It was recently, after talking with my father in the garden of my parents’ house near Salisbury, a house that they had once rented when I was a boy and that they had recently bought, that I started thinking again about, amongst other things, the flats in Hampstead.
I imagine they have all been bought up and sold off, but in the late seventies the flats in a particular estate in north London belonged to the council. In one of them lived Auntie Lynn, my father’s first cousin, her husband and their daughter. In another, on the other side of the block, and on the top floor, resided one of my great Aunties, Lynn’s mother, Maggie. Whenever my father, my mother and I were visiting the relatives in London after we had moved away for a while, we always stayed with them, with my father and mother initially staying at Maggie’s, while I would stay with Auntie Lynn, and would hang out with Fiona. They had a small two bedroom flat, and I would share Fiona’s bedroom.
A couple of years earlier Maggie’s husband had passed away, and where before she was living in the family flat she had lived in for many years in Swiss Cottage, she got a smaller one nearer her daughter not long after her husband’s death. Initially she seemed to be coping with his absence, and my father recalled Lynn saying to my parents that while she mourned her husband she was so happy to be much closer than she had been to her grandchild. Often after school Fiona would rush across to grandma’s, knowing she had baked fresh gingerbread or fruit scones. After a while Lynn extended her hours at work, and finished at five instead of three, and the extra money she would spend on trips to the zoo, museums, the cinema and theatre. Maggie could look after Fiona until she finished work; and Fiona liked being with her grandmother. Her father was often away: he was a long-distance lorry driver.
It was around this time, and not long after my own grandfather’s death, that we had moved out of London and sub-let our own council flat in Kilburn, and were living in that cottage near Salisbury. My father wanted to take a couple of years off from teaching secondary school to write a book about his father’s war experiences, and with the savings they had, the cheap rent they were paying, and the job my mother managed to get working at the local library, I don’t remember us being any worse off than we were in London. We ate well, my father was more relaxed, the cottage had a garden I could play in and where in the summer we would often eat, and perhaps the only problem was one I never shared with my parents: that I was often lonely. I missed Fiona, and the few friends I had, and making new ones was not easy with the cottage a few miles from the town where I went to school.
However my loneliness at the time was clearly nothing next to my great aunt’s. A year or two after her husband’s death, and a couple of months after my grandad’s, she started to go mad. She was still baking the gingerbread and the scones, but Fiona was increasingly reluctant to go over to Maggie’s after school, saying that she would often talk to herself and ignore her. It was on one of our semi-regular trips to London that Lynn informed my parents one evening of what was happening to her mother, and I overheard the conversation through the thin walls. Maybe a year earlier I wouldn’t have been awake to hear the conversation, but living in the country made me too attuned to city sounds, and also perhaps I listened because I knew they were talking of my great auntie’s loneliness, and was it not also a feeling I possessed, no matter if at that moment my own had been alleviated by sleeping in the camp bed next to Fiona, and sometimes sneaking in next to her.
The next morning I woke before eight and when I went into the kitchen I passed the sitting room door that was half ajar. My parents were sleeping on the couch, which either couldn’t be turned into a bed settee or they had been too tired to open it out. What I recall is seeing them huddled together, my father’s arms hugging my mother’s body, and my mother’s face lost in dreams and tenderness. Lynn ushered me into the kitchen and said I needed to be quiet; they had been up very late and needed their sleep. She was about to wake Fiona; she had a ballet lesson at 10.00. That evening my parents said they would sleep as usual over at Maggie’s place, with my father saying to my mother as they were having their late breakfast they would try and shake some sense into her, a robust phrasing that wasn’t matched by his face, which looked fretful. I happened to walk into the kitchen as he offered the comment. I asked if it would be okay to take a chocolate biscuit. Lynn was still out, and my father said I am sure she wouldn’t mind, opening the biscuit tin and giving me a couple as if that would get me out of the room even more quickly.
