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CHAPTER TWO The Vanished Comfort and Security of Earlier Days 1935–1947 14 James Gordon Farrell was born during the bleakest period of his parents’ lives. The pregnancy was proceeding without complications with a nursing home booked for the end of February, when on 25 January 1935 Jo heard that Bill’s elderly uncle, who had been a cheerful guest at supper the night before, had died in his sleep. The news sent her into premature labour. Bill was at work, the doctor was out on his rounds and could not be contacted, and the nursing home said they had no room. Vera, who helped with housework, put clean sheets on the bed and rang for a taxi. Three cars sped to the door, causing the neighbours to stare. Bill’s mother and the doctor’s wife had both used their initiative, and the nursing home was prevailed upon to offer a room. The public flurry attending his entry into the world points up the solitariness of his exit. Tipping the maternity scales at under 5 lbs, the newborn boy was a sorry sight. ‘Wait a month and you won’t know him,’ reassured the doctor, possessor of an Irish cap for rugby. ‘He has a good pair of lungs and a good heart.’ Jo believed him: the huge hands cradling her baby reminded her of Russell Bros tennis rackets. When he had gone the nurse poked up the fire. The baby had been born with a caul, she explained, so that would have to be burned before word got around because there was a ghoulish market for the good fortune it was said to bring. ‘Your lucky baby will never drown,’ she added over her shoulder, and Jo heard the hiss as it was consumed by flame. The chosen Christian names were evenhanded – for a second son, the second name of each grandfather – and the christening took place on 3 March at St Mary the Virgin, West Derby in a font dated 1856, the year before the Indian Mutiny. Jo shook out the lacy Russell christening gown without a qualm; the caul had had a significance for her which she had not shared with the nurse, because the last boy to be christened in it had joined the Navy during the 1914–1918 war, and had drowned when his ship went down. Jimmy, as the baby was called, quickly made up for his bad start. From being compared to a doll, so fragile that he had to be bathed in cod liver oil, he gained weight rapidly and soon looked older than his age, with a sturdy build and blue-black hair. At nine months he was sitting up in the pram, dressed in grey jersey and flannels; Jo’s sister Sheilah was reminded of a schoolboy. Walking came easily, but he was so slow to talk that his grandmother alluded to it pointedly. But when Vera had to have her appendix out, leaving Jo in sole charge, it became clear that Jim simply held out his hand if he wanted anything . ‘I wouldn’t give him a thing unless he asked for it,’ she said later. ‘By the time Vera came back my Lord could talk.’ His nurse’s affectionate indulgence would be repaid in The Singapore Grip. In a studio portrait of the brothers, taken when Jim was two, Robert – whom he called Oddie, because of the way he pronounced his name – smiles shyly at the camera and Jim upstages him, contriving to look both sunny and pugnacious. He was the family favourite, and he knew it. War broke out when he was four, putting Liverpool in the forefront of naval and military upheaval, with added danger from the air. Bill’s deafness precluded call-up but his mathematical skills were in demand, and he was drafted to an aircraft factory in Cumberland on 24-hour production, returning briefly every six weeks when it closed for maintenance. In the noisy factory his cocoon of silence was an asset, preventing loss of concentration, and the ability to make a useful contribution boosted his morale. He settled into a decaying hotel in Workington, and Jo and the boys escaped the threat of bombing by moving in with an elderly widowed relation who lived in style in Southport. The chauffeur and housekeeper of Alderman William Mawdsley JP – Uncle Will – had been called up, and Jo took on both roles. The old man was fond of children, having none himself, and...


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