Thursday, 31 December 2015

An Unexpected New Year

Tonight, which was New Year's Eve and I suppose is now technically New Year's Day, I walked back from the kind friends who'd wined and dined me and given me company. But I left before midnight, as one was ill, another tired, and I wanted just to check on the little dog I was meant to be looking after, that the lodger had returned and had let her into the garden for less festive functions. And I passed my parish church, here in Barton, which is an ugly barn of a thing. It's meant to resemble an ark, but only an aardvark would think it bijou enough to book a cabin. And the lights are never on. But they were tonight. Not for the "normal" Anglican congregation (I shall stifle my own giggle whilst the grown-ups amongst you pretend there is either such a thing, or you'd ever want to be part of one), but for a mainly African congregation of no denomination known to me, and quite possibly not to them. Other lights were on in my friend's house, so I knew the dog was OK. I returned, and sat at the back.

It was very loud. Everyone who spoke had a voice big enough to fill that church unaided, but they used the microphone all the same. I caught about one word in seven, which is what W H Auden says is all you need to follow an opera. The people at the front loudly told us what we were just about to agree with, and the pew-fodder equally loudly agreed. They liked allelluia, and prosperity, and mercy, and joy, and Amen. They were all for 2016 opening the floodgates - seemingly unaware that it's done that for many of our brothers and sisters in the north to rather devastating effect. It was naive, simplistic, hard to follow, shouty, and crass. But the people smiled and were nice.

Then there was a bit where it went quiet. I couldn't tell what was going on at the front, because we'd been told to stand up, so obviously, I didn't. I thought it was time for our own prayers, and there was a babble of noise. And I thought, OK, these guys are genuine, I'll send mine in on the back of theirs, whether they like it or not.

As I was leaving, a nice young man in an ill-advised suit (he should have gone with my sister) shook my hand and asked my name, and we got to talking about prayer and I said mine was for my husband to get a visa and come home. "But perhaps not all your friends here would be OK with that." He said "Who are we to judge? May God grant you your heart's desire in this year to come".


And Amen, to that.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
January 2016

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Life in Tension: I struggle with the idea of "good disagreement". I grew up in a world which was much more binary than this. If you won the argument, you were right, if you lost it, you were wrong. And then you all shut up. That maybe is a masculine, and perhaps schoolboy, way of looking at the world. But we're in this discussion because we're thinking about the hows and the whys of the way we think about things, and how and where we start that thinking is a big part of it.
I grew up blissfully without religion. If I'd been born straight, my life might have remained that way. But that God who loves us unconditionally, well, I really liked that God. My family had told me that the way I was was unconditionally bad. Jesus seemed to say I could be loved, and might not be bad at all. No one taught me this - I read the New Testament in the sixth form. On my own.
My father could have stomached my religion if it didn't come with being gay. But for me, the thing about being loved by God was that it freed me up to have a go at loving other people too. I wasn't a great chooser. But God stuck by me.
And then there was the long slow, dreary, battle for ordination, and the fact of it, and the joy of ministry, mainly to people who had no idea what my sexuality was, and couldn't care less, and why should it have even mattered?
And now? I've done the research, read countless commentaries, I know where I am. I am a gay man, and married to another. The C of E can't cope with this. I'd say "that's their problem" but actually if it weren't, it would solve a huge problem for me.
If you tell me I'm a sinner, disordered, confused, I sha'n't listen to you. I've read all that stuff. And you don't tell the truth about love.
If you tell me I must respect the views of those who think my marriage is wrong, perverted, a freak of nature, a mistake, I sha'n't listen to you. You're not listening to the truth about love.
If, however, you will go to the altar with me, to Holy Communion, then I shall go with you, no matter the view you hold about me and my kind. Because in that pilgrimage we will both risk becoming bigger and better people than we were at the outset, because we go to engage at the deepest level with what it means for us mere human beings to be made in the image and likeness of God. The God who is love.
Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
December 2015

Sunday, 6 December 2015

You & Non-You: On Being A Public Minister Of Religion


Despite appearances, these thoughts have nothing to do with Nancy Mitford’s mischievous categorisation of Upper and Non-Upper class vocabulary and manners. It is about distinctions, but not about separating people into tribes.

When we feel the call to ministry, perhaps to ordination, to readership, to be a churchwarden, or to serve at the altar, or to read the lessons, or arrange the flowers, something we are sure that God wants us to do, and we will do for God, even if at the time we’re not sure we really have the appropriate skills and personal qualities, well, that’s “all about me”. You can’t help feeling it that way. A vocation within the life of the church is akin to the vocation to be married – it matters very much who you are, because that determines what you have to offer, and why you are wanted.

Most us start out with a strong sense that we are “called to serve”, and then the church starts to harp on about leadership and power and a whole lot of things we weren’t expecting. But they are fair questions – if we stand up to lead worship, to preach, to teach, even to read lessons, in the name of the wider community of faith, then we are leaders, even if only (at first) at the time we’re actually doing it. And there is power in that. The power to enrich the faith of our brothers and sisters, or the power to be a stumbling block and trip them up. We might all want to be “servants of the Servant King”, but there’s no questioning the power that Jesus exercised in his ministry. And he expected his disciples to use that power too. He even gave one of them the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven. Have you ever had a door slammed in your face? Have you ever had a door opened to you unexpectedly, and been welcomed in? The power of the keys is a lot of power.

You probably don’t want it any more than Peter did, but you don’t have an option.

We arrive at ministry, whatever kind it is, with our gifts, ready to serve. And one of the first things we start to experience is sacrifice. When I was on a placement from vicar school I went to talk to the vicar of a neighbouring parish (he was also a psychotherapist) about an article he’d written about the clergy wearing black. He said, “It’s a sign and symbol of the death of the self”. He didn’t mean that we have to throw out all those marvellous gifts we arrived with. But the death of selfishness. When you are leading worship, preaching, it’s no longer all about you. One of the sacrifices of leading worship is that you don’t actually get to do much worshipping yourself – how can you? You have to make things work out OK. They’re all singing the hymn, but you’re wondering where the next lesson-reader has got to.

And there are other subtler, and perhaps stranger, sacrifices. God calls a lot of intraverts to ministry. That means being hauled way out of your comfort zone. After a morning service, especially if you have to preach, you’ll be exhausted. Those with no understanding will say (or at least think) “but you only said words”. That person in the pulpit isn’t really you, but it is the person you’ve been called to become, at least for the time being.

And this is where it gets mysterious. Because the permission to serve in these special ways brings with it the grace of being able to do it. We can find ourselves becoming eloquent when we’d normally be tongue-tied; confident when we feel timid; inspired to words – or to silence – in a pastoral situation, that are just right. These things are given because of what we’ve sacrificed. You could say we’ve let the Holy Spirit in. So maybe my words were wrong – “Non-You”. It is you, but more than you.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
Advent, 2015

Saturday, 7 November 2015


Having spare time on my hands, I went into the Cathedral at Christ Church on Friday morning. Crossing Tom Quad (having been challenged on the gate - "who are you going to see?" "God") - it would have been impossible to miss the small field of poppies that had grown on the lawn nearest the Cathedral doorway. On closer inspection, they proved to be identical (in style, apparently all are hand-made and unique) to the one I bought from the Tower of London memorial last year, that marked the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War. A question to ask, but the nearest custodian suddenly felt the need to pursue a naughty tourist for straying off the track, so I went into the House of God and kept my question.

A few years ago - its website no longer says when - the College and Cathedral dedicated a new chapel to the memory of George Bell, Bishop of Chichester (1883-1958). He was a friend of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and had condemned the saturation bombings of German cities by the RAF as war crimes. Some say it cost him the chance of being Archbishop of Canterbury. The Queen honoured it with a huge slab of a tree from Windsor Great Park, which was carved out into a crude altar. There's a stone on the floor recording his name and offices. But on Friday there was no board explaining who he was, or why there was a chapel remembering him; it had gone. In fact, you could easily pass it by just thinking it was a rather modern sort of attempt at an altar, and move on. That was another thing to ask.

In the cathedral they knew the answer about Bishop Bell. He has lately been publicly accused, nearly sixty years after his death, of child-abuse. The present Bishop of Chichester has issued an apology (whatever that might mean). So, our Christ Church saint has become a sinner, and although he keeps his chapel, for the time being, we are not having our attention drawn to it. The man at the door said "he did great things; that he did bad things too didn't cancel them out". Perhaps I had met someone who understood that there is light and shade in all of us, and the darkness does not overcome the light? Maybe that is too sentimental. Or too theological.

About the poppies, the kind people in the cathedral couldn't help, but a new custodian in Tom Quad could. He said they were indeed from the Tower of London, and were there to remember the 239 war dead recalled on our memorials in the entrance to the cathedral. I rather liked that. I bought mine in part because of my Grandad's eldest brother, Uncle Harry, who died in Australia, on active service, but of the Spanish 'flu' in 1919. It seemed fitting and right.

But Uncle Harry had no intention of coming back to this country, the one he'd supposedly fought for. He'd made arrangements for his wife and daughter to come and join him for a new and better life in Australia. In the 1990s, the daughter he'd never known, my formidable Cousin Doris, took him up on that, and emigrated. He didn't join up to serve King and Country. He did it because his mother had just died, his family was falling apart, and there was an evil stepmother moving in. Joining the Navy was infinitely preferable to life in South London back then. It might still be.

How much truth can we tell? How much are we allowed to remember?

Though I knew neither, I remember them, for the good things they did, with gladness.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
November 2015

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

End of An Era

End Of An Era

“How do you feel about moving into the Dower House?” The one ambition that fired me throughout my childhood was the possibility of moving away from Shelford, the village in which I was born, and getting a life of my own, far, far, away from anyone I was related to by blood or accident (in my family quite a few were both). And now my husband of five years was suggesting that we make our home together in that very place. Admittedly, it was to be on his newly-late father’s farm, and in a house just vacated by his brother and his family, and before that lived in by Tommy’s grandparents. It was decidedly a cut above my mother’s hovel on the other side of the village. You could see it from their attic room in the main house, First & Last, they called it – the Playroom – and you could have got her house, her neighbours’ and a couple of gardens in that one room, too.

But it wasn’t about size, it was about closeness. I’d never been close to my family. It must have started fairly intimate with my mother at first, but after actually giving birth, she and I drifted apart. She compounded the evil by having my brother, Dave, a couple of years later. Then she threw our father out, found another bloke (not necessarily in that order) and had five more. I truly couldn’t stand any of them. Dave doesn’t even know how to wash – even now, unless he’s found himself a girlfriend. Nothing had given me greater pleasure than taking a bedsit in Oxford when I was training to be an accountant. It worried Mum a lot, as she’d lost her child benefit when I left school, and she’d grown dependent on my weekly “wages”. It was tight, incredibly tight, but I managed, and I was free. Free of them.

I’ve often wondered where ambition comes from. It strikes me that one of the reasons why the poor remain poor is other poor people determined to keep them that way. My Dad said “people like us don’t become accountants”, when I told him school had fixed my work experience with a firm in town. That determined me. But earlier, it had been a schoolteacher who first suggested it, because I was good at numbers. Ironically, that might be down to my Dad. He was a chancer and a spiv. He did people’s gardens, but mainly with a view to eyeing up the contents of their houses. He was a poacher, too. He knew a lot about making business decisions in a hurry, adding up the sums, and deciding if the deal was going to make a profit. He taught me that. I’ve spent my life teaching it to other – much more innocent and honourable – traders.

But even in primary school, I overheard one of the mothers saying “looks like there’s no ironing done in that household”, and several of them cackling with laughter. I was about eight, I suppose. I knew there was an iron, but it only appeared for special occasions. I found it, worked out how to use it, and from then on, my school shirts and trousers were ironed. I got up early to do it, because if the ironing board was still up when Mum came down to superintend the chimps’ tea party that was our breakfast, she’d start swearing at me. At the time, I wasn’t trying to “get on” because I didn’t know what there was to get on, nor where there was to go once you’d got on it. But I’d look nice when I got there. I’ve been that way ever since.

I’m very glad of my schooling. We were taught things in primary school – like manners and cleanliness – that didn’t happen at home. My teacher, Mr Halsey – yes a man, in primary, most unusual - was very insistent I should ask to go to the secondary school in Oxford, not the one in the other direction. I asked him why not and he said “because that’s where all the losers go”. And then he backtracked. Most of his class was going there. “But do try” he said. I ironed my shirt. I didn’t really know how else to try. And once I’d got in, I found other people who believed in me. This accountancy malarkey started with a Mrs Pritchard. I’d never heard of it, but she had, and she thought with my head for numbers, I could do it. And then there was Tommy. Odd to file him under “schooling”, but at that time in my life it was right. We were fifteen, and it was a pretty mind-blowing first love affair. He’s written about it in a memoir, not entirely honestly. He was neither so innocent, nor I so reticent, as he writes. Or at least, that’s my memory of it.

