What is it Oscar Wilde says about losing one parent being a misfortune, to lose two indicating carelessness? What would he have said to someone that had lost both grandfathers before he was born; the first to the war, though not through his demise, the second to colonialism, though not through any anti-colonial backlash? My paternal grandfather as far as I know lived a long and happy life in the US and has presumably passed away gently. My maternal grandfather died rather more abruptly: he threw himself out of a London hospital window in 1967, not long after coming back from working in Nigeria. Both my grandmothers never talked about them; the first I suppose through shame, the second, perhaps through guilt.
My paternal grandfather came over during the war, was a pilot in the air-force, and, like many who thought they might die during the conflict, lived more than one life believing he might not have even one to live. That is how my great aunt described him to me one afternoon a couple of years before she died, and a couple of years after my grandmother had passed away. It was one of several conversations with my aunt, and with my mother, which allows this story to be told at all. We were sitting in my auntie's flat off Finchley High Road, and she was always the auntie I would go to as a boy, the one of whom I could ask anything. Would she lend me fifty pence; would she tie my shoelaces, would she walk me to school? Her company was a balm, and when I was older I often wondered why she had never married: I could think of no one more agreeable, while many relatives who did marry seemed to me people who should have been living alone. They were tetchy and tense, ready for argument and given to selfishness, but Auntie Ina was serene and full of humour, and I suspect my opening sentence here is in homage to her. She could see the comedic in the darkest of places, and she was an aunt I didn't lose until death took her in old age, in her late eighties. She was one of eight sisters, and there were no brothers, and maybe it was because she was the auntie with no children that I felt so close to her, but my two sisters shared no affinity with her, and so perhaps, I would often wonder, this affinity lay elsewhere.
In her final years I would visit her at least once a month; I was living not too far away since I'd returned to London, after being based for a few years in Glasgow, working for the main broadsheet there, writing mainly obituaries, and now worked freelance for a few of the quality newspapers here: the pay was much better but the opportunities fewer, and whatever reputation I had in Glasgow my byline didn't have much status in London. I'd thought of moving back north a few times, but all the other sisters had now passed away, and my father, living in Spain, never really communicated with Ina. Over the years, even when I was in Glasgow and would come down to visit London and see her, I would introduce her to various girlfriends, and her approval meant more to me than anyone else's. Not only because I felt close to her, but also because her solitude seemed to ask me to protect my own. It wasn't that she wanted me to remain single; more that she wanted to know that I would not spend my life with someone who wouldn't augment my calmness but would instead destroy it. Others I knew believed it was much better to be with someone than not; Ina appeared to know that being alone was an opportunity for tranquillity.
I asked Ina on that particular afternoon about my grandfather, and wondered if her sister had still been in contact with him after he returned to the States. She said that as far as she knew they didn't communicate at all after the war. He had a wife and children there, and when he left he wouldn't have known my grandmother was pregnant with my father. My grandmother saw no reason why he should, and had no easy way of contacting him. There was also, Ina admitted, a possessive side to my grandmother that had always been present when they were younger, but that became more evident with the birth of her son. He wasn't just an only child; he was the only child of only one parent, and though over the years my grandmother would have several long term boyfriends, none of them ever moved into her flat in Swiss Cottage, along the road from my auntie's place. Your father wanted for nothing, my auntie would say, and I knew from photos I had seen of my father when he was in his mid-teens that this was definitely true in terms of his dress sense. The cut of the trousers, the crisply new shirts, the glasses he wore that were private and not NHS, showed a boy who did not go without, and in some of the pictures it looked as if he belonged to a different family from the other members in the photos. Where my grandmother and my auntie (who always looked alike), and some of the other sisters, their husbands and their kids, wore nylon patterned dresses worn shapeless, trousers with patches and scuff marks, my father was always what they would have called well turned-out. When I was younger people would often say I looked like him when he was my age, but my grandmother would claim, half-jokingly, that I never quite had my father's class. The irony cut both ways: I lacked his youthful elegance, but through his wealth I was part of a more comfortable social milieu. He was also handsome, and some pictures of him at eighteen, sitting on the bonnet of a beige Rover that was his first car, now remind me a little of those famous sixties photographers seen standing next to their Rolls Royces and Jaguars, their Triumphs and Aston Martins. My father's first job in a bank and my grandmother's financial assistance couldn't have presumably bought him one of thosecars, but he was living well for an eighteen year old working-class lad brought up in a council flat.
