My life as an accident

Millennium babies are being planned worldwide. I wish them luck, says MATTHEW BAYLIS - I'm glad I was a mistake
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Across the Western world, maternity units are already girding their loins, so to speak, for what they expect to be a baby logjam on 31 December. Would-be parents, desperate for their offspring to be the first of the new millennium, are spending this weekend in a sexual frenzy. In 2005, infant school classes will overflow with little Brooklyns (or Bootles or Blackpools, if the example of Posh and Beckham is taken literally). This degree of planning is commonplace among eels and salmon, but pretty rare for humankind. Plenty of us - whether we know it or not - were conceived not on the promise of free nappies and unlimited publicity, but purely by chance.

I discovered the story surrounding my birth when I was 10. Like a lot of kids, I didn't particularly like my first name, and I asked my mum why she chose it. I fancied being an actor at the time and, apart from Matthew Kelly, it struck me that the celebrity world contained precious few Matthews. My mum offered the halting explanation that, after three other children, the novelty of naming had lost its appeal. Matthew sounded "straightforward", she said, "easy to remember". She changed the subject quickly.

My questions clearly made her uncomfortable and within a fortnight I was wishing I had not raised the subject. One Saturday morning shortly after, I woke up to hear her shouting tearfully into the telephone. "Go away," she cried. "Leave us alone." I ran to the landing and saw my dad making her put the receiver down.

That morning over my Shreddies, while my mum took what seemed to be an unnecessarily long bath, my dad told me he had fallen in love with another woman. He intended to move out and live with her, in another town. I did not take the news too well. It was the first time, other than being caught pilfering Space Dust in the local corner shop, that anything remotely ugly had happened in my life. My dad made efforts to console me, but partly out of spite, I refused them.

At one point he said, "It won't make any difference. I'll come and visit all the time." And from the doorway behind us, there was a cough. It was my mum, in her dressing gown. "You won't come and visit," she said, coldly. "You can have him. I never wanted the kid in the first place. You know that."

Dad looked from her to me in horror. "She doesn't mean it," he said. "I do," added Mum.

As my parents continued their painful drama, I went to stay with my big sister. She was angry that I had been party to that discussion between my parents, and tried not to discuss it. But when I nagged and nagged her, she finally admitted it was true. She had been horrified to discover she was pregnant with a fourth child. She sought to abort me, but for reasons unclear, she did not. My birth was easy, but the months after were not - she spent much of the time deeply depressed.

In the end, my parents stayed together, but the issue of being "unwanted" continued to trouble me. My mum was no monster. She said what she said in a moment of high emotion and regretted it. But never, in the years afterwards, did she pretend it wasn't true. She thought it was for the best. Only recently have I started to agree.

For several years, my reaction to the news was histrionic. A diary, kept in a series of physics exercise books, charted a moody adolescence in which I fancied that every personal disaster - from unjust PE teachers to uninterested girls on the bus - had come about because I was "not meant to be". I spent hours listening to The Smiths, and hanging round shopping precincts, looking tortured. I would die young, I decided, probably of consumption. Then they'd all be sorry.

My three siblings - between eight and 16 years older than me - treated the subject with more healthy cynicism. My brother commented drily that the term "accident" was too gentle a description for my arrival. "Multiple pile-up" might have been more appropriate. He agreed with my sisters that, in contrast to their draconian upbringing, I had it easy. So I wasn't intended? So what? At least I could stay out late and put rude posters on my bedroom walls.

Of course, the youngest gets the easiest ride. But I wasn't raised with indulgence; as I saw it, my folks had simply given up the struggle. I even learnt the facts of life from the TV. I remember ringing my mum and dad from a call box to tell them my A-level results. "Is that good?" asked Mum. "How do they mark these things nowadays?"

I did not grasp many great truths at university. But one day in my second year, meeting up with a friend - a laid-back sort who did sociology, sometimes - I realised I was making a fuss about nothing.

He had recently dropped out of college for the second year running. I discovered he was in fact confused and unhappy and, unusually for him, ready to admit it. Few people ever discussed their backgrounds, but on this occasion, it was his major preoccupation.

He was a firstborn, to parents who had timed his birth to fall in May, so that his first months could be spent in therapeutic summer sunshine. This sense of deliberation characterised his whole upbringing. Dr Spock was consulted hourly, the infant's every fart the subject of psychoanalytical debate. Television and tartrazine were banned from the house as detrimental to his development. He did not leave the house alone until he was 16. When his mother found a copy of Razzle under his bed, she sent him to a fierce lady therapist.

And the result of all this well-intentioned love? Within two weeks of starting university, he'd dropped out. He spent a year pretending to his parents that he was still a student when in reality he was selling an anarchist newspaper on the railway station. He had another stab at studenthood the next year. But while his parents took Valium to cope with their son's betrayal, he developed a curiosity for other intoxicants. Shortly after I met him in the pub - and realised how bitter he was about his past - he stole his father's credit card and took a flight to Bangkok. No one ever saw him again. Nostalgie de la boue. Screwing up to hurt your mum and dad.

In contrast, as a living "afterthought", I had no reason to screw up. There was only the vaguest of authority to buck and no one to hurt. Unstimulated by Meccano or improving books, I watched industrial quantities of television, but with no major side-effects - unless you count the fact that I grew up to become a storyliner for EastEnders. The chief accessories of my rock 'n' roll years were cider and fags. If I hadn't been forced to grow up on that tearful Saturday morning over the Shreddies, I'd have done it years later - probably, like my friend, with access to much more lethal pastimes.

Knowing the sheer randomness of your birth can be liberating. It can help you to see nothing as "meant", to take the mishaps and the triumphs with equal detachment. Nobody else's intentions have governed my life, so I have only myself to blame for the mistakes.

I am not claiming to have become some kind of Buddhist monk. A love of lager still regularly leads me into all manner of regrettable encounters. But I never stole anyone's credit card. (The Space Dust was enough for me.) Occasionally I wonder if perhaps, had my parents planned to create me, I'd have been an Ethan or a Jude or even a Nottingham. But then again, Matthew Kelly's still doing well for himself.

Matthew Baylis's first novel, `Stranger Than Fulham', is published by Chatto & Windus, price pounds 10.

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