I was summoned to great aunt Effie’s last week. I received her invitation in the post. Opening my letterbox upon arriving home on an already dark Wednesday evening after work, there it was. Stacked behind the flimsy powder-white utility bills and bank statements, an oversized thick blush envelope. Like a single pink rose in a hedgerow of common daisies. No need to read the card inside to know who it was from. The exaggerated swirl of the calligraphy, the faint whiff of potpourri lingering on the pearlescent paper. Who else but fusty aunt Effie.
You know how I dread these annual visits. They always take up the better part of a day, and I have to fork out a small fortune for last-minute train tickets because the old biddy never gives me more than a few days’ notice. Aside from the time and money, once there, our chat is stilted, stifled. Blood relatives we may be, but the generational divide has laid to waste any other mutual commonalities. Still, I didn’t have the heart to decline. To think of ageing Effie all alone, sat withering away in her prized garden like the final inch of a burnt candle melting in the sun … It is the stuff of nightmares.
It was raining when I boarded the train on Saturday morning, however by the time I arrived in Leeward Lane, the sun was out and the fresh air was aflutter with bumblebees and butterflies. I rang the bell and was greeted by the butler, Lipperts. Had I mentioned Effie has a butler? No great surprise I suppose given her age and social background, and it is reassuring to know there is someone on hand in case of emergency. But what an odious specimen Lipps is, dressed in his wing collared shirt and morning coat, the works. We’re near enough the same age he and I, yet he spends his days poncing around a country house as if he were some costumed lackey in a syrupy BBC period drama. He could at least have the decency to look a shade embarrassed with his absurd anachronistic position. Alas, he took my coat and led me in with a never-faltering obsequious smile, waffling on about how well Lady has been, how delighted she was that I could visit on such short notice. The twit!
Effie was waiting for me in the garden, sat in her favourite cushioned wicker chair beside a table set for afternoon tea. The sight of her! How frail, how infirm, how fragile. A whisper of wind could have crumbled her to dust and blown her to the birds. Her eyes, the only part of her that seemed truly alive, gleamed when she noticed me walking towards her. I stooped to kiss her cheek so she wouldn’t need to stand. I said how lovely it was to see her. Her face cracked into a playful smirk and she waved her hand as if to say lovely my foot!
We sat in the shade of the parasol, eating crustless cucumber sandwiches and halved scones buttered with strawberry jam and clotted cream. We sipped Earl Grey and chatted about this and that; her parish flower show, Diana and Dodi’s blossoming romance in the tabloids, the upcoming elections. ‘That Blair is a fawning fool. Too eager to please. I don’t trust him one jot.’ Count on conservative Effie to pooh-pooh the populism of New Labour.
Then began her customary personal inquiry. How is work? (Fine.) What is it you do again? (The mention of “computers” always deters her from pressing the subject further.) Have you bought your own place yet? (Would if I could Effie, but it’s a steep first step onto the property ladder these days.) Are you married?
I feigned insult.
‘You would know if I was Effie. You would have been invited to the wedding.’
‘Perhaps, perhaps not. I am not invited to many occasions these days, family or otherwise.’
‘If and when the day arrives, you will most certainly receive an invitation. Even if I have to hand deliver the thing myself.’
She merely nodded, and I thought she was satisfied with the answer, when …
‘Well, if not married, are you seeing anyone? For God’s sake, a man of your age, still a bachelor. It is …’ she trailed off, her eyes darting around the garden as if she were expecting the right word to suddenly scurry out from under a boxwood shrub. ‘Unseemly,’ she said finally, turning her creased neck to look me in the eye.
I must confess dear, my instinct in the moment was to lie, as I have countless times before. I could have easily given my stock answer of, ‘Regrettably, I’m still single.’ But her impatient tone nettled me, and I found myself inclined to change tact and tell the truth, even if the truth must be peppered with a few necessary white lies.
