A Cuckoo in the Nest – Justin
Oxford. They’d heard of it, my parents, but they’d never been. We never went anywhere like that. The seaside, places with rides and games, and bingo, but no, never anywhere with any history, or culture. I tried asking, but they didn’t see the point. It’s hard to think now how I got in. Obviously, I passed all the exams, and being a prole I had an advantage over the public schoolboys, but where did the idea even come from? Where did the brains come from? It would be mean to say that neither of them ever gave much sign of having any, but there we are, I’ve gone and said it. Nor my grandparents, not that I knew them well. Perhaps I’m a throwback.
It was a dream come true. After years of keeping my head down at school – avoiding the other children, and keeping my nose in a book when they couldn’t see – suddenly I was surrounded by people who cared about ideas, and facts, and arguments, and getting words right and precise. Libraries everywhere. Bookshops, with proper books in. And sitting at dinner at a table without the telly on! I can’t tell you what an escape it was; what an arrival.
School was sceptical. One of my teachers said “Christ Church – isn’t that a bit grand for you?” I ignored him. He’d been to Hull. It was make-or-break, and if I didn’t get in, then I was going to not get in to somewhere good. And there were loads of other places I could go if that happened. But it didn’t happen. They wanted me, and I got in.
And there I stayed. Perhaps ever since. I remained bookish, and sailed through the exams, got a first class degree, was obviously going to do a doctorate. I even had an idea for one. But then I got stuck. I did the research, loads of it, got travel grants to get access to archives all over the country. Reams and reams of notes. I could turn them into articles, but the thesis had to be longer than that. And then I lost my nerve. I kept revising and editing, compulsively. My supervisor didn’t really understand, and didn’t chivvy much, or give much guidance. To be honest, I’m not sure where the fee money went. But that’s a sour comment, it was my fault, and mine alone, that I never finished it.
But I didn’t want to leave my paradise. I took on some teaching work, both in the university and for less reputable outfits. I even got to deliver the occasional lecture course – in small rooms, sparsely attended; no one cares about 18th century church history. I was solvent, Mother sent me money (almost certainly without telling Father; I never asked, and she knew I wouldn’t tell), but the wolf was prowling outside the door. And that’s when Matthew came in. He’d advertised for a researcher, handsome hourly rates, long project. And it was my field. I’d occasionally heard him lecture, although more often I’d seen him on the television, or heard some stirring speech he’d made about this or that. I thought he’d given up being academic, but no, there was a biography he wanted to finish off, of an 18th century bishop – “the life and times of a bad bishop – a study in reputation”. My thesis was built on an article he’d written about the number of bishops who’d changed jobs at the time his bishop died in 1761, just after George III had become king (and long before he went mad). My focus was political judgement, and I found his thing about “reputation” a bit fluffy, but in the end it was a great book.
Obviously, I got the job. And I kept it for years. He invited me out to First & Last Passage, his country house outside Oxford, and plied me with cocktails and lunch, and said the work was mine if I wanted it. I’d never met a lord before, not close to. He was wearing shorts and sandals. I was a little disappointed. The house was awash with livestock – his children, cats, dogs, that bloody parrot! I’d not grown up with animals (nor children), and I didn’t much like them, but I had more sense than to let on. He later said that seeing me trying not to flinch, and then trying not to laugh himself, nearly gave him a hernia. I guess I’m not so good at faking. I hope I’ve got better since. At dealing with animals, I mean, not faking. I got quite fond of the boys’ guinea pigs. But that was later.
After lunch he threw the typescript at me and said “read it through and tell me what you think – be direct, be rude, I want this thing to be really good – and if you reckon you can tighten it up, double-check all the facts and references, or even find new stuff that’s eluded me, then the job’s yours. Come back in a fortnight”.
I did come back in a fortnight, just before term time, but I had posted the typescript back to him in advance, with my notes and suggestions. His PA, the austere Valerie, sent me the least revealing invitation in return – “Lord Chapman da Silva has received your annotations and comments with interest, and invites you to lunch …” He was still wearing shorts. In fact, quite possibly the same shorts: he was a man of no sartorial taste, so if he found something he liked, he filled his wardrobe with identical copies.
“I want it ready for the publishers by Easter”, he said, “do you reckon you can make that happen?” “Yes”, I replied, not really sure I could. I had no idea how to work with him, as that would be crucial to “making it happen”. “I’ve been thinking about your rent. I hated paying rent, and I’d like you not to have the distraction of worrying about it while you’re working for me, so instead of an hourly rate, why don’t I pay you a fixed monthly stipend for the duration? That need not be the end of it, I have other irons I want in the fire when this one is done, and also you mustn’t forget your own research”. And he named a sum. What it is to have money! I know now, I didn’t then; I was just on the receiving end. It felt like largesse, although he insisted he’d thought it through and it was just fair pay for fair labour. It was the summer vac and I wasn’t sure where next term’s rent was going to come from – you never are if you tutor the re-take students. I wasn’t going to argue.
