chairs and tables and adults who have to be acknowledged as people and not food providers who would discuss such bizarre science-fiction concepts as mortgages and an aunt's cousin's friend's second marriage. That isn't to say they were of the gossiping sort - no curtain twitching here. They were simply curious and eager for any kind of conversation or news. This is just to say they were adults, and talked of adult things.

There seemed to be two worlds running in parallel, the grown-up and our world, the world of children at play. Only one could stay. I was convinced in my excitement and daydreaming that our world would outlast theirs. We had little, very little indeed back when I was small enough to be carried and held but that house brought us palatial splendour. It had three bedrooms - one large, two small but still enough for double beds. The large bedroom contained my cousins, my brother and I. We would stay up late at night for midnight feasts, which would largely consist of smuggled pieces of baguette at 8pm or tell ghost stories that seemed mostly about the odd twinkles of light that came from windows across the orange lamp-lit streets. These seemed mostly for my benefit, and they terrified me. They were axe-murderer stories, or strange men with powers to grab and snatch little children away. The more stories were told, the more those little lights across the orange lamp-lit streets seemed to blink and stare - more alive, but no more human.

Memory and the mind are strange, fragile things. I could scarcely document the accurate colours of anything, or record a chronology of the events that have taken place and nor do I mean to. This is an account by one unreliable narrator who checks no sources and tries to be true to nothing except how all this appeared and continues to appear. This is phenomenology, not epistemology and so I will tell you that those lights were strange, unearthly eyes and they glowed with every ounce of menace my imagination could muster.

Our days were spent in search of some sort of grand adventure, the like of which didn’t really exist in the rambling network of suburbs on which that house stood. I always hoped we would end up being like The Goonies, risking life and limb for some great treasure, maybe a pirate ship. We would explore the alleyways and give them names, the most prominent among them being Ghostly Grove.

Ghostly Grove was a little glass-strewn passage between some pebble-dashed semis. The name was down to the strange man living there who gave us what is technically termed the heebie-jeebies. We told tall tales about that man, and each weekend they circulated. A joke or story about the ghostly grove stranger was told to someone and the next weekend it would be told back and so on and so forth until we all believed the little jokes and stories we told.

One of us said “I walked by there and saw loads of children playing in his garden. I don’t think he has children.”, one of us said “I walked past there at night and saw him burying something”, one of us said “I walked by there the other day and saw the police come knocking at his door”

“No way.”

“Yes way.”

Out of all the memories, these ones come to the surface easiest. They were the happiest and the simplest times because they had no connection to the real world. They were the weekends, the summers, the pure freedom of the in-between that is felt so keenly in childhood then so seldom felt again.

The house seemed to sprawl out before us. On walking in we were greeted by an electric chandelier (a grandiose term for what was simply a light fixture in an old-fashioned style) and a mirror that took up most of one wall. There would be four doors and a tall set of stairs from which we try and jump   sometimes going as high as the fourth step before reconsidering and sticking with sensible three. On the immediate left, there was the study. It was full of videotapes, trinkets, just about every kind of curiosity imaginable and a computer that seemed ancient even then. But, lurking just behind towers of old clocking in cards and reams of printer paper and an old dehumidifier box, there stood an old harmonium. It was well worn, with a few keys broken and some stops that had simply decided to take their name literally. On it were some numbered stickers which if pressed in the right order, with vigorous pedalling, would play the theme from Close Encounters. The pedals were a source of great joy, allowing one to bring a chord from a whisper to a roar. That was satisfying even without a proper grasp of music. There would be moments of actual harmony, though rare, and pieces of melody could emerge from the eddies and whorls caused by our random presses and smushes of the keys. Nonno would play sometimes. He played simple ditties and patterns that came not from a desire to impress, there was no budding concert pianist in him, but a human longing for tranquillity and solitude which was frustrated by years of toil and the vagaries of family life.