End Of An Era
“How do you feel about moving into the Dower House?” The one ambition that fired me throughout my childhood was the possibility of moving away from Shelford, the village in which I was born, and getting a life of my own, far, far, away from anyone I was related to by blood or accident (in my family quite a few were both). And now my husband of five years was suggesting that we make our home together in that very place. Admittedly, it was to be on his newly-late father’s farm, and in a house just vacated by his brother and his family, and before that lived in by Tommy’s grandparents. It was decidedly a cut above my mother’s hovel on the other side of the village. You could see it from their attic room in the main house, First & Last, they called it – the Playroom – and you could have got her house, her neighbours’ and a couple of gardens in that one room, too.
But it wasn’t about size, it was about closeness. I’d never been close to my family. It must have started fairly intimate with my mother at first, but after actually giving birth, she and I drifted apart. She compounded the evil by having my brother, Dave, a couple of years later. Then she threw our father out, found another bloke (not necessarily in that order) and had five more. I truly couldn’t stand any of them. Dave doesn’t even know how to wash – even now, unless he’s found himself a girlfriend. Nothing had given me greater pleasure than taking a bedsit in Oxford when I was training to be an accountant. It worried Mum a lot, as she’d lost her child benefit when I left school, and she’d grown dependent on my weekly “wages”. It was tight, incredibly tight, but I managed, and I was free. Free of them.
I’ve often wondered where ambition comes from. It strikes me that one of the reasons why the poor remain poor is other poor people determined to keep them that way. My Dad said “people like us don’t become accountants”, when I told him school had fixed my work experience with a firm in town. That determined me. But earlier, it had been a schoolteacher who first suggested it, because I was good at numbers. Ironically, that might be down to my Dad. He was a chancer and a spiv. He did people’s gardens, but mainly with a view to eyeing up the contents of their houses. He was a poacher, too. He knew a lot about making business decisions in a hurry, adding up the sums, and deciding if the deal was going to make a profit. He taught me that. I’ve spent my life teaching it to other – much more innocent and honourable – traders.
But even in primary school, I overheard one of the mothers saying “looks like there’s no ironing done in that household”, and several of them cackling with laughter. I was about eight, I suppose. I knew there was an iron, but it only appeared for special occasions. I found it, worked out how to use it, and from then on, my school shirts and trousers were ironed. I got up early to do it, because if the ironing board was still up when Mum came down to superintend the chimps’ tea party that was our breakfast, she’d start swearing at me. At the time, I wasn’t trying to “get on” because I didn’t know what there was to get on, nor where there was to go once you’d got on it. But I’d look nice when I got there. I’ve been that way ever since.
I’m very glad of my schooling. We were taught things in primary school – like manners and cleanliness – that didn’t happen at home. My teacher, Mr Halsey – yes a man, in primary, most unusual - was very insistent I should ask to go to the secondary school in Oxford, not the one in the other direction. I asked him why not and he said “because that’s where all the losers go”. And then he backtracked. Most of his class was going there. “But do try” he said. I ironed my shirt. I didn’t really know how else to try. And once I’d got in, I found other people who believed in me. This accountancy malarkey started with a Mrs Pritchard. I’d never heard of it, but she had, and she thought with my head for numbers, I could do it. And then there was Tommy. Odd to file him under “schooling”, but at that time in my life it was right. We were fifteen, and it was a pretty mind-blowing first love affair. He’s written about it in a memoir, not entirely honestly. He was neither so innocent, nor I so reticent, as he writes. Or at least, that’s my memory of it.
I knew how I was, and I didn’t much like it, but it was no one else’s affair than my own. Until Tommy came along. Mum used to say sometimes, switching key, without even realising it, from laughing her socks off at some camp comedian on the telly, and then “they’re poor things really, and I wouldn’t wish them any harm, not like Hitler, but I’m glad we don’t have any of that sort of thing in our family, it’s not natural”. She even said it one night, one of the very few that I was actually at home, that magical summer with Tommy, and I was bursting to say “it’s bloody well natural to me!” But what good would it have done? I suppose if I’d had a gay brother or sister, I might have said something for their sake. But if I did, I didn’t know, and at the time I didn’t care enough to find out. And did I? I still don’t know. Dave tried to tell me something once, but I shut him up. He’s on a register now. I mistook what he was trying to tell me.
Things had changed a lot by the time I met Tommy again. At secondary school, the accountancy business led to a “work experience” placement with a firm in Oxford. Under Mrs Benfield. She wasn’t the boss, but while I was there, she was my boss. I don’t know if she deliberately chose accounts that were wrong, or falsified them, or quite what, but she gave me things to read – just there and then, you know “can you spot it?” – and I found the errors, and given time, I found the right sum. And then she said, after we’d looked through one particularly interesting set of accounts, “now, Michael, what would you advise the client?” I was stumped. “I don’t know.” “Yes you do, you just need to think it out”. And Mrs Benfield was right, I did know, and if I thought it through, it came out, as sensible words. I shall never forget her. I think she fancied me. Obviously, it wasn’t reciprocated, and she never misbehaved, but it felt good to be admired, valued, appreciated, in those different ways – mind and skills and body. Is it going too far to say that is precisely what I’d never had at home? She made me change my A-level choices. I’d based them on the teachers I liked most and who gave me the best marks, but I’d had no plan. But she told me to choose maths, economics, business studies, and then I had to choose between history and physics. I chose physics. I thought I could probably teach myself history, but physics can get tricky. While I was choosing my next exams, the results for the ones I was doing came in. Mainly As. Two Bs. One C. The C was maths – that resolved me, I was doing the A-level in maths. Sounds perverse I know, but I don’t like to be beaten. She produced a bottle of Champagne at lunchtime – I’d arrived late, I told them I would, because I had to go into the school for the results first thing – but she’d had it in the fridge already. She believed in me. I got a bit drunk. No one minded.
