Sunday, 30 August 2015

A Time To Talk?

A Time to Talk?

It was Jackie who saw the advert. She advertised in the village shop all the time – for cleaning work for her, and gardening work for me. “It said they wanted a gardener for a new garden, in the village – there’s only one place that can be”, she said. “That new big white house?” “Yes, it’s got to be that. You must go for it. They’ve got oodles of money”. So, I did. Jackie sent the e-mail message in. They didn’t want an application form, or a CV, just a letter saying what I could do and why I might be interested. And I got a strange message back inviting me to drinks, and then lunch, and then an interview. But I accepted.

That’s how I first saw First and Last Passage close to, not from the road. Jackie trussed me up in a suit, which didn’t feel right for a gardening job, but “you’ve got to make the right impression”. It was tipping down with rain – September time, it was, so you can never tell. Well, you can’t ever tell these days. Or those. She tried to make me take an umbrella, but I wouldn’t, and I huffed off out of the house before her fussing made me late. Through the village, and out the other side as the ground begins to rise, then there’s a turning on the right, then you come to a courtyard, through high gates. There’s a long narrow pond in the middle, full of koi carp. Two wings, either side, and then the door, and the house, and the glass dome on the top. It all went up within months. I wondered whether the plaster could have been dry before they moved in. There were plants in pots either side of the door. They were too small for it, and it was north-facing. And the pond looked bare. I could see there were things I could do here.

I looked for a bell. Of course it was right in front of me – a real bell, from a ship or a church. I’d never seen that before. I tried it a bit gingerly at first, and was just about to have another go when I heard dogs yapping and scampering on the other side. The door opened, and there was the Boss, with a bloody great parrot on his shoulder. The dogs were all right, I like them, it’s actually cats I can’t stand (most gardeners will tell you why), but I didn’t like the look of that beak. “You must be Mr Hobday” “Call me Joe” “Then please call me Matthew – and this” looking at the bird “is Percy. It’s all right, you don’t have to fuss him, just a hello and a smile work wonders. And now we’d better try to warm you up with a drink. I’d suggest getting out of your wetter things, but unfortunately we’ve got to go outside again in the rain in a moment, because that’s where the garden is, although it looks more like a mud bath just now”.

He led me through the biggest, tallest, hall, I’d ever seen in a private house, with that big glass dome casting light all the way down, even on that grey day. Then across into a huge kitchen that Jackie would have killed for, with a great long wide table down the middle, and a conservatory beyond – more light. I came to know that light was a thing with him, he got that winter sadness thing, so he’d built the house for maximum light all year round. Did make me wonder about those pots on the north side, though – shouldn’t they have had some light too? And then it was time for Champagne. I’d hardly ever had Champagne – like the suit, it was for weddings, mostly – but I said yes, and he surprised me that he didn’t have some too. “Gives me hiccups”, he said, pouring himself a gin and tonic, from what looked like the freezer. “Well, your good health, and thank you so much for applying and coming to see this monstrous task I want done. We’ll have a look round, let you get the lie of the land, so to speak, and then it will be lunch at 1, and the proper interview will be at 2, upstairs in my library. I know it’s rather a long haul, but having someone around so much of the time is a delicate choice, and although I’m interested in your ideas and plans, I’m also interested in how you might fit in – assuming you even want the job, when you see what it is. So, let’s go out into the squall, and look at it!”.

He was right about the mud bath. And it seemed to me maybe those poor pot plants couldn’t have gone anywhere else just now. You could just about get around on pathways of gravel and duck boards, until you reached the untouched bit of the old field from before the development. Either side of the conservatory were two aviaries, attached to the south side of the house, full of brightly coloured parrots, although they looked pretty miserable in the English rain. The land sloped down quite gently, and there was one huge oak tree in the middle of what was left of the original field. At the bottom, the boundary was a little brook, the Shell, after which the village – Shelford - is named. It took me years to work that out, and I’d lived there all my life. To the right, at that lower end, was a little cottage for what he called “The Bird Man – that’s Giles, you’ll meet him at lunch. I snaffled him from London Zoo, and I reckon he’s going to make the parrot farm a going concern”. Well, he was welcome to his ideas, he could afford them, but I’d never known anyone with a parrot. Budgies, yes, but not parrots, and certainly not these great big buggers with alarming beaks.

Then we went inside, and he took my jacket to dry out. I knew he was gay, and I was expecting some funny business about my trousers too, to be honest, but there wasn’t. This time there was noise from a room to the side of the kitchen – “drawing room” they called it – and a tall, slim, sun-tanned man appeared, with a small girl and a smaller boy. This was the “husband” – it was going to take me a long time to learn to use that word – and their two smaller adopted children. The husband, Ze, was a South American, so the sun-tan was natural, and he offered to help with the work in the garden. He looked fit enough to do it, but his clothes suggested otherwise. Very smart. Matthew took me on the rest of the tour of the house, from cellar to attic, which was one huge room that covered the whole ground plan of the house, apart from the wings. The views were marvellous, you could see almost the whole village, even the old Manor House, up the hill, which everyone said First and Last let down. Jackie had signed the protest against it, but it went up anyway. I liked it. It looked clean, and straight, and solid. I’d done some work at the Manor – the thing was falling apart.

And then there was commotion downstairs, and someone had arrived, a lady and her husband “she’s an old friend, a botanist, and she has the nicest garden I know”. I felt he was raising the stakes on me. As we started down the stairs a gong sounded, and there was Ze in the hall, with both kids, looking for all the world as if, though he’d done it a hundred times, it was still a thrill. Lunch was simple, pork loin, with stilton and leek sauce, and small boiled potatoes, and greens. Not sure my Jackie had ever bought stilton. She didn’t like things with strong flavours, and even ordinary cheese could make her complain about the smell in the fridge. And there was more Champagne, and white wine, and gin for the botanist, who necked it at an impressive rate. The Boss sat at the top end, by the door into the hall, and Ze at the other, with a kid either side, and the rest of us – we were joined by his PA, and Giles the Bird Man (he was late; he was always late) – ranged down either side.

I’m not very good at conversation. I prefer to listen, and keep my counsel, but the conversation turned to what makes a good garden, and that was me on the spot. I said this and that, but realised I was only repeating what he’d told me earlier about what he wanted, as we walked round the mud bath in the rain. Fortunately the others all had opinions – ecology (that was the botanist’s husband) – colour (the botanist) – flowers (the little girl) – herbs – self-sufficiency – an orchard – I’d have needed to take notes to remember it all. Ze kept filling my glass up, and although I probably drank less than anyone else there, I could feel myself sliding a bit. But it was fun. I liked them. I’d never known a family quite like it – nor a workplace, and this was both together.

At the end, the Boss and I went upstairs to his library – and although it was an office, it really did look like a library, I’ve never seen so many books in one room in a house – and he said “now we come to the mean bit of the interview. I didn’t tell you in advance, because I thought it might prey on your mind and make you anxious, and I was hoping you’d enjoy lunch. What I want you to do is make a sketch” – he produced paper and pens and pencils – “of what you’d do with my garden. By all means incorporate things I’ve told you I want, and stuff they said at the table, but I want your vision really. We might not agree, but I’m interested to know what that vision might be. And you don’t have to be Rembrandt, just a simple plan is fine, just to give me an idea of your ideas”. And then he left me for twenty minutes. Well, I’m no Rembrandt but I was good at drawing at school, and though he was right, if he’d told me before I’d have got stressed about it, I started to enjoy it. I even used different colours.

With gardening, I was a complete amateur. My father had worked at the car works in Oxford, and he got me a job there when I left school, but I hated it. Mum was the gardener in our family. I’d learnt a lot from her, and I got chatting to a chap who did gardening, down the pub one night, and he said he could do with a labourer, so I threw in the job, and took a chance. It wasn’t a great living, and my boss knew less than me. He could cut grass and trim hedges, but beyond “brute force and ignorance”, he had nothing to offer a garden. So I went solo. That was a slightly better living, but still not great. Then I married Jackie, we had the two kids, and between us, and the low rent of a council house, we survived. I’m not bookish, but I can learn. If a client wanted agapanthus, then I’d blinking well find out how to grow it.

He came back into the room. I realised he’d been downstairs talking to the others – I could hear their voices echoing up the stairs from the kitchen – and he said “so, how’d you get on?” I showed him my sketch. He went very quiet, tracing some parts with his finger as if remembering his own land from the lines on my drawing. Then he said “wildflower meadow, brilliant! I couldn’t think what to do with that bit, with that great big tree in the way. And you really are a bit of a Rembrandt, this is rather good”.

Then he sat down in a high-backed leather chair and said, “we’re all agreed – and this chart confirms it – the job is yours, if you want it”. “Aren’t there other people to see?” “No, I’ve seen three others, and they were boring at lunch, and had no ideas in their heads. But you must have questions to ask”. Well I did, rather a big one, but he went on, “the job’s full time, and I can afford a salary of £25,000 with the usual terms and conditions. Five weeks off a year, plus bank holidays, obviously, double time at weekends, treble on bank holidays, if for some reason you really have to work them. I’m trying to work out a pension scheme system at the moment, which I think would mean that after 25 years – assuming you wanted the job, and wanted to stay here so long – you could retire on full pay, but I can’t promise you that because it’s not tried and tested, so if you prefer, we can make contributions to another scheme, you might have one already [I didn’t]. Oh, and obviously, lunch is free, and if you get bored of us here, or just need a quiet break, you can use my account for lunch at the village pub”.

My mouth was flapping like a landed fish. That money was more than the both of us brought in. “Maybe you’d best go home and ask your wife, and let me know tomorrow?” “No, it’s a yes, when do you want me?” So I started on the Monday.

That autumn and spring were hard work, but fulfilling, and we couldn’t believe the money coming in. I sorted out those pot plants on the porch, put water lilies in with the koi, planted a herb garden, roses, put up polytunnels for the vegetables (he said no glass, not with children and animals around), and planted them, laid down the croquet lawn, planted the beginnings of the orchard, and got a digger in for a pond by the brook, for the geese. And it was a ringside seat on a show with some very interesting and entertaining characters. The Boss was an MP back then, so he was often out and about, and Ze used to drive him. The children had a nanny. But then the nanny wanted to go. Or maybe Ze wanted her to go. I couldn’t quite tell. And then she left. They were talking about it at lunch one day – I’d learnt not to call it dinner – and Ze said he wasn’t prepared to do all the laundry and ironing and dusting, he’d look after the kids (there were four of them) but not the household chores. Well, my Jackie excels at laundry and ironing and dusting. Our house is like a new pin, always has been. So I blurted out “my wife could do that for you”. “Really?” “Yes, she does cleaning already, and takes in ironing, and a bit more work’s always welcome”. “But this is a lot of work – really, probably a full-time job as housekeeper, do you think she’d put up with that?” “I’ll ask her, if you like”.