‘I am seeing someone actually. Close to a year now.’
Effie perked up in her chair and gave me a look of patronising astonishment.
‘There is blood in his veins after all. We were beginning to think you had sworn a sacred oath of celibacy.’
I am not sure who we referred to, but it irked me to know my love life was under such scrutiny. Besides, who was she to talk? Ever since her short five-year marriage had ended almost fifty years ago, Effie had never pursued any other love interest. Not to anyone in the family’s knowledge anyhow. But before I could voice my objections, she interjected:
‘Why didn’t you invite her along? If you sent word, Lipperts could have easily prepared tea for three. We aren’t on rations you know.’
I chuckled and gave her an almost entirely honest answer.
‘I’m afraid she is currently in Kenya. She’s a Doctor with the Red Cross assisting at a missionary clinic.’
‘A noble and worthwhile profession to be sure. But what is all this talk of she. She must have a name.’
And here I must confess, I was caught off guard, and in my attempt to nonchalantly rattle off a name as if it were a designation that was in common use in my mouth, I became flustered and blurted out:
Three drawling syllables that made it sound like I had had a stroke right there on the well-tended garden lawn that was still moist from the morning rain. Effie, always a stickler for correct pronunciation, winced at my butchering of the name. Gathering my composure, I reiterated with more certainty.
‘Martina. Her name is Martina.’
A wry smile flickered on Effie’s lips.
‘I see,’ she croaked.
And that appeared to be the end of that.
The rest of the afternoon went by pleasantly enough, and I admit I began to feel guilty for my earlier unwillingness to take Effie up on her invite. Lipps brought out the day’s papers, and we spent an enjoyable hour or so solving the Times cryptic crossword. Me, pen in hand, reading out the clues followed by a contemplative silence broken by whoever figured out the riddle first.
‘Pasta tossed at the pigs,’ I recited.
‘Spaghetti!’ she cackled.
Before it was time for me to head back, Effie asked me to take a walk with her around the garden.
‘I want to show you something,’ she said. ‘And a bit of exercise will do me a world of good.’
I assumed she wanted to show off some new flower she was exhibiting at the parish fair and thought nothing of it. So off we went around the garden path, arm in arm, like a tortoise and an uncompetitive hare who is simply happy to cross the finish line in good company.
I believe I have described Effie’s garden to you before, the flagstone path that borders the lawn, the stone busts set on columns that line the eastern wall. Effie had had the busts specially commissioned years ago. Each was made in the likeness of friends and family members dear to her. One of her more eccentric indulgences to be sure, but to each their own. She had told me about several of these on previous visits, and as we ambled by I recognised her mother, her eldest brother the RAF pilot who died in WWII, and an austere looking uncle who was some baron or viscount of someplace or other back when such titles mattered. This afternoon we walked past these familiar lichen-spotted heads until Effie stopped at a bust I had seen before but knew nothing about. It was of a plain-looking young woman in a cloche hat. The nose had broken off and the remaining slab was now a weathered brown. Effie raised her bony hand to tenderly caress the woman’s cheek.
‘Violet,’ she said in a whisper.
Effie turned to look at me. I wasn’t sure what she was searching for in my expectant face, but she appeared to find it, for she gave a knowing nod and began to tell me about Violet. How they met in 1948, on a bus ride home from all places. Effie, an innocent lamb of seventeen. Violet, three years her senior, an elegant girl of the world who had already vacationed all across Europe. Finding an empty seat next to Effie, Violet struck up conversation, regaling Effie with tales of lavish nights out on the town in Paris with her menagerie of flamboyant artistic friends. Poets and musicians and painters and the like. Effie was enamoured. She wasn’t sure whether it was the mention of Paris, which to her then untraveled mind seemed as exotic as Timbuktu, or the fact that this glamourous older girl had bothered to talk to someone as dull as she. Or maybe it was Violet’s clothes that were outrageously fashionable, or her eyes that glimmered and sparkled like emeralds, or her lips painted in a sinful burgundy, or was it her uproarious voice that sounded like a fairground organ and promised there was so much more to experience, so much more to see, to try, to taste, to enjoy. When Violet stood up for her stop, Effie wanted to cry out No! Stay! Don’t leave me! To her relief, Violet insisted they meet the next day for lunch. They did. They met every day that week, and the week that followed, and the one after that. By the end of that same month, the two had become, in Effie’s words, ‘intimate friends,’ and clandestinely remained so for the next few years.
