Saturday, 20 May 2017

A North African Aunt

Although the postman called twice daily to York Road and the surrounding streets, during my childhood I cannot remember my mother receiving a great deal of mail. Occasionally one of her sisters might write what were called A Few Lines informing of illness in the family or suggesting A Day Out to Maidstone Market. These letters followed a strict formula, always beginning with `I hope this finds you well as it leaves me the same’ and continuing in a kind of staccato shorthand where whole words were deliberately omitted making the writer sound as if they wrote in great haste whilst standing at a kitchen bench - `went market yesterday’ or `was up hospital Sat’ indicating that the writer shopped at the local market the previous day or visited the hospital for some reason at the weekend. There were never letters from my grandmother because having never been to school she could not write at all and when called upon to sign her name, did so proudly and aggressively with a cross. And while my mother was not a frequent receiver of letters, on the other hand my father both sent and received mail on a regular basis.

Perhaps I noticed these pieces of correspondence more acutely in my last year at primary school when Mr Clarke taught us how to write letters Properly, never forgetting to include our address and the date in the top right hand corner of the page. I certainly began to pay keen attention to the correspondence my father received, especially the exciting envelopes from North Africa with very foreign stamps.

I could not help noticing that my mother was invariably most unsettled by these letters, particularly when they contained photographs. She without fail steamed open every one, oblivious to the fact that she was usually being observed by me and then seemed to hover on the brink of tearing the contents into a thousand pieces before resealing them and placing them on the kitchen mantelpiece in front of the clock. Little by little I learned that the letters came from a Madame Rampan whose family had a farm of some description in Tunisia. After developing a debilitating illness during the war my father had been sent to convalesce there on two occasions, each time for some months and by all accounts had got on extremely well with the family, especially one of the daughters, the one called Dominique. He and she, it seemed became very good friends. The photographs were generally of Madame Rampan, her husband, her three daughters or a small grandson, the son of Dominique. The very first photograph to tumble from one of the envelopes showed a group of people with little Andre as a baby being dangled over my father’s shoulders by his mother. This particular image caused my mother considerable anger and then tears followed by at least a week of total silence.

Conflict between parents always causes concern to their children and I decided to try to get to the bottom of the problem by asking enthusiastic questions about the Tunisian family in as animated a manner as was possible with my mother hunched and miserable over the tea table. My father explained that Mr and Mrs Rampan were very keen for us to visit them for a holiday and told me all about the farm and how hot Tunisia was, a place where exotic and barely recognizable fruits such as grapes grew alongside more familiar things like oranges and lemons. Each time one of the airmail envelopes arrived he could hardly wait to sit down after tea, once the table had been cleared, to reply. Sometimes he sent photographs of Bernard and me. My mother observed the process desolately maintaining that nothing would ever persuade her to visit foreign places because she just didn’t hold with it and anyway she’d rather go to Margate for the day than contemplate places like Tunisia. In any case, we didn’t have money for such ideas.

The arguments about Little Andre and his mother became more frequent and I learned that Dominique was no better than she ought to be and I was amazed to observe my father swearing on his prayer book that henceforth neither she, nor either of her sisters, would be anything but just friends to him. I felt further compelled to sort out these complicated relationships.
I asked my mother if Mrs Rampan and Dominique were the same sort of friends as the Greek Aunts who had suddenly descended upon us a year or two previously, like a clutch of exotic birds, wearing furs and smelling of bluebell woods and causing great disharmony in our household. I was advised to button my lip so I went to where my father was cleaning his motor bike in the Anderson Shelter that had been turned into a garden shed and asked again. He told me I didn’t need to know the answer to that question right then. I asked when would be the right time to know with just the right amount of insolence in my voice but instead of the flash of anger I expected he simply looked resigned and told me he couldn’t really say when. One Sunday afternoon I tried a different strategy and approached him with a book of maps I had borrowed from the library. Where in Africa was Tunisia, I wanted to know, and just how hot was it there? Then just as I had predicted, he eagerly began once more to tell me how wonderful the farm was and that the Rampan family had treated him like the son they had never had and how he had learned a great deal of French whilst living with them. It seemed timely to risk mentioning Dominique and so I asked if she was possibly a New Aunt. He nodded with a far away look in his eyes, a chamois leather now motionless in his right hand. Feeling a strangely unfamiliar bond of sympathy with this father I had never quite adapted to having back from war in the first place, I assured him that I would love to go there with him even if we had to do so without my mother and brother. I added that such an arrangement would also be a great deal cheaper than the original idea and he smiled sadly.

