IN MY FATHERS’ HOUSE
The narrator, Giles Burke, is 57. He is tall and trim, with the build that speaks of a life spent working with his hands and doing a lot of shovelling. He has fine features, which bespeak his genetic heritage. He is a zoo-keeper. And single.
“I was at the hospital this morning. Seeing my brother. Probably for the last time. They keep talking about recovery, but I don’t see it. I see a man who had turned yellow, then orange, now almost brown. Pancreatic cancer – same as our father. They say it’s mainly drunks, which makes it a bit unfair, as neither Father nor Fred had been drinkers. I’ve watched a lot of creatures die over the years, some of them human, and I don’t give Fred more than 36 hours. Sad to see him there, clinging on to something probably no longer worth having.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t like the man. Never did. He was a bully from childhood. He inherited that from our father. And tantrums from our mother. Priggishness he seems to have invented all for himself, which goes to show that it’s not all nurture. What little nurture there was.
It’s hard to know why I bothered to go there, really. Duty, I suppose. They always stay in touch, sometimes turn up here unannounced – I don’t do dinner parties – usually with some sort of family news which, generally, I instantly forget. Funerals, weddings, the occasional Christening, and on goes the suit, and we play happy families for the day. Or unhappy families. Delete as appropriate.
Grandpa got me those suits when I left home. Well, a little bit later. When I was 21. I’d been working for five years by then, and he thought I wouldn’t need much space to grow into, which turned out to be right. That’s nearly forty years ago. Morning dress for weddings and Christenings, black tie and white tie for dinners, dark for vague occasions. I told him I wouldn’t need them, but he said Grandma was insisting, so I did as I was told. I didn’t mind being told what to do by them. They all still fit. Rather proud of that. It helps that they haven’t had much wear and tear over the years.
The biggest pressure has been Christenings – Fred and Nathalie have had five, all daughters. And that’s the problem. I asked Fred once why they’d given up at five. He said “we’re just tired of it, it’s hard work – not that you’d know what it’s like to raise children”. I could have asked him what he knew about saving endangered species from extinction, but it wouldn’t have been worth it. Still, at least they put the work in – their girls are spick and span and educated and polite and the first three have been married off most profitably. I must confess, I’m not a religious person, but I did pray the last couple of times that they’d have a boy. No such luck.
My parents – well, my mother, my father was too spineless to have a plan about anything – chose the traditional route – she had the heir and the spare, and then got on with enjoying herself. I was the spare. My brother’s typically useless inability to have a son makes me the heir as well. As of tomorrow – probably by lunchtime – I shall have 26,000 acres of the Dorset countryside, a 70-room house, and a pointless title, to my name. I shall be number nine. I had very much hoped not to count at all.
It’s not that it was an unhappy childhood; just that I seemed to be rather irrelevant to it. Or at least, irrelevant to my parents, and a nuisance to Fred. My father lived in his own father’s shadow and didn’t really have a clue about anything. We even lived in a wing of the house, rather than hefting out to a house of our own. I can only see that as a mistake now, but at the time it was wonderful to spend time with my grandparents who were superb people. Grandma was big and blowsy, and hugged a lot, and was always in favour of just about anything you were doing, apart from bad words and getting too dirty. Grandpa loved the land. He really did. He didn’t just inherit his estate, he lived and walked it. Every morning he went out at six with his dogs and this slightly sleepy but keen grandson, and we’d see things. Foxes and badgers and rabbits and hares and deer, and all manner of birds. He told me all their names. And gradually we’d meet the estate workers, and he’d tell me their names too. He really knew it all. His own father was one of those chaps who is a distant cousin who inherits. I think he was a banker or something first. He just loved the money. Grandpa loved the land. And he made it pay, too. He used to go up to London for the Lords because he said it was his duty, but when they chucked him, and the rest of them, out, he said it was a relief. I don’t think he went to London again except for funerals. He thought memorial services were silly. “If they’ve already forgotten me, then they won’t want reminding, and if they haven’t, they won’t need reminding”.
