Poetic middle name – a foolish mistake, one gathers (6)
Christmas Day is spent watching my mother slowly drink herself under the table. Gin has indeed been my mother’s ruin but I guess she is old enough to make her own decisions. London gin, sloe gin, any old gin. There is no point immolating a turkey for the two of us, so we “treat” ourselves to a boeuf bourguignon from M&S before microwaving a gin-soaked Christmas pudding for afters. I decide against revealing my fears of an imminent demise and we settle for bellowing along to Perry Como’s Greatest Hits.
The gin has certainly loosened my mother’s tongue. Is there anything more excruciating than listening to a parent lamenting their love-life or lack of it? Parents should not be allowed to have love-lives or even the slightest interest in the opposite sex. But even now my mother does not seem to have quite exhausted her vestigial interest in the opposite sex or her incredulity at the fecklessness of men in general.
Mum tells me in lurid detail how she spent quite an upbeat fortnight with Jack, a former county bowls champion, only to discover the hard way that he preferred the company of an 80-year-old with wobbly dentures (a “shameless hussy”, if my mother is to be believed). Another transient beau called Brian had wilfully concealed the fact that he had had a triple heart-bypass and was likely to peg out at any moment – he didn’t, but Mum wasn’t taking any unnecessary chances on that score. Internet dating seems to offer an inexhaustible supply of puffing dotards and my mother is committed to finding “the one”. At least it gives her something to grumble about on Christmas Day.
In a moment of maudlin solidarity, I tell her about Hattie.
“She’s been missing for two months, has she?” my mother concludes. “She’s probably been kidnapped and trafficked as a sex-slave to Eastern Europe.”
“I think it mostly works the other way, Mother. But I guess we shouldn’t discount it as a possibility …”
“And you had to check out a body they fished out of the Serpentine? How ghastly for you!”
“It was a relief, actually. I really thought it might be her.”
“Did you have feelings for this girl?”
“For Hattie?” I laugh. “There was a time, but …. well, she was way out of my league.”
“How do you mean?”
“Well, she was simply gorgeous. A perfect ten, as they say. And then she was married, so I didn’t think about it any more.”
This is not strictly true, I realize. I have been thinking about Hattie for years. Every time I meet a nice girl, a six out of ten or a seven out of ten, I think of Hattie as she was then and – surprise, surprise – things don’t quite work out. But even after the marriage to Phil broke up, I was always too scared of getting my fingers burned all over again.
“Hattie was gorgeous, you say,” my mother probes. “Did she lose her looks when she had the children?”
“No, she just looked older, sadder somehow. To me she looked just as beautiful as ever.”
“Having children changes everything. Men just don’t see you any more. It’s as if you have an invisible force field around you. I remember when I had you …”
“Yes, thank you, Mum. I know what a catch you were; I’ve seen the sepia-tinted photos.”
“And yet I allowed myself to be caught by your father,” she sighs.
“Well, I wouldn’t be here otherwise. And a very good Dad he has been too. I think you only really appreciate that when you are an adult yourself. You realise the sacrifices that your parents have made, how they put up with your tantrums and your taste in music, how much it all cost …”
“I’m sorry, Alex. Your father had his good points, of course he did. It was just very easy to lose sight of them when he was out playing bridge or golf. And now he’s found someone he can actually play bridge with? Well, good luck to the old fool, I suppose.”
So I tell her about Dad’s family tree and the link he’s discovered to Thomas Jefferson Hogg. She’s never heard of him, of course, but I tell her all the stories anyway, including the curious parallel between the sad life of Harriet Westbrook and my own recent experience.
“So your great-great-whatever it is-grandfather propositioned this poor girl on her honeymoon, did he?”
“It seems so. Mind you, he propositioned most of Shelley’s relatives, girlfriends and wives at one time or another until, with Shelley in his watery grave, he finally got to marry one of them. But Harriet was the one he really cared about, I think.”
“Then why didn’t he marry her when Shelley went off with Mary and the other girl?”
“Because she was still married to Shelley? Because he hadn’t got his career sorted out? I don’t know. But he did see a fair bit of her in the years before … before she drowned.”
“It’s a wonder he ever forgave himself. Men, eh?”
“Yes, we’re a bad lot. Still, it’s nice to have someone interesting in the family tree.”
“Well, if I wasn’t so busy with the dating websites and keeping this place from falling down around me, maybe I’d have time to find out about my own family line. I wish I knew a bit more about my Grandad for instance.”
“Grandpa Jones you mean?”
“No, my mother’s father. He died long before I was born but it sounded like he’d had an interesting life. He was French, I think. But he got out of Paris in the 1930s when the Nazis threatened and washed up in Cardiff.”
“Paris, eh?” I chuckle. “His name wasn’t Yusupov, by any chance?”
“No, of course not. His name was Nicolas … but what was his surname? I remember it was a bit odd, like the name of a town in Cornwall.”
“No, along the coast a bit. Helston, that was it, but without the H. Nicolas Elston. Granny called him Nicky. Drank himself to death, I think.”
Why does that name ring a bell? I rack my addled brains. We sit in silence for some time. My mother seems strangely agitated and I have rarely seen her consume alcohol at such speed before. Talk of her grandfather’s untimely demise does not seem to have acted as much of a deterrent.
“What’s up, Mum?” I say at last, not really expecting her to tell me.
“Alex, I have to tell you something.” A slight slur but she is still just about intelligible. “It’s only fair … at this time …”
“You mean, at Christmas?”
“No, at this time of grieving …”
“What, for Uncle Alan? But you never liked the man!”
My mother puts her glass down on a side table and gives me the oddest of looks. The wind howls in the chimney. The tears begin to flow. I have never seen my mother cry before.
“I did once …” she whispers at last.