The book was finished by Easter, published at the end of the summer, and won a prize. I had top billing in the acknowledgements in the preface. I showed my parents. “But it’s not your book, is it?” said my father. I wish I could say the snitty remark of a man who’d never read a book, still less written one, didn’t sting. But it did. I resolved to finish the thesis.
I nearly wrote “but Matthew had other ideas”. That would be unfair. He always supported my academic research, always read the few articles I published, nagged and nagged me to finish the doctorate before I got bored with it. But I was useful to him, he liked working with me, we could be blunt with each other, he knew I found his style florid and emotional, and he found me pedantic and prosaic, and somehow the two worked together well. I was proud of that first book. I was not proud of the next one.
It wasn’t a bad book at all. It did precisely what it was meant to, and did so in a novel and winning way, but it was basically a coffee table book – “The Mystique of Monarchy – Confessions of a Failed Republican”, he called it. Lavishly illustrated. It’s true it was full of history – not my period, but the techniques of research are much the same – and political and social analysis. I couldn’t like it. I struggled to respect it. Here was a man of scholarship, a historian, grubbing around with a book that was unarguably “pop”. I’d say “cheap “pop””, but it wasn’t cheap. And people paid a hefty price for it – all over the globe. And they did for years. His publisher synchronised releases of a new edition with royal tours to foreign parts, sometimes with a slant to the visited country. He coined it in for the rest of his life. And I did not go unrewarded.
It was a furrow I ploughed for over a decade. A couple of years after he first took me on, he became Dean of Christ Church – that book he’d wanted published in such a hurry was part of a submission for a D.Litt, a very grand and senior degree, which he only really got because they wanted him for that job. He even got me to do an annotated and footnoted edition of “The Mystique of Monarchy” before the submission, which, with no photographs at all, really did look the part, even if, in my heart of hearts, I knew it wasn’t. So, the college was presented with an old boy, in holy orders (which its dean had to be), a published historian with a senior degree, a peer of the realm, with connexions everywhere – of course they were going to nominate him, and of course the Crown was going to say yes (the Crown very much liked that bloody book).
Not at First & Last, but at Christ Church, I became his full-time, fully-paid, researcher. I was astonished how much there was to research. With me in harness, he took on more and more speaking engagements, wrote more articles, went out preaching more, and for all of them, he wanted me to check his stuff over. I learnt his style, and I like to think I improved it. I was way out of my comfort zone, and the doctorate was long forgotten, but I was enjoying this. Every so often we’d have a long boozy dinner at his club in London and he’d ask me about my research interests, and if he liked an idea, he’d give me a month off to write something up. One time I said “it’s very kind of you to give me all this space to keep researching”. “Don’t be daft – you’re like a breath of fresh air when you’ve published something, and you go like the wind through my stuff afterwards – pure self-interest, dear boy, pure self-interest”.
There wasn’t much else going on in my life back then. I worked, I studied my own things in my spare time, I worked more. I had a few academic friends, but not many, and not close. Romantic interests were sparse. I’d had a major crush early on in my first year at university, and was majorly crushed by it after a term or so. That was a boy. Rather a dramatic one, athletic, and unexpectedly interested in me. I think he just wanted an easy lay from someone who’d be grateful. Well, he got that. Then I tried a girl. I like women, I always have. Maybe it’s something as boring as upbringing – my mother was always easier than my father. I was an only child, so I don’t know how that fits into the equation. Anyway, then the girl met someone else. She was squeamish and lachrymose about telling me, which I suppose was some sort of consolation. After that, it was just little flings. And then nothing. For a very long time. I realised I didn’t have an immense drive for sex, but I did suffer from loneliness. That surprised me, as I’d thought of myself as someone who’d survived a childhood alone, but I was wrong, I hadn’t been alone – my parents were always there, the house was never empty. And now I had latched onto Matthew’s family. Mainly while they were at the Deanery in term time but more pleasurably at First & Last at weekends and in the vacations. The college – or rather, certain senior members – didn’t appreciate my boss’s long absences from the premises. But I did.
He kept me on after he retired at seventy, which I wasn’t expecting – and to be honest, I was dreading, as I’d no idea how else I’d make a living – and now I spent more time at First & Last. Matthew and Ze, his husband (irregular world to my mind, when I first encountered it, but I was entirely used to it by now) had four children, three sons and a daughter. The daughter, Marie, “pronounced the London way” as I was told when we first met, was very bright, fascinated by economics, and money markets, and investments, and business, and she kept looking at me. I’m not making that up. I’m nothing to look at – you notice when you’re being looked at. She’d been to the LSE, had a year out making money in the City, then taken another year at business school in America. Oh yes, and she was tall, and curvy, and had the most penetrating eyes. She talked less than her brothers, but what she said was bitingly sharp, and she laughed a lot. It was lovely to hear her laugh. There were fourteen years between us.
