When people ask me who I am writing about, I tell them it’s my aunt.
My aunt was born in 1902 and is now in her 94th year. Over the last ten years, even before the death of her brother – my father – I have held power of attorney in respect of her affairs. From a bureaucratic point of view her life could hardly have been more simple. She never married, looked after her parents and, when they died, lived on alone. Except for the war years when she worked in the telephone exchange and for a mobile library, she never had an office job, and during the last period of her life has had pretty well no income besides the state pension. In view of this simplicity it is puzzling to me how complex and voluminous her papers have grown – papers that I must try to understand and manage.
Some weeks, it seems to me, most of my mail is really for my aunt: correspondence from the Residents’ Association, the Nursing Group, Willing Hands, the Homecare Service, the Health Centre, the Social Services Department of the County Council, the Department of Social Security in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, the Review Section of the Disability Benefits Unit at Blackpool, the Benefits Agency in Surrey; from Barclays Personal Taxation Service, from her solicitor and estate agent. It all conveys a world very different from any my aunt would have recognised.
I saw a good deal of her while I was young because, during the war and then again after my parents divorced, I was largely brought up by my paternal grandparents in the wicked town of Maidenhead. I didn’t know it was wicked until later when I read the novels of Graham Greene and Patrick Hamilton. My aunt certainly wasn’t wicked. When she stepped out of the house she would usually go, not down into the town itself, but in the other direction up to what were called ‘the fields’ and on to Maidenhead Thicket. She was away for hours. She always went with a dog: a labrador or sheepdog or latterly a rather ridiculous looking schnauzer which was to feature prominently in my father’s will and which he used to billet on her.
On the whole my aunt preferred dogs to people; she also preferred being outdoors to indoors; and she enjoyed avoiding all family meals and eating alone. I envied her that. She seemed to me unusually self-sufficient in those days, though I noticed that she had a weakness for romantic films, musicals and, to my surprise, sophisticated women’s magazines – Vogue, Harpers, even the Tatler – in which she glanced addictively at a world that, so I imagined, had once beckoned her.
I was often a problem to my grandparents. ‘But what shall we do with the boy?’ they would cry. Whatever it was, my aunt would usually be delegated to do it. My father, busy fighting the war, rescuing businesses, remarrying abroad, would suddenly appear with spectacular presents for me – things he had picked up such as a cricket bat, golf-club or air-gun. Then he was off again, leaving my aunt to bowl at me over the kitchen garden (we were digging for victory) or take me on at tennis on the public courts – strange games of mixed singles. I thought myself a natural sportsman, but I got things wrong. Enthusiastically raising my father’s golf-club while in the dining-room I knocked my aunt on the head and we had to ring for the ambulance. Then there was the incident with the air-gun ...
They are not all happy memories. But without my aunt life would have been unendurably dull at Maidenhead. I had forgotten until recently how much I owed her. During the war she would take me in the mobile library van to the German prisoner-of-war camps. I stayed outside the friendly barbed wire and was given to understand that the Germans stayed inside, never attempting to escape, because my aunt’s choice of thrillers and romances held them there entranced.
In my teens I spent a lot of time at the new public library. My aunt patronised the private lending library at Boots the Chemist. But growing curious about my library, she followed me there, was dazzled by what she saw and, like many middle-class people round the country, became a convert to the public library system. Being cautious, she would lightly roast the books in our oven for the sake of the germs.
After her parents died, my aunt went on with her solitary walks and secret meals, kept up her reading and film-going. Then, over a dozen years ago, everything changed. One day, while coming back from Maidenhead Thicket, my aunt had a stroke. People who saw her didn’t know what was wrong. She tried to get a lift from a milk-float, but the driver thought she was drunk. How she got back I never found out, but after reaching the house she collapsed. My father, telephoning about his dog, could get no answer. Eventually he telephoned the police. They broke in, and my aunt was taken to hospital.