‘So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.’
- Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
When Henry told his mother the good news, Dorothy didn’t speak to him for a week.
Her husband Thomas – Tom to everyone else – hawked chocolate around post-war Britain. He was a sales representative for J. S. Fry and Sons, a very old, established company. Dunn & Co was his exclusive outfitter. He wore a tweed trilby, and a cotton and rayon three-piece that looked as if it had digested a course of iron tablets. Same colour as the product: brand loyalty and subliminal advertising rolled into one. Tom buzzed and rattled from call to call in a light grey Austin A30. With judicious teeming and lading, he invariably turned in his monthly numbers. Prematurely bald, Tom was fond of a drop of Bells and somewhat lazy. But he was a genial fellow; ever the cheeky smile and ready wit. Neither top-of-the-log and promoted, nor bottom and chopped. Tom did OK. Dorothy dutifully held the fort at The Inglenook, the stationers and newsagents they owned in Bradford-on-Avon. It had a Post Office franchise too; a nice little earner to ensure that life’s little necessities were affordable. Wouldn’t dream of living above the shop, though. That would be “trade”, which Dorothy emphatically was not. Well, she was, but on no account could she appear to be so. Dorothy was one thing, pretending to be another.
Tom and Dorothy had made sacrifices for the next generation. Given the children what they thought of as a sporting chance of making their way in the world. Mixing with the right set and so forth. Their two sons were war babies.Strangely, nobody saw a photograph of their wedding in 1939. Hastily arranged marriages never happened to respectable people like Tom and Dorothy, surely. Inconceivable conception. Anyway, following in Tom’s footsteps, once Henry and his brother reached seven, their father shook hands with them, and they were packed off to board full-time at a reputable public school in Hertfordshire. Their little sister Christine helped around the shop, awaiting puberty and eligibility. That was that. Parenting done.
The red-faced, chubby little chaps were groomed for a life of middle-class aspiration and advantage. They chanted Latin declensions. They were given slide rules for Christmas. They sang in the school choir. Scared witless of Prefects, violated by older boys, and inoculated with homophobia and racism. Along with a decent golf swing and knowledge of the rules of hockey, these were standard 1950s issue. All as it should be. Nothing wrong with that.
Henry wasn’t academically gifted. He invested two years nibbling away half-heartedly at Advanced Level Spanish only to confirm the examiners in their belief two years earlier, that he had attained the standard necessary for an Ordinary Level pass. To this day, he offers “Mi español es muy bien” to any unfortunate captive native. But he more than compensated with a funny handshake, unbounded self-confidence, and a PhD in small talk. Best of all, he inherited the godsend of barely rudimentary self-awareness.
Tight as a duck’s arse. In fact, Henry was mean, miserly and mothballed in the wallet department. But be fair, be fair. He had a wonderful generosity of spirit. He would happily give people hours of his time. He proved to be a stalwart sidesman in Westwood Parish Church for several years. He was kind and non-judgmental, subject only to considerations of monetary prudence, sexual preference and racial inheritance of course.
So, when proposing marriage to Auntie Kath, Henry’s was a compelling offer. Tip top career prospects; he was going places. About 50,000 miles a year as a trainee tinned tongue sales representative with C. T. Harris & Co of Calne. Henry was selling food, following in Tom’s footsteps. And as vice-captain of the Bath Men Hockey 1st XI, he offered a certain cachet. The handshake opened doors, two of them on the brand new pale-blue company Morris Minor. DLR829B. I can picture it now. Shiny silver hubcaps with an “M” picked out in relief at the centre.
Henry had squirreled away enough for the deposit on a bungalow in that nice new development at Woolley Green, Bradford-on-Avon. And he still had plenty left over for an Ercol lounge suite, a Pye Stereogram and a fabulous set of Andy Williams records. Honeymoon in Switzerland too.
Jesus, that was an intoxicating package for a girl who still lived in the council house she was born in. I’m not saying it was St Paul’s, Brixton or Toxteth, but if a crime was ever committed in West Wiltshire, the boys in blue knew just where to look. Go to Westwood, go straight to Westwood, and do not pass go… Switzerland? The furthest Kath had ventured was Swindon.
Although academically competent, Kath had not progressed to the Sixth Form. She worked part-time in local government. She did that so that she could tend her mother, who, thereby infantilised, did little and lapped up the attention. Thus began Kath’s selfless life of service to others: unfailingly dutiful.