And it went on from there. I decided against university, and all that loan debt, and went to be a trainee at another firm – Mrs Benfield’s didn’t offer them – and worked my way up. And now I had money coming in. I got a room of my own in town. Mum was appalled, until I told her I’d still give her some rent money. The child benefit dried up when I left school, and she financed her bingo habit out of that. She sobbed and made a fuss, but the cash consoled her. Dave and I fought over the car – he was at the car works, and we drove in and out together (which on a late night meant I had to sleep in the office so he could get back for his “tea”). Dave won.
A couple of years later I had enough saved that I could get a mortgage. It was a dream come true. I hadn’t liked sharing a house, but it was all I could afford. Now, I could afford my own place. And it had two bedrooms. I knew there’d be trouble, and I’d have got a one-bedroom house if I could, but I wanted a garden, and one-bedroomed houses don’t get built much. Dave took one look at it and said “you need a lodger!” He’d just been sacked from the car works. “It’s already let”, I lied. “Come on, first dibs for kith and kin?” “Not going back on my word”. The word that was a lie. The idea of sharing with him was horrible. Dave wasn’t very good at washing. We’d had to share a bed at Mum’s house for years, and getting away from him, from her, from all of them, was partly about finding and making a world that was clean and decent. That visit was the first and last time a member of my family got passed my front door.
Does it sound ridiculous to say that by the time I met Tommy again, I thought of myself as a “man of property”? I had a two-bedroom house in the roughest part of town, but an exquisite garden of lawn, and standard roses, and discipline. My taste then was probably what a kind person would call “un-tutored” and I would now call “naff”. But it was totally different from home. Funny how, years after you leave it, the house you grew up in remains “home”. My house had books in it, and paintings on the walls that were originals, not posters, or last year’s calendars.
That winter night, I’d paid Mum her wages, and tolerated her cooking, and got out as soon as I could. I said I had to meet a client in town. It was a bit daft stopping off at the village pub, so close, but I was gasping for something a bit sedative. The noise had been overwhelming. Voices, voices, and then behind the din, or on top of it, the telly. I’d had beer with them in the kitchen, and now I was having white wine. And then Tommy walked in. When our eyes met, I knew something was happening again. I knew he’d had a hard time – his Pae’s death had been in the local papers, which, being a local accountant, I read assiduously – but I hadn’t realise how hard. We bought drinks, and we chatted, and then he invited me back to First & Last. It made me catch my breath when he said the name. I’m convinced we’d have teamed up again come what may, but to be honest, one reason why I said Yes was because I really didn’t think I was fit to drive back to Oxford. And I couldn’t bear going back to Mum’s.
Then it all took off again. We met the next week in London – at his flat. I’ve never seen such a shit pit. Empty bottles, pizza boxes, cocaine marks on the coffee table. His sister – can you imagine it? - his millionaire city investor sister used to come round once a month to clean for him. But she was married now, and pregnant, and he was on his own. He’d been told to get a cleaner, but he bought cocaine instead. I did what I could. It should have put me off him, but it didn’t. He was a little boy who needed looking after, in a way I’d never been. I made him get a cleaner – once I’d cleaned up as much as I could myself. There are some things a cleaner doesn’t need to see.
Mostly, though, he was down at First & Last, looking after his father, reading to him, telling him jokes and stories and gossip, and telling him constantly to stop being ill because everyone was getting very bored of it. None more so than Matthew himself. That first “morning after” we met in the kitchen – Tommy was fast asleep, never an early riser – and the Old Man was making coffee, very slowly. “Oh, now, I know you, wait … M … Michael! Yes, Michael! You’ve come back! You see, it’s all in here, somewhere, I just need to get it un … un … locked. You’ve aged – no, that’s wrong, you’ve grown up, what a handsome fellow, lucky thing, I was never that!” And we chatted idly at the kitchen table with our coffee (not allowed at Mum’s in the morning, strictly tea only). “Would you be a dear? I need someone to talk sense into Tommy. If he doesn’t do this show in New York, I shall have a relapse and probably die. He must go.” “But he cares very much about you, Sir”. “You call me Matthew, that’s the rules, and yes he does, and that is very sweet. But he has things to do, and he must do them. There are others who can fret over me. I’d rather die knowing my son was an acclaimed actor than an accomplished nursemaid. That’s not any detriment to nurses, obviously, although actually Tommy’s not a very good one, although he does make me laugh until bits I didn’t know were broken start to ache”. “I’ll do my best”.
But I went one better. I went with him. Not for the whole run, but for Christmas. I went late on Christmas Eve. He was performing even then – and the next day, and for the whole week, not just the evening, but matinees as well. I was 26 and had never spent Christmas away from my family before. I had never left the country before. Never been in an aeroplane before. Mum made a scene. “I knew there was something wrong about you and that rich boy”. “There’s nothing wrong with it, we are …” here I paused “… lovers”. “And you’d give up your own family, at Christmas, for sodomy in the cess-pots of America?!” “Yes. I’ll be back in the New Year. Probably. With some money. Unless I’ve spent it all.” And I turned and stormed out. That was my scene.