And that’s how she became their housekeeper. They interviewed her, fair and square, like me – only, that day, I was sent down to the pub for lunch – and Matthew was bowled over by her orderliness. Jack always had a place for everything, and put everything straight back in its place. She knew what was needed to be done on Tuesday for Friday, if you know what I mean. Apparently Ze wasn’t so hot on that, but the children adored him, so it was what Matthew used to call “division of labour – let everyone do what they do best”. And her money was the same as mine (she was chuffed about that for more reasons than just the money) and we bought our council house (later I learnt how much the Boss hated that) and then we sold it and got a bigger place with a loan from the Family Fund – that was their own personal trust, that they let employees into. Our feet were under the table.

Comfortable, we were, maybe too comfortable. I’m a boring man, I don’t like change and excitement, but sometimes I see a new shrub or tree in a nursery and I give it a go. The kids were teenagers now, the Farm had grown, as he’d built a house for his parents, and also a crazy little Hermitage, a retreat house, for religious people. I’m Methodist, we didn’t do retreats. But all of a sudden Jack had 25 more sets of bedlinen to keep in order. It wasn’t used all the time, and rarely fully, but when she first got the job, she’d said “I could do all that by Wednesday lunchtime”, and I said, “well, you’d best do it slowly and make it last to payday”. She was busier now. And she loved it. She made him buy her a bigger washing machine. They had a lot of guests, some of them rich and powerful and interesting, and she earwigged on their conversations. She tried to tell me about them, but I did my best not to listen. I warned her not to get the reputation of a gossip or she’d be out on the street. Apparently more things went on in that Hermitage than you’d expect from religious people “on retreat”. All four of the kids of the house had dalliances there, too.

I got quite close to the Boss. He was old enough to be my father, but he never pulled that sort of rank. He was fascinated by what I knew, and he was surprisingly clever, for an educated man, about what he didn’t. The year he was eighty, which was a great fandango, because he got some big medal from the king, and everyone wanted a slice of the action – he even had to go to Brasil for the Wildlife Fund he’d set up there, so they could make speeches at him – but that was later in the year. In the Spring he had another stroke. Not as bad as the one he had after Ze died five years before, but bad enough to infuriate him. He lost a little mobility in the left side, again, and a tiny bit of speech. I wouldn’t say more than that. But he was so angry. One morning he came down to one of the polytunnels where I was sorting out tomatoes, I saw him in the distance, leaning on two sticks, and wondered about trying to help him, or whether I’d end up on sticks if I offered. “Joe! You won’t believe what those bloody bastards have done.” “Which ones are those?” “My sodding children.” I thought it was some sort of game, so I said “I’ve always found them kindly and well-mannered people”. “My arse, are they”. “What’s happened?” “They’ve bought me an electric wheelchair. Like some bloody invalid. It’s like they’re hurrying me into my grave”. “Come on, they’re just trying to be kind, you’ve not been well lately, it’s just a prop for you, that’s all”. And then his tone changed. “I’m not afraid to die, Joe. I’m not even afraid no longer to exist – I’ve had a marvellous life, I don’t need another, but if I get one, it’s all bonus. No, the problem is decrepitude”. I remember the word. I looked it up in the dictionary after, but you could tell from how he used it what he meant. “I am NOT living in a bloody wheelchair”. And then he was quiet for a moment, and looking at my work, with approval, and suddenly “Oh sod it, the leg’s going again”. I grabbed his arm, and held him up. That was about as intimate as I’d been with another man, apart from Harry when he was a baby, but that doesn’t count. He was clearly in pain, and I asked if he’d like me to send for help. “NO”. “Then, can I offer you an arm back to the house, and maybe we’ll say no more about it?” He accepted this, and I delivered him to the conservatory. An unusual burden, lop-sided. I didn’t tell his children. The wheelchair soon disappeared (it turned up in a cellar after he died).

We were invited to parties too, both family ones, and the bigger more formal ones they had a few times a year. Jack loved them. I wasn’t so keen, but there was always someone on the edge to talk to, and always people to watch. I often spoke to the Boss’s father. He was very down-to-earth, often helped us on the farm, or in the aviaries. I used to tell him not to – he was getting on – but he said he needed the exercise and “some honest sweat”. One Christmas party, it was when the kids were teenagers, we were all there. Kate and Harry got on well with the Boss’s kids, and there were others around as well. Jack was queening it up, not having to help with the catering for once, and she was in search of autographs. The Boss used to invite people he’d interviewed, and they often showed up. And I was minding my own business, drinking a beer (I’d given up on the Champagne thing – Matthew was right about the hiccups! – and a glamorous lady sidled up and asked me how I came to be there. I said I was the gardener and she seemed quite fascinated. Apparently she was new to the area – had arrived with her husband in the next village but two – and Matthew and Ze had met them at something and invited them along.

“I’ve got a garden that’s really too large for me to cope with – I’m sure you’re busy here, but I wonder, would you be able to come and give me some advice one time?” I’m an obliging sort of bloke, and I said I’d be happy to, and I’d be a liar if I didn’t admit I’d noticed her curves and peaks and so on. My wife was a strong woman – you can’t heft loads of linen from the Hermitage to the washing machines at First and Last without developing a bit of muscle – but this lady, Izzy, I discovered, was gym-toned. And she was educated, you could tell that, and very posh, you could tell that too, her eyes had something that made me want to keep looking at them, only, I kept looking down at my beer. I knew this was a place I didn’t want to go, mustn’t go. She gave me her card and said “call me when you’re free to give me some advice”. I put it in my wallet. But when I got home, I didn’t tear it up.

Early in the New Year she came to First and Last, asking to see me. Bold as brass, she rang that bell at the front door. It was cold and frosty that year, there wasn’t much digging to do, so I was in my “office” in the courtyard (originally designed as a garage for a large car) looking through seed and bulb and shrub catalogues. A knock on the door, and it was Matthew, and “there’s Izzy here to see you – she wants your advice!”. I came out of the office and closed the door, and we chatted, and Izzy said, “Matthew, could you possibly spare him for the afternoon? I know if I don’t get started soon, I shall be too late for the Spring”. Moments later, I was sitting in her car, being driven at breakneck speed down the country roads. We reached our destination – a big Victorian house with a handsome front garden, and every prospect of the same at the back – but what you couldn’t miss, although I think she meant me to miss it, the speed she was going, was the house name – “Rectory”.

We pottered in the gardens for half an hour, then she invited me in for a drink. She didn’t have beer, so I opted for red wine. She asked me to help her with the cork; I put my hands on hers. It was a screwcap. Ten minutes later we were in bed.

No, it makes no sense. I’m not that kind of man. Only, obviously, I was. Happily married for nearly twenty years, two nice clever children, good jobs, money coming in, what did I need of this excitement? Maybe it was excitement I needed. Or wanted. I thought about “mid-life crisis” but we were both in our thirties, it was too soon for that. She clicked her fingers, and I did her bidding. I won’t deny I enjoyed every minute of it. At the time. Still remember it now. But not just the once; you see, I went back. We met on Sunday mornings. I was supposed to be going to chapel – Jackie was too busy fiddling with lunch to bother with it – and Izzy never went to church, but her husband, the Rector, did, and he took their kids with him. It gave us nearly two hours in a motel on the edge of Oxford. She paid. I felt kept. But also wanted. And not just for being a good earner, or solid, or dependable, or quiet, or nice, or salt of the bloody earth. I won’t say what she said she wanted me for, but it made me feel good. Until afterwards. And then the guilt crowded in. Until the next time.

This went on for a couple of months, into the Spring, heavy work in the garden, and I think I was more tired than I realised. We had our tryst in the motel, and after doing my duty, I fell asleep in her arms. When I woke, it was 1 o’clock. Dinnertime. Dinner-on-the-table time. And I was stark naked, in a motel room, with a woman not my wife, and over half an hour away. And I could smell her perfume on me, so I had to shower. And whilst I did, she sat on the side of the bath and said “we can get away from all this – Hugh won’t miss me, and I’m sure Jackie won’t miss you, we could go to London and get a flat together.” “Paid for with what?” “I’ve got money, I used to work properly, and I was born with some, it’s all still there, saved and ready. We could live it up in the capital, instead of this dead backwater”. I dressed, and I left. And I was 45 minutes late for Sunday dinner. Wife, both children, and the in-laws, all waiting.

“I thought I’d get petrol - heard it was cheap at that supermarket – traffic jams, and then a tractor” it was a gabble of lies. My mother-in-law said “we’ve just been on that road, it seemed fine then – isn’t it funny how quickly the roads can change?” Jack said “well, it’s not entirely ruined, and Dad has carved”. As she served me my plate, standing behind me, I seemed to sense her sniffing me. Surely I’d got rid of Izzy’s perfume? But what if the soap in the motel was conspicuously different from the one I always used at home? I don’t understand these things, I’m not cut out for this stuff.

She was cold with me for several days. On the Wednesday night I couldn’t bear it any more and said “Jack, we need to talk about Sunday”. “No we don’t”. “But …” “You might, I don’t. If you are staying here, at home, being a husband, and being a father, and doing your job, then there is absolutely nothing I need to know”. So we never talked, never said a word about how we felt.

I’d already been blocking Izzy’s messages and calls. That weird stuff about going to London had freaked me. I hate London. I didn’t want a new life. I liked this one. And it seemed, which was a surprising thing to think of someone so superior to myself, that her need was greater than mine. I was just being a stupid arse. She was getting in training for a new life. And then she came to First and Last again.

I was helping Giles muck out a parrot aviary. Hard work, but enjoyable, and it makes great fertiliser. Giles melted away as Izzy appeared. I never knew what that man knew. He was very private. I’d once been driving back late at night from a conference the Boss had sent me on, and seen Giles’s car at a layby a little way out of the village that had a certain reputation. Maybe he preferred his intimacies to be anonymous. But Izzy didn’t care if anyone was listening or not. “You’ve been ignoring me”, she said, in a loud voice. “It’s over, it was great fun, but it’s over”. “I’m leaving Hugh, and I’m going to tell him, once I do, and he’ll have to divorce me, it will be all round the village”. “Poor Hugh”. “Come with me, you know you want to, you’ve never been so alive as you were with me”. That was arguably true. But there are different kinds of alive-ness. “Izzy, it’s finished, please go away.” And then I threw my shovel at the wire, which I knew would make the parrots scream, and make Izzy jump. Fortunately, she walked back to the courtyard, and jumped back into her car.