Was it love? I want to say yes, it was. But the inner historian isn’t so sure. I delighted in her company – a fine, handsome woman now, that I had first known as a girl. And she, much to my surprise, delighted in mine. I knew her brothers thought I was a bit of a joke, and Raf, the eldest, was actively hostile at times, but she listened when I talked history, and she remembered my stories, just as I tried to understand her wheeler-dealing in the markets. What makes me hesitate is that we both needed each other in different ways at the time. Ways that perhaps neither of us had really thought through, and certainly not articulated. My needs were the more obvious – I needed a future, somewhere to live, something to live on. I had a pokey little flat in the roughest part of Oxford, already full to the doorway with books. And Matthew was now, apart from the occasional book review fee, my only income. And he was in his 70s. I was 40. Marie was 26. Her career was taking off fast. But she wanted children, and she wanted not to look after them. She’d been brought up by two men, one of whom had done most of the child-rearing “spadework” as Matthew called it. I fitted her bill.
Children-wise, I was something of a pig-in-a-poke, but Matthew and Ze had a grand-daughter they were looking after, and I often played with her, and I saw Marie’s penetrating eyes watching me as I did so. Children are rather fascinating. I suppose they are unwritten history. I loved teaching little Ingrid things, and telling her stories – although of course she got both in spades from her grandfathers, who were absolutely doting. Marie and I courted, if that’s quite the right word, for nearly two years, and then she proposed to me. It didn’t feel quite the right way round – my childhood had been very old-fashioned – but when her mind was made up about a thing, she just got on with it. That’s what made her so successful.
“I want you to be my husband, and the father of my children”.
OK, I stammered a bit, but really very, very, spontaneously for me, I said Yes.
It was February. Her second brother, Jos, and his wife had just had their first child, and Ze, her other father, was dying. She wanted to be married on Low Sunday, the one after Easter Day. I wondered why, as most people get married on a Saturday, and she just said “because it’s more religious”. Well, I didn’t know much about her religion, but I wasn’t going to argue.
“Mother, I’ve got something to tell you, and Dad, obviously, can I come and see you?” As it happened Marie was working that Saturday, so I went to see them on my own. “I’m going to get married”. Well, you could have heard their jaws smacking the floor. Mother recovered her poise and said “Who to?” “Marie, of course!” “Oh, I didn’t realise you were that serious”. “It’s been two years, Mother”. “I thought you were chaperoning her – she’s very young”. Chaperoning, my arse. She later admitted she thought I was being used as a beard either for Marie to have lesbian affairs, or to see other men that her fathers didn’t approve of. Which tells you quite a lot about the way my parents looked at me. And her. “When’s the wedding?” said Father. “April” “Who’s paying?” “Well, the bride’s family, obviously”, I said. “Oh yes, working class money doesn’t count with the hoity-toity”. Bugger this, I thought. But I waded through the treacle of Mother’s astonishment and Father’s class warfare, and eventually came to a truce that they’d come for lunch at First & Last and meet the other family. As I left them in the doorway, and was getting into my car, Father scuttled down the path alone, and whispered through the open window “I’m glad for you son, put those shirt-lifting days behind you, and be a real man, it’s not too late”. Ho hum.
Marie screamed with laughter when I told her how they’d reacted, what they’d said. “But how did your father know about your past?” “I’ve no idea, no idea at all – he’s the sort of person who pretends to be illiterate and then reads your most private post when you’re not looking”. “And your mother thinks I’m a lesbian! That is wonderful! I suppose I have two gay dads, is a perfectly reasonable calculation …” “Oh don’t be reasonable, they are total shits, I’m going to hate the whole thing”. “No you aren’t. And for two reasons – the first is that you are marrying me, and that is lovely, and the second is that when your parents come here, my fathers will go on a charm offensive that will sweep them off their feet – oh, and we’ll reel in Grandad, too, he grew up not far from you, in South London, he’ll do the trick. Now, what shall we eat?”. It had to be a roast lunch, of course.
And Grandad Chapman won the day! He charmed the arse off my father. My father was a postman. Grandad Chapman knew – by car - every street in that part of the world – and everything that had been there before it was ruinously pulled down and destroyed by the forces of barbarous modernism. Father loved it. And Mother loved the house. She kept saying “such high ceilings!” Ze, fortunately, was having a good day, and I don’t think they realised how ill he was. He said to Mother “I understand from Justin you are a gardener? Come and look at my tomatoes!”, and he took her arm – and an elegant silver-handled walking stick – and tottered out into the garden, as the rest of us sniggered at a clearly deliberate innuendo. We all tottered out after – he’d spent most of the last fortnight in bed, too ill to move – and we were ready to catch him, should he fall. Marie’s brothers, Jos and Tommy, were there, and Amanda, Jos’s wife, and their new baby, Joseph, who became “JD”. I don’t think my parents, my father in particular, were expecting four generations of “normal”, but despite the size and grandeur of the house, that’s what they got.
Apparently, in the car, on the way home, Mother said to Father “have you ever noticed my eyes?” “Well, they’re usually in your head when they’re not out on stalks looking at other people’s money”. “No, I mean their colour, and that?” “No”. “Ze did. He said they were beautiful, like the sea”. Ze hated the sea. But he loved flirting.
For us, marriage and family life, those first years, was a torrent of stuff. Hard stuff.
