I think I’ve mentioned this before on these very pages. Perhaps it’s because I am of a certain age and demeanour. Is it the slightly haggard, worldly look or a hint of exotic places in the accent? For whatever reason, as if a put-upon District Commissioner in a different, better age, I tend to attract the tinged. Especially at church. They gather around. I think ‘doughnut’ is the term. And the resultant banter isn’t confined to the British Empire. I remind the Ethiopian girls I also wore a pink cloth skirt and a sack over my head when I was in Eritrea. Filipinos that, before they were born, I can not only recall the eruption of Mount Pinatubo but had the misfortune of standing underneath it at the time.
However, no matter what their disparate races, ethnicities, orientations and inclinations, at Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve my new friends were unanimous in reliably informing me that I wasn’t going to get any presents. Why not? Because next to my name on Santa’s ledger, kept at a North Pole never reassuringly painted Empire crimson on a mission hut map, is written the damning script, “Keeps on asking people where they’re from, where they’re from, where they’re really, really from.” Myself and the over-inquisitive Lady Hussy are members of the sacks of cinders on Christmas morn community.
Furthermore, Santa and the tinged are correct. Because of my peripatetic childhood, I have an interest in such things, and why not? I care not for political correctness, woke or even Christmas presents and much prefer a tall tale or two from the Deccan plateau or the Niger Delta.
On balance, compared to the Thugees and Triads what damage can the woke do to me? Leave me with an embarrassingly barren red stocking, that’s what. The tinged were wrong on that count – but only just. I did get a present and when I say ‘a’ I mean ‘a’. One present and one present alone snuggled in the bottom of an emaciated stocking hanging from our mantlepiece that frosty late December Sunday morning.
As proof that Karma, God, Santa and the native’s ju ju sixth sense not only exist but mock the sceptical, that one present was a DNA kit. One’s now obliged to find out where one’s from, where one’s from, where one’s really, really from. And why not? Sounds appropriate given my previous assignment regarding the phoney Ngozi Felani and wronged Lady Hussy.
Long-suffering regular readers are already aware of my tall tales of liaison libertine; French film stars, racy divorcees, the Chinese side of my family, Arab princess’s gynaecological visits, Tangiers girls dressed as boys dressed as girls dressed as boys. A pretty wife lost in a mahjong den in Kowloon City, Imelda Marcos, fallen women about the gaming tables of Geneva’s Noga Hilton, lodging with George Soros’s granny in Cold War Budapest. The surf and turf at Dell Mar, Putin’s lonely Voorschoten-based daughter, Philippine trillionaire Geronimo de Reyes crafty niece, Hergé’s shamed second cousin and lots more besides. I have rather dug a hole for myself while pushing the boat out a little too far – so to speak.
Is any of it true? Could this pen tell a lie? Might a few chromosomes carelessly left behind silence the doubters? Spit in the bottle up to the black line, fold and seal the box so that the prepaid stamp and laboratory address are face up, pop it in a post-box and find out.
I have been caught out before. I once asked a chap with an unusual family name where he came from. “Blended,” he replied. All well and good. I think I can remember a Mouñt Blended in Yugoslavia. Also, was there a Läke Blended nestled in an unfashionable part of the Carpathians? I think there was. And I’m sure there was Blënded Jûnction, beloved by Bucharest-based travelling gentlemen of a certain generation, partway between mad Ceaușescu’s palace and the Black Sea’s golden sands weekend retreat just north of Constanța. Yes, there was. Or was that a different adventure, on the other side of the border, past Plovdiv where the lines to Burgas and Varna diverge? Not to worry, I persisted.
“Do you ever get back to Blëñded?”
“Still have family there? Maybe visit for the skiing? Or break the journey to the coast? Monster carp this time of the year if I recall correctly.”
No, no, no. He meant blended. The family and its name are a blend, not from anywhere in particular. Not so sure that I believe him or even that such a thing is possible. After all, he was a school teacher, a sensitive and less than honest tribe.
I’m certainly an English, English, Englishman from England and sent the test off to prove that, as well as the veracity of tall tales of derring-do on foreign shores. Having said that, disappointment stalks. I do live awfully close to the border. There is a plan, a narrative. A Scotsman at the laboratory opened my bottle with his greasy hands while coughing over the open top.
