Saturday, 8 August 2015

Here's a story: The Summons

THE SUMMONS

“NancyLee, can you get that?” Typical, the ‘phone always rings when you’re just getting in the shower. “Tell them I’ll get back to them”. But my flatmate knocked on the bathroom door a moment later, “It’s one of your cousins from England, I think you should talk to him”. I said a bad word, then got out of the shower, dried off a little, and came into the living room where she was saying “he’s just here …” into the handset.

“Cousin Huck?” An unmistakeable voice, my very distant cousin, The Actor.
“Hi Tommy! How’s it going?”
“Oh fine, thank you, and yourself?”
“Busy with work, but not busy enough, the usual. This is unexpected.”
“Yes, for you and me both, but as we’re getting down to business, there is something I – well we’d all, really – like to talk to you about”
“What’s up?”
“It’s Daddy. He wrote a book before he died, a memoir, which he wanted published, but said we could veto for a while if we didn’t like it, or if we thought it might hurt anyone living. The thing is, it’s rather a naughty memoir, and the other thing is, you’re in it. Huck? You’ve gone quiet”.
“Sorry, yes, just thinking. Erm, hadn’t really imagined ever to be having this conversation”.
“But you did know Daddy was writing a final memoir, and it was going to be a bit racy?”
“Yes, he did drop hints about it, I think he was writing it during that last summer when I stayed with him in Italy, but I never thought I’d feature”.
“Darling boy, you’re the star of the show! It’s absolutely filthy, and unputdownable. It will sell like hot cakes. But, Brother Raf has turned into a Victorian prude and is trying to stop it, even though the other three of us are OK about it – you’re his last hope, and I promised I’d get in touch and see what you thought. He has no right to such fairness – given his own monstrous pile-up on the motorway of love – but you do deserve to see it too, before it goes to press”.
“That’s kind of you, I appreciate it. Can you mail me the pages, and I can read them for myself? I’ve got a slow day today”.
“I’m sorry, that’s the tricky part – Raf absolutely refuses to allow it to leave the premises or be copied anywhere, until and unless we give it consent, so it means your coming here to read it in person, which I know is a frightful bore, and you must have so much else on just now”.
“No, that’s no problem, I love England, I’m sure I can arrange a few days holiday, or dress it up as a fact-finding mission!”
“We were rather hoping you could come very soon”.
“How soon?”
“Well, how would today suit?”
I must have been mad to agree. It was true I had nothing of any moment to do until Monday, and this was Thursday morning, but was I really just going to be summonsed by a cousin in England I hardly knew to sort out a family quarrel? Well, yes, I was. Even though at 36 he still called his dead father “Daddy”.
“We’ll cover the expense, I know last minute travel can be wildly dear – just send me your bank details and Michael can put the money through to you in a moment. And really, don’t hold back, if you need first class, take it, and if you don’t, well, keep the change and have some fun with it. Do you think you might be able to come over today? I know it’s a huge ask, but we really do need your help – we’ve got Raf breathing fire on one side, and the publishers pacing up and down on the other, and we need to know we’ve been fair. You will have absolute right of veto over anything mentioning you for a generation, that’s a promise we have all agreed to, but you’ve got to read it first”.
“Tommy, this is the weirdest thing I’ve ever agreed to, but OK, I’ll start looking for a flight and let you know what I find”.
“Oh that’s brilliant! Michael and I can come and collect you from the airport, and you can be our guest at the Dower House while you’re here – First and Last has become rather a different and much more noisy place than you’d last remember it”.
He was referring to the house that his fathers built at about the time that they adopted their children – none of them has any clear memory of any other home – 35 years before. It was called “First and Last Passage”. Uncle Matthew – Cousin Tommy’s “Daddy” – had named it after a street in some obscure English town where an ancestor of his was born. I remember his saying “this is my own first house, and it will be my last”, and so it turned out to be – he raised his children there, lived there throughout a surprising political, literary, and media career, and died there in his library just over one year before this conversation, at 84 years of age. It was where I had met him the previous Fall.
“Let me get onto it, and I’ll let you know – but don’t bother coming to the airport, I’ll take the bus to Oxford, maybe you can come for me there, or I can take a cab. I’ll send a message once I’ve arrived?”
And it was so. NancyLee was already on the internet looking for flights before I even put the handset down. She has her nose in everyone else’s affairs, and cannot resist eavesdropping, and for once (well, maybe not just for once) I was grateful.
“Got you a flight from JFK at 12.25” she said. “And I mailed your cousin your bank details”. I really do trust that girl!
“Shit, that’s less than three hours! Book it!”
“What with? I don’t have that kind of money, Mr Rockefeller”.
“Check my bank account – Tommy will be true to his word”. And so he was - $10,000 instantly transferred to my account, no strings attached, I could have blown them all on a night out. We booked the flight, and I started to pack.

The last time I was in England was for Uncle Matthew’s Memorial Service, in July, a few months earlier. He wasn’t really my uncle, in fact he was only a very distant cousin. It’s kind of unbelievable really, but his Grandpa was brother to my great-great-great-great-grandmother. And he knew his Grandpa, and he knew his great-aunt. There’s a lot of “greats” in there – we come from rural Ohio, there isn’t a lot to do. And he was nearly sixty years older than me, and my ancestress was already a great-great-grandmother when he met her for the last time. Maybe I’m sounding apologetic, but the family connexion is the reason I wanted to get in touch with him when my New York paper let me go on an internship in London. I asked to interview him – knowing he loved all that family tree stuff – and hoping for a scoop. I got one. More than I had reckoned with.
Shower completed, bags packed, passport, cash, ticket receipt, cellphone, tablet, all set, and off we went to JFK. I told NancyLee she needn’t come with me, but she said “I wouldn’t miss this for the world, just wish I could come all the way!”. I thought with a pang of regret that with all that money, I could have brought her too, but she said she really did have work to do – some hard-nosed political stuff for the same paper – so I gave her a couple of hundred dollar bills, and said “go out and seduce someone on me!” She tucked the notes briskly away about her person. NancyLee was an old-fashioned kinda gal – when she went out for the night, she didn’t pay. I could envisage shoes or a handbag when I got back, though.

Like a klutz, it was only at the airport that I realised I hadn’t told Tommy which flight I’d be on, but NancyLee said she’d take care of all that. I guess there’s nothing much to like about air travel, but having grown up in a non-drinking Bible-bashing family, I still get a thrill out of ordering liquor throughout the journey and only praying (to a God in whom I’m not sure I believe) if there is turbulence. There was no turbulence, but much liquor. In honour of Uncle Matthew who introduced me to it, gin and tonic.

In my boozy haze, I sat there trying to fathom what on earth he could have said about his life in general, and my very small chapter in it in particular, that could have caused so much family discontent. Uncle Matthew and his late husband had adopted four children, Cousin Tommy was the youngest, and “Brother Raf” was the oldest. In between were Jos, who was Raf’s blood brother, and Marie, who was Tommy’s blood sister – they’d been adopted in pairs. I was 26 at this time, Tommy was in his mid-30s, Raf maybe seven or eight years older. When I say “family discontent” what I really mean is that Raf was causing trouble. He was the misfit, in a way, the one who picked fights with people, and whose personal life was precisely the chaos Tommy had alluded to. He was married to his fourth wife, and had seven children, the last of which was a longed-for boy, named Matthew (but called Matty), after his grandfather, and the last of Matthew’s thirteen grandchildren, just as Ingrid, also Raf’s, now 16, had been his first. Raf wasn’t a layabout, he was an academic bright star, a professor of astrophysics, which made Uncle Matthew very proud, despite, or as he used to say “no, because, I haven’t a clue what he’s so brilliant at!”. But he was tetchy with his family, and a compulsive womaniser, and when she was only a year old had left his first child with his fathers and never reclaimed her. He said her grandfathers would make better parents – which is undoubtedly true – but she never forgave him, that much she made apparent, and she doted on the one, and spoke fondly of the other she could hardly remember, as he died when she was six.

Having grown up in Sticksville with my redneck family shouting each other down about diddly squat, there was a certain relish in anticipating my rich and titled English cousins having a similar – but much more decorous and, I imagined, wittier, spat. My own family was a mess. We were Bible bashers who got married and divorced a lot, forswore the bottle, then ended up in ditches, wore our little silver rings, then got pregnant, or made girls pregnant, at 17. My father and mother were in that mould, but when he left Mom, Dad resolved to break it. We stayed in touch, somehow, and he led his own life, producing a few more children along the way, and when I finally left Ohio and came to New York, and came out as gay, I thought he’d appreciate my being an independent, free-spirited, trailblazer, too. We haven’t spoken since.

You can ponder too much on psychology – is that the reason I have a thing about much older men? Realistically, my father isn’t actually that much older than me, certainly young enough to be Uncle Matthew’s son or even grandson (at least in Ohio), but do I crave love from that paternal figure who will make it OK? My grandpa, Jeremiah, also fell out of the picture when I went to New York. “Oh, you’ll turn out like your Great-Uncle Greg” he said. And so I did. But it would be true to say that Matthew had more charms for me than just those of a distant cousin related by long-forgotten blood. I was a journalist, so was he; he’d been writing for the American press for thirty years, and I remember the thrill the first time, reading something of his at the kitchen table – which really annoyed Mom – her saying casually “you know that guy is your father’s cousin from way back?” We had something more than blood in common, and I had been desperate to meet him.

In the quaint old university city of Oxford, I met his youngest son, and his son’s husband, that afternoon. Tommy was the most out-going of the four children, a bit pompous and theatrical at times, but that was his work, and he was esteemed in his profession – I’d seen him on Broadway more than once before I met him as a cousin in his father’s house. He was tall and gangly and had a very English patrician bearing which sat oddly with his distinctively Latin colouring, the tanned skin, and dark eyes. Michael, the husband, a childhood sweetheart, lost and found, was mousy by comparison, an accountant, sharp as razors about numbers and money, but otherwise more interested in gossip and stories. They were a complete contrast. The one had grown up in a big house, with a London apartment, with privilege and connexions a name and a title, the other was the unwanted first child of a large unwanted family in the countryside. Michael had worked hard to escape the world he grew up in, only to move back into a house in the shadow of the biggest house in his mother’s village.
They greeted me like old friends – despite considerable confusion at first about exactly where I was – and bundled me into their capacious car and whisked me off the few short miles into the countryside. It was Fall again, as it had been two years before, when I first met Uncle Matthew, and it was growing dark, so I could see little from the car as we sped along. Tommy didn’t drive, but kept up an impressive banter.
“It’s entirely up to you, Huck, you can do what you want, and you’ve only to ask, and it will be provided! Also, you don’t need to have anything to do with any of us, if you don’t want to, and you can leave at any time” (at this point he actually gave me the card of a minicab company). “BUT, my big brother Jos, and Amanda, are very much hoping you will come to First and Last for dinner tonight with the children, and then tomorrow you can spend all day looking at this naughty book my wicked old father wrote, and there will be a break for lunch, at which Brother Raf will try to browbeat you into vetoing the whole project. Of course, it would be wrong of me to lead the witness, but that would be an awful shame, because I think Daddy wrote this thing to say “hey, I might be 80-odd, but I’m still alive, and I always was, dammit!”, and we ought to go along with that. But that is leading the witness.”
“I doubt I’ll need much persuading, and I think I can stand up to Raf. Obviously this matters a lot to you all, though, if you’ve got me all the way over from New York to sort it out?”
“Raf really doesn’t want it published at all. We’ve ground him down on that. Now he’s clutching at straws, wanting various bits taken out, of which yours, I’m delighted to say, is far the raunchiest, and he’s hoping that for very shame you will ask for the whole chapter to be excised from the book”.
“Shit.”
“Huck, you really must know you are a welcome friend – and cousin – and even Raf would want you to know that. I can imagine it must be a bit like some sort of lions’ den, but Raf will lose this battle – with or without your help – and he’ll sulk and move on, and there really will be no hard feelings. Daddy – both our fathers – taught us not to bear silly grudges and hang on to the past. But we do have to be fair.”
And then, there it was, the gateway to First and Last, unassuming from the road, but with characteristic pillars topped with carved stone macaw figures either side. We swept past First and Last Passage itself, brightly lit, and I suppose busy with preparation for dinner and the noise of children – Jos had four, and he and Amanda, and they, had all moved in after Uncle Matthew died. We carried on a few hundred yards more to Tommy’s and Michael’s house, which until last year had been where Jos and Amanda lived. Before that, Uncle Matthew had built it for his parents, and his father had died about a decade earlier at nearly a hundred years old, and Jos’s family had moved in. It was all rather Mafioso – the Family Compound. But yet, Tommy had a flat in central London, Michael kept his house in Oxford from before their marriage, Amanda had a house in West London which was convenient for her work on the national level (she was high up in social work). Physically they were often much closer than my family, but somehow never so claustrophobically together.
We got into the Dower House, and Michael said “well, bugger that, it’s time for a drink! What do you fancy?” “Give him Champagne, darling”. “Only if he wants it!” “Oh, I do”, I said, and put an end to their stagey bickering. Glasses duly arrived, and they both toasted my safe arrival – I think Tommy even thanked God, which was one of his things, he alone of Uncle Matthew’s children had the religious bug – and Tommy said:
“We really are so very grateful to you for coming all this way”.
“Coming to England isn’t, never has been, a chore. I just hope I can help”.
“Oh, I think you will. Whether you say yes or no to the chapter, it will mean we can go ahead with what Daddy wanted, which was to publish most of a rather unusual memoir of a rather unusual man.”
“Do you think it will cause a stir?”
Michael piped up “I should bloody think so! It’s outrageous! A wonderful read, but outrageous all the same. You’re meant to think of older people as emotionally – and especially sexually – dead, and you can’t come away from this book with that thought virgo intacta!”
“So you’ve read it?”
“Erm, yes, probably not meant to, but I couldn’t help myself. Sorry.”
“Bastard!” shouted Tommy, with no wrath at all, “fetch us the punitive Champagne!”
The punitive Champagne was duly brought. I know English people drink a heck of a lot, but I had a feeling I was on for a lake of booze as I tried to keep a clear head about whatever besmirches there were on my reputation in this smutty manuscript.