This was at least how my mother described him as I would ask her what he was like when they first met. She offered the remark with more class disdain than she may have realized, aware and yet oblivious to her own class superiority as the only child of a chemical engineer. Someone who had taken his skills out to Africa and profited well-enough from the enterprise that he bought a house in Camden long before he returned to Britain: a house his only daughter lived in when she returned first, at seventeen, taking her A-levels in London, and then taking a job in the same bank as my father. Camden would have been a less desirable place to live in then than Swiss Cottage, but her family owned their house; my grandmother merely rented hers from the state. My mother would recall the first time she visited him in their flat, and went from the skinny hall into the claustrophobic kitchen, and then sat with my father and his mother in the lounge that couldn't quite have earned the term living room. It was a room you could sit in but hardly live in, and if my father and mother always seemed to her so very close, it was not least because of this first image she had of them in rooms that in Nigeria, and even in the house in Camden, would have been used for inanimate things like brooms, vacuum cleaners, mops and buckets. Yet sitting there next to this woman who was bones and cigarette smoke, wearing a dress that was loosened by many washes and the fragility of the person wearing it, was my father, dressed to the nines, as his mother would say, and not a hair out of place. His mother's hair looked like it had been combed with a dustpan brush, and my mother couldn't help thinking that she seemed more like a house servant than my father's mum.
Over the next few years my mother saw that this woman would do anything for her son, and that if his mother was a pale imitation of him when it came to appearances, my mother felt a pale shadow of her when it came to attending to my father's needs. I offer the above description not only based on my mother's remarks, but also on my own perceptions, of seeing photos and witnessing events: when people say that they have worked themselves to the bone for someone, my grandmother was a literal representation of this. While he was growing up she earned a wage cooking and cleaning and, given different circumstances, she would have made her living at the latter, in a fine hotel serving fine Scottish cuisine (a consequence of her Highland upbringing), rather than in the private apartments that made up most of Swiss Cottage and St John's Wood. She woke up at six, was there by seven, and stayed till around one, cooking up lunch and sometimes preparing the dinner that her clients merely had to reheat. She could make half a dozen different fish sauces, for salmon, trout and cod, and knew how to make a Venison sauce that brought out the succulence of the tender flesh, a broth that was a meal initself, and a suet pudding baked in a cloth that seemed like it could fill you up for days. There were many occasions where I ate this food, and like my father I can partly thank her for the healthy constitution I now possess. In the evenings, several times a week, she worked as a waitress in a restaurant.
So my father was brought up well no matter the tight corners of the flat that made my mother think of Alice in Wonderland when she first saw it, and those images of Alice large against a small room. When he first came to the house in Camden he walked around as if he owned the place, and she knew that soon enough he would own a bigger one. She was attracted to this confidence even if she was wary of where it came from; from a love unconditional and exclusive, and wondered how often she would be compared by him to his mother, just as she couldn't help but compare their flat to the Camden house the first time she visited.
My parents were married for twelve years and produced three children of which I am the oldest. He left my mother for another woman, but he also left her with enough money in her account for him to feel he had done the decent thing within any broader indecency. He had hung around for twelve years more than his own father had, and the house we were living in had nothing in common with the one in which he had been brought up. We lived on the outskirts of London, had a swimming pool out the back and our own tennis court fifty yards from it. The house was twice the size of the one my mother lived in when in Nigeria, and if the times had been different we would probably have had servants too. He made most of his money through investments, and some of it, I remember my mother wryly announcing, from the very oil her father had helped discover through his engineering skills.
On other occasions when I visited Ina, I asked her about my father leaving us and our mum, a subject I'd never really talked to with my mother. I recalled my great auntie would visit her regularly after my father left, partly to make sure my mother was okay, but maybe also because she knew when she visited my father would no longer be there. It wasn't that Ina disliked my father; more that she could see he duplicated the attitude he had with his mother with my own. She found it sad, and said she had often worried that I would end up treating my mother likewise. It was a relief, she felt, when he went to live with another woman; it allowed my mother to become a woman of her own, perhaps in the sense that she became a woman more like Ina. I suspect also that they shared an affinity after my father's leaving. I of course had never known Ina to have a relationship, and my mother returned to work initially as a volunteer at an Oxfam charity shop and, after a couple of years, became its salaried manager, but never again lived with a man. Apart from being close to Ina, my mother was close only to her three children: her father had of course killed himself years before, and her mother never recovered from the loss. Perhaps out of guilt or confusion she herself married a man who treated her with the contempt she may have felt she deserved, and certainly received. We visited them a few times, but after each visit my mother would say that would be the last: she couldn't stand the husband and couldn't get through to her mother, with whom she had never really discussed, according to Ina, her father's death.
