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Detail of illustration created for the print version of this story (Neal Cresswell For The Globe and Mail)
Detail of illustration created for the print version of this story (Neal Cresswell For The Globe and Mail)

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Excerpt: A sneak peek at Wayne Johnston’s The Son of a Certain Woman Add to ...

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.

Flustered, the doctor then said that he was “thrown off ” in his diagnosis of me by the “local gigantism” that was almost always a symptom of the real syndrome – “local gigantism” not meaning that you grow to eight or nine feet tall, but that parts of you are oversized, most often the extremities. In my case, as I said, my hands and feet were – in addition to being stained like my face – larger,which was better than having just one or two toes or fingers that were oversized, as is sometimes the case, and which would have made it necessary for me to have custom-made, and very odd-looking, gloves and shoes.

I know you’re wondering if a certain other part of me was over-sized. It wasn’t, but that didn’t stop people from assuming that it was, or speculating, or gossiping about it, and of course it didn’t stop me, once I reached a certain age, from claiming it was oversized.

My large hands looked as though they were stained with blood, front and back, and flopped about – or so it seemed to me – on the ends of my wrists like empty gloves attached by a string lest I lose them. Hairless hands the size of a grown man’s, a butcher’s begrimed and exfoliated by his profession, they might as well have been grafted onto me. They barely fit into the pockets of my slacks and my blazer, and when I withdrew them, my pockets turned almost completely inside out. I always looked as if I were wearing shoes or boots that were far too big for me, boots handed down from a father or much older brother because my parents couldn’t afford to buy me ones that fit. Hands and feet like fins I had, except there was no webbing between the fingers and the toes. My red feet made it look as if I’d stood for far too long in ankle-deep, scalding water. I had a swollen lower lip of the sort associated with a lack of intelligence and that made me speak as if there was still some freezing left from a trip to the dentist’s. What did the people of St. John’s see when they looked at me? A slobbering, jabbering aberration, I suppose, whose mind, character and personality must likewise be aberrant, altered for the worse by whatever “something” had marred me from the moment of my conception, some God-willed conflux of mishaps in my makeup, in the chaos that attended my creation.

That my mother named me before the good news has always made me feel a little as though I bear someone else’s name, that of the poor infant who “lived” for just a few weeks and whose “death” was not mourned but celebrated. Sometimes, perverse though it seems, I’ve found myself feeling sorry, even guilty, about that other, helpless Percy whom I supplanted, Percy the First, whose reign was brief, illusory.

My mother told me she had chosen the name “Percy” before I was born. “Percy” in case of a boy. “I named you after the poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley,” she said. “You came this close to going through life named Bysshe.”

So I missed total catastrophe by a genetic whisker – and wound up with a “watered down” catastrophe. Despite countless reassurances, I worried that this “whisker” in my makeup would wither or be worn away and the real version of the syndrome would be activated.I told my mother I had heard someone say “there’s a first time for everything.”

“It’s just an expression, Perse,” she said. “There isn’t a first time for everything.Most things have never happened and never will.”

“But what if it happens?”

“It can’t happen. It won’t happen. It has never happened and it never will.”

During the first two weeks I’d spent in hospital after I was born, my mother believed that she would never take me home, that I would never speak, that I would be blind, and that my other senses would be almost as badly compromised. She believed that she would visit me in a home as often as she could stand to for how ever long I had on earth.

And the prospect of all this hit her, she said, just seven months after my father had lit out for what he must have thought was greener grass.

Excerpted from The Son of a Certain Woman. Copyright © 1310945 Ontario Inc. Published by Knopf Canada. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

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