The next couple of days I noticed that Maggie was clearly unwell. She muttered to herself that nobody knew what she was feeling, occasionally referred to what I had assumed was her late husband, and even once or twice it seemed to me was having an imaginary conversation with him. Once, when we were all having dinner at Lynn’s, she went into the kitchen to get the mint sauce for the lamb, and didn’t immediately come back. Lynn shouted through asking if she was okay, and there was no answer forthcoming. We all waited, and after another minute, Lynn went through and we heard her mum sobbing. At first I thought I could hear her mentioning her daughter’s name, but then realised that she wasn’t talking to Lynn at all, but to a man I guessed was her dead spouse. Why did you leave me, I recall her saying, as though not finding an outlet for her grief, but chastising him as if he were in the room, and had briefly returned to pick up some things after leaving her for another woman.
We left to go back to Salisbury the next morning, and my mother and my father discussed on the way down whether they should invite her to spend a few weeks at the cottage; that maybe nature would help. When they said this I felt a mixture of trepidation and tenderness: I was slightly scared now of Maggie, with her behaviour apparently belonging to someone else. But she was also the closest I had to a grandparent: my mother had been adopted, and my grandmother had committed suicide long before I was born, and my grandfather’s death had instigated the move to the cottage. My father had felt the need to write the book on his father’s war experiences, not wanting the memories to die with my grandfather’s demise. I looked forward to Maggie baking scones and making gingerbread in the kitchen, but I was also fearful that while she was doing so she wouldn’t be talking to me through the wall, but to someone else through time.
The next few months I would occasionally hear my parents talking about Auntie Maggie. Lynn would have been on the phone, saying that her mother no longer made Fiona cakes and biscuits, that sometimes when she went over she wouldn’t talk to Fiona at all, that she would be wandering around the flat still in her nightgown. They thought that maybe she would be best in a psychiatric hospital, but they knew that was exactly where her brother, namely my grandfather, had been for a couple of years after the war. The notion that my great Auntie would end up in the same place as her brother had been many years earlier, and where she had so insistently, the family well knew, gone every day to help him regain his sanity, was far too horribly ironic for the family to countenance. That was what my mother and father would often say, echoing the conversations they would have with Lynn over the phone.
I still didn’t have any friends in the village, and none really at school either. I sometimes wondered whether madness was part of the family history, that the delicacy of our minds happened to be such that given the sort of trauma my grandfather underwent during the war, and that Maggie seemed to be suffering in her husband’s absence, was my mind likely to give way through lack of companionship in a village somewhere in the south of England, while my dad tried to make sense of his own father’s mental collapse many years before as he tapped away on a typewriter?
Indeed it was a conversation over this very issue quite recently that made me think again of the very story I am detailing, as I tried to explain to my father how I felt when we spent those two years in this village I had no affinity with and feeling for. If I had that affinity I might have here given over more time to describing the trees we had in the garden, and the flowers that grew each spring, but I’ve never had much interest in such things, nor any gift for describing them. I provocatively said to him that afternoon as we talked in the very garden that I still have no interest in describing, that it was perhaps a misplaced sensitivity which allowed him to try and make sense of his father’s madness, while ignoring Auntie Maggie’s own, and my burgeoning loneliness. He smiled wearily and said that he had made plenty of mistakes in his life, but he wasn’t sure whether writing about his father was one of them. I knew that he had tried to get the book published, tried to sell it as a memoir, then as a work of fiction, but eventually accepted that maybe the purpose lay in writing it, not in publishing the work. I asked, again provocatively, whether he wanted less to explore his father’s breakdown than protect himself from having one too.
I reminded him of a couple of occasions when we were in London in the months preceding our move, that once I heard him hammer his fist against the kitchen table while sitting there alone. Another time I said he came home from work and stayed in the bathroom for an hour. Mum came and hugged me, saying that he wasn’t well. As she sat with me on my bed I was sure I could hear sobs coming from the bathroom next door. My father said I seemed to have a better memory than he did, as if unsure whether he admired me for it or resented me bringing the events up, but as he talked of that time before moving down to Salisbury, and the time while we were there, any resentfulness was quickly made irrelevant by his desire to talk.