I knew how I was, and I didn’t much like it, but it was no one else’s affair than my own. Until Tommy came along. Mum used to say sometimes, switching key, without even realising it, from laughing her socks off at some camp comedian on the telly, and then “they’re poor things really, and I wouldn’t wish them any harm, not like Hitler, but I’m glad we don’t have any of that sort of thing in our family, it’s not natural”. She even said it one night, one of the very few that I was actually at home, that magical summer with Tommy, and I was bursting to say “it’s bloody well natural to me!” But what good would it have done? I suppose if I’d had a gay brother or sister, I might have said something for their sake. But if I did, I didn’t know, and at the time I didn’t care enough to find out. And did I? I still don’t know. Dave tried to tell me something once, but I shut him up. He’s on a register now. I mistook what he was trying to tell me.

Things had changed a lot by the time I met Tommy again. At secondary school, the accountancy business led to a “work experience” placement with a firm in Oxford. Under Mrs Benfield. She wasn’t the boss, but while I was there, she was my boss. I don’t know if she deliberately chose accounts that were wrong, or falsified them, or quite what, but she gave me things to read – just there and then, you know “can you spot it?” – and I found the errors, and given time, I found the right sum. And then she said, after we’d looked through one particularly interesting set of accounts, “now, Michael, what would you advise the client?” I was stumped. “I don’t know.” “Yes you do, you just need to think it out”. And Mrs Benfield was right, I did know, and if I thought it through, it came out, as sensible words. I shall never forget her. I think she fancied me. Obviously, it wasn’t reciprocated, and she never misbehaved, but it felt good to be admired, valued, appreciated, in those different ways – mind and skills and body. Is it going too far to say that is precisely what I’d never had at home? She made me change my A-level choices. I’d based them on the teachers I liked most and who gave me the best marks, but I’d had no plan. But she told me to choose maths, economics, business studies, and then I had to choose between history and physics. I chose physics. I thought I could probably teach myself history, but physics can get tricky. While I was choosing my next exams, the results for the ones I was doing came in. Mainly As. Two Bs. One C. The C was maths – that resolved me, I was doing the A-level in maths. Sounds perverse I know, but I don’t like to be beaten. She produced a bottle of Champagne at lunchtime – I’d arrived late, I told them I would, because I had to go into the school for the results first thing – but she’d had it in the fridge already. She believed in me. I got a bit drunk. No one minded.

And it went on from there. I decided against university, and all that loan debt, and went to be a trainee at another firm – Mrs Benfield’s didn’t offer them – and worked my way up. And now I had money coming in. I got a room of my own in town. Mum was appalled, until I told her I’d still give her some rent money. The child benefit dried up when I left school, and she financed her bingo habit out of that. She sobbed and made a fuss, but the cash consoled her. Dave and I fought over the car – he was at the car works, and we drove in and out together (which on a late night meant I had to sleep in the office so he could get back for his “tea”). Dave won.

A couple of years later I had enough saved that I could get a mortgage. It was a dream come true. I hadn’t liked sharing a house, but it was all I could afford. Now, I could afford my own place. And it had two bedrooms. I knew there’d be trouble, and I’d have got a one-bedroom house if I could, but I wanted a garden, and one-bedroomed houses don’t get built much. Dave took one look at it and said “you need a lodger!” He’d just been sacked from the car works. “It’s already let”, I lied. “Come on, first dibs for kith and kin?” “Not going back on my word”. The word that was a lie. The idea of sharing with him was horrible. Dave wasn’t very good at washing. We’d had to share a bed at Mum’s house for years, and getting away from him, from her, from all of them, was partly about finding and making a world that was clean and decent. That visit was the first and last time a member of my family got passed my front door.

Does it sound ridiculous to say that by the time I met Tommy again, I thought of myself as a “man of property”? I had a two-bedroom house in the roughest part of town, but an exquisite garden of lawn, and standard roses, and discipline. My taste then was probably what a kind person would call “un-tutored” and I would now call “naff”. But it was totally different from home. Funny how, years after you leave it, the house you grew up in remains “home”. My house had books in it, and paintings on the walls that were originals, not posters, or last year’s calendars.

That winter night, I’d paid Mum her wages, and tolerated her cooking, and got out as soon as I could. I said I had to meet a client in town. It was a bit daft stopping off at the village pub, so close, but I was gasping for something a bit sedative. The noise had been overwhelming. Voices, voices, and then behind the din, or on top of it, the telly. I’d had beer with them in the kitchen, and now I was having white wine. And then Tommy walked in. When our eyes met, I knew something was happening again. I knew he’d had a hard time – his Pae’s death had been in the local papers, which, being a local accountant, I read assiduously – but I hadn’t realise how hard. We bought drinks, and we chatted, and then he invited me back to First & Last. It made me catch my breath when he said the name. I’m convinced we’d have teamed up again come what may, but to be honest, one reason why I said Yes was because I really didn’t think I was fit to drive back to Oxford. And I couldn’t bear going back to Mum’s.

Then it all took off again. We met the next week in London – at his flat. I’ve never seen such a shit pit. Empty bottles, pizza boxes, cocaine marks on the coffee table. His sister – can you imagine it? - his millionaire city investor sister used to come round once a month to clean for him. But she was married now, and pregnant, and he was on his own. He’d been told to get a cleaner, but he bought cocaine instead. I did what I could. It should have put me off him, but it didn’t. He was a little boy who needed looking after, in a way I’d never been. I made him get a cleaner – once I’d cleaned up as much as I could myself. There are some things a cleaner doesn’t need to see.

Mostly, though, he was down at First & Last, looking after his father, reading to him, telling him jokes and stories and gossip, and telling him constantly to stop being ill because everyone was getting very bored of it. None more so than Matthew himself. That first “morning after” we met in the kitchen – Tommy was fast asleep, never an early riser – and the Old Man was making coffee, very slowly. “Oh, now, I know you, wait … M … Michael! Yes, Michael! You’ve come back! You see, it’s all in here, somewhere, I just need to get it un … un … locked. You’ve aged – no, that’s wrong, you’ve grown up, what a handsome fellow, lucky thing, I was never that!” And we chatted idly at the kitchen table with our coffee (not allowed at Mum’s in the morning, strictly tea only). “Would you be a dear? I need someone to talk sense into Tommy. If he doesn’t do this show in New York, I shall have a relapse and probably die. He must go.” “But he cares very much about you, Sir”. “You call me Matthew, that’s the rules, and yes he does, and that is very sweet. But he has things to do, and he must do them. There are others who can fret over me. I’d rather die knowing my son was an acclaimed actor than an accomplished nursemaid. That’s not any detriment to nurses, obviously, although actually Tommy’s not a very good one, although he does make me laugh until bits I didn’t know were broken start to ache”. “I’ll do my best”.

But I went one better. I went with him. Not for the whole run, but for Christmas. I went late on Christmas Eve. He was performing even then – and the next day, and for the whole week, not just the evening, but matinees as well. I was 26 and had never spent Christmas away from my family before. I had never left the country before. Never been in an aeroplane before. Mum made a scene. “I knew there was something wrong about you and that rich boy”. “There’s nothing wrong with it, we are …” here I paused “… lovers”. “And you’d give up your own family, at Christmas, for sodomy in the cess-pots of America?!” “Yes. I’ll be back in the New Year. Probably. With some money. Unless I’ve spent it all.” And I turned and stormed out. That was my scene.

I set off the next morning, indifferent to her offensiveness. I had learnt not to let my family affect me. The journey was exciting. It’s all rather logical, getting from here to there with papers this and that, it was pleasing. And then whoosh, up in the plane, and then you’ve minded your own business for a few hours, and down you pop, and so do your ears. They kept offering me drinks, so out of politeness, I accepted. I was right enough to collect my luggage, but definitely a few sheets to the wind. I went for a cab. I showed the driver the address I’d been given, and he said what I’m sure, in American, can only have been “swanky”. It was twilight, and then night-time, in New York, as the cab sped along the roads. And then didn’t speed so much! But I didn’t mind the jams. The views were amazing. All those lights, the huge buildings, the sense of a city growing out of water. This might have been a million miles from Shelford, never mind the few thousand it actually was. I adored it. And then he tipped me out, and I paid, and worked out what I thought was a reasonable tip in return, and he didn’t swear at me, so I assume I got that bit right. I’d read the guide books about tipping.

The block was imposing. Not new, but hard to judge the architecture in the dark. Thirty or more floors. I walked through the brightly-lit atrium to the desk of the “concierge” and said “I believe I am expected, a guest of Tommy Chapman da Silva?” A man of small height and Hispanic extraction said, “Mr Tommy! Of course you are, he told us this morning, come now, let me take your bags”. I was shown into a small lift, and up to the 19th floor. I didn’t need my bags carried, but it seems that’s what had to happen before the key would be handed over. Eventually, with some more dollar bills, it was, and there I was, in Manhattan, in New York.

The apartment was stunning. It had three double bedrooms, each equipped with two wide single beds, just like the children’s bedrooms had been at First & Last years ago. In one of them, there was a photo of Tommy and me, by the bed. I couldn’t place it at first, then I realised – maybe I was tireder than I knew from the flight – that it was from our first time together, a decade ago. We looked young and innocent. Perhaps not so very much younger than we did as I looked at it. Maybe more innocent. There was a note on the table in the main room: “M - gin and ice in freezer, milk in fridge, tea and Dubonnet and shaker in cupboard, order anything you like, back a bit after 11, love T”. Well, he was inviting me to make a little cocktail, so I did. “End of an Era”, the gin and dubonnet which Matthew contrived after the Queen Mother died, some years before either of us was born. It was very cold, but I opened the window anyway, and sampled my drink in the fast and furious air of a city that never sleeps. The lights, the cabs, the honking of horns, the madness of the people. It was too cold, so I retreated to the kitchen, the fridge, and another End of an Era, but then I continued watching this amazing city through the closed window. I’d never even been abroad before, and here I was in one of the most exciting cities in the world, twenty floors up, waiting for my lover, and getting drunk. I felt very happy.

Tommy was true to his word, and arrived just before 11.30 – by which time I’d started to nod off – it was gone 4 in English money – but he woke me up, and after the appropriate salutations, we got out of bed, and set out on the town.

We saw the sights – together, mainly at night, but in the daytimes I went alone to galleries and museums, and places of interest, down to Staten Island Ferry and up to the Cloisters and right up the Empire State Building. It was cold, and I had a map, but I walked about like a man who was entitled to be there, because I had a key. I discovered diners, and brunch. I loved it all.

When I came home, just into the New Year, I resolved to face the music with Mum, and bring her her wages – there was still a little money left after New York – and when the ordeal was done and I was driving away, it occurred to me to call on Matthew. He offered me dinner – which I’d already had (spam fritters) – and wouldn’t take no for an answer, so I had even more food – lamb cutlets in a casserole. He was a demon with a casserole, or any other kind of wet food. And he plied me with red wine to go with it. “I really mustn’t …” “Oh just stay the night, that’ll be no problem”. “Yes, stay” said Ingrid, his grand-daughter. So I told them both all about Tommy’s triumph on Broadway. Matthew had read all about it already, of course, but he didn’t let on, and I’d seen it actually happening. “Uncle Tommy is SO funny!” Ingrid squealed at one point, and I’d have to agree with her, he was, and is, and in this play, he was a comic genius. Ingrid was seven. Tommy would have had her writing reviews for The Times if he’d heard her.

When Matthew had shooed Ingrid upstairs to bed, he asked “and what about you two, was it OK being together in a foreign place?” I didn’t know where to begin. As I fumbled for words he said “you’re smiling, which makes me think you both had a good time!” “I loved New York, and Tommy was the perfect host”, I ventured. “You’re so coy! I bet you rutted like rabbits”. There was no answer to that, so instead I asked “is that apartment your own?” “Not now, but it used to be. It belongs to the Family Fund. I bought it a while back because I have a lot of business in America, some of which requires me to be there in person, and I cannot stand hotels”. “That’s pretty decadent!” “Yes, Mr Accountant, it is, and you can imagine the bollocking I got from my brokers for buying it. Dead money, they said. But isn’t it a charm when you can get off the plane, and just walk to a place that has your shirts in the cupboard, and your gin in the freezer?” “I have to admit, it was very comfortable indeed”.

