road to left – don’t take.
another road to left – don’t take.
– between the two left roads there should be a footpath up to the right.
Keep to left – steep drop on right.
Directions for a walk, written by my father
‘Where’s Daddy?’ I asked. ‘He’s gone away for the summer.’ There was a van outside our house and men were lifting furniture into it and other things wrapped in blankets. ‘Will he be coming with us?’ No reply. Which, in its way, was a reply. I was eight; I knew the game.
I have no memory of the packing up of our home, just that I was standing on the pavement outside holding a small, colourful box whose lid closed with a tiny brass latch, into which I had put IMPORTANT THINGS: a charm in the form of a watermill whose wheel actually turned, a bright red gobstopper (illegal), a polished stone egg. I was reluctant to let the box go – our new house was just a few hundred feet away in the same West London street; we had only to turn left and walk across the railway line with its barriers that lifted and swayed like a pleated skirt – but someone in the van persuaded me to hand it up, said it would be perfectly safe, I’d get it back in a minute.
There was a lot of kerfuffle unloading the van and carrying all the stuff down the long, narrow path that led back from the street into a garden in the middle of which, like a secret, sat the little coach house, our new home (but what did home mean if the meaning of ‘our’ had changed?). In and out went the removal men, pushing and tugging furniture through the tight right angle of the hallway. And then they left and all this time I had been waiting to see my box emerge and it wasn’t there. Like Daddy, it was gone.
Shortly afterwards, my mother agreed to house-sit somewhere near Hampton Court. I think she was fleeing the damp in the coach house, which came from all directions: down through the roof, causing the insulation tiles on the ceiling to detach themselves (one landed on the holy grail, my mother’s typewriter); horizontally through the walls; up from the ground (the house had no foundations), rising damp against whose relentless creep visitors were advised to wrap themselves in newspaper from the feet up.
The house near Hampton Court was warm and dry, sunlight poured in through the well-proportioned sash windows. I hated it. It was too big, too quiet. It filled my head with an acoustic flatness, like being behind thick plate glass. (Is this what ghosts feel like?) I’m not sure when the pilfering started. I targeted the kitchen first, and acquired a few ginger biscuits which were too hard to bite into. I took them upstairs and placed them under my pillow. I moved on to the other rooms, all of which had the same indifferent smell of absence. In the master bedroom, I found a jewellery box sitting on a vanity table. It was empty, but gradually, I found some treasure to place in it: small, shiny things retrieved from the backs of drawers or window sills and mantelpieces, a blinking hoard which I would gaze at in the evenings, before putting the box under my bed and going to sleep.
I woke one morning to find my mother and two strangers at my bedside. The strangers, it transpired, owned the house and everything in it, hence their concern to find a ring that had mysteriously disappeared. There was no suggestion that I had any part in this, but perhaps I could help them find it? Throughout this agonising consultation, I could feel the box under my bed glowing, its heat reaching up through the mattress and into my cheeks. They all went downstairs and, thoughtfully, made a lot of noise to cover my footsteps as I returned the box and its contents, including the ring, to their rightful place.
Postponed understanding, the kind that comes with an audible click. I’ve only just realised that my magpie thieving was by way of substituting the box of treasure I had lost to the removal van (I can still see it moving slowly across the railway line, the border between before and after); that both boxes were a substitute for a larger loss, and a means to contain that loss by reconfiguring the world in miniature. I still collect small objects; my handwriting is small; my home is small; I am small; I prefer small questions that have answers to big questions that don’t.
Objects have a rightness to someone who knows them. Not just charms and whatnots, but the chairs and the table and every other thing that makes up the reality of home. ‘You can’t love an inanimate object,’ my father used to say. Yet when I look at the photographs he took of our home (the one we all shared until the van turned up), I see his loving gaze falling on the objects in it: a conch shell on a side table, a painting by John Piper (a wedding gift). Home is never a neutral place, it is a very specific context, an animated expression of the presence it contains. Why can’t it be loved?
‘You can’t love an inanimate object.’ I don’t know where he got the sentence from. My suspicion is that it connects to events between Monday and Tuesday, 14 and 15 October 1940, the last 24 hours he spent at home in Câmpina. It’s possible that his parents invoked this rule when Donald argued for the things he wanted to take with him.
Until my father boarded the steamer at Constanţa, just shy of his tenth birthday, all the journeys he’d taken had been completed within a day or a fraction of a day – in the car to the holiday cottage in Poiana, up the bumpy tracks to the oil derricks, to Bucharest on the train. The journey that began on 15 October 1940 took four years. But in some sense it lasted for the rest of his life. It carried him away from his childhood, away from his father, away from the longitudes and latitudes, the co-ordinates of his existence up to that point. He learned that everything was temporary, that home was a ‘for now’ place, the place where your suitcase was; that, to misquote Isaac Deutscher, trees have roots and refugees have legs because they have to keep on fleeing.
These realisations arrived gradually, but there was one immediate, definitive change for the Slomnicki family as their ship headed into the pitching, slanting, very black Black Sea. They stopped speaking German to one another. Whether by agreement or instinct, they changed, overnight, the language in which they had all lived together. Elena was now Helen, Mummy not Mami; Papa became Daddy; the boys were still Donald and Peter, of course, but they had far fewer words at their disposal by which to express themselves. They were now British – British refugees, to be exact – not just because their identity documents said so, but because their survival depended on it. And thus began my father’s second life, as a refugee from a country he had never set foot in.
As the ship moored in Istanbul the following afternoon, officials from the British Consulate were waiting on the quay. The passengers (Helen, sheet-white) were bussed straight to the consulate, where they were offered sandwiches, tea, cigarettes and more forms to fill in. My uncle Peter thinks they were then put up for a couple of weeks in the Pera Palace Hotel, established in 1895 by the Wagons-Lits Company as the unofficial terminus for the Orient Express. Then they moved into a flat somewhere nearby. It had a balcony with a bamboo cane awning opened by a winch handle. Unable to resist, Donald and Peter let it out, dust falling on their heads, followed by a bird’s nest full of eggs, which all tumbled onto the tiles and broke.
It was a desolate, broken time for all of them. Their friends the Redgraves, still in Bucharest, were receiving letters from Istanbul full of depressing tales. ‘If you ever have to make the same trip as we have had to do,’ one friend wrote, ‘for heaven’s sake keep clear of this town, unless you have an awful lot of money.’ Robin Redgrave was frantically trying to stave off bankruptcy and praying that Micheline’s lifelong friendship with Rica Antonescu, wife of the general-dictator, might afford the family some protection. At 11 p.m. on 9 February 1941, the telephone rang in their flat and a voice said: ‘Micheline, tell Robin he must leave the country now. He is in very great danger. No, not tomorrow, within the hour. Drive to the frontier; he might still escape.’ It was Rica. As their son, Roy, tells it in his memoir, Balkan Blue, Robin
hastily packed two suitcases, collected his important papers, kissed his wife and sleeping daughters goodbye and slipped out of the back door from the block of flats into the empty street. There were a few agonising moments when his motorcar would not start, but soon he was pushing the Buick as fast as it could go south towards Giurgiu which he reached just as dawn was breaking. He abandoned the car, giving the keys to an astonished official who stood between him and the first ferry which was just about to cast off.
In less than an hour, he was in Bulgaria.
That same day, 10 February, Britain severed diplomatic relations with Romania. Micheline was contacted by the British Legation and told to report with the girls at the Gara de Nord before 9 p.m. on the 13th for a special train that was to take them, together with the last remaining members of the legation, to Constanţa. Micheline, worried for her daughters and the unknown dangers ahead, left the girls in Bucharest with their grandmother. On the morning of 14 February, the Izmir cast off for Istanbul. Robin made his way south through Bulgaria, which was about to join the Axis powers, and in a matter of days he and Micheline were reunited.
Inever saw Granny Helen smoke, though I do know that during the war she carried a full cigarette case, as a strategy. I remember only in outline the story my father told me of these cigarettes, the currency of fugitives, appeasing an excitable border guard on a train. I remember him saying that the train was very, very long and he had explored its entire length to discover there was only one other passenger – imagine that – a man sitting alone in the last carriage; that it was the last train before the borders closed; that his mother had ignored the counsel of friends to leave by boat and that the ship the friends had taken had been torpedoed and sunk. I remember that as my father told me this in the sitting room of his Wiltshire home, sunlight was filtering in through a confusion of leaves, furry and prickly to touch, on his now dead mother’s scented geranium, and there were dust motes dancing in the space between us. Faced with my urgent question – ‘Did your friends on the boat die?’ – he turned back and closed the border.
Peter remembers only sitting in the back of a car gazing at endless orange groves, and someone explaining that because of the war there was nobody to pick the oranges, which were rotting on the ground. All I know is that they moved from Istanbul to Ankara, to a house near the British Embassy, and from Ankara took the overland route to Egypt via Syria, Lebanon and Palestine (the rotting oranges?), a journey that must have been mostly by train. They were definitely in Cairo by 26 June 1941, because the day and place are on Joe’s army record. He was granted an emergency commission as second lieutenant to his old regiment, the Royal Engineers, and was soon posted to Palestine.
Joe, now 47, wasn’t obliged to sign up, but there were no other obvious means to support the family. It’s possible that, at this moment of deep uncertainty, military service offered him a way of defining himself not solely in the terms of loss and disorientation. Of all the photographs I’ve seen of Joe, the ones showing him on active service – sitting on a rock eating from a mess can, pushing a jeep out of the sand, riding a camel – suggest a man most at peace with himself.
Helen was left alone and adrift in Cairo in the white glare of summer, trying to avoid the ‘garbage, dung, stench and slander’ of the place, as George Seferis described it, ‘the pestering flies, the beggars, the street salesmen who pushed things in their faces … the yelling, the hooting, the screeching brakes, the clanging of tram-cars and howl of tram-horns’. Lawrence Durrell, who had been living in Greece until the Germans invaded, found Cairo (‘this corrupt and slow Nile’) not merely physically disgusting, but morally too: ‘Cripples, deformities, opthalmia, goitre, amputations, lice, flies. In the streets you see horses cut in half by careless drivers or obscene dead black men with flies hanging like a curtain over their wounds.’ Olivia Manning, who had been evacuated from Bucharest, agreed: the squalor was shocking, but not as shocking as the locals’ ‘contentment with squalor’.
