My earliest memories are from around the age of four. It seems to vary with people – some claim to clearly recall events which happened when they were two years old, or even earlier; I had one friend who told a story of sitting up in his cot one day, aged around 18 months, and seeing the china figurines on the mantlepiece come into focus for the first time. But these may be reconstructed memories, created perhaps by the retelling of them, or of others present confirming them. Four seems to be a fairly standard sort of age.
I was four in 1977. At the time we were living in Bulgaria, which was a Communist state – a satellite of the Soviet Union in all but name. And in the fragmented way of childhood memories, my recollections are of isolated and disconnected iconography, much of which we now associate with Communism. I remember, for example, red flags, or a five-pointed star atop a spire, or the ubiquitous hammer and sickle. The Soviet-style ushanka hats with earflaps tied over the crown worn by the police in winter. Lada cars rattling over grey cobblestone streets. Mass parades carrying portraits, girls with red ribbons in their plaits, the blockish capitals of Cyrillic script. Gaz trucks, taking the windscreen wipers off your car to prevent theft, babushka grandmothers sweeping the streets with besom brooms made of twigs. Queues for trolley buses, queues for food, queues at the main Tsum department store when there was a delivery of children’s shoes (in hideous shapes and colours and only one size). The uniformity of everything in a state-controlled economy – only a few styles of clothing available, so that one year everyone was wearing the same kind of trousers – which enhanced the utilitarian drabness of everything. And such was the desire for variety, for the range of western products, that people quite openly propositioned you: I remember one American boy on the school bus being asked by the driver if he wanted to sell his blue jeans.
We were talking the other day about childhood ailments – a group of us round a dinner table somewhere in London – and someone mentioned having their appendix removed. I mentioned that I had had mine out too, aged about 6. It was at the main children’s hospital in Sofia, the capital, and was, in retrospect, an interesting cultural experience. The main thing I remember was that the first night I was on the ward, there was a child in the bed opposite me who flailed and shrieked and struggled. He was a heavy-set Bulgarian lad with a crew cut, and he had been tied to the bed. I was glad of this; if he got loose, it looked like he could do some serious damage. He was bound firmly at wrists and ankles to the corners of the metal-framed bed in a spreadeagled position, and his body jerked back and forth violently as he struggled against his bonds. The boy in the next bed to me, who had freckles and red hair, caught my eye nervously and said something in Bulgarian which I didn’t catch the words of, but clearly understood the meaning: “I’m glad he’s tied down!” I nodded sympathetically.
It was the anaesthetic that was the problem. The Bulgarians were using an old Soviet one which dated back to the Second World War, and which had powerful side effects when the patient came round, causing them to convulse wildly in delirium. I wasn’t due to go under the knife myself until the next day, and could hardly walk, so bad were my stomach pains. And that evening I sat hunched in my bed in a ward full of children, with a dozen or so of them tied to the beds, bucking and crying out, straining at the cords that held them fast. It was quite terrifying. And one day, remembering nothing, I woozily opened my eyes, aware of a tingling sensation in my hand, aching all over and with a sharp pain in my abdomen, and found I couldn’t move it. I was tied to the bed too.
Hospitals aside, it was possible to be happy as a child in a Communist country, in the way of children everywhere, although there was an unconscious ideological agenda at play behind the innocence. I recall watching a group of local children in a drawing competition, who produced the same pictures that children do everywhere – all the pictures of stick-figure Mums and Dads or animals or rockets. But there was an additional, ideological refinement: above the images were scrawled the shaky letters Мир – Mir – meaning “peace”. Everyone wanted peace. The Soviet Union, locked in an intractable arms race with America, wanted nothing but peace. Apparently.
Easier, too, in some respects, not to have the consumerist bombardment of advertisements for everything. I remember my first exposure to television in the UK, and how it left me with a burning need to possess a Lego space station, and a toy go-kart, and a space invaders game shaped like a rocket ship, and some sweets that fizzed on the tongue; I had no filtering system to fend off this endless array of Capitalist merchandise laid before me. In Bulgaria we made rockets out of fireworks, smoked foul-smelling Fenix cigarettes, carried flick-knives and exploded terrifying bangers which, for many British children, are all unavailable treats until they undergo that rite of passage that comes with crossing to the continent – the school trip to France. (As a side note on the pervasive effects of ideology, it’s worth noting that Bulgartabak, the state tobacco monopoly, claimed that American-style tobaccos caused cancer, but that good Communist Bulgarian tobacco contained natural anti-carcinogens.)
The Bulgarian boys next door were a wild bunch – tracksuited and robust. They often had shaved heads because of lice, and there were always different kids coming and going, so it’s hard to remember exactly who was who; I remember the square shape of Ilya’s head through the bald fuzz that crowned it, or his older brother whose features are a blur but who had oddly prominent ears. I remember Petko, and Zlatko, and their small sister, whose name I have forgotten, and who was always getting nosebleeds. We were friends, and played in the courtyard, which from my earliest memories seemed to have walls that went up to the sky, and which progressively decreased in height as I myself grew taller. There was a dead tree in the corner of the courtyard, and this was the scene of one of my most formative memories, illustrating as it did some profound difference between us, though whether cultural or personal I couldn’t say.
