Pythons, school buses and Robert Frost


Recollections of a misspent childhood in Asia and America

I was born at a very early age, and made a very great fuss of.

This was because the Korean War had only been over for about a decade or so, and I was the only non-Korean squirt in the hospital. My pink toes and blue eyes were a big hit, from Day One.

It was a MASH hospital, and in the photo — my mother looks exhausted, the nurses triumphant — I half-expect to see Alan Alda and the rest of the MASH cast popping up. Though what the nurses had to look quite so proud about, I have no idea, as I was practically born in a taxi, I was in a rush to arrive.

My father, a CIA-employee-turned-diplomat-and-only- just-shoved-out-to-Seoul, clearly took his fledgling diplomatic career seriously. He showed up for a black-tie event that very evening, while I was still being marvelled over. There, his host announced, “And John Taylor’s wife just gave birth to a little girl!” At which the dignitary beside my father leaned over to commiserate. (“Too bad, too bad.”)

Story of my life: one minute, champagne and kisses — the next I’m basically being dissed.

Sad to say, I can’t remember much about the Land of my Birth, as we left it when I was aged one and before my first Dark Night of the Soul.

This was the birth of my sister, only 15 months after me. The speed of both of our arrivals is down to the notable incompetence of our parents. I had been a “wedding night special” — born nine months to the day after the wedding, after a mix-up with a condom. Kathy’s birth was the result of my mother’s believing, wrongly, as it happened, that one can’t get pregnant while breastfeeding.

Despite the fact that I can’t remember a damn thing about Seoul I however reserve the right to claim any South Korean Olympic team or sporting genius as closely related to me, and also object passionately to anything its government does that I fail to agree with. However, I must admit that I feel much closer to my father’s later postings — Myanmar, Singapore, even Bangkok — than I do to Seoul. (Though I do boast the key to the city, given to me by my paternal grandfather, on whom it was bestowed when he was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Doubtless due to some administrative oversight, it was not actually bestowed on me.)

So. Why did my parents leave Seoul so soon? Had my father been justly offended at my being dissed at the black-tie dinner? Or had he himself been “outed” — despite the wise precaution of employing a pen name — on the publication of his first very biography, a searing critique of Korea’s Syngman Rhee?

My mother hated the food, is real reason. The combination of morning sickness with garlic and kimchi was just too much for her (she always hated both). I think they wanted my sister to be born in the US, as well. So, on that abysmal day, Mom went to Arlington Hospital and came home with — ugh — a screaming baby.

Aged one (and three months) my junior self was less than impressed. The baby was not only noisy, but swiped all Mom’s attention. She cried a lot — I never cried — and made silly faces and couldn’t even begin to crawl. She was blonde too — another offense, as our local grandmother (the one married to the Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff) did nothing but admire it. Probably I still dye my hair blonde in a vain attempt to please my grandmother. (People are funny.)

Now my father has always been impulsive and thus Very Like Me. For example, he’d spotted my mother in a CIA cafeteria and said, “That’s the woman I’m going to marry!” He had a bit of bother persuading her, partly because there was Another Man and probably partly because she knew he was bound for Seoul and had probably heard about the kimchi.

Anyway, he mourned Seoul and, after only a few years in Washington, longed to buzz back to Asia again…Then called southeast Asia, which I understand is No Longer Allowed, though I can’t figure out why the hell not. I mean, on Google there’s Asia, right? — the biggish chunk under Russia. And the bit we infested was — follow me like a lizard — the southeast bit of it. Not rocket science, southeast Asia.

However, ours is not to reason why. All Kath and I knew, aged three and four, was that we were off to Bangkok.

There was lots to like in Bangkok. We got Thai princess outfits and the cat there very kindly almost instantly produced kittens. Kath and I were charmed with our tiny dressing-tables, and matching tricycles, and we played lots of games (though there was no TV). I remember feeling the heat — and so does my mother, who was never as thrilled with living abroad as my father. But then, Embassy wives were not supposed to work, so she was — even with two little girls — pretty bored.

I did have two experiences, to add to my list of neuroses, in Bangkok. We had a long driveway, though I can’t remember the house as well as I can our houses in Singapore and Myanmar, and on this drive Kath and I wasted a lot of hours with the aforementioned tricycles. Anyway, I was riding mine when I encountered my first python.

It was not a cuddly toy python — it was a great whacking python, which probably inspired the giant snakes infesting my brand-new speculative thriller (see bio). And — proving that fear of snakes is pretty innate — I screamed, jumped off my tricycle and ran all the way home, unpursued by the bear. (The servants killed it, which was toughish luck on the python. It had probably just been out for a stroll, after all.)

