Saturday, 22 August 2015

Other People's Houses


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
August 2015