7 September 2014
As my outer world narrows, so my inner world expands. I may no longer be able to take to the hills, but within my head I go further and further. Do you see what I mean?
When you assume in your arrogance, Oh Youth, that the old cove is past it, she or he may well be racing over the sands of Arabia, exploring the genealogy of King Harold of England or construing a verse of Aeschylus — in the head, of course. Anybody who has had any experience of looking after the very old, or of suffering severe physical illness, will tell you this. Isolation need not mean mental incapacity or total absence of mind.
Take that venerable person, The Ancestor.
She was actually my Aunt, my father’s youngest sister, and at the end of her life she came to live with us. I knew it was time to remove her from her lovely flat in Lancaster Gate when an irate neighbour appeared at her door. I had gone to spend the day, as I did often, sorting out her accounts, post, laundry and so on when this chap thumped on the front door and leaned rudely on the bell.
“Yes?” I said coolly, opening the door.
“Let me have a look.” And I followed him coolly downstairs. There was indeed a trail of dark brown stuff moving slowly down his wall.
“Hang on, I’ll take a look and let you know.” Then I raced upstairs calculating the larder was directly above the fellow’s bathroom. It took a while to trace the culprit – a large tin of Fowler’s Treacle had exploded, thrown its lid off and was literally foaming over its sides! It must have been thirty years old.
Racing downstairs, having abandoned my cool, I said as airily as I could: “It’s only an exploding tin of treacle, a damp cloth and some Fairy Liquid will do the trick.” And left as fast as possible, smothering my laughter.
The same wag who named the “Sulking Corner” gave my Aunt the soubriquet of The Ancestor. By the time she had taken up residence in what had been BH’s library, she was convinced BH was Esmond and that I was Marjorie. Tant pis, what’s in a name? She was well over eighty by this time and benignly dotty. How lucky we were; so many old people are not at all benign, dotty or not. Her Christian name was Charlotte but she had changed it by deed poll and, anyway, the family called her Zizi, a corruption of “S’easy.”
Until she came to us I vow I never saw Zizi out of her black 4-inch heels except when she was in bed. It was quite a shock when the time came to replace them with something flat (gosh, I felt such a beast!); she could not put her feet on the floor but had to walk on tiptoe. Airline slippers were the answer.
Then there was the hat. I’ve seen her making meringues in her hat. Come to think of it, I remember her weeding a flower bed in her hat AND her high heels, urban to the core, elegant to the end.
Because of her infirmities she was marooned on one floor of our house, above street level, with a large bathroom next door boasting a good view into the garden. On the same floor were the hall and front door. On a warm evening she liked to sit in the open front door looking down the steps to the street below. If Mister Whippy the ice-cream man came by, as he did most evenings with his merry jingle, I would be told to go and get us cornets.
To the end she was particular about clothes. I spent many hours with her in Liberty’s — fetching, carrying, dressing, undressing, admiring, criticising, squeezing and tucking. And then she would say she didn’t like any of the sixteen dresses she had tried on and we would go home, me shattered, she well-pleased that she’d saved her money.
She dressed up for every occasion: when the Auctioneer came to the erstwhile library, now her room, to value some Meissen china, she insisted on wearing her best dress.
We furnished her room with her own elegant London stuff, and she took to it immediately – luckily. The same routine applied but more slowly. Her friends visited frequently and I was kept busy supplying the itsy-bitsy morsels of food on tiny plates. The Chambery graced its usual spindly one-legged table (“It’s a claret table dear, but it will have to do…”) and conversation flowed as always, if a little crazily.
We made endless journeys into the past with the ghastly German relations, worse English ones, fabulous French and Polish heroes, and some mysterious Spaniards. She adored “Esmond,” of course, he could do no wrong. Most of all she liked the young, the next generation of the family, and the students who always called on The Ancestor when they visited the house.
I listened to her talking about art, books and music and her visits to France. We laughed and laughed over all sorts of absurdities, fresh and remembered, and very occasionally spoke of God. There were tears, too, when she remembered her sister and brother.
It was a grand, exhausting, hilarious time; and when she died in the night, with a smile on her lips, it was my turn to cry.
We won’t see her like again.