“How serious are you and Tommy?” “I don’t really know Sir. I mean, we’ve not talked about it, we’ve just enjoyed it”. “Michael, don’t call me “sir”, it makes me feel SO old! But might it go somewhere, do you think? I wondered about you two ten years ago, and then it came to naught, but maybe things are different now?” “I’m less afraid of Tommy’s world now; that was the problem before, I couldn’t handle it”. “But he’s far more famous now, and has all sorts of characters snapping at his heels …?” “No, not Tommy’s world, YOUR world. That’s what I was overwhelmed by”. “Oh bugger”. “Yes, you said that before you took my hand to meet the king coming out of a helicopter! Not quite normal for a Shelford boy.” “You aren’t normal for a Shelford boy. You’re incredibly industrious. Tommy has told me a lot about you, about your job, your house, your looking after your mother, you’re a credit, and if you want to credit it to this village, you can, but I think you’re a credit to yourself”. “Thank you. I had a hunger to get on, to get away”. “I hope that hunger won’t stop you remaining friends with us?” “I wouldn’t let Tommy go again for the world. I know it’s a long shot, I know his world is not mine, and so many other people are after him, but I won’t let up on him”. “Fighting talk! But I think you’ll find he won’t let up on you either – he said before we went to America “don’t let Michael forget me” – so, whatever people say, his crippled old father wasn’t the only thing on his mind when he set off.” “You’re looking vastly better, Sir … Matthew …er” “You can’t actually call me that, as it happens” “How come?” “I’ve got a couple of knighthoods, but because I’m a priest, and a knighthood is a military thing, I can’t use the title – but you don’t need to know all this!” “Actually, it’s really interesting”. And I wasn’t grovelling, it really was interesting. And it’s been interesting ever since. He said “that’s the sort of old bollocks that used to fascinate me, centuries ago, when I was young!” I resolved to learn about it, and it’s become the sort of old bollocks that’s been surprising people at grand parties ever since.

Tommy came home shortly after Easter, and by then Matthew was very much on the mend. He’d gone back to his weekly article to America, and the House of Lords, and his club. Tommy and I had a sort of commuting relationship. He wasn’t always working, and then he tended to stay either in my house in Oxford, or in the luxury of First & Last. Otherwise, he was either on tour, or performing in London, and I’d come up to Clerkenwell at weekends. He had a lot of parties there. He had quite a few parties at First & Last. In fact, parties were a pretty big part of his life. Still are. I met all sorts of people. The advantage of his upbringing and background was that nothing daunted him from asking the biggest name to come for drinks. And he was getting through shedloads of coke. The money everyone else was paying for their digs, he was sending to Colombia.

This went on until two things happened. The first was a review which stung him badly. He’d always thought his bad habits didn’t affect his performance – and to be honest, I’d never noticed that they did – but this one said something about “we were snorting at every line …” And the inference was clear. Tommy wasn’t very good at being grown-up, he didn’t like criticism, and although he could take a bad review, he took this as personal, not professional. It made him quiet and glum for quite a while. Then he went up to the Edinburgh Festival, where, unfortunately, I couldn’t join him, as all my colleagues had children and were on school holidays, so I had to cover the whole office like a ghost town. I could have put my foot down, as I had clout these days – those parties of Tommy’s had paid off, I never went to one without a few business cards in my pocket, and rarely came home with the full set. My new clients positively excited my colleagues, not to mention the office staff. “Was that …?” “Yes, Cheryl, it was, don’t make a fuss”. “Isn’t he short!”. Who am I kidding? They excited me too!

There was a lull in Tommy’s work when he returned from Scotland, so he was spending it with me in Oxford after a September week’s holiday in Corfu. I’d suggested the Maldives, but he said he couldn’t afford it, which surprised me after a whole month of popular well-paid work; I just assumed there had been a lot of parties. One Friday night we went out for dinner, unbelievably, to a pizza restaurant, and towards the end of the meal, he got antsy. “What’s the matter?” “I’ve got something on my mind I need to talk to you about”. “Fire away.” “Well, you know Daddy is going to be 80 next year? There’s going to be a whole lot of fandango about that”. I nodded, wondering where this was going. “And in August on my birthday, I come into my inheritance, whatever that turns out to be”. I did know that, too, and was wondering what his next madness would be. “The thing is, before my birthday, while I’m still poor” (I loved the way he talked sometimes) “and way before everything gets overshadowed by Daddy’s fuss and bother, I wondered whether you’d be interested in possibly marrying me?”

I was taken aback. He raised his eyebrows for a reply. The best I could manage was “When?” “Whenever you like, assuming that “when” also means “yes””! “Of course, yes, totally yes, let’s be married, fantastic, wow, I don’t know what to say” “I love it when you’re lost for words” he said, and snogged me. Then he demanded Champagne from the waiter, although if my memory is right, he did it with his eyes, not words, which makes me wonder if he was already briefed. As we waited for the bottle, I said, idly scratching for words “so, do I get a ring?” “Oh yes! Funny you should mention that”. And out of his jacket pocket be brought a box and in the box was a ring with a diamond set in platinum. A big diamond. It was an unusual cut, a sort of oblong. I’d never worn a ring, and didn’t much want to. Until then. “Pae said he had to wait ten years for his diamond ring, so I thought I’d get right in there”. And it fitted. “How did you get the fit right?” “You know Grandad used to be a jeweller?” “No”. “Well, nor did I, but he was, and he had all the kit for sizing rings, and sizing fingers, and when he died, Daddy kept it, and when I asked him about it, he took me down to the cellar, and there it was in the toolbox”. “Yes, but how did you get my size?” “Oh, that! Yes, well, your hands are actually very like Daddy’s, certainly before the arthritis got him, so I figured what fit him would fit you, and he agreed.” “So, he knows all about this?” “A bit, yes – oh hang on, I know what you’re thinking – how did I pay for it! You are SO predictable! Actually, not a penny came from him, nor from my allowance, it’s my Edinburgh money. And not spending it on coke. So, that’s a coke ring”. Then we both sniggered, and drank our Champagne. “But I’ll have to get you a ring”. He made an alarmed face, “Oh no, not on your own, I’ll help you”. “You think I’ll screw it up?” “Of course, darling, leave taste to me”. In the end he made me choose a ring I didn’t think would suit him, but it delighted him because it had a sharp tip, with which he would carve our initials in the window of anyone who challenged him on whether it was really a diamond.

The engagement was announced without delay, and the wedding set for July (this was February) a month before his birthday in August. One day in June Michael asked me quietly if I’d care to have lunch with him in London at his club. As it happened, I had enough clients in London to make it a useful day, although I suggested a late lunch, as I didn’t imagine I’d be in a fit state to work afterwards. It was mid-week, so I assumed he had spent the morning in the Lords. I was hot-footing from a very talkative actor in Islington, and got there almost on the bell of 2 p.m. The nice lady on the door said he was waiting for me in the bar. How did she know who I was? “Hey there! Just in time, not the whole menu, but they’ll find something for us, and the wine’s decanted if you want something red”. So we trooped upstairs to the dining room, where the others were mainly finishing and bantering, and he had to stop several times to chat before we got to our private table. I rather liked being introduced as “this is my future son-in-law”.

We chatted idly over the meal, I doing my level best not to reveal who my morning’s clients had been, and he enjoying the guessing game, and then he ordered port (even though it was the middle of the day) and said “I’d like to proposition you”. “Not sure the father of the groom is meant to do that”. “You may not like my actual proposition, either. But here it is: as I see it, you two are a runner. These last few years I’ve very much liked your being part of our family, and I think there’s every chance you always will be. I like the way you’ve made your own way, and your own money, and you rely on no one”. “I rely on Tommy …” “I’m not being romantic! You’re self-sufficient, and I think, despite having no ostensible religion, you might be incorruptible. And that’s why I’d like you to consider becoming a trustee of the Family Fund.” Well, I wasn’t expecting that. “It’s not as big as you might imagine, but it does need an insider’s eye on deciding some of the settlements and grants, and whatnots, and I think you have that eye”.

And thus and so it was. We were married. Tommy became thirty. I argued his case on the Family Fund committee, and then left the room. They awarded him quarter of a million a year for life. I specified, and they endorsed, that it lived and died with him, I wanted nothing from it. Daft, of course, I benefitted enormously, especially as Tommy was a financial imbecile. Some years, he had no idea how much he had left over. I didn’t bother him with that. We bought a villa in the south of France.

And so it rolled it on, until the old man died. We were quite happy leading our commuting life between my house in Oxford and his flat in Clerkenwell. Sometimes he went on tour, sometimes he went overseas, sometimes he had no work and hung around either at my house or his father’s. Tommy needed company, so with me being out all day, it was a bit boring at my place, and there was always something going on at First & Last. We were there the night Matthew died. He’d made dinner for everyone, and seemed on good form. Then he crept off to his library, as he often did after dinner, to be alone, to read, to finish his gin, and there it was that Ingrid found him.

We coped on the night, especially Amanda (his brother Jos's wife) and I, the in-laws, but it’s hard to say what the feelings really were. My feelings. A bit of me wondered what slice of grief I was entitled to, as a son-in-law, and late to the family party. To his children it was a sort of inevitability. Obviously, every death is inevitable (eventually!) but he had been as they said themselves “an old man” when he adopted them (he was fifty), and he’d had his first hip replacement when they were children. Matthew’s manner diverted effortlessly between impishly wicked, and solemn old sage, but I think they regarded the old sage as somehow the real thing. Tommy was in pieces for a few days, but he steeled himself to speak at the funeral service the next week. He rehearsed endlessly, and on the day, was flawless. When he returned to his pew, next to me, I muttered “not a dry seat in the house”, and he smirked. He knew he’d done well.

And it was after all the obsequies that he dropped the bombshell of moving into the Dower House. It would be dishonest to say I’d never thought of it, but I’d imagined Marie and Justin might take it. I’d certainly never imagined living back in my home village again. The house was full of memories, family memories. I recalled being given beer there on a hot afternoon by Tommy’s grandmother, that crazy summer, with his grandfather scowling, either because we were too young, or because he knew what we were up to, or just because it was his beer. We’d been to many parties there with Jos and Amanda and their children after they moved in, when the Old Guard died. They’d changed it a bit, made it bigger, modernised the d├ęcor. It was decidedly a family home, but there was only Tommy and me. And Tommy’s macaw, Queenie. And his dog. He always had a dog. I can’t remember which one it was back then – usually a Jack Russell. But we bit the bullet, of course, and we moved in. And then we got the leftover dogs from First & Last, as Amanda couldn’t stand them.

I’d not told my family anything about all this. Mum got her weekly “wages” still, and for me it was pretty much a hit-and-run, I didn’t stay to chat. Obviously they knew Matthew had died and tried to draw me out on it (which meant, sniffing for money), but I was saying nothing. That was all the contact we had. Then one evening the door knocker went. It was two police officers. They checked who I was and then asked whether I would help them with an enquiry they were pursuing. I wondered if one of my clients had been caught fiddling his books, but no, they said it was a family matter. “You may wish your, er, husband to sit in with you, sir”. Tommy tried to ply them with drinks of various sorts, but they were having none of it – the nearest police station was miles away a long journey if you’re feeling waterlogged and urgent. “You can use our lavatory – heaven knows, you’ve arrested me in them enough times, I ought to return the favour”. “No charges brought, though, sir, were they?” Tommy was lost for words. “You’ve done your homework, officers.” “It’s the nature of the case. We had to look at, and for, everyone. To be honest we found it quite hard tracking you down. We want to know about Nigel Alfred Noakes, who was, I believe, your step-father”.

They asked questions, and my answers were ones of genuine innocence. I hated Nigel, but he’d never done me any sexual harm. A few lashings out, and a lot of bad words, but nothing sinister. Nor could I recollect anything worse happening to any member of my family. And there they let it rest, and it stayed rested. I didn’t raise it next time I was round at Mum’s. Nor did anyone else. I forgot about it.

Then one Friday night it was very different. As I walked in, they were all there, but smartly dressed, for them. I had no idea what the occasion was. As I put the envelope of cash down on the table Mum said “we’ve come back from court”. “For what? What have you done?” “It was your step-father. He’s been found guilty of interfering with children. Conny was a witness”. I looked at my half-sister. She nodded, and said “me, and all of us, but no one else would speak”. “And now it’s going to be all over the village!” shouted my mother. It transpired that Nasty Nigel had been thrown out of the house – inexplicably as I thought then – for being caught in the act with Melinda, my younger half-sister. My mother made nothing of it, fearing scandal. Some years later, he’d found another woman, with two daughters and a son, and helped himself to them too. But they spoke up, and then so did their mother. She kicked him out, shopped him to the police, and then aborted the child they would have had together. It had been hard to track our family because actually Mum wasn’t married to Nigel, and he’d never even been registered at our home. She been a “single adult” for tax purposes throughout the twelve or so years they were together.