My parents were very different. Father was nervy and anxious. You’d never think he could stomach the anxiety of the races, but he was off to the races every few days at least. He never seems to have won any money which makes me wonder if he was actually following the form on the course or the form of the fillies he was hob-nobbing with off the course. Very occasionally he would bring one home for dinner, and my grandparents would have to endure that very politely. Mother would not have endured it politely, but by that time in the evening she was usually too drunk to be on show. “I’m sorry to say Lady Bransome is unwell, and has retired early”, Grandma would say, to some fresh-faced young bimbette. And Father would ask the butler to make a guest room ready. He tended not to linger over the port on those nights.
Mother was one of three daughters. “We are the end of the line” she used to say when they were gathered together. There was no son, no male cousin, no one. Her father sold up and divided everything equally. She was the eldest, and resented that bitterly – “I should at least have got the house” - so they weren’t gathered together often. She was a very pretty woman, there’s no denying that, and handsome to her dying day, albeit with increasing artifice as the years passed. I imagine my father must have been handsome, although in the photographs he just looks gormless. From her point of view, leaping from a dying dynasty to a more upmarket one must have made a sort of sense – her father was an earl, my grandpa a marquess, a grade up. She was a terrible snob in a way that someone of her breeding ought not to have been. For a time, they were the glittering couple, invited to everything, then she settled down to being the brood mare, produced us, and had to stomach my grandparents for mealtimes every day. Grandma tried to be nice to everyone. Grandpa struggled with that. Mother was nearly always late down to breakfast, but oddly well-informed about the world if Grandpa was having a Lords day in London. She had a radio by her bed and I think she listened to the news. He liked it when she had a fight with him about the issues of the day, but she gave up too quickly for his sport. “Well, Freddy, I’m sure you’re right”, she’d say, “but now I must take my leave”, and she’d take her little dogs for a walk. Poms, I think. Irritating little creatures. Of course, it wasn’t the walk she was interested in. There were lots of young men working on the estate.
My parents were as bad as each other. Having done her duty providing the heir and the spare, Mother’s eye wandered elsewhere. Oh, there’s a limerick in there! One of the more dramatic incidents of my childhood occurred when I was about eight or nine and was collecting hedgehogs. I thought they were very nice, and I was establishing a little zoo in a couple of the second floor rooms of the house. Quiet rooms, which no one ever used any more. Then there was a cascading scream one summer afternoon. Mother was usually sotto voce, but my heavens, she could yell if she wanted. The bad words count was enough to send my Grandma for her smelling salts. And the persistent theme was my name. I rushed upstairs to find her half naked, with one of the stableboys, even more naked, in a state of shock and horror in the doorway of my trainee zoo. “They’re only hedgehogs” I said. “I don’t care what the **** they ****ing well are, get them out of my ****ing house”. And just as I started to scoop them up, and they moved along to another doorway, she said “and put our clothes outside this door – or have you got lions in here to amuse us?”
She was drunk, of course. She always was. She was really a very clever woman, but just bored by it all, and couldn’t find anything other than sex to amuse her, and drink to anaesthetise her. She thought her husband was an idiot, which was about right, and her sons tedious – that was Fred – or potty – that was me.
The worst days were when she wasn’t drunk enough. Father would come home from the races, and the rowing would start. She would usually behave at dinner, but after, it was awful. Screaming up and down the corridors, and yes, it was their wing of the house, but I’m sure my grandparents could hear every foul-mouthed tirade. Father’s response was to neck the brandy in return, and he couldn’t take his liquor at all. It actually used to make me shake. I can’t explain why. I don’t think I loved them, I don’t think they loved me. But I wanted to be somewhere else.