He admitted that he was often insensitive to Maggie’s breakdown, that sometimes he couldn’t quite take it seriously and at other times didn’t want to do so. He obviously had his own problems, he said, when he was in London, and was trying to resolve them while we were at the cottage. It was as though the family madness was a contagion; and during this period he had to protect himself from that. I didn’t remind him of one of these acts of protectiveness, but I still remember it clearly.
It was the next time we went to London. Lynn had been on the phone a few days before, saying her mother seemed to be much better, that the last couple of months she had been helping with Fiona and getting out more. It might be a good time to visit. When we arrived in the late afternoon, Lynn came out of the flat as we were taking stuff out of the car, and looked up across the way to the flat in which Maggie was living. We looked up as well. Aunt Maggie was looking down at us from the full length sitting room window, still with her dressing gown on, and as we waved up she didn’t wave back. My father’s immediate reaction was anger, and he went across to the block of flats, up the stairs, went in to the presumably unlocked flat, and all we could see from where we were standing was my father shaking his auntie, looking even madder than she had moments before.
My mother and Lynn rushed across to the building, went up the stairs and into the flat, and I stood there alone as the two of them pulled my father away from Aunt Maggie. I looked round and saw in Lynn’s flat Fiona looking out of their full length window, down at me and across and up at her granny’s.
We all stayed the night over at Lynn’s, and the next morning left before Lynn went off to work. Lynn was always referred to as the beauty in the family, but at that time even a boy of my age could see that she was promptly losing the bloom that a child had done little to eradicate. She must have looked like a woman coping with not only a mother losing her mind and a first cousin incapable of holding his temper, but also the possibility of her own encroaching insanity. As she saw us off as she had greeted us the day before, all I could see was fret and frustration around the eyes, eyes that I remembered a year or two before always held a gaze and knew that they so easily could hold yours. I remember my father sometimes saying to her husband that he was a lucky man; all the boys used to fancy Lynn. Not anymore I might have thought as we drove off, leaving her on the pavement, still in her dressing gown. I felt in my own, pathetically selfish way, distraught as well – I wanted to go and visit friends in our old neighbourhood. I believed if I didn’t go then I would lose contact with them altogether. I also, and perhaps more especially, wanted to be with Fiona.
For the remaining year or so that we were in the cottage, my mother and I didn’t go up to London at all, but I think my father visited twice, and sometimes my parents would talk about Maggie’s health, but even more often I noticed that they talked about Lynn’s. Not that the family madness was that voracious, but they would say she no longer looked well, and I suppose now I would say that anybody who lost her father to death and her mother to madness in such a short period of time was unlikely to be well herself.
During that second year I made a few friends in the village and more at school, but I wanted to be back in London, one of the friends from Kilburn had visited a few months before and said he would have gone mad stuck in a small village all the time; I said, elusively, people go mad in London all the time as well.
We got our London flat back, and my father got a teaching job again, and my mother found another job working in a library on Finchley Road, in Swiss cottage. I returned to my old school and with the link I had retained with the friend who had visited me, became part of the old circle again. Around the time we returned to the city, Maggie had ‘snapped out of it’, as my father said, and she was once again baking cakes and scones for her Fiona, and for me also when I would walk up from Kilburn and visit them.
It was around eighteen months ago that my father and mother bought the very cottage that they had rented fifteen years before, and it was some six months ago when I was visiting them from Glasgow, where I now live, that they invited Lynn, her husband (who had taken early retirement) and also Fiona. Lynn and her husband had long ago themselves moved out of London, and were based in Brighton, and Auntie Maggie passed away a year before they moved down. I hadn’t seen any of them in years, not since moving up to Glasgow for a degree, and so there we all were sitting in the garden eating lunch and managing somehow to joke about Maggie’s ‘moment of madness’, as if it hadn’t lasted for two years, that it wasn’t an illness shared by my grandfather and one that had hardly left my father untouched.