I can’t say I never saw her again – they were part of the Boss’s social circle. Or that there weren’t other repercussions. The minister at chapel asked why I’d not been attending, and I said there was a lot of work on the Farm. “I can’t imagine Lord Chapman making anyone work on a Sunday”, she said, and as one lie was just going to lead to more, I went to see him – in that library where I’d first been interviewed, and only since been in to get Valerie to approve my gardening expenses. Which she always did, because they trusted me to tell the truth.

So, I said my piece, that I’d not been going to chapel, and I’d blamed work, and the minister didn’t seem to believe it. “Can I ask what you were doing instead of going to chapel?” Deep breath, long pause, “I was doing something I shouldn’t have been, and which I have stopped”. He pondered it for a while. “Look, if I’m asked, I can’t admit to making you work on a Sunday, because I never would, but I can suggest that you were making yourself work, because of a crisis of faith, and perhaps Reverend Kirsty could let you know she’d be happy to talk with you. Would that work? It doesn’t sound entirely untrue. I don’t need to know, but perhaps you’ve have a crisis of faith in your marriage, or in yourself, and she’s a good listener”.

It did work, although I didn’t go to talk to her. Sometimes we saw Hugh and Izzy at parties – she didn’t leave him, it was all fantasy – and I thought it was dead and buried. I thought I’d got away with it.

Some years later, the Boss died. He was 84, and I’d worked with him for 34 years, Jackie for 33. The family called us in the night, so we wouldn’t hear it first on the news. We’d had lunch with him that day – he’d prepared it himself, as he did, although on a Friday it was always a “cold collation”, but with salmon he’d cooked first thing in the morning. It was a shock.

His younger son, Jos, had already taken on a lot of the farm work, with Giles, and he and his wife and four kids were going to move into First and Last, so I was hoping things wouldn’t change. I don’t like change. I was 62 that year, Jack was 61. But there was change – not for me, for her. She just couldn’t get on with Amanda (that was Jos’s wife). She was used to HER way of doing things, and Amanda wanted HERS. I overheard one or two arguments, and I’ll admit, Jack didn’t sound so rational. She’d always been hyper-efficient, orderly, everything in its place, but Amanda wanted new places, and Jackie couldn’t adapt, and one day, she blew a gasket, and resigned.

They were all very particular that I must stay on, always welcome, blah, blah, and I had no intention of leaving! Jack was too proud to look for paid work, and anyway, her pension had come through – the Boss’s scheme had worked – so she went to work for the church, cleaning, and polishing. It was there that the problem first surfaced. She’d tidy away the bookmarks for the Sunday readings. Snuff out the candle that was meant to last all week. And once she started vacuuming during a funeral. The vicar wondered if she was quite well.

Jack, much though I love her, at home all the rest of the day, became a menace. She would wash, clean, vacuum, dust, polish, things that had only just been sorted out. She’d take things out of the cupboard, lay them on the table, then put them straight in the dishwasher. She’d make my breakfast at 3 in the morning, and after I’d turned off the smoke alarm say “well, it’s here now, so eat it up”. I don’t tackle things. I thought she was just grieving for her work, really. She had her pension and then she’d go shopping, and stockpiling things that we didn’t need. She even made a store of lady’s things which, at 61, she’d not needed for some time. First and Last became my retreat.

It was our eldest grandchild who opened the doors. “Grandad, I think Nanna might have Alzheimer’s”. That was another thing I didn’t want to talk about, but Cleo (she was Kate’s first child) was having none of it. Kate and Harry weren’t so keen, but we got her assessed. It wasn’t good. I had hoped for “early onset”. They were basically saying she’d been barmy for years, but living in a clearcut little world that she could rely on, which kept her sane, and we’d not really noticed.

She started wandering. One time she called the police when I came in from work, thinking I was a burglar. Twice she set the kitchen on fire. They took the church keys off her. The slide was very fast.

Harry said “we’ve got to find a home for her, where she’ll be safe”. “She’s always been safe with me”. “Are you really prepared to be cooped up in this house every hour of every day with her just in case she does something crazy?” And, of course, I wasn’t. My home was First and Last, the aviaries and the polytunnels, and the croquet lawn, and my little office. I was still fit enough to work, still useful. To be honest, if I’d had to be with her all day, I think I might have hurt her. I couldn’t say that to my children, but I did risk saying it to our doctor. He made the application straightaway.

It was a nice enough home, thanks to her pension, two villages away, the village where Hugh had once been the rector. He’d left to be an archdeacon, whatever that is. We decked her room with things she’d remember, but she complained about the clutter and how much dusting she’d have to do. We said she didn’t need to do dusting. “I’m not letting anyone else do it”. So, we took some of the clutter away, and gave her a duster.

She struggled to recognise the children, which made them both cry. The grandchildren were tougher about it. Then she struggled to recognise me. I cut my visits down – the kids said I was upsetting myself walking there and back to see a stranger. I went for Sunday lunches – they called it “Sunday dinner”, like we always had – and the food was good. We sat at little tables of six or eight, the families coming in to see their decrepit relatives. Jack was one of the youngest.

Then one Sunday, as I was sitting down next to her, she said, “Oh, you’ve turned up then, for Sunday dinner. I’ve kept it for you. What happened? Did that bitch stand you up? Traffic jams and tractors, my fucking arse”.

That cut me to the quick. She’d never in all our forty-odd years of marriage used that kind of language. I didn’t know what to say, or do; I never do. Then it was if someone had put a new slide in, and she changed her demeanour. “This lamb’s nice, isn’t it? Not as nice as I used to make. For Joe, and the children. He was a bit of a louse though. But you seem nice”, she said, stroking my hand.


Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
August 2015














Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Grumpy

GRUMPY

There were clearly those who didn’t approve. And not just strangers, family too. But it was my father’s choice, and my mother obviously didn’t care, and there I was, a year-old baby, lodged with my grandfathers. They were 70 and 64 at the time. Grumpy – only he didn’t become that until I re-Christened him a year or so later – had just retired from being a bigshot in Oxford University. I don’t think he’d enjoyed it very much. So I suppose they were looking forward to a quiet retirement in the countryside, in their big, white, house. And then I arrived. They say my father stayed for a few days, and then dashed on to sort out his lodgings for his new job in Cambridge, leaving these old men with a baby girl. He says that I was obviously completely at home with them, even then, but I don’t believe him. I was later; later I adored them both, but then? I’d only just had a 15 hour journey, and there was neither sight nor sound nor smell of my mother. But then if Father is to be believed, there hadn’t been for quite a long time before.

Children are always the shrapnel of failed marriages. I was. And though I was determined he shouldn’t be, so was my son. Father was something of a specialist in the failed marriages department – he married and divorced four times before accepting that he wasn’t the marrying kind, and just having girlfriends for his supposedly more mature years. My mother was his first. He was a professor of astronomy at Sao Paulo at the time, and had bought himself – with his fathers’ money – a swanky apartment, and was getting in with a smart set. That’s where my mother came in. She wasn’t the smartest – her father was generally considered to be a gangster – but she was very rich, and very beautiful. And also tall. My father always had a thing about his height. He and his brother were adopted together – from a Brasilian orphanage – and maybe it was just nature, or maybe it was just that Uncle Jos got better nutrition sooner, but Jos was a great lanky giant of a man, and my father, though he had the looks, seemed impish by comparison. I suppose he compensated with charm. I’ve met a great many, too many, women who’ve commented on my father’s charm. It might get a girl into bed, but it certainly doesn’t cement a marriage. I have a charming wedding photo of my parents – it was years before I worked out that my father was standing a step higher, outside the cathedral.

What mystifies me now, always has, is why he went to such lengths to bring me home, when he clearly had no intention of rearing me. I say “home”, it was his home, not mine, I was born in Sao Paulo. But he told Nina, my mother, that he was coming to some family do, and would she come? (knowing she’d decline) and off we went. But he’d already got the Cambridge job, and moved everything he wanted shipped to England to his university office. I have a feeling it was some days before my mother even noticed he wasn’t there. Or me.

But all I can have is a feeling, because I never really knew my mother, and certainly never had an important conversation with her. Grumpy took me there, to Brasil, when I was 7 or 8 and arranged lunch with her. She was terribly glamorous, I could see that. Was I impressed by it? I don’t know. I certainly saw nothing of myself in her, but I was a slightly podgy little girl at the time, and she was a tall, tanned, toned, manicured, beauty. She was impressed that I could speak Brasilian. I was unimpressed that she could speak no English. She told me to work hard at my studies, and I wondered if she’d ever studied anything at all, apart from her face in the mirror. I knew Grumpy – and Father – had worked hard at school and university, and from this strange woman, it didn’t ring true.

So that was my mother. She died when I was 10. She was in a helicopter that crashed into the sea. The pilot died, and another passenger, a woman. Father said there was something going on, and in a tone which wasn’t really in accord with his supposedly liberal credentials, that she was “probably a lesbian”. He said that about a lot of his failed relationships, though, so I wasn’t minded to take it too seriously. Not, of course, that it would have mattered. What mattered was the bitterness in his voice as he said it.

I’ve “dabbled” as they say. I think all my generation has. But it wasn’t for me. Uncle Tommy – who lives here on my farm – says we’re both Nobbists. I imagine he made that word up. He makes a lot of things up. He once said, admittedly, he was very drunk, after a very good evening, “well, of course it makes sense to try out a twat if you know what you’re doing with it, but I never did, and unfortunately Ingrid married one”.

That was my unlamented husband, Laurent. But we are getting ahead of ourselves in the story.

There’s another element to the tale, which is that my father was actually afraid of repercussions from his father-in-law. So he hid me with his fathers. As it happens, my mother’s father was assassinated the next year, during a bid to become a state governor. He left a lot of chaos, and a lot of money, of which a large slice landed on his only, and much loved, daughter. But in England, I knew nothing of such things, and grew up as a little English girl, and I thought my life was the sort of life everyone has.

You see, I knew nothing else, and it seemed entirely normal to me that my two grandfathers would be waiting for me at the school gate. Yes, they seemed older, but then Father says they’d seemed old when they’d done the same for him and his siblings, a generation before. They had adopted all four of them by the time Grumpy was 50, so I think back then they were 7,5,3 and 1. Father was 7, Uncle Tommy was 1. The marker between the two pairs – Father and Uncle Jos were blood brothers, and likewise Auntie Marie and Uncle Tommy were blood siblings – was the house – First and Last Passage. Grumpy had got it built, and they moved in, and the younger two remember nowhere else. Apparently there’d been a house before, in Barton, a dubious suburb of Oxford, which is where, as Father says “we learnt to be English”.