It’s such an English attitude, this inability to forgive the rest of the world for not being England. The way to get around that is to expatriate as much as you can of the mother country. In Cairo, England Abroad was centred in Shepheard’s Hotel, described by one visitor as like living in the British Museum (even the loos were monumental), its men-only bar jammed with staff officers waving fly whisks and swagger sticks and being indiscreet about the order of battle for the next offensive in the desert war; in the Anglican All Saints’ Cathedral, designed by Adrian Gilbert Scott; the British Embassy with its immaculate lawn sloping down to the edge of the Nile; the Turf Club, an all-male establishment lifted straight from Pall Mall.
And there was the Gezira Sporting Club, a vast pleasure ground occupying the southern half of Zamalek, an island on the Nile: 150 acres of gardens with lawns green and fresh as any in the Home Counties, hosed with Nile water every evening by servants in white gallabeas; polo fields, an 18-hole golf course, a horse-racing track, cricket pitches, squash courts, croquet lawns, tennis courts, two swimming pools, even a pet cemetery (surely, for the English, the highest expression of the natural rights of blood and soil). In the clubhouse, khakied officers and British pashas in colonial white linen suits wielded whisky and soda highballs or gin slings and talked bilharzia and dysentery and the new arrival of Huntley & Palmer’s biscuits at Davies Bryan’s department store.
The principle of living in a different country from the one you are actually living in was not foreign to Helen. After all, in Romania she had lived mostly in the comfortably upholstered civility of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, with a few English and French fringes, the combination of which acted as a screen against too much Balkan reality. So maybe, for her, Cairo was another version of Bucharest, its chaotic, unholy froth something that had to be dodged on the way to the clubhouse of civilisation. The problem was, once she and her thick German accent arrived there, much of the inbred, Anglo-Saxon singularity she encountered was alien to her.
Children of migrants or refugees often assume the role of liaison officers, connecting their parents to the new world in which they find themselves. They act as translators and interpreters, not just of language, but of signs, gestures, social codes. There is a significant shift, even reversal, of roles, where the child becomes the mentor, taking the hand of the unsure parent. I think this is how my father lost his childhood.
Before leaving for Palestine, Joe took a flat at Regent House, Zamalek, just north of the Gezira Club. This was the most popular residential area for the Inglizi (two nearby blocks of flats were known as Elephant and Castle), so rents were high and, since their Egyptian owners tended to remove most of the furniture and rugs, the flats were anything but homely: bare tiled floors, shutters closed against the sun. Joe and Helen did what they could to push back the emptiness, bought a few cane chairs and some rugs, a coffee table, some old textiles from the souk to pin on the walls.
Consolations: the beaded curtain of Groppi’s café in Soliman Pasha Square, portal to a world of wonder – great tubs of ice cream, golden boxes of chocolates, waiters in white gallabeas with red sashes pushing trolley-loads of cakes and fresh whipped cream into the garden, cool in the shade of walls trained with creepers. Decades later, my father’s eyes would light up when speaking of it – the best ice cream in the world. At Groppi’s, perhaps, the feeling of living in the wrong place was fleetingly dispelled.
The pyramids. Camels. Roller-skating at the Rialto rink. Open-air cinemas (Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, Tarzan). Looking sharp in the blazer and cap of the Gezira Preparatory School. The aquarium in Fish Park on the walk to school. Singing ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’ at assembly. Climbing banyan trees behind the Gezira Club cricket pavilion and pretending to be Johnny Weissmuller. Whizzing down the waterslide into the swimming pool. Discovering high tea: Welsh rarebit, trifle.
Stamps. Donald started a new album, ‘EGYPT’. On the first page, a collage of stamps of King Farouk, who, like Michael of Romania, was a boy at his accession. The stamps are the first issue of his reign, designed in 1937. Later in the album we find the revised design of 1944, by which time Farouk was 24 and wearing a manly moustache on his rather pudgy face. The Farouk collage is mounted around a map, carefully drawn by Donald and framed in black ink. In the middle is Egypt, cross-hatched in green. Surrounding it are Sudan in imperial pink; French Africa, also pink; Libya, Turkey and Arabia, all in desert yellow. In this way, borders were glued down and the world hinged into place. He discovered a stamp shop, Moutran’s, and bought a new album. Sometimes he sent himself covers of interesting stamps – ‘Xmas Seal for use by British troops in Egypt on their letters home’ – posted to Master D. Slomnicki, airmail from Cairo to Cairo, by which I can trace his various addresses. I notice that these envelopes have never been opened. One of them seems to have something in it, but I can’t safely peel it off the page so I take a small kitchen knife and carefully slice it open on the right-hand side. I pull out two index cards and turn them over. They are blank. What my father put in the envelope seventy years ago turns out to be nothing.
In early March 1942, after a hair-raising, two-week train journey undertaken on their own, the Redgraves’ daughters, Ioana and Mary Maud, arrived in Cairo. It had been an agonising wait for Micheline, who was almost destitute and utterly miserable. Robin had joined the Royal Artillery regiment and been posted to Sudan, and Roy, whom she had last seen more than two years before, was still at Sherborne, studying for his final exams and fire-watching on the roof when the air-raid sirens sounded.
A proxy normality established itself, a settling into unsettlement. For a time, Joe was based at Middle East Command, whose headquarters were a tram ride away from the flat in Zamalek. The children went to school, Helen and Micheline learned to douse everything with Mobiltox (‘quick, certain death to all insects’), and where to buy groceries and printed cottons for Greek or Levantine dressmakers to run up some summer clothes. Sometimes, at dusk, they would all walk the few streets to the banks of the Nile, where the scent of jasmine rose in the cooler air.
For the past two years, the front lines of the war in the desert of North Africa had advanced and receded like the sands on which they were drawn. Then, in late May 1942, the Axis forces led by Erwin Rommel smashed into the British line from the rear, and a month later his Panzerarmee Afrika was streaming across the Libyan border into Egypt. The advance was so swift that units from both armies found themselves going full tilt in the same direction, trying to avoid each other. As the routed Eighth Army poured into Cairo, chaos reigned. German radio broadcast a message to the women of Egypt: ‘Get out your party frocks, we’re on our way!’ Shopkeepers made sure to have photographs of Hitler and Rommel ready to slip into a frame.
There was everything to fear – aerial bombardment, street-fighting, an Egyptian uprising – but the British downplayed the panic by calling it the Flap. It was not encouraging, therefore, to see thick smoke rising from the British Embassy and GHQ, where they had started to burn files. Charred flakes of classified documents fluttered to the ground; such was the heat, some papers were blown intact high in the air, to be recycled into little cones by the (unflappable) local peanut vendors. There was a run on the banks – the queue of officers outside the military branch of Barclays was half a mile long – and sterling fell so far that it couldn’t be given away on the black market.
The queue outside the Thomas Cook office curled around several blocks – women, mostly, desperately trying to secure passage in one of the very few ships leaving from Port Said. Micheline got berths on the troopship Queen Elizabeth. On 18 July, she left with her daughters from Cairo’s central station. It was a madhouse, the platforms were crammed with every sort of refugee, desperate to attach themselves to any part of a train, including the roof. Many of them were Jews who had already felt the choking geographical dilemma of a world remapped by Hitler; they had fled before, and knew that the survivors were the ones who got away first. The journalist Alan Moorehead, seeing off his wife and small daughter, saw a Czech Jew who had been barred from a train try to commit suicide on the platform.
Micheline and the girls reached Port Said at sunset, in time to see the Queen Elizabeth being coaled, one line of locals carrying baskets on their backs up a gangway, another line coming down a different gangway with the empty baskets. The ship departed with no escort, headed down the Suez Canal and out into the Indian Ocean, zigzagging and relying on speed to evade enemy submarines. Two weeks later, they were offloaded at Durban.
It would have been entirely out of character for Helen not to panic, so there must be a reason she and the boys were not on the ship with the Redgraves. Perhaps she simply failed to get a booking. More likely, Joe argued that Rommel wouldn’t reach Cairo and that if they went to South Africa they would have a hell of a job getting back. As it happened, just as the Queen Elizabeth was carrying the Redgraves away, Rommel’s offensive stalled at a railway halt called el-Alamein. Having advanced so fast, he had outrun his supplies, and both sides dug in after an exhausting month of offensive and counter-offensive. The Flap was over.
Joe was posted to Iran on 15 September. According to Peter, he worked on plans to sabotage Middle Eastern oil wells in the event that Rommel should carve a German corridor through Egypt. Donald and Peter went back to school. Helen fretted on her own. In mid-October, an extraordinary event occurred in Cairo: heavy, prolonged rain turned the desert into a garden paradise as seeds that had lain dormant for years sprang up and blossomed. Soon after that, the second battle of el-Alamein erupted.
Helen, in no mood to stick it out now Joe was gone, joined the throng outside Thomas Cook, managing to book a passage to South Africa on the Nieuw Amsterdam, one of the unescorted ‘Monsters’ that could outrun German U-boats. The boys were taken out of school, suitcases were packed, and they sailed out of Port Said on 31 October. On the same day, Joe sent a telegram telling Helen that he had arranged for them to join him in Tehran. Too late, the Nieuw Amsterdam was already making its way down the Suez Canal. Three days into the journey, as the ship pitched on the high seas and Helen vomited, the Desert Fox was forced to retreat, tail down and under cover of night, from el-Alamein. By the time the Nieuw Amsterdam docked at Durban, the Eighth Army had recaptured Tobruk and the bells of the All Saints’ Cathedral in Cairo were being rung to celebrate the victory. They needn’t have left.
