Monday 1 July 2019
Left Field: CHAPTER 35 - Three Sisters
When my sisters and I were children, my mother’s sister, Enid, spent most weekends with us in Bromley. Every Friday evening, she would walk up the hill from the station with her small black suitcase and large red handbag. She would extract from it Smarties for us children and a bottle of gin which she presented to my father as a gift for the weekend. He was a beer drinker and my mother had her sherry. Enid finished off the gin on the first evening.
For us children, there might be toothpaste, biros she’d found on the train, a comb she’d picked off the street. My mother would say, ‘What are you thinking about, Enid? It’s filthy. Throw it away.’
I’d watch my aunt’s mouth turn into a hard line. ‘Don’t be silly, dear. Of course I’ll wash it before David uses it.’ Then turning to me, ‘You like it, darling, don’t you?’ Putting me in the line of fire.
Enid was always heavily lipsticked and high-heeled, the higher the better. Her visits to the chiropodist were as regular as my mother’s to the hairdresser. Although pretty, Enid never married. She worked as an assistant for a Harley Street dentist who was never without the latest model Italian convertible. Sometimes PK, as he was called, would drop her off at our house in Westmoreland Road. He was on his way home to West Malling to spend the weekend with his wife. Enid would throw her shoes onto the gravel driveway and, steadying her windswept hair, step out of his red Alfa Romeo Spider.
My parents suspected that she and PK were lovers. I’ll never know for sure but, when PK died, Enid developed alopecia and all her hair fell out.
My mother, not Enid, told me that the love of Enid’s life had been an RAF Spitfire pilot killed in the Battle of Britain. His name was Peter and my mother used to tell me that Enid treated him badly. ‘That poor boy was devoted to your aunt and she ... I can’t tell you what she did to him.’ And she didn’t.
The two sisters had a love/hate relationship. My mother was jealous of Enid and her closeness to us children. ‘It’s all very well that sister of mine coming down here at the weekend and fawning over all of you. She doesn’t have to get you up in the morning and put food in front of you.’
Without the responsibility of being the parent, Enid was generous with her time and her dotings. That dedication to us lasted all her life. When my sisters and I became parents, she was always a willing, and welcome, babysitter.
She spoke with a stronger Welsh accent than my mother, but declared herself to be a proud English woman. She had decidedly right-wing politics. ‘The police are so marvellous.’ ‘I am so proud to be English.’ And whenever politics entered a conversation, ‘I’ve always voted Conservative, dear.’ When I told her she spoke with a Welsh accent and was Welsh, it became even stronger as she raised her voice at me, ‘Oh no, I’m not.’
She rented a room in a house in Allen Street in Kensington that was owned by a retired concert hall singer. Enid lived there for more than 30 years and when the singer died, she moved to Cricklewood and rented a dark, dank room in the house of an elderly Polish woman who shouted at my aunt every time she came home.
In neither place did Enid have her own kitchen. There was a small Belling cooker beside the bed and a handbasin in the corner of the room. When I was old enough to visit her, she would invite me round for dinner. It was always liver and bacon. ‘Lovely to see you, darling. It’s liver and bacon. I hope you don’t mind.’ I remember visiting her at the surgery in Harley Street and she would take me to the Prince Regent pub in Marylebone Road. ‘Darling, the liver and bacon here is lovely.’
Not surprisingly, Enid didn’t spend much time at home. In the evenings she sold programmes at the Royal Festival Hall. ‘So wonderful there. Such gorgeous music.’
‘What did you hear last night, Aunty?’
‘I have no idea,’ she would say in her Swansea lilt, ‘but it was lovely.’
Enid was a wrestling fan and had a friend with whom she went to matches at Wembley Stadium. In Bromley, she’d sit watching it on ITV at 4pm every Saturday afternoon, along with 16 million others. Her favourite was Big Daddy.
I would annoy her with my commentary. ‘Aunty, Big Daddy’s real name is Shirley Crabtree. Shirley!’
‘No man is called Shirley. Stop annoying me.’
‘Wow, Giant Haystacks landed on Shirley and he didn’t feel a thing.
Aunt Enid, he’s 48 stone! It’s all a fix.’
‘That’s not the point. Now be quiet, dear, and let me enjoy this.’
She was always up and doing and that was her undoing because, when she reached her seventies, she would get lost travelling across London, putting us all to a lot of trouble.