Ze died, Grandad Chapman died, and Matthew had a stroke and nearly lost the will to live. In fact he might already have lost it, and the stroke gave him an excuse not to try. I’ve heard of brides weeping all the way to the altar, but mine wept through most of our first year of marriage. She consoled herself with work and, as Francis, our first son, was born the month before our first wedding anniversary, clearly with other things too. By the time Francis was born, First & Last was back on an even keel. A regiment of friends and family had rallied round to bully Matthew into recovery. His stroke hadn’t been very severe, although having never been ill before, it had come as a shock to him, and compounded with his grief, you could see why he’d given up. It’s true he was never quite the full ticket again after, but anyone who’d not known him before wouldn’t have been able to tell. His mind was a fraction slower, but it always reached its destination.
Whilst my new wife was coping with the loss of one father, and the fear of losing the other, I was facing becoming a father. It scared me at times. Marie seemed to be loving it, which baffled me, as I thought the change in shape, and mobility, would be irksome, but she seemed to like the challenge, and the company of someone who made very little noise, while she got on with her work. More from home than before, but she still insisted on going into the office. Sometimes you even took the train, second class, just for the fun of having people offer her a seat. It delighted her every time. “I’ve never felt more like a woman” she said. I wasn’t sure quite how I felt about that, but I suppose the reality of pregnancy must, in the womanhood stakes, trump the fumblings of a not very ept husband. Most days I just thought that being a parent would be very interesting. Matthew had often said how much there was to see, to observe and try to understand, and I thought perhaps that’s the sort of father I’d be – whilst wishing to influence the scene too, obviously.
What nothing could have prepared me for was a volcano of emotion. I don’t do emotion, I do ideas. When Francis was born, I found it hard to let him go, hard to stop watching him while he slept. Marie was much more gung-ho about it all. When she started to feel more normal after the delivery, she looked me in the eye and said “one more, the heir and the spare, and then we stop, OK?” Within a month, she was back at work. Not full-time, but I was on full-time duty. We thought about her taking Francis in with her, but it couldn’t have worked unless I went too, so he might as well stay at Walnut Cottage with me. Since Grandad Chapman died, Jos and Amanda had moved into the Dower House at the farm, so I had other new parents close at hand, and the Old Man himself, too. So Francis stayed put.
One morning there was a surprising, and very quiet, knock at the door. We had a bell, but Matthew wouldn’t use it – “didn’t want to risk waking the baby”, who was indeed asleep. I was reading about French economic history in the 17th century – a present from Marie to keep me busy in the quiet times between amusing Francis. As I invited him in, I wondered if Matthew had ever walked this far since his stroke (we lived at the other end of the village, perhaps half a mile, I guess), but he didn’t seem tired, or in pain, though leaning on one of his vast collection of walking sticks, rather a sturdy one. It was nearly noon, so I offered him either tea or a G&T knowing full-well what he’d accept. I’d known how he liked them for years, and poured myself a much weaker one. He took a seat, across the room from the cot, a hard-backed chair, I noticed, not the deeper armchairs or the sofa.
After toasting Francis, and us, he asked “So, how’s fatherhood?” “It’s brilliant, amazing, scary, but I love it”. “And really?” I dithered. He noticed. He did a thing with his eyes when he noticed stuff like that, it made you want to tell the truth. “I keep crying. I don’t understand it, I’m not unhappy”. He smiled, then laughed, and said “you’re being maternal, it’s entirely normal”. “Even for fathers?” “Oh yes, for some of them”. “Then isn’t it “being paternal”?” “No, it’s different. It’s hard to explain why, and really the whole gender thing is bonkers, but some men are maternal, you can just see it. Ze was. I am a bit. I think it’s usually a good sign about how the relationship – with the kiddie - will continue – not that I’m making any promises after four weeks!” “What do I do about it?” “Keep doing it, and cry when you need to! It will wear off, in time, but it’s all part of the bonding whatnot, or at least, I think that’s what the books would say – you’ve read loads of them, haven’t you come across it?” “Well, yes, a bit, but it sounded soppy and unrealistic”. “Then you are proof positive that it is neither. Now, I must hobble back for lunch – would you and Francis like to come too? You may need to bring his lunch with you, but you’re both very welcome”.
As I pushed the pram up the high street, slowed to Matthew’s pace, I pondered that “maternal” thing. I knew it wasn’t what he meant, but it felt like a slight on my masculinity. But was I entitled to masculinity? I wasn’t entirely heterosexual, I’d married a women who had bought our house, and brought home the bacon, I stayed at home to look after a baby, I had no work, no money, no life, of my own. What sort of man was I? At least I was fertile. What would have happened to me if I hadn’t been?
That “maternal” comment was right up there with Mother’s surprise that I was getting married. To a woman. I thought about it at a lot over the next months and even years, far more, I’m sure, than Matthew would have wished me to. Because he was right, in a way, I was more mother than father to our boys as they grew up. Their real mother was kind, gentle, doting, indulgent, but usually not there. I, on the other hand, was always there, always anticipating problems or dangers, finding work for idle hands, and activities for idle minds. I cooked, and I cuddled, consoled, and read stories. When we were out walking in the countryside, and one of them fell over, and cried, it was “daddy” they cried for. “Mummy” sometimes found that difficult.