As an adult, my father returned to Istanbul and Cairo to search out his favourite sites – the Blue Mosque, the Pera Palace, the Giza pyramids, Groppi’s – but he never went back to South Africa and he never talked about it. They ended up in Pietermaritzburg, where, Peter remembers, ‘We lived in a house with another English family, the Mattheys, who had black servants. Their son, Errol, who was my age, became my new best friend. I’m not sure, but I think Micheline and the girls were also there. There were chickens outside and one day I saw one that had just had its head chopped off running underneath the house, which was raised above ground. I remember Donald in tears after Errol and I told him he couldn’t come into our den, and my mother intervening and saying, “You must let him join in your games.”’
I shrink from this image of Donald crying, not only because it conjures the difficulty, in any place, in any time, of being a child, of the sheer effort required to hold it together during the sudden, stomach-heaving swerves of emotion, but also because I know that his childhood sense of being separate and apart came to define him as an adult. True, this solitariness offered him, on occasion, an enviable freedom, but mostly it showed itself as an unmovable sadness.
After a year , Helen somehow managed to get back to Cairo with the children, an almost impossible feat given the shortage of berths for civilians (for somebody whose life had long been centred on soirées and tennis parties – never stooping to pick up the ball – she was certainly growing more resourceful). They found themselves unpacking their suitcases in yet another new address, Flat 24, Sharia Kamel Mohamad. Was Joe there to greet them? His army record from late 1943 onward shows postings to Iran, Syria and Palestine, but no doubt he rushed back to Cairo as soon as he was given leave.
Helen got a job at the British Ministry of Information as a speaker for the Romanian news service. Every day, she took the tram to General Headquarters, a vast compound surrounded by checkpoints, barbed wire and street hawkers shouting ‘Chocolates! Cigarettes! OBEs!’ In June 1944, Micheline Redgrave joined her there, having finally extricated herself and the girls from South Africa. Their names were not given in the broadcasts, but they later learned that their families in Romania had recognised their voices.
Peter, now nine, went back to Gezira Preparatory School where, according to Edward Said, a fellow pupil, lessons were ‘mystifyingly English: we read about meadows, castles, and Kings John, Alfred and Canute with the reverence that our teachers kept reminding us they deserved.’ Equally baffling was the tradition of celebrating the king’s birthday with maypole dancing in the playground.
Donald was 12, too old for prep school, so he was sent as a boarder to the English School in the suburb of Heliopolis, where, Peter says, he was miserable. Why this insistence on boarding school? I don’t think it was for lack of alternatives, rather that this had always been the plan. Like the Redgraves, who had sent Roy to Sherborne, Joe and Helen held to the belief that being British was the passport to the world, and that the only way to install an authentic British identity was in the classrooms and playing fields of English private schools. As the young ‘mongrel’ Edward Said was coming to realise, it was one thing to learn the words of ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’, another to appreciate that ‘this meant bright and beautiful England, the distant lodestar of good for all of us.’
The muslin strips glued to the windows of the English School, the huge under-strutting joists supporting the dormitories above in the event of an air-raid, were reminders of the dangers Cairo had faced, but the city was a much calmer place since Rommel had scurried out of Egypt. By the end of 1943, he was cooling his heels as inspector-general of the Atlantic Wall, a concrete and steel monotony that stretched from the northern tip of Norway to the Pyrenees. Erected to express power and permanence, it was, like all such walls before and since, a confession of weakness, a last resort when all other options had failed. Rommel thought it a giant, expensive farce straight out of Wolkenkuckucksheim, ‘cloud-cuckoo-land’.
Hitler’s Thousand Year Reich was now everywhere on the defensive, not that you would know it from Donald’s stamp albums. The German issue of 21 March 1943, for example: 15 scenes of heroic Aryan aggression including a submarine with a burning enemy ship sinking in the background, Stuka dive-bombers unloading shells, SS soldiers hurling stick grenades, a Tiger tank smashing through the lines, its turret gun retracting mid-fire. One year on, the mood was more subdued. In the series issued in March 1944, the drama of action was replaced with vigilance: instead of the killer U-boat, a submariner scanning the horizon through his periscope; instead of blazing anti-aircraft guns, a searchlight battery; in place of Stukas, a lone reconnaissance plane. True, two of the stamps illustrated the deadly reach of German firepower in the form of a long-range railway supergun and the launch of a flock of V-1 rockets, but the overall theme was watching and waiting.
Two months after these stamps were published, the Allies breached the Atlantic Wall in Normandy. It was the beginning of the end of Hitler’s stolen dominion, and to warn the German people a new stamp was printed. Though it was never as widely circulated as had been hoped, the stamp was published in Switzerland by America’s dirty tricks department, with the aim of fooling the German postal service into inadvertently delivering a portent of disaster right into the homes of German citizens. It was a copy of the 12 pfennig stamp with Hitler’s portrait, but with modifications: the Führer’s face was overlaid with skeletal features, his jaw half-eaten away, and the subscript was altered from DEUTSCHES REICH, ‘German Empire’, to FUTSCHES REICH, ‘Lost Empire’.
In wartime, you don’t get to choose how and when you move around. You take what’s offered, if anything is offered at all. Once again, Helen and the boys were leaving, but this time they were heading for their own country, on whose soil Donald and Peter had never stood, and Helen only once. In November 1944, they embarked on the Queen of Bermuda at Port Said. Before the war, the ship had been a cruise liner in the West Indies, one of the sleek ocean greyhounds that offered a parallel dream to that of the Orient Express. It had a ballroom, a cinema and a swimming pool, and was known as the ‘millionaires’ ship’. Now, every conceivable inch of it, including the swimming pool, had been repurposed to accommodate troops and stores. Servicemen were quartered in a maze of crowded mess decks, the overspill sleeping on tables and in passageways. Washing and shower facilities were improvised: there was no fresh water available, and the single towel supplied to each passenger was impossible to dry in the damp conditions. Helen and the children were assigned one of the few shared cabins on an upper deck, and spent much of the next two weeks inside it. The weather in the Mediterranean was what sailors call ‘dirty’; for the entire voyage the Queen of Bermuda rolled and wallowed like a cow in labour.
They arrived at Liverpool on 30 November 1944, registered on the incoming passenger list as Slomnicki, Helen, housewife, 43; Slomnicki, Donald, 13; Slomnicki, Peter, 10. They joined the lines for customs and immigration, were processed and verified as British subjects, and then, with their passports and British refugee certificates (twelve shillings and sixpence) stamped, they emerged into a post-Blitz city that was carrying on its business as best it could amid miles of devastation and rubble.
England: bomb damage, rations, cold, rain, skies the colour of depression. Not so bright, not so beautiful.
Iwoke this morning to find I had written a message to myself during the night. It reads: ‘There is no point there is no still point.’ My immediate assumption was that what I had meant to write was ‘There is no point. There is still no point,’ because that could be taken as an accurate reading of the weather in my head at the moment, a system of low pressure that won’t be dispelled. What is the point of telling this story? Have I reached the point at which there is no point?
In a dream I noted down a few weeks ago, I passed a skip painted with the words ‘Moot and Skoot Movers’. Waking just briefly enough to register the urgent significance of Moot and Skoot, I told myself it was so important, so obvious, that I must not forget it. What followed was an endless night of waking up, repeating ‘Moot and Skoot’ out loud, and then falling asleep again until the nightguard of my conscious self woke me up for another interrogation: Do you remember? Yes, it’s Moot and Skoot. Eventually, I scribbled it down.
How can something that feels so right, so true, in one dimension, amount to such nonsense in the other dimension? Whatever dreams offer us, they don’t travel well, they surrender too much at the border post. And yet, the more I think about last night’s dream, the more I see it as a smuggled message. ‘There is no point there is no still point.’ I have immersed myself in a story where departures lead to arrivals that are only ever the beginning of another departure; there is no still point, because everything that matters – home, belonging, security – is always further away.
And yes, all those suitcases – maybe Moot and Skoot have something to do with that, too. Is the best place for my father’s suitcase in the skip? Would that, finally, be the still point?
They say that Jews are never in one place long enough to have a geography, but I know this isn’t true because in my father’s house there was a framed map of Poland on which somebody had circled the town of Słomniki in red ink. What the map didn’t explain was that most of the Slomnickis who lived and worked and argued and loved in this town were deported, along with a thousand other Jews from the area, to the Belzec extermination camp between 4 and 8 June 1942; nor did it show the location of the mass grave of the sick and old who, along with infants, were executed in Słomniki in September that year, or the pits in the Chodów forest where the corpses of a further two hundred Jews were thrown two months later.
The map was also silent about the disappearance of the many Slomnickis in other parts of Poland. Nor did it reveal the geography of hell that was superimposed on Poland by the Nazis: concentration camps, labour camps, death camps, ghettos, all of which had their own internal geography.
Example: the ghetto of Litzmannstadt (the name given to Łódź by the Nazis), which was run as a minuscule kingdom by the vain, dictatorial Chaim Rumkowski. He wore a regal cloak, printed stamps and minted metal alloy coins with his portrait, and surveyed his domain, all two and a half square miles of fenced-in destitution, from a carriage drawn by a skeletal nag. When the Nazis dumped five thousand Roma and Sinti in the ghetto, Rumkowski protested: ‘We cannot live together with them. Gypsies are the sort of people who can do anything. First they rob and then they set fire and soon everything is in flames.’ His solution was to put them in the Zigeunerlager, a ghetto within the ghetto.
Example: Sobibor, with its neat little cottages with names like Schwalbennest, ‘Swallow’s Nest’, or Gottes Heimat, ‘God’s Home’, its gravel paths lined with flowers, its vegetable garden and chicken coops – amenities for the SS men running the camp, but also intended to hide its purpose from arrivals, those biological or political category errors who were soon to be herded, naked, down a one-way lane known as Himmelfahrtstrasse, the ‘Road to Heaven’, which ended in the gas chambers.