"Drink, Mike?” said my brother Dave, pressing a glass of vodka into my hand as I sank into a kitchen chair. “All of you?” I looked at Dave. He looked at his hands. “Not you, then?” asked Mum. And no, he never had. And then I discovered why. He used to take the others out for “drives”. That’s how they convicted him – the girl from his new family and Conny both described his technique in identical detail. Mum had refused to let us – well, them – have anything to do with Nigel’s step-children, so Conny and the other girl couldn’t have contrived the story. Dave said “he asked you too, and you never went, I really wanted you to come, you could have stopped him”. Rubbish, of course, I couldn’t have done anything like that. But I always found something else I’d rather do. Nigel had money in his pocket, and spent it freely on all of us – and most of all on those who’d come for “drives”. I’d just assumed he hated me because I was nerdy and boffiny and not his son. I didn’t want his money anyway. I could go to my own father for that – and I only had to weed his allotment, or gut a few pheasants to earn it.

As I walked back home that night the thing that stuck in my mind was “why not me?” There were seven of us. Five boys, two girls. He interfered with all of us but me. Would I have ratted on him? If I had, would my mother have believed it? Did he think somehow dividing me up from Dave meant we wouldn’t talk? Well, he was right there. But he had invited me on those drives, and I’d refused to go. There was something very wrong about Nigel. And only now did I know what it was.

“Your poor mother!” said Tommy when I finally got in that night. “Oh yes, her main response was “now it will be all over the local papers and everyone will know”. Poor bloody thing.” He was only doing his best. He’d never had a mother, just two fathers, neither of whom had ever hurt him. On the contrary, they’d wanted the best for him, encouraged him, helped him on the way to becoming the person he wanted to be. My family was a sorry contrast.

It got worse. It was only a year later. I was in the kitchen – there was a stew doing its work, and I was just about to fry some halved quails in butter with spring onions and bacon and sherry and cream when there was that knock on the door. Tommy sprang up from his seat in the other room – you could always hear him springing up, because he nearly always knocked something – and then voices, and then whoever was there was being taken into the sitting room. At First & Last it was a drawing room. After a few moments, he popped his head round the door – “it’s your mother”. I was incandescent with rage. No one, not a single one, of my family had ever stepped inside our home. Even at my house in Oxford Dave had managed only one brief morning. They were not welcome, she was not welcome, and I was livid with Tommy for allowing it. “Well, she’s here now and having a little glass of sherry, and she seems rather upset”. Tommy was – is – impossibly soft-hearted. He’d never been able to understand my attitude to my family, but that’s because his family was broadly rather nice and kind. Even his eldest brother, Raf, who was the one everyone bitched about, was broadly nice and kind, and entirely presentable on social occasions. Tommy couldn’t get it that I’d moved on from my family, and that I resented them for trying to stop me. We had nothing, apart from DNA, in common.

I went into the sitting room. She was sitting there with a hankie in one hand and her sherry glass in the other. I wanted to walk back out. I stood behind an armchair and said “so, what’s up?” “We need your help Mike. It’s Dave, he’s in trouble”. “What now? Stealing cars, fencing stolen goods?” “No dear, worse, far worse. Like your step-father.” “Like Nigel?” “There’s only the one little girl, and what happened to him is in his favour, he just needs a good lawyer to get the case over”. “What girl?” Sobs now. “Oh Mike, his daughter”. “You want me to help get my brother a lawyer to get him off the hook for raping his own child?” “Think what would happen to him in prison, Mike”. “I am, and I’m thinking he’d deserve it”. “You can’t be like that, not about your own brother”. “Yes, I can.”

“We could afford ….” “Shut up Tommy – and show my mother out of the house, please”. I stormed back into the kitchen. The cream had curdled. I poured myself a “Daddy’s Gin” (Tommy’s father’s tipple) and sat at the table with my head in my hands and started to sob. Before he came into the room Tommy said “I do think you were a bit mean on your mother …. Oh, goodness”. And in blubs and flows it ebbed out of me, the fury and anger that these people had tried to keep me in the mire of their tiny, revolting, world, and now were trying to clasp me back into it, and I hated it, and I hated them. Poor Tommy hadn’t a clue how to deal with it, except with hugs and more gin, and then getting a cab and going out to dinner. I said in the cab “I’m sorry your father’s dead, I want our house exorcised now, and he could have done it”.

As it turned out, I did do my brother a bit of a favour. The police came to interview me again, and I mentioned what had happened to him. Somehow it hadn’t been made very graphic before, not enough to take seriously. Between the Nigel business and his own, Dave had said to me “I don’t know how you blokes do it for fun; when he did it to me, I bled for a week. I couldn’t go in the changing rooms at school.” It turned out that he wasn’t very happy with me for saying that about him – as it got into court, and therefore the papers that Mum feared so much – but it ended up counting as a mitigating factor. He had a therapy and community sentence. I would have been harsher. They say he’s cured now, but on a register. No one will employ him.

The routine continued, those excruciating weekly deliveries of money to my mother’s kitchen. Then she started to become frail. Sometimes she couldn’t come downstairs. It was an arthritic disease, plus a heart problem, so far as I could make out from my incoherent half-siblings. One Friday night they told me she’d have to go into a home. I was meant to say “I’ll pay”. I didn’t. It’s probably true that even between the six of them they weren’t up to looking after her. She was thrown on the mercy of the state.

And then there were telephone calls from Conny, saying she was getting worse. Declining. Near. She couldn’t say “ dying”. She died on the Tuesday. As usual I went round on the Friday with some cash. They were mostly there. “So, have you made the arrangements?” “We were waiting for you”. “You mean you’ve left our mother in the morgue all this time?” After I’d finished exploding at their incompetence (and having been given the now customary shovel of vodka by my brother Dave) we got to brass tacks. They wanted me to pay. I said only if they contributed. They said they had nothing. I said I didn’t believe them, but I’d treble what they could come up with. Then they asked if we’d have the wake in our house. I hit the roof. “Only once did that bloody woman come into my house when she was alive, and I’m damned if she’s coming into it in death.” Melinda burst into tears. Conny said “you’re hard, Mike, very hard”. And Alfie and Gavin just shook their simple heads as if they knew what was going on.

Walking home, still fuming I wanted to talk to someone. The trouble with Tommy’s family is that it was a good one, they all, despite everything, liked each other and wanted to remain friends. The only person I could think of was Justin, whose parents had been very chary about him going away to Oxford, and didn’t like it that he’d “married posh”. Justin and Marie – she was Tommy’s sister – lived at the other end of the village. A little to my surprise, Justin was giving dinner to Matthew’s old friend Will (Marie was in London, and their boys were at school), but both had time for a drink before. Annoyingly, they were both agreed that if I wanted shot of my family, I should just stump up now, and never again. It was beginning to feel like reason.

When I got home, Tommy was worse. “Can you believe what the bastards wanted?” I shouted, as I got through the door. “Don’t call them that.” He only said that because they were – if it was the Arts Council or the National Theatre, or anyone he was working with, they could all be bastards. “And there’s no reason why they shouldn’t come here for the wake”. “Are you out of your mind? We’ll lose everything that’s not screwed down, and the cellar will be emptied, and your parrot will probably be barbecued. You have no idea what barbarians these parasites are”. “It can’t be that bad …” “Yes, it is”. But I agreed to pay for the funeral.

On the morning I said to Tommy “I don’t want to go, I don’t see the point, I’ve paid, I’ve done my duty”. “You’re bloody going”. “Why?” “To pay your respects”. “I didn’t respect her!” “Then to be decent; anyway, shut up and get dressed”. Tommy looked dazzling in his darkest black suit and hat and tie. I made him take the armband off. He made a face. He loved funerals. I would ask him about it, and he’d say “they’re all about life, you silly arse!”. I never understood that. But he did look magnificent. They’d got the local vicar to take the service at the crematorium. They’d wanted a burial, and were sure I could pull strings to get one in the village churchyard – “Tommy’s father had connexions with that church, didn’t he?” – but I said no, it was full, how else could it have taken the bones of scum like them (us) for a thousand years. It wasn’t quite true, but I didn’t want a grave to remind me of a childhood best forgotten. I doubted Dave did, either. Not that I cared what he thought. Probably.

We survived the music, and the ghastly words from three of my siblings. The vicar made a decent job of it, but I’ll admit, I hadn’t helped. Unbeknown to me, Tommy had agreed to do a reading. It was Saint Paul, talking about love. When he wants to play it, Tommy can be a toff. And the proles loved it. And so did he.

There was the usual silliness about pretending to look at flowers afterwards. Tommy said to Conny – and I wondered how he knew who she was – “you could take them all back, you know, to the pub, and then put them in the garden, no one’s going to come and enjoy them here”. So that was decided on. My feet got itchy, but we had to wait for the cars – we had two limousines – Tommy said we must go on foot to the house, and then after, we’d be able to walk back from the pub. At the pub, we walked into Champagne. That took me aback. Proper Champagne, too, not Supermarket labels. And lots of it. I’d given them a budget, and I couldn’t believe this was within it, but, as Tommy said “not the time or place” so I didn’t argue it. There were many more people than I had expected. Dave said “she was the biggest gossip in the village – people would come and talk to her to stop her talking about them. Now they’re checking she’s dead”. Tommy was so charming to everyone I could have puked. The bastards, aunts, uncles, cousins, neighbours, the lot. That’s not to condemn him, it’s how he is, charm itself, he likes people. I don’t. He made it much easier than it might have been.

But eventually I couldn’t stand any more, and told him so, and I slunk away. He said his goodbyes to my entire family, one by one, and a whole load of other riff-raff besides, slapped his hat on his head and said “well, that was rather a good do, well done”. We walked home hand in hand. As we walked in, I said, with what I am sure was a perceptible sigh, “time to sort dinner”. “No, time to go out, and away – that’s what we’re doing tonight”. “Not pizza, please”. “Your call, orphan boy”. “Not orphan, just motherless”. “Whatever”.

Over dinner (Thai) Tommy raised the question of what we proposed to do with the ashes “Daddy always said, and he was right, that it doesn’t do to keep human remains above ground for any length of time.” I hadn’t thought of that. I’d thought it was all over. “You know what they’re like, they’ll set up a shrine.” And he was right. And then it suddenly occurred to me to ask “how on earth do you think they had the money for that booze after?” “Ah. Well. Don’t be cross, but I did give them a little to help with it”. “You sent them a cheque?” “No, I went there with cash”. “Oh bloody hell.” “Tommy, please, never, ever, have anything to do with my family again”. “I was just trying to be nice”. “You ARE nice. Just please don’t be nice to my family”.

He was right about the ashes. A few weeks later I made my final “wages” visit to the house. There she was, in her casket, on the bookcase (with no books), surrounded by flowers both real and artificial (the real ones grown in her garden by my father, who’d done her garden all those years since she’d thrown him out), and with a candle burning, as if she’d been a saint. Melinda had opened the door – Dave was upstairs in bed. Since the trial he’d rarely left the house. Melinda quite liked looking after him. My half-sister wasn’t the full ticket – I don’t say that because she tolerated Dave, but she just wasn’t. They’d tried to put all sorts of labels on her at school, but she couldn’t really learn, except at home, where she learnt food and laundry and things like that. I’d come from work, with my briefcase, and she said “you look smart! Have you come to see Dave?” “No, I was wondering about Mum”. “Oh she’s here, look” and she showed me the shrine. “Could I see in the box?” “Only because it’s you – we have to lock it because of the grandchildren!”, and she went to a little bureau, with a little secret drawer, which we’d all known about since childhood, and out came the key, and she gingerly took the box down off its shelf and unlocked it. Then Dave shouted for her from upstairs. She thrust the box into my hands and rushed to attend to him.

It was just a thick plastic bag of ashes. Dave was whining about something. I only had a moment to think. I took the bag out, and put it in my briefcase. I locked the box, and put it back on its shelf. Mel was flustered – she’d been commanded to cook Dave’s tea, so that’s what she must do. “Did you see?” she asked. “Oh yes. Rather moving, a bit upsetting, to be honest, that’s why I closed it up and put it back – here’s the key”. “Yes, it’s very sad, she was a lovely Mum. Do you want a drink?” “No, I’d best be on my way, as I don’t know if Tommy will return tonight, and if he does, I’ve got to be in the kitchen just like you have!” She laughed, and I closed my briefcase, and I left.

