‘Galileo was the one who thought the earth went round the sun . . .’
Not so, according to my mother. If the earth revolved at all, it revolved around her. She saw it as a vast stage. Beyond the pit, where she was serenaded by musicians, was the great well of humanity. Because the lights were dimmed, she wasn’t forced to look too closely at it. She was separated from the common people by a sheer drop. ‘Flat’ made sense, ‘round’ didn’t.
She’d been christened Ellen Florence. Clearly neither of her parents had the least idea what Nature had presented them with. Even in the family photographs with ‘Ellen’ written underneath, your impulse is to turn the page assuming ‘Ellen’ must be on the other side. My mother looks diaphanous and I don’t merely mean the dresses. ‘Flo’ was even worse; it sounded like a fly-swat. A teacher at the infant school provided her with an escape.
‘It’s ‘Flora’ in Italian. It means flowers. Isn’t that romantic?’
From that moment, Romance was to form the mainstay of my mother’s whole existence. She had called my brother ‘Axel’; I was ‘Ariel’ – names that were seamlessly absorbed into the fantasy she had created. As she wafted through life, Ariel and Axel would be there on the periphery like bridesmaids at a wedding, showering her with petals, picking up her train to stop it trailing in the mud, not puking scrambled egg all down her back or covering her dress with snot. We didn’t need to lose ourselves in fairy tales as children: our mother was the physical embodiment of one. She was the White Witch in a coach carved out of icicles, her jewels flashing as she raced across the tundra.
She’d decided Axel would be bright whilst I was beautiful. It didn’t take her long to realise that the genes had got it wrong. You’d think under the