Example: Treblinka, with its fake railway station, designed by the camp commandant, Kurt Franz, to trick arrivals into thinking they were on their way somewhere else (the one thing the Nazis couldn’t stomach was mass hysteria). It had signs reading ‘Restaurant’, ‘Ticket Office’, ‘Telegraph’, ‘Telephone’, ‘Waiting Room’, a departures and arrivals board giving train schedules to and from Grodno, Suwalki, Vienna, Berlin, and, above the false door marked ‘Stationmaster’, a trompe l’oeil clock, its painted hands set to six o’clock. Behind this façade was the extermination camp, its gas chambers signed as shower rooms.
Example: Auschwitz, ‘ultimate drainage point of the German universe’ (Primo Levi), where the belongings collected at the selection ramp were taken in trucks to be sorted in the warehouses of Kanada – the land of plenty – and, when more space was needed, Kanada II. Two Kanadas, still not enough to contain the landslip of plundered possessions: suitcases (of course), shoes, crutches, prosthetics, clothes, shaving brushes, dentures, spectacles, wedding rings, bracelets, fountain pens, watches, children’s dolls – all scrupulously sorted before being shipped back to Germany, and still surfacing in flea markets and antique shops in Eastern Europe today.
Also in the Kanada warehouses, fumigated lice-free human hair, shaved off the prisoners, weighed and packaged ready to be shipped off in huge bales to be pressed into insulation for detonators or felt to line the boots of German soldiers, or spun into yarn for use in warm socks for U-boat crewmen. Human beings decommissioned and recycled as raw material for useful things. It didn’t stop there: the disassembly line operated even after death. Beyond the gas chambers, the victims’ bodies were opened up – unpacked – on dissecting tables in the crematoria in case they contained something valuable. Pliers were used to extract gold teeth, to be melted down and sold. According to one Nazi boast, this more or less covered the costs of the killings.
Is this where Joe’s sisters, Madzja and Henja, ended up, in the human ash cloud? Madzja and Henja, my father’s aunts, about whom I have found virtually no information. Possibly they were living in Warsaw and were trapped there when the city fell to the Nazis on 28 September 1939. Maybe they were lured into ‘resettlement’ by the promise of a loaf of bread and a jar of marmalade, showing up at a mustering point only to find themselves on a cattle truck heading for the death camps. Maybe they died from typhus or starvation in the Warsaw Ghetto, or were taken to one of the many secret execution sites – the forests at Kabaty, Chojnów and Sękocin; Wydmy Łuże, Szwedzkie Góry, Łaski, Wólka Węglova – to be shot or gassed in a specially adapted truck and then chucked into a pit.
Census records, telephone directories, ghetto index cards, Yad Vashem, the Wiener Library in London, the International Tracing Service: I’ve searched not only for confirmation of their death, but testimony to the fact that they once lived. I have found many Slomnickis, charted their births and marriages and deaths (mostly in the Shoah), but for Madzja and Henja, the records are silent. There are four and a half million victims’ names on Yad Vashem’s database, which means that one and a half million names are still missing. They are the undocumented disappeared.
I don’t know what to make of this. Surely, it’s impossible to lose one and a half million people? How on earth can we honour the undead dead? Or does their lostness give them a particular, vital reality: the vanished life as proof of the full magnitude of what happened?
In August 1943, shortly before Helen and the boys returned from South Africa, Joe had been posted to the Middle East Relief and Refugee Administration with the rank of major, tasked with the organisation of forty thousand Polish refugees quarantined in four tented camps in and around Tehran.
After the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939, many Poles had escaped south into Romania, where they were initially welcomed. If Joe’s siblings had managed to get out by this route, they would surely have found their way to him, so we must suppose they were not among the human stream that, for weeks, passed through or near to Câmpina. In very small numbers, these refugees proceeded through Bulgaria and Turkey, or Yugoslavia, Italy, Greece – wherever they found a gap – and from these countries travelled overland or across the Mediterranean to Syria, Palestine and Egypt. A far larger number of Poles – more than a hundred thousand, of whom about six thousand were Jews – came across the Caspian Sea in Soviet ships to Iran. These were a fraction of the 1.25 million Poles who had been deported as ‘anti-Soviet elements’ to Siberia and Kazakhstan after the annexation of the eastern half of Poland. Two years on, with Hitler now campaigning against his former ally, those who had somehow survived the death zone were released and evacuated in a deal struck by Stalin and the Allies. Of the greatly depleted number who were now under Joe’s care in the Tehran camps, there were also some from the western half of Poland, who had run from the Nazis into the authority of the Soviets, only to be loaded onto cattle cars and dumped in forced labour camps in Siberia. Was it remotely possible that anyone from Joe’s near family might have ended up in Tehran?
A quarter of a century had passed since he had last seen his family gathered in one place. This was in Wiesbaden, before they were scattered by the Great War. After that war, in late December 1919, according to the Special Branch report in Joe’s naturalisation file, he had travelled from London to Wiesbaden to be reunited with them. They were all there except for Joe’s mother, Zofia, who had died alone in Copenhagen in December 1918. Joe then returned to London to continue his studies at the London School of Mines, and never saw his family together again. From various frustratingly low-yield sources, I gather that his father, Bernard, who was living in Wiesbaden with his eldest daughter, Rosalia, died penniless in 1922, shortly after his oil properties in Cheleken were expropriated by the Soviets (Joe applied unsuccessfully to get them back in 1923, and the company was liquidated in the London courts – an early lesson in financial loss). Rosalia died in 1930, aged just 51, leaving two sons by her estranged husband, Felix Gradstein, who had gone back to Poland and died on the eastern front in 1944. Their sons both emigrated in their twenties to the United States, probably soon after Hitler came to power. Edward (Teddy), Joe’s older brother, went back to Poland in 1920 and married the very glamorous Vala – I don’t know her surname, but my mother says she was the daughter of the principal librarian of St Petersburg. They had no children.
He and Joe got on very well, despite their different outlooks: culturally and emotionally, Teddy faced east, while Joe preferred the view to the west. There are photographs of Teddy and Vala visiting Joe and Elena in Romania, including a holiday in Constanţa, and another photograph suggests that Joe once stayed with them in Warsaw.
When I asked Peter what he knows of his aunts, all he could say was that he never met them, and that he never heard Joe or anyone else speak of them. But he thought there was a photograph somewhere and, after digging over various clods of papers in his study, he unearthed it and scanned it into an email. It’s a studio portrait of the Slomnicki family – Bernard, Zofia, their five children and two grandchildren – taken, at an educated guess, in Wiesbaden in about 1913, a few years after they had left Poland. They’re all in their finery and looking well to do. Bernard and Zofia are seated, and between them, on a stool concealed by the rich folds of her velvet skirt, is the eldest child, Rosalia, with her two boys, who look about five and four. Standing behind them are Joe (he must be twenty, and on holiday from university in London), then Edward, and next to him, Madzja and Henja, though I don’t know which is which. With the exception of Edward and Joe, whose body language and expressions suggest independence – Joe especially – the whole family is linked by fond hands.
This photograph, and the passing mention of Madzja and Henja in Joe’s naturalisation file, are the only documentary evidence I have that they existed. Perhaps Joe and Teddy, who had somehow got himself to Rhodesia at the beginning of the war, returning to Warsaw when it was over, did try to find out what had happened to them, without success.
To complicate matters, a letter has just arrived from my mother:
Your father had two uncles on his mother’s side, Uncle Ernst and Uncle Norbert. Their father was German, and they lived very well in Romania until Hitler ordered their repatriation at the beginning of the war. Ernst was a convinced Nazi [underlined three times] who prospered in the war and lived happily ever after in a small castle. Norbert was not [underlined three times] a Nazi, and he ended up living with his wife and two children behind dung heaps in a dank farmyard near Ulm, where he repaired motorbikes for a living. I visited them there by train in the early 1970s.
What does this mean? That in my family there were not only victims but perpetrators, or, at the very least, colluders? Muddling the situation even further is a letter from Joe’s nephew, Marcel Gradstein, Rosalia’s son. His letter, written in October 1978, was in answer to a letter from my cousin Joss, who had traced him to Sarasota, Florida. Joss’s letter is lost, but in it, he must have suggested that we, Joe’s grandchildren, were partly Jewish, which drew this answer from Marcel:
Now to your theory. I am afraid I totally disagree with you, as the facts do not bear it out. Let me emphasise, I consider myself 100 per cent Jewish, and am proud of that … As to your grandfather Joseph and his brother Edward, they were converted Jews … I do not know, but it is hard to qualify it as an act of heroism. Whether you are Jewish, is a matter of definition. You be the judge.
I don’t know to what extent Joe considered himself to be Jewish, only that Hitler would have happily had him and his children on a transportation list. It’s true that he converted: in 1932, at the age of forty, he was confirmed in the Anglican Church of the Resurrection in Bucharest. This, and the fact that Joe and Elena brought their children up as Anglicans suggests a genuine faith or at least a cultural attachment to Western, so-called ‘Christian’ traditions.
As an adult, my father attended church most Sundays. He was on the rota for flower arranging and enjoyed hosting the vicar and other parishioners for sherry after the Sunday service. My uncle Peter married an Anglican, and brought his four sons up in the same faith, though he was, and remains, an atheist. My brother Alexander and I were brought up as Catholics, presumably a non-negotiable decision given that my mother came from an English Catholic family who have never been anything else in a thousand years of continual occupation of the same house. I don’t have any religious practice. So, if we’re dealing in percentages, nothing here adds up to a clean hundred.
I’ve been looking in a yellow folder I found last year in my mother’s house. It’s a mini archive of the period just after the war as experienced through the prism of an English public school, Clifton College in Bristol, to which Donald and Peter were despatched shortly after they landed in Liverpool. Forged in Romania, reshaped in the expatriate oasis of Cairo, bent out of shape in a parochial outpost of South Africa, re-formed again in Cairo, finally the Slomnicki boys were being properly Anglicised, engineered as true Englishmen. It took time, of course. Where was that strange name from? Was that a German accent? If you’re English, how come you can’t speak it properly? Gradually, the cleft narrowed between the seasoned refugee who had turned up like flotsam in England and the public schoolboy who occupied Study 22 with a chap called Collyns. It never fully closed, but superficially at least, the ‘special incompleteness’ of the outsider, as V.S. Naipaul described it, was barely detectable.
