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The Son of a Certain Woman by Wayne Johnston Book

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The Son of a Certain Woman by Wayne Johnston Book Read Online And Epub File Download


Overview: Percy Joyce, born in St. John’s, Newfoundland, in the fifties is an outsider from childhood, set apart by a congenital disfigurement. Taunted and bullied, he is also isolated by his intelligence and wit, and his unique circumstances: an unbaptized boy raised by a single mother in a fiercely Catholic society. Soon on the cusp of teenagehood, Percy is filled with yearning, wild with hormones, and longing for what he can’t have—wanting to be let in...and let out. At the top of his wish list is his disturbingly alluring mother, Penelope, whose sex appeal fairly leaps off the page. Everyone in St. John’s lusts after her—including her sister-in-law, Medina; their paying boarder, the local chemistry teacher, Pops MacDougal; and...Percy.

Percy, Penelope, and Pops live in the Mount, home of the city’s Catholic schools and most of its clerics, none of whom are overly fond of the scandalous Joyces despite the seemingly benign protection of the Archbishop of Newfoundland himself, whose chief goal is to bring “little Percy Joyce” into the bosom of the Church by whatever means necessary. In pursuit of that goal, Brother McHugh, head of Percy’s school, sets out to uncover the truth behind what he senses to be the complicated relationships of the Joyce household. And indeed there are dark secrets to be kept hidden: Pops is in love with Penelope, but Penelope and Medina are also in love—an illegal relationship: if caught, they will be sent to the Mental, and Percy, already an outcast of society, will be left without a family. 


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The Son of a Certain Woman by Wayne Johnston Book Read Online Chapter One


FSS

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 prehuman 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 oversized. 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 however 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.


My mother still wore her engagement ring. “Call me Miss Havisham,” she often said, though at the time I didn’t know what she meant. My father ran off when my mother was two months pregnant, making me the bastard child of Penny Joyce. Born out of wedlock, though my parents were engaged. My mother changed her last name, which had been Murphy, to Joyce. It was wrongly assumed she did this because, even though her fiancé Jim Joyce had left her, she still loved him and wanted their child to bear his name. “I like to wear the engagement ring,” she said. “It has a discouraging effect on men, those who know me and those who’d like to.”


The boys at school said it was because my parents couldn’t “wait” for marriage that I was born beet-faced. Some said that it was because my mother couldn’t wait, a woman who wouldn’t take no for an answer from her fiancé. They had planned to marry on the one-year anniversary of their engagement. Although it was the general opinion that making your fiancée pregnant would not be held against you in the long run, it being so common, the widely repeated version of the story was that Jim Joyce had run off out of shame for what he’d done. But the most widely held belief was that there must be something more to the story, that perhaps I was not Jim Joyce’s son, which he would have been certain of if he and my mother had never “done it” or had done it at a time that did not jive with that of her pregnancy. My mother, if not exactly regarded with suspicion, was the subject of many wink-and-nudge jokes and much skeptical speculation. The truth is that Jim Joyce is, or was—he might be long gone—my father. There will be no surprise revelations to the contrary.


The eternally engaged Penelope Joyce, a fiancée forever.


She had a Gallic complexion, was said to be descended from the Black Irish, the children supposedly born from the mingling of those who survived the sinking of the Spanish Armada with Irish women who took them in after the British blew their fleet to smithereens, Spaniards who crawled, swam, thrashed and washed ashore on the east coast of Ireland and were hidden by the English-loathing Irish. There was not a single authenticated instance of this having happened and therefore no recorded instances of Black Irish emigrating to the New World, but about one in ten Newfoundlanders was Latin-looking for no other even half-convincing reason that anyone could name. My mother was one of the ten percent, or rather one of the five percent of exotic, hot-blooded, passionate, reputedly fuck-loving women.


