My mother was sure that in the future, I would be a good person. Or she was sure that I – or rather my brother, Edgar, and I – might meet good people, and become their friends.
My mother had a plan for our social advancement that was based on culture and erudition. All she had to do, she was sure – and my mother was always sure – was train us well in her twin holy tenets: Englishness and the Enlightenment. If we followed her plan, we could not fail.
We were not sent to school but educated at home by tutors my mother found in periodicals. She recruited an émigré German named Herr Hof to teach us Latin grammar and Greek philosophy, Descartes and Diderot, conversation and contredanses. We were not allowed to acquaint ourselves with any other boys, and their mothers did not come and sit with ours to take tea. We were isolated, but we were content within the world that my mother created. It never occurred to us that to live so secluded an existence could be dangerous.
My mother was convinced that by nurturing our minds and perfecting our social poses, we would be accepted into English society. She planned for Edgar and me a glorious future as perfect Englishmen. But now, half a lifetime later, I see the paradox of her ambition. She was preparing us to be great successes in the world – but her every effort had been expended on keeping us cloistered away from it. She believed that if we just followed her plan, Edgar and I would be accepted by the firmament of fashion and influence that London adores: dukes and duchesses, earls and princesses. Unfortunately, my mother was wrong. Even more unfortunately, being wrong never stopped my mother.
The source of my mother’s ambition – or rather my parents’ ambition, for we very much had two parents – was the fact that neither she nor my father was English. They both wanted us to belong in England in a way they never could. My father, William, was to English eyes almost the lowest type of person: a Welshman. He was also the founder of the Bowen Maritime Company, the first passenger-liner firm to ship fashionable Londoners direct to New York. My mother, Rachel, was a Dutchwoman. We knew she had been born in Amsterdam, yet she said Spanish was her first language. She was intelligent, highly educated, could quote philosophers and recite Latin poetry from memory with ease. Our parents had met while my father worked for her first husband’s shipping house. Then the first husband died and my father married my mother and established his own passenger business, the Bowen Maritime. She was ten years older than my father, though as children we didn’t recognise this as unusual. This was almost all we knew of her.
My mother had a great admiration for the English – she thought them paragons of fairness. But, despite this, she did not understand her adopted nation one bit. English people, no matter what they pretend, hate knowledge and hate education. They hate books. They hate people who learn, and who speak with curiosity and openness about what they have learned. And they especially hate anyone who asks for acceptance among their number but who has no right to ask for it. No, my mother understood none of this. And that was why, among the English, I was never going to be a good person.
The night our future arrived, my brother, Edgar, was twenty-two and I was twenty-one. We loved each other dearly and were physically very similar: both tall, thin, with dark hair and dark eyes. My mother called us her ‘two halves’ and we did not yet question that. She also called us her ‘boys’ and she was right to do so. For although we were past twenty, Edgar and I had learned nothing – no experience, no responsibility – that could be conceived as adult.
On the evening that would set the rest of our lives in motion, my parents, my brother and I ate together in the long, light drawing room that looked out over Red Lion Square. My mother was seated near the leaded bay window which faced the square’s leafy trees and bushes. It was summertime; we had a few more hours of light still. As usual, my father was seated next to my mother. He loved her absolutely. If the Company was the great love of his life, then our mother was the greatest. After a long day of work, all he had to do was come home – at six o’clock, every day without fail, and he never went back out again – and spend the evening gazing at her. She made him happy – completely happy.
Supper that evening was served with wine, brandy and coffee, in what my mother called the English style. Most nights, nearly full glasses of wine would be cleared away. Now and then, I caught the servants glancing at each other, but I did not yet know that there was nothing English in leaving wine undrunk. My mother talked of the book she was reading: The Social Contract, by Rousseau.
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