All right, Henry was short and sturdy going on stocky, but he did have a full head of black hair combed into a quiff like Eddie Cochran. Well, I say stocky but maybe it was more. The hockey club lads were merciless. His name once appeared on the team sheet for Saturday in Thursday’s Bath & West Evening Chronicle as: ‘F.A.T. Beauchamp (Vice-Capt.)’ “Imagine the effrontery of it? Me, the captain! Well, very nearly. Who do they think they are?” Henry was incandescent with rage
And what did Kath have to offer in return? She was twenty three, with a beehive hairdo, elegant copper earrings, fit, lithe and beautiful. Captain of Bath Ladies Hockey 1st XI. Very practical; a Goddess with a sewing machine. She made the best lemon meringue pie in Southern England. No, scratch that, the whole of England, and great swathes of France too. And she could cut his hair for free. For Henry, that was the clincher. The free trims. They’d make a great team. Her virginal status was just a bit of bunce, the cherry on top. Or wherever girls keep their cherries.
Dorothy never quite got over Henry’s glad tidings, but thrice abstained when the vicar of Christ Church, Bradford-on-Avon enquired whether anyone knew of just cause or impediment. Why Christ Church? Imposing limestone edifice mimicking Salisbury Cathedral. Induces awe and appears ancient. The disinterested might assume the marriage service would be held in the bride’s parish, not the groom’s. In point of fact, Christ Church is not ancient at all; mid-Victorian and constructed because the well-heeled objected to traipsing down to a bad part of the town to worship God. Christ Church is one thing, pretending to be another.
So it was on 14th June 1964, just after 2.35pm, that the happy couple emerged from the west door beneath an inverted V-shaped arcade of interlocking hockey sticks. Everyone smiling in the direction of the camera. Full kit compulsory: shin pads, studded boots and all. Bath Men on the left, Bath Ladies on the right. Weather brisk but mercifully dry. The groom and bride looked picturesque; Henry was attired in an ebony lounge suit, white shirt and dark tie, and with shiny black winkle pickers. Kath wore a pure white dress and carried a bouquet of real flowers. Lilies, of course. The bridesmaids were in matching shiny sky blue dresses. A picture of happiness, smiles all round. Even Dorothy forced a grin for the group photographs. Catching sight of Kath’s family, she remarked loudly to no one in particular, “Oh! They’re quite well dressed.”
Sketchy recollection of the do afterwards. Two things remain. As a part of his welcoming address, Henry asked everyone if they’d kindly refrain from liberating the floral centerpiece on their table at the end of the festivities. They had to be returned by the following morning or his deposit would be forfeit. Secondly, even at my tender age, I could see that the best man was boring the pants off everybody by reading out the wedding cards: words on the front, pre-printed rhymes and dedications. Every single word. All of the cards. Verbatim.
Just as the last of the red, blue and yellow heart-shaped confetti petals settled on the grass, I was photographed offering (Auntie) Kath a glitzy plastic silver horseshoe suspended from a white ribbon. Perhaps the perspective distorts, but it looks the same size as my head. The shot caught me looking down, away from the lens, a bit overawed, tiny brow furrowed. Four years old, wearing a grey suit with shorts and sandals, my vast sticking out ears were as incongruous as the giant white carnation in my buttonhole.
Fifty years passed.
On Thursday 18th July last, we took Henry and Kath to dinner at The Priory Hotel, Bath, to mark their Golden Wedding Anniversary. I ought to have known what to expect. I remembered a framed photograph of Tom and Dorothy seated next to one another at their Golden Wedding celebration. The photograph rested on the lounge mantle piece in Henry and Kath’s already empty nest.
Tom and Dorothy were looking towards the camera and, if you were feeling generous, you would say they each wore a faint smile. A clear physical distance separated their chairs. They lived apart. They had needed to be separated. His drinking had got out of hand and she was unpleasant to him. But nobody liked to talk about that. Not on that day anyway. The photograph captured one thing, pretending to be another.
Henry and Kath retreated from Bradford-on-Avon to Westwood in the late sixties. And they still live in that same village now. Five bedroom detached house, nineties built, comfortably distant from the council estate. They had journeyed the grand total of three miles in half a century. But even if they are locked together in a stasis, things have changed around them. My old primary school is a converted chapel, a private dwelling. I find myself a stranger in the village of my childhood. Incomers inhabit the houses of old friends and neighbours. The Mummerset accent of my youth long gone.