After a year or so my grandfathers were reconciled to the fact that Father was never going to come back and redeem me, and later on, when one of his wives suggested that I at least try moving in with them, I locked myself in my bedroom and howled. First and Last was my home – first, and, unless something surprising happens, last. And then “grandpae” died. I was six. I knew he was ill, and the sometimes people don’t get better and you don’t see them again. Afterwards, all the uncles and aunts were over me like the proverbial rash, so I enjoyed the attention. But Grumpy wasn’t the same. And then Great-Grandad, his father, died. And he sank lower. Then in the Autumn he had a stroke. Uncle Tommy virtually moved back home in those days, and it was when he picked up with his schoolboy sweetheart, Michael, whom he eventually married. So, something good came out of it. Between them, they bullied Grumpy back to life. It seemed to me to take ages in which it was Not Much Fun, but in reality it was only a few months.

And then we started to learn a new kind of normal. The house was much quieter without Grandpae – Grumpy, despite all that shouting in Parliament and on the radio and whatnot, was actually almost silent at home – but we did stuff together, like cooking, and collecting the eggs, and tending the kitchen garden (the little bit that Joe the gardener let us do). We weren’t alone, not during the day, because of Joe, and his wife Jackie, who was the housekeeper, and had helped with the cooking when Grumpy was ill, and there was Valerie and then Debs, Grumpy’s PAs, both great fun, although very different types, and finally Giles the Bird Man, who came in for lunch, always late, and left early. He was a real lord – a marquess. I didn’t find that out for ages, either. Born to a great big house and acres and riches, and gave it all up to remain a zookeeper. His family despaired of him. I found him hugely romantic. I spent hours watching him looking after the birds – of course, I thought he didn’t know, but he did.

After Great-Grandad died, the Dower House was vacant, so Uncle Jos and Auntie Amanda moved in there, at the bottom of the garden, with my four cousins. Well, there were four eventually. I never checked if there was any paperwork, but there was some sort of informal arrangement that they would be my guardians if Grumpy couldn’t be, and Father went along with this. Amanda and Aunt Lucy (who wasn’t really an aunt at all, but a neighbour, and a great friend) were the closest to a mother I ever had. Apart from Grumpy.

So I grew, and I drew, and I painted, and I wrote, and I kept my head down at school and passed the required exams. That was something of a family tradition. They’d none of them much liked school – Father wished he’d been sent to a private one – but they did what was required, and eventually, more interesting doors opened.

When I was about 13 I’d written a poem I was showing to Grumpy, and he was unusually impressed – if you can imagine, in a not-grandfatherly way. By chance it was a day when his editor was coming from London for lunch. “Have a look at this, Abby, see what you think”. “Poetry’s not really my thing”. “But I bet you know someone whose thing it is?” And I got published. At 13. But it was drawing and painting that interested me most. We had some beautiful pictures in the house by Aunt Lucy’s son, Oscar, who had died of heroin. He had sketched it as it was being built, and when it was finished, and had also drawn or painted the other houses they owned – including our lovely little house in Italy. But he’d also done a mad thing, I think for an anniversary, of “Favourite Things”, when he’d asked all the household – the parents, and the four children – to name a couple of favourite things, and he’d paint them in. The finished product became quite a vogue, and I think Grumpy ended up with three of them, over several years, which, if you know the people, is rather fun, as their favourite things change. Father’s didn’t. It was always his telescope. So, what with the house pictures – and Oscar had an exhibition called “The Birth And Death Of Buildings” which went round the world, but started with the birth of First and Last Passage – and these family ones, I was inspired to try my hand.

Grumpy was keen on the idea that I might go to art college. I’d thought he might think it a poor alternative to a “proper” university, but he said “not at all, as a family, we’ve done all those, let’s do something new”. I was fifteen when he died, and that little conversation resolved me to keep going. I prefer not to remember his dying. We had a lot of fun together while he lived, and I was lucky to have him so long. And he would have been a cantankerous monster as an invalid, so it’s as well that the final stroke killed him. Uncle Jos and Auntie Amanda (and my cousins), after much hesitation, moved into First and Last, and Uncle Tommy and Uncle Michael moved into the Dower House. My family was not mended, but completed in a new way.

So we began to live a new kind of normal life. If anything, Uncle Jos’s regime was even gentler than Grumpy’s. He almost never raised his voice – and never to me. Auntie Amanda used to lay the law down about how everything must be done, and Uncle Jos would argue, and she would win, and he’d concede, and then just do things his own way anyway. And she’d say “I told you so”, and they both knew it was nonsense. Is that how marriage works? I saw it at close hand, and yet never learnt it.

London was a breath of stale air after the country. I loved every minute of it. I couldn’t manage a whole week, so I worked out a timetable with no classes or lectures on Mondays, and I came back to First and Last every Saturday night, or first thing Sunday morning, and stayed until the end of Monday. Grumpy could get up for the earliest train on the Tuesday, but I couldn’t, and besides, it was more expensive to travel early. Money-wise, I was kept on what I now realise was quite a short leash, and rightly so, of course, as it was a lot more money than most of the other children had. We were children, really, though we’d have sneered at the term. Higher education is a way of keeping people young. It’s life itself that matures us. What we learnt was more of the mind and maybe the soul, than of the heart. We were oddly-developed creatures.

There was lots of sex, and drugs, and pompous conversations about nothing very much right into the small hours. Again, and again. Boyfriends – and one girlfriend – came and went. I got the Family Fund to buy me a house – a whole house! – in Chelsea, just off the King’s Road. How popular was I? My cousin Zack - with whom I’d grown up at First and Last – came by one time, and was visibly appalled. I felt rather smug at first, at having shocked him. Then less so. I resolved to tone down my act. I seduced one of my lecturers. Well, “seduced” is the wrong word. Laurent was so open to a shag with virtually anyone (except men, oddly, I’m not sure why he drew that line, but he did), that he was easy game. Or maybe I was. I don’t really believe in seduction. It’s either consent, or it’s rape. Or possibly accident. But I wanted him, and he gave every impression of wanting me. He was MUCH older. And French, with a very slinky French accent, which I later noticed disappeared when he was on the telephone talking about money. And hugely attractive. And a grown-up, officially, of course. And he was rather a good artist – despite everything, I still have some of his pictures on my walls, and I hope one day Guy will take them. And by now I was an MA student, which somehow made things better, and we became an item.


What did he see in me? Back then, I didn’t think much of myself. Family and friends told me I was good-looking, but then I was the little girl with the dead mother, the absent father, the dead grandfathers, what wouldn’t they say to console me on my lot? And it was no secret that I was an heiress. Grumpy had made a lot of money, and the Family Fund was loaded. What people didn’t know was that my mother’s money was considerably more. I didn’t know. I wasn’t terribly interested. Laurent had at least latched on to Grumpy’s money. It’s so hard when you’ve fallen out of love to understand how, and whether, and even if, you ever were in love. I am pretty certain I loved him. I am hopeful that he loved me. But now, not for my sake, but for Guy’s.

He badgered me to marry him. He said “it’s so much more romantic to marry, these days, than to live in sin!”. As if he cared about sin! Was he getting his claws in to my money? Well, yes, probably he was. But we did the marriage thing – the family way, in the village church in Shelford, with the reception at First and Last. Everyone was charming to him, with distrust oozing from every pore, apart from Great-Aunt Alice. Grumpy’s sister, who was nearly 100 and said “what a greaseball”.

I was determined to carry on with my studies, and my art, and my poetry, but Laurent wanted children. He said there was no one to carry on his line. I said “so what?” I knew I wasn’t maternal, and I also knew I couldn’t give a child what I had known in childhood. You might think “what, all those bereavements?”, but that’s not the thing. I was always loved. Father was a let-down, yes, and every so often turned up to remind me so, but First and Last was full of life – indoors and out – and full of people, and full of love. So whilst, yes, I had some very sad losses, I always knew I would be looked after, always be loved, always belong. I really didn’t think I could give even a fraction of that to a child. And I wanted to paint, and to write.

He tricked me. Of course, it’s cheating to blame. I took care of my own affairs in that regard, but one night I’d forgotten, and he said “come on, let’s go for it, I’m in the mood”. And so I went along with him. He’d never take precautions himself. Funny that – him being French! And I knew. I just knew. I said the next morning “I’m going to the chemist” and he said “Oh come on, what are the odds? Those pills can make you really sick, you know”. Of course he’d had more than enough girlfriends to teach him that. And then it became more and more clear, with much illustrative vomiting, and I asked him to come with me, and finally he yelled “you are not aborting my child”. And then it became too late.

Usually it is the child that comes kicking and screaming into the world. In my case it was the mother. If I were being honest, I’d admit that I did rather like some aspects of being pregnant. I liked the fuss. I liked being able to look after my little intruder. I liked imagining what he’d be like – I was quite sure it was “he”. Of course, I wound Laurent up about it being a girl. I knew how my father had been so desperate for a boy. It took him six girls to get the desired result. I was the first. Laurent was the same as my father. The scales were falling from my eyes back then, at last.


But, a boy it was, frabjous day. Bloody agony, and all to give birth to a toad. Laurent got there just after. He had been “elsewhere”. Another scale fell. The child was entirely healthy, and I was unharmed, but resolved never, ever, to do this perilous and awful thing again. Laurent gushed and cooed over us both. On my bed of pain and exhaustion I felt almost amorous for him. Once the muck and grime was cleaned, the baby seemed quite nice, really. I couldn’t quite think of him as mine, although clearly my husband did. Not to the extent to cleaning up after him. Of course. They chucked you out of hospital quite soon then – still do – and we were on our own. He was back to “work”, and I had this creature. We called him Guy. It worked equally in French and English. He had argued for names that wouldn’t, but I wasn’t having it – beginning of rebellion, perhaps? I had given birth to an Englishman. Don’t misunderstand me – my own genetic history is entirely Brasilian, and I am very proud of it – but I didn’t want his Frenchness taking over our child. And it’s at that point that I started to think of him as mine, rather than as something imposed and unwelcome.

I got the post-natal glooms, of course. I think I had them even before he was born. There was a Christening down in Shelford parish church – but of course, no Grumpy to do it now. The parish priest was nice enough. I asked Tommy, Michael, and Jos, to be godfathers, Amanda to be godmother. Laurent didn’t seem able to think of anyone. Shortly after, Uncle Michael came to see me in Chelsea and said “I don’t think you’re very well”. “I’m fine”. “No, you’re not, you’re just English”. “I’m artistic, you know that”. “Don’t talk bollocks. You’ve got post-natal depression, and it’ll wear you down, and wear the baby down. The Family Fund can give you a nanny to help, so you can take time out, write, draw, do your thing, be yourself, come back to us”. I cried. Uncle Michael was a very unusual man. He hated babies and children and family life, and yet, and yet, did he really? Maybe he just said it. He certainly had a very strong sense that anyone married must continue their own life, whether they have children or not. And he was a trustee of Grumpy’s family fund – and also of my mother’s fund that was waiting for my 30th birthday.