I set off the next morning, indifferent to her offensiveness. I had learnt not to let my family affect me. The journey was exciting. It’s all rather logical, getting from here to there with papers this and that, it was pleasing. And then whoosh, up in the plane, and then you’ve minded your own business for a few hours, and down you pop, and so do your ears. They kept offering me drinks, so out of politeness, I accepted. I was right enough to collect my luggage, but definitely a few sheets to the wind. I went for a cab. I showed the driver the address I’d been given, and he said what I’m sure, in American, can only have been “swanky”. It was twilight, and then night-time, in New York, as the cab sped along the roads. And then didn’t speed so much! But I didn’t mind the jams. The views were amazing. All those lights, the huge buildings, the sense of a city growing out of water. This might have been a million miles from Shelford, never mind the few thousand it actually was. I adored it. And then he tipped me out, and I paid, and worked out what I thought was a reasonable tip in return, and he didn’t swear at me, so I assume I got that bit right. I’d read the guide books about tipping.
The block was imposing. Not new, but hard to judge the architecture in the dark. Thirty or more floors. I walked through the brightly-lit atrium to the desk of the “concierge” and said “I believe I am expected, a guest of Tommy Chapman da Silva?” A man of small height and Hispanic extraction said, “Mr Tommy! Of course you are, he told us this morning, come now, let me take your bags”. I was shown into a small lift, and up to the 19th floor. I didn’t need my bags carried, but it seems that’s what had to happen before the key would be handed over. Eventually, with some more dollar bills, it was, and there I was, in Manhattan, in New York.
The apartment was stunning. It had three double bedrooms, each equipped with two wide single beds, just like the children’s bedrooms had been at First & Last years ago. In one of them, there was a photo of Tommy and me, by the bed. I couldn’t place it at first, then I realised – maybe I was tireder than I knew from the flight – that it was from our first time together, a decade ago. We looked young and innocent. Perhaps not so very much younger than we did as I looked at it. Maybe more innocent. There was a note on the table in the main room: “M - gin and ice in freezer, milk in fridge, tea and Dubonnet and shaker in cupboard, order anything you like, back a bit after 11, love T”. Well, he was inviting me to make a little cocktail, so I did. “End of an Era”, the gin and dubonnet which Matthew contrived after the Queen Mother died, some years before either of us was born. It was very cold, but I opened the window anyway, and sampled my drink in the fast and furious air of a city that never sleeps. The lights, the cabs, the honking of horns, the madness of the people. It was too cold, so I retreated to the kitchen, the fridge, and another End of an Era, but then I continued watching this amazing city through the closed window. I’d never even been abroad before, and here I was in one of the most exciting cities in the world, twenty floors up, waiting for my lover, and getting drunk. I felt very happy.
Tommy was true to his word, and arrived just before 11.30 – by which time I’d started to nod off – it was gone 4 in English money – but he woke me up, and after the appropriate salutations, we got out of bed, and set out on the town.
We saw the sights – together, mainly at night, but in the daytimes I went alone to galleries and museums, and places of interest, down to Staten Island Ferry and up to the Cloisters and right up the Empire State Building. It was cold, and I had a map, but I walked about like a man who was entitled to be there, because I had a key. I discovered diners, and brunch. I loved it all.
When I came home, just into the New Year, I resolved to face the music with Mum, and bring her her wages – there was still a little money left after New York – and when the ordeal was done and I was driving away, it occurred to me to call on Matthew. He offered me dinner – which I’d already had (spam fritters) – and wouldn’t take no for an answer, so I had even more food – lamb cutlets in a casserole. He was a demon with a casserole, or any other kind of wet food. And he plied me with red wine to go with it. “I really mustn’t …” “Oh just stay the night, that’ll be no problem”. “Yes, stay” said Ingrid, his grand-daughter. So I told them both all about Tommy’s triumph on Broadway. Matthew had read all about it already, of course, but he didn’t let on, and I’d seen it actually happening. “Uncle Tommy is SO funny!” Ingrid squealed at one point, and I’d have to agree with her, he was, and is, and in this play, he was a comic genius. Ingrid was seven. Tommy would have had her writing reviews for The Times if he’d heard her.
When Matthew had shooed Ingrid upstairs to bed, he asked “and what about you two, was it OK being together in a foreign place?” I didn’t know where to begin. As I fumbled for words he said “you’re smiling, which makes me think you both had a good time!” “I loved New York, and Tommy was the perfect host”, I ventured. “You’re so coy! I bet you rutted like rabbits”. There was no answer to that, so instead I asked “is that apartment your own?” “Not now, but it used to be. It belongs to the Family Fund. I bought it a while back because I have a lot of business in America, some of which requires me to be there in person, and I cannot stand hotels”. “That’s pretty decadent!” “Yes, Mr Accountant, it is, and you can imagine the bollocking I got from my brokers for buying it. Dead money, they said. But isn’t it a charm when you can get off the plane, and just walk to a place that has your shirts in the cupboard, and your gin in the freezer?” “I have to admit, it was very comfortable indeed”.
“How serious are you and Tommy?” “I don’t really know Sir. I mean, we’ve not talked about it, we’ve just enjoyed it”. “Michael, don’t call me “sir”, it makes me feel SO old! But might it go somewhere, do you think? I wondered about you two ten years ago, and then it came to naught, but maybe things are different now?” “I’m less afraid of Tommy’s world now; that was the problem before, I couldn’t handle it”. “But he’s far more famous now, and has all sorts of characters snapping at his heels …?” “No, not Tommy’s world, YOUR world. That’s what I was overwhelmed by”. “Oh bugger”. “Yes, you said that before you took my hand to meet the king coming out of a helicopter! Not quite normal for a Shelford boy.” “You aren’t normal for a Shelford boy. You’re incredibly industrious. Tommy has told me a lot about you, about your job, your house, your looking after your mother, you’re a credit, and if you want to credit it to this village, you can, but I think you’re a credit to yourself”. “Thank you. I had a hunger to get on, to get away”. “I hope that hunger won’t stop you remaining friends with us?” “I wouldn’t let Tommy go again for the world. I know it’s a long shot, I know his world is not mine, and so many other people are after him, but I won’t let up on him”. “Fighting talk! But I think you’ll find he won’t let up on you either – he said before we went to America “don’t let Michael forget me” – so, whatever people say, his crippled old father wasn’t the only thing on his mind when he set off.” “You’re looking vastly better, Sir … Matthew …er” “You can’t actually call me that, as it happens” “How come?” “I’ve got a couple of knighthoods, but because I’m a priest, and a knighthood is a military thing, I can’t use the title – but you don’t need to know all this!” “Actually, it’s really interesting”. And I wasn’t grovelling, it really was interesting. And it’s been interesting ever since. He said “that’s the sort of old bollocks that used to fascinate me, centuries ago, when I was young!” I resolved to learn about it, and it’s become the sort of old bollocks that’s been surprising people at grand parties ever since.