I had never talked to my mother about her father's suicide either, but in those last years before my auntie passed away, I would sometimes ask her about how and why he had taken his own life, and I suppose Ina talked as openly about it as she could without implicating any of the people who were close to him. She said that he returned from Nigeria in 1966 for his daughter's wedding, and feeling a success and with the house bought, he applied for a few jobs expecting swift employment, and found that nobody wished to employ him. This went on for a year, and he became more unhappy, and then quickly depressed. During this time he started to acknowledge some of his behaviour in Nigeria that he hadn't apparently thought about much before - he didn't feel he always treated the servants as well as he should, when he was drunk, and he also had a couple of affairs and felt guilty over both. At the same time he missed one of these women and wondered whether he should have left his wife for her. My auntie said that he had talked about these things to my mother not long before he was taken into hospital for clinical depression.
He knew he shouldn't be talking to his daughter about his behaviour in Africa, but who else could he talk to, and so he told her about one occasion when he came back to the house drunk. His wife was asleep, and the servant who was waiting for him to return home just in case he wanted anything, was half drowsing on the porch when my grandfather tripped over his semi-prostrate body. My grandfather kicked him as if he were a chair, and then lifted him up and threw him off the porch. He was a child of sixteen, with thin ankles, jutting elbows and weak wrists, and he collapsed in a bony heap. My grandfather kept repeating this idea of a bony heap to my mother as he talked to her, and she said that he had always treated the servants so well when she had been there. What happened, she asked; was this the only occasion? He assured her it was, but thereafter the boy was visibly cowed when he saw him, and how could he now forget what he had done, adding that of course he didn't deserve to forget it.
Obviously he knew of other British workers who regularly treated the servants as objects to be manhandled, but this had never been his way, and so what had he become? Was it the affairs he was having that made him behave in this manner? He wanted to talk to his wife about the incident with the servant, but didn't feel he could without talking also of his affairs, so instead he talked to Marleen; the woman he should perhaps have left my grandmother for, he admitted. Marleen told him that he should leave the country; that they should all leave, all the whites who were exploiting Africa, but when he wondered whether she should leave with him, she said that wouldn't be the answer to anything. He still loved his wife, she thought; he just didn't like himself very much. If he left with her, Marleen said, he would hate himself more and start hating her too.
So, my auntie recalled, he returned to London with my grandmother, attended the wedding, applied for jobs, failed to get them and instead sat at home and thought. He had been working since he was sixteen, and was fifty on his return, and while he was a man who might have been viewed as pensive, this usually manifested itself in a quiet thought before action. He was popular at work because they knew he would never rush into anything, but wasn't at all a procrastinator either. He needed time to think through a problem, but there he was in London thinking through one that concerned him and appeared to have no end. He wanted again to talk to his wife, but worried that if he did he would have to speak openly about his affairs and she might leave him. He couldn't risk being alone so instead he became ever lonelier, ever more lost inside himself until he accepted the best place for him was hospital. A month after telling my mother about his last year in Africa he took his own life there, and I knew that it was two months before I was born. I think now he might still be alive (or more recently dead) if he hadn't talked to my mother about his feelings, and yet I can't explain why I believe this. I would often wonder whether the melancholy expression she sometimes offered me, even now, was linked to my early months, where her joy at having a child couldn't easily be extricated from the horror of losing her father, and I asked Ina if my mother ever expressed this feeling to her. My auntie looked at me with sorrow too, and said: how could it have been otherwise?
I also asked Ina how she knew so much about my grandfather's life. I was aware that Ina and my mother would still see each other occasionally even in my auntie's last years; that when my mother would come in from the suburbs, where she still lives, that they would meet up and go for a coffee. These two women, a generation apart, with no men in their lives, would talk about other things: my auntie's years working as a project manager for a homeless organization before she retired; my mother about the work she was doing for Oxfam, since in the last ten years she had been working not only as manager of the shop, but also been involved in raising funds for specific projects. It was of course ironic that one of these projects involved human rights abuses in Nigeria.
My auntie said they would talk to each other, and as she was talking to me she was aware of the danger that she might betray my mother's trust. But she added that there are certain things that cannot quite come from the horse's mouth, but that doesn't mean the horse wouldn't want people to know. Ina believed my mother would want me to be aware of the details behind my grandfather's suicide if I were ever to ask, and surely it was easier for her, Ina, to divulge what she knew, rather than if I were to push my mother into talking about it. Thoughts are dangerous things, she said, as if referring to what happened to my grandfather when given too much time to think.
