This instalment has been harder to write. I’ve had to question assumptions I took for granted in my last; and to accept that there may never be answers to some of them.
“My father died in the war,” I used to say, “so I never met him.” It wasn’t true but I wasn’t told any better. In fact he’s alive today aged 96, at least he was last year when my ex-wife looked him up, took photos, reported their conversations to my daughter. She found him still sharp-witted, physically active, interested in women rather than his offspring in England—eight of us to date. Widowerhood seems to have perked him up. I shan’t be asking him any questions about the circumstances of my conception.
I’ve found a booklet called Baby Days: a Record of Baby’s life. My mother—I shall call her Iris, it’s easier—started to fill it out some time after I was born, as you can see here. The details provide some factual evidence. What I’m trying to understand is how I came to be conceived; which of the tales I was told over the years have credence; which, if any, can be dismissed.
It goes on to record details of my weight at birth: 8 lb 8oz. She told me I was delivered with the aid of forceps. I estimate conception took place around May 17th, 1941, and that she’d already been in Perth several months.
In September 1940 the Japanese invaded French Indo-China. In the same month, the Malaya Infantry Brigade, with HQ in Singapore, was augmented with Indian and Malay troops, plus a battalion of Gordon Highlanders and two from Lancashire. This was six months before the fall of Singapore to the Japanese. J J Mulder acquired a job which took him overseas. He feared what could happen, insisted Iris go somewhere safe. Her best friend Margery, who’d married a Chinese Singaporean, Sin Sitt Goh, fled to Kashmir. They stayed in touch by post. Iris went to Perth.
Many years later, she told me that she’d had an abortion in Singapore. It didn’t go well, she got peritonitis. J J was furious. She told me his job was “single status” and (without consulting him first) feared he’d be sacked if they had a baby. There can be no reason to doubt her confession. (When I was a child she told me I’d had a brother who died. I thought of him as a twin.)
When I was old enough to reason things out I asked her how I could have been conceived when she was in Australia and he was in Java. She said he came on leave, a couple of times. It’s feasible, as the Italian and German navies hadn’t reached south-east Asia and the Japanese didn’t start naval hostilities till after Pearl Harbour. But I’m sure it was invented to maintain the falsehood she never intended to clear up.
It was Margery Goh who told me and my ex-wife about my real father. She was dying of throat cancer when we visited her, and chose to break a life-long promise. If not for that visit, I’d remain in ignorance today. I chose not to confront my mother, she being unwell by this time and widowed from her third husband. My ex-wife thought differently and wrote her an angry letter from the Isle of Skye, encouraged by the friend she was staying with. That’s another story.
Iris was distraught that I’d found out. I said I didn’t hold it against her; but thought to myself that if I’d found out as a child, I’d have made a great fuss and somehow made it back to Australia on my own to live with him instead of her.
The truth is, I never got on well with my mother. I often hated her, even before leaving Australia at the age of four, then occasionally up to perhaps eighteen. I felt shame at the fact, but there it was. Perhaps hate is better than the numb absence of feeling I had thereafter. There was no mother-love. She had no maternal instinct, but gratefully followed the regime of Dr Truby King, who was held in high regard in Australia and New Zealand as the authority on baby care—as Dr Spock was later, in the US.
“Truby King’s method of raising children involved doing everything according to a routine, ignoring the wants of the child and sticking solely to the routine in place. In order to utilize baby care methods as a means to regulate behavior, King suggested implementing a uniform schedule in which each aspect of the baby’s life was controlled. This included specific times for feeding, sleeping, bathing and bowel movements. Jock Mc Culloch states in his book “Colonial Psychiatry and the African Mind“, that King believed that at the age of six weeks, toilet training should commence and be continued until the child was sufficiently trained.
“Cuddling with an infant was not to exceed 10 minutes per day and there was a specific hour set aside for holding the child; this was the only time the parent was allowed to hold the child. If an infant started crying, the parents were supposed to let him or her cry without giving additional attention. The concept behind these baby care methods is that after a few days, the baby would fall into this routine and would sleep through the night, making the parent’s lives much easier. Other aspects of Truby King’s method include letting the child play by himself and bringing the child outside for some fresh air, regardless of the temperature outside.” (From this site)
Fortunately we lived in a lodging-house where the other women were kind and easy-going. I was not slow to make comparisons.
So now she had some explaining to do. How Iris Gwendolen Mulder, aged 32 and married, get involved with Harold Laurence Amey, aged 18 and living with his parents?
Her answer was extraordinary. I’ve thought about it for days. Could it be true? I’ve come to the conclusion that it probably is. She said she had a letter from Jan Jacobus somewhere which would prove it. I didn’t ask to see it. He had written to tell her he’d had a dose of malaria in Java. His sperm count was affected. He knew how upset she was about the unnecessary and nearly fatal abortion; how she grieved for that lost child. He gave her his blessing to meet some decent healthy man, have his baby, stay safe in Australia till this beastly war was over and they could be together again. No one would ever need know.
I guess truth can be stranger than fiction. I did go to Australia to meet my father after I’d traced him, with the wife he’d married in 1947 after the freshly widowed Iris rejected Harold’s offer and returned with me to England. I stayed with them for about 10 days over Christmas, with my then wife and our two children (his grandchildren) but we only had one chance to talk about these matters. He had very little to say, only that he’d offered marriage but she thought Perth wasn’t the best place for me to grow up. I was a bright child who’d almost taught myself to read, after making a connection between the words someone read to me (a story about a rabbit and a carrot) and the sound that went with each letter.
He said “We have a very good University in Perth. This is a good place to live.” I have no idea whether he knew he was being used as a mere sperm donor. If not, what a cruel burden to put upon such a young man with high enough principles to honour his obligations. It was clear that he never forgave Iris. Yet he sent a food parcel to her in England, after hearing about the rationing there.
Now I have the written evidence that she never meant to acknowledge my father, let alone marry him. It’s in Baby Days.
Both grandmothers are listed, but one is simply “Harold’s mother”.