5 September 2002
It is probably worth noting that it was already a very tender and awkward situation. I have always been a bit diffident in matters concerning the opposite sex, perhaps due to a lack of female role models.
Mummy died when I was six, and my nannies generally lasted about three months - those that did not sleep with my father sent away for obduracy, those who did for clinginess. Of course, it took me some years before I realised that this was the pattern; during the summer holidays of my twelfth year I stumbled upon him bending scrawny, nervous Nanny Julia over the Aga, in a horrible travesty of the far more delicate act only hinted at between rounded female buttocks and denim-clad domestic groins in the magazines we passed around by torchlight after lights out. The sight, though not without a certain mechanical interest, provided me with a sudden and shocking revelation of my place in the world and my father's place in my female role models. We never spoke of it, of course, but that sort of thing does tend to stay with you. Nanny Julia met my eye not once in the next two days and shipped out before dawn at the weekend.
In a moment of drunken honesty years later, my father confessed that he had maintained an affaire, although by no means an exclusive one, for some years after that with Nanny Julia, or Julia as I might have come to know her if he had ever thought to allow her back into the house outside term time. He felt that the danger of a possible scene outweighed the possible benefits of continuity. Perhaps he was right. This was when I was around twenty-six, and the old man, some years retired and somewhat becancered, was making a last-ditch attempt to settle our differences and introduce some "emotional honesty" into our relationship. For this flight into Californianism I blame in part his dotage but primarily his second and last wife, Trudi, an American barely ten years past my age, who must have been decidedly put out to find that her faithful nursing, stalwart companionship and willingness (I suppose) to indulge in some or all of the hunnish practices that the locked room attached to his study was devoted to had failed completely to secure her so much as a charitable mention in his will. I suspect that, once he lost the ability to derive even intellectual pleasure from watching her going through motions intended to inflame a desire no longer physically possible, her conversation and canasta let her down at the final hurdle.
But forgive me; I digress. Let us return to my thirty-fourth year, and the aftermath of a sexual encounter, which had begun with a friendly conversation over a double-booked seat at the Lyttleton, and had grown through a mutual desire for a drink afterwards, several subsequent drinks and some awkward fondling in a shared taxi back to Fulham. She had intending to go on from there, but exercised her prerogative and changed her mind.
The next morning, this morning, as I was trying to think of some polite way to ask her to leave without actually asking her to leave, she propped herself on one shoulder, not quite the woman I remembered from low light and white wine last night, and commented with vulgar amusement, "I think you're the poshest bloke I've ever shagged."
Mortification. Utter, complete mortification. Followed by anger. How dare she write off more than thirty years of personal development with a single adjective? My father may have been "posh", but I was a complex individual, with no intention of being reduced to some convenient stereotype to fill out a box on a slattern's list of conquests. I didn't say anything, of course, but I think even she could detect that the mood had changed, and gathered up her belongings. We kissed chastely as the door, but did not exchange any personal details, as is generally traditional after an accident.
I was seething at the exchange, and badly off my game at the Exchange - the boys were asking after my health at lunchtime, and I left on the stroke of five, without a slapped back or a cup of good cheer to be seen. It had been a thoroughly diabolical day, and I resolved to call a friend to vent when I got home. Driving back, the seething continued.
It was easy, too easy, to write somebody else off as "posh", "poor", even "rude" or "over-friendly" or "stupid". Generalisations are the enemy of all meaningful interaction. Yes, my voice had a certain cadence - would it be right to call a man with a Devonshire accent a yokel?
Upbringing, heredity - all chimaeric at best, clumsy indicators of who I was or was not. My voice and manner were symptoms, not causes - to be who I am, to be successful, I had required the best schools and the best college and, while natural ability had been enough to see me there and through, I could hardly have emerged unchanged. That was all it was: poor understanding of cause and effect.
This resolution and self-mastery lasted precisely as far as the address book on the mantelpiece, which revealed not a single person who would have the faintest idea what I was talking about. The boys from the Exchange, so recently escaped. Hearties from the boat club and portly sybarites from any one of a dozen wine-bibbing societies. A couple of firm-thighed rower girls, perpetually gasping for breath or gasping for beer. And a handful of pale, shy girls touted as potential brides. Those still unmarried would be attentive, sympathetic and empathic, without understanding a word. The wed (surely all of them by now? A bachelor of thirty-four was no disgrace, but a spinster...) would most likely hang up without even saying a word.
And what did that leave? My mother's family in Cumbria? My father's friends? It was hardly -
And then it struck me. So obvious. Incredible that it took an unwise comment from a one-night stand to bring it home. A few tiresomely indirect enquiries to relatives and relatively untiresome Directory Enquiries later, I was ready.
My story was that it was time to discuss her ill-treatment. Water under the bridge, settling of accounts, always a good friend to the family, sure my dear departed mother would have adored her, simply adored her. And so on. And so on.
And then the next. Ill-treatment. Water. Accounts. Always a good friend to the family. Dear departed mother. Adored. Adored. And so on. And so on.
With the right accent and the scent of money, you can persuade almost anyone to do anything.
Making good time out of London, I reached the old house around ten. The room off my father's study was just as he left it. I blew the dust off the surfaces while I waited.
And now I don't know which will arrive first. I don't know what will happen when they do. I have a chequebook, my PDA, my father's driving license and a letter opener from Corinth, these last two taken in something of a fugue state from the study. The contents of the room should cover most other eventualities.
Whether out of whimsy or perversity, a portrait of my mother and father, stiffly posed sometime in the late 1950s, was hung on the far wall of this room. When I came here after the funeral I turned it to the wall, but now I turn it back. She seems so young, too young, and too beautiful. I look down and realise that the letter opener's tip has sunk into my left palm, about half an inch. I am muttering, saying something I cannot quite hear, then I scream at my father, tell him that if he is looking down at me from Heaven, if Mummy got him in somehow, if he played cricket with the doorkeeper, he'd better stick to looking down at, because if I get a hint that he is looking down on, then the family name is going to come in for quite a kicking. It takes longer to say than to tell.
I am yelling "at not on, at not on", when doorlock rattle and bellring silence me. Keeping one toe inside the room, I use the intercom in the study to invite her up. I don't know which has arrived first. There is no chance for her to speak. Throwing myself back into the room, I bleed and writhe on the dusty floor, imagining the tools on the walls against my flesh, inside my skin. I don't know what's going to happen. I can smell him on her as the stairs creak nervously - tobacco and whisky and dried semen and anger. I think I may have made a terrible mistake.
Water. Accounts. The Family. My dear mother.
This is this moment. This moment now.