I sometimes wonder if my father learnt that it was best not to ponder over things from the father-in-law who served that educational function so briefly; that my father knew that he did not want in his life more than the briefest of moments to himself. I was aware that he admired my grandfather, and he would sometimes say when he became wealthy that he wished his father-in-law had seen what was possible in the Britain that my grandfather believed had no work to give him. My father would have employed him as soon as he had become successful. If only he hadn't been given so much time to think, my father would add.
My father had left the bank by the end of the sixties, invested in property and shares and, by the early seventies, had a letting agency with about ten properties that he owned, a pub, a restaurant, three shops, and our house of course. In the eighties he got rid of them all except the house, which was then in my mother's name, held his wealth in liquid assets, and this was when he moved to Spain where he has lived ever since. The only things he owns there is a small expat cafe bar in Barcelona, and the flat above it. He lost a lot of money in various crashes, but he still has a nest egg, he says, and his second wife never goes without.
He has never been a man I've been able to talk to, and not I believe because he couldn't confront certain aspects of his past that would cause him pain (never knowing his father; leaving my mother), more that he is a man frightened to think, scared to dwell for too long over anything, and sometimes I believe he might be right. Unless we can find a means by which to shape our thoughts, or possess interlocutors interested in exploring them with us, thinking is best left well alone. I occasionally wonder that if his early life was shaped by his mother's constant and all encompassing caresses, his later and financially rewarding existence came about through devoting himself to doing things. Even in the bar he owns and where I very occasionally visit him, he is always active: he serves the customers, washes the dishes, and helps his wife cook. He still seems much keener to avoid the fate of his father-in-law than to discover anything about the father he never knew.
I'm sure my father would claim to have led a full life, while he would have seen my auntie's as an empty one. He once or twice alluded to her loveless existence, and also of her work in do-goodery. It is only because of wealth-creators like him that there was public money available for jobs like hers he would say when she was still working. I think he offered his remarks out of feeling judged more than out of maliciousness. He could be an emotionally clumsy man, who was brought up to be the centre of the world and who managed nevertheless, most of the time, to avoid the egocentricity bestowed upon him. He loved my sisters very much and once said to them he paid for the divorce many times, and that it wasn't about the money. They loved him in ways I never could have, and if either of them were to ever write anything I would be interested to see how different an account of him they would offer than the one I propose here. But like my father they are both very active people. One is making money, the other hoping to change the world: the first in what is left of high finance, the latter in what passes for politics. If so many people of action come across badly in fiction does it lie in the relatively inactive who write about them? One often feels much closer to the passive and pensive.
A couple of months ago I lost my auntie, the eighth sister to die, and what would Wilde say about that. Losing eight aunties isn't a misfortune, though, it is an inevitability; they all died in their old age. Yet though this story ostensibly ends on my auntie's death, it's on her youth that I will conclude, and a discussion I had with my mother a couple of days after the funeral, when I asked her how much she knew about my auntie's life. I told her that I was aware that she had been open with Ina about hers. I didn't feel saying this was a betrayal of my auntie, more my way of insisting that Ina could talk to me about the things that my mother couldn't quite disclose. Yet I said it as if there was nothing more than a few general remarks in the telling. As we talked in the very house that I had been brought up in, a house my mother felt a little absurd owning since it reflected my father's personality so much more than her own, and that over the years she had modified, turning the tennis court into a guest cottage that she often rents very cheaply to people working with her on international Aid projects, she admitted Ina and her were very close. She also had once wondered why Ina and I were very close too. She then talked about Ina visiting her out here, as I no doubt remembered, and on occasion, at the very table we were sitting at, by the patio, she would tell my mother of her earlier years, of boyfriends she had in her teens, and most especially of the man she fell in love with in her early twenties.
Everybody involved has probably passed away now, my mother said, so there seemed no harm in the telling. The man who was my paternal grandfather, wasn't only my grandmother's lover, he was also, or rather initially, Ina's. Ina met him a few months before my grandmother did, and at the beginning though she knew he was married and had kids, she didn't really care. But over the next few months this clandestine relationship, that they kept secret from everyone, began to trouble her. The war appeared to be nearing its end, and my auntie knew that he would soon return home and to his family. She had loved him very much, and would talk to my mother about his blue-black hair, almost the colour you would sometimes see on comic book heroes, and his arms, almost skinny when in repose, but lean and sinewy whenever he would do anything active with them. He wasn't tall, or short, but walked with an authority that could calm others: as though he was part of the process of winning the war in his very body language.
