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ONE FUNERAL AND...
By Anthony McDonald
I was just three when I first went to Endes. It’s one of the earliest memories I can reliably date, because of the five-hour train journey from London to Scotland and the fact that it snowed hard all the way up: new experiences both, and guaranteed to make an impression on a small child. Uncle Max met us at Dumfries station – at the wheel of his vintage Rolls-Royce, which was another thing a three-year-old wasn’t going to forget in a hurry. Nineteen years later, I can still bring to my mind the smell of its leather seats, as clear and sharp as if they were with me now, though the car is long gone.
The rest of that visit is less clear, details overlaid by memories of another one four years later. But I remember my wonder at the sheer size of the house, a major culture shock after our own modest home in North London. And the breakfasts. Jenny softly banging the brass gong to summon everyone; then Uncle Max at one end of the long, highly polished table and Auntie Annie (who was my mother’s first cousin and the only reason for our being invited to Endes at all) at the other. Uncle Max ate differently from the rest of us: grapefruit halves, then Ryvita crispbread instead of toast. He was on a die-it, whatever that might be. For the rest of us it was the Full Monty: bacon and eggs with mushrooms and tomato, or grilled Finnan haddock, even for me, and I’m ashamed to admit I remember the food that Jenny served us more clearly than I remembered the other people who sat around the table with us: that is, the three children of Uncle Max and Auntie Annie – my second cousins. Isabel and Marie were a few years older than me and to my eyes seemed nearly grownup. Both had flaming red hair. Their little brother Felix made less of an impression, though he was the same age as I was. His hair was almost black, not fiery red, and he was – the adults all said – shy. I remember that instead of giving you a clear view of his eyes when you looked at him, he showed you a pair of long dark lashes. No doubt we played together in the wintry garden and the big old house, but I don’t remember that.
We did play together four years later, even if a bit reluctantly. This second visit to Endes took place in early summer, and even my seven-year-old self was conscious of the beauty of the Scottish lowlands then, washed alternately, almost minute by minute, by warm sun and short sparkling showers: a countryside of emerald and diamond. The girls were now fourteen and twelve, far beyond the games of their little brother and myself, so the two of us were thrown together for the week by default. I can’t say we clicked. I thought the seven-year-old Felix was stuck-up, snooty, conceited, pompous and cold: all those adjectives (even if they were not all in my vocabulary at the time) that we use to pigeonhole those people by whom we are subconsciously, and usually unnecessarily, intimidated. (I know now, of course, that Felix felt exactly the same, back then, about me.) He didn’t speak with any suggestion of a Scottish accent, rather he had the posh and assured tones of a boy who has been put down for Eton and knows it. (He didn’t go to Eton, in fact; he went to Fettes, which is approximately a Scottish equivalent – the school, incidentally, that had been attended a generation earlier by one Tony Blair.) I’d thought we were fairly posh, and me especially, even though there was no way I’d be going to Eton. But Felix’s degree of posh unnerved me, put me on the back foot, and so, when our week in Scotland came to an end and I left feeling I would miss so many things – the countryside, the walks with the gamekeepers and the dogs, the breakfasts, the arrival in the kitchen of whole fresh salmon from the River Nith – the company of Felix was not included in the list.
A couple of years later Auntie Annie died, of cancer, at the wastefully early age of thirty-eight. I remember that my parents travelled up to for the funeral, though I didn’t; I was away at boarding school. And after that there were no more visits to Endes. My parents and Uncle Max exchanged cards at Christmas, but that was all. When I was about fifteen he remarried. His new wife – somewhat improbably in the wilds of Galloway – was a woman from Argentina, called – hardly less improbably – Lolli.
In the middle of last summer, the phone rang. It was my parents’ phone, but I was living with them at the time and, because I happened to be in that afternoon and they out, I answered it. It could have been – would most usually have been – the other way round, so it was just chance. Chance! What a maligned word, chance. How we undervalue it. Since that day, that moment, I have given a super-healthy respect to Chance.
The voice on the phone was unfamiliar, but once the name was given I knew exactly who it was. I hadn’t met many other people called Felix. He was phoning to say – and would I pass the message on to my parents – that his father, Uncle Max, had died. Quite suddenly, unexpectedly, but without pain or fuss. I made the usual polite noises. Condolences. If there was anything any of us could do... Please to let us know when the funeral was to be, and we’d make every effort to be there if we could. On an impulse, though perhaps it was just a reflex born of habit, I gave him the number of my mobile phone.
“I don’t think they’ll expect us to go all that way, you know,” my mother said, when I’d passed the message on. “Of course I’ll phone young Felix and speak to him myself, but I don’t think anyone really expects... This woman ... Lolli ... the second wife of a cousin’s husband, and we’ve never met. And the children... Well OK, they’re your second cousins, but even so...”
“Well, I think I ought to go,” I said and heard myself sounding a bit over-the-top as I said it. “As a representative of the family, you know. On behalf of all of us. Show some support for Felix.” My mother looked at me oddly, as well she might. Felix had done very well for the last fourteen years without my support, or even any contact between us, and I’d managed very nicely without him too. My mother had never heard me mention his name, and I’d scarcely given him a thought.
But I wasn’t quite as mad as I must have sounded. I was living at home, aged twenty-one, having graduated from university in the middle of the biggest recession even my parents could remember, with no job to go to and no prospect of one. I