Donald worked hard, joined lots of school societies and studied English manners closely (what better laboratory than the game of cricket?). Clifton College gave him structure, order, lines to follow. He lined up in the corridor to file into class, the refectory, chapel; he wrote in lined notebooks, and underlined all his headings and subheadings twice with a ruler. At the start and end of every term, he filled out an Inventory of Clothes: Pyjamas, 3; Slippers, 1; Socks, prs of, 7; Soft Collars, 2; School Blazer, 1; Cricket Cap, 1. Lines, grids, forms, lists: rules for living that tamed and domesticated the nightmares, boundaries that protected against the nasties beyond.
In Bristol, Donald was closer to the effects of war than he had ever been in Romania or Egypt or South Africa. The city had been heavily bombed, there were craters and piles of rubble everywhere, and those curious vending machines in the train station had not dispensed a Cadbury’s chocolate bar for years. With Britain essentially bankrupt, ration coupons for food and clothes provided the most meagre comfort. For all this, he was also closer to the reassurances of an empire that still spanned a quarter of the globe. In chapel, he prayed to the God whose special task it was to protect this empire – ‘God of our fathers, known of old,/Lord of our far-flung battle line,/Beneath whose awful hand we hold/Dominion over palm and pine’ – and in his free time he pored over his 1946 Savoy Victory album, whose pre-printed pages awaited special issue stamps, assiduously collected, for every British dependency.
The album was confirmation that the war had been won and business as usual could be resumed across an empire that would last indefinitely, every possession immutable, in its place. On the opening page, Aden, first occupied by the British in 1839, ‘now a great oil bunkering and coaling station and port of call, an emporium for the trade of the adjacent African and Arabian coasts’, the caption reads. On the last page, Zanzibar, a British Protectorate since 1890 ‘under the administration of H.M. Government through the Governor and Commander-in-Chief in the Kenya Colony and Protectorate’. In between, 65 territories including Australia, Burma, Canada, Ceylon, India, Malaya, New Zealand, Nigeria, Rhodesia, Uganda – all forming ‘one family, the wide world over’ under King George VI, whose youthful appearance on the stamps belied his rapidly ageing features.
As taught in the classroom, geography was a matter of confident global leaps, from the Hampshire basin to the Punjab, the Devon peninsula to the Falkland Islands. The world was studied and mapped as a provider of resources to be extracted by the enterprising British, from the Lancashire cotton industry whose finished goods, Donald wrote in a test, ‘are sent to all parts of the world, especially the cheap cotton cloths to those parts of Africa and Asia where the natives are becoming “civilised”’, to South America, with its rubber, copper, sugar, coffee, ivory, nuts, minerals, oil and Panama hats. He was good at drawing maps, and usually got high marks, though in another test he shows some confusion over whether the Carpathians were still in Romania: first, he claimed they are ‘now ceeded [sic] to Roumania’, then crossed this out. Transylvania, he was sure, was ‘now ceeded to Roumania’, while Bessarabia was ‘now ceeded to Russia’. It’s a muddle, and he dropped a grade.
The Carpathians were indeed back in Romania, and Joe Slomnicki was back in the Carpathians. He went straight there after being demobilised from Tehran in February 1945, joining the Allied Control Commission in Bucharest, tasked with surveying the oil installations that had been bombed by the Allies in 1943 and 1944. His photographs show the extent of the damage: derricks skewed at impossible angles; burned out, crumpled petroleum tanks; broken segments of elevated pipelines lying in the mud; severed rail tracks rearing up towards the sky from which the bombs had come. Apart from these photographs, there is no other record of Joe’s impressions on returning home.
In late October, he was briefly in London to formalise an offer of re-employment with British Petroleum, whose subsidiary, Steaua Romana, he had joined more than twenty years earlier. He was reunited with Helen and the boys, after more than a year of separation, and stayed in a dingy flat in Chelsea that Helen had rented. Joe exchanged his first clothing coupons for a suit and an overcoat, to which he added a Homburg hat, posing happily in an autumnal garden square with Helen and Donald – now a lanky, ration-thin 14-year-old – for a photograph taken by Peter. And then he left again, followed a few months later by Helen.
The plan was to pick up the threads of their former life in Romania. The boys would continue at Clifton College, joining their parents in Câmpina during the holidays. They would be at home again, together, in their house, surrounded by their things, and history, that terrible cataract of events which had overwhelmed their lives, would now leave them alone. ‘I remember looking out of the window of our sitting room and watching the bench in the garden slowly being covered,’ Peter, now 11, wrote to his parents. ‘I hope that when normal times come I will be able to come and see all that we left at such short notice.’ It didn’t happen. They looked forward to going back, but when they got there they found that the future was not what it used to be.
When Helen died in 1981, Peter found among her belongings a cardboard shoebox in which she had carefully saved all the letters he had sent to her and Joe during his school years. Peter put the shoebox away and forgot about it. It’s now on my desk, as are copies of two other primary sources: a Foreign Office file from the National Archives, titled ‘An Account of the Case of Mr Slomnicki’, which I discovered by accident while looking for something else in the wrong inventory of the wrong catalogue; and papers from the British Petroleum archive at Warwick University. Braided together, these three strands form an explanation, in real time, of how the Slomnicki family lost their home for a second time.
3 March 1946, Clifton College. ‘It must have been very nice to have seen everybody and everything again … Have you got a wireless yet? What did I look like when I was a baby? … Can you send me some Turkish delight? … I do hope we will all spend the summer holidays together in Roumania.’
Helen has recently arrived in Romania. She has been in Câmpina, staying with her sister Marta, who still calls her Elena. For some reason, she and Joe have not moved back into their own house, instead renting a flat in Bucharest. As under-manager and chief geologist of Steaua Romana, Joe is often away in the company’s headquarters in Ploieşti.
10 March 1946, Clifton College. ‘As you know, Donald was confirmed. It was a very nice service and Donald looked most smart walking up. I do not know how he felt … Do you think you could get a Roumanian grammar from anywhere? I have forgotten almost every word, and want to learn again.’
23 June 1946, Clifton College. ‘It is a great pity about the situation in Roumania. I hope we will be able to come in the end … On Friday afternoon Winston Churchill drove through Clifton College. We all watched him. He was in a large open car with his cigar, his bowler hat, and the V sign as usual. Yesterday the boy who won a scholarship gave a feast. We had sosage [sic] rolls, trifle, lemonade, strawberries and ice cream.’
General Antonescu, who took Romania into Hitler’s war against the Soviet Union, has been executed for treason and war crimes. King Michael still occupies the throne but Stalinists are running the country. All rights to freedom of speech and political association have been removed. No Romanian is allowed to leave the country without authority. Romania, the first country to be ‘liberated’ by the Soviet Union, is now a prison.
14 July 1946, Clifton College. ‘Have you heard any more about the summer holidays? Have you had any more news about getting a Ford? I hope this will be possible.’
28 July 1946, Clifton College. ‘This is the last day of term and there is great excitement in the house. Yesterday evening we had a cinema show. Then we had a swim, and a feast of jelly, cake, ice cream, oranges and milk … Do you think you will be able to do anything about the Christmas holidays? I am afraid it is looking rather far ahead, but I hope the peace conference will help matters over Roumania. I will take care to write every Sunday in the holidays and not neglect it as I did last holidays.’
The plan for Donald and Peter to spend the summer in Romania has come to nothing. Instead, they stay at the Old Manor. The peace negotiations formalise the restoration of Transylvania to Romania from Hungary; the other provinces lost in 1940 are awarded to the Soviet Union and Bulgaria.
9 February 1947, Clifton College. ‘How are you both? … I wonder if it is very cold and if you are having very much snow in Roumania. I certainly hope, Mummy, that you will not fall ill again. Have you had any more news about Donald and I coming over to see you in the summer holidays? I certainly hope that this will be possible.’
4 May 1947, Clifton College. ‘Are you sure about summer hols yet?’
29 May 1947, Clifton College. ‘I will be taking some music out to Roumania when I come and I will certainly bring my tennis racket.’
Donald and Peter finally get back to Romania, spending the summer in their aunt Marta’s house in Câmpina with her daughters, Rodica and Sanda, both now married. They visit their own house, which has been damaged by an earthquake, and go through some of their things. Joe has a new car and they tour their favourite places, hiking in the Carpathians and staying for some days at the summer villa of Prince Stirbei in Braşov.
In the middle of the holiday, Joe’s friend and colleague Vlad Eker is ‘purged’ from his job at Steaua by the ‘Red’ trade union as a ‘lackey of capitalism’. His bosses, who include Joe, continue to pay his salary ‘sub rosa’, handing it to him in cash at the company’s headquarters in Bucharest. Similar payments are made, off the books, to other purged employees. Alexander Evans, the managing director, enters details of every payment in code in his pocketbook.
In late September the boys return to school.
31 October 1947, Clifton College. ‘I hope you can get the silver and rugs off soon. I am pleased to hear you have curtains but if you hope to come here soon was it worth getting them made I suppose it was.’
The rapid Sovietisation of Romania has forced their hand: Joe and Helen start shipping their belongings to England, sending the most precious items first.
On 30 December 1947, King Michael is forced to abdicate. That evening, in a rigged meeting of Parliament, the monarchy is abolished and replaced by the Romanian People’s Republic. Speed being an essential element in any heist, only 45 minutes are allowed for the whole proceeding, twenty minutes of which are devoted to applause. Michael Hohenzollern leaves by train for Switzerland, to take his place among the exiled grandees of Europe.
17 January 1948, Weybridge, c/o Redgraves. ‘I certainly hope that this New Year will bring us together very soon … Easter here is very early this year: 28th MARCH! I hope you will both be settled here before then.’
Robin and Micheline Redgrave are safe in England with their daughters. Donald and Peter sometimes stay with them in the holidays. They see very little of Roy, who is now rising in the ranks of the Royal Household Guard, having joined in late 1944, shortly after his 19th birthday. In the very last days of the war, while he was leading a scouting party near the River Oste, west of Hamburg, a German rocket had hit his armoured car. He was behind the car at the time, taking a piss on the rear wheel, but he managed to drag his gunner out of the smoking turret. Despite being wounded under fire, he saved the gunner, earning the Military Cross.