So much for the microscopic, what about the macroscopic? You don’t have to be a geneticist to realise that we are what we look like. I’m so white, I’m a pale blue colour. Added to which, when I was small, I had very bright blonde hair (as did my father and one of my sons) which darkened later. Blue eyes remain. The only foreign language I’ve been able to master is Biblical Norwegian, self-taught from a bi-lingual Gideon Bible during long winter nights in a hostel next to an iron ore port well north of the Arctic Circle.
Is the lab allowed to use phrases like ‘Nordic Ayran’?
Besides spitting in the little bottle, more difficult than you think especially if your mouth is as dry as a Karachi backstreet (where you were caught in a clinch with Bin Laden’s second prettiest wife) at the thought of that terrible scientific thing called provable fact, there’s an app to download. If you don’t have a mobile phone, or do have one but like a weary Deputy Governor General or Temporary Head of Chancery you don’t know how to use it, there’s a website accessible from your ordinary computer. If you don’t have any technology, then tough, you need to register a bar code on the little bottle before it can be processed and your results accessed.
Once you’re logged on, there’s a multitude of optional questions to answer, many regarding your medical history. Upon reflection, I’m not as fit and healthy as I thought I was. My hissy ears, colourblindness, rotten teeth, formerly dickey kidney, baldy head and even being able to waggle my ears, all tell against me. Partway through the quiz I began to worry, as if sat before one of those old ladies in the Malay Peninsular who can see the future with chicken bones and a dice roll, are the DNA lab just going to tell me the blinding obvious interspersed with what I’ve just told them?
I’ve mentioned before of one such fortune teller who foretold I’d be ill and then force-fed me everything the visitor to the tropics is supposed to steer clear of. Three weeks flat on my back in my bunk while her business boomed. Lucky to be alive.
No matter, it will be interesting to see how the Worth-Sayings have meandered, or marched in a straight line, from the Garden of Eden to the banks of the Debatable Land’s River Eden. I have written of my relatives on these pages previously but only on my father’s side. As you may recall I’m an only child. My father had a brother who died in infancy and my father’s four cousins either died in the war, didn’t marry or didn’t have any children – that I know of.
My father’s mother was one of three sisters. My great-aunts managed one daughter between them who married late and had no children. As I’m the only one left (king of the Worth-Sayings no less), I can’t offend or upset anyone.
My mother’s side were much more numerous but not long-lived. These days, all I can count are a few cousins who left to find their fortunes elsewhere many years ago. A hardy lot, I doubt if I could offend even if I wrote a book full of allegations of baby brains, pushings into dog bowls and instructions to dress as a Nazi. All the same, I shall avoid all mention apart from this: a cousin in America’s fourth wife famously rang up out of the blue and announced he’d been swept to sea and drowned by hurricane Katrina. We must send ‘the money’ to the States pronto. No thanks.
Therefore, on the giant interactive map, I expect to be a bit short of close relatives, but you never know. I have mentioned the American side of my father’s family before. From their early plantation in the Virginias, besides providing work for west African migrants, they spread across the New World via the pioneer trails. I have been pleasantly surprised by phone books and cemeteries in the most unlikely of places.
Added to which, about the house, we have odd bits and pieces of correspondence from South Africa. I don’t recognise the names from the family tree and suspect these might have been friends or godparents rather than relatives. A tall family story suggested I was due some diamonds and gold from Kimberley and, astonishingly, one day they arrived but had been left to my daughter, Miss AWS. I’m keeping them safe until she’s 21.
Obviously, I have to assume at least some of these people have also returned DNA tests.
A grandfather and one great-grandfather lived in Pakistan. Come to think of it, so did I. I wonder if my ancestors left anything behind beyond sweat, blood, spent bullet cases and a hint of aftershave on a tribal chief’s second prettiest wife’s burka?
As for Australia, a notable medical doctor with our unusual family name made the newspapers after being murdered by a lunatic in Parramatta. Worse than that, another was a New South Wales trades union leader and Labour MP. On a very serious note, a little aboriginal girl of our kin was a victim in a spate of notorious New South Wales murders.
Fascinating, interesting, tragic history which may become clearer or more complicated when my DNA results arrive. I will keep Puffins posted.
© Always Worth Saying 2023
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file