One day, drawn by the sounds of excited laughter from next door, I poked my head over the wall to see what was going on. A group of the boys stood around, ranging in age from five or six to perhaps 13. I saw that a small sack had been hung from a branch of the old dead tree in the corner, and one lad swaggered towards the base of the tree, stooped to pick something up, and took up a stance a few metres away, weighing whatever it was he had retrieved in his hand. I saw it was a knife. Spitting on the ground and shuffling his feet a little, he took aim like a darts player and flung the knife at the sack. It missed, and cannonaded off the trunk to land back in the dust. There were loud jeers. Another boy was lining up to take his shot. I wanted to join in, and clambered over the wall, sidling up to the group. Zlatko spotted me, smiled, nodded at the sack and said one word: “kotka”.
Then I saw the sack move. Kotka. Cat.
I was horrified. Now I could hear it – there was a mewing noise coming from the sack. In one of those few moments of my life of which I am actually proud, I screamed at them: “Stop!” And then again, even louder, in Bulgarski just in case I wasn’t understood, “STOI!”
They looked bemused. It’s fine, they said. It’s just cats. I burst into tears, and climbed back over the wall. Running up the path into the house I yelled for my parents. Dad came out of the living room to see what all the noise was about. Snot-nosed and gulping I blurted out: “They’ve got cats in a bag and they are throwing knives at it.”
I watched his expression change and grow thunderous. “Show me,” he said, and taking my hand we set off down the path and out the gate (Dad didn’t climb over walls). He swung open the gate next door and marched into the courtyard, right into the middle of the group of boys. The ensuing conversation was all in Bulgarian, but there was no mistaking the tone. The lads looked shame-faced. “Get that bag down at once!” he must have said, because one boy went and shinned up the tree and brought it down. He placed it on the ground and backed away. The others were melting away now too, remembering pressing engagements they had elsewhere. Dad crouched down in the dust and opened the sack. Quick as a flash two cats shot out, and in a blur made for the gate, squeezing under it and tearing off down the road. But there was still one inside – cowering down and hissing with flattened ears. Reaching into the sack I picked it up. It didn’t resist. It was a small black and white kitten with a pink patch on its nose. Cradling it in my arms I followed Dad back out of the gate and up the garden path into the house.
I set the cat down on the porch and stroked it. Its fur was warm, and it didn’t seem to be injured, but periodically it would tremble for a few seconds. I heard low voices from inside, then Mum and Dad appeared on the porch to look at the cat. It burrowed into my arms. “Can I keep it?” I asked them.
So that was my first cat. We called her Mutzi – I don’t know why; I don’t think it means anything. She was an affectionate animal – there’s a photo somewhere of me aged about 7 sitting in the garden and cradling her in my arms as she presses her nose to mine in a cat kiss.
In the way of cats, she hung around for a while – a good couple of years – but then one day never came home. I was distraught but recovered, as children do. Perhaps she was run over, or just went feral – who knows, with cats.
But there’s an interesting little postscript to this story – one which took thirty years to emerge. I am a grown man now, nearly 40 years old, and my father long retired. We live on the East Coast of England, in a house overlooking the marshes, and one day, with Dad hammering away on the computer, I sat on the floor looking through the old photo albums in the book case. I came across that photograph, of Mutzi giving me a cat kiss in the garden, and I laughed and showed it to him. “She just disappeared, didn’t she.”
He looked up. “I think saw her, you know.”
“Well I went back to Bulgaria in 1982 for a conference. And I thought it’d be interesting to see the old house on Alexander Nevsky, so one afternoon when I was free I went and knocked on the door. It’s still used by embassy staff – nice young couple living there. We had a drink, they showed me round.”
“Anyway, when it was time to leave, I walked down to the bus stop on the corner, and something made me turn round. Just by the alley there are these bins, and right next to them was this cat watching me. Black and white one. And I had the strangest feeling it knew me. So I called out to it. ‘Mutzi?’ This old babushka in a headscarf walked past and gave me a look – well, it must have looked a bit odd, me in my suit with a briefcase, crouching down in the entrance to an alleyway calling to a cat. And the whole time this cat just watched me. Never took her eyes off me, but she never came any closer.”
“Then the bus arrived, and I turned round for a moment. When I looked back I saw her slinking away – quite low-slung, like she was pregnant, but watching me the whole time.”
“I never told you at the time – it would only have upset you. She’d gone feral, and of course we couldn’t have brought her back to England anyway. But I’m sure it was her.”
I looked out through the salt-smeared glass at the marshes as a 39-year-old man, and bizarrely I found myself blinking back tears. He rose stiffly from the desk, patted me on the shoulder a couple of times, and together we walked downstairs.