Mike’s Early Years


As it won’t surprise anyone who knew Mike, he was an impossible act to follow, which was my fate for my first 20 or so years, always in my mind, following him, being his younger sister by 3 years.  And it won’t surprise anyone who knew him that, as a child, he was exceptionally precocious. He was too clever to go to an ordinary school so he was sent to a special primary school for advanced children and he was undoubtedly the youngest student in his year when he came to high school where he thrived in every way: a leading actor, musician, comedian, quarterback and undisputed choice as valedictorian. At the time, much to my amazement (as his sister, I was well acquainted with his darker side), he always attracted the most beautiful and the cleverest girls.  I was always known as ‘Mike’s sister’.

I had to share a room with Mike until I was about 7 and it was tough going. When Mike was about 6 (I would have been 3), he became obsessed with Moby-Dick and my parents decorated our room in a Moby-Dick theme, with Moby-Dick curtains, bedspreads and I think we even had Moby-Dick pyjamas. Mike’s side was red and mine (near the door) was blue and my side got smaller and smaller as Mike’s expanded. Mike managed to convince my Dad to read us Moby-Dick as our bedtime story, a reading that took well over a year, if not longer (Mike would remember the exact dates). I used to fall asleep long before the end of each chapter while Mike savoured every single sentence. Years later, when I was required to read the book at university, only the first few lines of each chapter were familiar to me. Every morning Mike and I would play Moby-Dick; he was always Captain Ahab and I was the crew and, as it’s easy to imagine, the crew’s predictable incompetence was always a major source of frustration for Captain Ahab. I didn’t really understand the game then, but it persisted for years, until we had our own rooms.

In hindsight, I think we started on Moby-Dick at a time that we were told we were adopted, a dark secret that Mike and I shared throughout our lives. It was a secret that simultaneously bound us together and kept us apart and something which I trained myself to forget and which Mike always remembered. Mike had an amazing memory for every detail of our lives and he criticised me for wilful forgetfulness – his way was always to remember and I can imagine him correcting me now, with exact dates and details. Mike is (and I’ll never say ‘was’) unforgettable and he would never forgive me if I didn’t conclude with those lines, even though he would wince at such an inevitable cliché, that speak so much to Mike, in so many ways.

Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.

Deborah Cartmell (February 2014)