The Catholic Black Irish were known as Black Micks to Protestants, and even to those who lived on the Mount. I was not a Black Mick. Jim Joyce wasn’t one. Genetically speaking, having a Black Mick mother didn’t make you more likely to be a Black Mick than anyone else. That portion of me that was not port wine coloured did not bear the complexion of someone long tanned by the sun. It bore the complexion of someone who, like most Newfoundlanders, was long deprived of sunlight. My hair was not as slick and black as my mother’s, nor my eyes as dark as hers. Many people on the Mount who didn’t know, or pretended not to know, what Black Irish meant took it to mean that blacks from Africa perched somewhere, somehow, in the family tree, that my mother was “coloured,” that her being coloured had something to do with my being miscoloured; how much mixing of races could there be before the result was a calamity like Percy Joyce? Priests, nuns and other missionaries were dying in Africa in an effort to convert the pagans of that continent to Christianity, and here at home were the Joyces, unconverted blacks or coloureds of some kind, my mother a recalcitrant, non-churchgoing maverick and me an unbaptized, non-denominational renegade, walking therefore the high wire above the abyss of damnation, liable to fall at any time yet allowed to go on working without the net that others (including my mother) had—the safety net of baptism by which the fallen are caught far short of Hell.


The thing about rumours, half-truths, misconceptions, is that people believe them all, so it doesn’t matter if one contradicts the other—you are credited and blamed as if all of them are true. I was black. I was a Mick. I was a Black Mick whose face just happened to be purple. I was a Catholic because my mother was one—the whole “not being baptized” thing was just a technicality. But my mother was a lapsed Catholic, which was worse than being non-Catholic. There was hope for non-Catholics—they might someday be converted—whereas someone who had been shown the truth and had turned away from it, well, that was what rebel angels such as Satan and Lucifer had done. My mother was looked down on by some for being a Black Mick, a sexual animal, a descendant of the same people as the Spanish fishermen who, smoking their foul-smelling cigarettes, prowled the St. John’s waterfront in search of whores. She was lusted after by most men for having that little bit of Spanish blood that supposedly made her such a fire-fuck.


I often compared myself to my mother.


The facial stain extended from my scalp to within about an inch of my Adam’s apple, which made it look as if every other inch of my torso must be thus discoloured, even though I have no other stains on it except a small one that has my belly button at the centre. My mother was relieved that I had no stains on my backside or on what she said might be considered the worst possible place. I sometimes complained of the unfairness of the stain on my face, which could just as easily have been discreetly located on the soles of my feet or in my armpits, but my mother reminded me of how close I had come to a life in which the location of my stain would have been the least of my problems.


And my mother? My mother was five-eight, big-breasted, wide-hipped, bust and waist in perfect proportion, full-lipped, high-cheekboned, the Sophia Loren of the Mount. I can only faintly remember a time when my ardour for her was not at least equal to the most Penny Joyce–pining, Black Irish cunt–coveting, balls-aching adolescent on the Mount, the name for the hill on which St. John’s is built. And forget Freud. If Mrs. Clancy next door had been my mother, I wouldn’t have, couldn’t have, thought of her in that way.


“I’d be happy to trade my looks for yours,” Medina said to my mother.


“Would you be happy to trade your looks for mine?” I asked my mother.


“Sure I would, squirt,” she said, and kissed me on top of the head.


“You’re afraid to kiss my cheek,” I said. And suddenly she was stamping my face all over with kisses as if it were a well-travelled passport. Kiss, kiss, kiss, kiss.


Medina, my aunt, Jim Joyce’s sister, had a kind of Betty Boop look: short, tightly curled black hair, round, dark, lashy eyes. She was more attractive than she gave herself credit for—tall, large-boned, with long, lanky legs that were a touch too thick just below her bum.


I was first known throughout the neighbourhood as the Joyce Baby, a euphemism that stood both for my stain and for my father being “on the lam”—the expression used until it was clear he wasn’t coming back. When I was old enough to walk with my mother about the neighbourhood, I became known as the Joyce boy. My mother said people made too big a deal of my birthmark. She said they probably thought that if Helen Keller had been given the added burden of my limbs and face, she’d never have amounted to anything. Some thought that physically manifested within me were the qualities of the sort of man who would desert his pregnant fiancée—and so I would forever be a reminder to the world, as well as to my mother and myself, of his inexplicable offence—though my mother also thought that people believed she was somehow to blame.

 



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