Tommy came home shortly after Easter, and by then Matthew was very much on the mend. He’d gone back to his weekly article to America, and the House of Lords, and his club. Tommy and I had a sort of commuting relationship. He wasn’t always working, and then he tended to stay either in my house in Oxford, or in the luxury of First & Last. Otherwise, he was either on tour, or performing in London, and I’d come up to Clerkenwell at weekends. He had a lot of parties there. He had quite a few parties at First & Last. In fact, parties were a pretty big part of his life. Still are. I met all sorts of people. The advantage of his upbringing and background was that nothing daunted him from asking the biggest name to come for drinks. And he was getting through shedloads of coke. The money everyone else was paying for their digs, he was sending to Colombia.
This went on until two things happened. The first was a review which stung him badly. He’d always thought his bad habits didn’t affect his performance – and to be honest, I’d never noticed that they did – but this one said something about “we were snorting at every line …” And the inference was clear. Tommy wasn’t very good at being grown-up, he didn’t like criticism, and although he could take a bad review, he took this as personal, not professional. It made him quiet and glum for quite a while. Then he went up to the Edinburgh Festival, where, unfortunately, I couldn’t join him, as all my colleagues had children and were on school holidays, so I had to cover the whole office like a ghost town. I could have put my foot down, as I had clout these days – those parties of Tommy’s had paid off, I never went to one without a few business cards in my pocket, and rarely came home with the full set. My new clients positively excited my colleagues, not to mention the office staff. “Was that …?” “Yes, Cheryl, it was, don’t make a fuss”. “Isn’t he short!”. Who am I kidding? They excited me too!
There was a lull in Tommy’s work when he returned from Scotland, so he was spending it with me in Oxford after a September week’s holiday in Corfu. I’d suggested the Maldives, but he said he couldn’t afford it, which surprised me after a whole month of popular well-paid work; I just assumed there had been a lot of parties. One Friday night we went out for dinner, unbelievably, to a pizza restaurant, and towards the end of the meal, he got antsy. “What’s the matter?” “I’ve got something on my mind I need to talk to you about”. “Fire away.” “Well, you know Daddy is going to be 80 next year? There’s going to be a whole lot of fandango about that”. I nodded, wondering where this was going. “And in August on my birthday, I come into my inheritance, whatever that turns out to be”. I did know that, too, and was wondering what his next madness would be. “The thing is, before my birthday, while I’m still poor” (I loved the way he talked sometimes) “and way before everything gets overshadowed by Daddy’s fuss and bother, I wondered whether you’d be interested in possibly marrying me?”
I was taken aback. He raised his eyebrows for a reply. The best I could manage was “When?” “Whenever you like, assuming that “when” also means “yes””! “Of course, yes, totally yes, let’s be married, fantastic, wow, I don’t know what to say” “I love it when you’re lost for words” he said, and snogged me. Then he demanded Champagne from the waiter, although if my memory is right, he did it with his eyes, not words, which makes me wonder if he was already briefed. As we waited for the bottle, I said, idly scratching for words “so, do I get a ring?” “Oh yes! Funny you should mention that”. And out of his jacket pocket be brought a box and in the box was a ring with a diamond set in platinum. A big diamond. It was an unusual cut, a sort of oblong. I’d never worn a ring, and didn’t much want to. Until then. “Pae said he had to wait ten years for his diamond ring, so I thought I’d get right in there”. And it fitted. “How did you get the fit right?” “You know Grandad used to be a jeweller?” “No”. “Well, nor did I, but he was, and he had all the kit for sizing rings, and sizing fingers, and when he died, Daddy kept it, and when I asked him about it, he took me down to the cellar, and there it was in the toolbox”. “Yes, but how did you get my size?” “Oh, that! Yes, well, your hands are actually very like Daddy’s, certainly before the arthritis got him, so I figured what fit him would fit you, and he agreed.” “So, he knows all about this?” “A bit, yes – oh hang on, I know what you’re thinking – how did I pay for it! You are SO predictable! Actually, not a penny came from him, nor from my allowance, it’s my Edinburgh money. And not spending it on coke. So, that’s a coke ring”. Then we both sniggered, and drank our Champagne. “But I’ll have to get you a ring”. He made an alarmed face, “Oh no, not on your own, I’ll help you”. “You think I’ll screw it up?” “Of course, darling, leave taste to me”. In the end he made me choose a ring I didn’t think would suit him, but it delighted him because it had a sharp tip, with which he would carve our initials in the window of anyone who challenged him on whether it was really a diamond.