8 February 1948, Clifton College. ‘Daddy, I think that you will never be able to get a re-entry visa so please use the exit one if you have it. I am sure such a clever Poppa as I have must be able to get a job here!! … at long last, the crate has arrived. I am very pleased that it was not lost and also that my accordion was in it.’
The enormous crate contained everything Joe and Helen could squeeze into it. The rest of their possessions they have either sold or given away. Joe’s exit permit has expired and he is trying to get it renewed. He is under surveillance by the secret police. Every aspect of Romania’s political and social structure is now targeted by the Siguranţa (to be replaced in August by the Securitate). Thousands of citizens are arrested without charge, tortured and deported to labour camps as ‘a danger to society’. Romanians replace normal conversation with coded messages or parables. Or silence.
3 March 1948, Clifton College. ‘The news that you will be here in June is the best I have had since I knew I was going to you last summer, and it is even better than that because I now know that I will, at last, have a home in England.’
On the night of 3 March, George Moriatti, director general of Steaua Romana, a Romanian national, flees the country along with his wife and sister-in-law. A week earlier, he had authorised a large withdrawal of Steaua funds to finance his escape. Alexander Evans signed off the transfer and Joe countersigned, apparently innocent of its purpose.
8 April 1948, Old Manor, Dunster. ‘Mummy, I am very pleased that you will, I hope, be here so soon but at the same time I am very sorry that you, Daddy, will have to stay on a bit longer. Still, I suppose it is all to the good as you will still have your job … I hope you will both hurry and come and get a house so till my next letter or till I see you I send you all my very best love and lots of kisses, Peter.’
22 April 1948, Old Manor, Dunster. ‘This letter is, I hope, mainly for you, Daddy, as I hope Mummy will be here [crossed out] have left before this letter arrives. If she has, please hurry and follow her. Thank you very much for the letters we received this morning of the 12th and 15th containing all the stamps for Donald. He has catalogued some of them and has already found two of £12 each if they are not forgeries! He thinks that the whole lot may be worth about £50!! Donald and some friends are going to cycle to Cheddar and back tomorrow, 40 miles each way. Only three days of the holidays left now. Time has absolutely flown past. Anyhow I hope it will be the last three days of holidays I will ever spend without you.’
Sometime between this letter and the next, Helen leaves Bucharest by the newly resumed but distinctly shabby Orient Express. Since Moriatti’s escape, wives of the imperialist jackals ‘stealing oil from the state-owned subsoil’ are being watched. When the train reaches Curtici, on the border with Hungary, plain-clothes police take Helen off and search her luggage. By the time they’ve finished, the train has left. She eventually makes her way back to London, and to the gloomy flat in Chelsea.
By early June, Joe is aware that the state-installed administrator of Steaua Romana, a communist, is reporting directly to the Siguranţa.
6 June 1948, Clifton College. ‘Dear Mummy, I sincerely hope Daddy will be here on the 15th so that I will see him at commemoration … You made a very wise decision about houses and the important thing now is to get a furnished flat in time for next holidays. You must think A Matter of Life and Death very good to see it three times! … I am anxiously awaiting more news from you.’
On 7 June, Alexander Evans leaves Bucharest at 23.10 on the Orient Express, for consultations with head office in London. His passport and exit visa are in order. He takes his pocketbook with him.
10 June 1948, Clifton College. ‘Dear Mummy, I am enclosing a pair of pyjamas. There is a huge rip in the seat of the trousers. I do not want to trust it to the matron so I am sending it to you. Could you please wash and mend it and send it back to me?’
Helen is anxious to hear from Joe. On 11 June, the British Legation in Bucharest receives a telegram from an eyewitness claiming that at 1 p.m. on 8 June Alexander Evans was taken off the train at the border by three plain-clothes officers. Consular inquiries are met with silence. Romanian industry, banking, insurance, oil, mining and transport are nationalised. Joe no longer has a job.
On 16 June, nine days after Evans’s disappearance, it is confirmed that he has been arrested and is being held at the Interior Ministry for questioning. His pocketbook with the coded entries is in the hands of the police, and they now want to pull Joe in. They go to Joe’s flat but he isn’t there, having taken refuge in the British consul’s residence. It is feared that ‘if Mr Slomnicki were to leave the consul’s house he would almost certainly be arrested by the police agents on watch there.’
Evans is formally charged with fraudulent use of Steaua Romana’s funds. On the morning of 1 July, Joe, accompanied by a legation official, goes to the tribunal dealing with the case to make a deposition. He is immediately arrested and taken for questioning about an accusation brought against him in relation to the alleged fraud. The consul intervenes and, ‘after 24 hours of stormy interviews with everybody concerned’, obtains Joe’s release with the guarantee he will not leave the country.
3 July 1948, Clifton College. ‘Dear Mummy, I am just scribbling a few words to ask you to send as soon as possible a note saying that I am allowed to go down a coalmine next Tuesday. Don’t worry, it is not dangerous so please send it as quickly as possible to get here by Tuesday … Have you had news from Daddy?’
Now released, Joe has returned to his flat. His line is tapped, telegrams are unsafe, as are letters unless sent via the legation in the diplomatic bag. For one week, Helen is unaware of his whereabouts. News of Evans’s arrest having been widely broadcast in the British media, including the BBC, she fears the worst.
9 July 1948, Clifton College. ‘Dear Mummy, Thank goodness Daddy is safe back in the flat now. I hope this idea of a collective visa for all oil men works out! … I am so pleased you managed to get a cottage for the holidays. Has it a nice garden? How many rooms etc? Please send all particulars. Also I hope the rent is not as much as that awful place in Chelsea! … Please keep writing and telling me of any further news of Daddy.’
The Evans trial opens the same day. It is held at the Prefecture of Police, in ‘a dirty, noisy, shoddy little courtroom in which thieves, drunkards, prostitutes and other dregs of the Bucharest population are normally tried’. Evans is brought to the court in a lorry with other prisoners, then taken back to the verminous Văcăreşti prison where he shares a cell with seventy other men. Unlike them, he is spared the repeated interrogations, accompanied by ‘the crudest forms of torture’, that take place in the middle of the night. Over the next three months, Joe regularly takes food to him in prison.
On 25 August 1948, the Associated Press reports that ‘two Britons and several Romanians are to face trial at Bucharest on charges of misusing National Bank credits granted to the oil companies for which they worked, it was officially announced last night. The Britons are Alexander Evans and Joe Flomniki [sic], who will face charges brought against them as managers of … Steaua Romana.’
26 August 1948, Llanishen, near Cardiff. ‘If Daddy does not get out in the very near future I am going to steal a helicopter and fly there and rescue him!’
On 23 September 1948, the legation telegraphs the Foreign Office that the ‘Evans case is not going well and may end in a grave denial of justice in which Slomnicki may be involved.’
28 September 1948, Clifton College. ‘Daddy must be pretty fed up if he does not even mind where he lives! So are we. Why can’t he pinch a plane and fly away? … I am so pleased you have managed to find some rooms for you and Daddy, so that you can start house-searching from there.’
17 October 1948, Clifton College. ‘Thank goodness that letter from Daddy did eventually arrive! But did you see today’s Sunday Times about Evans!!! 4,900,000 lei to Steaua, 4000 damages and 900 fined + 3 YEARS. The grossest injustice ever. Of course he lodged an appeal. Is it not awful! … I have just gone to Clifton, cashed the £1, and got a pot of plum jam, off the ration.’
16 November 1948, Clifton College. ‘I am so pleased you have got somewhere for us next holidays and if Daddy is not there with us I will get so annoyed, that I will – well I don’t know what I will do! How big is the house? What’s it like? Please tell me all about it.’
The same day, the legation reports to the Foreign Office that ‘since June Mr Slomnicki has remained in Bucharest in constant fear of arrest, spending most of his time on Legation premises. This life is beginning to tell on him, and he has recently shown signs of nervousness and dissatisfaction with what is being done on his behalf.’ It is agreed that Joe’s ‘position is intolerable, and has been so for months’ and that ‘the time has clearly come for something drastic to be done,’ but the Foreign Office is keen to avoid the ‘strong possibility that an awkward Parliamentary Question may soon be asked on behalf of Mrs Slomnicki’. The problem is, as all parties know, Evans is guilty as charged and so is Joe.
On 20 November, Evans is released on bail at midday, pending appeal. Bail is set at £26,000 (£600,000 in today’s money) and is paid by the Foreign Office, though the sum has in fact been raised by Steaua Romana in London, which did ‘not wish their name to be associated with the transaction lest their shareholders accuse them of compounding a felony’. Basically, this is a get-out-of-jail bribe, the plan being to spirit Evans out of the country. The case against Joe has stalled and ‘it remains a matter of urgency to get him out [before] the Romanians have more time to [prepare other] charges.’
25 November 1948, Clifton College. ‘In exactly one month’s time from now it will be Xmas day and if Daddy is not with us then I’ll break the neck of every Russian or Communist I see … About my wishes I would not mind some odd records or maybe an exposure meter for my photography, or I would not mind a new car, or a home, or a room of my own, or a nice wireless, or lots of things, but most are impossible!’
Joe did get back in time for Christmas. After much haggling, including the threat to block the sale of tractors to Romania, the Foreign Office prevailed. He was granted an exit visa on Thursday, 9 December 1948, and booked a flight to Prague for the Saturday. At the last minute the flight was suspended because of bad weather and he raced to the station, got on a train, passed the border – no doubt in a state of acute anxiety, and with barely a suitcase – and a few days later was in London. He never spoke to his sons about the affair, except to say that he had spent one night in prison and that was more than enough.