And that’s how I fell in with Uncle Ollie. He was my father’s brother, and he had rooms in the other wing. He saw me once, unable to move, listening and wanting not to hear, and he said “come along old chap, let’s get away from all this and leave them to it, just grown-ups being silly”. And moments later I was on his sofa drinking port. I loved port. I still do. Uncle Ollie was a bit of a hero for me. Very unlike Father, he was bold and colourful and outrageous. He didn’t mind making a fool of himself, wasn’t remotely prim, and Grandma indulged his occasional bad word over the dining table, with a look that was more a smile than a frown. He rode majestically. Father only rode because he thought it was expected of him, Uncle Ollie rode because he wanted to win. He was the first person I told when I decided I wouldn’t go fox-hunting any more. He said “Your choice old man, better to die with principles than regrets”.
He used to take me out riding early in the mornings, no foxes involved, and one morning he said “you’re a sweaty sausage, come and have a proper shower”. How he’d had a shower fitted into his apartments in that barbaric building, I never did find out, but there it was. And jolly good it was too. And then Uncle Ollie joined me in it. I wasn’t expecting that. And one thing led to another. Teenage boys are so bursting for attention I suppose they’ll take it anywhere. We were both late for breakfast that morning.
He was never violent or forceful, or even unkind. Quite the opposite. I knew it wasn’t really what I wanted, but, as he was fond of saying “any port in a storm” – usually whilst uncorking a bottle of port to seduce his entirely willing victim.
But it all had to end. I hated school, I hated my parents, I was sixteen and I realised I was free. I loved animals, and I had hatched a plan. I wasn’t going to tell them, but inadvertently, it was Grandma who let the cat out of the bag at luncheon one day that summer. “What are you going to study for your a-levels, Giles?” “I’m not going back to school, Grandma”. Shocked silence. Then Grandma said “So, are you doing “work-experience” or whatever they call it?” “Yes, I’m going to be a zoo-keeper, and there’s a good chance I’ll get a full-time job when the placement is over”. My parents’ faces by this time were a picture. Father was going puce with a rage he’d never learnt to express in front of his own father, and Mother was slowly emerging from an alcoholic stupor and realising that something odd was happening. Then Father said “don’t be so bloody silly, you’re going back to school, doing your A-levels and going to university like everyone else”. “No, Father, I’m not. I have the placement fixed at London Zoo, they are expecting me, and I am not going back to school ever”. “And where the bloody hell are you going to live?” I’ve got a bedsit. “Well, you won’t be able to afford that for long in London on zoo-keeper’s wages – and don’t think you’ll get any more allowance from me”. It went quiet for a moment, and then Grandpa said, very loudly, “You can have an allowance from me, then – it’s about time someone in this family had the gumption to do what he really wants!” Then he turned to the butler – “Knights, some champagne please, two bottles”.
I thought Father would have a stroke on the spot. Mother said to him “Hugo, darling, don’t fret, it’s just a phase, let him get over it”. Grandma said “Well, how nice to know what you want to do at such a young age. I had no idea at all what I wanted to do, and then your Grandpa swept me off my feet and the rest is history!”. The wine arrived and Grandpa stood up and proposed a toast to me and my future, and Uncle Ollie, who had been chortling into his napkin the whole while, seconded it. Father, slowly, and with great reluctance, stood up too. Mother joined in, but then made a face when she realised it wasn’t a Martini.
Uncle Ollie drove me to London. I didn’t have a lot of luggage, mainly animal books. I told him on the way that we weren’t going to do again what we’d done before, and he said “OK, old man, time to move on. But be careful in the big city, will you? There are worse people than me out there.” And so I started my new life.
Grandpa fell ill soon after that. Smoking and drinking didn’t exactly help, and he had another heart attack soon after the first. Grandma tried her best to improve him, but he was not a man for taking instruction. He limped along for six more years. Uncle Ollie paid for me to have driving lessons – he said it was no use going out with him in his car, as he should have been banned years ago. I passed first time, and my grandparents gave me a car, and insured it – I had no idea that’s the expensive thing, at the time – and it meant I could drive down and see them for the afternoon and still get back in time for the evening shift. I hardly saw my parents then. Clothed or otherwise. They were happy days.
