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About the Author
Date of Birth:October 2, 1904
Date of Death:April 3, 1991
Place of Birth:Berkhamsted, England
Place of Death:Vevey, Switzerland
Education:Balliol College, Oxford
Read an Excerpt
I met my Aunt Augusta for the first time in more than half a century at my mother's funeral. My mother was approaching eighty-six when she died, and my aunt was some eleven or twelve years younger. I had retired from the bank two years before with an adequate pension and a silver handshake. There had been a takeover by the Westminster and my branch was considered redundant. Everyone thought me lucky, but I found it difficult to occupy my time. I have never married, I have always lived quietly, and, apart from my interest in dahlias, I have no hobby. For those reasons I found myself agreeably excited by my mother's funeral.
My father had been dead for more than forty years. He was a building contractor of a lethargic disposition who used to take afternoon naps in all sorts of curious places. This irritated my mother, who was an energetic woman, and she used to seek him out to disturb him. As a child I remember going to the bathroom — we lived in Highgate then — and finding my father asleep in the bath in his clothes. I am rather short-sighted and I thought that my mother had been cleaning an overcoat, until I heard my father whisper, 'Bolt the door on the inside when you go out.' He was too lazy to get out of the bath and too sleepy, I suppose, to realize that his order was quite impossible to carry out. At another time, when he was responsible for a new block of flats in Lewisham, he would take his catnap in the cabin of the giant crane, and construction would be halted until he woke. My mother, who had a good head for heights, would climb ladders to the highest scaffolding in the hope of discovering him, when as like as not he would have found a corner in what was to be the underground garage. I had always thought of them as reasonably happy together: their twin roles of the hunter and the hunted probably suited them, for my mother by the time I first remembered her had developed an alert poise of the head and a wary trotting pace which reminded me of a gun-dog. I must be forgiven these memories of the past: at a funeral they are apt to come unbidden, there is so much waiting about.
Not many people attended the service, which took place at a famous crematorium, but there was that slight stirring of excited expectation which is never experienced at a graveside. Will the oven doors open? Will the coffin stick on the way to the flames? I heard a voice behind me saying in very clear cold accents, 'I was present once at a premature cremation.'
It was, as I recognized with some difficulty from a photograph in the family album, my Aunt Augusta, who had arrived late, dressed rather as the late Queen Mary of beloved memory might have dressed if she had still been with us and had adapted herself a little bit towards the present mode. I was surprised by her brilliant red hair, monumentally piled, and her two big front teeth which gave her a vital Neanderthal air. Somebody said, 'Hush,' and a clergyman began a prayer which I believe he must have composed himself. I had never heard it at any other funeral service, and I have attended a great number in my time. A bank manager is expected to pay his last respects to every old client who is not as we say 'in the red', and in any case I have a weakness for funerals. People are generally seen at their best on these occasions, serious and sober, and optimistic on the subject of personal immortality.
The funeral of my mother went without a hitch. The flowers were removed economically from the coffin, which at the touch of a button slid away from us out of sight. Afterwards in the troubled sunlight I shook hands with a number of nephews and nieces and cousins whom I hadn't seen for years and could not identify. It was understood that I had to wait for the ashes and wait I did, while the chimney of the crematorium gently smoked overhead.
'You must be Henry,' Aunt Augusta said, gazing reflectively at me with her sea-deep blue eyes.
'Yes,' I said, 'and you must be Aunt Augusta.'
'It's a very long time since I saw anything of your mother,' Aunt Augusta told me. 'I hope that her death was an easy one.'
'Oh yes, you know, at her time of life — her heart just stopped. She died of old age.'
'Old age? She was only twelve years older than I am,' Aunt Augusta said accusingly.
We took a little walk together in the garden of the crematorium. A crematorium garden resembles a real garden about as much as a golf links resembles a genuine landscape. The lawns are too well cultivated and the trees too stiffly on parade: the urns resemble the little boxes containing sand where one tees up. 'Tell me,' Aunt Augusta said, 'are you still at the bank?'
'No, I retired two years ago.'
'Retired? A young man like you! For heaven's sake, what do you do with your time?'
'I cultivate dahlias, Aunt Augusta.' She gave a regal right-about swing of a phantom bustle.
'Dahlias! Whatever would your father have said!'
'He took no interest in flowers, I know that. He always thought a garden was a waste of good building space. He would calculate how many bedrooms one above the other he could have fitted in. He was a very sleepy man.'
'He needed bedrooms for more than sleep,' my aunt said with a coarseness which surprised me.
'He slept in the oddest places. I remember once in the bathroom ...'
'In a bedroom he did other things than sleep,' she said. 'You are the proof.'
I began to understand why my parents had seen so little of Aunt Augusta. She had a temperament my mother would not have liked. My mother was far from being a puritan, but she wanted everything to be done or said at a suitable time. At meals we would talk about meals. Perhaps the price of food. If we went to the theatre we talked in the interval about the play — or other plays. At breakfast we spoke of the news. She was adept at guiding conversation back into the right channel if it strayed. She had a phrase, 'My dear, this isn't the moment ...' Perhaps in the bedroom, I found myself thinking, with something of Aunt Augusta's directness, she talked about love. That was why she couldn't bear my father sleeping in odd places, and, when I developed an interest in dahlias, she often warned me to forget about them during banking hours.