I walked slowly and heavily up the lane to First & Last. I needed company, but I couldn’t talk about why. Jos and Amanda and their children – and Ingrid – were in full swing at the big house. So I called by. I knew Tommy wasn’t coming home until tomorrow. Another lie. Jos opened the door with some surprise – normally we walked up the garden path to the conservatory – “what’s up, Michael?” “Just been seeing my family, about mother’s ashes, and all that. Grim.” “Come in then, and embrace a bit of life, the usual monsters are here.” I sat through drinks in the drawing room – that was a new thing since Matthew had died, and Amanda had moved in – and dinner in the kitchen (she couldn’t change that) and then brandy after. I kept my briefcase beside me throughout. Jos said, “What’s in that? The Watergate Tapes?” “Not far off! Some delicate stuff I daren’t let go of until I can return it”.

At dinner, we got talking about events, and the funeral, and so on. I said Tommy thought they’d turn my mother’s ashes into a shrine and so they had. Ingrid – Matthew’s eldest grand-daughter, aged about 17 now – said “I’d do a secret raid and steal them and put them in holy ground”. Her eyes flashed as she said it. I thought that she was one person I could tell the truth to. One day.

Before midnight, I staggered down the path home, with my briefcase. I’d forgotten all about Queenie (Tommy’s macaw) and the dog, and probably other things. So I fed them, amid some heavy criticism. Animals are most unforgiving. I was some sheets to the wind. Almost as soon as I got in, the telephone rang. I froze. But it was Tommy, drunk as a skunk and enjoying some after-show party. He’d be on the first train home in the morning, and would I pick him up? Well, of course I would.

I should have gone to the kitchen and got myself some water, or coffee. I got more brandy. It was raining hard. It had been raining on the walk back from Mum’s. It was worse now. I didn’t fancy walking to the churchyard. Nor walking to the banks of the Shell. I might fall in – it was at the bottom of our garden. But I had to dispose of this bag of ashes. And I had to do it tonight. I stumbled into the kitchen and got a sharp knife. I took them into the downstairs lavatory, and I flushed them away.

A couple of weeks later we had a family party for the children, for Bonfire Night, but starting in the afternoon. The rain had held off, as the butch men sorted out the barbecue. Well, that was Jos, who knew what he was doing, and Justin, who didn’t. I sorted out the drinks, and served up salads, and then there was a tug at my sleeve from Ingrid. “There’s someone at the front door for you, a man”. I thanked her, and said I’d deal with it.

It was Dave. He was high as a kite on dope, and drunk too. “What have you done with our mother?” “What are you talking about?” “Her ashes, they were in the box, they aren’t there now, no one else can have taken them”. “They needed to be reverently disposed of, not turned into a mausoleum”. “What do you mean “disposed of”?” “In holy ground. And the stream. That’s where they went.” “You mean the churchyard?” “Yes” “Show me where” “It’s rained since then, there won’t be anything to see”. “I don’t believe you. I’m coming in to ask the others – they’ll know what you did with her”. “You fucking well aren’t. And this is a children’s party and you’re on register, and I shall call the police.” I showed him my ‘phone. His eyes were shocked, but sad, too, and full of shame. He threw out a bad word, and stumbled away. I closed the door, and bolted it. Daft really – it was a party, I shouldn’t have been bolting doors – and then I leant back on it, and hung my head, and sighed.

I was aroused from my reverie by Ingrid. She said “was that your brother?” “I’m afraid so”. “You don’t seem to like your family much”. “No, I don’t really, but then they don’t much like me”. “Do you like us?” “Yes”. “Why?” “Because you’re not mine!” “I made you a little drink” she said, offering me a tumbler of a lethal cocktail I knew all too well. “It’s an end of an era”. “Yes, it is”. And we walked back to the party.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
November 2015

Monday, 2 November 2015

Visas - Heaven, and the Home Office

A Homily for Holy Communion on
All Saints Day, 1st of November, 2015, 5.30 p.m.

for the Damon Wells Chapel within Pembroke College, Oxford

Gospel: The Beatitudes, Luke 6:20-31

From Clay to Saint

+ May I speak in the name of the Divine Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

It’s always a pleasure to be invited somewhere new, to deliver what in the trade is known as a “hit and run” sermon. This means I can stand here, nearly six feet above contradiction, and leave any fall-out to Andrew [the chaplain] to clean up. Neat.

Pembroke isn’t entirely new to me, as I used to come here for tutorials for a couple of terms, nearly thirty years ago, seeking the wisdom of a previous chaplain. Never found it, but he was a nice enough chap. And this reminded me of something in the Alternative Student Handbook when I first came up. It was a bitchy little volume – much funnier than the official one. Of Pembroke it said succinctly – “nice view of Christ Church”. The illustration for Christ Church – my college – showed the statue of Mercury in the fountain in the middle of Tom Quad, with the caption “Mercury beckoning the tourists into Christ Church”. The editors were, I think, even-handed in their insults – “do to others as you would have them do to you”, perhaps?

We’re here to keep the Feast of All Saints, which begs a lot of questions about saints themselves – who are they, how can we tell, what are they for, how do we qualify? A church historian of my acquaintance was fond of saying “the definition of a saint is someone whose private life has been under-researched”. But leaving aside the fact that some of our most cherished saints would unquestionably not have been nice to know, and even some of the nice ones had a dark side (over the road there must be questions now about the future of the recently and lovingly installed Bell chapel, commemorating Bishop George Bell, ecumenist, and pacifist, whose reputation has been undermined by dark allegation of child abuse – is he still a saint? Do we eject him? Or do we keep the light and the shade together?), but it was the question of qualifying which caught my attention. How is it done? In the Roman Catholic Church saints are named by the Pope, after a process that demonstrates their sanctity through a combination of miracles and card tricks. In Orthodoxy saints just grow, like Topsy, in their own localities, and if they have a good story, their fame spreads. In the Church of England we have a committee. Worse than that, it’s a committee of the General Synod. I heard from a former member who had contributed to the process that produced the much-enlarged Kalendar of Saints in the Alternative Service Book of 1980 that it was basically horse-trading between high church and low church – “we’ll give you Dr Pusey, if you give us Charles Simeon”. Now, with Common Worship our Kalendar of Saints is bigger than ever – someone commented “it’s got everyone in it, from Pontius Pilate to Liberace”.

And then my mind wandered to another kind of qualifying which has loomed large in my life lately. It’s about qualifying for visas. Not for me, I don’t particularly want to go anywhere, and couldn’t afford to if I did. But for my husband of eight years who doesn’t qualify for a visa to live and work in this country. He did, but it ran out. And now we can’t run it in again. I don’t know if the film “Green Card” would be familiar to anyone now, as it’s 25 years old. It starred Gerard Depardieu before he became obnoxious. It’s about the American system of issuing that visa, the right to live and work in the country, and the trickery that people would get up to in order to qualify – in this case, through a “marriage of convenience”. The bogus couple must create a life together, and memorise one another’s mother’s maiden names, favourite brands of cereal, bathroom habits, that sort of thing – the sort of thing that genuine couples, if they ever discover them, instantly and purposefully forget. But, if they convince the investigators, then the Green Card is issued, and after a decent pause they can get unmarried and on with their American lives. That’s how the Americans do it – they seek to determine whether the relationship is genuine.

Our Home Office has a different system. It works according to money, and it’s quite simple – British citizens can only be married to foreigners, even ones who might actually support them, if they are rich enough. I am not rich enough, so I am not able to continue my married life in my own country, and last week my partner flew away from home to Brasil, for we know not how long. They are cunning, these people – no one made him go, he wasn’t deported, it was just made impossible for him to work here, and in time when our lease comes up for renewal, for his name to appear on it. They starved him out. If I can’t get rich enough, I suppose I shall be honour bound to let him divorce me – it would raise the eyebrows of not a few of my friends if I were to cite Theresa May as the home-wrecking co-respondent. It might surprise some of hers, too. If she has any.

The money threshold is not immense – less than most undergraduates will start on in their first job. Less even than the pay of a parish priest, the one job I was good at, and which, being married to a man, I can no longer do. So, I don’t qualify to be married, I don’t qualify to be a parish priest, and it seems I don’t qualify for any other work, either. If you no longer work for the Church of England, which is generally, and falsely, assumed to be gay friendly, the supposition is that you must be a child molester. And yes, I have actually been told that by employers.

By comparison, qualifying for the kingdom of heaven, for sainthood, seems a bit of a doddle – by the standards of this society (but not most others around the globe), I am poor; hungry, well no, not really, although it’s amazing how far you can make a couple of quid last in the kitchen if you know what you’re doing – I used once to throw away more and better food in a week than I actually eat now; weeping? Yes, some, but in private, and briefly, as I don’t want to start something I can’t stop, and I belong to the generation that didn’t learn emotions; hated, excluded, reviled, defamed? Yes, all of those – it’s surprising to learn what people are saying about you behind your back - although I couldn’t be sure that was “on account of the Son of Man”. Does love count? It doesn’t with the Home Office.

Kind friends (and I have no other sort) ask “what can I do?” “Well, if you haven’t got ninety thousand quid to tide me over, perhaps you could assassinate Mrs May”. But that wouldn’t do. It wouldn’t do because in this xenophobic paranoid age she’d just be replaced by someone worse. And it wouldn’t do because if I am to get my visa to heaven, I have to love my enemies. It says so in the Bible, and I am a simple Bible Christian, so it must be true, and I must try.

It is love, and love alone, that turns clay into saints. I’d venture that without love, we cannot become human at all, and if we cannot be human, we cannot reflect the image and likeness of God within, which is what shines from the saints.

So, at the risk of descending to advice to those younger and brighter than me, stride out boldly, and love, and become human, and risk becoming divine, have a stab at sainthood. Just be thankful that when you get to the “gates of pearl” we sang about in our first hymn, it will be Saint Peter on the door, not Mrs May. Saint Peter was given the keys in the knowledge he would never have the heart to use them to lock anyone out. That is the Good News about All Saints. And some days, amidst the hellish clamour of this life, I can actually hear it.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
November 2015

Wednesday, 30 September 2015


Lately re-discovered the print of Trinity College Chapel I was given when I left it. HL has strapped it to the bookcase next to my desk. It's a handsome print, of a handsome building. It was chosen by my colleague, the Dean. "Well, you seemed to like the thing so much". And I did. The College was re-founded by Henry VIII and our chapel funded by his daughter Mary I. It might well be the grandest building I have ever felt at home in. The students, far more sensibly, gave me glasses and a corkscrew! Not all of the glasses survive, but when I look at the print of the chapel, all of the kind and interesting people I met there, do.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
September 2015

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

A Cuckoo In The Nest - Justin

A Cuckoo in the Nest – Justin

Oxford. They’d heard of it, my parents, but they’d never been. We never went anywhere like that. The seaside, places with rides and games, and bingo, but no, never anywhere with any history, or culture. I tried asking, but they didn’t see the point. It’s hard to think now how I got in. Obviously, I passed all the exams, and being a prole I had an advantage over the public schoolboys, but where did the idea even come from? Where did the brains come from? It would be mean to say that neither of them ever gave much sign of having any, but there we are, I’ve gone and said it. Nor my grandparents, not that I knew them well. Perhaps I’m a throwback.

It was a dream come true. After years of keeping my head down at school – avoiding the other children, and keeping my nose in a book when they couldn’t see – suddenly I was surrounded by people who cared about ideas, and facts, and arguments, and getting words right and precise. Libraries everywhere. Bookshops, with proper books in. And sitting at dinner at a table without the telly on! I can’t tell you what an escape it was; what an arrival.

School was sceptical. One of my teachers said “Christ Church – isn’t that a bit grand for you?” I ignored him. He’d been to Hull. It was make-or-break, and if I didn’t get in, then I was going to not get in to somewhere good. And there were loads of other places I could go if that happened. But it didn’t happen. They wanted me, and I got in.

And there I stayed. Perhaps ever since. I remained bookish, and sailed through the exams, got a first class degree, was obviously going to do a doctorate. I even had an idea for one. But then I got stuck. I did the research, loads of it, got travel grants to get access to archives all over the country. Reams and reams of notes. I could turn them into articles, but the thesis had to be longer than that. And then I lost my nerve. I kept revising and editing, compulsively. My supervisor didn’t really understand, and didn’t chivvy much, or give much guidance. To be honest, I’m not sure where the fee money went. But that’s a sour comment, it was my fault, and mine alone, that I never finished it.