We motored down, arriving at about 4.30pm. Deliberately leaving it late, not wanting to run out of conversation too early. They were both wrapping china figurines in old newspaper when we walked into the house.
“Good run? Would you like a ham sandwich? No? Cup of tea then?”
“No thanks, saving our appetites for dinner.”
“We haven’t got anything for breakfast.”
“No problem, I’ll nip to Sainsbury’s.”
Just as I am about to set off, the passenger door opens. Henry jumps in beside me, gammy leg notwithstanding.
What does he want to tell me? I soon find out. Kath doesn’t cook any more. He has to do everything, look after her. Her mind’s going. He resents it.
It’s best just to listen. This is a celebration; I don’t want to mar the occasion with a dust up. Anyhow, Henry, what about the time she nursed you after the car crash when you lost your kneecap? And she still drives you to play golf after your mini strokes doesn’t she? How would you manage without her? Marriage: it’s a team sport isn’t it? For better, for worse, in sickness and in health, and all that…
Half an hour later, Kath’s kitchen cupboards are freshly stocked: jam packed with boxes of muesli. Fresh fruit chills in the fridge. Large black cherries. Juicy and ripe. Her favourite. Sorted.
“Would you like a ham sandwich?”
“No thanks, Kath.”
“Cup of tea then?”
“No, really, we’re fine. We’d better change for dinner in a minute.”
“You mustn’t worry about me. I’m all right really. Just a bit slow.”
“Take your time, there’s no great hurry.”
“Where’s my bag, Henry?”
“You don’t need your bag.”
“But I want it.”
“You don’t need it; we can leave it here.”
I find out later he’s been taking money from her bag. Adds to her confusion.
“Would you like a ham sandwich?”
“Please don’t worry Kath; we’re fine thanks.”
We set off. Perversity leads me to invoke the assistance of satnav to announce the ten-mile route I know backwards: “Please proceed about two miles on the highlighted route.” I love the informality of the “about” when the satellite knows the distance perfectly well to the nearest two yards. I love the unflappable female voice with its unvarying tempo and volume too. Not one of my endearing characteristics, but it is guaranteed to irritate Henry. We anticipated the “I never needed satnav when I was on the road” conversation.
Henry’s taken the bait: “Did you read about that bloke from Edgbaston last week? Missed his own wedding because of satnav.” Leading to… “They only introduced tax on company cars because of office workers” (the “like you” unspoken), “and genuine business travellers” (the “like me” unsaid) “were clobbered.”
Another pause. “I’d never go this way: Batheaston and the toll bridge are much quicker at this time of night.”
“Have I got my bag?”
“You left it behind, remember?”
The early evening sun stifles as we sit on the terrace overlooking the neatly manicured lawns, box hedges and borders. The temperature, fuelled by convection from the sandy coloured limestone patio, nudges thirty five degrees. Air almost still. The glorious brightness of the vivid scarlet, orange and yellow chrysanthemums eludes photography. My nostrils discern the faint perfume of stocks and nicotiana. Family groups and couples crowd under white parasols, which tastefully advertise Bollinger. Unusually, a paucity of smart phones is in evidence; revellers are rapt in conversation.
I order four kir-royals and copious mineral water. To our right, a friendly German couple with their teenage children, a boy and a girl, are dressed smartly for dinner. Tourists on holiday in residence, I envy their easy familiarity with the French waiters. The children laugh with their parents. Thank God they are not Spanish, or Henry would attempt conversation. Horseplay and guffaws from clean cut Americans in their preppie get up – Abercrombie flip flops, shorts and T-shirts – enjoying a hopeless game of croquet on the lawn. Glorious. Assignation on the table to our left: hands are held, champagne is sipped, promises are whispered. Canoodling. Passionflowers run riot up the walls on the trellis. The rich aroma of a good cigar wafts gently over from somewhere more distant.
“Well cheers! Belated congratulations to you two!”
“Where’s my bag?”
Boom! There go the formalities. What do we talk about now?
“Second aperitif, Henry?”
“No thanks. More sparkling water would be great.”
Escorted to the restaurant. Our eyes adjust to the light. A regiment of mahogany tables lined up for inspection throughout. Tasteful glass vases of pink chrysanthemums, and white candles in silver holders stand firmly to attention. All places are set for a sumptuous feast; sparkling crystal and immaculate gleaming cutlery is aligned with geometrical precision. Pastel green carpet, slight give in the pile. Cream coloured walls, eggshell finish. The same paint roams seamlessly over discrete boxes imprisoning radiators that peep unseen through diamond shaped slats. Silent air-conditioning works overtime, but the atmosphere is defiantly cloying. Overhead spots pick out an oil of Beau Nash and lithographs depicting various scenes of Georgian splendour on the walls.