So, we got a nanny, and it got better. Laurent couldn’t help implying that I was slacking and lazy, but I got out, and did things, and felt happier when I got home and had to do other things. He was rarely there. When he was, he billed and cooed over his son and heir, but he never changed a nappy, never learnt how to feed him without getting angry. He taught him a little French. But mostly he was “out”. Sometimes he claimed to be giving lectures (for which he wasn’t ostensibly paid) or appeasing “clients” (ditto). He was in the West End, shoving my rather small allowance up his nose, and into the cleavages of the local tarts, if he couldn’t get a student to do it for free.

In personality, he was a big man. I’d grown up in a very quiet house with my very quiet grandfather, and even when my uncle and aunt and cousins invaded, it was still surprisingly quiet. He wanted things this way, and when contradicted, he shouted. Loudly. I didn’t like it. The baby didn’t like it. At first I shouted back. Then I started to realise it achieved nothing. Unfortunately – because he was, as Grumpy used to say of certain people, with utter distaste, “emotionally incontinent” – by then friends and family had started to notice.

One night, Uncle Tommy and Uncle Michael asked if I’d come out for a little drink with them. Anya the nanny was free, and I almost gasped a willing yes! They didn’t even come to the house, but met me at a nice pub not far away. O the bliss of being in a pub again! It was Chelsea, so it wasn’t unusual to order a bottle of Champagne. Or three. Or four. My uncles clearly were not driving home that night. Uncle Michael took a different driving seat:

“Ingrid, we’re worried about you. You aren’t happy. And your little boy isn’t happy. And, if we dare be frank, well, we don’t think Laurent does you any good”.
“He does his best ….”
“No he bloody well doesn’t. He does whatever he sodding well wants, and he does it on your money – do you really want to live like that?”
“But what can I do?”
“You know what you can do”
“I don’t want to hurt Guy”
“And living with that monster isn’t going to hurt him?” - Uncle Michael seemed actually angry now – “all the shouting and beating you down? How is that going to teach him to be a human being with any respect for women? Or for himself?”
“But what do I do?”
“Leave”, said Uncle Tommy.
“Where to?”
“Oh for heaven’s sake, a thousand places – we have the family flat in Vauxhall, Tommy and I both have spare rooms, First and Last is rattling with emptiness, as is the Dower House, how many places do you want?”
“I’d hate to take Guy out of nursery before I’ve decided where I want to be.” All the places they’d suggested were too far for that.
It was quite for a moment, and then Uncle Michael said “OK, I’ve got an idea – Aunt Lucy. She’s still got that flat in Park Lane, you could walk Guy to school from there”.
“Oh, come on, she’s ninety-something, we can’t ask her”
“Yes we can, and we will. You cannot live like this. And there’s another reason why”.
“Oh?”
“Your mother’s trust fund.”
“Oh, that!”
“Yes, quite a bit of that, and it’s coming up fast. Did you see the last accounts we sent?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
“On second thoughts we might not have sent them in case your husband saw them. Here, these are them – or is it “they”? ” he said to Uncle Tommy, as gave me a sheaf of papers full of mind-blotting numbers. Just look at the last page, and the big figure in bold.
“What the ….?”
“Yes, it’s a hell of a lot, and if you hang on to this miserable man who is making your life miserable, and your son’s, then you’ll have to share it with him, and in my amateur opinion, he has done absolutely fuck all to merit a penny of it”.
“I don’t suppose I have, either”.
“That isn’t the point”.

And so it began. First time I broached it I had a tirade of abuse, and Laurent stormed out of the house. Second time I put an official document – very nice paper – on the table. It gave him the house and £20,000 a year for life. He spat and tore it up and stormed out. I was rather surprised by the spitting. As Grumpy might have murmured quietly “wrong sort of French, I fear”.

Third time the document said £15,000.

Fourth time, as I was saying “I’ve got another offer here …” he stopped me before I could bring the document from my pocket and said “put the first deal back on the table, and I’ll trade”.

And so my marriage ended. And just in time. I was a couple of months into my 30th year. Laurent only knew about Grumpy’s Family Fund, and knew also that I was one of thirteen grandchildren. He’d got the freehold on a four-bedroom house in Chelsea, and a nice pension. He had no idea what I was about to inherit.

The news broke by mistake because I had a first night of some paintings. The write-up called me an “heiress” and the most “eligible catch in London”, which wasn’t really the point of the exhibition. He sent me a letter saying only, “BITCH”. He could be quite vernacular in English when he wanted to be.

By then we – Guy and I, and Anya the nanny - were living in Aunt Lucy’s apartments in Park Lane. That’s where I learnt of Uncle Jos’s death. We were all smacked sideways by it. Such a vibrant man. Only 60. O, it was awful. Auntie Amanda was in pieces, fragile, broken, pieces, that she stuck together every morning, and which fell apart by every evening, dissolved by vodka. My cousins were in a state of shock too. They thought their father was immortal. He was like that – like a tree in the wood, that’s always been there, always sheltered you from the rain – and now he was felled.

I offered to buy the house, and Auntie Amanda accepted. We’d both thought long and hard about it, but on both sides, it was really a “gut decision” as Grumpy would have said. She hated the place, and much of what it stood for – not us, she loved us all – but the powerlessness of being caught up in a family with a big house you have to live in. And for me, well, it was my home. And I wanted it for me, and for all of them. Auntie Amanda moved out straightaway – she’d had her own place in London for years. She used to make out it was hers and Uncle Jos’s, but it was hers really. He went there often, but it was for a sort of naughty weekend, not to be in his own place. He had no resentment about it – that wasn’t his way. He saw that she needed a place of her own, and was glad she had it. But he preferred his.

So poor little Guy, at 4, I think, got wrenched from Park Lane to Shelford, and goodness, he didn’t like it! Not one bit. I don’t even think he missed his friends. He said the house was too big, and the street – which was some way away – was too quiet. And he fretted a lot, and I hadn’t a clue what to do. Uncle Tommy said “pets”. “What?” “Children love pets – get him a creature he loves, and he’ll learn to love the place it’s in – worked for me with the terrapins”. “Weren’t you in a lot of trouble over those?” “That isn’t the point”.

And Guy wanted a goat. What kind of 4-year-old boy wants a goat? But Tommy and Michael, mainly laughing their avuncular socks off, took us round to place after place to look at tiny little goatettes, and Guy got just more and more keen until Tommy said “if you don’t let him have one, he’s going to explode”. So, we got a little wannabe nannygoat. Guy wanted to milk it and make cheese and sell it. I will be told off by proper parents, but I allowed it in the house. It slept in the conservatory with the cat – the Siamese cat I’d bought. And Percy, the macaw, I’d inherited from Grumpy, and which my husband was so happy to see the back of. Actually, the goat didn’t make a great deal of mess. And by then, I had staff to sort out that sort of thing, although Guy actually did most of it on his own, tiny though he was. Such a stubborn, principled, little fellow. We don’t really see eye to eye, but I do admire that in him, and I’ve no idea where it’s from, because I’m not very strong, and his father was a chancer, but he is absolutely solid.

Would you believe, he’s now one of the biggest goat farmers in the south of England? And he does have a dairy that makes cheese. He’s also a Conservative MP. And a Cabinet minister. They say he is the first person in a century to be minister for agriculture who actually wanted to be. Mainly he farms dairy cattle, wheat, and sheep.


That’s as far as my knowledge extends, but he seems to have embraced the countryside. Maybe I’ve shared a little of Grumpy’s vision with him.


Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
August 2015









Saturday, 22 August 2015

Other People's Houses

OTHER PEOPLE’S HOUSES

To be honest, I fancied his brother more. Not the younger one, obviously. I was still sort of dating another guy, Harry, when Jos came along and made quite a hard play for me, in his soft and gentle kind of way. And I thought he was nice enough, but he’s not going to set the world on fire any time soon. We were at university, Oxford Brookes (yes, the “other” one), I was finishing off my PhD, and he was finishing off his diploma in social work. Harry was a high flyer in political science. His mind turned me on, but not enough else. And my mind turned elsewhere, although I didn’t finish with him. There was something about Jos that was appealing from the start, and yet an alarm bell went off in my head “do you really want an appealing guy?” But he kept up his courtship, delicately, politely, with coffee here, and the occasional lunch, and nothing taken too far. I almost wished he’d take things too far, just to see if I’d give in to him. No one wants to marry a nice guy. Well, not if he’s just a nice guy.

And then he said “come to dinner at my family’s place this Friday – we’re having a full house, and everyone can bring a friend”. So, I asked about the where and the when and the how, and he said he’d drive me there, and not drink, and drive me back, and I said yes. I’d never heard of this little village – apparently it was where he grew up. Not far out of town, but if you come to university in Oxford, you don’t notice the outlying villages, and I couldn’t afford to keep a car back then, so I didn’t get around. Jos did have a car, and a tiny little house, all of his own, as far as I could tell – no housemates, and he never mentioned a landlord. I assumed his family was well off.

He said it was “totally casual” when I asked him how to dress. I don’t know why I bothered, because I wouldn’t have believed any man whatever he said. So, it was the little black party frock. I didn’t have pearls, but I had a necklace of dark green gemstones – wish they were emeralds! - from a trip to Peru a couple of years before, that looked the part, and, as the autumn was getting cooler, I found a pashmina in a charity shop. I’ve never been so good at shoes, so the daywear flats would have to do – pity, in a way, as Jos was so much taller than me, but then if I was going as his date, and I wasn’t yet quite sure that I was, then at least it would make him look good. He did generally look good. He wasn’t film star, exactly, but very easy on the eye, and tall, and rangy – very long arms, which in daydream moments I sometimes imagined round me. Sometimes.

He called by at precisely the time he said, and I was ready at precisely the time, although I took my time, as you do. He came to the door, rather than tooting from the car, and waited until I’d gathered my things. “You look fantastic” he said. “Flatterer”, I replied. I’d have responded in kind, but I could only discern that for once he’d tried to iron his shirt. Maybe he really did mean “casual”. So then I started to worry that I was over-dressed.

“You’ve never told me much about your family – who am I going to meet?”
“Oh, just my parents, my grandad will probably be there, my sister if she’s home in time from America, and my big brother – he’s an academic at Cambridge, some sort of junior professor. My little brother’s at acting school in London and actually has a job at the moment, which is amazing everyone, especially him, so he can’t be there. Oh, and Aunt Lucy, and Colin – she’s not a real aunt, but she’s been like one all our lives, and Colin’s her husband, he’s a farmer”.
“And your parents, what do they do?”
“My father’s a journalist, and they look after a sort of smallholding, and they get by on that. They’re nice people, I’m sure you’ll like them”.