There would have been time for a nap before dinner, but it seemed better to fight the jetlag and just press ahead, so I spent the next couple of hours chatting idly about what had been happening since my last visit, how things had changed since Uncle Matthew died – the game of musical houses everyone had been playing. And I was introduced to another key member of the family – Queenie, a huge, blue, macaw.
“Did you meet her last time? I doubt it, as she lived with me in Clerkenwell, but I think she likes the country better. She’s a sweet old soul, much nicer than Percy, and she definitely won’t bite – she has a weakness for gay men, and her gaydar is second to none”.
“What happened to Percy?”
“I offered to take him on, as he and Queenie are OK together, although he’s a bit of a bully, but then Ingrid stepped in, and so she and Percy have had the least upheaval of all. The only change is that now he sleeps on a perch in her bedroom, rather than in the kitchen, as Amanda finds him rather startling if she comes downstairs in the night – of course, he doesn’t mind at all”.
Ingrid was Uncle Matthew’s first grandchild, Raf’s daughter, who had come to live with them at only a year old when his marriage to a Brasilian heiress rather messily crumpled. He’d fled the country, taking the child, and a lecturing post at Cambridge, but left her with his fathers and never really claimed her back. After Uncle Matthew was widowed, it was just the two of them – apart from the occasional guest – in that big old house, and they made an unexpected, but unexpectedly comfortable, couple. Ingrid was now sixteen. I had found her a silent and interested observer when I’d visited before, watching the adults without contributing much, but preferring us to her cousins who were only a few years younger, but years which at that age make all the difference. I was glad she was looking after her grandfather’s macaw. I remembered him saying how much it annoyed Raf to be referred to as “Son Number Two”, because Percy arrived in the household before any of the children, and I wondered if there was any significance in Ingrid joining forces with “Son Number One”.

A bell tolled cheerfully, if bells can do that, and we were summoned to drinks and then dinner. It seems that one of the changes under the new regime was that we would gather in the “drawing room” for drinks before dinner, rather than collecting in the kitchen for the whole evening. Amanda had a few quite particular ways of doing things and although she’d grown up in the countryside, in Norfolk, which I’ve never visited but they say it doesn’t get more rustic than that, she had city manners, and she found her father-in-law’s preference for sitting at the kitchen table all evening too redolent of the peasantry. I’ve given the impression that she is a snob, which isn’t fair. There’s something English people – particularly women – say about “just wanting things to be nice”, and that’s what it was. The Dower House is at the bottom of the garden, so it made sense to go up the garden path and into the house through the conservatory which adjoins the kitchen, and then through the magnificent hall, with its glass dome hardly visible in the dark. I noticed that the vast succession of homely family photos and portraits that had lined the staircase had gone, to be replaced by works of mainly modern art. “Nicer”, I guess.

It was Ingrid who served the drinks. Out of curiosity, I asked for a gin and tonic, her grandfather’s tipple, and noted that she mixed it just as he had – with scarcely any room for the tonic. I had learnt how to mix those myself. They’re bracing at first, but when you get used to them, anything else seems rather insipid. Amanda was drinking vodka and tonic, I noticed, something that would have attracted sarcasm under the Old Regime “vodka is for chavs and women”, Uncle Matthew had declaimed at his most chauvanistic. Michael, Tommy, and Ingrid herself, all stuck to Champagne, and Jos called out from the kitchen, where he was cooking a venison stew, that he had plenty of red to keep him company. This was so different from home. Even in New York, at least someone would have been on the soft stuff. Here, “the evil drink” had given way to “wine that maketh glad the heart of man” (Matthew quoted that a lot – even when holding a glass of gin). Then Marie, and her much older husband Justin, arrived with their two sons, who briefly shook hands, then instantly shot upstairs to join their cousins. Marie was a money-maker, engaged in all manner of high level investments, for the family, for endowed charities, and for herself. She had become a millionaire in her own right by the age of 22. No one really seemed to know why she’d married Justin, who had been a researcher and amanuensis for Uncle Matthew for years, and probably was more in love with the father than the daughter, except that perhaps she’d wanted to have children before re-immersing herself in the corporate world for life. Certainly it was Justin who seemed to do all the child-care, his own academic career having fizzled out with fretting after Uncle Matthew’s.

I was greeted warmly by all parties, and asked the usual questions about my event-free flight. They seemed not to want to broach the subject of the real reason for my visit with Ingrid present, and she seemed to know it, and be amused by it. I tried to play the Good American Guest, and asked politely after their children and so on. Amanda and Justin responded eagerly to this, although Amanda was almost always in London working – she’d be there again in the morning – both had married in to comfort and money, and dealt with it in very different ways. For Amanda it was a chance to get on with her own career, confident that she had a husband who would raise the children nicely (he actually did it his own way, and rarely did anything she said) and for Justin, well, maybe he was just a bit of a freeloader, but Marie was grateful to get back to the City of London and play with money, as she had done since her teenage years.

Ingrid came round offering a re-fill. Most politely, she came to me, the guest, first, and whispered “I could always make you an End of an Era”. Happy memories of this lethal cocktail! And I thought, why not?, tomorrow’s the difficult day, when Raf turns up. So I said yes, and so did Michael, but the others stuck with their first choices. I noticed that there was a hierarchy – first the guest, then the aunt, then the uncles by marriage, then the uncles by blood, and finally the aunt who was hostess. How does a kid learn this stuff?
The drinks had scarcely arrived and Jos was in the hall, banging the gong, and shouting “dinner is served”. I’m not kidding. They really did have a gong. It was 7.20. The time that dinner was served at Uncle Matthew’s college when he was a student over half a century ago. I found out Amanda had tried to change it to 8.00, but Jos, for once, had over-ruled her. The English and their traditions! But something had changed about dinner itself, because we were served our food at the table, whereas Uncle Matthew had got us to help ourselves from the counter. He thought people should decide how much they wanted to eat, and anything leftover, well, that was the reason you keep dogs. Of course, the dogs were gone – another sign of the Amanda Revolution, as she couldn’t stand them – and Tommy and Michael looked after the elderly Manchester terrier, greyhound, and Scottie, that Matthew had left behind. For the time being, the cats were safe.

The stew was fabulous. We shoot things a lot in America, not least each other, but somehow we don’t know what to do with venison, because this was full of all sorts of flavours. Jos was a pretty good cook, very happy there in his apron, dishing out, and charming everyone. He reminded me very much of his father – although Matthew had presided sitting down at the head of the table after we served ourselves, whereas he presided standing up, as he served us.
Our previous glasses were now replaced with red wine glasses – although there were water glasses too – and the conversation was steered most by those who had drunk most. Ingrid was still the bar-person, and most attentive too, not only to her duties, but to our conversation.
“I understand you’ll be reading my father-in-law’s pornographic memoir tomorrow, Huck?” said Amanda, a little slurrily.
“Yep, first thing. I don’t imagine it’s too long, maybe I can get it done by lunchtime”.
“I think it’s rather marvellous that the old coot wrote something so naughty – but you probably know that Raf is dead against”.
“I’d been told so”.
“Well, I sha’n’t be here for lunch tomorrow, but don’t let him bully you – it’s your decision”.
Justin piped up “It’s not just Raf who disapproves. Matthew was a serious scholar, this is fluffy, mucky, nonsense, his reputation deserves better”.
“Darling, you’re such a prude” said his wife, “Daddy liked being mucky – he always said he was an earthy person, you should have seen him re-potting his aspidistras – muck everywhere”. I couldn’t tell if she was serious or teasing.
“He was also an historian, a man of science, and a priest, for God’s sake. I don’t want his grandchildren – our children - ever to read this stuff”.
Amanda replied “It’s too late for that – something will go ahead, and you can’t hide any story these days. We should be raising children who can cope with reading difficult stories, not hiding the stories away.”

And so it bantered on. I was getting more and more tired, and all the alcohol wasn’t helping. We got to pudding, then cheese and port, and I was almost asleep. Michael noticed, nudged his husband, and said “I think we should be taking your cousin home, he has a long, strange, day tomorrow”. And so we took our leave, walked the length of the path to the Dower House, and within minutes, I was in the deepest sleep.
But the next morning, at 5.30 English Time (5.25, Oxford Time, as Uncle Matthew would have said), I was wide awake. And there was work to do. I showered and dressed, and slipped quietly out of the house – the doors weren’t locked, so I needed no key. It was raining, and dark. And then on a whim I thought I’d collect one of Uncle Matthew’s walking sticks from the corner of the conservatory. The previous evening I’d noticed one he’d particularly liked – cherry wood – and thought it would be fun to make my way to the Dacha, as he called his writing summerhouse, with that. Amanda had given me the key to the Dacha the previous evening, and it puzzled me a lot when I found it in my pocket after waking up. The conservatory door was open, and as I was trying to make my choice in the dark, I was startled by a:
“Hello! You’re up early! Would you like some coffee?” It was Ingrid, in a shimmering silk kimono.
“Hi, yes, er, didn’t mean to break in, just wanted to borrow a stick, for old times’ sake”.
“Help yourself, they hardly ever get used now– how do you like your coffee?”
And so we sat back down at the kitchen table and she asked:
“Were you in love with Grumpy?”
I was taken aback. I didn’t know much about teenagers – still don’t – or how to answer questions except honestly.
“I wasn’t expecting that question!” I stalled for time. “But the answer is that there was definitely love, maybe a kind of infatuation at first, but he made it clear there was no space in his life for anyone else – he had been married, and wasn’t going to marry again, and he had you, and his children, and his work, and that was enough, so I didn’t have false hopes, and they weren’t dashed”.
“I knew there was something going on!”
“How?”
“When you scarpered from Italy before I arrived last summer. I just knew. He was a bit glum after you went”.
“Scarpered?”
“It means “ran away””.
“Oh, I wasn’t doing that, I had work to go back to – he was retired, Americans don’t get much holiday”.
“Grumpy never retired! But you’re right, he sometimes forgot that other people couldn’t be so free and easy. Sometimes he even forgot I had to be at school. I wish I hadn’t reminded him, as I’m sure he’d have got away with it”.
“You must miss him very much”.
“He was my only real parent. I dimly remember Grand-Pae, but only dimly. My father is useless, and my mother wasn’t interested even before she died. We were a good team here, I think. He taught me to cook what he knew, then I learnt some new tricks, and I taught him. He never shouted. We both loved the animals, and the farm, and the countryside. I’ve been very lucky”.
“What’s it like now?”
“Uncle Jos is a saint, much better than my own father, and I get treated the same as, or even better than, my cousins. Aunt Amanda is such a brilliant feminist – even more than Grumpy – she’s prickly sometimes – did you notice the housekeeper has gone? – well, you will tomorrow at lunch, because Joe the gardener is still here, and she is his wife – but she’s used to telling people what, and Grumpy never did that. And I have Percy, of course. We console each other, we both miss that naughty old man!”
Looking at my empty coffee mug, and mindful that others might soon arrive, I said I’d best be off to my morning reading.
“Have fun”, she said. With a smirk.

So off I went, in the breaking dark, with the chosen walking stick, to the Dacha. He’d chosen that name because, he said, it reminded him of the Soviet dictators, so it was an ideal name for his summerhouse. He had this mad idea that he was a little bit like Stalin. It was the place where he did most of what he called his “long writing”. His journalism was written upstairs, in the playroom, the big room that covered the entire second floor of the house, under that amazing glass dome. I shuffled for the key in my pocket, so I entered, and there was a light, and there was the manuscript on the desk, covered with a dictionary.

Well, it was a bracing read. I’ll admit a rather disappointing one, in a way. I guess we all hope to be thought of as something more than a slab of meat, but there was precious little else in the chapter devoted to whatever kind of relationship we had. Of course, it was in the nature of the book that it wasn’t to be sentimental, but sensational, and it wasn’t without the occasional glimpse of interest in what sort of person I might be, but I sat there pondering, for quite some time, before continuing with the rest of the memoir.

By lunchtime, I was done, and had reconciled myself that my little chapter was kinder than most of the rest. It was accurate too, I couldn’t fault the history, although it’s a shocking thing to see one’s private life, and person, portrayed in the black and white of cold print – or, in this case, his eccentric handwriting. It was by no means an uncomplimentary account, and I was left in no doubt that he’d very much enjoyed our time together, but I was more comforted by his grand-daughter’s words that he’d been “glum” after I left him in Italy that last summer.

