Friday, 14 August 2015

Memories of a Kept Woman

MEMORIES OF A KEPT WOMAN

The Hon. Lucinda Moreton is the daughter of the 5th Viscount Moreton, the divorced wife of Sir Jack Shelford, 16th Baronet, and the widow of a farmer, Colin Shepherd. She has never had paid work. All three men have made her a rich woman. She is nearing her 90th birthday.

“So, what can I say? Would it have been better if I’d worked things out with Jack and never known the happiness I had with Colin? Best to say nothing at all.”

“He died, of course, they always do – husbands I mean. One of you has to go, and it’s usually the husband. I suppose the same is true of divorce. How funny. But I hadn’t finished with Colin yet. When you have children and grandchildren I think it’s easier – if you liked the old bugger – to feel that there is something of him still around, a shared history, a shared home, a shared life, that doesn’t quite end. But Colin ended. There and then. Well, not quite, he was already ill but in remission, and I’m sure he knew it was coming. I told him not to go out; wrapped him up like a toddler. He made a face like a toddler, too. I’d thought he’d be one of the “long illness, bravely borne” brigade. Operation, radio, chemo, the works. Stoical throughout. I think it’s the weather that makes farmers tough. Up and down the road to that bloody hospital. I wish we’d bought shares – it’s a growth industry. Oh, with cancer, literally! That’s quite funny. Although not at the time. “A long illness, bravely borne” … until you’re well enough to go out on your farm and die of a heart attack.

I sometimes wonder if we’re all at war with cancer. Either it gets you, or you live long enough to die of something else. My friend Matthew said we all have cancer, the miserable old sod, “it’s just a question of when it chooses to come out to play”. I hope I don’t have it. Or that mine is not the playful sort. I used to love playing games, as a child, and with the children, but adult games seem so much more serious. It’s rather a bore, really.

I should be grateful I wasn’t born in The Olden Days. At least I was free to marry Colin. Eventually. In The Olden Days I’d have had to stay married to Jack until death us did part, which would have happened by now, but what a lot of rotten years to trudge through. I don’t think anyone should be allowed to marry until they are at least fifty. All the children would be bastards, of course, but then that’s what Jack used to call ours anyway – “blood-sucking bastards”.

You just have no idea who you really are at nineteen. It was madness to marry then, but one’s so full of confidence and youthful hope, the blinkers come up, and one can’t see clearly what the future holds. Daddy could. He always could – he was good at the future, you can understand why he became so rich. Younger sons used to have to make such an effort in those days. And he did. Now, everyone has to. But there was no sitting back patiently waiting to inherit the estate for our Nicky – he struck out and did his own thing right from the start. They all did. Vanessa said the other day “I couldn’t bear the idea of ending up like you, Mum”. Children are so sweet to their parents. She didn’t mean it like that, but I was rather hopeless for a time. Stuck, it felt, with four small children in a marriage that was going rotten around me. I couldn’t think of a way out. I suppose one’s trained not to think of a way out, but a way through. Nicer food on the table, prettier dresses, holidays, patiently listening to him and his drunken friends drunkenly slurring their way through drunken conversations until they make absolutely no sense at all. By which time Jack was comatose, of course. You dreaded him waking up, he was always in such a foul temper. “In vino veritas”, well the veritas was that Jack was a very angry and a very nasty man.

It didn’t help being short. I suppose if he’d been born a miner or a baker or something it might not have mattered so much. Bill – his father - was tall, although he doesn’t seem to have minded having a short son. His grandfather was huge – I never met him, but there are photographs. Maybe the shortness came from his mother’s side of the family. I don’t think he liked them very much. They were rather religious. Her father was a Dean of some cathedral. Perhaps it was a small one. I went to evensong the other night in our cathedral – which is indeed quite small - a few weeks ago. They were singing a “short service”, so maybe that was for people like Jack. Sally looks short in the photographs, but next to Bill almost any woman would. I wonder if they would still have been happy if she’d lived? But she didn’t. Jack used to say, in his cups, “I killed her”, which of course he didn’t, he was only a baby trying to be born. Then he’d blame Adele, his sister, for not being a boy, or maybe it was for not being him. It’s all very confusing, and of course, I wasn’t there.

