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Sport 10: Autumn 1993


Our little family from the north was on a kind of tour. My brother and I wore the topcoats favoured by the Royal children: chocolate velvet collars, double-breasted, biscuit colour, with the buttons stuck on like raisins. Pockets with flaps. Coats that could keep out any social inequality.

We crossed on the inter-island ferry and moved about the landscape in an old but exceedingly well-preserved black Pontiac which had belonged to a baker. It had a circular rear window and its spare tyre rode above the running board, like a colostomy bag. My father was attracted to it by the silence of the motor. Inside it you could converse as normally as in a room; in fact my mother often turned to Douglas and me in our buttoned coats in the back—the Pontiac had no heater—and urged us to keep our voices down.

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The car was so we could escape and not 'be beholden', an expression my parents were fond of. Like a motorised calling card we could be handed in and whisked away, as in a previous generation one was not 'at home'.

'I can see Caroline and Douglas are getting under your feet. We'll take them for a drive,' my father would say to his second sister, our Aunt Agatha. 'I have a parcel to post, if you'd be so obliging,' she might reply and the whole excursion became legitimate as my mother struggled into the front seat with a huge parcel on which I had been allowed to press down with my middle finger. Once or twice our parents took us for an early tea to a fish restaurant, recognising that food was a kind of discipline.

The first aunt we stayed with, Aunt Hermione, warranted no escapes. Widowed after her soldier husband drowned in a lake, she sat between us on our drives, directing us to gardens, graveyards where there might be relatives, and once an old abandoned mansion—'except for a mad woman,' she whispered. 'Why, Sophie,' she said, addressing my mother, 'it could be me."Never,' my mother responded. She was fond of Hermione who knew how to turn sheets and budget for treats. On Aunt Hermione's insistence we stopped a little distance along the road 'in case the poor woman thinks we are visitors', and walked slowly back. 'Do you remember the tennis parties, Martin?' she asked my father. Then, sensitive that mother had not played, she hoisted Douglas up and asked him to guess the shapes of once topiaried trees. 'A rooster, do you think? What do you say, Caroline? Perhaps it was a duck?'

'Hermione's remained a child,' my mother said to my father that afternoon when she had insisted Hermione lie down for an hour or two to rest her nerves. Aunt Hermione didn't appear nervous to me, just eager, as though she wanted to drink every experience up. We had gone on talking about the hedges and their mysterious shapes long after the others. Why did they do it, I wanted to know, and was it a certain type of gardener? Were the hedges shorn like sheep?

My father's second sister, Aunt Agatha, had my mother's full approval. She kept Black Orpingtons, but at a proper distance from the house. Their run was large and hygienic, their water trough scrubbed and clean; they sank their black talons in what looked like packing straw. They looked quizzical as though debating whether Douglas and I deserved a brown egg.

My mother and Aunt Agatha sat over an afternoon cup of tea—neither believed in drinking with meals—discussing spring cleaning. When my page 47 mother hesitantly mentioned Aunt Hermione's wall hangings—birds and flowers and forests and one entwining family names—Aunt Agatha agreed they should be taken down and beaten.

This tour, endured by my father, but more satisfying to my mother who was judicious, questioning, always measuring one behaviour against another, was tedious to my brother and me. We resisted playing the piano, if there was a piano, and after one ludicrous failure at reciting, with facial expressions, 'Jonathan Jo / Has a mouth like an "O" / And a wheelbarrow full of surprises' we were not asked again.

Crouched behind the mailbox, Douglas flung a handful of small pebbles at the rear of a speeding car, from the back of which a child was gesticulating. 'Peasants,' he shouted. 'Bird brains.' He had been more humiliated by the failure of his rustic recitation than I knew.