Knock, knock. It was Tommy, outside in the rain, under an umbrella, knocking on the glass. Quite a jolt from my reveries.
“You’ve been here an aeon, old bean, and it’s nearly the lunching hour, and I thought I must distract you from your labours”.
“You’re right, what is it, 11 or something?”
“Nearly 12! Boozing Hour!” When was anything not “boozing hour” in that household?
But I’d been there a long time, and I closed the manuscript as Tommy rummaged around in what I’d thought was a cupboard, but turned out to be a refrigerator, with a tiny freezer, a bottle of gin, ice, and a lime.
“So, what do you make of it all? Fit to sell?”
“Oh, it’ll sell all right, there’s not much else quite like it”.
“And you, what do you think about, well, your chapter?”
“It’s true; I can’t argue with its honesty. It’s a bit meat and bones, if you know what I mean”.
“You know as well as I do that he was writing to shock. All his pompous friends and lackeys and pathetic fan club. But do you know you made a real difference to him? In those last few months of his life, he was happy in a way I don’t remember since my other father died. He told me to give you a share of the proceeds”.
“Oh, I don’t want that! I don’t need money, that’s all OK, that’s between all of you”.
“Seriously, Huck, he wanted you to benefit, and I shall make it happen – whether or not you agree. That’s what he wanted, and more importantly, you made him happy, and that is worth the world to me”.
“Doesn’t it bother you that he was so much older than me?”
“To be honest, dear cousin, he was always old to us. He was 50 when he adopted me and Marie, not much less when he adopted the brothers. He was the oldest Dad in the primary school by far. Far more than Pae, who used at least to dye his hair! So no, age is irrelevant to me, and I think to the others – and neither of you did anything wrong, you were both adults, and both having fun. He told me to have fun. And a couple of times bailed me out of police stations for having it, but let’s not go there. And now let’s go and meet the family!”

As Tommy struggled with his umbrella, I remembered the cherry walking stick, and we tottered up the path together, through the verandah on the West side, and into the hall, and then the kitchen. Jos was aproned, again, and seeing me said:
“Oh Huck, you’re on my conscience! I thought we ought to have something light after last night – can you eat salmon? I should have asked before!”
“Salmon’s great, Jos, one of my favourites”.
“What a relief! Everything else is a bit not-wintery, but the potato salad will be warm, and the Hollandaise is rather a triumph, I think. BUT, we’re a wine waitress short, as Ingrid’s at school, so, Tommy, could you do the honours?”
“Is anyone else here yet?”, said Tommy, neatly stepping towards the bottles.
“No, it’s just you two so far. Marie said she’s put Justin off, and Raf and Pam are coming with the Boy Wonder. Aunt Lucy’s coming over …”
“In this foul rain?”
“Oh, you know her, tough as old boots, she’ll probably bring those scruffy little monsters with her, too”. These were Norfolk terriers, I was reliably informed on an earlier visit. But Aunt Lucy, a friend of the family, a widow, lived on a neighbouring farm about a mile away, so it wasn’t a long walk, and as Jos said, she was hardy.
“Can’t you send Joe for her?”
“Shut up and find some bloody drinks, Lord Fauntleroy!” I have no idea what that meant.

Drinks were found, but we stayed with Jos in the kitchen while he toiled over the food, and he explained:
“Raf wants us to talk in the drawing room before, maybe after, but not over, lunch with the staff. If that’s OK.”
“Pompous arse”, said Tommy.
“It’s fine by me”, I said, “just tell me if I break ranks or say the wrong thing”.
The bell rang. Not the normal sort of electronic doorbell, this was a real, huge, bell, that hung by the side of the front door. The visitor waggled its clapper, and then everyone in the village knew they were there.
To my surprise, it was Amanda. She was supposed to be in London all day.
“Meeting cancelled, darlings, footled about in the Oxford office, and then thought, I really couldn’t miss the Coliseum!”
Jos downed his salad tongs to give her a hearty kiss – after ten years of marriage – and then said – “Tommy’s in charge of the bar, and we’re still waiting for the others”.
It wasn’t long before that bell jangled again, and like Amanda, Marie just walked in, having announced her presence. And we went into the drawing room.

“Have you had a chance to read it?” asked Marie.
“Yes, almost all.”
“And?”
“It’s a bit graphic and personal ….”
“But does it offend or hurt you in any way?”
“No, I couldn’t say it does. Your father and I were lucky to find each other”.
“That’s just what I thought”, said Amanda, “after all, old doesn’t mean finished, and young doesn’t mean uninterested in old. I think it’s rather lovely – typically naughty, of course, but Grumpy was like that”.

The bell again. This time Brother Raf, and Pam, and the Boy Wonder. They too walked in without having the door opened for them, and I wondered how many people in this village just leave their doors open all the time.

From the drawing room we could hear Jos scuttle out from the kitchen to explain who was here already, and to goo a bit over the Wonder, although his offer of looking after him for the next few minutes was politely rejected. A moment later, there they were.

“Cousin Huck! It’s been a while! So sorry to have dragged you here, and for such a reason, and in such AWFUL weather!” said Raf.
“England’s always a pleasure to me”.
“Have you met Pam, my wife?” We exchanged niceties and she said,
“It’s ever such a journey, isn’t it? And all for my late father-in-law’s smut!”
“I think Matthew’s writing was nearly always of literary merit”.
“You mean it will sell! I bet it will, millions, I should think. The common mind isn’t very attractive”.
Her husband interrupted, “and then there’s my father’s reputation, as an historian, and a politician, and a priest”.
“I thought you were an atheist, Raf?” Well, it was an innocent enough question.
“I am. But people who believe read his stuff, and they don’t need to know this about him. How far did you get through it?”
“All of it”.
“Your chapter?”
“And the rest”. He was visibly surprised, ever the academic snob that a mere mortal can read at an above-average pace.
“And what do you think? Is it worth publishing?”
“It’s a pretty unusual genre, but your father writes well, as he usually did, and I don’t see why it shouldn’t be published”.
“And for your own sake, your family, your future? To be blunt, you’ll have every dirty old man and size queen in Manhattan running after you, if it sees the light of day”.
Tommy chipped in, “Oh hurrah!”
“Shut up, Tommy, I’m being serious, there are repercussions”.
Tommy added “Like the film rights?”
“What?” This rattled me.
“They’ve got to make it into a film, they really have, it’s not been done before – Huck, who would you like to play yourself?”
“Tommy, there are no film rights until there’s a book. And I’d like there not to be a book”, said Raf.
“Hang on a moment there, you mean, a film gets to be made about me and Uncle Matthew, and that’s whether I like it or not?” I was getting anxious now. For some reason this hadn’t even occurred to me.
“Yes, if it’s published, the film rights can be sold to anyone. And even so, the story can be taken by anyone, and however they disguise it, everyone will know who it is.”
“Shit”. I said.
Tommy was looking angry with his brother. “The story is a good story, Raf, it’s a kind one, it’s a nice one, it’s about an older man finding friendship and love with someone much younger, and why the blithering knickers not?”
“Because it’s our father.”
“Wasn’t he entitled to love?”
“He’d had love, with Pae, for 35 years, public, respectable, polite, decent love, the love in which our family grew up”.
“You are so up your own arse, Raf”.
“Can I interject here, that our relationship wasn’t public but it was respectable, and polite, and entirely decent. I loved your father. He had no space for me, long-term, and as it happened, he didn’t have a long-term, but that doesn’t change what we had”.
And then the gong banged, very loudly, for luncheon. I would be most surprised if Jos hadn’t been listening at the door, and decided to cut our conversation short.

Goodness me, what an upstairs-downstairs occasion that lunch was! We all knew they’d been listening, and they all knew that we knew. And everyone knew what about. Debbie, Matthew’s PA, was there, with Joe, the gardener (and husband of the exiled housekeeper, Jackie), and Giles the Bird Man, who ran the parrot farm.
As Jos was serving slices of salmon poached in wine and lime and tarragon, and sending round the salad bowls, Aunt Lucy arrived.
“So sorry I’m late, distracted dogs, wouldn’t come back, heaven knows what corpse they’d found, I’m afraid, but they’re here now, and confined to the conservatory, as per orders!” This was a reference to Amanda’s dislike of dogs – Lucy had arrived with two very wet Norfolk terriers. Lucy herself had taken off wellingtons and a heaving raincoat, to reveal her trademark blue silk dress, and strings of pearls. An extra string, I thought, and said so.
“Oh you’re quite right, a bequest, from dear Matthew. I didn’t need it, but I adore them all the more.”
“They say it’s those who already have plenty, who get more!” said Pam with a laugh that no one joined in with.
“Maybe” said Giles “they are the ones who most deserve it?”
“Well, there’s no accounting for money, is there?” said Pam with another laugh, “so long as you’ve got enough of it”.
Said Jos: “The potatoes come from the farm, last crop of the year, they look new, but they’re just good planning”.
We all expressed our admiration for the potatoes, all except Matty the Boy Wonder who became very noisy. “He’s not used to such people”, said Pam, and then corrected herself to “so many people”.
“Let him have a play in the conservatory”, said Joe.
“Not with those dogs!”
“Oh, they hardly ever bite my grandchildren” said Lucy, “I doubt yours would be an exception”.
“All the same dear, it’s best not to take chances”. And she started to look to Raf with going-home eyes.
“So, what brings you all this way, Huck? We remember you being here last year, but I thought your time in London had come to an end”, said Joe.
“Just something about a book”, said Raf, tartly, “family business”.
“Then I hope he spoke well of you, Huck, he was a fine judge of character, the Old Man”.
“Well I ….”
“Shall we celebrate with some port? It’s such a dismal day, port might be just the warmer?”, said Jos, heading off his brother’s glowering looks at the pass. He went to collect a decanter from the pantry – obviously intended for dinner, but desperate measures were needed for desperate times.
The problem for Raf was that the rain kept pelting down, and Joe and Giles couldn’t really work in it, so he was stuck. And then Tommy dropped in a little grenade,
“Oh Jos, Amanda, I hope it’s OK, I was on the telephone with Aunt Alice this morning, and said we were having dinner and was she free, and she was, and she’d love to meet Cousin Huck again, and it’s naughty of me, but is it all right? I shall repent in sackcloth and ashes otherwise”.
“She’s a bloody vegetarian!” said Jos, although you could see him working out what he’d cook for his aunt that the rest of us might enjoy too. “Of course she can come!”.
Then Raf’s demeanour changed. “I might have to be at a college function tonight”.
“You didn’t mention it before”, said Pam, whose anxiety was probably not so much that he was skiving off a family event as devoting himself to an extra-mural one.
“I thought it wouldn’t matter, but the VP was quite insistent this morning – Americans to charm, as ever ….” he added, looking at me. It didn’t seem to me that he was very good at it, so I couldn’t imagine why he’d be in such demand, but some time later, all was made clear.

By the end of lunch the Boy Wonder was making a thorough nuisance of himself, and Pam was demanding to be taken home with him, so Raf took his leave. He shook my hand with what felt like genuine warmth, “think of the posterity, Huck, but whatever you choose, you are our cousin and our friend”, which was about as noble as I could expect.
After the farewells, Amanda trooped us into the drawing room, and started snorting with laugher.
“Tommy, you utter bastard”
“What? What have I done? I am an innocent man!”
“One mention of Aunt Alice and Raf goes running for cover!”
“Well, he’s already been quite bore enough for one day, I don’t want him spoiling tonight, and anyway, Aunt Alice is SO much more fun”.
And then I learnt that Aunt Alice, Uncle Matthew’s 82-year-old sister, was a ferocious judge of Raf’s attitude to children in general, and women in particular. Hers was the sort of searching gaze, and viperish tongue, from which he recoiled, like a cockroach in the kitchen’s light. Tommy had made Raf run away.

We parted company, after another little round of port, to re-convene in the evening. I was in two minds about going back to the Dacha and re-reading what I’d already read, or throwing in the towel, and having a siesta. The siesta won.

I woke later that afternoon, and returning to my room after showering and dressed only in a towel, I met Tommy in the hallway. He raised an arched eyebrow and said “best put some clothes on before Michael starts hanging around up here too”, which I guess was a compliment. “And in any case, it is the cocktail hour, so come down and tell us what you thought of The Horrid Pam”.
Moments later I was in an armchair, with a glass of Champagne in my hand, and my hosts eager for my reactions. Pam doubtless had her admirers – Raf at least, one would hope – but she was not an endearing person. “She’s very devoted to the little boy”, I ventured.
“And all the capital he represents!” said Michael, with as near to a snarl as I think he could get.
“Surely he gets no more than anyone else?”
“But she’s thinking of when Raf goes off on his next wife project – she needs upholstering”.
Well, she looked pretty well-upholstered to me, but that wasn’t Michael’s point.
“She’s got pots of money anyway”, said Tommy, “she doesn’t need more, and no one likes her, nor her snotty-nose little brat. She’s obsessed with money – that’s all she could say about this book – and heaven alone knows what Raf admitted to her about it, as she’s quite a prude, all those comments were pretence, he wouldn’t let her see it”.
“Wouldn’t let her?”
“My brother is very old-fashioned, at times. He was pretty old-fashioned with his other three wives. That’s why he divorced them all. Or maybe they divorced him”.
And so we talked about the differences between the siblings, in their tastes and values, and how each reflected in different ways what their fathers had cherished, and then it was time for the bell once more, and off we trooped to the big house, for the final night’s entertainment.