As for Evans, the hearing of his appeal was endlessly delayed, and on 22 January 1949 he was given an exit visa (and a re-entry visa, should he be stupid enough to return for the verdict). He left the country that day. A week later, his appeal was rejected. Moriatti, who, it turns out, had links to British intelligence, was sentenced in absentia to five years. Most of Joe’s Romanian colleagues were defendants in show trials or simply disappeared. Mircea Cancicov, the chairman of the Steaua Romana Board from 1941 until 1947, and Istrate Micescu, a commercial lawyer who had handled work for the company, were both sentenced to 25 years, to be served in the notorious prison complex of Aiud, in Transylvania. Micescu, who was seventy, survived only two years.
There is a coda. Vlad Eker, Joe’s colleague who had been supported with secret cash payments after he was purged, attempted by various means to escape the country. Just before Christmas 1953, he was arrested and ‘interrogated’ for six months in a basement of the Securitate in Ploieşti. Charged with treason, economic sabotage and attempting to leave the country illegally, he was sentenced to two years in prison. During his trial, evidence was produced of the illicit payments he had received from the ‘convicted’ criminal Joseph Slomnicki. Joe, traded for tractors, was indeed found guilty, in absentia, for his part in the Steaua Romana fraud. I don’t know how many years he was sentenced to, only that he didn’t serve them. Better out of Romania than dead, as the saying went.
Ascrap of newspaper, brown with age, is being carefully unfolded in the palm of someone’s hand. Whose? Where are we? A room with windows to our backs, an open door ahead and beyond that a wall with a long diagonal crack in the plaster. My father is here, and my brother Alexander, but this is not our house. Somebody is handing the scrap to my father. They are talking about it. I don’t know what it says. Something to do with Daddy’s father? A bad thing. I am distracted, someone is holding a glass of white wine but when it’s turned upside down the wine doesn’t fall out.
It wasn’t a dream, but a memory, albeit one I had attached to the wrong crisis. It’s been knocking around in my head like a bluebottle and now it’s finally out. It’s April 1977, we are in the house of Granny Helen’s sister Marta, in Câmpina. The wall is cracked because of a recent earthquake, and the wine glass is a trick performed by Tudor, Marta’s grandson – he offers it to me, pretends to stumble and the glass tips over but instead of spilling, the wine magically disappears. Tudor found it in the attic while searching for the newspaper cutting. The article is in Romanian, but Daddy’s ability to understand any language other than English has been lost, like Eeyore’s tail, so Marta’s daughter, Sanda, is translating it for him: ‘Joseph Slomnicki … Steaua Romana … economic saboteur … enemy of the People’s Republic of Romania … sentenced to … years in prison.’
Daddy is leaning over the article as Sanda reads, and when she stops, he takes a step back and blinks several times. He looks like he has eaten ashes. Tudor takes the article back to the attic along with the wine glass, while we go downstairs to be with Granny Helen and Tante Marta. Granny has hardening of the arteries, which always makes me think of traffic jams, and she is sitting in the porch asking, in German, for her sister – ‘Where is Marta? Where is Marta?’ – while Marta, who is sitting next to her, gently strokes her hand.
Helen’s return to Romania was as disorienting as her previous departures, the first under the eyes of German soldiers in October 1940, the second under the eyes of Stalinist secret police in the spring of 1948. By the time of our visit in 1977, she was already lost in dementia, a stranger in her own midst. She did not recognise the house she had shared with Joe, the house where her children had played, with the garden full of tulips and the climbing pole and swing; the house where her widowed mother had lived on the top floor and, just weeks after Joe and Helen and the boys fled to Istanbul, cowered under her eiderdown, rubble falling around her, as a massive earthquake brought down the ceiling in the boys’ room; the house where her mother had died in 1943, the news delivered to Helen in Cairo; the house that had long since been expropriated by the Communists and turned into a municipal library.
For the greater part of our visit, Helen was somewhere very distant. Her sister and nieces loved her with a quiet, simple confidence that she might yet be able to receive some comfort, and a couple of times she did actually recognise them, with the astonishment of someone who finds herself surrounded by guests at a surprise birthday party, only to forget immediately afterwards who they were. For my father, it was a great strain, and he couldn’t wait to get away, so we left for a week, touring his favourite childhood places in a rented Dacia with a back seat that levitated every time we hit a bump in the road.
We went to Poiana, in the mountains of Braşov, and tried to ski on the last patch of snow. We found the holiday cottage Joe had bought, which had been requisitioned as a first-aid post, so we walked in and Daddy told the indifferent receptionist that this was his father’s house and that (pointing) was his tiled stove. We took long walks in the ancient forests, following shepherds’ tracks up to the high meadows, and there, alone among the wild flowers, we laid out a picnic of whatever food we had found in the almost empty shops, washed down with something optimistically labelled as orange juice: a flavoured powder combined with sorbic acid. You had to shake the bottle to mix the contents together, and it brought on a fierce thirst which sent us looking for the nearest stream, Daddy scooping the water so that we could drink from his cupped hands.
We bounced along in the Dacia to Bran Castle, home, or so we believed, of Vlad the Impaler, better known as Dracula. At the entrance, we were told to remove our shoes and step into fluffy cotton slippers, so as not to scratch the polished stone floors. We shuffled into the sepulchral silence of the fortress, the temperature dropping as we moved from the outer halls to the interior rooms. When Daddy whispered ‘How would you like your stake? Rare, medium, or through and through?’ we collapsed in giggles.
There was nothing in the museum guide about the castle having belonged to Queen Marie, or the casket containing her heart that was interred in the chapel in 1940, brought here from her summer residence in Southern Dobruja just days before it was lost to Bulgaria. Her daughter Ileana had it placed in a marble sarcophagus and cemented in so firmly that when she had to flee the country after the monarchy was abolished, she couldn’t get it out again. It stayed at Bran until the regime desecrated the chapel in 1971, after which it was put in a storeroom at the National History Museum in Bucharest. (It remained there until November 2015, when it was taken by her descendants back to her Carpathian palace and placed in the room in which she died.)
We returned to Câmpina with our stories. Daddy was less impatient with his mother now, even learning to ignore her habit of taking her false teeth out and placing them in the nearest cup of tea. We all adjusted to the oddities, including her request to see her mother, who had been dead for more than thirty years. There we were, in a broken country with a broken woman who couldn’t put the pieces together again, but we were together and we were happy.
There was a large covered balcony at Tante Marta’s house, and we spent a lot of time under its shadow in the afternoon. It was there that Marta’s older daughter, Rodica, handed my father a handkerchief in which were wrapped three gold Napoleonic coins. She explained that she had hidden them in the autumn of 1940, when the Germans occupied the nearby oilfields. She had cycled to the woods, dug a hole under a tree and buried the coins along with a few other valuables. After the war she went back to dig them up, but the trees had grown and it took her hours to find the spot. Shortly after the coup that unseated King Michael in 1947, she hid them again and now, she said, she wanted Daddy to have them. He protested, but she insisted: she was too scared to hold onto them because ownership of any foreign currency was illegal under Ceauşescu’s dictatorship. Daddy eventually relented, saying he would keep them safe for her. When we packed to leave for the airport, he tied them into a knot in his handkerchief, which he put in his pocket. We had to go through a metal detector at the airport but fortunately, like everything else, it was broken and we passed without any trouble. Rodica is long since gone, but my younger brother, Hugo, has the coins in safekeeping.
There was a law forbidding any foreigner except for a relative in the first degree to stay in a Romanian home. Helen, as Marta’s sister, could and did stay in her house. As Marta’s nephew, Daddy could also have stayed there, but Alexander and I could not, so he had taken a room for the three of us at a nearby hotel. Every night, after brushing our teeth, we would plant a blob of toothpaste in the middle of the bathroom mirror, to obscure the gaze of the secret policeman who, we were convinced, was spying on us from the other side. We were the only guests in the hotel (it felt like we were the only tourists in the whole of Romania), but there were always several men in hideous oversized suits hanging around in the silent lobby.
Many years later, Sanda told me that soon after we flew back to England she had been called in by the local Securitate. I apologised profusely for causing her trouble. She laughed, said that by then she was no longer scared, and had told the Securitate goons that she knew who they were, she was old enough to be their mother and remembered them in shorts.
She also told me that her ambition had been to become a doctor, and as a young medical student in the war she had amputated a man’s leg after a British bombing raid on the oil refineries in Câmpina. She was given a little saw and told to get on with it. I said that must have been terrifying. ‘No, no,’ she answered brightly, ‘I enjoyed it, I knew it was something I was good at. But the Securitate knew that Joe Slomnicki was my uncle – they reminded me of this every time they called me in – and they blocked my way, so I had to settle with being a dentist instead. They were stupid, no? They lost a good doctor.’
Three years after this visit, on New Year’s Eve, 1980, Elena-Helen Hotz-Hotti-Slomnicki-Saunders died. A few days earlier, Daddy took us to see her in the care home. She was in bed, very weak, but able to raise her arm to admire her bracelet and mutter something in German. She was dying in a language we could not understand. Maybe she was trying to tell us the story of the bracelet, that it was given to her as surety when she and Marta fled the German invasion of Romania in 1916, that she managed to hold onto it through every twist and turn thereafter. I truly believe that, as she turned the blue plastic beads on their nylon thread, she saw and felt the gold bracelet on her wrist.
Nostalgia settles on a lie, it’s the way we cope with reality. Helen had it in spades, but I never felt that Daddy was possessed by it as she was. His version of nostalgia was more like a creature that appears every now and then, leaves its scent, and slopes off again. From a distance, he regarded his childhood home with affection, but he did not strain to recreate it. My father’s problem wasn’t that he was trying to sustain an earlier fantasy – of belonging, of recognising and being recognised – but that he wasn’t capable of making a new one.
So many houses, none of them home. After Joe’s escape from Romania, there was a rental in Woodspring Road, Surrey. Here, they took on a Mrs Saunders as a cleaner. Was it a coincidence that Saunders was the name taken by deed poll, in January 1949, when ‘Joseph George Saunders, a naturalised British subject, renounced and abandoned on behalf of himself, his wife and children and remoter issue the surname of Slomnicki’? ‘I’m not sure,’ Peter told me, ‘but it had to start with an “S” because that was the initial engraved on the family silver.’
