As summer ends, Globe Books brings you an advance look at some of the fall’s biggest Canadian novels. This week, we head east with Wayne Johnston, who brings us The Son of a Certain Woman.
It’s 1950s St. John’s, Nfld. – and adolescent, ungainly Percy Joyce is in love with his mother, who’s in love with her sister-in-law. Young Percy wrestles with his desire for the gorgeous Penelope Joyce, and with his own unusual appearance.
Most of the people who knew my mother either slept with her or wished they had, including me, my aunt Medina and a man who boarded with us; though he was neither old nor someone’s father, he went by the name of “Pops.” I know that’s ambiguous, but it’s better left ambiguous for now. As for me wanting to sleep with my mother, if you disapprove, try spending your childhood with a face that looks long past its prime, with hands and feet like the paws of some pre-human that foraged on all fours – and then get back to me. Or better yet, read on.
It’s hard to describe what your own face looks like. It’s hard to be honest, but it’s also hard, period, because most faces defy description. Mine inspires description. They used to say that the Inuit had a hundred words for snow. That’s about as many ways as my face has been described. Someone once told me it looked as if it had been worked on by an abstract tattoo artist. A boy asked me if my mother had eaten more than the medically recommended amount of beets on the day she had me. Another said that I should wear a mask three hundred and sixty-four days of the year and go outside without one only on Halloween.
You may have seen people with birthmarks like mine. Something like mine, anyway, for mine are at the far worst end of the spectrum. Doctors call them “port wine stains” even though no one, when they see one, thinks of port. They’re also described as strawberry-coloured, even though they’re not. My mother said they call them “strawberry” to “put the best face on it,” then apologized for what she said was an unintended pun.
When asked, I would try to explain that my birthmark was called a birthmark because it was discovered at birth, not because my face was marked by birth, but most people couldn’t let go of the idea that something must have gone wrong as I was being born. My mother said they didn’t like the idea of a fetus that was beet-faced, just lurking there in her womb, waiting to come out and spoil everything, because it made my birthmark seem more like God’s mistake than hers. She added that people didn’t like the idea of fetuses at all, so it was doubtful that one with a face that could stop a clock would change their minds.
For my first two weeks I was thought to have some kind of rare congenital syndrome. What I in fact had was the “benign” version of that syndrome which mimics the real thing for a short while after birth until the most sinister features simply fade away and all that remain are port wine stains and, in my case, oversized hands and feet. The false syndrome is even rarer than the real thing. It’s called False Someone Syndrome. FSS. The “Someone” stands for three someones, three doctors with hyphen-joined last names who convinced my mother and the doctors at St. Clare’s that I was doomed. The more names in front of a syndrome, the worse it is – two hyphens, three names, a syndrome that took three doctors to discover – or invent, as it’s often seemed to me.
The doctors warned of possible “complications” that might manifest as I grew older. The stains, the ones on my face especially, might darken, spread, swell, blister, become infected, require tending to by dermatologists, the nearest of whom was in Halifax, five hundred miles of the North Atlantic away, to the west of St. John’s, which itself is at the far eastern end of the island of Newfoundland.
People like me are apparently just one gene away from some major disability, and we so closely resemble those who have that disability that we are often mistaken at birth as having it. The only way to be sure is to wait to see if the sinister symptoms go away in a couple of weeks.
My mother’s doctor didn’t wait two weeks. He told her I had Someone’s Syndrome, told her I was unlikely to make it through my teens and would have to live in a special home of some kind. But two weeks later – two weeks I spent in hospital – he told her that I had FSS, a kind of “watered-down version” of the syndrome. I had an overabundance of blood-engorged capillaries that, luckily for me, stayed clear of my brain. She told me that when he gave her word of what she called my “reprieve,” she cried more than when she thought I was as good as gone, then sought him out and told him he was a watered-down version of a doctor. She said it wasn’t like finding out that I’d been healthy all along, but as if I’d been dead and had come back to life merely because someone had changed his mind. “I was so happy, Perse,” she said. The doctor seemed oblivious to the change in my mother’s mood, so thrown off was he by her attractiveness.A couple of weeks after having a baby and she looked, he said, like Elizabeth Taylor. My mother pointed to his wedding ring with the finger on which she wore her engagement ring.