Cousin Ingrid was once again on duty as barista. “End of an Era?” she murmured to me as I walked into the kitchen, having shucked off my sodden overcoat in the conservatory – Tommy and Michael had shared an umbrella; I was offered one but declined – I was shorter than both of them, and would certainly have put someone’s eye out. I took the lethal cocktail with a conspiratorial grin, and she said “you’ll enjoy tonight – Aunt Alice is always good value”.
“I dimly remember her from last year, I think”.
“Oh, if you’d met her, your memory wouldn’t be dim”, and she laughed, and carried on her bartending duties.
Clutching my cocktail glass, I followed by hosts into the genteel drawing room, and Amanda rose from her chair, slightly spilling her vodka, but not, I think, noticing. Justin was there too, but not Marie, and this time the six children were in what Uncle Matthew liked to call “The Dungeon” in the basement, next to the cellars, which was a soundproofed room “for young people to listen to disgusting music and watch vile films at high decibels whilst protecting me from filicidal urges”. Even so, upstairs, we were aware of their presence. Jos periodically conveyed pots of popcorn down to them.
We made polite conversation, with Amanda trying to draw me about Pam’s performance at lunch, and Justin doing his best to stifle it. I started to wonder what on earth Matthew – or Marie, come to that – had seen in this timid man. He was clearly hugely bright, full of erudite quotations from God-knows-where, but devoid of human interest, and perhaps therefore, fun.

I was pondering this when a commotion from the kitchen marked the arrival of Aunt Lucy and her two scruffy dogs. From the kitchen we could hear, addressed to Jos at his stove, “so sorry to burden you again, but they really do need to be walked, come hell or high water, and we seem to be working on the high water today – I’ve got some biscuits, if you can just lend me a bowl, I’ll settle them down in the conservatory, close the door, and join the fray”. And presently, in she walked.
There’s something about a real English aristocrat which is arresting. I haven’t met many since, and I’d met very few at this time in my life, but there’s a kind of poise and confidence about them, a surety of touch, which means whatever they say or do will be assumed to be absolutely for the best, and in the best possible taste. Aunt Lucy – her official designation was “the Honourable Lucinda Morton, Mrs Colin Shepherd” – was tall and slim, and in her mid-70s, although you wouldn’t know it. She had once been married to the Lord of the Manor in the ancient house up the hill, but had left an abusive husband after twenty years and four children, to settle with a widowed local farmer. He had died five years before. She and Uncle Matthew had been great friends – when he was 80 and she 70, they had a 150th birthday party together at First & Last – and when Colin the farmer died – that year, as it happened – Matthew encouraged her to take up writing herself, as a kind of therapy, and she produced a number of popular memoirs of her childhood in London’s Park Lane, and books about her garden, of which she was both fond and rightly proud. She tended to wear blue dresses, sometimes with a hint of white lace about the neck, and always pearls. She was very stylish.

Having been handed a glass of Champagne by the attentive Ingrid, she turned to me and said “Huck, I do hope you have recovered from being roasted for lunch! Poor Raf gets so cross about things, and Pam seems always to miss the point, or maybe she hits her own point, and doesn’t realise there are other people’s”.
“It was fine, thank you, and a pleasure to see everyone again – I can’t believe we’re brought together by a little book”.
“Ah, but what a book, Huck!”
“You’ve read it?”
“Parts. Matthew was very pleased with it, in a Vain Old Man way, and I couldn’t argue with him, why shouldn’t he be himself for once, in print, and permanently. He’d spent a life being nice to people, and scheming and plotting, and holding back, to get the job done, whatever it was – do you remember when he scammed all those Brasilian millionaires of fortunes by publishing two children’s books, the year he’d dared them to match his contribution to the Wildlife Fund? A few of them were nearly bankrupted, and a few others had to renege and look like nincompoops. You see, that is FAR naughtier than anything in his book, but I doubt the cheap press will agree. And not because the Wildlife Fund was a good cause – don’t you think life is so full of jokes?”
And just as I was thinking of what to say, that bell outside the front door swung to life again, and there was more commotion, this time in the hall. Aunt Alice had arrived. I had met her last year, but I think at the Christmas Party, so neither of us had made much impact on the other, as those were big occasions, with a couple of hundred guests. Now, she arrived in state. I could hear Ingrid coming out to the hall to help her with her coat and umbrella – she lived at the other end of the village, and despite the rain, had, like Lucy, walked – and then furnished her with a drink, and with that in hand, she made her entrance.
She was not a small lady. Not tall, but of considerable breadth. She was wearing several layers of clothes, of very nice fabrics, mostly black, but with an overlay of brighter colours. And she was festooned with jewellery. Some of it she had made herself – she was an artist, who did a sideline in jewellery – some was bought for its prettiness, and some clearly was the highest quality indeed. It was interesting to see amongst what was arresting, but not more than “costume” standard, a few gems sparkling with the refracted colours that Matthew had assured me were evidence of real high quality in gemstones. She was very much her own person – she wore what she liked because she liked it, and it was quite clear no one would tell her otherwise.
“Cousin Huck!” she bellowed (she was slightly deaf, I learnt), “you’ve come all this way just to see me!”
“Couldn’t hold me back, Aunt Alice – may I call you that?”
“You better had, it’s great- and great-great- these days – getting older is a most incriminating business. Anyway, have you read my big brother’s smutty memoirs yet? I haven’t, because it would please him too much, but I understand from the young and vulnerable that they are rather a romp and will corrupt nations?”
“That’s just about the long and the short of it”, said Justin.
“So I heard!” screeched Aunt Alice with a guffaw, “and not so much of the short! Did my little nephew make a tremendous fuss, Huck?”. She seemed to be ignoring Justin, and I was intrigued to hear Brother Raf referred to this way.
“He made his case in a calm and fair way”.
“Tell that to the divorce courts, and all those unwanted women and children!” Then seeing Ingrid with a drinks tray she added, “Sorry to be so blunt, darling, I know he’s your father, but he is a bit of a shit”. Ingrid beamed, and I wondered what on earth I had walked into.
Then it was time for the gong, and we trooped into dinner. Amanda took the head of the table at the end that meant she had her back to the dogs - and the gaggle of children - in the conservatory. Jos, when he’d finished serving, children first, was to take the other end, with his back to the hall. Ingrid sat to his right, and to her left was Percy’s perch – he might be exiled at night, but he wouldn’t be left out of family dinners. Aunt Alice chucked and tickled him as people do, and then said “I’ve no idea what you see in that bird”, and the comment was ignored, as it had probably been for over thirty years. She took her seat – at Jos’s suggestion – in the middle of one side of the table, and I at the other, as if we were both guests of honour, needing to be within everyone’s earshot. So, to one side I had Ingrid, to the other, Lucy and Tommy, and opposite, Justin, Aunt Alice, and Michael.
“We have lasagne, for the carnivores, and ratatouille for the nice people, equally and without prejudice” announced Jos, and his wife said “I’ll be a vegetable tonight”.
“If you keep knocking back that vodka, you will”, said Aunt Alice with another guffaw. It was Aunt Alice who was the vegetarian, and had been for over seventy years. The table filled with decanters of red wine, and a salad full of tomatoes and basil leaves and mozzarella and avocadoes – “Did you grow all this yourself, Jos?” asked Aunt Alice, imperiously. “Oh yes, all in the greenhouse, Auntie”. “Liar”. Then to me:
“My nephews all tell me lies, they are dreadful people. My niece doesn’t, because she’s only interested in money, and I’m not, so she’s got nothing to lie to me about.” And then to Jos “In thirty years you’ve only raised avocadoes here twice, and both times they were a bit rubbish”. “Oh, that’s a little harsh”. “Harsh, but true.” And she tucked in.
And my, did she tuck! And so did they all, hearty, country, appetites, I suppose. In Manhattan back then, two meals a day were rare, three, unheard-of, and I wasn’t so hungry, although the food was good, and it reminded me that Uncle Matthew had made lasagne the night he died, a year ago – like tonight, a Friday, and with almost everyone here also present – all but Aunt Alice and me.
Food demolished, pudding and fruit and cheese and sweet wines started to go round – and more port! – and the children demanded to be dismissed back to the Dungeon, and we were adults alone again. Ingrid was clearly amongst us, not them.
Aunt Alice started back into the fray: “so, what have you decided about this memoir, Huck?”
“I’m not ready to make up my mind just yet”, I equivocated.
“I queered his pitch, Auntie, talking about film rights to the story earlier, and I think he’s a bit spooked”, said Tommy.
“But it’s a LOVELY story”, she roared, “my brother was a dreary boring little shred of a piece of nonsense when you came along, and he perked up and lived for a last vivid year – it will be a fantastic film – who do you want to play you?”
And briefly we had a fun game saying who’d we’d like to play us in any film of our life, and then Justin said abruptly:
“It’s not just about being a story, it’s a man’s reputation, a man I loved and esteemed, and who was esteemed, in the end, by church, and state, and internationally, and if this thing goes ahead, then that’s all anyone will remember of him”.
“Justin, you do talk bollocks”. Said Aunt Alice.
“But they will ….”
“If they are so bloody feeble-witted that they remember nothing else, then they really aren’t worth worrying about. My brother’s contribution is safe as houses, everyone knows what he did for others, for the planet, for his family, and all the rest, and if he had some fun along the way, well, bravo him, the dirty old poof – oh, sorry, Huck, I didn’t mean that last bit the way it came out. Now, where’s that decanter?”
Then Michael piped up: “it’s certainly going to be a money-spinner – very good for the Family Fund”.
Justin fumed: “It can’t be about money, everyone’s got enough money”.
Now Michael: “Maybe Huck could do with some, Justin, he’s not part of the family fund, unlike you”. That was a barb – Michael was a trustee, but not a beneficiary, and Justin, his fellow son-in-law, benefited both from the Fund’s money, and his wife’s immense earnings.
“Well, what would it cost to pay you off, Huck? You can’t really want this story told. Michael’s the only trustee here, there are others, old friends of Matthew’s, who’d stand up for his reputation”.
“WHAT?” roared Aunt Alice, “you want to buy a man’s silence about his own life?”
“He was really not very keen on the film idea, Auntie.”
“That isn’t the point – and I’m your wife’s auntie, not yours. It’s his life, his story. My brother wrote his life, his story, and the two briefly coincided. I think it has to go ahead. Don’t give in to that silly arse Raf. He goes on about “what if my daughters read this”, and he scarcely knows who they are, and I bet there’s one who already has”. At this point Ingrid turned away, whether with a smile or a frown, I don’t know.
And then Amanda weighed in and said that the book was an important contribution to our social history, and our social tolerance and understanding of older people, and blah, blah, blah, and then Aunt Lucy said “Matthew wanted it published, so, if it causes no offence to you , Huck, I think it should be”.
Justin eventually slunk off, and Amanda and Aunt Alice knocked back the vodka, and the others became merry on their different “drugs of choice” as Uncle Matthew would have called them. I sat there bemused, partly by a family at war with itself, and partly by the comfortableness of three generations with one another while they did it. What did I want to do or say? I thought I knew, but I needed time, and time away, time back home.
The party dispersed. Jos offered lifts to Aunt Alice and Aunt Lucy, but both were declined on the grounds that he’d drunk too much, and as she was striding forth into the raid, Aunt Alice said “I haven’t had so much fun in ages!” and disappeared into the night. Aunt Lucy left by the conservatory door, as did Tommy, and Michael, and me.
“She’s quite something, my auntie, isn’t she?” said Tommy, as I headed upstairs to the guest bedroom. “Oh yes, definitely one to keep on your side!”

On the Saturday morning I woke very early again. Decision time? Too much booze? Just time to go home? I had no idea. I showered and dressed, and made my way back to First and Last. I wanted to borrow that stick again, before reading the manuscript a final time. Ingrid was there, waiting, as I had expected, with a jug of coffee, and much curiosity.

“You’re off today then?” she asked. “Yes, this afternoon – your uncles are giving me lunch, then off to the airport”.
“Lots to think about, or mind made up?”
“Oh heck, I don’t know. It’s that film stuff that Tommy mentioned that’s bugging me – I don’t care about Raf”.
“My father will melt as soon as the book, or the film, puts money in his account – he has seven of us to support, and two ex-wives.” This seemed to me a most cynical, but probably accurate, appraisal.
“So, what do you think? I’m guessing you loved Matthew, and he you, as much as anyone else left alive, or ever, what do you think?”
“Grumpy was a Christian, and a priest, and he believed in love. I know the story in the memoirs isn’t all about that - ” “You’ve read it?” “Of course I have!” So now I understood that looking away at the table last night. “That is deeply embarrassing, Ingrid”. “Get used to it”, she said, with a radiant smile. “It will blow over; meantime, you’ll be a unique romantic hero, and old Grumpy will get what he wants”.
“Which is?”
“To be remembered as a man who was alive”.

Before the dawn, I snuck back to the Dacha, and re-read what I could. Then I walked back through the rain, returned the key to its hook – from which Ingrid had doubtless retrieved it to do her own reading – and went to the Dower House. Michael was fretting over lunch – “Just make it light, darling, he’s got to be on a flight in a few hours” – I overheard as I walked through the door.
“Oh, hello!”, said Tommy, “we’re just sorting lunch out – smoked salmon and quails’ eggs to start, and just the tiniest little veal escalope to follow”.
“It sounds ideal”.
“Have a glass of something; to be honest, I’ve found these last few days rather more exhausting than I thought.” “How so?” “I felt a need to look after you, not just Daddy and his reputation – or his wishes – and I do so very much hope that no one will be hurt by whatever you decide and, as you’re living, you most of all”.
“I’ll be fine. I’ll let you know by Monday morning, direct, and copied to all interested parties.”
“And your verdict is …?”
“Not decided yet! I decide that when I’m home in America.”

And when I got home?
“What did you decide?” yelled NancyLee.
“I’m saying yes”.
“Even though it’s filthy?”
“Especially though it’s filthy”.
“You’re gonna be a star!”
“I doubt it, but I shall have been alive”.
“You are one dingbat of a guy”.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
August 2015






THE SUMMONS
“NancyLee, can you get that?” Typical, the ‘phone always rings when you’re just getting in the shower. “Tell them I’ll get back to them”. But my flatmate knocked on the bathroom door a moment later, “It’s one of your cousins from England, I think you should talk to him”. I said a bad word, then got out of the shower, dried off a little, and came into the living room where she was saying “he’s just here …” into the handset.