As the 40s rolled into the 50s, Effie, now twenty years old, found herself under mounting pressure from her parents to find a husband. She wasn’t getting any younger. She needed to settle down before she became the last avocado in the fruit bowl, left there rotting, unwanted. So when John Masterson – a respectable accountant and family friend – proposed to her, Effie realised she had no sensible reason to turn him down. How could she conceivably refuse? Before she knew it, she was staring at her own engagement announcement in the local newspaper with a mixture of dread and detached intrigue.
Violet pleaded with Effie to break the engagement off and, in her over-the-top fashion, insisted they should run away. They could build a new life together in some remote European village. They would make ends meet by opening their own café and invite artistic friends to put on performances. They’d be away from prying, judgemental eyes. They’d be free to live as they pleased. Effie refused. It would mean never seeing her family again, probably never returning home again. How could Violet expect her to accept? Violet called Effie a spineless coward, a brainless puppet who was too eager to conform. Effie called Violet an ostentatious fantasist who was only seeking the thrill of the forbidden because she thought it made her appear more interesting to her degenerate friends.
The two never spoke again.
Heartbroken, Effie busied herself with the impending wedding arrangements, and got on with life as best she could. Then a few years into her mostly uneventful marriage, she received devastating news. A train passing through Lyons at night had collided into a shunting locomotive that was carelessly left on the tracks after routine maintenance works. More than thirty-five passengers had been killed. Violet, who had been travelling France at the time, was aboard the train. She had died in the accident.
As the floodgates of tears opened, out also came the truth. In one of her fits of grieving rage, John was to learn of his wife’s very much illicit pre-marital affair and Effie’s true feelings towards Violet. John was, quite understandably, knocked for six. Divorce proceedings began soon after.
Effie believes John was gracious to not spread word concerning her ‘romantic inclinations.’ I presume he was merely trying to save face from further social embarrassment. Whatever the reason, Effie’s secret remained intact, and since the couple were still childless after four years of marriage, everyone assumed John had left his wife because she was barren. The pair officially parted ways in 1957. Effie has been pretty much alone ever since.
‘I still miss her, you know, even after all these years. She had so much life in her.’
She looked into Violet’s dead stony stare one more time, then clutched my hand firmly, trying to hide her quivering.
The blue afternoon sky had turned to dusky grey, and the clouds were threatening an encore of drizzle. Effie indicated we should continue our garden stroll. We shuffled on in funereal silence, both of us seemingly lost. She lost in memories. I lost for words. When we reached the patio door, Lipperts was waiting for us with my coat in hand. It was time to leave. Lady needed her rest.
I made my goodbyes and thanked Effie, telling her that it was genuinely really lovely to have seen her again. She didn’t smirk or wave it off this time. Instead she patted my hand, her soft jelly palm cold on my knuckles, and said, ‘Be sure to visit more often. Day in, day out with Lipperts here drives me cuckoo.’
I promised I would. And before Lipps closed the door behind me she added, ‘Oh and when you do drop by next, bring your Martina along. I’d very much like to meet him.’
There you go dear. You’ve received an official summons from my great aunt Effie. When you do get back from Africa, we must make it a point to go see her. You won’t hear any complaints from me next time round.
Take care of yourself Martin. You know how I worry about you over there. And whenever you can, write. Or better yet, call.
Photo by Davinia Marie.
Words by Dean.