The engagement was announced without delay, and the wedding set for July (this was February) a month before his birthday in August. One day in June Michael asked me quietly if I’d care to have lunch with him in London at his club. As it happened, I had enough clients in London to make it a useful day, although I suggested a late lunch, as I didn’t imagine I’d be in a fit state to work afterwards. It was mid-week, so I assumed he had spent the morning in the Lords. I was hot-footing from a very talkative actor in Islington, and got there almost on the bell of 2 p.m. The nice lady on the door said he was waiting for me in the bar. How did she know who I was? “Hey there! Just in time, not the whole menu, but they’ll find something for us, and the wine’s decanted if you want something red”. So we trooped upstairs to the dining room, where the others were mainly finishing and bantering, and he had to stop several times to chat before we got to our private table. I rather liked being introduced as “this is my future son-in-law”.
We chatted idly over the meal, I doing my level best not to reveal who my morning’s clients had been, and he enjoying the guessing game, and then he ordered port (even though it was the middle of the day) and said “I’d like to proposition you”. “Not sure the father of the groom is meant to do that”. “You may not like my actual proposition, either. But here it is: as I see it, you two are a runner. These last few years I’ve very much liked your being part of our family, and I think there’s every chance you always will be. I like the way you’ve made your own way, and your own money, and you rely on no one”. “I rely on Tommy …” “I’m not being romantic! You’re self-sufficient, and I think, despite having no ostensible religion, you might be incorruptible. And that’s why I’d like you to consider becoming a trustee of the Family Fund.” Well, I wasn’t expecting that. “It’s not as big as you might imagine, but it does need an insider’s eye on deciding some of the settlements and grants, and whatnots, and I think you have that eye”.
And thus and so it was. We were married. Tommy became thirty. I argued his case on the Family Fund committee, and then left the room. They awarded him quarter of a million a year for life. I specified, and they endorsed, that it lived and died with him, I wanted nothing from it. Daft, of course, I benefitted enormously, especially as Tommy was a financial imbecile. Some years, he had no idea how much he had left over. I didn’t bother him with that. We bought a villa in the south of France.
And so it rolled it on, until the old man died. We were quite happy leading our commuting life between my house in Oxford and his flat in Clerkenwell. Sometimes he went on tour, sometimes he went overseas, sometimes he had no work and hung around either at my house or his father’s. Tommy needed company, so with me being out all day, it was a bit boring at my place, and there was always something going on at First & Last. We were there the night Matthew died. He’d made dinner for everyone, and seemed on good form. Then he crept off to his library, as he often did after dinner, to be alone, to read, to finish his gin, and there it was that Ingrid found him.
We coped on the night, especially Amanda (his brother Jos's wife) and I, the in-laws, but it’s hard to say what the feelings really were. My feelings. A bit of me wondered what slice of grief I was entitled to, as a son-in-law, and late to the family party. To his children it was a sort of inevitability. Obviously, every death is inevitable (eventually!) but he had been as they said themselves “an old man” when he adopted them (he was fifty), and he’d had his first hip replacement when they were children. Matthew’s manner diverted effortlessly between impishly wicked, and solemn old sage, but I think they regarded the old sage as somehow the real thing. Tommy was in pieces for a few days, but he steeled himself to speak at the funeral service the next week. He rehearsed endlessly, and on the day, was flawless. When he returned to his pew, next to me, I muttered “not a dry seat in the house”, and he smirked. He knew he’d done well.
And it was after all the obsequies that he dropped the bombshell of moving into the Dower House. It would be dishonest to say I’d never thought of it, but I’d imagined Marie and Justin might take it. I’d certainly never imagined living back in my home village again. The house was full of memories, family memories. I recalled being given beer there on a hot afternoon by Tommy’s grandmother, that crazy summer, with his grandfather scowling, either because we were too young, or because he knew what we were up to, or just because it was his beer. We’d been to many parties there with Jos and Amanda and their children after they moved in, when the Old Guard died. They’d changed it a bit, made it bigger, modernised the décor. It was decidedly a family home, but there was only Tommy and me. And Tommy’s macaw, Queenie. And his dog. He always had a dog. I can’t remember which one it was back then – usually a Jack Russell. But we bit the bullet, of course, and we moved in. And then we got the leftover dogs from First & Last, as Amanda couldn’t stand them.
I’d not told my family anything about all this. Mum got her weekly “wages” still, and for me it was pretty much a hit-and-run, I didn’t stay to chat. Obviously they knew Matthew had died and tried to draw me out on it (which meant, sniffing for money), but I was saying nothing. That was all the contact we had. Then one evening the door knocker went. It was two police officers. They checked who I was and then asked whether I would help them with an enquiry they were pursuing. I wondered if one of my clients had been caught fiddling his books, but no, they said it was a family matter. “You may wish your, er, husband to sit in with you, sir”. Tommy tried to ply them with drinks of various sorts, but they were having none of it – the nearest police station was miles away a long journey if you’re feeling waterlogged and urgent. “You can use our lavatory – heaven knows, you’ve arrested me in them enough times, I ought to return the favour”. “No charges brought, though, sir, were they?” Tommy was lost for words. “You’ve done your homework, officers.” “It’s the nature of the case. We had to look at, and for, everyone. To be honest we found it quite hard tracking you down. We want to know about Nigel Alfred Noakes, who was, I believe, your step-father”.
They asked questions, and my answers were ones of genuine innocence. I hated Nigel, but he’d never done me any sexual harm. A few lashings out, and a lot of bad words, but nothing sinister. Nor could I recollect anything worse happening to any member of my family. And there they let it rest, and it stayed rested. I didn’t raise it next time I was round at Mum’s. Nor did anyone else. I forgot about it.