“Cousin Huck?” An unmistakeable voice, my very distant cousin, The Actor.
“Hi Tommy! How’s it going?”
“Oh fine, thank you, and yourself?”
“Busy with work, but not busy enough, the usual. This is unexpected.”
“Yes, for you and me both, but as we’re getting down to business, there is something I – well we’d all, really – like to talk to you about”
“What’s up?”
“It’s Daddy. He wrote a book before he died, a memoir, which he wanted published, but said we could veto for a while if we didn’t like it, or if we thought it might hurt anyone living. The thing is, it’s rather a naughty memoir, and the other thing is, you’re in it. Huck? You’ve gone quiet”.
“Sorry, yes, just thinking. Erm, hadn’t really imagined ever to be having this conversation”.
“But you did know Daddy was writing a final memoir, and it was going to be a bit racy?”
“Yes, he did drop hints about it, I think he was writing it during that last summer when I stayed with him in Italy, but I never thought I’d feature”.
“Darling boy, you’re the star of the show! It’s absolutely filthy, and unputdownable. It will sell like hot cakes. But, Brother Raf has turned into a Victorian prude and is trying to stop it, even though the other three of us are OK about it – you’re his last hope, and I promised I’d get in touch and see what you thought. He has no right to such fairness – given his own monstrous pile-up on the motorway of love – but you do deserve to see it too, before it goes to press”.
“That’s kind of you, I appreciate it. Can you mail me the pages, and I can read them for myself? I’ve got a slow day today”.
“I’m sorry, that’s the tricky part – Raf absolutely refuses to allow it to leave the premises or be copied anywhere, until and unless we give it consent, so it means your coming here to read it in person, which I know is a frightful bore, and you must have so much else on just now”.
“No, that’s no problem, I love England, I’m sure I can arrange a few days holiday, or dress it up as a fact-finding mission!”
“We were rather hoping you could come very soon”.
“How soon?”
“Well, how would today suit?”
I must have been mad to agree. It was true I had nothing of any moment to do until Monday, and this was Thursday morning, but was I really just going to be summonsed by a cousin in England I hardly knew to sort out a family quarrel? Well, yes, I was. Even though at 36 he still called his dead father “Daddy”.
“We’ll cover the expense, I know last minute travel can be wildly dear – just send me your bank details and Michael can put the money through to you in a moment. And really, don’t hold back, if you need first class, take it, and if you don’t, well, keep the change and have some fun with it. Do you think you might be able to come over today? I know it’s a huge ask, but we really do need your help – we’ve got Raf breathing fire on one side, and the publishers pacing up and down on the other, and we need to know we’ve been fair. You will have absolute right of veto over anything mentioning you for a generation, that’s a promise we have all agreed to, but you’ve got to read it first”.
“Tommy, this is the weirdest thing I’ve ever agreed to, but OK, I’ll start looking for a flight and let you know what I find”.
“Oh that’s brilliant! Michael and I can come and collect you from the airport, and you can be our guest at the Dower House while you’re here – First and Last has become rather a different and much more noisy place than you’d last remember it”.
He was referring to the house that his fathers built at about the time that they adopted their children – none of them has any clear memory of any other home – 35 years before. It was called “First and Last Passage”. Uncle Matthew – Cousin Tommy’s “Daddy” – had named it after a street in some obscure English town where an ancestor of his was born. I remember his saying “this is my own first house, and it will be my last”, and so it turned out to be – he raised his children there, lived there throughout a surprising political, literary, and media career, and died there in his library just over one year before this conversation, at 84 years of age. It was where I had met him the previous Fall.
“Let me get onto it, and I’ll let you know – but don’t bother coming to the airport, I’ll take the bus to Oxford, maybe you can come for me there, or I can take a cab. I’ll send a message once I’ve arrived?”
And it was so. NancyLee was already on the internet looking for flights before I even put the handset down. She has her nose in everyone else’s affairs, and cannot resist eavesdropping, and for once (well, maybe not just for once) I was grateful.
“Got you a flight from JFK at 12.25” she said. “And I mailed your cousin your bank details”. I really do trust that girl!
“Shit, that’s less than three hours! Book it!”
“What with? I don’t have that kind of money, Mr Rockefeller”.
“Check my bank account – Tommy will be true to his word”. And so he was - $10,000 instantly transferred to my account, no strings attached, I could have blown them all on a night out. We booked the flight, and I started to pack.

The last time I was in England was for Uncle Matthew’s Memorial Service, in July, a few months earlier. He wasn’t really my uncle, in fact he was only a very distant cousin. It’s kind of unbelievable really, but his Grandpa was brother to my great-great-great-great-grandmother. And he knew his Grandpa, and he knew his great-aunt. There’s a lot of “greats” in there – we come from rural Ohio, there isn’t a lot to do. And he was nearly sixty years older than me, and my ancestress was already a great-great-grandmother when he met her for the last time. Maybe I’m sounding apologetic, but the family connexion is the reason I wanted to get in touch with him when my New York paper let me go on an internship in London. I asked to interview him – knowing he loved all that family tree stuff – and hoping for a scoop. I got one. More than I had reckoned with.
Shower completed, bags packed, passport, cash, ticket receipt, cellphone, tablet, all set, and off we went to JFK. I told NancyLee she needn’t come with me, but she said “I wouldn’t miss this for the world, just wish I could come all the way!”. I thought with a pang of regret that with all that money, I could have brought her too, but she said she really did have work to do – some hard-nosed political stuff for the same paper – so I gave her a couple of hundred dollar bills, and said “go out and seduce someone on me!” She tucked the notes briskly away about her person. NancyLee was an old-fashioned kinda gal – when she went out for the night, she didn’t pay. I could envisage shoes or a handbag when I got back, though.

Like a klutz, it was only at the airport that I realised I hadn’t told Tommy which flight I’d be on, but NancyLee said she’d take care of all that. I guess there’s nothing much to like about air travel, but having grown up in a non-drinking Bible-bashing family, I still get a thrill out of ordering liquor throughout the journey and only praying (to a God in whom I’m not sure I believe) if there is turbulence. There was no turbulence, but much liquor. In honour of Uncle Matthew who introduced me to it, gin and tonic.

In my boozy haze, I sat there trying to fathom what on earth he could have said about his life in general, and my very small chapter in it in particular, that could have caused so much family discontent. Uncle Matthew and his late husband had adopted four children, Cousin Tommy was the youngest, and “Brother Raf” was the oldest. In between were Jos, who was Raf’s blood brother, and Marie, who was Tommy’s blood sister – they’d been adopted in pairs. I was 26 at this time, Tommy was in his mid-30s, Raf maybe seven or eight years older. When I say “family discontent” what I really mean is that Raf was causing trouble. He was the misfit, in a way, the one who picked fights with people, and whose personal life was precisely the chaos Tommy had alluded to. He was married to his fourth wife, and had seven children, the last of which was a longed-for boy, named Matthew (but called Matty), after his grandfather, and the last of Matthew’s thirteen grandchildren, just as Ingrid, also Raf’s, now 16, had been his first. Raf wasn’t a layabout, he was an academic bright star, a professor of astrophysics, which made Uncle Matthew very proud, despite, or as he used to say “no, because, I haven’t a clue what he’s so brilliant at!”. But he was tetchy with his family, and a compulsive womaniser, and when she was only a year old had left his first child with his fathers and never reclaimed her. He said her grandfathers would make better parents – which is undoubtedly true – but she never forgave him, that much she made apparent, and she doted on the one, and spoke fondly of the other she could hardly remember, as he died when she was six.

Having grown up in Sticksville with my redneck family shouting each other down about diddly squat, there was a certain relish in anticipating my rich and titled English cousins having a similar – but much more decorous and, I imagined, wittier, spat. My own family was a mess. We were Bible bashers who got married and divorced a lot, forswore the bottle, then ended up in ditches, wore our little silver rings, then got pregnant, or made girls pregnant, at 17. My father and mother were in that mould, but when he left Mom, Dad resolved to break it. We stayed in touch, somehow, and he led his own life, producing a few more children along the way, and when I finally left Ohio and came to New York, and came out as gay, I thought he’d appreciate my being an independent, free-spirited, trailblazer, too. We haven’t spoken since.

You can ponder too much on psychology – is that the reason I have a thing about much older men? Realistically, my father isn’t actually that much older than me, certainly young enough to be Uncle Matthew’s son or even grandson (at least in Ohio), but do I crave love from that paternal figure who will make it OK? My grandpa, Jeremiah, also fell out of the picture when I went to New York. “Oh, you’ll turn out like your Great-Uncle Greg” he said. And so I did. But it would be true to say that Matthew had more charms for me than just those of a distant cousin related by long-forgotten blood. I was a journalist, so was he; he’d been writing for the American press for thirty years, and I remember the thrill the first time, reading something of his at the kitchen table – which really annoyed Mom – her saying casually “you know that guy is your father’s cousin from way back?” We had something more than blood in common, and I had been desperate to meet him.

In the quaint old university city of Oxford, I met his youngest son, and his son’s husband, that afternoon. Tommy was the most out-going of the four children, a bit pompous and theatrical at times, but that was his work, and he was esteemed in his profession – I’d seen him on Broadway more than once before I met him as a cousin in his father’s house. He was tall and gangly and had a very English patrician bearing which sat oddly with his distinctively Latin colouring, the tanned skin, and dark eyes. Michael, the husband, a childhood sweetheart, lost and found, was mousy by comparison, an accountant, sharp as razors about numbers and money, but otherwise more interested in gossip and stories. They were a complete contrast. The one had grown up in a big house, with a London apartment, with privilege and connexions a name and a title, the other was the unwanted first child of a large unwanted family in the countryside. Michael had worked hard to escape the world he grew up in, only to move back into a house in the shadow of the biggest house in his mother’s village.
They greeted me like old friends – despite considerable confusion at first about exactly where I was – and bundled me into their capacious car and whisked me off the few short miles into the countryside. It was Fall again, as it had been two years before, when I first met Uncle Matthew, and it was growing dark, so I could see little from the car as we sped along. Tommy didn’t drive, but kept up an impressive banter.
“It’s entirely up to you, Huck, you can do what you want, and you’ve only to ask, and it will be provided! Also, you don’t need to have anything to do with any of us, if you don’t want to, and you can leave at any time” (at this point he actually gave me the card of a minicab company). “BUT, my big brother Jos, and Amanda, are very much hoping you will come to First and Last for dinner tonight with the children, and then tomorrow you can spend all day looking at this naughty book my wicked old father wrote, and there will be a break for lunch, at which Brother Raf will try to browbeat you into vetoing the whole project. Of course, it would be wrong of me to lead the witness, but that would be an awful shame, because I think Daddy wrote this thing to say “hey, I might be 80-odd, but I’m still alive, and I always was, dammit!”, and we ought to go along with that. But that is leading the witness.”
“I doubt I’ll need much persuading, and I think I can stand up to Raf. Obviously this matters a lot to you all, though, if you’ve got me all the way over from New York to sort it out?”
“Raf really doesn’t want it published at all. We’ve ground him down on that. Now he’s clutching at straws, wanting various bits taken out, of which yours, I’m delighted to say, is far the raunchiest, and he’s hoping that for very shame you will ask for the whole chapter to be excised from the book”.
“Shit.”
“Huck, you really must know you are a welcome friend – and cousin – and even Raf would want you to know that. I can imagine it must be a bit like some sort of lions’ den, but Raf will lose this battle – with or without your help – and he’ll sulk and move on, and there really will be no hard feelings. Daddy – both our fathers – taught us not to bear silly grudges and hang on to the past. But we do have to be fair.”
And then, there it was, the gateway to First and Last, unassuming from the road, but with characteristic pillars topped with carved stone macaw figures either side. We swept past First and Last Passage itself, brightly lit, and I suppose busy with preparation for dinner and the noise of children – Jos had four, and he and Amanda, and they, had all moved in after Uncle Matthew died. We carried on a few hundred yards more to Tommy’s and Michael’s house, which until last year had been where Jos and Amanda lived. Before that, Uncle Matthew had built it for his parents, and his father had died about a decade earlier at nearly a hundred years old, and Jos’s family had moved in. It was all rather Mafioso – the Family Compound. But yet, Tommy had a flat in central London, Michael kept his house in Oxford from before their marriage, Amanda had a house in West London which was convenient for her work on the national level (she was high up in social work). Physically they were often much closer than my family, but somehow never so claustrophobically together.
We got into the Dower House, and Michael said “well, bugger that, it’s time for a drink! What do you fancy?” “Give him Champagne, darling”. “Only if he wants it!” “Oh, I do”, I said, and put an end to their stagey bickering. Glasses duly arrived, and they both toasted my safe arrival – I think Tommy even thanked God, which was one of his things, he alone of Uncle Matthew’s children had the religious bug – and Tommy said:
“We really are so very grateful to you for coming all this way”.
“Coming to England isn’t, never has been, a chore. I just hope I can help”.
“Oh, I think you will. Whether you say yes or no to the chapter, it will mean we can go ahead with what Daddy wanted, which was to publish most of a rather unusual memoir of a rather unusual man.”
“Do you think it will cause a stir?”
Michael piped up “I should bloody think so! It’s outrageous! A wonderful read, but outrageous all the same. You’re meant to think of older people as emotionally – and especially sexually – dead, and you can’t come away from this book with that thought virgo intacta!”
“So you’ve read it?”
“Erm, yes, probably not meant to, but I couldn’t help myself. Sorry.”
“Bastard!” shouted Tommy, with no wrath at all, “fetch us the punitive Champagne!”
The punitive Champagne was duly brought. I know English people drink a heck of a lot, but I had a feeling I was on for a lake of booze as I tried to keep a clear head about whatever besmirches there were on my reputation in this smutty manuscript.