But I didn’t want to leave my paradise. I took on some teaching work, both in the university and for less reputable outfits. I even got to deliver the occasional lecture course – in small rooms, sparsely attended; no one cares about 18th century church history. I was solvent, Mother sent me money (almost certainly without telling Father; I never asked, and she knew I wouldn’t tell), but the wolf was prowling outside the door. And that’s when Matthew came in. He’d advertised for a researcher, handsome hourly rates, long project. And it was my field. I’d occasionally heard him lecture, although more often I’d seen him on the television, or heard some stirring speech he’d made about this or that. I thought he’d given up being academic, but no, there was a biography he wanted to finish off, of an 18th century bishop – “the life and times of a bad bishop – a study in reputation”. My thesis was built on an article he’d written about the number of bishops who’d changed jobs at the time his bishop died in 1761, just after George III had become king (and long before he went mad). My focus was political judgement, and I found his thing about “reputation” a bit fluffy, but in the end it was a great book.

Obviously, I got the job. And I kept it for years. He invited me out to First & Last Passage, his country house outside Oxford, and plied me with cocktails and lunch, and said the work was mine if I wanted it. I’d never met a lord before, not close to. He was wearing shorts and sandals. I was a little disappointed. The house was awash with livestock – his children, cats, dogs, that bloody parrot! I’d not grown up with animals (nor children), and I didn’t much like them, but I had more sense than to let on. He later said that seeing me trying not to flinch, and then trying not to laugh himself, nearly gave him a hernia. I guess I’m not so good at faking. I hope I’ve got better since. At dealing with animals, I mean, not faking. I got quite fond of the boys’ guinea pigs. But that was later.

After lunch he threw the typescript at me and said “read it through and tell me what you think – be direct, be rude, I want this thing to be really good – and if you reckon you can tighten it up, double-check all the facts and references, or even find new stuff that’s eluded me, then the job’s yours. Come back in a fortnight”.

I did come back in a fortnight, just before term time, but I had posted the typescript back to him in advance, with my notes and suggestions. His PA, the austere Valerie, sent me the least revealing invitation in return – “Lord Chapman da Silva has received your annotations and comments with interest, and invites you to lunch …” He was still wearing shorts. In fact, quite possibly the same shorts: he was a man of no sartorial taste, so if he found something he liked, he filled his wardrobe with identical copies.

“I want it ready for the publishers by Easter”, he said, “do you reckon you can make that happen?” “Yes”, I replied, not really sure I could. I had no idea how to work with him, as that would be crucial to “making it happen”. “I’ve been thinking about your rent. I hated paying rent, and I’d like you not to have the distraction of worrying about it while you’re working for me, so instead of an hourly rate, why don’t I pay you a fixed monthly stipend for the duration? That need not be the end of it, I have other irons I want in the fire when this one is done, and also you mustn’t forget your own research”. And he named a sum. What it is to have money! I know now, I didn’t then; I was just on the receiving end. It felt like largesse, although he insisted he’d thought it through and it was just fair pay for fair labour. It was the summer vac and I wasn’t sure where next term’s rent was going to come from – you never are if you tutor the re-take students. I wasn’t going to argue.

The book was finished by Easter, published at the end of the summer, and won a prize. I had top billing in the acknowledgements in the preface. I showed my parents. “But it’s not your book, is it?” said my father. I wish I could say the snitty remark of a man who’d never read a book, still less written one, didn’t sting. But it did. I resolved to finish the thesis.

I nearly wrote “but Matthew had other ideas”. That would be unfair. He always supported my academic research, always read the few articles I published, nagged and nagged me to finish the doctorate before I got bored with it. But I was useful to him, he liked working with me, we could be blunt with each other, he knew I found his style florid and emotional, and he found me pedantic and prosaic, and somehow the two worked together well. I was proud of that first book. I was not proud of the next one.

It wasn’t a bad book at all. It did precisely what it was meant to, and did so in a novel and winning way, but it was basically a coffee table book – “The Mystique of Monarchy – Confessions of a Failed Republican”, he called it. Lavishly illustrated. It’s true it was full of history – not my period, but the techniques of research are much the same – and political and social analysis. I couldn’t like it. I struggled to respect it. Here was a man of scholarship, a historian, grubbing around with a book that was unarguably “pop”. I’d say “cheap “pop””, but it wasn’t cheap. And people paid a hefty price for it – all over the globe. And they did for years. His publisher synchronised releases of a new edition with royal tours to foreign parts, sometimes with a slant to the visited country. He coined it in for the rest of his life. And I did not go unrewarded.

It was a furrow I ploughed for over a decade. A couple of years after he first took me on, he became Dean of Christ Church – that book he’d wanted published in such a hurry was part of a submission for a D.Litt, a very grand and senior degree, which he only really got because they wanted him for that job. He even got me to do an annotated and footnoted edition of “The Mystique of Monarchy” before the submission, which, with no photographs at all, really did look the part, even if, in my heart of hearts, I knew it wasn’t. So, the college was presented with an old boy, in holy orders (which its dean had to be), a published historian with a senior degree, a peer of the realm, with connexions everywhere – of course they were going to nominate him, and of course the Crown was going to say yes (the Crown very much liked that bloody book).

Not at First & Last, but at Christ Church, I became his full-time, fully-paid, researcher. I was astonished how much there was to research. With me in harness, he took on more and more speaking engagements, wrote more articles, went out preaching more, and for all of them, he wanted me to check his stuff over. I learnt his style, and I like to think I improved it. I was way out of my comfort zone, and the doctorate was long forgotten, but I was enjoying this. Every so often we’d have a long boozy dinner at his club in London and he’d ask me about my research interests, and if he liked an idea, he’d give me a month off to write something up. One time I said “it’s very kind of you to give me all this space to keep researching”. “Don’t be daft – you’re like a breath of fresh air when you’ve published something, and you go like the wind through my stuff afterwards – pure self-interest, dear boy, pure self-interest”.

There wasn’t much else going on in my life back then. I worked, I studied my own things in my spare time, I worked more. I had a few academic friends, but not many, and not close. Romantic interests were sparse. I’d had a major crush early on in my first year at university, and was majorly crushed by it after a term or so. That was a boy. Rather a dramatic one, athletic, and unexpectedly interested in me. I think he just wanted an easy lay from someone who’d be grateful. Well, he got that. Then I tried a girl. I like women, I always have. Maybe it’s something as boring as upbringing – my mother was always easier than my father. I was an only child, so I don’t know how that fits into the equation. Anyway, then the girl met someone else. She was squeamish and lachrymose about telling me, which I suppose was some sort of consolation. After that, it was just little flings. And then nothing. For a very long time. I realised I didn’t have an immense drive for sex, but I did suffer from loneliness. That surprised me, as I’d thought of myself as someone who’d survived a childhood alone, but I was wrong, I hadn’t been alone – my parents were always there, the house was never empty. And now I had latched onto Matthew’s family. Mainly while they were at the Deanery in term time but more pleasurably at First & Last at weekends and in the vacations. The college – or rather, certain senior members – didn’t appreciate my boss’s long absences from the premises. But I did.

He kept me on after he retired at seventy, which I wasn’t expecting – and to be honest, I was dreading, as I’d no idea how else I’d make a living – and now I spent more time at First & Last. Matthew and Ze, his husband (irregular world to my mind, when I first encountered it, but I was entirely used to it by now) had four children, three sons and a daughter. The daughter, Marie, “pronounced the London way” as I was told when we first met, was very bright, fascinated by economics, and money markets, and investments, and business, and she kept looking at me. I’m not making that up. I’m nothing to look at – you notice when you’re being looked at. She’d been to the LSE, had a year out making money in the City, then taken another year at business school in America. Oh yes, and she was tall, and curvy, and had the most penetrating eyes. She talked less than her brothers, but what she said was bitingly sharp, and she laughed a lot. It was lovely to hear her laugh. There were fourteen years between us.

Was it love? I want to say yes, it was. But the inner historian isn’t so sure. I delighted in her company – a fine, handsome woman now, that I had first known as a girl. And she, much to my surprise, delighted in mine. I knew her brothers thought I was a bit of a joke, and Raf, the eldest, was actively hostile at times, but she listened when I talked history, and she remembered my stories, just as I tried to understand her wheeler-dealing in the markets. What makes me hesitate is that we both needed each other in different ways at the time. Ways that perhaps neither of us had really thought through, and certainly not articulated. My needs were the more obvious – I needed a future, somewhere to live, something to live on. I had a pokey little flat in the roughest part of Oxford, already full to the doorway with books. And Matthew was now, apart from the occasional book review fee, my only income. And he was in his 70s. I was 40. Marie was 26. Her career was taking off fast. But she wanted children, and she wanted not to look after them. She’d been brought up by two men, one of whom had done most of the child-rearing “spadework” as Matthew called it. I fitted her bill.

Children-wise, I was something of a pig-in-a-poke, but Matthew and Ze had a grand-daughter they were looking after, and I often played with her, and I saw Marie’s penetrating eyes watching me as I did so. Children are rather fascinating. I suppose they are unwritten history. I loved teaching little Ingrid things, and telling her stories – although of course she got both in spades from her grandfathers, who were absolutely doting. Marie and I courted, if that’s quite the right word, for nearly two years, and then she proposed to me. It didn’t feel quite the right way round – my childhood had been very old-fashioned – but when her mind was made up about a thing, she just got on with it. That’s what made her so successful.

“I want you to be my husband, and the father of my children”.

OK, I stammered a bit, but really very, very, spontaneously for me, I said Yes.

It was February. Her second brother, Jos, and his wife had just had their first child, and Ze, her other father, was dying. She wanted to be married on Low Sunday, the one after Easter Day. I wondered why, as most people get married on a Saturday, and she just said “because it’s more religious”. Well, I didn’t know much about her religion, but I wasn’t going to argue.

“Mother, I’ve got something to tell you, and Dad, obviously, can I come and see you?” As it happened Marie was working that Saturday, so I went to see them on my own. “I’m going to get married”. Well, you could have heard their jaws smacking the floor. Mother recovered her poise and said “Who to?” “Marie, of course!” “Oh, I didn’t realise you were that serious”. “It’s been two years, Mother”. “I thought you were chaperoning her – she’s very young”. Chaperoning, my arse. She later admitted she thought I was being used as a beard either for Marie to have lesbian affairs, or to see other men that her fathers didn’t approve of. Which tells you quite a lot about the way my parents looked at me. And her. “When’s the wedding?” said Father. “April” “Who’s paying?” “Well, the bride’s family, obviously”, I said. “Oh yes, working class money doesn’t count with the hoity-toity”. Bugger this, I thought. But I waded through the treacle of Mother’s astonishment and Father’s class warfare, and eventually came to a truce that they’d come for lunch at First & Last and meet the other family. As I left them in the doorway, and was getting into my car, Father scuttled down the path alone, and whispered through the open window “I’m glad for you son, put those shirt-lifting days behind you, and be a real man, it’s not too late”. Ho hum.

Marie screamed with laughter when I told her how they’d reacted, what they’d said. “But how did your father know about your past?” “I’ve no idea, no idea at all – he’s the sort of person who pretends to be illiterate and then reads your most private post when you’re not looking”. “And your mother thinks I’m a lesbian! That is wonderful! I suppose I have two gay dads, is a perfectly reasonable calculation …” “Oh don’t be reasonable, they are total shits, I’m going to hate the whole thing”. “No you aren’t. And for two reasons – the first is that you are marrying me, and that is lovely, and the second is that when your parents come here, my fathers will go on a charm offensive that will sweep them off their feet – oh, and we’ll reel in Grandad, too, he grew up not far from you, in South London, he’ll do the trick. Now, what shall we eat?”. It had to be a roast lunch, of course.

And Grandad Chapman won the day! He charmed the arse off my father. My father was a postman. Grandad Chapman knew – by car - every street in that part of the world – and everything that had been there before it was ruinously pulled down and destroyed by the forces of barbarous modernism. Father loved it. And Mother loved the house. She kept saying “such high ceilings!” Ze, fortunately, was having a good day, and I don’t think they realised how ill he was. He said to Mother “I understand from Justin you are a gardener? Come and look at my tomatoes!”, and he took her arm – and an elegant silver-handled walking stick – and tottered out into the garden, as the rest of us sniggered at a clearly deliberate innuendo. We all tottered out after – he’d spent most of the last fortnight in bed, too ill to move – and we were ready to catch him, should he fall. Marie’s brothers, Jos and Tommy, were there, and Amanda, Jos’s wife, and their new baby, Joseph, who became “JD”. I don’t think my parents, my father in particular, were expecting four generations of “normal”, but despite the size and grandeur of the house, that’s what they got.