The car was very comfortable, but certainly not a show-off car, and we sped out of town to the little village of Shelford without obviously breaking any speed limits. I notice these things. My father was a GP, and he said that traffic accidents were what had put him off working in hospitals when he was a registrar, years before. The roads got smaller and then there was a little village, with a little church, just like thousands of others all over the country, and then we turned sharply up a small, heavily-treed lane. I was pretty sure it wasn’t any longer a public road, when a house, or rather, the walls of its courtyard, loomed into view.

“This is it”, said Jos, with a hint of apology. “It’s a mansion!” “Oh no, nothing like, it’s not as big as it looks”

It looked pretty big to me. We were parking in a courtyard bordered on one side by the wall whose tall open gates we had driven through, on two others by wings with what looked like garages on the ground floor, and bedrooms on the first, and on the other, by a grand portico and high double front doors, and on the top by another storey, with huge windows, and above that, a great glass dome. “They get by”, huh? I thought to myself.

As we got out of the car, the tall doors opened, and at first there was a flurry of madly barking dogs, and then a man of probably no more than average height, but heightened by the enormous parrot on his shoulder. I really did think Jos could have warned me. Not just about the parrot, but because I recognised him straightaway – he was a television presenter, who did a series of interviews about funerals and death, which I found sometimes cheesy, but often perceptive, the guy was a bit of a hero. And I was assuming he must be some sort of relation.

“My stranger son!” said the parrot man, flinging wide his arms to Jos, and they hugged, with a warmth his bearing didn’t initially suggest, “and, this must be Amanda?” he said extending a hand. It was only then that I noticed that the other hand was leaning on a walking stick. “I’m Matthew – Jos’s father – I’m sure he’s told you nothing about us, because he’s quite ashamed of us – and this is Percy, who is Son No. 1, and he likes girls and gay men, but rarely bites Jos for some reason”. I said hello to the parrot, who made a noise like a purring cat. “Come in, come in, there’s drinks to be had, and people to say hello to – your Grandad’s here, Jos, and I’m sure he’d love to meet Amanda – and [to me] while we sort that, what would you like to drink?”

I dithered. This one can be a bit of a test. He offered “We’ve Champagne, or wine of whatever colour, or a G &T, or anything soft and innocent, really, whatever you fancy”. I went for the Champagne, and he led us, limping slightly, into the house, and the hall, underneath that dazzling dome. The light was fading, but it was a quite brilliant space. A small girl hurtled out and threw herself, shouting “Uncle Jos!” at my probably –boyfriend, and he picked her up, and we all walked on. Then it was through the kitchen, where my host peeled off to get my drink, and into the conservatory to be introduced to Jos’s grandfather. He turned out to be a charming old man, who, despite being well into his 90s, leapt out of his chair to shake my hand. I was warned by a whisper that he was a little deaf, so I spoke firmly, and after a few niceties he started asking questions about my doctorate. It was obvious that he was not a formally educated man, but he was interested in the techniques of my research, and asked penetrating questions about bias which I wasn’t expecting. “And what are you going to do with all this learning?” “I’m going to try to turn it into public policy to make people’s lives better who don’t have families to do it for them”. “You don’t think addicts are a dead loss?” “No, you should never give up on anyone, you never know what they might be able to do one day, if they have the chance”. And he looked thoughtful, and I reckoned I’d won a point or two. Then he said “what percentage of them do come good?” “That’s the purpose of my research, sir” I said, “that’s exactly what I want to know, and why”. And then I realised I’d called a man “sir”! Goodness, what a place Jos had brought me to.

And then Jos’s brother arrived. He was much smaller than Jos – not just shorter, but on a smaller scale, although I later learnt they were blood brothers – and he was very dapper, very stylish, very charming, and very attractive. His opening line in the conservatory was “”Grandad, I see you have monopolised the prettiest girl in the room, as usual”, and his grandfather scowled, and he said “Hi, I’m Raf, I understand you’ve come with Jos, and we’re all very grateful that you’ve taken pity on him”. Now, that could have been really rude, to the point of nasty, but somehow it wasn’t, it was said with a twinkle, and knowing that Jos was listening, and Jos bantered back, and I realised it was what they did. But the twinkle in his eye was something that Raf did more often than at family gatherings. He really was very cute.

I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t notice Jos scowling. And also if I said I didn’t rather like it.

Before I could ponder these deep things – although I think perhaps they were really rather shallow things on my part – there was more commotion, and other honoured guests arrived – Aunt Lucy and Colin (he was never “uncle” Colin, I noticed) – and they had been collected by car because Colin had only just come out of hospital for cancer treatment. They, and their driver, came into the kitchen. “Oh”, said Jos, introducing him, “this is my other father”.

“Other father”? Well, that’s a nice surprise! We don’t get a lot of that in Norfolk. Yes, I’d been to two universities by now, and blah, blah, but a guy doesn’t tell you he has two dads? What would Nancy Mitford say? Or Emily Post? But he was very nice. I was only briefly introduced in the midst of Colin being – much to his own annoyance – found a seat. Jos’s grandad moved to the sofa, and said “come and sit here, it’s not too low – I should know, I have to get up from it!” He must have been twenty years older than Colin at least, and far more sprightly. And I thought, what a nice man. They sat there, declining Champagne for beer, until dinner was ready.

The dinner table was long, and there were strategic points on it. Matthew, our host, took the head. His father, out of deference for age, I suppose, took the other end, and Ze, Matthew’s husband, the “other father” was in the middle. I was at his Matthew’s right and Jos was to mine, opposite Ze, and Raf was next to him.

Raf charmed, by word, and gesture, throughout the meal. Later, he became quite tactile, in a way which would have made me shrink from, or even slap, almost any other man. Whatever “it” was, he had it. I was very taken. And Jos was very pissed off.

We headed home at 11. I had enjoyed all their company – his sister Marie had arrived a little late, and from America, but full of amusing tales about airports and customs – and had also sat with Aunt Lucy and Colin, who both seemed incredibly with it, given how ill Colin clearly was. And Aunt Lucy did also seem rather grand – not in a showing-off way, just, in a being-born-like-that way. But Jos had had enough of being sober, I think, and had enough of his brother flirting with me. As we closed the car doors in the courtyard, and set off for home, I wondered if we were closing the doors on something else entirely.

We sat in silence for some time, and then he said “So, what did you make of my big brother, the professor?”
“Well, he’s very charming”. “Yes, all the girls say that! Not sure his wife would be so chuffed, though.”
“Wife?” “Oh yes, he’s on No. 2 now, that little girl you saw when we arrived – she was from No. 1, left her with our dads, and he’s got a second already, and another bun in the oven with No. 2”.
“But he was flirting ….”
“Yes, he does that. He probably always will. I guess attractive guys do.” He put his foot down.
“There’s more to being attractive than smarm”
“Really? What?”
“Kindness, gentleness ….” I realised I was saying the things I most liked about him – were they really attractive, or did I just like them?
“Yeah, girls say that, then they shag the guy with the smile, or the car”.
“I’m not interested in shagging any guy with a smile or a car”.
“That’s me buggered then, I thought I had both”.
That was the first glimmer of humour from him so far.
“Then will you come in for coffee?”
“I need a proper drink – I’ve been a good boy for bloody hours!”
“I’ve got a bottle of vodka, can you stand that?”
“Vodka is for girls and chavs”
“OK, then I’ll pretend to be a girl, and you can pretend to be a chav”.

And one thing led to another, and the next morning, after he’d gone back to his place, I telephoned Harry and told him it was off. “What, for that loser?” I told Harry I wasn’t interested in his opinions, now, or ever. Now, according to my personal moral code, these things were done in the wrong order, but I plead that it wasn’t a real boyfriend-girlfriend thing with Harry. And I’d not met his parents. However many fathers and mothers he might have happened to have. And then I called Jos, and he thought it would be a very urgent thing to have lunch together somewhere within walking distance, so he didn’t have to drive.

“Are you trying to get me drunk?” “I think you can do that perfectly well for yourself; I just want to relax a little after the trauma I went through last night”.
“Was I that bad?”
“No! I didn’t mean that. God, no, you were great. I just meant having to watching my tarty squirt of a brother oiling all over you, all evening”.

He pressed his suit, if that’s the expression, vigorously after that, and before long we were talking about what sort of person we would marry, and every time he described someone very like me, and still I wavered about him. Did I really want to marry a man who was so relaxed about life, who’d allow me to have my own career, at the expense of his own? Or a man who didn’t really have a clue about a career of his own? It wasn’t the blueprint, the dream. And I’ll admit I thought sometimes about his father’s money, and how that could only help. I had my Jane Austen moments.

What clinched it was when Raf brought his third daughter to Shelford to be Christened by her grandfather. Jos was godfather – again – and he held her in his arms by the font before handing her to his father to do the magic stuff. I looked at his hands – and his father’s, he was adopted, it can’t have been genetic, but it was something they had in common, and I’d seen it before when they were with children, or the menagerie of animals in that crazy house – the way they were strong, but so gentle, and I wanted to see him holding my baby one day. One day soon. It’s not a very feminist vision, is it?

He proposed just into the New Year, in a small Chinese restaurant which we hoped was too expensive to bump into fellow students. He did the whole down-on-one-knee thing, and gave me a ring, and when I said yes, and we kissed, we realised that all the other diners had fallen silent, because now they burst into applause. Jos was quite a big guy, and it wasn’t a very big restaurant. He was hard to miss. It was a sapphire. An enormous sapphire, surrounded by little diamonds. “You said how much you loved the sea, and the sea is blue, so …” he said. The next day we went to tell my parents in Norwich. They seemed unkeen to disrupt their Saturday for whatever dubious news I was bringing, but they agreed to see us after lunch – it’s a long drive from Oxford – and they were rather shocked. Shocked too that Jos was the son of Lord Matthew Chapman da Silva, TV star, wit, and pundit. It just hadn’t come up before, and I didn’t trust them to be any less mercenary than I feared I might be myself. Having spent a fortune on my little sister’s wedding, they seemed relieved that perhaps someone else would be picking up the tab this time. And then we drove all the way back, and just about made it for dinner at First and Last, with his fathers. They seemed to be expecting us.

“Jos said you had some good news”, said my (senior) future father-in-law, beaming, at the door. “He told us yesterday”. “Yesterday?” “Yes, he seemed very sure you would accept him, and he seems to have been right!”

“Jos, is this true?”
“Take the ring off, and read the inscription”, he replied. There it was, carved in the platinum, the truth – our names, and yesterday’s date. I haven’t taken it off since.