There would have been time for a nap before dinner, but it seemed better to fight the jetlag and just press ahead, so I spent the next couple of hours chatting idly about what had been happening since my last visit, how things had changed since Uncle Matthew died – the game of musical houses everyone had been playing. And I was introduced to another key member of the family – Queenie, a huge, blue, macaw.
“Did you meet her last time? I doubt it, as she lived with me in Clerkenwell, but I think she likes the country better. She’s a sweet old soul, much nicer than Percy, and she definitely won’t bite – she has a weakness for gay men, and her gaydar is second to none”.
“What happened to Percy?”
“I offered to take him on, as he and Queenie are OK together, although he’s a bit of a bully, but then Ingrid stepped in, and so she and Percy have had the least upheaval of all. The only change is that now he sleeps on a perch in her bedroom, rather than in the kitchen, as Amanda finds him rather startling if she comes downstairs in the night – of course, he doesn’t mind at all”.
Ingrid was Uncle Matthew’s first grandchild, Raf’s daughter, who had come to live with them at only a year old when his marriage to a Brasilian heiress rather messily crumpled. He’d fled the country, taking the child, and a lecturing post at Cambridge, but left her with his fathers and never really claimed her back. After Uncle Matthew was widowed, it was just the two of them – apart from the occasional guest – in that big old house, and they made an unexpected, but unexpectedly comfortable, couple. Ingrid was now sixteen. I had found her a silent and interested observer when I’d visited before, watching the adults without contributing much, but preferring us to her cousins who were only a few years younger, but years which at that age make all the difference. I was glad she was looking after her grandfather’s macaw. I remembered him saying how much it annoyed Raf to be referred to as “Son Number Two”, because Percy arrived in the household before any of the children, and I wondered if there was any significance in Ingrid joining forces with “Son Number One”.

A bell tolled cheerfully, if bells can do that, and we were summoned to drinks and then dinner. It seems that one of the changes under the new regime was that we would gather in the “drawing room” for drinks before dinner, rather than collecting in the kitchen for the whole evening. Amanda had a few quite particular ways of doing things and although she’d grown up in the countryside, in Norfolk, which I’ve never visited but they say it doesn’t get more rustic than that, she had city manners, and she found her father-in-law’s preference for sitting at the kitchen table all evening too redolent of the peasantry. I’ve given the impression that she is a snob, which isn’t fair. There’s something English people – particularly women – say about “just wanting things to be nice”, and that’s what it was. The Dower House is at the bottom of the garden, so it made sense to go up the garden path and into the house through the conservatory which adjoins the kitchen, and then through the magnificent hall, with its glass dome hardly visible in the dark. I noticed that the vast succession of homely family photos and portraits that had lined the staircase had gone, to be replaced by works of mainly modern art. “Nicer”, I guess.

It was Ingrid who served the drinks. Out of curiosity, I asked for a gin and tonic, her grandfather’s tipple, and noted that she mixed it just as he had – with scarcely any room for the tonic. I had learnt how to mix those myself. They’re bracing at first, but when you get used to them, anything else seems rather insipid. Amanda was drinking vodka and tonic, I noticed, something that would have attracted sarcasm under the Old Regime “vodka is for chavs and women”, Uncle Matthew had declaimed at his most chauvanistic. Michael, Tommy, and Ingrid herself, all stuck to Champagne, and Jos called out from the kitchen, where he was cooking a venison stew, that he had plenty of red to keep him company. This was so different from home. Even in New York, at least someone would have been on the soft stuff. Here, “the evil drink” had given way to “wine that maketh glad the heart of man” (Matthew quoted that a lot – even when holding a glass of gin). Then Marie, and her much older husband Justin, arrived with their two sons, who briefly shook hands, then instantly shot upstairs to join their cousins. Marie was a money-maker, engaged in all manner of high level investments, for the family, for endowed charities, and for herself. She had become a millionaire in her own right by the age of 22. No one really seemed to know why she’d married Justin, who had been a researcher and amanuensis for Uncle Matthew for years, and probably was more in love with the father than the daughter, except that perhaps she’d wanted to have children before re-immersing herself in the corporate world for life. Certainly it was Justin who seemed to do all the child-care, his own academic career having fizzled out with fretting after Uncle Matthew’s.

I was greeted warmly by all parties, and asked the usual questions about my event-free flight. They seemed not to want to broach the subject of the real reason for my visit with Ingrid present, and she seemed to know it, and be amused by it. I tried to play the Good American Guest, and asked politely after their children and so on. Amanda and Justin responded eagerly to this, although Amanda was almost always in London working – she’d be there again in the morning – both had married in to comfort and money, and dealt with it in very different ways. For Amanda it was a chance to get on with her own career, confident that she had a husband who would raise the children nicely (he actually did it his own way, and rarely did anything she said) and for Justin, well, maybe he was just a bit of a freeloader, but Marie was grateful to get back to the City of London and play with money, as she had done since her teenage years.

Ingrid came round offering a re-fill. Most politely, she came to me, the guest, first, and whispered “I could always make you an End of an Era”. Happy memories of this lethal cocktail! And I thought, why not?, tomorrow’s the difficult day, when Raf turns up. So I said yes, and so did Michael, but the others stuck with their first choices. I noticed that there was a hierarchy – first the guest, then the aunt, then the uncles by marriage, then the uncles by blood, and finally the aunt who was hostess. How does a kid learn this stuff?
The drinks had scarcely arrived and Jos was in the hall, banging the gong, and shouting “dinner is served”. I’m not kidding. They really did have a gong. It was 7.20. The time that dinner was served at Uncle Matthew’s college when he was a student over half a century ago. I found out Amanda had tried to change it to 8.00, but Jos, for once, had over-ruled her. The English and their traditions! But something had changed about dinner itself, because we were served our food at the table, whereas Uncle Matthew had got us to help ourselves from the counter. He thought people should decide how much they wanted to eat, and anything leftover, well, that was the reason you keep dogs. Of course, the dogs were gone – another sign of the Amanda Revolution, as she couldn’t stand them – and Tommy and Michael looked after the elderly Manchester terrier, greyhound, and Scottie, that Matthew had left behind. For the time being, the cats were safe.

The stew was fabulous. We shoot things a lot in America, not least each other, but somehow we don’t know what to do with venison, because this was full of all sorts of flavours. Jos was a pretty good cook, very happy there in his apron, dishing out, and charming everyone. He reminded me very much of his father – although Matthew had presided sitting down at the head of the table after we served ourselves, whereas he presided standing up, as he served us.
Our previous glasses were now replaced with red wine glasses – although there were water glasses too – and the conversation was steered most by those who had drunk most. Ingrid was still the bar-person, and most attentive too, not only to her duties, but to our conversation.
“I understand you’ll be reading my father-in-law’s pornographic memoir tomorrow, Huck?” said Amanda, a little slurrily.
“Yep, first thing. I don’t imagine it’s too long, maybe I can get it done by lunchtime”.
“I think it’s rather marvellous that the old coot wrote something so naughty – but you probably know that Raf is dead against”.
“I’d been told so”.
“Well, I sha’n’t be here for lunch tomorrow, but don’t let him bully you – it’s your decision”.
Justin piped up “It’s not just Raf who disapproves. Matthew was a serious scholar, this is fluffy, mucky, nonsense, his reputation deserves better”.
“Darling, you’re such a prude” said his wife, “Daddy liked being mucky – he always said he was an earthy person, you should have seen him re-potting his aspidistras – muck everywhere”. I couldn’t tell if she was serious or teasing.
“He was also an historian, a man of science, and a priest, for God’s sake. I don’t want his grandchildren – our children - ever to read this stuff”.
Amanda replied “It’s too late for that – something will go ahead, and you can’t hide any story these days. We should be raising children who can cope with reading difficult stories, not hiding the stories away.”

And so it bantered on. I was getting more and more tired, and all the alcohol wasn’t helping. We got to pudding, then cheese and port, and I was almost asleep. Michael noticed, nudged his husband, and said “I think we should be taking your cousin home, he has a long, strange, day tomorrow”. And so we took our leave, walked the length of the path to the Dower House, and within minutes, I was in the deepest sleep.
But the next morning, at 5.30 English Time (5.25, Oxford Time, as Uncle Matthew would have said), I was wide awake. And there was work to do. I showered and dressed, and slipped quietly out of the house – the doors weren’t locked, so I needed no key. It was raining, and dark. And then on a whim I thought I’d collect one of Uncle Matthew’s walking sticks from the corner of the conservatory. The previous evening I’d noticed one he’d particularly liked – cherry wood – and thought it would be fun to make my way to the Dacha, as he called his writing summerhouse, with that. Amanda had given me the key to the Dacha the previous evening, and it puzzled me a lot when I found it in my pocket after waking up. The conservatory door was open, and as I was trying to make my choice in the dark, I was startled by a:
“Hello! You’re up early! Would you like some coffee?” It was Ingrid, in a shimmering silk kimono.
“Hi, yes, er, didn’t mean to break in, just wanted to borrow a stick, for old times’ sake”.
“Help yourself, they hardly ever get used now– how do you like your coffee?”
And so we sat back down at the kitchen table and she asked:
“Were you in love with Grumpy?”
I was taken aback. I didn’t know much about teenagers – still don’t – or how to answer questions except honestly.
“I wasn’t expecting that question!” I stalled for time. “But the answer is that there was definitely love, maybe a kind of infatuation at first, but he made it clear there was no space in his life for anyone else – he had been married, and wasn’t going to marry again, and he had you, and his children, and his work, and that was enough, so I didn’t have false hopes, and they weren’t dashed”.
“I knew there was something going on!”
“How?”
“When you scarpered from Italy before I arrived last summer. I just knew. He was a bit glum after you went”.
“Scarpered?”
“It means “ran away””.
“Oh, I wasn’t doing that, I had work to go back to – he was retired, Americans don’t get much holiday”.
“Grumpy never retired! But you’re right, he sometimes forgot that other people couldn’t be so free and easy. Sometimes he even forgot I had to be at school. I wish I hadn’t reminded him, as I’m sure he’d have got away with it”.
“You must miss him very much”.
“He was my only real parent. I dimly remember Grand-Pae, but only dimly. My father is useless, and my mother wasn’t interested even before she died. We were a good team here, I think. He taught me to cook what he knew, then I learnt some new tricks, and I taught him. He never shouted. We both loved the animals, and the farm, and the countryside. I’ve been very lucky”.
“What’s it like now?”
“Uncle Jos is a saint, much better than my own father, and I get treated the same as, or even better than, my cousins. Aunt Amanda is such a brilliant feminist – even more than Grumpy – she’s prickly sometimes – did you notice the housekeeper has gone? – well, you will tomorrow at lunch, because Joe the gardener is still here, and she is his wife – but she’s used to telling people what, and Grumpy never did that. And I have Percy, of course. We console each other, we both miss that naughty old man!”
Looking at my empty coffee mug, and mindful that others might soon arrive, I said I’d best be off to my morning reading.
“Have fun”, she said. With a smirk.

So off I went, in the breaking dark, with the chosen walking stick, to the Dacha. He’d chosen that name because, he said, it reminded him of the Soviet dictators, so it was an ideal name for his summerhouse. He had this mad idea that he was a little bit like Stalin. It was the place where he did most of what he called his “long writing”. His journalism was written upstairs, in the playroom, the big room that covered the entire second floor of the house, under that amazing glass dome. I shuffled for the key in my pocket, so I entered, and there was a light, and there was the manuscript on the desk, covered with a dictionary.

Well, it was a bracing read. I’ll admit a rather disappointing one, in a way. I guess we all hope to be thought of as something more than a slab of meat, but there was precious little else in the chapter devoted to whatever kind of relationship we had. Of course, it was in the nature of the book that it wasn’t to be sentimental, but sensational, and it wasn’t without the occasional glimpse of interest in what sort of person I might be, but I sat there pondering, for quite some time, before continuing with the rest of the memoir.

By lunchtime, I was done, and had reconciled myself that my little chapter was kinder than most of the rest. It was accurate too, I couldn’t fault the history, although it’s a shocking thing to see one’s private life, and person, portrayed in the black and white of cold print – or, in this case, his eccentric handwriting. It was by no means an uncomplimentary account, and I was left in no doubt that he’d very much enjoyed our time together, but I was more comforted by his grand-daughter’s words that he’d been “glum” after I left him in Italy that last summer.