Then Grandpa died. He was minding his own business in his library. He wasn’t found for hours, which shows how keen they all were on reading. Fred and I both read lessons at the funeral. Father just looked ashen the whole time. Mother bustled about the house. I made the mistake of asking Grandma what she was doing – “Measuring up, dear”, she replied, which was about as caustic as she ever got.
So the new reign began and it was an utter disaster. Father had read English at Cambridge, and knew nothing about farms. Worse, he didn’t trust those who did. Venture after venture failed. He wanted a fast buck – to squander on the horses – and instead the estate got a slow death. He had to sell 9,000 acres – twelve farms. They were the farms that Grandpa had bought when he sold up his Scottish estate. “Ghastly place, all scowls and midges, don’t go there”, he used to say whenever anyone mentioned Scotland. I did go there once; he was right. “You see”, said Father, “Your Grandpa didn’t get everything right”. He didn’t start a llama farm, either. My father was a prize chump. Everything he set his hand to turned to slurry under it. Then he got ill. And iller. He was only sixty. Same disease as Fred.
In a rare burst of sympathy, or empathy, Fred called me and asked if I could meet him at the hospital one afternoon. I met him in the car-park. “He’s not at all well”, he said. We went in. Rarely has English statement been used so under. “Fred, he’s dying”. “Oh Christ. I’d better call Mother”. “No, don’t do that, she’ll be pissed by now, there’s no point”. “She’s his fucking wife!” “And everyone else’s. There’s nothing to be gained from having her here.” I shouldn’t really have said that, and at least he gave me a look, one of those old Elder Brother looks. But he shut up about it. It only took about half an hour. We held his hands. No idea why. Not sure if we even did it as children. I let Fred have the right hand – after all, he was the heir, and I, the spare, had the left. A gasp, a cough, a croak, and it was over. I asked the nurse if the irritating noise from the monitor meant what I thought it did. It did. So, I covered his face with the sheet. Then dismantled Fred’s hand from his, took him out of the room, took his hand, and said “congratulations, you are now the eighth Marquess of Dorchester”. He broke down in tears. It may sound callous, but I really can’t understand why.
I put up with that for a while, but there was Mother to deal with, and Grandma. Fred said “but what about my car?” “I think you can afford the overnight parking and get it collected tomorrow”. What I was really thinking about was whether you tell a dead man’s wife, or his mother, first. Protocol, rules, orders of precedence, it’s bred into you. I decided we’d stop at the Dower House. Grandma had the advantage of not being drunk. Her housekeeper led the way, she didn’t need to, but she sensed “occasion”. Grandma looked up from the television – I thought grandmothers did embroidery in their widowhood – switched it off and, guessing, rightly, said “Oh my dears.” And then “How has your mother taken the news?” “We haven’t tackled that one yet”. “Oh but you must, widows before dowagers. Off with you both, right now.”
Mother seemed to take it very calmly, but then she’d taken about half a dozen Martinis equally calmly since lunchtime. I drove home. I had work to do.
It was high summer, so the next morning I was up at four, and got everything in order early. I met the Boss out on his morning walk with his dogs and his parrot, and told him what had happened. “Giles, take all the time you need, we can cope without you, we won’t cope well, but we won’t mess anything up, I promise”. Funny old stick, he is.
So, I motored back down there in time for breakfast. I had a roaring appetite, and I could sense that Fred thought it wrong to be eating at all with Father dead. Well, if we all behaved like that, we’d all be dead, wouldn’t we? Grandma was there. She said “we must ask the vicar about a funeral. And the crypt”. Grandpa had shown us the crypt once when we were boys – a dusty collection of old coffins belonging to the people who had given us life and fortune.
Then Mother arrived – unusually early for her, but, as ever, immaculate. “Giles, darling, what a pleasant surprise – and you in a suit too! I thought you’d be in your zoo-keeper’s overalls.” “Knights, would you sort out the car, I want to visit the hospital”. “Fred and I have some business to attend to today.” “Have you really? How frightfully important”. “We need to register Father’s death”. Then she went quiet for a moment and said “Knights, don’t bother with the car, it won’t be needed”. They had been married nearly thirty years; and people wonder why I never have been. She’d forgotten.