Apparently, in the car, on the way home, Mother said to Father “have you ever noticed my eyes?” “Well, they’re usually in your head when they’re not out on stalks looking at other people’s money”. “No, I mean their colour, and that?” “No”. “Ze did. He said they were beautiful, like the sea”. Ze hated the sea. But he loved flirting.

For us, marriage and family life, those first years, was a torrent of stuff. Hard stuff.

Ze died, Grandad Chapman died, and Matthew had a stroke and nearly lost the will to live. In fact he might already have lost it, and the stroke gave him an excuse not to try. I’ve heard of brides weeping all the way to the altar, but mine wept through most of our first year of marriage. She consoled herself with work and, as Francis, our first son, was born the month before our first wedding anniversary, clearly with other things too. By the time Francis was born, First & Last was back on an even keel. A regiment of friends and family had rallied round to bully Matthew into recovery. His stroke hadn’t been very severe, although having never been ill before, it had come as a shock to him, and compounded with his grief, you could see why he’d given up. It’s true he was never quite the full ticket again after, but anyone who’d not known him before wouldn’t have been able to tell. His mind was a fraction slower, but it always reached its destination.

Whilst my new wife was coping with the loss of one father, and the fear of losing the other, I was facing becoming a father. It scared me at times. Marie seemed to be loving it, which baffled me, as I thought the change in shape, and mobility, would be irksome, but she seemed to like the challenge, and the company of someone who made very little noise, while she got on with her work. More from home than before, but she still insisted on going into the office. Sometimes you even took the train, second class, just for the fun of having people offer her a seat. It delighted her every time. “I’ve never felt more like a woman” she said. I wasn’t sure quite how I felt about that, but I suppose the reality of pregnancy must, in the womanhood stakes, trump the fumblings of a not very ept husband. Most days I just thought that being a parent would be very interesting. Matthew had often said how much there was to see, to observe and try to understand, and I thought perhaps that’s the sort of father I’d be – whilst wishing to influence the scene too, obviously.

What nothing could have prepared me for was a volcano of emotion. I don’t do emotion, I do ideas. When Francis was born, I found it hard to let him go, hard to stop watching him while he slept. Marie was much more gung-ho about it all. When she started to feel more normal after the delivery, she looked me in the eye and said “one more, the heir and the spare, and then we stop, OK?” Within a month, she was back at work. Not full-time, but I was on full-time duty. We thought about her taking Francis in with her, but it couldn’t have worked unless I went too, so he might as well stay at Walnut Cottage with me. Since Grandad Chapman died, Jos and Amanda had moved into the Dower House at the farm, so I had other new parents close at hand, and the Old Man himself, too. So Francis stayed put.

One morning there was a surprising, and very quiet, knock at the door. We had a bell, but Matthew wouldn’t use it – “didn’t want to risk waking the baby”, who was indeed asleep. I was reading about French economic history in the 17th century – a present from Marie to keep me busy in the quiet times between amusing Francis. As I invited him in, I wondered if Matthew had ever walked this far since his stroke (we lived at the other end of the village, perhaps half a mile, I guess), but he didn’t seem tired, or in pain, though leaning on one of his vast collection of walking sticks, rather a sturdy one. It was nearly noon, so I offered him either tea or a G&T knowing full-well what he’d accept. I’d known how he liked them for years, and poured myself a much weaker one. He took a seat, across the room from the cot, a hard-backed chair, I noticed, not the deeper armchairs or the sofa.

After toasting Francis, and us, he asked “So, how’s fatherhood?” “It’s brilliant, amazing, scary, but I love it”. “And really?” I dithered. He noticed. He did a thing with his eyes when he noticed stuff like that, it made you want to tell the truth. “I keep crying. I don’t understand it, I’m not unhappy”. He smiled, then laughed, and said “you’re being maternal, it’s entirely normal”. “Even for fathers?” “Oh yes, for some of them”. “Then isn’t it “being paternal”?” “No, it’s different. It’s hard to explain why, and really the whole gender thing is bonkers, but some men are maternal, you can just see it. Ze was. I am a bit. I think it’s usually a good sign about how the relationship – with the kiddie - will continue – not that I’m making any promises after four weeks!” “What do I do about it?” “Keep doing it, and cry when you need to! It will wear off, in time, but it’s all part of the bonding whatnot, or at least, I think that’s what the books would say – you’ve read loads of them, haven’t you come across it?” “Well, yes, a bit, but it sounded soppy and unrealistic”. “Then you are proof positive that it is neither. Now, I must hobble back for lunch – would you and Francis like to come too? You may need to bring his lunch with you, but you’re both very welcome”.

As I pushed the pram up the high street, slowed to Matthew’s pace, I pondered that “maternal” thing. I knew it wasn’t what he meant, but it felt like a slight on my masculinity. But was I entitled to masculinity? I wasn’t entirely heterosexual, I’d married a women who had bought our house, and brought home the bacon, I stayed at home to look after a baby, I had no work, no money, no life, of my own. What sort of man was I? At least I was fertile. What would have happened to me if I hadn’t been?

That “maternal” comment was right up there with Mother’s surprise that I was getting married. To a woman. I thought about it at a lot over the next months and even years, far more, I’m sure, than Matthew would have wished me to. Because he was right, in a way, I was more mother than father to our boys as they grew up. Their real mother was kind, gentle, doting, indulgent, but usually not there. I, on the other hand, was always there, always anticipating problems or dangers, finding work for idle hands, and activities for idle minds. I cooked, and I cuddled, consoled, and read stories. When we were out walking in the countryside, and one of them fell over, and cried, it was “daddy” they cried for. “Mummy” sometimes found that difficult.

She suggested a nanny, so that I could get on with my work, but my work for Matthew could be done easily enough when the boys were asleep, and I didn’t want anyone else doing this work. This was mine. No deadlines, no submission dates, no peer-review, this was my daily work, every day, from dawn – or before – until bedtime – or after. And they were fascinating. Everyone says how similar they are, and I understand that, but I know them well enough to see the differences. Francis is more diffident – though neither lacks confidence only he sometimes hesitates – and more caustic, sharper with people, but usually with a cheeky grin and a rude remark. Ben is even more utterly laid back. He smiles a lot and thinks the best of people, and if they get in his way, he just sweeps them out of it, assuming they’ve made a mistake, but he doesn’t have time to put them right. I might have made them sound obnoxious, and I know that there have been those who think precisely that. For boys – men now – who can be incredibly rude, they also know boundaries. They are never rude to their mother or me. They were kindness itself to their grandparents. But both are utter hedonists. I suppose we trained them that way. They learnt from me that if they said please, and thank you, and did this, or that, then they’d get whatever they wanted. And from Marie, that if they smiled, and smarmed, and charmed, then they’d get it anyway. So, they learnt two languages.

Schooling was a nightmare. Neither of their languages worked in school. I wanted them to go to public boarding schools, even prep schools, but Marie wouldn’t hear of anything like that until they were 13. Until they were 7 and 6 (“fancy that, price of the old dog licence”, said Matthew, and I didn’t then have any idea what he meant) I took them out of the local primary school and to a prep school about 15 miles away. I didn’t like the drive, but they loved their uniforms, and they loved having somewhere new to misbehave. Marie was dead against (she’d been to the village school, then to a comprehensive in Oxford), but conceded that as I was doing the work – looking after them before and after, and driving them there and back – then it was my call. They behaved atrociously. We were called in again and again. It was my call, so I went. By the skin of their teeth they lasted until the Common Entrance exam, and then, against all the odds (but I knew they’d pass, because I’d been tutoring them; no one knew, not even them) they got to public school. They both wanted to board, but together, so Francis delayed for a year, and endured being a day boy – that was quite a round trip for me – and then Ben arrived. And I lost them.

Not our relationship, which has always been good, but I lost them as daily friends. Does it sound sad to say that of one’s children? I was in my mid-50s. My married relationship with Marie had come to the end of its natural life. Matthew had died, First & Last was taken over my Jos and Amanda, I was welcome, of course, but without Francis and Ben, I was lonely again. I chatted to the boys’ guinea pigs. I deliberately spilled their food on the ground outside their cage and their pen, and fed the birds, and the hedgehogs, and later the foxes, and even the badger, and the roe deer, that came into the garden. “I do so miss you two” I made the mistake of saying one time, as I dropped them back to school, “Get yourself a cat, Pops!” and they went laughingly about the business of causing mayhem. I didn’t want a cat. I’m not actually allergic to them, but I say I am. A dog’s a tie – I like our holidays. And then there’s the hair. Matthew would probably have offered me one of his bloody parrots. So, I made do with my no-longer-wife’s family up the road, and the wild creatures in the garden, and longed for the vacations, when the boys briefly came home, and then longed to go on vacations of their own too.

Sometimes they went with their mother. Marie had developed a taste for skiing, for which I was surprised she was remotely the right shape. Even before we separated she suggested a skiing holiday, and I said “go if you want, I simply couldn’t bear to be there while you were all risking life and limb in front of my eyes”. “Don’t be so silly! Hardly anyone ever dies, and not many people even get hurt”. But I wouldn’t go, so she took them herself. Needless to say, they were all rather good at it, and came back in one piece. I read the same book three times during the five days they were away, and don’t remember a word of it.

After Matthew died, when the boys were seven and eight, our life changed again. I missed him enormously, much, much, more than I had expected. We had differed, of course, about so many things, but almost like a couple. I’d worked for him for over quarter of a century. He knew how to wind me up, and how to calm me down. And he was gone. I had hysterics the night he died. Very quiet, English, ones, but it was hysteria all the same. One of the others – Michael, maybe – told me to go and compile a list of all the people we had to tell. I wasn’t even allowed to tell my sons their grandfather had died. Jos was deputed to tell them all – his four, my two – whilst I overheard on the landing below. He did it very well. Then we took them home.

A few years before, Marie had bought herself a house in “genteel Wimbledon”. That’s how Matthew always referred to it – the place of his birth, and much of his childhood. The connexions for the City were good. And it wasn’t a small house. She’d said it was getting tiring coming home from London to the countryside every day, and then having to be up at 5 to catch the first train, and missing the boys at either end. It made perfect sense to me, and it was, to a Tooting boy, a lovely house, and definitely a step up. As soon as it was tarted up to her liking – new conservatory, tennis court replaced with croquet lawn, lavish extra bathrooms – she gave me the keys, and also told me how to get the code for the security thingy if she wasn’t in. Amanda, Jos’s wife, my “sister-in-law-in-law”, I suppose, asked “do you think she’s having an affair?” And I realised I’d not only not thought about it, but that I didn’t much mind if she was.

She wasn’t. Not then. Amanda did the same herself – buying a house in London, that is - not long after, when she had more and more work that took her away from the county and to meetings at the national level. And she certainly wasn’t having an affair. Jos used to regard going up to London to stay in “their”, but he always called it “her” house, in Ealing, as a dirty weekend. Marie and I were a bit passed that. But I enjoyed the croquet lawn, and the closeness to London’s culture. I’d never much taken to Matthew and Ze’s flat in Vauxhall. Call me a snob, but it couldn’t hold a candle to Wimbledon.

I think she was seeing someone when, a few years later, she came to Walnut Cottage and, over a very nice dinner (which I’d made) said that maybe the time had come to separate formally, as we were in effect apart all the time, and should both be free to look at our options. I froze a bit. It made perfect sense, and I didn’t want to restrict her liberty, nor she mine, and that was all very civilised, but how was I to live? Of course, she’d thought of that. It was term-time, the Autumn term, the boys were away. I looked out of the window. She might have taken it for emotion, but I was looking at the rain beating down on the garden, and thinking what a good job I’d made of it, and was I going to be allowed to keep it? “I’ve set up a fund, just like Grumpy’s. It’s for you and me and the boys, and any children they might have. I want you to be a trustee, and also a beneficiary, for life, whatever happens to either of us.” And she named her sum. “And you get this house, and you can stay in Wimbledon whenever you please. The boys’ schools fees will be paid, so will any university fees and maintenance. You’ll have a decent car, and it will be insured and taxed. Would that work for you?”

Marie was a gambler, but not a barterer. She worked out her price, offered it, and if you didn’t accept, then you’d not get another. The people she traded with had come to know this – to their cost. But I couldn’t argue with those terms – I kept my home, our home, our sons’ home, and I would never want. That’s a silly thing to say – I would live in luxury for the rest of my days! Of course I said yes. I’d have liked her to stay the night. Our nights were not so exciting by then, but I found her a great comfort next to me. But she thought otherwise. In fact, I think she was feeling emotional. Her car was booked, she was going back to London, there was work to do. And she thanked me. Thanked me “for everything”. And we hugged, and she left, and I sat down, and wondered what on earth was happening now.