Then one Friday night it was very different. As I walked in, they were all there, but smartly dressed, for them. I had no idea what the occasion was. As I put the envelope of cash down on the table Mum said “we’ve come back from court”. “For what? What have you done?” “It was your step-father. He’s been found guilty of interfering with children. Conny was a witness”. I looked at my half-sister. She nodded, and said “me, and all of us, but no one else would speak”. “And now it’s going to be all over the village!” shouted my mother. It transpired that Nasty Nigel had been thrown out of the house – inexplicably as I thought then – for being caught in the act with Melinda, my younger half-sister. My mother made nothing of it, fearing scandal. Some years later, he’d found another woman, with two daughters and a son, and helped himself to them too. But they spoke up, and then so did their mother. She kicked him out, shopped him to the police, and then aborted the child they would have had together. It had been hard to track our family because actually Mum wasn’t married to Nigel, and he’d never even been registered at our home. She been a “single adult” for tax purposes throughout the twelve or so years they were together.
"Drink, Mike?” said my brother Dave, pressing a glass of vodka into my hand as I sank into a kitchen chair. “All of you?” I looked at Dave. He looked at his hands. “Not you, then?” asked Mum. And no, he never had. And then I discovered why. He used to take the others out for “drives”. That’s how they convicted him – the girl from his new family and Conny both described his technique in identical detail. Mum had refused to let us – well, them – have anything to do with Nigel’s step-children, so Conny and the other girl couldn’t have contrived the story. Dave said “he asked you too, and you never went, I really wanted you to come, you could have stopped him”. Rubbish, of course, I couldn’t have done anything like that. But I always found something else I’d rather do. Nigel had money in his pocket, and spent it freely on all of us – and most of all on those who’d come for “drives”. I’d just assumed he hated me because I was nerdy and boffiny and not his son. I didn’t want his money anyway. I could go to my own father for that – and I only had to weed his allotment, or gut a few pheasants to earn it.
As I walked back home that night the thing that stuck in my mind was “why not me?” There were seven of us. Five boys, two girls. He interfered with all of us but me. Would I have ratted on him? If I had, would my mother have believed it? Did he think somehow dividing me up from Dave meant we wouldn’t talk? Well, he was right there. But he had invited me on those drives, and I’d refused to go. There was something very wrong about Nigel. And only now did I know what it was.
“Your poor mother!” said Tommy when I finally got in that night. “Oh yes, her main response was “now it will be all over the local papers and everyone will know”. Poor bloody thing.” He was only doing his best. He’d never had a mother, just two fathers, neither of whom had ever hurt him. On the contrary, they’d wanted the best for him, encouraged him, helped him on the way to becoming the person he wanted to be. My family was a sorry contrast.
It got worse. It was only a year later. I was in the kitchen – there was a stew doing its work, and I was just about to fry some halved quails in butter with spring onions and bacon and sherry and cream when there was that knock on the door. Tommy sprang up from his seat in the other room – you could always hear him springing up, because he nearly always knocked something – and then voices, and then whoever was there was being taken into the sitting room. At First & Last it was a drawing room. After a few moments, he popped his head round the door – “it’s your mother”. I was incandescent with rage. No one, not a single one, of my family had ever stepped inside our home. Even at my house in Oxford Dave had managed only one brief morning. They were not welcome, she was not welcome, and I was livid with Tommy for allowing it. “Well, she’s here now and having a little glass of sherry, and she seems rather upset”. Tommy was – is – impossibly soft-hearted. He’d never been able to understand my attitude to my family, but that’s because his family was broadly rather nice and kind. Even his eldest brother, Raf, who was the one everyone bitched about, was broadly nice and kind, and entirely presentable on social occasions. Tommy couldn’t get it that I’d moved on from my family, and that I resented them for trying to stop me. We had nothing, apart from DNA, in common.
I went into the sitting room. She was sitting there with a hankie in one hand and her sherry glass in the other. I wanted to walk back out. I stood behind an armchair and said “so, what’s up?” “We need your help Mike. It’s Dave, he’s in trouble”. “What now? Stealing cars, fencing stolen goods?” “No dear, worse, far worse. Like your step-father.” “Like Nigel?” “There’s only the one little girl, and what happened to him is in his favour, he just needs a good lawyer to get the case over”. “What girl?” Sobs now. “Oh Mike, his daughter”. “You want me to help get my brother a lawyer to get him off the hook for raping his own child?” “Think what would happen to him in prison, Mike”. “I am, and I’m thinking he’d deserve it”. “You can’t be like that, not about your own brother”. “Yes, I can.”
“We could afford ….” “Shut up Tommy – and show my mother out of the house, please”. I stormed back into the kitchen. The cream had curdled. I poured myself a “Daddy’s Gin” (Tommy’s father’s tipple) and sat at the table with my head in my hands and started to sob. Before he came into the room Tommy said “I do think you were a bit mean on your mother …. Oh, goodness”. And in blubs and flows it ebbed out of me, the fury and anger that these people had tried to keep me in the mire of their tiny, revolting, world, and now were trying to clasp me back into it, and I hated it, and I hated them. Poor Tommy hadn’t a clue how to deal with it, except with hugs and more gin, and then getting a cab and going out to dinner. I said in the cab “I’m sorry your father’s dead, I want our house exorcised now, and he could have done it”.
As it turned out, I did do my brother a bit of a favour. The police came to interview me again, and I mentioned what had happened to him. Somehow it hadn’t been made very graphic before, not enough to take seriously. Between the Nigel business and his own, Dave had said to me “I don’t know how you blokes do it for fun; when he did it to me, I bled for a week. I couldn’t go in the changing rooms at school.” It turned out that he wasn’t very happy with me for saying that about him – as it got into court, and therefore the papers that Mum feared so much – but it ended up counting as a mitigating factor. He had a therapy and community sentence. I would have been harsher. They say he’s cured now, but on a register. No one will employ him.