Finally, she had to be put in a nursing home in Swiss Cottage. Like my mother later, she could not have survived out of care. She spent her days with other old people sitting in soiled plastic chairs, wearing clothes that were no longer hers and staring vacantly at the TV. She was treated kindly by the staff, but like a small child. ‘Have you been a good girl and eaten your biscuit?’
After less than a year there, and short of breath, she was taken to the Royal Free Hospital. She was placed on a drip and it was left to my sisters and me to decide what should be done. Many times, she’d told us that she didn’t want her life prolonged if she was incapable of living it fully. We asked the hospital to remove the drip. Within a few days, she died.
It was 1987, the year of the storms. She had loved walking in Kensington Gardens so my sisters and I placed her ashes there in a deep hole left by an uprooted oak tree.
I have a recurrent dream to add to the ones set in my childhood home. Enid is still alive and living in an old people’s home. Nobody is visiting her and I am continually passing by, feeling guilty that I haven’t dropped in to see her. I think she was very alone in life and my sisters and I were her only family. She was our second mother and it saddens me now to think that maybe we did not fully recognise the importance of that for her.
My two sisters turned out very differently to me. We were all sent to boarding school: I to Canford and they to St Margaret’s in Hertfordshire. But there all similarities end. Though we are close in age, Elizabeth and Joanna were children of the Fifties and I was a child of the Sixties. For them, it was finishing school in Switzerland and secretarial college. While I walked round Bromley with a CND symbol on my donkey jacket, Liz and Joanna were playing tennis at Sundridge Park Lawn Tennis Club.
Liz married James Watt in 1962. Their first child, Joanna, was born three years later. I remember it was 1965 because I babysat my niece at their flat on Ham Common when she was a few months old. That morning I’d bought Bob Dylan’s Bringing It All Back. The album had been released in the UK earlier that year. When I hear ‘Mr Tambourine Man’, I am back in that flat with that baby girl.
A year later my sister, Joanna, married a Sandhurst-trained army officer and went to live with him in Singapore.
It goes without saying that we have our political differences. As the black sheep in my family, I know that, for my sisters and their families, this has made me difficult to deal with. As the Uncle Bill of my times, I’ve not been the brother to invite round for a polite dinner party. From their point of view, I am that lone ship on the horizon, but I am proud to say that all my family were opposed to the Iraq war and, along with me, Liz took her opposition into the streets.
But it’s not just political differences that separate us. Like many people from our background, we didn’t share our formative years; we were sent away to school from a young age and that leaves its mark. ‘If the Church of England is the Tory Party at prayer,’ wrote John le Carré, ‘the Public School system may be called the Tory Party in the nursery ... The British are known to be mad. But in the maiming of their privileged young, they are criminally insane.’
Today, both my sisters live more comfortably than Anne and I do in our one-bedroom flat. I don’t say that out of envy. I wouldn’t give up my life for theirs and, I’m sure, they think the same. We are just different. I am surprised that they have remained as friendly and generous to me as they have.
When I’ve been down and out – and that’s been more than once in my life – both have come to my rescue. Mike and Joanna bought my Rabuzin silk-screen prints when I was struggling with the art world, helped host the artist’s visit to the UK in 1989 and sold programmes for War Child at the Festival Hall.
When I was organising Coldcut’s Balkan tour in 2001 with Hiroshi Kato, it was with sponsorship from Japan. Funding was suddenly removed and I found myself with 20 musicians in Dubrovnik who were unable to move, practically unable to eat. Joanna and Mike lent me the money so they could continue the tour.
Liz was a trustee of War Child; she went through a lot of anguish with the problems there and helped me in every way. She and her husband, Peter, came to Mostar three times to help out. The first time in December 1997, Peter persuaded the Hampshire police to loan them a Peugeot van which they loaded with donated shoes, clothes and candies. They then drove the 1,200 miles to Bosnia from London, crossing borders without any papers, arrived in Mostar and with hardly any rest, took part in the distribution of the aid directly to the families in most need. They then stayed on to help out at the opening of the Centre.
Not so long ago when, yet again, I was sinking under a mountain of debt, they gave me a loan which they insisted be written off.
As I get older, I have become increasingly aware of the importance of family. Maybe it is because of what Bertrand Russell called ‘the terror of the cosmic loneliness’. In my own immediate, disunited family, I need to strengthen whatever remains that holds us together. My father’s last years and my recent brain surgery have taught me that.