Then she said “Knights, I think I need to be alone for a while in the drawing room, would you prepare it for me?” This meant, mix her first Martini of the day – after all, it was nearly nine by then. And off she went.
Then Grandma said “Oh, my dears, I’ve just thought about it – the vicar is a lady, and your father didn’t approve of that”. Grandpa used to appoint almost anyone he thought would annoy the local people. In her case, he signally failed, and was, oddly, very proud to have done so. Father was more narrow in his preferences. Fred said “What about cousin Tim, he’s a canon of somewhere, Mother would like that”. “He didn’t know your father from Adam”. “Well, who then?” Grandma said, “Giles, didn’t you say your employer used to be a parson? I’m sure I’ve seen him on the telly, he looks very respectable”. I said I would ask.
So, we divided our tasks, and I came home to my work. I think the Boss was a little disappointed not to be allowed free rein for longer. He said, “bugger, you’ve just blown my excuse for not being in London tomorrow!”
And now it is Fred’s turn. Of course, Nathalie will play the weeping widow, next-of-kin, in charge. A good choice for Fred. Not well-born, of farming stock, but her father and her uncle had made a go of a huge farm in East Anglia. They had done well for themselves and their children, they knew the land, the crops, the stock. She had turned the estate round from a liability to a going concern.
And then she turned up. She must virtually have followed me back from the hospital. Nathalie, I mean. I was thinking things through with a beer by the fire. Or was I thinking? I’m not sure what I was doing. Anyway, knock, knock, knock, and there was my sister-in-law.
“Giles, I know you’ve seen Fred”.
“Well, it’s a free country, and he is my only brother, I’ve done it several times”.
“You know he isn’t well?”
“I know he is dying”
“He’s not an animal in your zoo, Giles”
“More’s the pity. We’d not have let him suffer so long”.
“I’m not going to beat about the bush, Giles, there are decisions to be made – I know it all falls to you, please think about the girls, it’s what Fred would have wanted”.
Curiously, Fred had often made his opinions known about my life and decisions over the years, but that wasn’t one of them.
“Because it’s their birthright”.
“No it’s not, they’re girls. It’s MY birthright. If you want to swan about being Lady Dorchester, you have to play by the rules, and the rules say, Girls Don’t Count”.
Even as I said it I knew it was wrong. I knew she had some real feeling for Fred. This wasn’t the time to play games. But if only she hadn’t come over, I’d have had more sympathy.
“But what are you going to do with it?”
“For myself, nothing, not interested, not bothered. Cousin Piers can have the house, and he’ll need the estate to pay for it. He’s a stuck up arse, but if he has to be a Marquess, he might as well look the part – and he’s got a son”.
“And what about the girls?”
“They’re well out of it, Nathalie, let them free, free of names and titles and honours and duties and responsibilities and a whole load of crap that none of us ever asked for”.
“What about the money?”
“There is no money! You’ve been salting it away for years! I’ve read the accounts. Let them have that, no strings attached”.
“It’s 26,000 acres, Giles”.
“Have you taught any of them how to farm? No, I thought not – I shall recommend that Piers makes you his land-agent and you can carry on as before”.
“You mean you’re not even moving in?”
“To that bloody mausoleum? You must be mad”.
“But what shall I do?”
“Mother moved into the Dower House, so that’s free. And Piers will need vacant possession – not that anything you do is vacant, and you are always self-possessed”. I was rather proud of that line.
“Anyway, don’t you have a dying husband to attend to?”
She headed for the door. Then she turned and said,
“Are you happy, Giles?”
As I closed it after her – she was only a farmer’s daughter, but a peeress to her fingertips, wouldn’t think to shut it herself – I thought, well, yes, perhaps I am.