Yet what especially interested me that day was looking at Lynn’s face and also at her daughter’s. Lynn’s was both puffy and etched, her eyes rheumy and her skin rough and open-pored, and I knew that she had started to drink heavily during her mother’s illness, and perhaps still did. Fiona’s face was all that Lynn’s probably was when Lynn was in her mid-twenties: the skin smooth and easily tanned, eyes clear and dreamy, and with light blond hair that paled under the sun. She was I believed astonishingly beautiful. She moved with grace and was attentive to people’s wants and needs, passing the salt when I no more than looked at it, getting my father another chair when it appeared like his back was hurting in the one he was seated on. As I watched her as an admiring grown man, I also seemed to be half-remembering her mother when I was a young boy, and recalling also how close occasionally Fiona and I would get in her room.
In the recent conversation with my father I asked him if Fiona now resembled the young Lynn. My father said that in many ways she did, but Lynn was luminescent. It wasn’t the sort of word he would have readily to hand, and so my father’s comment made me wonder exactly how much feeling was put into it, how much longing and loss that no beauty now could ever recapture. Even when I looked at her daughter and respected, perhaps even yearned after, her beauty, I also saw Lynn in her; it seemed that is all my father could see, and appeared to offer the word luminous as if to say I didn’t know what beauty was, that looks themselves belonged to an older time. I might even have thought that it was a beauty my father might have wanted to admire from less than a distance, and perhaps had.
It was during that conversation I also asked him why he had never published the book on my grandfather, at least self-published it. He said he sent it to a few publishers after we moved back to London, but nobody showed any interest. Who wanted a memoir on an unknown soldier? He made some efforts at turning it into a fictional account, but by then he was teaching full time again, and he eventually resigned himself to the notion that the book wasn’t so much a work of literature but an act of therapy: writing about his own father’s mental collapse perhaps, he admitted after my own provocations, protected him from his own.
When I left a few days later, getting a train up to London, and then another to Glasgow, I thought of Lynn and her mum. While my father was trying to write about his late father in the cottage, there she was coping with her mother in London. I thought about cancelling meeting a friend in Wood Green, the very friend who had visited me years before at the cottage, and going to the flats in Hampstead instead. Walking around the area I also thought that I should find a way to write about many of the events in my family’s life. My father said his own book was over two hundred and fifty pages; how many more would it take to write about Lynn, her mother and her daughter, my father, his father, and me?
When I arrived back in Glasgow I came out of the station and walked along Sauchiehall street, up along by the Glasgow Film Theatre, around by the art college, and across the bypass, before arriving home on Byres Road. I opened the front door, walked past the bookshelves on one side of the hall, and into the kitchen. I put my rucksack down, and felt wonderfully, serenely sane, yet also vaguely anxious at the disquiet that seemed to sit in my family and may be sitting in me also. But I also thought of the conversation with my father, and the recent visit of Lynn and her family. There was Lynn, once so giving and pretty; and now so tired and jittery, and what might she have preferred? To have one briefly crazy period and recovered, or retreated into the drink to which she may now have become addicted? I went to pour myself a glass of wine as I thought of a moment during her visit to the cottage where her daughter caught a wine bottle as it slipped out of her mother’s hand. I held the bottle in mine, and decided I would have a tea instead, though wished it were accompanied by one of Maggie’s scones. It was at that moment I felt a yearning for Fiona, and also sensed, as if reverberating through my body, and my family history, my father’s affection for his cousin, and, just possibly, my great auntie’s affection for my own grandfather. I, like everybody else, had always assumed her madness concerned her husband’s death, but for some reason, and at that moment, I thought it might have had as much, if not more, to do with her brother’s demise too. Maybe within the family madness lay something that could have made sense of that chaos, and it was a feeling I couldn’t at that moment deny as I wanted not to pick up the phone and speak to the person I had started seeing a couple of months before, but to Fiona, and to talk of memories where I would sleep not in the camp bed, but in hers, as the image came back to me intermingled with her beauty and attentiveness in the garden in Salisbury.