She suggested a nanny, so that I could get on with my work, but my work for Matthew could be done easily enough when the boys were asleep, and I didn’t want anyone else doing this work. This was mine. No deadlines, no submission dates, no peer-review, this was my daily work, every day, from dawn – or before – until bedtime – or after. And they were fascinating. Everyone says how similar they are, and I understand that, but I know them well enough to see the differences. Francis is more diffident – though neither lacks confidence only he sometimes hesitates – and more caustic, sharper with people, but usually with a cheeky grin and a rude remark. Ben is even more utterly laid back. He smiles a lot and thinks the best of people, and if they get in his way, he just sweeps them out of it, assuming they’ve made a mistake, but he doesn’t have time to put them right. I might have made them sound obnoxious, and I know that there have been those who think precisely that. For boys – men now – who can be incredibly rude, they also know boundaries. They are never rude to their mother or me. They were kindness itself to their grandparents. But both are utter hedonists. I suppose we trained them that way. They learnt from me that if they said please, and thank you, and did this, or that, then they’d get whatever they wanted. And from Marie, that if they smiled, and smarmed, and charmed, then they’d get it anyway. So, they learnt two languages.
Schooling was a nightmare. Neither of their languages worked in school. I wanted them to go to public boarding schools, even prep schools, but Marie wouldn’t hear of anything like that until they were 13. Until they were 7 and 6 (“fancy that, price of the old dog licence”, said Matthew, and I didn’t then have any idea what he meant) I took them out of the local primary school and to a prep school about 15 miles away. I didn’t like the drive, but they loved their uniforms, and they loved having somewhere new to misbehave. Marie was dead against (she’d been to the village school, then to a comprehensive in Oxford), but conceded that as I was doing the work – looking after them before and after, and driving them there and back – then it was my call. They behaved atrociously. We were called in again and again. It was my call, so I went. By the skin of their teeth they lasted until the Common Entrance exam, and then, against all the odds (but I knew they’d pass, because I’d been tutoring them; no one knew, not even them) they got to public school. They both wanted to board, but together, so Francis delayed for a year, and endured being a day boy – that was quite a round trip for me – and then Ben arrived. And I lost them.
Not our relationship, which has always been good, but I lost them as daily friends. Does it sound sad to say that of one’s children? I was in my mid-50s. My married relationship with Marie had come to the end of its natural life. Matthew had died, First & Last was taken over my Jos and Amanda, I was welcome, of course, but without Francis and Ben, I was lonely again. I chatted to the boys’ guinea pigs. I deliberately spilled their food on the ground outside their cage and their pen, and fed the birds, and the hedgehogs, and later the foxes, and even the badger, and the roe deer, that came into the garden. “I do so miss you two” I made the mistake of saying one time, as I dropped them back to school, “Get yourself a cat, Pops!” and they went laughingly about the business of causing mayhem. I didn’t want a cat. I’m not actually allergic to them, but I say I am. A dog’s a tie – I like our holidays. And then there’s the hair. Matthew would probably have offered me one of his bloody parrots. So, I made do with my no-longer-wife’s family up the road, and the wild creatures in the garden, and longed for the vacations, when the boys briefly came home, and then longed to go on vacations of their own too.
Sometimes they went with their mother. Marie had developed a taste for skiing, for which I was surprised she was remotely the right shape. Even before we separated she suggested a skiing holiday, and I said “go if you want, I simply couldn’t bear to be there while you were all risking life and limb in front of my eyes”. “Don’t be so silly! Hardly anyone ever dies, and not many people even get hurt”. But I wouldn’t go, so she took them herself. Needless to say, they were all rather good at it, and came back in one piece. I read the same book three times during the five days they were away, and don’t remember a word of it.
After Matthew died, when the boys were seven and eight, our life changed again. I missed him enormously, much, much, more than I had expected. We had differed, of course, about so many things, but almost like a couple. I’d worked for him for over quarter of a century. He knew how to wind me up, and how to calm me down. And he was gone. I had hysterics the night he died. Very quiet, English, ones, but it was hysteria all the same. One of the others – Michael, maybe – told me to go and compile a list of all the people we had to tell. I wasn’t even allowed to tell my sons their grandfather had died. Jos was deputed to tell them all – his four, my two – whilst I overheard on the landing below. He did it very well. Then we took them home.
A few years before, Marie had bought herself a house in “genteel Wimbledon”. That’s how Matthew always referred to it – the place of his birth, and much of his childhood. The connexions for the City were good. And it wasn’t a small house. She’d said it was getting tiring coming home from London to the countryside every day, and then having to be up at 5 to catch the first train, and missing the boys at either end. It made perfect sense to me, and it was, to a Tooting boy, a lovely house, and definitely a step up. As soon as it was tarted up to her liking – new conservatory, tennis court replaced with croquet lawn, lavish extra bathrooms – she gave me the keys, and also told me how to get the code for the security thingy if she wasn’t in. Amanda, Jos’s wife, my “sister-in-law-in-law”, I suppose, asked “do you think she’s having an affair?” And I realised I’d not only not thought about it, but that I didn’t much mind if she was.