The reason I remember that I was five at the time was because of my disastrous fifth birthday party. Now my mother — I mentioned she was bored — had worked hard for this: games, treats, cake, Embassy kidlets, the lot. But one of my guests had rashly bought me a beautiful doll (maybe Barbie’s friend Skipper?) — with about 95 different outfits to try on, and I was not fussed about the games, the treats, the cake, or the guests. I wouldn’t be parted from that doll — and when this was finally imposed on me I “thwceamed and thwceamed and thwceamed until I was sick”, just like Richmal Crompton’s immortal Violet Elizabeth Bott.

In short, as guest of honour, I was a wash-out. I was demoted in favour of my perfect sister, sent upstairs and eventually even spanked — something my father hated doing. In short, in all of Asia, there was no sadder newly-five-year-old than me.

However, my father wasn’t based in Bangkok for long — he got sent back to Washington, and I got sent to school.

One of the reasons for my many — fascinating — neuroses is because my soulless parents entirely failed to realise my exquisite sensitivity. For example: my first school was St Dunstan’s pre-school, where a super-alert teacher warned my parents that the five-year-old me was amazingly imaginative and highly unusual and (coughed) ought to be educated privately.

Possibly this was because I Loved And Lost at pre-school. John D. and I fell in love and agreed to get married, but we were cruelly parted by a teacher whose name I no longer remember, and put on separate tables. (Believe me, Romeo and Juliet had nothing on John D. and me, aged five.)

My parents, though, took a dusty view of this. There was nothing wrong, in their opinion, with Chesterbrook Elementary so off I was shoved to Chesterbrook Elementary.

My very first day was a catastrophe.

I had been picked up — the excitement of it! Kath’s jealousy! — by a real, iconic, honest-to-God, yellow school bus, and taken to big school. Where I had my very own nametag, my very own place to hang my coat, and my very own color group (red!!!!! My fav.!!!!!!!)

Anyway, what I didn’t have — never have had, never will — was my very own sense of direction, or even the wit to recall the number of my school bus. I went up and down the ranks, trying to remember the number — or, at least, to recognise the driver, becoming increasingly distressed.

Nothing — zilch — came back to me. Catastrophe! Now, had I been at a private school — sigh — maybe someone might have noticed. Instead, every single one of those buses — one of them mine — buzzed off without me. I was left, with the walkers.

I would have to walk home. Oh, help!!!!!!

Now, to give me credit, I did choose the right direction — I was not entirely brain-dead. But, having done that much right, I lost all confidence. I was no longer the happy debutante of Miss Paxman’s “Red” group — I was someone too stupid to remember how to walk home from big school. In the end I just crumpled in front of a house and cried. Finally, a lady in the house came out, all concerned, and I told her I couldn’t find Lorraine Avenue — to be fair it does, very cruelly, start out masquerading as Birch Road — and the kindly lady took me home.

Where my parents teased me mercilessly, and even Kathy — my ally, though annoyingly precocious — was astonished that I had managed to get lost between Chesterbrook School and home. (She continued precocious, partly because I came home from school every day and instantly shared everything I’d learned with her. In that single respect, I was the ideal older sister.)

I remember a couple of other things about Chesterbrook Elementary, which was opposite our tennis and swimming club. I remember that — in common with every other girl in 1B — I wanted to be Miss Paxman when I grew up. I remember a boy in our class called Dave, who was SO BAD he had to leave (many years later I learned that he was imprisoned for murder).

I remember being very envious of Karen Fitzpatrick, who was very talented at fainting, which seemed not only a supremely romantic accomplishment, but one getting her a helluva lot of attention. I remember Jan-and-Priscilla, the beautiful and inseparable girls in First Grade, whom everybody wanted to play with, but they ignored us. When they didn’t — roughly, the third Thursday of every month — the rest of class 1A all grovelled to them, even the mass-murderer-to-come.

Kath and I — she had improved a lot after a weak beginning — also shared a best friend, Kelly O’Gorman — and, when I was in a good mood, her younger brother Scott, too.

My parents were super-lax, but — hey — I guess it was the psychedelic late sixties. They let us run wild — not just around our tame suburban neighbourhood but into the woods, too. (They still have woods behind their house, with deer in them.) No deer in our day — though we encountered porcupines and raccoons — and the stream was cleaner then, full of crayfish and copperheads. At one point we found an abandoned property, discovered a way in and played “keeping house” for weeks, until Scott — the little louse — told on us. Halloweens in those days were to die for — we hit every property — twice, if we thought they were short-sighted enough to get away with it — and made up stories about the reclusive and fiercely angry old lady who lived on our road, and was a “real” witch.