Menus appear, sienna-coloured luxuriously leather-bound volumes. The pages are crisp. Dishes are all written in French causing slight consternation and embarrassment.
“What does quenelle mean?”
“Shh… don’t ask.”
“Wine list, sir?”
“No thanks, we’d prefer to rely on your sommelier’s expertise.”
“Water for the table?”
“Yes please, still and sparkling, large one of each.”
Kath hasn’t drunk half of her kir-royal. The remainder must be warm by now. Henry snaps up the offer of a third sharpener. Henry is fond of a drop, following in Tom’s footsteps. A crisp riesling appears to accompany his amuse-bouche, an alleged gift from the chef. Alleged because it’s priced in somewhere. A gift from the chef is one thing, pretending to be another.
We are not seated at a table in a prime location. It’s somewhere at the back, away from the grand sash-windows with their chunky brass clasps and garden views. Residents emerge unnoticed in dribs and drabs filling the best spots. Diners converse in hushed tones: they invent stories about the occupants of neighbouring tables, when not straining to overhear their conversations. I am wrongly made to feel as if it’s a privilege to eat here. We’re paying. But our guests don’t notice. They’re smiling. We are invited to order. All four of us need spectacles: “They’re in my bag.”
It’s a difficult moment. I’m annoyed for my Auntie. “Here Kath, do borrow mine.”
“Any questions on the menu?”
“No problem, I’ll give you a few more minutes.”
When they arrive, the bread rolls are home baked. Flavoured variously with olives, pumpkin seeds, walnuts and tomatoes. Choice of butter (at room temperature, not directly from the fridge) and olive oil with just a splash of balsamic vinegar. They have a soothing effect. Now slightly more relaxed after the spectacles irritation, we move on… a small mercy. Catching up on children’s, and in their case, grandchildren’s lives. Safe ground, going through the motions. Kath asks whether our daughter is still in her flat with the turret window in Edinburgh. No: I remind her she graduated in June. Does she remember the photographs?
“Oh yes”, she replies unconvincingly.
Until from left field, the conversation heads sharply south…
“Did we tell you the kids took us to Spain for a fortnight? Stayed in their flat. Didn’t cost us a penny. Super it was. First-floor balcony. We had the pool to ourselves. Well very nearly. Sunny every day. Tanqueray – that’s what they call Gordon’s over there – only nine euros fifty a litre. Mind you, they’ve lost a packet on the property. Economy stopped dead in 2008. Half-finished construction everywhere…”
I feel obliged to acknowledge him: “Henry, the holiday sounds great.”
But there’s no stopping him: “You went to a bullfight in Seville, didn’t you?” He isn’t really interested in whether we did or did not. It’s a cue for another of his stories. But I can’t let him think we went to a bullfight: “No, we took a guided tour of the bullring because we thought we should, instead of criticising in ignorance. From a distance it had sounded to us like barbarism. And having seen the bullring, even when it’s empty, we concluded readily that it is. Barbaric, I mean.”
This flies clean over his head. He’s damned well going to tell his story, but encounters an unforeseen duel.
“Well, we went to this festival.”
“I don’t want to hear it …”
“It’s not gruesome, so as I was saying….”
“Look Kath, there’s nothing gory!”
“I don’t want to hear it anyway.”
I wish he would listen and stop interrupting her.
“Well, there were these idiots running into the sea to avoid the charging…”
Fellow diners look over. The cheerful Germans aren’t smiling now. The Americans are. Now I really am grateful none of them are Spanish.
“Actually, Henry, we don’t want to hear it either …”
“And the bulls ran into the sea after them, bloody idiots. Two drowned, happens every year… ha, ha, ha…”
Silence. Everywhere. Conversations elsewhere slowly recommence. Ours doesn’t. The waiter reappears.
“Ready to order now?”
“Yes, I think so.”
Henry orders oxtail soup.
“…and for sir, to accompany your filet de boeuf en croûte, I have chosen the 2004 Aloxe-Corton Grand Cru Les Bressandes. Rusty coloured with notes of cooked fruit. Flavours of stewed cherries and caramel, with a light but mouth-filling texture…” Henry’s more than a little merry by now. He interrupts, rudely: “Yeh, fill her up.” It’s as though his glass is a petrol tank.