Bill was quite modern in a way. He’d got three daughters and clearly he adored them, and he was happy to listen to the doctors and stop. The title would go to a cousin, and the girls could carve up the estate. It was Sally who wouldn’t allow it. According to Mummy, who was at school with her, she was a mix of joyful libertine with parson’s daughter. So, that’s how Jack came to be on the way, and she absolutely refused to have him terminated. It’s absurd a woman dying in childbirth in England in 1970. Well, dying of childbirth. She did at least see him. So there the little mite was, no mother, and a rather clueless father. It was never going to turn out well. Although the girls all did, curiously.

I get on very well with my sisters in law. Jack didn’t. But then, they were all taller than him. And richer. The last straw was when Bill died and he found out that the house and land had already gone in trust to our children, with small slices for his sisters, who knew all about it, and approved. I had made my escape by then, but when he looked into it, he saw that the papers were drawn up at about the time of our divorce. So he blamed me, too. He was a terrific blamer. He blamed his parents, his grandparents, me, his children, his brokers, his housekeepers, the tenant farmers, the livestock, the countryside, the economy, Parliament, everyone in the world – except himself.

Jack thought the world owed him a living. He’d been born to a title, and money, and a country house, and a London apartment, and to be a Name at Lloyds and not really to have to do anything much for it except breed another generation and be Lord of the Manor. Well, he did that. But it was never going to be enough. Of course, being the poor little boy with no mother, he was spoilt rotten, and he did have a lot of charm, everyone is agreed on that. Bill’s family was so long-lived that even though his grandfather married late himself – army first; wife, family and estate second – Jack still had a few ancient great-aunts and a great-uncle. There’s a photograph of him with them, as if some bizarre biological experiment has gone horribly wrong. And then there was his Aunt Dora, but she saw right through him. She hadn’t much time for men in general, and chauvinist ones in particular. Bill’s father hadn’t let her go to a proper school, let alone university, because he didn’t believe in women’s education. Didn’t want her to turn into a bluestocking, whatever that meant. And it was such a shame, as she was bright as a button. All on her own, she became a botanist, and enrolled at Oxford secretly in the 1950s when she was left some money. I think that was by an uncle whose garden she had helped with. She got her degree within two years, and her doctorate two years later – such a dynamo. She became the world expert on hedgerows, was made a Dame, and lived to be 103. She used to say to Jack – “I earnt my title, what did you do for yours?” AND she was taller than him. I think he hated her. She had kept a room at the manor after inheriting a house – well, two – from their Uncle Hector, but when Bill died, Jack just threw her out. It was no great hardship, she transferred allegiance to our friends on the hill, Matthew and Ze. He hated them too. Oh dear! What a lot of hate!

On the surface, it was an anti-gay thing. But that was ridiculous, because his Best Man at our wedding was gay, a school friend, and everyone knew it and no one cared. Really, it was about money. Matthew had made a fortune writing books and doing interviews on the telly. He built their house out of his own royalties, a great big white monster on the hill, which, after a while, you get used to. It has a certain unpretentious dignity about it. Rather like its owner. There were eight bedrooms (I came for a nose round when it was still a building site); we had twenty-three, and in those, days, thank goodness, a cleaning maid to help. We were invited over quite soon after they arrived. I felt embarrassed, because we should have played host first, I did suggest it, but Jack wasn’t at all keen. He kept changing the subject. So, we had to accept, and we arrived for a charming meal with the vicar and his wife, Father Ernie and Gwen, and a couple who were their friends from Oxford. The children had been fed and watered earlier, but they still managed to make their presence felt. You could tell Jack disapproved. The table was beautifully laid out, and the meal was simple but just right. Jack even made approving noises over the claret, before he caught himself doing it. His wine glass was never empty, Ze made sure of that, not to get him drunk, but just out of good hospitality. Then it was coffee and brandy time. It was one of those warm summer evenings when it’s comfortable to be outside, so we went onto the verandah. More brandy. Glass fuller than it should have been, and Jack slowly getting more and more slurry. My heart sank, but the conversation didn’t flag, and we could take our leave by eleven. We’d driven down. I offered to drive back but Jack answered, as he always did, “women can’t drive”, and I fretted that he’d take their gates off, but we made it. “What a vulgar house”, he said. “It would probably cost more to repair ours than it cost to build theirs”. I meant that as a sort of rebuke, but he thought it was a compliment. “Bang right, old girl!” Under my breath I added “and they are warm and not ashamed to invite people to dinner”.

