This is the second installment of my mother’s memories of her childhood in Lancashire. You can read the other chapters here:
I am born in 1932, the youngest of eight children, and am, without doubt the last straw for my parents; I suspect they do not have sex again. They marry young, in 1915, overcoming furious opposition from both their families and the Catholic church. My father, a short, handsome man, whose thick hair turns white before he is thirty, comes from a large, Protestant family of eleven sports-mad children (one of whom writes a cruel, anti-Catholic letter to my mother upon her engagement, in a crude attempt to frighten her off). They have all been away to war; the boys to cavalry regiments, the girls to join the Red Cross or to became V.A.D.s. Uncle Norman, the charmer, loved by all, is killed in the last cavalry charge of the war, or so family legend has it. He stares out at us from his photographs, handsome in the uniform of the 19th/20th Cavalry, Queen Alexandra’s Own. I think he looks sad, as if he knows that he will not be coming back. One of these photographs in our drawing-room, another in Granny’s house and one by my aunt Angela’s bed. She was in love with him but he loved my mother and so did Uncle Bertie. My father had an accident on the school Rugger field and lost both both cartilages so the army wouldn’t have him; he had to stay at homes to run the mills and accept white feathers.
I love my father very much and am glad he did not go away to the war. He is practical, principled and hardworking; devoted to shooting, his garden and the countryside, he is a complex and difficult man. When he gets engaged to my mother, he takes her to Manchester to buy an engagement present. He has a First Class Season Ticket and travels with his friends, playing cards; he buys her a Second Class Return and she travels alone. At Finnegan’s he buys her a fitted Dressing Case in blue Moroccan leather. It costs two hundred and fifty pounds and has ivory brushes, mirror, button hook and glove stretchers; there are cut-glass bottles with silver tops, a little silver bedside-clock, a manicure set and a pair of opera glasses…. He and my mother no longer get on. She smiles at us but her eyes are sad.
The night before she marries, grandfather tells Mummy that whatever her husband does is All Right; she is twenty-two. Her wedding dress has a dropped waist and ends just above her white stockinged ankles and her white Louis-heeled, buttoned shoes. A long veil of fine silk tulle is drawn over her head and fastened there by a circlet of wax orange- blossom; she clutches an oversized bouquet of drooping lilies and ferns … she says she went up the isle to meet one man and was dragged back down it by another … she says Daddy was a beautiful waltzer, the perfect dancing partner who changed at the altar into a brusque, impatient husband. From then on he calls her Martha, not Muriel,which is her name. His name is James Astley; Mummy calls him Astley or sometimes J.A.B. When she asks him for money for something we need, he usually says no but when he goes to the lavatory every morning and reads the National Geographic magazine, he leaves his trousers hanging over the bannisters of the top landing. and my mother sometimes takes five pounds out of his back pocket to keep things going… she says what hurts is that he doesn’t even notice that it has gone.
My mother’s family are devoutly Catholic and generally regarded as being sensitive and artistic. Their own mother dies when mine is seven; they are then bought up by nurses; when Queen Victoria dies and when it thunders, the nurses through their aprons over their heads and scream …my mother is terrified of thunder.. she goes into a cupboard under the stairs with her rosary beads and a blessed candle. Grandfather installs a governess, Ethel Corbishley who, although English and unmarried, they must call ‘Madame’. Until she is married, my mother never brushes her own hair and never goes shopping without Madame.
I can see Madame now, as I last saw her, sometime in the ‘Fifties, a short woman, upright, sprightly, tottering a little on small, shapely legs and high heels. Above these neat underpinnings she is dumpy, with a formidable pigeon-chest that makes a permanent display-shelf for a curly gold cross which is thickly set with moonstones. There is a frizette of greying curls along her forehead in the Edwardian fashion; beneath this her eyes are like shoe-buttons.
She stays at Pleasington Lodge with the family until all my aunts and uncles are all in their fifties and still calling her Madame, while she in turn, calls the youngest, the aunt after whom I am named, Baby. The family suspect that Totty (my father’s slighting name for her) has been Grandfather ’s mistress at some time after his wife’s death. My mother will have none of it, though she does admit that Grandfather should have married this devoted, rather silly women whom he had frequently taken away with him on holiday to Monte Carlo (where he had a spectacularly unsuccessful ‘system’), thus ruining both their reputations and causing him to be ostracised by many former friends and acquaintances.
My mother is known as the Pleasington Peach and is considered to be a beauty. My father, on first seeing her at a ball there, says to a friend ‘By Jove, I didn’t know such peaches grew in Pleasington’; a most uncharacteristic flight of fancy on his part but the name sticks. She is the warm, safe centre of my world; I pray daily that she will not die before me or at least not until I am grown up and preferably married when, I suspect, I shall just about be able to manage without her. Usually I say this prayer in the dog kennel with my arms round the black labrador, because it seems safer in there. I also pray that Daddy and Mummy will stay together … I know they are not happy but I cannot imagine being without them both or living anywhere else and feel sick when I try.
My mother is the only one of eight siblings to marry. Baby Leo dies when a few weeks old. Her two sisters stay at home, educated, to some extent, by Madame; in French, sketching, playing the piano, in flattering and waiting upon their father, a kind but vain and selfish man who prides himself on his resemblance to the King. They do not go away to the war, although their cousin Monica drives an ambulance in France. One brother, Reggie, becomes a Benedictine monk at Ampleforth Abbey in Yorkshire, where all four boys went to school.
The other three boys go off to the Great War and return with a clutch of medals; Grandfather frames these with their citations. Cyril has been gassed; shell-shocked Basil has a breakdown. Handsome Gilly, the tallest and most charming of them all, becomes mildly alcoholic and breaks several local hearts. I remember the uncles as kind, gentle, funny and ineffectual men who, from time to time, spend a few desultory hours in the family crown-cork factory, their greatest enthusiasm being reserved for playing a little golf and supporting Blackburn Rovers .
I am not sure about Aunts Freda and Angela; they are kind but touchy, suspicious, and faintly disapproving, but of what exactly, I can never discover; Jock, their black Scotty, growls and bites, we keep our distance. We call them The Lodge People and all of them die of heart-failure at their childhood home, Pleasington Lodge, a pretty white Palladian villa. Even Reggie, returning home, as a monk, Dom Stephen Marwood, O.S.B, to bury his brother Cyril, collapses and dies there. I am taken in to see my dying uncle Cyril and am badly frightened by his agonised breathing, his sunken, burning eyes, hollow cheeks and beak-like nose. When he dies, I am taken in again; the stentorious breathing is silenced but I am haunted for years by the way his nose juts up under the white sheet that covers him.