Nevertheless she ended the affair after a few months, and didn't see him again, though he wrote her several letters. What she didn't know, until many months afterwards and with my grandmother pregnant, was that he had started an affair with her sister. My mother admitted to Ina that she was sceptical about this: how could he have had affairs with two sisters and keep both so completely secret that my grandmother didn't know he had been seeing Ina, and Ina didn't then know he was seeing her sister? Ina explained that she had talked about her family to him, about the sister whom she looked most alike, and, presumably after she ended their affair, he found her sister and embarked on one with her. Ina didn't know whether it was out of cynicism, revenge, a broken-heart that thought it could heal most easily with the person who most resembled her, or that he coincidentally fell in love with two sisters in a row. It wasn't until my grandmother's pregnancy, and her description of the man responsible, that Ina knew they had been with the same person.
I asked my mother when exactly Ina had told her all of this, since I knew in the last couple of months of her life my auntie was often given to rambling a little vaguely. However, it was many years earlier when they talked, not long after my mother split up with my father: Ina was undeniably lucid then, and why would she make up such a story? Had she never talked to her sister about it, I asked. Ina said that she had never done so, wouldn't have thought my grandmother would have believed her anyway, and what would she have done to prove it: taken out the photos from their romantic time together and shown her that she too had been in love with this man? I suspect my auntie looked at those pictures many times, and probably possessed a strange ethos in relation to this man who not only cheated on his wife with her, but would go on to sleep with her sister after they split-up. It must be uncommon for a woman to remain faithful to an image of a man, my mother thought, even if they know that image was without much merit; and my auntie was not a deluded woman. Perhaps having once been entangled in a messy emotional situation, she didn't want to do so again, and so remained faithful instead to simplicity. It was as if my mother was also talking about herself.
But how simple could Ina's life have been, watching grow up a young man who may well have resembled the child she would have had with my grandfather (weren't my grandmother and Ina physically similar?), and then in turn watched me grow up resembling my father. I've already said she never felt a great affinity with dad, and I could never have heard Ina saying my father was like a son to her. That comment, which she would sometimes make towards me, I took as no more than a stock remark, a way of saying that she cared very much. But when I think of the comment now it moves me; it makes me think of all the unsaid things in her life, and yet also that nothing would have been gained by saying them to me anyway, or me saying anything to her.
I offered this to my mother as we talked. We were no longer sitting outside, but eating dinner as our conversation was interrupted by my mother's house guest coming home and saying hello, and chatting with us for a few minutes. After the starter she said to me we should open a good bottle of wine in memory of Ina. It was as we were finishing off the wine, after the dinner, that I mentioned the above remark about leaving things unsaid, and while it was a fine bottle, it appealed more to my mother's mood than my taste buds. She had drunk more than two thirds of it herself; usually she would take no more than a glass. She replied that I was right, nothing could have been gained from talking about these things with my auntie; I had allowed her instead to love me like the son she never had, all the more because it was as if I could have been the son she might have had. Would her son have been closer to me in temperament than to my father?
My mother then looked at me harshly, but as though looking at her own reflection, and said I was right that nothing could have been gained from talking, before adding, quietly, as if to herself, and as if to that reflection, what might have been gained if she had talked to her father when he couldn't talk to anyone and ended his own life. Of course I knew that he had discussed things with her, but it was like it had been a confession and it seemed as though she hadn't proved much of a priest. Had she judged him so harshly, I wanted to ask, but didn't do so.
At that moment I'm sure my mother would have virulently rephrased Wilde's dictum: to lose one's father is a misfortune, to lose him to suicide might seem like an act of carelessness. It looked like a corrosive self-appraisal she was at that moment pondering over, and once again silence ensued as I could say nothing that would have alleviated it. I just added, after a couple of minutes, and with an awkward and superfluous simile, that I hoped I had been like a son to her too. She said I was very much that, as though aware perhaps one day she could find the necessary space to talk; that space resting in those minutes of silence. I didn't however tell her that she didn't need to do so, and that I already knew much about her life and her father's through talking with Ina, just as I know knew a lot more about Ina through talking to my mother.
I thought again about my mother's father, and about his attempts to talk to someone who would listen, and wondered if what we really need isn't someone who will listen to us, but someone who will talk for us, who will let us understand ourselves in our absence even more than in our presence. Perhaps we all need good obituarists, but feel we have a sense of that obituary while we are still alive. As my mother lifted herself out of the dining room chair with a weight that had nothing to do with a body still slim, she kissed me on the forehead and said goodnight. I felt for the briefest of moments like her father. It was as though she saw in me at that moment not the son she did have but the father she never quite put to rest, and that something in the gesture was allowing her to do just that.
© Tony McKibbin