Money was becoming a problem. My family had lots, and Daddy was still paying me what I now realise was a huge allowance. He insisted that it should go into a bank account of my own, not a joint one. At first I wondered why, as, like all silly people in love, I wanted to share everything. Daddy never liked Jack. He could tolerate drunks so long as they worked, but he couldn’t see that Jack did anything at all – and, in terms of fruitful moneymaking, he was right, Jack didn’t. He was supposed to be managing the farm and estate for Bill, but he wasn’t really interested in it. He hated the country. He’d far rather be in town with his boozing cronies, mithering on about better days when the lower orders knew their place and you could get white servants. “Mithering” is rather good, isn’t it? I think it’s Northern. I’ve never used it before, but I shall use it again. I think it means “moaning and whinging, and doing absolutely nothing to make things any better” – which sums up Jack very well.

The sorry truth about him was that he was lumbered with a huge old house (Jacobaean with Victorian extras), and an estate, and got no real pleasure from either. He loved the house, but it wasn’t reciprocated. Rather like me and the children, he was glad it was there, but didn’t choose to invest in it. Some rooms were never opened in all the time I lived there. The roof was a menace, and lumps of stone regularly tumbled off the parapet. It’s a wonder no one was hurt. We had to bolt up the entrances to it when the children learnt to walk (I did that), and they were rarely opened again. The gardens slowly diminished from what you could still see was a glorious heyday. At first we had a gardener, but he was really a mower and trimmer, not a planner. I threw myself into it, rather, with books from the library, and old photographs, and with Aunt Dora we got some nice results, but it was too big, and there was too much else for me to do, to restore it fully.

The one country pursuit that Jack did like was killing things. He didn’t like hunting because the foxes didn’t get killed often enough. And anyway, he preferred to stalk them himself and shoot them with a rifle. He had been given a pair of ferrets as a birthday present when he was quite young. What a very odd thing to give a child! But he adored them, tamed them, and trained them to go hunting with him. His nanny said the housekeeper had never had to think of so many ways of cooking rabbits. He even sold some in the village shop and the pub. I admit, I rather like rabbit, but it does seem a peculiar hobby in an adult. He’d go out once or twice a week with the ferrets – obviously the originals had died off, but he bred more – easing them out of their revolting hutches behind the stables. They’d had to be put outside because the horses didn’t like their smell. Bill kept his father’s horses there in a sort of horsey nursing home until they died. He even kept the one his father fell off before he died. I think Bill rather liked that one. I often saw him feed it carrots with a warm, sly, smile on his face. Father and son relationships had never really been happy in that family.

When he wasn’t rabbiting, Jack was out killing birds. He started to breed pheasants, and prepared some of the copses for shoots. “There’s a mint to be made”, he said. “Not if you keep shooting all the profits yourself” his father replied. Bill didn’t like hunting and shooting at all. Nor fishing, come to that. “For the table, yes, for sport, no” was his motto, and not a bad one. They say he never rode a horse again after his father died. They also say it was because he’d lost his nerve – not a bit of it, he’d hated riding all his life, and only did it to show willing. At thirty-two he was finally spared having to keep up appearances. Jack learnt to ride, but he never quite warmed to it. There was the problem of the foxes that got away, and the bigger problem that any horse he could ride tended to make him look small. He used to say “a real man goes out with a gun”. He fooled no one.

Fishing was something I never did understand. I thought it was for quiet and peaceful men, but Jack seemed to come back from a few hours sitting on his own even worse than before. He must have been brooding about things – more things to blame us all for! Naughty old us! but silly to have told the fish so many of our secrets.