“Yes, Happy Anniversary.”
I surreptitiously glance at my watch.
“Would you like more water for the table?”
So Kath’s short-term memory is a concern. I decide to probe the long term. It’ll circumvent him filling the space with further tales of heroics on the links at Lansdown. None of us has a nodding acquaintance with golf.
“Kath, the other day, I was trying to remember those skipping songs. You know, from Granddad’s childhood.”
She trots it out without hesitation:
“I have a bonnet, trimmed with blue,
Why don’t you wear it? So I do.
I do wear it, when I can,
Take a walk with my young man.
My young man, has gone to France,
To teach the ladies how to dance.
First on heel, second on toe,
That’s the way the ladies go.
Down the alley, courting Sally,
Picking up cinders, smashing winders
Bobby after me.
No more talking, no more laughing,
No more showing teeth.
When the law counts: one, two, three!”
I crack first and laugh. The others join in. In my case, it’s relief that she has it all off pat. I last heard it decades ago. She’s on a roll now.
Cows ought not to eat nasty turnip stumps. That was Granddad’s pneumonic for contents. He could never remember how to spell it for reasons that always defeated us. Not a difficult word phonetically, is it?
She dredges up another memory:
“I shall nev-ver forgive him.”
Of course! She’s quoting my Great Auntie … I’d quite forgotten her. She was a delightful dotty old spinster, still furious in the 1960s about the Dissolution of the Monasteries. More laughter. The family favourites are trotted out, one by one. Kath is smiling. It’s nice. So she’s all there when she’s engaged. But nonetheless, I risk indigestion as my magret de canard à l’orange disappears. I want to leave while the going’s good. It’s been a lowering evening but we’ve almost got through it. I’m peeking at my watch with increasing frequency now.
We’re all full, or some of us say we are. Henry fancies the tarte tatin with double crème and a Muscat de Beaumes de Venise. I order these, thé à la menthe fraîche, and the bill simultaneously. I care only vaguely about the total, feeling a growing urge to depart. Then the elephant charges into the room, knocking over the table, and sending crockery, glass, flowers, (now lit) candles and cutlery flying in all directions.
“Did we tell you we’re moving?”
Sensing trouble, I had been saving that subject for the following morning, but we’re in for it now.
“We noticed you wrapping Kath’s figurines.”
“Yes, to number 4, just on the corner.”
You mean, two hundred yards from where you currently live, to a house almost as big? I want to say.
“Henry, I’m still not sure I want to do this…”
He cuts across his wife… “Now stop that, I’ve told you before, you’ve agreed to this and we’re doing it.”
“No, well I haven’t made up my mind.”
“I’ve made it up for you.”
Neighbouring heads turn once more. It’s horrible. I see a confused woman in her seventies, my Auntie, being bullied and brow beaten in front of my eyes. What can I do? I’m leaving tomorrow. She capitulates. Gives him what he wants: forever dutiful, unfailingly dutiful.
We sit in silence. I pay in silence. Don’t even look at the bill.
“Did you enjoy dining with us this evening, sir? “
“Oh yes, very much, thank you.”
“Thank you sir.”
“We’ll see you again soon.”
Hell will freeze over before we see him again. A charade. The exchange is one thing, pretending to be another.
No satnav on the way back to their (current) home.
I don’t know what became of the plastic horseshoe. Perhaps it just wasn’t big enough, lucky enough.
Fifty hours passed.
A greetings card arrives. The front cover is bright. A dozen light pink chrysanthemums arranged in a white ceramic bucket, photographed from above and to one side. The inner parts of the flowers comprise yellow petals with tight, dark green bracts. The bucket, which is centred, stands on an elegant damask tablecloth. Two-thirds of a stray, coy flower head poses bashfully for the camera on the tablecloth in the left foreground. The floral composition is chrysanthemums masquerading as water lilies: one thing, pretending to be another.
There are instructions on the back of the card. Inside, the card is left blank, for your special message. The special message is written in black ink. It is Kath’s neat, even hand.
Thank you for such a wonderful time last week. It really was very special for us and a treat in every respect.
I’m sure we will remember the occasion for many years!
Much love to you both and the children.
Kath & Henry xxxxx”
Tragically ironic, I think, in view of Kath’s memory loss.
And the deception is complete.
David Prosser asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work