She wasn’t. Not then. Amanda did the same herself – buying a house in London, that is - not long after, when she had more and more work that took her away from the county and to meetings at the national level. And she certainly wasn’t having an affair. Jos used to regard going up to London to stay in “their”, but he always called it “her” house, in Ealing, as a dirty weekend. Marie and I were a bit passed that. But I enjoyed the croquet lawn, and the closeness to London’s culture. I’d never much taken to Matthew and Ze’s flat in Vauxhall. Call me a snob, but it couldn’t hold a candle to Wimbledon.
I think she was seeing someone when, a few years later, she came to Walnut Cottage and, over a very nice dinner (which I’d made) said that maybe the time had come to separate formally, as we were in effect apart all the time, and should both be free to look at our options. I froze a bit. It made perfect sense, and I didn’t want to restrict her liberty, nor she mine, and that was all very civilised, but how was I to live? Of course, she’d thought of that. It was term-time, the Autumn term, the boys were away. I looked out of the window. She might have taken it for emotion, but I was looking at the rain beating down on the garden, and thinking what a good job I’d made of it, and was I going to be allowed to keep it? “I’ve set up a fund, just like Grumpy’s. It’s for you and me and the boys, and any children they might have. I want you to be a trustee, and also a beneficiary, for life, whatever happens to either of us.” And she named her sum. “And you get this house, and you can stay in Wimbledon whenever you please. The boys’ schools fees will be paid, so will any university fees and maintenance. You’ll have a decent car, and it will be insured and taxed. Would that work for you?”
Marie was a gambler, but not a barterer. She worked out her price, offered it, and if you didn’t accept, then you’d not get another. The people she traded with had come to know this – to their cost. But I couldn’t argue with those terms – I kept my home, our home, our sons’ home, and I would never want. That’s a silly thing to say – I would live in luxury for the rest of my days! Of course I said yes. I’d have liked her to stay the night. Our nights were not so exciting by then, but I found her a great comfort next to me. But she thought otherwise. In fact, I think she was feeling emotional. Her car was booked, she was going back to London, there was work to do. And she thanked me. Thanked me “for everything”. And we hugged, and she left, and I sat down, and wondered what on earth was happening now.
The boys were almost disappointingly calm about it. We told them together, at Walnut Cottage, and they endured the news stoically, but couldn’t wait to leave the room. I supposed they went off to have a pow-wow together. In fact, they went off to First & Last, and had a pow-wow with their cousins, the little beasts! “Well, that went OK” said Marie, breezily. “For now”, I said. “Don’t be solemn, Justin!” And she went back to town.
In the evening, the boys, fortified by their cousins’ fervid imaginings, asked endless questions – “have you got a girlfriend – has mummy got a boyfriend – can we stay here – can we still go to First & Last – can we stay at school – are you divorced – what happens if you marry again – what happens if mummy does – who pays our pocket money?” And then, much to my surprise, Ben asked “are you OK?” “I’m OK because I’ve got you two”.
But I didn’t just have those two. Marie was away in London so much, the boys at school, and taking every opportunity to be away more and more, I was feeling lonely. Matthew had an old friend called Will. He was his architect. An unusual fellow, very quiet, but very dynamic when you got onto the subject of buildings. He was 17 years younger than Matthew. And Will was seventeen years older than me. Will had designed First & Last, and the office block with penthouses, that he used in Brasil; and converted the house in Italy where Matthew was perhaps happiest in his last years. His personal life was a total mess. He rarely said anything about it at all, but over time it became apparent that it was a little like mine. He’d got married when perhaps he shouldn’t, had three children, then strayed onto paths he definitely shouldn’t, and got caught by the police. His wife was a lawyer. Someone in her office found the report in the papers, and then he was history. Such a shame, because he was a really nice, gentle, man. But she was furious beyond reason – turned their sons, his parents, everyone she could, against him. Religion was part of the problem, of course, as it so often is. She was some kind of mad evangelical. He’d gone along with it since university days in order to get into her knickers. Now he was paying the price.
But that was all some time before. His wife had disappeared from the scene – onto marriage number four, I think. His first son had become a vicar and wouldn’t speak to him (after marriage number two, wouldn’t speak to his mother, either). His second son blew hot and cold, and then died in a car accident as a student – for which Will was blamed. The third son came to terms with him, and was rather nice. And I came to terms with Will, as well.
It was after the Old Man died, and before our separation became official, and the boys were away at school, and I felt so alone. Oh that sounds like such a pathetic excuse! I don’t need an excuse. I’d always liked Will. He knew how to build the architecture I lectured on. We had a meeting of minds. And we were both rather bereft when Matthew died. Will had been one of “The Team” that coaxed Matthew back to health after his stroke. Having sons himself, he took to ours. He was a great big fellow, broad in the shoulder and the chest, hirsute, manly, fertile – well, so was I, but a wimp by comparison, physically. He was very fit. He filled a part of his life alone with the gym. I filled that part with pies. He’d played football once, but when his wife found out about him, and broadcast it, he didn’t want to play contact sports any more. Despite the age gap, I certainly wasn’t expecting to be looked at. But I was.