Knock, knock. It was Tommy, outside in the rain, under an umbrella, knocking on the glass. Quite a jolt from my reveries.
“You’ve been here an aeon, old bean, and it’s nearly the lunching hour, and I thought I must distract you from your labours”.
“You’re right, what is it, 11 or something?”
“Nearly 12! Boozing Hour!” When was anything not “boozing hour” in that household?
But I’d been there a long time, and I closed the manuscript as Tommy rummaged around in what I’d thought was a cupboard, but turned out to be a refrigerator, with a tiny freezer, a bottle of gin, ice, and a lime.
“So, what do you make of it all? Fit to sell?”
“Oh, it’ll sell all right, there’s not much else quite like it”.
“And you, what do you think about, well, your chapter?”
“It’s true; I can’t argue with its honesty. It’s a bit meat and bones, if you know what I mean”.
“You know as well as I do that he was writing to shock. All his pompous friends and lackeys and pathetic fan club. But do you know you made a real difference to him? In those last few months of his life, he was happy in a way I don’t remember since my other father died. He told me to give you a share of the proceeds”.
“Oh, I don’t want that! I don’t need money, that’s all OK, that’s between all of you”.
“Seriously, Huck, he wanted you to benefit, and I shall make it happen – whether or not you agree. That’s what he wanted, and more importantly, you made him happy, and that is worth the world to me”.
“Doesn’t it bother you that he was so much older than me?”
“To be honest, dear cousin, he was always old to us. He was 50 when he adopted me and Marie, not much less when he adopted the brothers. He was the oldest Dad in the primary school by far. Far more than Pae, who used at least to dye his hair! So no, age is irrelevant to me, and I think to the others – and neither of you did anything wrong, you were both adults, and both having fun. He told me to have fun. And a couple of times bailed me out of police stations for having it, but let’s not go there. And now let’s go and meet the family!”

As Tommy struggled with his umbrella, I remembered the cherry walking stick, and we tottered up the path together, through the verandah on the West side, and into the hall, and then the kitchen. Jos was aproned, again, and seeing me said:
“Oh Huck, you’re on my conscience! I thought we ought to have something light after last night – can you eat salmon? I should have asked before!”
“Salmon’s great, Jos, one of my favourites”.
“What a relief! Everything else is a bit not-wintery, but the potato salad will be warm, and the Hollandaise is rather a triumph, I think. BUT, we’re a wine waitress short, as Ingrid’s at school, so, Tommy, could you do the honours?”
“Is anyone else here yet?”, said Tommy, neatly stepping towards the bottles.
“No, it’s just you two so far. Marie said she’s put Justin off, and Raf and Pam are coming with the Boy Wonder. Aunt Lucy’s coming over …”
“In this foul rain?”
“Oh, you know her, tough as old boots, she’ll probably bring those scruffy little monsters with her, too”. These were Norfolk terriers, I was reliably informed on an earlier visit. But Aunt Lucy, a friend of the family, a widow, lived on a neighbouring farm about a mile away, so it wasn’t a long walk, and as Jos said, she was hardy.
“Can’t you send Joe for her?”
“Shut up and find some bloody drinks, Lord Fauntleroy!” I have no idea what that meant.

Drinks were found, but we stayed with Jos in the kitchen while he toiled over the food, and he explained:
“Raf wants us to talk in the drawing room before, maybe after, but not over, lunch with the staff. If that’s OK.”
“Pompous arse”, said Tommy.
“It’s fine by me”, I said, “just tell me if I break ranks or say the wrong thing”.
The bell rang. Not the normal sort of electronic doorbell, this was a real, huge, bell, that hung by the side of the front door. The visitor waggled its clapper, and then everyone in the village knew they were there.
To my surprise, it was Amanda. She was supposed to be in London all day.
“Meeting cancelled, darlings, footled about in the Oxford office, and then thought, I really couldn’t miss the Coliseum!”
Jos downed his salad tongs to give her a hearty kiss – after ten years of marriage – and then said – “Tommy’s in charge of the bar, and we’re still waiting for the others”.
It wasn’t long before that bell jangled again, and like Amanda, Marie just walked in, having announced her presence. And we went into the drawing room.

“Have you had a chance to read it?” asked Marie.
“Yes, almost all.”
“And?”
“It’s a bit graphic and personal ….”
“But does it offend or hurt you in any way?”
“No, I couldn’t say it does. Your father and I were lucky to find each other”.
“That’s just what I thought”, said Amanda, “after all, old doesn’t mean finished, and young doesn’t mean uninterested in old. I think it’s rather lovely – typically naughty, of course, but Grumpy was like that”.

The bell again. This time Brother Raf, and Pam, and the Boy Wonder. They too walked in without having the door opened for them, and I wondered how many people in this village just leave their doors open all the time.

From the drawing room we could hear Jos scuttle out from the kitchen to explain who was here already, and to goo a bit over the Wonder, although his offer of looking after him for the next few minutes was politely rejected. A moment later, there they were.

“Cousin Huck! It’s been a while! So sorry to have dragged you here, and for such a reason, and in such AWFUL weather!” said Raf.
“England’s always a pleasure to me”.
“Have you met Pam, my wife?” We exchanged niceties and she said,
“It’s ever such a journey, isn’t it? And all for my late father-in-law’s smut!”
“I think Matthew’s writing was nearly always of literary merit”.
“You mean it will sell! I bet it will, millions, I should think. The common mind isn’t very attractive”.
Her husband interrupted, “and then there’s my father’s reputation, as an historian, and a politician, and a priest”.
“I thought you were an atheist, Raf?” Well, it was an innocent enough question.
“I am. But people who believe read his stuff, and they don’t need to know this about him. How far did you get through it?”
“All of it”.
“Your chapter?”
“And the rest”. He was visibly surprised, ever the academic snob that a mere mortal can read at an above-average pace.
“And what do you think? Is it worth publishing?”
“It’s a pretty unusual genre, but your father writes well, as he usually did, and I don’t see why it shouldn’t be published”.
“And for your own sake, your family, your future? To be blunt, you’ll have every dirty old man and size queen in Manhattan running after you, if it sees the light of day”.
Tommy chipped in, “Oh hurrah!”
“Shut up, Tommy, I’m being serious, there are repercussions”.
Tommy added “Like the film rights?”
“What?” This rattled me.
“They’ve got to make it into a film, they really have, it’s not been done before – Huck, who would you like to play yourself?”
“Tommy, there are no film rights until there’s a book. And I’d like there not to be a book”, said Raf.
“Hang on a moment there, you mean, a film gets to be made about me and Uncle Matthew, and that’s whether I like it or not?” I was getting anxious now. For some reason this hadn’t even occurred to me.
“Yes, if it’s published, the film rights can be sold to anyone. And even so, the story can be taken by anyone, and however they disguise it, everyone will know who it is.”
“Shit”. I said.
Tommy was looking angry with his brother. “The story is a good story, Raf, it’s a kind one, it’s a nice one, it’s about an older man finding friendship and love with someone much younger, and why the blithering knickers not?”
“Because it’s our father.”
“Wasn’t he entitled to love?”
“He’d had love, with Pae, for 35 years, public, respectable, polite, decent love, the love in which our family grew up”.
“You are so up your own arse, Raf”.
“Can I interject here, that our relationship wasn’t public but it was respectable, and polite, and entirely decent. I loved your father. He had no space for me, long-term, and as it happened, he didn’t have a long-term, but that doesn’t change what we had”.
And then the gong banged, very loudly, for luncheon. I would be most surprised if Jos hadn’t been listening at the door, and decided to cut our conversation short.

Goodness me, what an upstairs-downstairs occasion that lunch was! We all knew they’d been listening, and they all knew that we knew. And everyone knew what about. Debbie, Matthew’s PA, was there, with Joe, the gardener (and husband of the exiled housekeeper, Jackie), and Giles the Bird Man, who ran the parrot farm.
As Jos was serving slices of salmon poached in wine and lime and tarragon, and sending round the salad bowls, Aunt Lucy arrived.
“So sorry I’m late, distracted dogs, wouldn’t come back, heaven knows what corpse they’d found, I’m afraid, but they’re here now, and confined to the conservatory, as per orders!” This was a reference to Amanda’s dislike of dogs – Lucy had arrived with two very wet Norfolk terriers. Lucy herself had taken off wellingtons and a heaving raincoat, to reveal her trademark blue silk dress, and strings of pearls. An extra string, I thought, and said so.
“Oh you’re quite right, a bequest, from dear Matthew. I didn’t need it, but I adore them all the more.”
“They say it’s those who already have plenty, who get more!” said Pam with a laugh that no one joined in with.
“Maybe” said Giles “they are the ones who most deserve it?”
“Well, there’s no accounting for money, is there?” said Pam with another laugh, “so long as you’ve got enough of it”.
Said Jos: “The potatoes come from the farm, last crop of the year, they look new, but they’re just good planning”.
We all expressed our admiration for the potatoes, all except Matty the Boy Wonder who became very noisy. “He’s not used to such people”, said Pam, and then corrected herself to “so many people”.
“Let him have a play in the conservatory”, said Joe.
“Not with those dogs!”
“Oh, they hardly ever bite my grandchildren” said Lucy, “I doubt yours would be an exception”.
“All the same dear, it’s best not to take chances”. And she started to look to Raf with going-home eyes.
“So, what brings you all this way, Huck? We remember you being here last year, but I thought your time in London had come to an end”, said Joe.
“Just something about a book”, said Raf, tartly, “family business”.
“Then I hope he spoke well of you, Huck, he was a fine judge of character, the Old Man”.
“Well I ….”
“Shall we celebrate with some port? It’s such a dismal day, port might be just the warmer?”, said Jos, heading off his brother’s glowering looks at the pass. He went to collect a decanter from the pantry – obviously intended for dinner, but desperate measures were needed for desperate times.
The problem for Raf was that the rain kept pelting down, and Joe and Giles couldn’t really work in it, so he was stuck. And then Tommy dropped in a little grenade,
“Oh Jos, Amanda, I hope it’s OK, I was on the telephone with Aunt Alice this morning, and said we were having dinner and was she free, and she was, and she’d love to meet Cousin Huck again, and it’s naughty of me, but is it all right? I shall repent in sackcloth and ashes otherwise”.
“She’s a bloody vegetarian!” said Jos, although you could see him working out what he’d cook for his aunt that the rest of us might enjoy too. “Of course she can come!”.
Then Raf’s demeanour changed. “I might have to be at a college function tonight”.
“You didn’t mention it before”, said Pam, whose anxiety was probably not so much that he was skiving off a family event as devoting himself to an extra-mural one.
“I thought it wouldn’t matter, but the VP was quite insistent this morning – Americans to charm, as ever ….” he added, looking at me. It didn’t seem to me that he was very good at it, so I couldn’t imagine why he’d be in such demand, but some time later, all was made clear.

By the end of lunch the Boy Wonder was making a thorough nuisance of himself, and Pam was demanding to be taken home with him, so Raf took his leave. He shook my hand with what felt like genuine warmth, “think of the posterity, Huck, but whatever you choose, you are our cousin and our friend”, which was about as noble as I could expect.
After the farewells, Amanda trooped us into the drawing room, and started snorting with laugher.
“Tommy, you utter bastard”
“What? What have I done? I am an innocent man!”
“One mention of Aunt Alice and Raf goes running for cover!”
“Well, he’s already been quite bore enough for one day, I don’t want him spoiling tonight, and anyway, Aunt Alice is SO much more fun”.
And then I learnt that Aunt Alice, Uncle Matthew’s 82-year-old sister, was a ferocious judge of Raf’s attitude to children in general, and women in particular. Hers was the sort of searching gaze, and viperish tongue, from which he recoiled, like a cockroach in the kitchen’s light. Tommy had made Raf run away.

We parted company, after another little round of port, to re-convene in the evening. I was in two minds about going back to the Dacha and re-reading what I’d already read, or throwing in the towel, and having a siesta. The siesta won.

I woke later that afternoon, and returning to my room after showering and dressed only in a towel, I met Tommy in the hallway. He raised an arched eyebrow and said “best put some clothes on before Michael starts hanging around up here too”, which I guess was a compliment. “And in any case, it is the cocktail hour, so come down and tell us what you thought of The Horrid Pam”.
Moments later I was in an armchair, with a glass of Champagne in my hand, and my hosts eager for my reactions. Pam doubtless had her admirers – Raf at least, one would hope – but she was not an endearing person. “She’s very devoted to the little boy”, I ventured.
“And all the capital he represents!” said Michael, with as near to a snarl as I think he could get.
“Surely he gets no more than anyone else?”
“But she’s thinking of when Raf goes off on his next wife project – she needs upholstering”.
Well, she looked pretty well-upholstered to me, but that wasn’t Michael’s point.
“She’s got pots of money anyway”, said Tommy, “she doesn’t need more, and no one likes her, nor her snotty-nose little brat. She’s obsessed with money – that’s all she could say about this book – and heaven alone knows what Raf admitted to her about it, as she’s quite a prude, all those comments were pretence, he wouldn’t let her see it”.
“Wouldn’t let her?”
“My brother is very old-fashioned, at times. He was pretty old-fashioned with his other three wives. That’s why he divorced them all. Or maybe they divorced him”.
And so we talked about the differences between the siblings, in their tastes and values, and how each reflected in different ways what their fathers had cherished, and then it was time for the bell once more, and off we trooped to the big house, for the final night’s entertainment.

Cousin Ingrid was once again on duty as barista. “End of an Era?” she murmured to me as I walked into the kitchen, having shucked off my sodden overcoat in the conservatory – Tommy and Michael had shared an umbrella; I was offered one but declined – I was shorter than both of them, and would certainly have put someone’s eye out. I took the lethal cocktail with a conspiratorial grin, and she said “you’ll enjoy tonight – Aunt Alice is always good value”.
“I dimly remember her from last year, I think”.
“Oh, if you’d met her, your memory wouldn’t be dim”, and she laughed, and carried on her bartending duties.
Clutching my cocktail glass, I followed by hosts into the genteel drawing room, and Amanda rose from her chair, slightly spilling her vodka, but not, I think, noticing. Justin was there too, but not Marie, and this time the six children were in what Uncle Matthew liked to call “The Dungeon” in the basement, next to the cellars, which was a soundproofed room “for young people to listen to disgusting music and watch vile films at high decibels whilst protecting me from filicidal urges”. Even so, upstairs, we were aware of their presence. Jos periodically conveyed pots of popcorn down to them.
We made polite conversation, with Amanda trying to draw me about Pam’s performance at lunch, and Justin doing his best to stifle it. I started to wonder what on earth Matthew – or Marie, come to that – had seen in this timid man. He was clearly hugely bright, full of erudite quotations from God-knows-where, but devoid of human interest, and perhaps therefore, fun.