Filled with a growing enthusiasm for North Africa the next day at school I elaborated on the theme and told the tight group of girls who were currently my friends, Pam, Pat and Pauline, that our family was organising a North African holiday for the following year. They were pleasingly impressed though just a little confused as to where precisely Tunisia might be, Pam wondering if it was as far away as The Isle of Wight. Walking home from school I told Molly whose geographical knowledge was less patchy, and she told her mother who told Mrs Stewart who must have mentioned it to her daughter Beryl who although she was a C stream student had a certain way with words and could hold her own in a verbal dispute.
We were waiting in the Friday dinner queue when Beryl moved in to attack me.
`Your Dad’s got a Fancy Woman out in Africa!’
I was appalled. We all knew that Fancy Women were nothing to boast about so I vehemently denied the fact.
`Yes he has because my Mum and my Nan both was both talking about it the other night.’
I told her in that case they were both dirty liars.
Beryl looked immediately injured, `It’s a known fact that your Dad goes in for Fancy Women – what about them Greeks? My Nan says you only had to look at that lot to know they were Fancy Women.’
Outraged and becoming awkwardly tearful I insisted that those Greeks were my Aunts.
`You can call them Aunts if you like,’ Beryl jeered, pleased with the attentive audience of dinner queue girls, `Everybody else calls them Fancy Women.’
As we moved a few paces closer to the vat of banana custard on the dinner trestle Beryl warmed to her theme adding, ` Your Dad has been carrying on with that clippie from the 496 bus too – he’s well known for carrying on my Mum says.’
I told her that her Mum was an ugly pig with a smelly bum and moved to kick her but she deftly stepped sideways and the kick mostly landed against the dinner trestle, hurting me more than her and causing the Dinner Lady to wave a spoon and tell me to watch my behaviour.
Beryl collected her dish of banana custard and almost skipped back to the table she shared with five other C streamers promising she was going to tell both her Mum and her Nan the names I had called them.

I was troubled by the dinner queue exchange and on the way home asked Molly for her opinion. She said that she had always considered my father to be a good example of a Handsome Middle Aged Man and so he was bound to be prone to carrying on. It would be something he had no control over like having freckles. Once men reached middle age, she added, it was better for all concerned if they were just ordinary and plain looking. This discourse did little to make me feel more positive.
I felt even worse a day or two later when I was accosted by Mrs Stewart with a threatening look on her face, advising me what she would do if I ever called her names again and adding that in any case she didn’t want her Beryl to have too much to do with me. Apparently she had not yet forgiven my family for the business of my Aunt Freda and the Black Market nylon stockings during the war. To my relief she did not go on to remind me of the baby switch incident when my new brother had been substituted for her Little Julie.

Nevertheless, feeling that a certain amount of Right was on my side since as an example of a Handsome Middle Aged Man, my father was less responsible for his actions than he might otherwise have been, I pointed out that her Beryl should not have said that he had a Fancy Woman in Africa because that person was just my new Aunt Dominique . In fact just like the Greeks who turned out absolutely definitely to be Aunts. I added that neither did he Carry On with the clippie from the 496 bus.
Mrs Steward looked at me strangely, opened her mouth, closed it again and with what seemed a monumental effort, stopped herself from saying more. She walked away and I was left with an odd feeling of unease and a great desire to have an ordinary sort of father, one who bordered on being plain and who didn’t Carry On too much.

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