The boys were almost disappointingly calm about it. We told them together, at Walnut Cottage, and they endured the news stoically, but couldn’t wait to leave the room. I supposed they went off to have a pow-wow together. In fact, they went off to First & Last, and had a pow-wow with their cousins, the little beasts! “Well, that went OK” said Marie, breezily. “For now”, I said. “Don’t be solemn, Justin!” And she went back to town.

In the evening, the boys, fortified by their cousins’ fervid imaginings, asked endless questions – “have you got a girlfriend – has mummy got a boyfriend – can we stay here – can we still go to First & Last – can we stay at school – are you divorced – what happens if you marry again – what happens if mummy does – who pays our pocket money?” And then, much to my surprise, Ben asked “are you OK?” “I’m OK because I’ve got you two”.

But I didn’t just have those two. Marie was away in London so much, the boys at school, and taking every opportunity to be away more and more, I was feeling lonely. Matthew had an old friend called Will. He was his architect. An unusual fellow, very quiet, but very dynamic when you got onto the subject of buildings. He was 17 years younger than Matthew. And Will was seventeen years older than me. Will had designed First & Last, and the office block with penthouses, that he used in Brasil; and converted the house in Italy where Matthew was perhaps happiest in his last years. His personal life was a total mess. He rarely said anything about it at all, but over time it became apparent that it was a little like mine. He’d got married when perhaps he shouldn’t, had three children, then strayed onto paths he definitely shouldn’t, and got caught by the police. His wife was a lawyer. Someone in her office found the report in the papers, and then he was history. Such a shame, because he was a really nice, gentle, man. But she was furious beyond reason – turned their sons, his parents, everyone she could, against him. Religion was part of the problem, of course, as it so often is. She was some kind of mad evangelical. He’d gone along with it since university days in order to get into her knickers. Now he was paying the price.

But that was all some time before. His wife had disappeared from the scene – onto marriage number four, I think. His first son had become a vicar and wouldn’t speak to him (after marriage number two, wouldn’t speak to his mother, either). His second son blew hot and cold, and then died in a car accident as a student – for which Will was blamed. The third son came to terms with him, and was rather nice. And I came to terms with Will, as well.

It was after the Old Man died, and before our separation became official, and the boys were away at school, and I felt so alone. Oh that sounds like such a pathetic excuse! I don’t need an excuse. I’d always liked Will. He knew how to build the architecture I lectured on. We had a meeting of minds. And we were both rather bereft when Matthew died. Will had been one of “The Team” that coaxed Matthew back to health after his stroke. Having sons himself, he took to ours. He was a great big fellow, broad in the shoulder and the chest, hirsute, manly, fertile – well, so was I, but a wimp by comparison, physically. He was very fit. He filled a part of his life alone with the gym. I filled that part with pies. He’d played football once, but when his wife found out about him, and broadcast it, he didn’t want to play contact sports any more. Despite the age gap, I certainly wasn’t expecting to be looked at. But I was.

I’d rather forgotten what that side of life was like. He’d often been a visitor at Walnut Cottage. I didn’t need to lure him with dinner, and gin, and a bed for the night. But that’s how it happened. We were both rather alone. I think I felt it more than he did, but it was there all the same. The next morning he said “maybe this is just a one-off?” “No, not if you’d like to meet again, stay over again”. And so he did, and we did.

I tried to lose weight. He said “Justin, don’t starve yourself for me, I like something to get hold of!”. His ex-wife had been a beanpole. I invited him to put the car in the garage, but he said he didn’t mind anyone seeing, and did I? And did I? Well, there were three people I didn’t want to know more than anyone else. So, I went to see Marie. We had lunch, in the City. Her call, although it could have been mine, her settlement with me meant that the sky was the limit for such things. “Oh, at last” she said. “What?” “You’re not meant to be alone, Justin, and the boys are nearly finished school and will go even further away – and Will is lovely”. “And a man”. “To be honest, a woman would have annoyed me. And you both loved Daddy”. Well, what the bloody hell do you do with that?

Then it was the boys. I got them to come down for the weekend. They were 15 and 16 by now. In fact they were just on the point of being expelled from their school. I really was not looking forward to it. I gave them lunch – and cocktails. Then they sat on the sofa expectantly. I stood in front of them, as if about to give a lecture. Then I sat down. “Boys, I’ve met someone”. “Bravo Pops!” said Ben. “Who? said Francis. “It’s Will, Grumpy’s friend”. “Oh shit, we had no money on him!” “Sorry lads, I’m very keen on him”. “Pops, he’s ANCIENT”. “He’s not a lot more ancient than me, and in much better nick. Obviously, he’s not going to be your step-father, or interfere in your life in any way …” “are you marrying that old man?” “Well, no, not yet”. “But would you?” “Yes, I think I love him”. “Better do it then, Pops, before he dies!” And Ben cackled with laughter. And they went out. When they came back in, they asked about their allowances. And then they hugged me.

That weekend I overheard Ben on the telephone to a friend. “Pops invited us for a bit of a Family Talk” I was in the hall; I should have moved away, but I didn’t. “Oh nothing serious – he’s just told us he’s into bum sex with old men, we’re OK about it. Could be quite a nice dinner actually”.

We did marry, later, though Will is dead now. He was 91. He’d have lived a lot longer, but someone ran him off the road on his bike. My boys were my Best Men, and Will’s youngest son, Paul, was his. Marie was there. We married in the church. I don’t believe, I’m not sure Will did either, but the children all seemed to. Where did we go wrong? Confessions of a failed atheist!

And they were kind to us. Will moved into Walnut Cottage. He kept working. I kept working – writing reviews and articles, and stuff. There were grandchildren.

Francis was firmly against producing grandchildren. Very firmly. Then he fell for a girl, and she wanted babies. He’d already had the snip. So he got un-snipped. Then he fell out with the girl and they never made beautiful babies together. There’s a limit to how much a man can have his testicles surgically tampered with for love. And he’s never sired a child since, that we know of, or that he’s spoken of, so we don’t know if the un-snipping worked.

Ben has two lovely girls with a woman he seemed very fond of. Then she mentioned marriage, and that was the end of it. Of course, he never intended to be married. He has visiting rights, turns up as and when he pleases, brings presents, pays for anything that needs paying for. All his mother’s money, of course. But she never says no, and nor does he. Then he met an old flame at a party. He says he’d forgotten ever being with her until she jogged his memory. But he’s an amicable old soul, and there were no hard feelings, and before long she was showing him photos of her little boy’s 4th birthday party, which had been the day before. The boy looked just like him. The woman was married, she’d moved on, surely any normal person would have let well alone? Not my son. He went to his diaries. Both my boys write things down in a diary, they don’t use a computer or the telephone. I taught them that. This time, I wished I hadn’t. In a rare burst of cerebral energy he did the sums. The child was conceived during their brief time together. He got back in touch, and she denied everything. Then he asked the boy’s name. “Benedict”, she said. That was the name he always said he wished he’d been given, rather than Benjamin. And he remembered telling her.

What followed was an unseemly argument through the courts, DNA paternity testing, and proof that the little boy was indeed my son’s. The whole rigmarole cost the child a perfectly good stepfather, who upped sticks and walked out. It was not my family’s finest hour. “Pops, he’s mine, he needs to know who his father is!” “He coped perfectly well without, these last four years”. “And one day he would learn he was just a cuckoo in the nest, and how would he feel then? They weren’t being honest with him – nor with me. I had a right to know.”

He’s done his bit, of course, and the mother, Amelie, has cooled down her fury against him for destroying her marriage. My sons don’t really understand holding back a little on their own personal wishes and whims for the sake of others. They used to do it, I’m sure, because I’m sure I taught them, at home, at the table, in the playroom, with their cousins, their grandparents. But since adulthood, it’s eluded them. One of my friends – she’s a retired professor of chemistry, which may seem an unusual link, but I had a bishop in the 18th century who was a professor of chemistry, and she explained some stuff to me that I didn’t understand in his papers, and we be became friends after – asked “do you sometimes wish at least one of them was responsible and normal, and wanted to earn a living, marry, settle down, and so on?” I repeated it to Marie at one of our lunches – we still lunch, often – and she said “don’t you think if one of them had been that way, we’d love him more, and the other brother would love him less?” Well, I hadn’t thought of that.

They are hedonists, both of them, have been throughout their lives. They’ve had spells in re-hab, they’ve never had a job, never been married. They probably sound horrible people. But they are always laughing. And they make everyone else laugh. I struggled with my parents, after going to Oxford, and even more after marrying a millionaire’s daughter, but Marie insisted that our sons must know their grandparents, so every month we went over there. Mother adored them. Father tried not to, but he did find them feisty and stroppy, and difficult. He said of Francis one time, when he was only three, “that one would make a good shop steward”. God, I hope not, I thought to myself. He died when they were in their late teenage, but Mother lived on. She had a heart problem, which we got fixed, and then her mind seemed to wander. Or it did with me. The boys said she was fine with them. When she was coming up for 85 they came down for the day to see me – the Saturday, it was. We got talking, and I reminded them it was their Nan’s birthday on Thursday. “Oh yes”, said Francis, “we know, we’ve got a plan – we’re taking her out for the day, and she’s looking forward to it”. “Do you want me to come with you, just in case?” “Oh no, Pops, we’ve got it covered, she wants a jape with the grandsons, and that’s what she’s going to have”. I was going to take her out to the local Chinese restaurant for lunch. Father had always hated “foreign muck” so it was our defiant little posthumous treat together. But clearly the boys had other ideas.

I had things to do in town on the Monday, so I called it to see her afterwards. She was still in her dressing gown at gone eleven. “Are you all right, Mother?” “I’ve only just got back, last night” she said. “Where from?” “Monte Carlo, of course!” “What?” “I’ve been and broken the bank at Monte Carlo!” and she giggled. I thought she’d been drinking. Which would have been unusual for her. “Didn’t they tell you?” “Who?” “My boys! YOUR boys! They took me to Monte Carlo for the weekend, and I did gambling! Anyway, come in, and have some tea – no wait a moment, I’ve still got some, have some Champagne for my birthday!”. So I sat with my 85-year-old mother, and a bottle of tepid Champagne, and listened to the thrills and spills of the gambling life my sons had introduced her to over the last couple of days. “Oh, they were angels – never left me alone a minute, I couldn’t misbehave, although there were a few chaps there who were giving me the eye”. “No they weren’t Mother”. “Yes they were – you’re not the only old sauce that wants a bit of goosing, you know. Anyway, the boys were lovely, they looked after me, showed me how to do all the games, and what to bet, and how to get my winnings. I liked roulette best. Especially that last bit, when the little ball goes all boppy over the wheel until it lands”. “And did you win anything?” “Oh yes, lots!” “How much?” “None of your business, but it might be marginally in the area of £15,000. I’ve got it here, somewhere – I was going to the bank until you showed up and got in the way”. And she produced this fat wad of banknotes, mostly euros.

After taking her to the bank, and then to lunch, and then home again, I went to my sons’ apartment. They lived in Belgravia then. And they were in. I’m not sure they’d been in for all that long. Ben opened the door, dishevelled, and looked at me, then looked over his shoulder and shouted “Francis, Pops is here, and he’s in a mood”. “She’s 85 and has dementia, for pity’s sake!” “No she doesn’t. She a whizz at the tables, can do sums in her head in seconds, less than seconds, faster than we’ve ever been able to”. “That doesn’t mean she’s not unwell”. “Pops, she was having the time of her life”. Francis butted in, half-naked from the shower, and said “did she ever have the time of her life with you?”

They have always been thick as thieves. They’re over forty now, and they still share a flat. They always have. Sometimes they’ve moved out for a while with this girl or that, but never for long, and always with a base to return to. And they return to my base, too. I see them every week, sometimes separately, sometimes together. If it’s separately, I get two visits. They never tell me in advance, which is a shame, because then I could look forward to it. I suppose it’s because they don’t want to raise my hopes just in case they can’t make it. Probably.

I’m lucky, my health has held, more or less. I still entertain the furry and feathered in the garden at Walnut Cottage. My niece, Ingrid, entertains me for lunch at First & Last almost every day. I don’t always care for the company she keeps, but it’s diverting, and I do enjoy the entertainment. Sometimes I call by, and my sons are already there. She’s always liked them best, of all the cousins. Marie keeps me in clover – nothing changed after I married Will. I have lived in her house, on her money, with her family, almost all my adult life. I know I don’t really belong. But I didn’t really belong in the family I was born in. But my sons do. And I belong to them. If I am a cuckoo in the nest, I am their cuckoo.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
September, 2015