Anyway, one day Kelly and I, then six, were walking from her house to mine — mostly open country decades ago — when we were accosted by an older teenager with a gun. Neither of us had ever seen a gun but we still knew what it was. Especially when the guy growled, “Take off your clothes or I’ll shoot!”

Now I was not a genius, but I still reckoned that there was a third option. I yelled, “Run!” and we ran all the way to my mother, to whom I breathlessly related the tale.

She didn’t believe me. No, not a joke. Swear to God, she didn’t believe me.

Now, to be entirely fair, I did make up stories. Famous for it. People on Facebook writers’ sites are keen on bragging about how they came out of the egg writing stories. Well, I really did. I told stories to my sister from the age of two (I also taught her to read at three — which turned out to be a mistake — as it only made her look brighter). I also wrote poetry from the age of four. It was bloody awful poetry but still, I wrote it.

But this was true!!!!!!!!!!! And Kelly said it was true!!!!!!!!!!!!!

These days — just imagine it — some kid rushes in with a story that sensational, there’d be cop cars snaked so far around the block you’d get strong letters of complaint written by stymied commuters.

Back then, my Mom didn’t believe me. Tell me another, was her attitude. Life is short.

(Of course, she had been in the CIA. She’d prob. have doubled back, kicked the gun from his hand, and got him in an arm-lock so fast he’d have been sorry he’d been born. But still.)

We were so devastated that she probably took this is confirmation that I’d made it up, having persuaded Kelly — Kelly was always persuadable — to back me up. How many of my neuroses are traceable back to (a) the guy with the gun and/or (b) my mother’s disdain for My Real-life Thriller Story I’ll never know.

At least Kathy believed me. We spent many nights talking about it. Yes, she had definitely improved from the days when she had been my worst nightmare. Which was just as well, under the circs., as — drumroll — our baby brother was about to be born.

This came — surprisingly — as rather a shock. Maybe kids of sevenish aren’t in the habit of noticing if their mothers put on a little weight? I suppose Mom must have murmured once or twice — in passing — that she was expecting, but Kath and I were still both bemused and even shocked to come downstairs one morning to a complete lack of service. No cereal, no pancakes, the table not even set. When we went — not in the least gruntled — to submit our complaint to the authorities, we found Dood shaving. It was he who told us that we were the proud owners of a baby brother.

We took it big. We took it very big. In fact, we made perfect idiots of ourselves, running all over the neighbourhood, screaming that we had a brand-new baby brother. The babe born in Bethlehem was nothing in comparison, in our considered opinion.

The thrill was not long-lasting. Jim was a particular trial to me, being not only blonde (like Kath) but also curly-headed (like me) — and possessing the biggest, bluest eyes you ever saw. Not only our grandmothers but practically everybody who saw him instantly became surprisingly stupid and made very silly noises. Kathy and I alternated in our treatment of this paragon, sometimes dressing him up in our baby doll’s outfits and pretending he was Princess Arabella — those curls, those curls! — mostly ignoring him. Kathy was very much more helpful than I was, I have to admit. I secretly preferred our dolls, whose curls were every bit as golden, but who failed to smell, squawk or swipe all the attention.

I probably don’t need to spell out, by this point, that I’ve always had just a touch of the drama queen in my make-up. This was spotted — I was seven — shortly before we left for Singapore, by an alert teacher at Chesterbrook Elementary, who asked if I’d be willing to perform Robert Frost’s ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ in front of the school.

I’d like to say that my modest reluctance was pretty to see, that I blushed and objected, suggested that one of the older kids would be a far riper choice, etc. Instead, I practiced. I practiced in costume — probably the horse — I practiced in the bathroom — I practiced in the woods — I practiced with high voice and l-o-w, with drama and (almost) without. Kathy, Kelly and Scott got so fed-up with it/me that they used to beg me not to deliver it. Anyway, the great day came, when Alice Was To Perform For The Very First Time.

Instead, I woke up riddled with chickenpox.

I didn’t have chickenpox forever — or half as badly as Kathy who — little known fact — to this day has the scars to prove it — so I don’t know why it was never rescheduled. All I know is that it wasn’t. Maybe we were about to leave for Singapore?

(Why? What can I say? — My dad had itchy feet.) Soon we were soon back at Dulles, taking off for Singapore. Probably to the accompaniment of little Alice dreamily intoning, “Who woods are these? I think I know. His house is in the village though…”

Photo by Jan Kopřiva on Unsplash



Alice McVeigh: award-winning novelist

Novels by London-based Alice McVeigh have been published by Orion/Hachette, UK’s Unbound Publishing, and Warleigh Hall Press.