I’d rather forgotten what that side of life was like. He’d often been a visitor at Walnut Cottage. I didn’t need to lure him with dinner, and gin, and a bed for the night. But that’s how it happened. We were both rather alone. I think I felt it more than he did, but it was there all the same. The next morning he said “maybe this is just a one-off?” “No, not if you’d like to meet again, stay over again”. And so he did, and we did.
I tried to lose weight. He said “Justin, don’t starve yourself for me, I like something to get hold of!”. His ex-wife had been a beanpole. I invited him to put the car in the garage, but he said he didn’t mind anyone seeing, and did I? And did I? Well, there were three people I didn’t want to know more than anyone else. So, I went to see Marie. We had lunch, in the City. Her call, although it could have been mine, her settlement with me meant that the sky was the limit for such things. “Oh, at last” she said. “What?” “You’re not meant to be alone, Justin, and the boys are nearly finished school and will go even further away – and Will is lovely”. “And a man”. “To be honest, a woman would have annoyed me. And you both loved Daddy”. Well, what the bloody hell do you do with that?
Then it was the boys. I got them to come down for the weekend. They were 15 and 16 by now. In fact they were just on the point of being expelled from their school. I really was not looking forward to it. I gave them lunch – and cocktails. Then they sat on the sofa expectantly. I stood in front of them, as if about to give a lecture. Then I sat down. “Boys, I’ve met someone”. “Bravo Pops!” said Ben. “Who? said Francis. “It’s Will, Grumpy’s friend”. “Oh shit, we had no money on him!” “Sorry lads, I’m very keen on him”. “Pops, he’s ANCIENT”. “He’s not a lot more ancient than me, and in much better nick. Obviously, he’s not going to be your step-father, or interfere in your life in any way …” “are you marrying that old man?” “Well, no, not yet”. “But would you?” “Yes, I think I love him”. “Better do it then, Pops, before he dies!” And Ben cackled with laughter. And they went out. When they came back in, they asked about their allowances. And then they hugged me.
That weekend I overheard Ben on the telephone to a friend. “Pops invited us for a bit of a Family Talk” I was in the hall; I should have moved away, but I didn’t. “Oh nothing serious – he’s just told us he’s into bum sex with old men, we’re OK about it. Could be quite a nice dinner actually”.
We did marry, later, though Will is dead now. He was 91. He’d have lived a lot longer, but someone ran him off the road on his bike. My boys were my Best Men, and Will’s youngest son, Paul, was his. Marie was there. We married in the church. I don’t believe, I’m not sure Will did either, but the children all seemed to. Where did we go wrong? Confessions of a failed atheist!
And they were kind to us. Will moved into Walnut Cottage. He kept working. I kept working – writing reviews and articles, and stuff. There were grandchildren.
Francis was firmly against producing grandchildren. Very firmly. Then he fell for a girl, and she wanted babies. He’d already had the snip. So he got un-snipped. Then he fell out with the girl and they never made beautiful babies together. There’s a limit to how much a man can have his testicles surgically tampered with for love. And he’s never sired a child since, that we know of, or that he’s spoken of, so we don’t know if the un-snipping worked.
Ben has two lovely girls with a woman he seemed very fond of. Then she mentioned marriage, and that was the end of it. Of course, he never intended to be married. He has visiting rights, turns up as and when he pleases, brings presents, pays for anything that needs paying for. All his mother’s money, of course. But she never says no, and nor does he. Then he met an old flame at a party. He says he’d forgotten ever being with her until she jogged his memory. But he’s an amicable old soul, and there were no hard feelings, and before long she was showing him photos of her little boy’s 4th birthday party, which had been the day before. The boy looked just like him. The woman was married, she’d moved on, surely any normal person would have let well alone? Not my son. He went to his diaries. Both my boys write things down in a diary, they don’t use a computer or the telephone. I taught them that. This time, I wished I hadn’t. In a rare burst of cerebral energy he did the sums. The child was conceived during their brief time together. He got back in touch, and she denied everything. Then he asked the boy’s name. “Benedict”, she said. That was the name he always said he wished he’d been given, rather than Benjamin. And he remembered telling her.
What followed was an unseemly argument through the courts, DNA paternity testing, and proof that the little boy was indeed my son’s. The whole rigmarole cost the child a perfectly good stepfather, who upped sticks and walked out. It was not my family’s finest hour. “Pops, he’s mine, he needs to know who his father is!” “He coped perfectly well without, these last four years”. “And one day he would learn he was just a cuckoo in the nest, and how would he feel then? They weren’t being honest with him – nor with me. I had a right to know.”