My solitude was in the garden. You don’t have to talk to plants, whatever Prince Charles says, and they don’t talk to you. When you’ve got four children each with the most important thing in the world to tell you, you appreciate creatures that make no demands at all.

In terms of company, it was rather limited, it’s true, but I was becoming a country person, having been a townie all my life. There hadn’t really been a lady of the manor since Sally died – Jack’s grandmother refused to play the part at all, and spent as much time as possible in their townhouse in Chelsea, or with her relatives in Spain. They were rather grand, and rather fascist. Jack used to love saying they were “Francophiles”.
“Oh, they like France?”
“No, General Franco”.

Of course, all that was long passed. Everything Jack was long passed.

And so is Colin. Twenty years we had of married life, a little longer together, that we didn’t admit to. Bill knew, and Daddy knew. Bill gave me a cottage in the village, and Daddy gave me a flat in Pimlico. Heaven knows what they would be worth now. But when I married Colin I didn’t need them any more. We met because we were neighbours – he had the farm next to ours, and his wife, Betty, was dying from cancer. I knew her from church. I’m not sure if I believe in God, but it was somewhere nice to go to get away from Jack and the children on a Sunday morning. Just the early service. I’m not that religious. Betty was fun. Rather rude, and lovely. Just before she died she said, “you could do better than Jack, you know”. I said, “Oh really, who do you recommend?” I thought it was a joke. She said “Colin”. “Don’t be shocked, darling, I know you like him, and I don’t want him to be lonely”. I couldn’t think of a thing to say. And she just smiled. And then she died.

And so it began, my secret life as an adulteress, under the cover of my father, and father-in-law. It’s funny to think of it now. Daddy gave me the flat in Pimlico so that my siblings wouldn’t realise. Bill gave me the cottage in a little side road no one ever much went down. They were egging me on to leave him. His own father! But there was no taming Jack, he was getting worse and worse.

I’d been seeing Colin for about two years when it finally happened. He struck me. He’d shouted, ranted, abused, and mistreated me for twenty years of marriage, but finally he hit me. In the kitchen. He was drunk, of course. But I had long since stopped giving him quarter for that. “Where’s my – I won’t say the word – dinner?” “Oh just have another bottle of wine and shut up, you silly little man”. Yes, not the wisest thing to say to a silly little man. Smack. He was little, but he was strong. Fortunately the children were at school. I took the dogs and the car and went to Matthew and Ze. They closed their gates – they never used to do that. Matthew had to fumble around for the button, whilst Ze gave them a shove. What can we do for you? they asked. A large brandy, perhaps? I’m not going back. This is it. And so it was. I can’t be doing with fiddle and flap.

Of course, he was round the next day – he knew where I’d be – and Matthew said that wife-beaters weren’t welcome and used some strong words. Are they strong? Perhaps they are just rude. Well, he used them anyway. I was over-hearing from the hall. Jack was still drunk, or newly drunk. I can’t believe I coped with it for so long. He was such a handsome man, so charming, and all gone to ruin.

Then, of course, I had to tell the children.

Nicky said good show and about time. Such a stoic. I wonder if he will ever grow a heart? He’s 70 now, maybe it’s too late. Oscar burst into tears. Clare wasn’t really interested, and Nessie asked if I was OK. Matthew and Ze drove me to the school to tell them. Matthew said I might not cope with the journey home. He was right, of course. He always was. I’m so cross with him for dying. They had a big car, so we could have taken all the children home with us if need be, but the head said it was best if they stayed with their friends and carried on as normal. So English. Which I suppose we are.

I think Jack thought it was just a phase, or the menopause, or something. He didn’t think you could seriously make your mind up about divorcing on the strength of one evening. But he didn’t realise how very many evenings there had already been, how much anxiety about money, about the way he treated the children, his own father, me. I’m not an educated person, but when I make my mind up, up it is made. And I was not going back, not one step.

Have you thought about counselling?
No
Have you?

Damned cheek.