The routine continued, those excruciating weekly deliveries of money to my mother’s kitchen. Then she started to become frail. Sometimes she couldn’t come downstairs. It was an arthritic disease, plus a heart problem, so far as I could make out from my incoherent half-siblings. One Friday night they told me she’d have to go into a home. I was meant to say “I’ll pay”. I didn’t. It’s probably true that even between the six of them they weren’t up to looking after her. She was thrown on the mercy of the state.
And then there were telephone calls from Conny, saying she was getting worse. Declining. Near. She couldn’t say “ dying”. She died on the Tuesday. As usual I went round on the Friday with some cash. They were mostly there. “So, have you made the arrangements?” “We were waiting for you”. “You mean you’ve left our mother in the morgue all this time?” After I’d finished exploding at their incompetence (and having been given the now customary shovel of vodka by my brother Dave) we got to brass tacks. They wanted me to pay. I said only if they contributed. They said they had nothing. I said I didn’t believe them, but I’d treble what they could come up with. Then they asked if we’d have the wake in our house. I hit the roof. “Only once did that bloody woman come into my house when she was alive, and I’m damned if she’s coming into it in death.” Melinda burst into tears. Conny said “you’re hard, Mike, very hard”. And Alfie and Gavin just shook their simple heads as if they knew what was going on.
Walking home, still fuming I wanted to talk to someone. The trouble with Tommy’s family is that it was a good one, they all, despite everything, liked each other and wanted to remain friends. The only person I could think of was Justin, whose parents had been very chary about him going away to Oxford, and didn’t like it that he’d “married posh”. Justin and Marie – she was Tommy’s sister – lived at the other end of the village. A little to my surprise, Justin was giving dinner to Matthew’s old friend Will (Marie was in London, and their boys were at school), but both had time for a drink before. Annoyingly, they were both agreed that if I wanted shot of my family, I should just stump up now, and never again. It was beginning to feel like reason.
When I got home, Tommy was worse. “Can you believe what the bastards wanted?” I shouted, as I got through the door. “Don’t call them that.” He only said that because they were – if it was the Arts Council or the National Theatre, or anyone he was working with, they could all be bastards. “And there’s no reason why they shouldn’t come here for the wake”. “Are you out of your mind? We’ll lose everything that’s not screwed down, and the cellar will be emptied, and your parrot will probably be barbecued. You have no idea what barbarians these parasites are”. “It can’t be that bad …” “Yes, it is”. But I agreed to pay for the funeral.
On the morning I said to Tommy “I don’t want to go, I don’t see the point, I’ve paid, I’ve done my duty”. “You’re bloody going”. “Why?” “To pay your respects”. “I didn’t respect her!” “Then to be decent; anyway, shut up and get dressed”. Tommy looked dazzling in his darkest black suit and hat and tie. I made him take the armband off. He made a face. He loved funerals. I would ask him about it, and he’d say “they’re all about life, you silly arse!”. I never understood that. But he did look magnificent. They’d got the local vicar to take the service at the crematorium. They’d wanted a burial, and were sure I could pull strings to get one in the village churchyard – “Tommy’s father had connexions with that church, didn’t he?” – but I said no, it was full, how else could it have taken the bones of scum like them (us) for a thousand years. It wasn’t quite true, but I didn’t want a grave to remind me of a childhood best forgotten. I doubted Dave did, either. Not that I cared what he thought. Probably.
We survived the music, and the ghastly words from three of my siblings. The vicar made a decent job of it, but I’ll admit, I hadn’t helped. Unbeknown to me, Tommy had agreed to do a reading. It was Saint Paul, talking about love. When he wants to play it, Tommy can be a toff. And the proles loved it. And so did he.
There was the usual silliness about pretending to look at flowers afterwards. Tommy said to Conny – and I wondered how he knew who she was – “you could take them all back, you know, to the pub, and then put them in the garden, no one’s going to come and enjoy them here”. So that was decided on. My feet got itchy, but we had to wait for the cars – we had two limousines – Tommy said we must go on foot to the house, and then after, we’d be able to walk back from the pub. At the pub, we walked into Champagne. That took me aback. Proper Champagne, too, not Supermarket labels. And lots of it. I’d given them a budget, and I couldn’t believe this was within it, but, as Tommy said “not the time or place” so I didn’t argue it. There were many more people than I had expected. Dave said “she was the biggest gossip in the village – people would come and talk to her to stop her talking about them. Now they’re checking she’s dead”. Tommy was so charming to everyone I could have puked. The bastards, aunts, uncles, cousins, neighbours, the lot. That’s not to condemn him, it’s how he is, charm itself, he likes people. I don’t. He made it much easier than it might have been.
But eventually I couldn’t stand any more, and told him so, and I slunk away. He said his goodbyes to my entire family, one by one, and a whole load of other riff-raff besides, slapped his hat on his head and said “well, that was rather a good do, well done”. We walked home hand in hand. As we walked in, I said, with what I am sure was a perceptible sigh, “time to sort dinner”. “No, time to go out, and away – that’s what we’re doing tonight”. “Not pizza, please”. “Your call, orphan boy”. “Not orphan, just motherless”. “Whatever”.
Over dinner (Thai) Tommy raised the question of what we proposed to do with the ashes “Daddy always said, and he was right, that it doesn’t do to keep human remains above ground for any length of time.” I hadn’t thought of that. I’d thought it was all over. “You know what they’re like, they’ll set up a shrine.” And he was right. And then it suddenly occurred to me to ask “how on earth do you think they had the money for that booze after?” “Ah. Well. Don’t be cross, but I did give them a little to help with it”. “You sent them a cheque?” “No, I went there with cash”. “Oh bloody hell.” “Tommy, please, never, ever, have anything to do with my family again”. “I was just trying to be nice”. “You ARE nice. Just please don’t be nice to my family”.