I was pondering this when a commotion from the kitchen marked the arrival of Aunt Lucy and her two scruffy dogs. From the kitchen we could hear, addressed to Jos at his stove, “so sorry to burden you again, but they really do need to be walked, come hell or high water, and we seem to be working on the high water today – I’ve got some biscuits, if you can just lend me a bowl, I’ll settle them down in the conservatory, close the door, and join the fray”. And presently, in she walked.
There’s something about a real English aristocrat which is arresting. I haven’t met many since, and I’d met very few at this time in my life, but there’s a kind of poise and confidence about them, a surety of touch, which means whatever they say or do will be assumed to be absolutely for the best, and in the best possible taste. Aunt Lucy – her official designation was “the Honourable Lucinda Morton, Mrs Colin Shepherd” – was tall and slim, and in her mid-70s, although you wouldn’t know it. She had once been married to the Lord of the Manor in the ancient house up the hill, but had left an abusive husband after twenty years and four children, to settle with a widowed local farmer. He had died five years before. She and Uncle Matthew had been great friends – when he was 80 and she 70, they had a 150th birthday party together at First & Last – and when Colin the farmer died – that year, as it happened – Matthew encouraged her to take up writing herself, as a kind of therapy, and she produced a number of popular memoirs of her childhood in London’s Park Lane, and books about her garden, of which she was both fond and rightly proud. She tended to wear blue dresses, sometimes with a hint of white lace about the neck, and always pearls. She was very stylish.

Having been handed a glass of Champagne by the attentive Ingrid, she turned to me and said “Huck, I do hope you have recovered from being roasted for lunch! Poor Raf gets so cross about things, and Pam seems always to miss the point, or maybe she hits her own point, and doesn’t realise there are other people’s”.
“It was fine, thank you, and a pleasure to see everyone again – I can’t believe we’re brought together by a little book”.
“Ah, but what a book, Huck!”
“You’ve read it?”
“Parts. Matthew was very pleased with it, in a Vain Old Man way, and I couldn’t argue with him, why shouldn’t he be himself for once, in print, and permanently. He’d spent a life being nice to people, and scheming and plotting, and holding back, to get the job done, whatever it was – do you remember when he scammed all those Brasilian millionaires of fortunes by publishing two children’s books, the year he’d dared them to match his contribution to the Wildlife Fund? A few of them were nearly bankrupted, and a few others had to renege and look like nincompoops. You see, that is FAR naughtier than anything in his book, but I doubt the cheap press will agree. And not because the Wildlife Fund was a good cause – don’t you think life is so full of jokes?”
And just as I was thinking of what to say, that bell outside the front door swung to life again, and there was more commotion, this time in the hall. Aunt Alice had arrived. I had met her last year, but I think at the Christmas Party, so neither of us had made much impact on the other, as those were big occasions, with a couple of hundred guests. Now, she arrived in state. I could hear Ingrid coming out to the hall to help her with her coat and umbrella – she lived at the other end of the village, and despite the rain, had, like Lucy, walked – and then furnished her with a drink, and with that in hand, she made her entrance.
She was not a small lady. Not tall, but of considerable breadth. She was wearing several layers of clothes, of very nice fabrics, mostly black, but with an overlay of brighter colours. And she was festooned with jewellery. Some of it she had made herself – she was an artist, who did a sideline in jewellery – some was bought for its prettiness, and some clearly was the highest quality indeed. It was interesting to see amongst what was arresting, but not more than “costume” standard, a few gems sparkling with the refracted colours that Matthew had assured me were evidence of real high quality in gemstones. She was very much her own person – she wore what she liked because she liked it, and it was quite clear no one would tell her otherwise.
“Cousin Huck!” she bellowed (she was slightly deaf, I learnt), “you’ve come all this way just to see me!”
“Couldn’t hold me back, Aunt Alice – may I call you that?”
“You better had, it’s great- and great-great- these days – getting older is a most incriminating business. Anyway, have you read my big brother’s smutty memoirs yet? I haven’t, because it would please him too much, but I understand from the young and vulnerable that they are rather a romp and will corrupt nations?”
“That’s just about the long and the short of it”, said Justin.
“So I heard!” screeched Aunt Alice with a guffaw, “and not so much of the short! Did my little nephew make a tremendous fuss, Huck?”. She seemed to be ignoring Justin, and I was intrigued to hear Brother Raf referred to this way.
“He made his case in a calm and fair way”.
“Tell that to the divorce courts, and all those unwanted women and children!” Then seeing Ingrid with a drinks tray she added, “Sorry to be so blunt, darling, I know he’s your father, but he is a bit of a shit”. Ingrid beamed, and I wondered what on earth I had walked into.
Then it was time for the gong, and we trooped into dinner. Amanda took the head of the table at the end that meant she had her back to the dogs - and the gaggle of children - in the conservatory. Jos, when he’d finished serving, children first, was to take the other end, with his back to the hall. Ingrid sat to his right, and to her left was Percy’s perch – he might be exiled at night, but he wouldn’t be left out of family dinners. Aunt Alice chucked and tickled him as people do, and then said “I’ve no idea what you see in that bird”, and the comment was ignored, as it had probably been for over thirty years. She took her seat – at Jos’s suggestion – in the middle of one side of the table, and I at the other, as if we were both guests of honour, needing to be within everyone’s earshot. So, to one side I had Ingrid, to the other, Lucy and Tommy, and opposite, Justin, Aunt Alice, and Michael.
“We have lasagne, for the carnivores, and ratatouille for the nice people, equally and without prejudice” announced Jos, and his wife said “I’ll be a vegetable tonight”.
“If you keep knocking back that vodka, you will”, said Aunt Alice with another guffaw. It was Aunt Alice who was the vegetarian, and had been for over seventy years. The table filled with decanters of red wine, and a salad full of tomatoes and basil leaves and mozzarella and avocadoes – “Did you grow all this yourself, Jos?” asked Aunt Alice, imperiously. “Oh yes, all in the greenhouse, Auntie”. “Liar”. Then to me:
“My nephews all tell me lies, they are dreadful people. My niece doesn’t, because she’s only interested in money, and I’m not, so she’s got nothing to lie to me about.” And then to Jos “In thirty years you’ve only raised avocadoes here twice, and both times they were a bit rubbish”. “Oh, that’s a little harsh”. “Harsh, but true.” And she tucked in.
And my, did she tuck! And so did they all, hearty, country, appetites, I suppose. In Manhattan back then, two meals a day were rare, three, unheard-of, and I wasn’t so hungry, although the food was good, and it reminded me that Uncle Matthew had made lasagne the night he died, a year ago – like tonight, a Friday, and with almost everyone here also present – all but Aunt Alice and me.
Food demolished, pudding and fruit and cheese and sweet wines started to go round – and more port! – and the children demanded to be dismissed back to the Dungeon, and we were adults alone again. Ingrid was clearly amongst us, not them.
Aunt Alice started back into the fray: “so, what have you decided about this memoir, Huck?”
“I’m not ready to make up my mind just yet”, I equivocated.
“I queered his pitch, Auntie, talking about film rights to the story earlier, and I think he’s a bit spooked”, said Tommy.
“But it’s a LOVELY story”, she roared, “my brother was a dreary boring little shred of a piece of nonsense when you came along, and he perked up and lived for a last vivid year – it will be a fantastic film – who do you want to play you?”
And briefly we had a fun game saying who’d we’d like to play us in any film of our life, and then Justin said abruptly:
“It’s not just about being a story, it’s a man’s reputation, a man I loved and esteemed, and who was esteemed, in the end, by church, and state, and internationally, and if this thing goes ahead, then that’s all anyone will remember of him”.
“Justin, you do talk bollocks”. Said Aunt Alice.
“But they will ….”
“If they are so bloody feeble-witted that they remember nothing else, then they really aren’t worth worrying about. My brother’s contribution is safe as houses, everyone knows what he did for others, for the planet, for his family, and all the rest, and if he had some fun along the way, well, bravo him, the dirty old poof – oh, sorry, Huck, I didn’t mean that last bit the way it came out. Now, where’s that decanter?”
Then Michael piped up: “it’s certainly going to be a money-spinner – very good for the Family Fund”.
Justin fumed: “It can’t be about money, everyone’s got enough money”.
Now Michael: “Maybe Huck could do with some, Justin, he’s not part of the family fund, unlike you”. That was a barb – Michael was a trustee, but not a beneficiary, and Justin, his fellow son-in-law, benefited both from the Fund’s money, and his wife’s immense earnings.
“Well, what would it cost to pay you off, Huck? You can’t really want this story told. Michael’s the only trustee here, there are others, old friends of Matthew’s, who’d stand up for his reputation”.
“WHAT?” roared Aunt Alice, “you want to buy a man’s silence about his own life?”
“He was really not very keen on the film idea, Auntie.”
“That isn’t the point – and I’m your wife’s auntie, not yours. It’s his life, his story. My brother wrote his life, his story, and the two briefly coincided. I think it has to go ahead. Don’t give in to that silly arse Raf. He goes on about “what if my daughters read this”, and he scarcely knows who they are, and I bet there’s one who already has”. At this point Ingrid turned away, whether with a smile or a frown, I don’t know.
And then Amanda weighed in and said that the book was an important contribution to our social history, and our social tolerance and understanding of older people, and blah, blah, blah, and then Aunt Lucy said “Matthew wanted it published, so, if it causes no offence to you , Huck, I think it should be”.
Justin eventually slunk off, and Amanda and Aunt Alice knocked back the vodka, and the others became merry on their different “drugs of choice” as Uncle Matthew would have called them. I sat there bemused, partly by a family at war with itself, and partly by the comfortableness of three generations with one another while they did it. What did I want to do or say? I thought I knew, but I needed time, and time away, time back home.
The party dispersed. Jos offered lifts to Aunt Alice and Aunt Lucy, but both were declined on the grounds that he’d drunk too much, and as she was striding forth into the raid, Aunt Alice said “I haven’t had so much fun in ages!” and disappeared into the night. Aunt Lucy left by the conservatory door, as did Tommy, and Michael, and me.
“She’s quite something, my auntie, isn’t she?” said Tommy, as I headed upstairs to the guest bedroom. “Oh yes, definitely one to keep on your side!”

On the Saturday morning I woke very early again. Decision time? Too much booze? Just time to go home? I had no idea. I showered and dressed, and made my way back to First and Last. I wanted to borrow that stick again, before reading the manuscript a final time. Ingrid was there, waiting, as I had expected, with a jug of coffee, and much curiosity.

“You’re off today then?” she asked. “Yes, this afternoon – your uncles are giving me lunch, then off to the airport”.
“Lots to think about, or mind made up?”
“Oh heck, I don’t know. It’s that film stuff that Tommy mentioned that’s bugging me – I don’t care about Raf”.
“My father will melt as soon as the book, or the film, puts money in his account – he has seven of us to support, and two ex-wives.” This seemed to me a most cynical, but probably accurate, appraisal.
“So, what do you think? I’m guessing you loved Matthew, and he you, as much as anyone else left alive, or ever, what do you think?”
“Grumpy was a Christian, and a priest, and he believed in love. I know the story in the memoirs isn’t all about that - ” “You’ve read it?” “Of course I have!” So now I understood that looking away at the table last night. “That is deeply embarrassing, Ingrid”. “Get used to it”, she said, with a radiant smile. “It will blow over; meantime, you’ll be a unique romantic hero, and old Grumpy will get what he wants”.
“Which is?”
“To be remembered as a man who was alive”.

Before the dawn, I snuck back to the Dacha, and re-read what I could. Then I walked back through the rain, returned the key to its hook – from which Ingrid had doubtless retrieved it to do her own reading – and went to the Dower House. Michael was fretting over lunch – “Just make it light, darling, he’s got to be on a flight in a few hours” – I overheard as I walked through the door.
“Oh, hello!”, said Tommy, “we’re just sorting lunch out – smoked salmon and quails’ eggs to start, and just the tiniest little veal escalope to follow”.
“It sounds ideal”.
“Have a glass of something; to be honest, I’ve found these last few days rather more exhausting than I thought.” “How so?” “I felt a need to look after you, not just Daddy and his reputation – or his wishes – and I do so very much hope that no one will be hurt by whatever you decide and, as you’re living, you most of all”.
“I’ll be fine. I’ll let you know by Monday morning, direct, and copied to all interested parties.”
“And your verdict is …?”
“Not decided yet! I decide that when I’m home in America.”

And when I got home?
“What did you decide?” yelled NancyLee.
“I’m saying yes”.
“Even though it’s filthy?”
“Especially though it’s filthy”.
“You’re gonna be a star!”
“I doubt it, but I shall have been alive”.
“You are one dingbat of a guy”.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
August 2015
















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2 comments:

  1. Excellent. When's it coming out ?

    ReplyDelete
  2. There's the rub - where on earth does one publish such a thing?

    ReplyDelete