27 April 2018
There’s nothing like a death for breaking up a family. I’ve seen brothers outbidding each other over a common or garden teapot at a house contents Auction, following the demise of their mother. Both brothers were dead-set on having the silly thing; not because it was precious to their late mother, no — out of sheer spite. The bidding went up to several hundred pounds (so they say) but neither would give way. It became the stuff of village legend:
“And they never spoke another word to each other as long as they did live!”
Such estrangements are common knowledge, which doesn’t make them any less of a pity.
It seemed a good idea to give away BH’s worldly goods pretty pronto after his death. Not quite as quickly as one family I know where the son was so upset by the sight of all his Dad’s clothes he took them immediately to Oxfam without even going through the pockets.
(I went through all BH’s pockets before anything went to the Charity shops – and came across a very neat pair of black gloves for a hand far smaller than mine; expensive little gloves, which I can just manage to squeeze into. If I listen carefully I can hear a precious little voice saying, pathetically, “Would you mind taking care of these for me while we have tea/drinks/dinner?” Hmm. That is not my little voice. Such a shame he’s not here to quiz! Such a shame he’s not here full stop..)
The children had free choice of such worldly goods as BH left behind. Two chose a slipper each, another his watch. The cross from around his neck was fastened immediately around his son’s neck. One grandchild chose some DVD’s, another books in Russian. Other less intimate things have been given to friends.
There wasn’t much and I think BH was deliberately shedding stuff for many years. He was never particularly acquisitive, and in his later years he became attached to simple things like photographs of the family, old letters and one or two particular books, for example Eugene Onegin by Pushkin, and Pan Tadeusz by Mickiewicz.
The DVD of the opera Onegin, filmed at the Met with Renée Fleming and the late Dmitri Hvorostovsky, was played over and over; he never tired of it and knew it word for word. Pan Tadeusz was made into a glorious film, directed by Andrzej Wajda, which we watched together frequently, weeping buckets throughout.
But it has to be said that Sink the Bismarck! with Kenneth More in the lead role was BH’s all-time best film. I tried to steer him to less war-like topics, You’ve Got Mail, for example; but he always chose the Bismarck. Unless it was nearly bedtime when I protested that he wouldn’t go to sleep if he was in a bellicose mood, and firmly switched on Sleepless in Seattle.
Of course I have kept things for myself. All our love-letters, for example, from 60 years ago, neatly tied up with lawyer’s pink tape. Brown and crumpled, I haven’t re-read them or they might disintegrate to crumbs – except for my first to him, a postcard of Brighton Pavilion. On it, in the round hand of a seventeen-year-old, I ask if he would mind paying upfront for the tickets to a ball for six of us. I remember he said that he would.
“Did we pay you back?” I asked years later.
“No” he replied. “But it was worth the money because you agreed to marry me shortly afterwards.”