When did it begin, this tilt towards jealousy, looking over my shoulder at the one who’s doing better?

My mother told the story of how when I was three, toddling alongside her my baby sister in the pram, people stopped to admire this most beautiful baby, her dark curls and blue eyes and my mother came to feel sorry for the way they overlooked me.

A beautiful baby gurgling in a pram is hard to resist. A toddler walking alongside less prepossessing.

Did I first feel the sting of not being good enough then?

Did I first feel a pressure towards needing to be beautiful in order to be admired or did it come later with my mother’s insistence on my best features, my pearl shaped ear lobes and perfect eyebrows?

‘You take after our father,’ my sisters and brothers said and our younger sister after our mother.

We all knew our mother was a beauty. Her movie star photos in pride of place from the days before she and my father married. Slick movie star type images from the 1930s even during the war wars when professional photographers who occupied the streets of Amsterdam and set up shop on the main street tried to emulate the glamour of Hollywood and even the plainest of women could be made to look like Ava Gardner.

My mother did not need much help in this direction. Her natural appeal was enough and along with her success at making children, my mother considered her skin, her blue eyes and glossy black curls to be her greatest assets.

Even as they turned to grey and her face grew more sallow with age, once she stopped sunbaking for fear of cancer, my mother knew how to pout for the camera while I clinched my lips tight to stop the image of my crooked teeth taking centre place.

Was this where it all began?

And did it shift from the external image to internal attributes such as intelligence when I learned early on that I lacked the brains of my brothers, most of my brothers that is, with one or two exceptions, the brains of the men in the house especially my father who could speak in six languages and could understand the vagaries of physics and name all the chemicals one after the other.

My brother above me, the family genius, my sister below me the family beauty and I in the middle grappling with my mediocrity in a way that dogs me even today, especially when I find myself competing in my head with those others who excel at things that matter to me, at the writing of books and words on the page.

It does help anyone to compare themselves favourably or unfavourably to others and yet I fall into this trap of comparison too often and once inside must find a way of ridding my mind of the green pus of self-loathing that infects my mood.

The glories of sorrow

The year I turned fourteen, my brother came home with a gramophone, an antique he picked up for almost nothing from a second hand store somewhere nearby. He put it in one corner of the lounge room near the stereo system that played records on a turnstile you operated electrically. The gramophone you cranked up with an Allen key and wound till it stopped and was ready to play at least one of the songs on your standard LP record all the way through.

During the long summer holidays when we were away from school and my parents were away at work, my brother did not complain when I played his gramophone for hours, one song after another.

On the couch, feet curled under my torso, I listened to the deep voice of Paul Robeson and his Ol’ Man River. The notes flooding my veins.

‘He don’t say nothing but must know something. It keeps on rolling…’Robeson’s words gave me permission to sit indolent, hour after hour, to listen as the Mississippi rolled along.

Paul Robeson’s voice was powerful but sad, the sorrow of an American slave living on a plantation back in the barns with the other slaves and handlers and with no life of his own other than church on Sundays and long hours of work, planting ‘tatas’ or picking cotton, while ‘Ol’ Man River, he just keeps rolling along’.

The more I listened to Paul Robeson, the less I felt like a ‘motherless child’, the more I recognised the struggle of the slaves to lead a life of dignity, while I in my adolescent angst fell prey to the whims of others, especially my father, but could see others had it worse than me.

The gramophone was heavy and sat like a rectangular boulder on the floor beside the couch and I needed to bend down to crank it up, its brass horn opened like a flower.

‘Lissie, go and clean you room, please,’ my older sister called from the kitchen where she was busy making sandwiches for lunch. ‘And when you’ve finished, we’re going outside to get rid of those weeds along the fence. I can’t even reach the washing line, they’ve grown so high.’

My sister relished household chores, or so it seemed to me then when I wanted only to sit and dream. I wanted only to listen to the voice of the singer, even as I knew I must get on with these tasks, that hardship was ‘character building’ like the learning of Latin at school, and that going against your own wishes was the best way to cultivate a mature and considerate personality, and so become a person others might admire.

My mother’s mantra played in my head over and again, the value of suffering to make you a better person, the glories of sorrow to lift you into a better place in readiness for Heaven.

But these ideas clashed with another voice in my head that railed against the notion I should be grateful for my lot. That I should not complain and that I should not presume anyone was there to look after me. I needed to go it alone, despite my many siblings, despite my prayerful mother, despite the nuns at school.

At the same time, it did not feel right that I, still a young person, budding breasts and all, should have to work all the time, cleaning the house like my sister before me, clearing away after the others, weeding the garden, when all I wanted was to sit on the couch lost in my thoughts as the mournful voice of Paul Robeson filled my head.