He’d been engaged once before. He said it was the only time he’d really fallen out with his fathers. She was called Rachel, and they didn’t like her. They formed the opinion that she was a gold-digger, and Ze actually told Jos so. But he insisted, and it came to wedding plans, and she brought a great sheaf of ideas to the kitchen table one night. But Matthew said he didn’t hold with big weddings, such a waste of money for things that rarely lasted longer a lightbulb, and she got shirty about how rich he was (which I know will have embarrassed Jos deeply), and then he compromised. “I’ll give you treble what we spent – or rather, our kind friends spent, because at the time we had nothing – on our own wedding”. The silly cow thought that was marvellous. “That’s £9,000, and you can spend it precisely as you wish”. Rachel screamed “that won’t even buy the fucking dresses”, stormed out into the hall, threw Jos’s ring at him, and demanded to be driven home. He and his fathers told me this story together, over dinner that night, and as it ended, Matthew said “and when Jos had got his coat and car keys, that ring was nowhere to be seen …. But I agree with the old saying that if you lend a friend twenty quid, and never see him again, call it money well spent”. “Enough now, Daddy, that’s the past, we’re doing the future”.

Of course, the Old Man took the wedding service. There’s a business with hands which I’d never seen before, because if you’re in the cheap seats at a wedding, you can’t. The priest takes the bride’s hand from her father, and gives it to the groom. He said we didn’t need to do that, it was primitive, and redolent of all sorts of ideas of the ownership of women and so on, but you could see it as a bold commitment to something new, no longer holding hands with the people whose hands we’ve held before, but now a new unit, with one another. And I rather liked that, and I knew my father would, so we did it.

Equally “of course”, the reception was at First and Last. Jos had warned me the village would turn out – he’d been to primary school with all of them – and so they did, shouting, cheering, and throwing confetti, as we walked the fifteen minutes back from the church to the house, and the party began. I suspect the whole thing cost rather more than £9,000. My parents – well, mainly my father – had wanted to chip in, but offered his contribution rather gingerly to such a very much richer man. He’d have blanched to see the crowd that followed us from the church invited in for Champagne and canapes, if he’d been paying! But Matthew had said “why don’t you give them something towards a honeymoon they’ll never forget?”, and they did, and we did – to the Far East, for three whole marvellous weeks.

And then I was a married woman – and a Dr, and I had a good job. I admit, I hummed and ha’d about taking Jos’s name, but I reasoned it could do me no harm. My father-in-law was interested in welfare of various kinds, and I wanted to target social work to various essential needs, and it turned out indeed to be an asset to be linked to the man who’d got the drug laws changed, and campaigned against poverty and inadequate housing. They liked me, I was thriving in the role, and they told me I was going places. But I wanted children. Now, or later? We discussed it, but the decider was that Jos really wasn’t enjoying being a social worker. He liked the people, although sometimes he was a bit too moved to tears by his punters, but he was rubbish at the paperwork. I reasoned that having a baby would, after I’d done my bit, give him something really vital to do. And he agreed. And that is how Joseph Derek Chapman da Silva came into the world.

Ever since, he’s been known as “JD” but he was named after Ze (short for Jose, in Brasilian), who was dying, and my own father, who wasn’t. And he was followed by Zachary, Isabella, and Harriet, in pretty quick succession. They were all named after no one – we just liked their names. But we warmed very soon to JD too.

I’m running ahead of my story, because only JD was born before the Year of Disasters, well, just at its outset – in January. In May, Marie (Jos’s sister) and Justin (Matthew’s researcher) married. In June, Ze died. In August, Grandad Chapman died, at 98. And in October, already in the depths of a deep and dark melancholy, Matthew had a severe stroke. First and Last became a very solemn place, and my heart went out to little Ingrid, the grand-daughter, who had lived there all the life she could remember (she was six). I’d liked her from the outset, she was an eccentric, interesting child, with wild tales – not lies, just marvellous stories – and I knew she got some of it from her “Grumpy” as he delighted to be called. And now he was halt and lame. Before my other father-in-law died, they had made over the whole farm to us – none of the others wanted it – and there was an understanding that we’d moved into the Dower House (which had been built for the grandparents) when eventually time took its toll. We hadn’t expected the bells to clang so loudly that year, as one after another, the fatal moment seemed to come closer when I might have to live in First and Last.

But Grumpy recovered. And very well. It was an unusual recovery, and mainly badgered by his little grand-daughter, and Aunt Lucy, who despite her own cares with her husband, got up at 5 and crossed the fields to get Grumpy back into his old regime. His speech had only been partially impaired, but with a lot of practice – and there were plenty of children now to help him with that – it returned. His left side, especially the leg, never seemed quite the same again, but he’d had hip trouble for years, so it might not have been the stroke. By February, he had resumed the “Letter to America” that he’d been writing every week for over quarter of a century until the stroke. It made him $1,000,000 a year, and he didn’t mind who knew it. In March, the acting convenor of the Crossbenchers in the House of Lords asked him to resume the post he thought he’d resigned (they told him that as he was ill, they couldn’t accept his resignation). And he was back.

And we were in the Dower House. Well, it needed redecorating. Jos’s grandparents were tasteful people, but their taste wasn’t mine, and if I had to live in other people’s houses (which is how it felt, even though on paper Jos and I owned the whole plot) then I wanted to stamp my mark on it. I sent off for designs and brochures and this and that, and presented Jos with my scheme. “What do you reckon it would cost?” “About £8,000”. “I can fund that”. The funny thing about Jos is that although he wasn’t a saver, he wasn’t a spender either, and he ended up with lots of money from his “stipend” from the Family Fund just sitting there in a bank account. Ripe for me to use. So, with it, I made the Dower House our own, and we peopled it with our four children, who grew up two garden paths away from First and Last, and their Grumpy, and their fascinating Cousin Ingrid.

All the time I knew one day we’d be moving to First and Last. Something grated about this. I had chosen Jos, not his family, and certainly not his bloody house. I concede that architecturally it has merit, although I don’t personally like it, but that isn’t the point. It wasn’t our choice. It wasn’t MY choice. And so, having done the sums after getting a promotion which meant commuting to London most days, I said to Jos,

“I want us to buy a house together in London”
“But I can’t leave here – the children are settled, the farm, Dad, all the rest”
“No, just as a pied-a-terre, a place to stay, all of our own, when we want or need to. Some days are hard, you know, finishing in London at 7, home at 9, up for the 6 a.m. train.” He went very quiet.
“Are you leaving me?”
“NO! You big chump! I just need somewhere that’s really ours, our own, for us and the children – not right now, but in the future – where we write all the history on the walls for ourselves – does that make any sense?”

He sort of got it, but only sort of, and he came with me on leaden legs house-hunting in West London. But I’m glad he did, because the time he’d spent on that farm, and with Joe the gardener, and Giles the Bird Man, and paying attention to practicalities, had given him a good eye for quality – and for trouble. We settled on a four-bedroomed place in Ealing. Mortgages were eye-watering, but we chipped in Jos’s house in Oxford, and Michael, who was by now married to Jos’s brother Tommy, and a trustee, arranged a loan through the Family Fund. It was hinted that we could have had the money outright, but I wouldn’t agree to that. I wanted this house to be mine.

And then the Old Man died. It was rather unexpected. He was 84, so you’re not thinking they will go on for ever, but he seemed pretty sturdy to us. It was a Friday. The night before, he’d come back from London after making a speech in the House of Lords, written his weekly thing for the American media, and then the next morning was up with the lark, feeding the livestock and preparing the lasagne that was to be his Last Supper. He’d said something terribly clever or wise in the Lords that was still making him feel chuffed at dinner that night. And we all piled in – Jos and me, and our four, and Marie and Justin and their two, and of course Ingrid lived there. Then Aunt Lucy arrived. No Raf. He sometimes made it for family Fridays, but if he didn’t, Pam (Wife No. 4) and the Boy Wonder (7th child, 1st son) stayed away. No one really missed them, I’m sorry to say.

There was a sleepover in the Playroom later, but before that, there were going to be films in the Dungeon (the silly name Matthew and Ze used for a sound-proofed cinema in their cellar) so the children were only rather briefly around for dinner, although Jos kept making them popcorn. Upstairs, we grown-ups amused ourselves and one another. Although only fifteen, there was no question that Ingrid was amongst the grown-ups.

Unusually for me, I had a Saturday meeting in London, something that couldn’t be fitted in at any other time, so I didn’t want a late night, and although my papers were prepared, and I knew that perfectly well, I found myself wanting to go home and fret over them. I absented myself, and Marie, who also had work to do – money beckoned every hour of every day for that woman – took the chance to leave too, she by the front door, and I by through the conservatory and down the path to the Dower House. There, it was blissfully quiet. Out of mere habit I switched the radio on as I went to my desk, then switched it straight off again. The papers were all there, in order, I needed only to transfer them to my suitcase and I was all set for the morning. I sat in an armchair in the quiet, and the dark, and dozed off.

First and Last has a ship’s bell at its front door – visitors literally waggle the clapper and it makes a ferocious sound. That was too over-the-top for me, and electrical doorbells all seem to make a noise which is either camp, or vulgar, or both, so we had a heavy old brass door knocker. And that’s what woke me, after perhaps an hour. It was Michael.
“We’ve just found Matthew – we’ve called an ambulance, but I think it’s too late and they’re all panicking, and it would really help if …” I pulled the door shut behind me, and followed him up the path. “It looks like another stroke, to me, Ingrid found him, she said she knew something was wrong because his glass was on the floor, tipped over”.
“Where are the children?”
“All upstairs, seemingly asleep, but it’s a bit open plan between the landing and the Playroom, and I’ve been trying to get the others to pipe down”.

He was dead, all right. They don’t teach you how to identify a corpse in First Aid courses, but I knew a little about life signs, and he didn’t have any. Amazingly, they’d managed to rouse the village doctor, who arrived just after me, and told them to cancel the ambulance, unless they wanted it to take the body away. Their response was stunned silence.

I broke it: “I don’t think my father-in-law’s family would want him taken away from his house”, and they murmured their assent. The doctor said “well, maybe you’d like to move him to his own bed? And I’m afraid you’d best call the undertakers. I’m so sorry for you all.” Looking at the spilled gin glass he added, “that man has been ignoring my advice for nearly twenty years, I can’t tell you how much I have admired him”. So, the men carried him into the bedroom, and laid him on the bed. Aunt Lucy shooed them out, saying “I’ll undress him and put him into bed, I did it when he was ill, he wouldn’t want you to”, and closed the door.

We were all in a state of shock, but Michael said, “it’s too much to take in just now, but there really are things to do which won’t wait, people to inform, a press statement to issue, arrangements to be made. So, Jos, why don’t you keep an eye on the kids, Justin, draw up a checklist of all the people who need to be informed, Tommy, go and get everyone a drink, Ingrid, maybe you’d help him?, and Amanda and I will start the telephoning”. It was after 11.