Next came Brickfield Farm in Sussex, purchased with Joe’s one-off payment from Steaua Romana (‘In recognition of his loyal service under arduous, difficult and sometimes dangerous conditions’). It was here that they unpacked the crate that had been sent from Câmpina in early 1948; the crate itself they used as a garage for Joe’s new car. They set up as poultry farmers, the boys pitching in during the school holidays to install fencing and coops and incubators and whatever else it takes to make an egg. (Former King Michael was doing the same in Hertfordshire.) Joe and Helen made a loss, despite Robin Redgrave’s help, and gave it and the house up when they moved to Papua New Guinea, where Joe prospected for oil and Helen, finding herself in the middle of a steaming jungle, far away from far away, had a meltdown.
When they returned a year later, they bought a house at 25 Green Lane, Purley. Donald had started National Service and Peter was still at boarding school, trying to visualise the new house: ‘Is it old, new, like the rest in the road, warm, cold, high, low, good floors, draught-proof windows, attic, shed in garden, big or small garage???? We might be able to use those lovely brass chandeliers from Romania with a bit of alteration for the different English bulbs.’
Joe was offered work in Canada, so off he went to Calgary with Helen. And so it went, the Wanderjahre of necessity, the incompatibility of lightbulbs, until Joe died in England in November 1966, aged 73. He had become a man of few words, there being, perhaps, too much that could be said. Shortly after his death, Peter found a piece of paper on a table by his father’s bedside, on which he had begun to scratch out the words of the Lord’s Prayer.
Donald was 35, married with two very young children and pursuing a successful career as an economist for a merchant bank. He had shared the first nine years of his life with his father, before the night when the steamer put out from the port of Constanţa, carrying them away from their home and from each other. Over the 26 years that followed, the time Donald spent with Joe amounted to a matter of months. They became strangers to each other. How could it be otherwise?
I don’t remember anything about my grandfather (I was barely six months old when he died), but when I look at photographs of him in his later years – unsmiling, detached – I think of T.S. Eliot’s hollow men surveying the dead land.
How to get into my father’s house: get out of the car, take your bag from the boot, walk to an opening with no door and stand under the lintel. Wait as Daddy goes in and gropes in the dark for a set of keys which are hidden on top of the oil tank, along with a torch. Once the torch is on, try to ignore the cobwebs slung like fishing nets – concentrate instead on Daddy as he unlocks a door immediately to your right. This door leads into a large utility room with a bare cement floor. Enter behind Daddy, wait for him to turn off the torch and switch on the strip light which hums and flickers as if it has forgotten its purpose, then proceed straight across the room and up a few steps to another door. Wait as Daddy turns a different key in this lock, then enter the long galley kitchen, at the end of which, on the right, is a door that swings both ways. Wait with your bag while Daddy disappears through it into the room beyond where the alarm is. When the beeps stop follow him into the next room and turn left through a door that gives onto the sitting room and the house proper.
My childhood was a study of the register of closing doors. When slammed, the front door of our house in West London (the one we all lived in until suddenly we didn’t) returned a sonic boom that shook the whole house. The door in the kitchen of Daddy’s house swished back and forth with a pneumatic sigh, and was therefore not good for slamming, though he did try it once or twice. The door of my bedroom had a latch which closed with a snap, though I preferred to keep it open at night so I could see the light coming from underneath Daddy’s bedroom door at the end of the landing. This door was very odd, the previous owners having strapped a mattress to it. It closed with a kind of squishy thump, and it was very hard for a child to open, but I don’t think Daddy had any intention of keeping us out, just that this was the door as he found it.
I don’t understand why my memory falls so stubbornly on the unhomeliness of Daddy’s house. The forbidding ritual of crossing dark thresholds, the hollowness of a house only lived in at weekends (until he remarried, he worked in London, using a rented flat during the week), the gaps between the tins of food in the kitchen cupboards – yet I seem to have privileged this feeling over other feelings, as if the home I’m most comfortable remembering is the one where there was the least comfort.
Being in my father’s house was not as depressing as I like to fancy. It’s as if I have chosen to fatten my grief with grievance rather than selecting from other images, such as his delight when I finally landed the ping-pong ball on his side of the table, or in raising a clod of earth to show me a nest of baby rabbits (he gently replaced it and stopped digging that border); in unlocking the mystery of cooking frozen peas (no more ‘bullets’); in turning over the treasures I found with my metal detector (one fork and a chunk of iron ore), or the fossils I picked out of the chalk gravel; in seeing me make my first, precarious loop of the garden on my bicycle, without safety wheels.
I don’t have the list Daddy made of his best childhood memories, the one he showed me that day when I was doing the washing-up after lunch, the one that got lost. I have long nurtured the hope that it might be in the suitcase. But why should I go looking for it if I can substitute it with a list of my own?
* Filling baskets with the season’s first strawberries at a nearby pick-your-own farm;
* Picking wild blueberries in the hills above Cheddar Gorge;
* Sitting together on the wicker sofa watching Dr Who, Alexander and I deliciously spooked by the psychedelic opening credits, and Dad’s Army (yeah, ‘Who do you think you are kidding, Mr Hitler?’ – Mr Hitler, who’s only got one ball, the other is in the Albert Hall);
* Fetching the box of decorations from the attic and untangling miles of Christmas lights;
* Lying in front of the fireplace looking in the flames for ‘pictures’;
* Preparing our suitcases for a skiing holiday;
* Eating oranges and Kendal Mint Cake high up on a mountain, our skis planted in the snow next to us;
* Flying kites on the top of Silbury Hill with Roy and Valerie Redgrave and their sons, Robin and Alexander, then whizzing down its steep grassy sides on sheets of cardboard.
The problem, I now see, is not that there was no happiness, but that it retreated so quickly – a function of our necessarily short stays with Daddy, but also of his recessive nature. He could withdraw very quickly into himself, and this produced an awkwardness – as in, ‘turned in the wrong direction’ – that was hard to correct. He did not oppose his own unhappiness, so I tried to eclipse it with a tungsten flare. He called me ‘Sparkles’, and for a while I enjoyed the power of making his eyes light up, but it was a deception, a false self, and eventually I got tired of it. As I entered my teenage years, the voltage dropped and I began to meet his withdrawals with my own. Schooled in disappointment, he reached for more, once saying, in front of Alexander and me, that a friend of his had recently announced that it was better to expect nothing from your children, that way they couldn’t let you down.
It was in the mountains that Daddy seemed most at home with himself. If he went to ski, he took us with him; if he went to trek or climb, he didn’t. He was an experienced mountaineer, with recorded climbs in the Alps, the Canadian Rockies and the Himalayas. He understood pitons, ropes, carabiners and belays, and his kit included crampons (they looked like animal traps) and a pickaxe for climbing ice walls. He had no fear of clinging to a rock face, even after a near-fatal fall in Canada in his twenties which tore the clothes off his back and most of the skin off one forearm, for which he had to have a skin graft. Odd as it sounds, I think that dangling on a rope over a sheer drop offered him a moment’s freedom from insecurity.
I’ve always wondered whether the course of his descent into dementia was entirely passive. It’s not that I believe he colluded with Alzheimer’s – like every disease, it has a mind of its own – but that, at some unconscious level, he may have been relieved to accept the offer of an exit from himself. The angle of his decline grew steeper and steeper and then he just plunged into the nowhere below. Physically, he survived for three, four years (was it more?), but it was as if his life had already passed and he was leading a posthumous existence while still in his body.
All this time, I’ve been asking where did he come from, when perhaps what I really meant to ask was, where did he go? He was so often not there, even when he was. I had no power to stop him going, and then he really left, for good. Sometimes, in my dreams, he reappears looking well, and is puzzled that we’re surprised to see him. Was it all a mistake? We thought you had lost your mind. And then you died. No? He is smiling. He doesn’t know what we’re referring to. He goes off to do some gardening.
When he was alive, Daddy was never so present to me as he has been in death. Chekhov suggested that ‘every happy man should have an unhappy man, in his closet, with a hammer, to remind him with his constant tapping, that not everyone is happy.’ Daddy is the man in the closet. Tap-tap-tap. Why does he haunt me? Or could it be that I am haunting him? Here I am, sitting at my kitchen table, surrounded by remnants of his life – documents, stamp albums, photographs, the two sixpences I found all those years ago when we were throwing his National Service uniform into the skip – demanding that he answer my questions. What’s the difference between this and Queen Victoria laying a place at the table for her Albert and draping his clothes over the chair? Or those Victorian memento mori photographs of the dead in full dress, doing everyday things like reading a book, as if they were alive? Which, paradoxically, was almost the case, because in the early days of slow-exposure photography the dead performed much better than the living: they kept absolutely still (with the help of hidden supports), whereas the living couldn’t hold their breath for long, tended to move slightly, which made them a bit blurred, ghostly.
Why can’t we allow the dead to be dead? C.S. Lewis remembers vaguely ‘all sorts of ballads and folk tales in which the dead tell us that our mourning does them some kind of wrong. They beg us to stop it.’ It is we who keep them at our beck and call, not the other way around. In my dreams, Daddy is riding the Piccadilly Line or doing the gardening because I have put him there.
There is no border crossing that will take me to my father, because he doesn’t exist. I have invented him. Not just in the sense that all memory is fictive – there is no original memory, we’re always remembering that we’re remembering – but because I needed a story to give shape to my own sense of loss. Perhaps I have invested so much in loss that I’m afraid of losing it. Is that possible? Can one really fear the loss of loss?
It’s said that a myth is a story about the way things never were but always are. Truth is not an event but a process. This is life, the struggle for the truth of yourself, and it won’t come right, but something of it may become available to you in small portions. As for my father, the truth is, he loved us to bits, with the bits of himself that could.
Tomorrow, I’m going to gather up all the documents and letters, the photographs and stamp albums with their identity parades of the dead, and take them in a suitcase to Peter’s house. I’m going to pull the ladder down and climb into the attic, and place my suitcase next to my father’s suitcase. And then I’m going to make my way home.