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.
“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”.
“Your mother’s trust fund.”
“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.