The next three hours were gruelling. Of course, the kids got wind of what was going on, so, after a brief parental conference, Jos agreed to be the one to tell them. After a few minutes, I walked up the stairs to the Playroom after him, not all the way, but it was open plan, so I could see him there on the sofa, his great big arms around all six children. And I ran back down the stairs into a bathroom and wept. For grief, for love? Don’t ask me why; I don’t know.

It’s an incredibly complicated business when someone dies. I remember Matthew saying that all the fuss and farradiddle is given to us by God to distract us from the blow of grief. Maybe he was right. I don’t think any of us quite felt it, that night. Michael called Debs, the PA, to come over and help, which was a godsend, and press releases were sent, his American editor was informed, just in time for his “Letter to America” to include a brief note that the author was dead, messages were left with the local vicar, and the cathedral, about possible funeral venues, and of course, a cavalcade of family and friends too. The undertakers arrived, and his sister (who lived in the village), and Lucy’s step-daughter, Kezzy, and eventually, Raf. Jos had insisted on being the one to tell him, when the message to call eventually got through. When he got there, the two brothers clung at each other and howled into each other’s shoulders. Then, just before 2 in the morning, Michael got a message from the vicar saying that he would be happy to call by and say prayers. Neither of us were churchy, but Tommy was, and Ingrid dipped in and out of religion, and we decided it might allow everyone to go to sleep at last. So that’s what we did – trooped into the Old Man’s bedroom and listened as the vicar said prayers over his corpse and threw holy water around. I knew Matthew loved holy water – he always took it with him on school visits, to splosh the children, and make them squeal with delight. And we let our children in, too, small though they were. It was a very long time before I asked JD what he’d made of it. “It was sad, but rather exciting, and grown-up, to be involved”. So maybe we got that right.

Thus began a new chapter in all our lives, with the old patriarch dead, and another game of musical houses. I was very glad of my – our – house in Ealing to escape to. He died in November, and we moved into First and Last in February, on our engagement anniversary. I’d been hesitant to the point of reluctance, partly because of my own feelings about the house, and what it meant, but also out of deference to Ingrid, whose home it had been all her life, rather a quiet life, lived with her ancient Grumpy. But one night at dinner she said “I think it’s time for you all to move in. It’s what Grumpy wanted, and it’s what I want, I want this house to be full of people and noise again”. “But it’s never been full of people and noise in your time – or mine” I said. “But the house remembers, and that’s what it wants too. I want my cousins to live here, and I want Uncle Tommy and Uncle Michael to move into the Dower House”. That was the thing about Ingrid, she switched within moments from trancelike mysticism, to dynamic reality. Of course, that really was the answer – of all my in-laws, I liked Tommy and Michael the best, and they adored Ingrid, and our children too, and yes, this could all work.

And so it did. Tommy and Michael had been together nine years, and married for four of them, but they’d always kept their own places – Michael’s hard-earnt little house in Oxford, where he worked, and Tommy’s flat in Clerkenwell, which he wheedled out of the Family Fund when he went to Drama School. This is why Michael was sympathetic to my need for a home of my own – he’d always kept his. But now they had a place they both knew, that they could nest in it together. Who knew, perhaps they’d have kids?

There was a lot about First and Last that I had to change, to make it my own. I stepped very gingerly around Ingrid as I did so, but she was content, she had her own room, and I agreed not to change the library (which was really an office) nor the Dacha (the summerhouse where Matthew did much of his writing, and now Ingrid did hers, and her painting and drawing). I stepped rather more heavily on the housekeeper, who resigned. Ostensibly, she’d become forgetful, and sometimes confused, about the laundry and ironing, and the cooking she helped with, although Jos did most of it. But really, it irked me the way she “mothered” Jos in his grief. She’d worked there over thirty years, known my husband all his life, which I hadn’t. And I resented it. She didn’t pull rank, exactly, but she pulled experience, the history written in the walls. And she had to go. I feel bad that she was diagnosed with dementia some months later. The change of routine can’t have helped. But I’m not a charity. Her husband remained our gardener, and did stirling work, and sometimes seemed to need a place to escape, which was beyond the escapism of work.

Our children grew up, and grew away, and sometimes came back. They sometimes surprised us, but more often they did new things that made us think they were just the people they’d been since tiny. Before Jos died, two of them were married. The other two seemed fairly settled. JD thought marriage bourgeois, Isabella thought it demeaning for a lesbian (that was a little surprise, but in the end, it did make sense). Zack had become an avian vet – he’d helped his father a lot on “the parrot farm”, and with the other clacking, clucking, squawking, feathered monsters at First and Last, and decided to make a career of it. He married a woman who was a nurse in his practice – it was history repeating, my father was a hospital registrar and my mother a nurse when they married! – and they had a son they called John. John Percy. His middle name was after a parrot. Deep breath. But the boy is lovely, and so are they. Harriet surprised us all by becoming a vicar. They say she’s very good at it. She’s also got a husband who’s a vicar (but not quite as good at it, so she calls the shots), and two delightful children, but their house is a bit churchy for me. Isabella, and Emma, who is several years older, but it’s Bella who’s the bossy one, live in Canary Wharf, and change jobs every few years, accumulating money along the way – her Auntie Marie taught her how to work the city, and that’s what she does. They have the most fantastic holidays. JD wanted to be a pop star, which he could have been, but the door didn’t push open at the right time, and someone noticed how clever he was at computerising music. So now he’s in Los Angeles. He has three children, two by his first long-term girlfriend, and the third by the girlfriend her left her for. They’ve all done all right.

Yes, Jos died. I was in London, at a meeting, and the telephone kept ringing and ringing, on the buzz setting, and I was angry with it. I will never interrupt a meeting for the telephone. Then a messenger came in with a note. From Tommy. “VERY URGENT PLEASE CALL NOW”. He – or more likely Michael – had tracked down the office I was in. So, I did. They were already driving to London to collect me. I asked the deputy-chair to take over “I’ve got some quite important family stuff to deal with”. Yes, I had. My husband was dead.

We were 60, and ostensibly in good health. Jos used to whine that he wasn’t as fit as he’d been thirty years before, but that seemed to me a fairly irrational complaint. Never, ever, did anyone suggest, did he hint, there was anything wrong with his heart. His heart! Of all things! How could there be anything wrong with something so perfect? But I’m being sentimental, hearts must beat and pump and pulse, and do stuff, and his stopped that day. He was working on his own on an aviary roof, and either fell off a ladder and had a heart-attack, or more likely had a heart-attack, and then fell off. Giles the Bird Man found him, did what he could, called an ambulance, called Tommy, but there was nothing anyone could do. Tommy made the decision to let the ambulance take him to hospital – there would have to be a post mortem and an inquest, so it made sense for the body to be there. That’s where we headed, when they collected me.

Of course I did all the stuff of grief – I’ve read the theory – the denial, and anger, and so on. I’ve never reached “acceptance”. Our life was going so well. The children were more or less OK, we had time to ourselves, I even lured him to London for cultural nights out and naughty nights in. He loved the farm, but he could sit light enough to it to get away. And as he sat lighter, so it became less oppressive to me. First and Last had become a very comfortable house to be in.

But not now. Now it spoke only of the man I had lost. Our married life had begun somewhere quite different. We had raised our children in the Dower House. True, we had become grandparents, and celebrated 25 and then 30, and then 35, years together in First and Last, but somehow it still wasn’t mine – although legally it was now entirely, and solely, mine. I resolved to sell it. I told Michael. Of course, it made a problem for him and Tommy, as they were tenants on the farm. “Can’t the Family Fund just take it back? I don’t need any money, I just need not to be here”. And Michael said he’d think it through.

But it was Ingrid who thought it through. Things had changed radically for her, since Grumpy had died. She’d grown up, gone away to Art College, and begun to make a bit of a name for herself as an artist, and also as a poet. Grumpy would have been very pleased with that. Less so with her disastrous marriage to one of her lecturers. Ghastly man, I couldn’t stand him. She’d divorced him just before Jos died, and just before she herself turned thirty, which meant she inherited her own mother’s fortune – the mother she met only once after Raf took her away as a babe in arms. It was a very big fortune indeed, and she divorced her husband at 29 so as not to have to share it with him at 30. And, cannily, for a dippy artist and poet, she’d never let on that there were any millions in the picture apart from Grumpy’s – on which there were thirteen claims in the grandchildren sector alone. So, Ingrid had money now.

“I’ll buy it”. “No, you can have it, it’s your home, it always has been – if he’d lived longer, that’s how it would have worked”. “But he didn’t, and he made a good plan for me to be looked after by you and Uncle Jos, and I think it is right that I should buy the place, because I like it, and you don’t, and make it open to everyone in the family who ever wants to stay here”. We agreed to think about it, and whilst we did, she sent in the speculators, and they valued it at £7,900,000.

“I’m going to give you £10,000,000”. “No, you can’t, that’s too much”, “I’ve got it, the accountants say it’s a loss leader or something bonkers like that, and I want it, and I want you, and each of my four cousins – but you can decide when and how – to have £2,000,000 each – give it to charity if you want, but I want to have paid a fair price for this place”.

I accepted. Was that greedy of me? I didn’t need the money, but Ingrid seemed to need to pay it. I did as she suggested, and gave all her cousins their share, and put the rest by. I live in Ealing now. Always welcome at First and Last, of course, and I go to the annual parties which she’s kept going. I resigned from my job. I do some consultancy from time to time, for amazing amounts of money. I have a group of friends – I suppose we are “ladies who lunch” – which surprises me, as I always thought I liked men best, and we lunch, and we play cards, and sometimes even backgammon, which Ingrid taught me, and Grumpy taught her, and he learnt it (somehow!) from a blind friend of his at university. The games work fine until the vodka bottle is 2/3 empty. Then they become rather hilarious. At times I am a merry widow, but it is a horrible thing to remember, every day, that I shall never again feel those arms around me.

I asked Harriet once why they all pay so much attention to me when I was such an absent parent. “Your father did all the work, not me”. She said “OK, so you weren’t always there, but we knew where you were, and when you came home, you always knew everything about us. You knew our reports, our results and grades, you knew who our friends were, and weren’t, you did your homework. You knew us, through and through.”

“But was I really a mother?”
“I asked Daddy once, and he said, “your mother needed to work, to make her way in the world, and she chose me, because I don’t, so I looked after you; now, who cared for the children? The guy who mopped their bottoms, or the lady who chose the guy to do it?”, and I didn’t know the answer, so he told me “we both did, we were a team””

JD has just invited me to come over to California again. I go every year. I stay in a hotel, which I know annoys him, and his lady friend. But I have had enough of other people’s houses.



Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
August 2015