He was right about the ashes. A few weeks later I made my final “wages” visit to the house. There she was, in her casket, on the bookcase (with no books), surrounded by flowers both real and artificial (the real ones grown in her garden by my father, who’d done her garden all those years since she’d thrown him out), and with a candle burning, as if she’d been a saint. Melinda had opened the door – Dave was upstairs in bed. Since the trial he’d rarely left the house. Melinda quite liked looking after him. My half-sister wasn’t the full ticket – I don’t say that because she tolerated Dave, but she just wasn’t. They’d tried to put all sorts of labels on her at school, but she couldn’t really learn, except at home, where she learnt food and laundry and things like that. I’d come from work, with my briefcase, and she said “you look smart! Have you come to see Dave?” “No, I was wondering about Mum”. “Oh she’s here, look” and she showed me the shrine. “Could I see in the box?” “Only because it’s you – we have to lock it because of the grandchildren!”, and she went to a little bureau, with a little secret drawer, which we’d all known about since childhood, and out came the key, and she gingerly took the box down off its shelf and unlocked it. Then Dave shouted for her from upstairs. She thrust the box into my hands and rushed to attend to him.
It was just a thick plastic bag of ashes. Dave was whining about something. I only had a moment to think. I took the bag out, and put it in my briefcase. I locked the box, and put it back on its shelf. Mel was flustered – she’d been commanded to cook Dave’s tea, so that’s what she must do. “Did you see?” she asked. “Oh yes. Rather moving, a bit upsetting, to be honest, that’s why I closed it up and put it back – here’s the key”. “Yes, it’s very sad, she was a lovely Mum. Do you want a drink?” “No, I’d best be on my way, as I don’t know if Tommy will return tonight, and if he does, I’ve got to be in the kitchen just like you have!” She laughed, and I closed my briefcase, and I left.
I walked slowly and heavily up the lane to First & Last. I needed company, but I couldn’t talk about why. Jos and Amanda and their children – and Ingrid – were in full swing at the big house. So I called by. I knew Tommy wasn’t coming home until tomorrow. Another lie. Jos opened the door with some surprise – normally we walked up the garden path to the conservatory – “what’s up, Michael?” “Just been seeing my family, about mother’s ashes, and all that. Grim.” “Come in then, and embrace a bit of life, the usual monsters are here.” I sat through drinks in the drawing room – that was a new thing since Matthew had died, and Amanda had moved in – and dinner in the kitchen (she couldn’t change that) and then brandy after. I kept my briefcase beside me throughout. Jos said, “What’s in that? The Watergate Tapes?” “Not far off! Some delicate stuff I daren’t let go of until I can return it”.
At dinner, we got talking about events, and the funeral, and so on. I said Tommy thought they’d turn my mother’s ashes into a shrine and so they had. Ingrid – Matthew’s eldest grand-daughter, aged about 17 now – said “I’d do a secret raid and steal them and put them in holy ground”. Her eyes flashed as she said it. I thought that she was one person I could tell the truth to. One day.
Before midnight, I staggered down the path home, with my briefcase. I’d forgotten all about Queenie (Tommy’s macaw) and the dog, and probably other things. So I fed them, amid some heavy criticism. Animals are most unforgiving. I was some sheets to the wind. Almost as soon as I got in, the telephone rang. I froze. But it was Tommy, drunk as a skunk and enjoying some after-show party. He’d be on the first train home in the morning, and would I pick him up? Well, of course I would.
I should have gone to the kitchen and got myself some water, or coffee. I got more brandy. It was raining hard. It had been raining on the walk back from Mum’s. It was worse now. I didn’t fancy walking to the churchyard. Nor walking to the banks of the Shell. I might fall in – it was at the bottom of our garden. But I had to dispose of this bag of ashes. And I had to do it tonight. I stumbled into the kitchen and got a sharp knife. I took them into the downstairs lavatory, and I flushed them away.
A couple of weeks later we had a family party for the children, for Bonfire Night, but starting in the afternoon. The rain had held off, as the butch men sorted out the barbecue. Well, that was Jos, who knew what he was doing, and Justin, who didn’t. I sorted out the drinks, and served up salads, and then there was a tug at my sleeve from Ingrid. “There’s someone at the front door for you, a man”. I thanked her, and said I’d deal with it.
It was Dave. He was high as a kite on dope, and drunk too. “What have you done with our mother?” “What are you talking about?” “Her ashes, they were in the box, they aren’t there now, no one else can have taken them”. “They needed to be reverently disposed of, not turned into a mausoleum”. “What do you mean “disposed of”?” “In holy ground. And the stream. That’s where they went.” “You mean the churchyard?” “Yes” “Show me where” “It’s rained since then, there won’t be anything to see”. “I don’t believe you. I’m coming in to ask the others – they’ll know what you did with her”. “You fucking well aren’t. And this is a children’s party and you’re on register, and I shall call the police.” I showed him my ‘phone. His eyes were shocked, but sad, too, and full of shame. He threw out a bad word, and stumbled away. I closed the door, and bolted it. Daft really – it was a party, I shouldn’t have been bolting doors – and then I leant back on it, and hung my head, and sighed.
I was aroused from my reverie by Ingrid. She said “was that your brother?” “I’m afraid so”. “You don’t seem to like your family much”. “No, I don’t really, but then they don’t much like me”. “Do you like us?” “Yes”. “Why?” “Because you’re not mine!” “I made you a little drink” she said, offering me a tumbler of a lethal cocktail I knew all too well. “It’s an end of an era”. “Yes, it is”. And we walked back to the party.