Then I pressed for the divorce. Daddy was urging me on, he detested Jack anyway, but he’d worked out what had happened, and despised him the more. Daddy was a very upright English gentleman of the “we don’t do that in this family” sort. I did have rather a bruise on my cheek. But enough was enough.

But, of course, Jack didn’t have enough. The estate wasn’t his yet, and it was making almost no profit. The lawyers said I could try to sue for expectations, but it wasn’t likely to work. Then I remembered his cellar. I was doing accounts one time – he was out shooting with his bizarre and drunk friends – and happened upon his wine merchant’s bills. £10,000 a year. Bill was struggling to pay the school fees, and Jack was squandering £10,000 on booze. I rarely ever went into the cellar, but I looked, and there it all was, clearly named and labelled. He said it was about to make a profit. Maybe it was, but when I mentioned it to my solicitor she jumped on it. “Treasure trove”, she said. We auctioned two thirds of it, in lieu of my rights to the house. He couldn’t bear to part with the wine, but parting with the house would have been harder still. He wasn’t to know that the house was never going to be his anyway.

I didn’t like all that horse-trading. It felt vulgar. And it was a scam to pretend I would take the house off him, when I knew the children would have it in the end. He did so love that house. I’ve no idea why. I love the house I was born in, and still have a flat in, and I love the house I shared with Colin and the house I live in now. But it’s because of the people. I have happy memories of the children growing up in the manor house. But unhappy memories of their father not growing up.

We married when I was fifty. A part of me would like to say it was my real marriage, but that isn’t fair to the children. They all gave me away! “And don’t come back!” Oscar said. The others wouldn’t have been so rude. But I know what he meant. He took it hardest, the divorce. He was most like his father. Intemperate, petulant, and, alas, addictive. Jack only had drink. Oscar was on stronger stuff. He said it helped his photography. I rather doubt it. He had a brilliant eye. This little house is full of his stuff, so is the farmhouse and the manor. But he was restless, and angry. So very like his father. He told me I should try to understand Jack. I said “darling, I’ve given it twenty years, and it’s just not going to work”. He hated Colin. Then he died.

Nicky telephoned me.

It was 6 in the morning, and you know a call at that time is going to be awful. I didn’t think how awful.

“Mum, it was probably just an overdose”.

Just?

My son is dead, what’s “just” about that?

Nicky said, “I’m dealing with it, you don’t need to see”

“Darling, yes I do need to see”

I woke Colin. I don’t think he liked Oscar any more than Oscar liked him, but he wept for me, I think. I loved him the more for that. Not that I had time.

“We’ve got to go to London”

“Where?”

“I don’t know, we’ll find out on the way”

I was being manic, I realise now. What else do you do? Colin just got dressed, got the car out, and went along with it. Colin hated London.

Oscar was already in the morgue by the time we got there. Him, and not him. Just add heroin and a slice of death, and you have him; and you don’t have him. Nicky had done the formalities, they found his telephone number in Oscar’s pocket, which is surprising, because they didn’t really get on. The girls arrived soon after. I couldn’t weep. It was like taking in a breath that you can’t let out. If you do, the entire contents of your body will come out with it, for all to see.

Mummy and Daddy came.

Daddy and Colin arranged the funeral.

For a half-Jew, and a Methodist, they are quite good Anglicans.

Matthew said – and so did the coroner – that it was an adulterated batch of the drug. I don’t like that word. On any count at all. Nicky says Oscar had a death wish, and he got it from his father. But I chose his father.

Jack didn’t come to the funeral. Just didn’t show up. Not even drunk. It was only in the village church yard, he could have walked. I hated him that day. Colin put his arms around me, and said nothing. Nicky cried, which I wasn’t expecting. Matthew took the service and said words the rest of us couldn’t have managed to say. And that was the end of Oscar.

So, that’s one empty seat at the party next week. Mummy and Daddy and Colin are gone too, of course. And Caroline and Eddy. How odd to be the eldest and yet outlive your siblings. Nessie says that I was an only child to start with, so I’m an only child again. She’s funny that way.


Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
August 2015

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