He’s done his bit, of course, and the mother, Amelie, has cooled down her fury against him for destroying her marriage. My sons don’t really understand holding back a little on their own personal wishes and whims for the sake of others. They used to do it, I’m sure, because I’m sure I taught them, at home, at the table, in the playroom, with their cousins, their grandparents. But since adulthood, it’s eluded them. One of my friends – she’s a retired professor of chemistry, which may seem an unusual link, but I had a bishop in the 18th century who was a professor of chemistry, and she explained some stuff to me that I didn’t understand in his papers, and we be became friends after – asked “do you sometimes wish at least one of them was responsible and normal, and wanted to earn a living, marry, settle down, and so on?” I repeated it to Marie at one of our lunches – we still lunch, often – and she said “don’t you think if one of them had been that way, we’d love him more, and the other brother would love him less?” Well, I hadn’t thought of that.
They are hedonists, both of them, have been throughout their lives. They’ve had spells in re-hab, they’ve never had a job, never been married. They probably sound horrible people. But they are always laughing. And they make everyone else laugh. I struggled with my parents, after going to Oxford, and even more after marrying a millionaire’s daughter, but Marie insisted that our sons must know their grandparents, so every month we went over there. Mother adored them. Father tried not to, but he did find them feisty and stroppy, and difficult. He said of Francis one time, when he was only three, “that one would make a good shop steward”. God, I hope not, I thought to myself. He died when they were in their late teenage, but Mother lived on. She had a heart problem, which we got fixed, and then her mind seemed to wander. Or it did with me. The boys said she was fine with them. When she was coming up for 85 they came down for the day to see me – the Saturday, it was. We got talking, and I reminded them it was their Nan’s birthday on Thursday. “Oh yes”, said Francis, “we know, we’ve got a plan – we’re taking her out for the day, and she’s looking forward to it”. “Do you want me to come with you, just in case?” “Oh no, Pops, we’ve got it covered, she wants a jape with the grandsons, and that’s what she’s going to have”. I was going to take her out to the local Chinese restaurant for lunch. Father had always hated “foreign muck” so it was our defiant little posthumous treat together. But clearly the boys had other ideas.
I had things to do in town on the Monday, so I called it to see her afterwards. She was still in her dressing gown at gone eleven. “Are you all right, Mother?” “I’ve only just got back, last night” she said. “Where from?” “Monte Carlo, of course!” “What?” “I’ve been and broken the bank at Monte Carlo!” and she giggled. I thought she’d been drinking. Which would have been unusual for her. “Didn’t they tell you?” “Who?” “My boys! YOUR boys! They took me to Monte Carlo for the weekend, and I did gambling! Anyway, come in, and have some tea – no wait a moment, I’ve still got some, have some Champagne for my birthday!”. So I sat with my 85-year-old mother, and a bottle of tepid Champagne, and listened to the thrills and spills of the gambling life my sons had introduced her to over the last couple of days. “Oh, they were angels – never left me alone a minute, I couldn’t misbehave, although there were a few chaps there who were giving me the eye”. “No they weren’t Mother”. “Yes they were – you’re not the only old sauce that wants a bit of goosing, you know. Anyway, the boys were lovely, they looked after me, showed me how to do all the games, and what to bet, and how to get my winnings. I liked roulette best. Especially that last bit, when the little ball goes all boppy over the wheel until it lands”. “And did you win anything?” “Oh yes, lots!” “How much?” “None of your business, but it might be marginally in the area of £15,000. I’ve got it here, somewhere – I was going to the bank until you showed up and got in the way”. And she produced this fat wad of banknotes, mostly euros.
After taking her to the bank, and then to lunch, and then home again, I went to my sons’ apartment. They lived in Belgravia then. And they were in. I’m not sure they’d been in for all that long. Ben opened the door, dishevelled, and looked at me, then looked over his shoulder and shouted “Francis, Pops is here, and he’s in a mood”. “She’s 85 and has dementia, for pity’s sake!” “No she doesn’t. She a whizz at the tables, can do sums in her head in seconds, less than seconds, faster than we’ve ever been able to”. “That doesn’t mean she’s not unwell”. “Pops, she was having the time of her life”. Francis butted in, half-naked from the shower, and said “did she ever have the time of her life with you?”
They have always been thick as thieves. They’re over forty now, and they still share a flat. They always have. Sometimes they’ve moved out for a while with this girl or that, but never for long, and always with a base to return to. And they return to my base, too. I see them every week, sometimes separately, sometimes together. If it’s separately, I get two visits. They never tell me in advance, which is a shame, because then I could look forward to it. I suppose it’s because they don’t want to raise my hopes just in case they can’t make it. Probably.
I’m lucky, my health has held, more or less. I still entertain the furry and feathered in the garden at Walnut Cottage. My niece, Ingrid, entertains me for lunch at First & Last almost every day. I don’t always care for the company she keeps, but it’s diverting, and I do enjoy the entertainment. Sometimes I call by, and my sons are already there. She’s always liked them best, of all the cousins. Marie keeps me in clover – nothing changed after I married Will. I have lived in her house, on her money, with her family, almost all my adult life. I know I don’t really belong. But I didn’t really belong in the family I was born in. But my sons do. And I belong to them. If I am a cuckoo in the nest, I am their cuckoo.