By the time we had finished our walk the ashes were ready for me. I had chosen a very classical urn in black steel, and I would have liked to assure myself that there had been no error, but they presented me with a package very neatly done up in brown paper with red paper seals which reminded me of a Christmas gift. 'What are you going to do with it?' Aunt Augusta said.
'I thought of making a little throne for it among my dahlias.'
'It will look a little bleak in winter.'
'I hadn't considered that. I could always bring it indoors at that season.'
'Backwards and forwards. My sister seems hardly likely to rest in peace.'
'I'll think over it again.'
'You are not married, are you?'
'Of course not.'
'There is always the question to whom you will bequeath my sister. I am likely to predecease you.'
'One cannot think of everything at once.'
'You could have left it here,' Aunt Augusta said.
'I thought it would look well among the dahlias,' I replied obstinately, for I had spent all the previous evening designing a simple plinth in good taste.
'À chacun son goût,' my aunt said with a surprisingly good French accent. I had never considered our family very cosmopolitan.
'Well, Aunt Augusta,' I said at the gates of the crematorium (I was preparing to leave, for my garden called), 'it's been many years since we saw each other ... I hope ...' I had left the lawn-mower outside, uncovered, and there was a hint of rain in the quick grey clouds overhead. 'I would like it very much if one day you would take a cup of tea with me in Southwood.'
'At the moment I would prefer something stronger and more tranquillizing. It is not every day one sees a sister consigned to the flames. Like the Pucelle.'
'I don't quite ...'
'Joan of Arc.'
'I have some sherry at home, but it's rather a long ride and perhaps ...'
'My apartment is at any rate north of the river,' Aunt Augusta said firmly, 'and I have everything we require.' Without asking my assent she hailed a taxi. It was the first and perhaps, when I think back on it now, the most memorable of the journeys we were to take together.CHAPTER 2
I was quite right in my weather forecast. The grey clouds began to rain and I found myself preoccupied with my private worries. All along the shiny streets people were putting up umbrellas and taking shelter in the doorways of Burton's, the United Dairies, Mac Fisheries or the ABC. For some reason rain in the suburbs reminds me of a Sunday.
'What's on your mind?' Aunt Augusta said.
It was so stupid of me. I left my lawn-mower out, on the lawn, uncovered.'
My aunt showed me no sympathy. She said, 'Forget your lawn-mower. It's odd how we seem to meet only at religious ceremonies. The last time I saw you was at your baptism. I was not asked but I came.' She gave a croak of a laugh. 'Like the wicked fairy.'
'Why didn't they ask you?'
'I knew too much. About both of them. I remember you were far too quiet. You didn't yell the devil out. I wonder if he is still there?' She called to the driver, 'Don't confuse the Place with the Square, the Crescent or the Gardens. I am the Place.'
'I didn't know there was any breach. Your photograph was there in the family album.'
'For appearances only.' She gave a little sigh which drove out a puff of scented powder. 'Your mother was a very saintly woman. She should by rights have had a white funeral. La Pucelle,' she added again.
'I don't quite see ... La Pucelle means — well, to put it bluntly, I am here, Aunt Augusta.'
'Yes. But you were your father's child. Not your mother's.'
That morning I had been very excited, even exhilarated, by the thought of the funeral. Indeed, if it had not been my mother's, I would have found it a wholly desirable break in the daily routine of retirement, and I was pleasurably reminded of the old banking days, when I had paid the final adieu to so many admirable clients. But I had never contemplated such a break as this one which my aunt announced so casually. Hiccups are said to be cured by a sudden shock and they can equally be caused by one. I hiccupped an incoherent question.
'I have said that your official mother was a saint. The girl, you see, refused to marry your father, who was anxious — if you can use such an energetic term in his case — to do the right thing. So my sister covered up for her by marrying him. (He was not very strong-willed.) Afterwards, she padded herself for months with progressive cushions. No one ever suspected. She even wore the cushions in bed, and she was so deeply shocked when your father tried once to make love to her — after the marriage but before your birth — that, even when you had been safety delivered, she refused him what the Church calls his rights. He was never a man in any case to stand on them.'
I leant back hiccupping in the taxi. I couldn't have spoken if I had tried. I remembered all those pursuits up the scaffolding. Had they been caused then by my mother's jealousy or was it the apprehension that she might be required to pass again so many more months padded with cushions of assorted sizes?
'No,' my aunt said to the taxi-driver, 'these are the Gardens. I told you — I am the Place.'
'Then I turn left, ma'am?'
'No. Right. On the left is the Crescent.
'This shouldn't come as a shock to you, Henry,' Aunt Augusta said. 'My sister — your stepmother — perhaps we should agree to call her that — was a very noble person indeed.'
'And my — hie — father?'
'A bit of a hound, but so are most men. Perhaps it's their best quality. I hope you have a little bit of the hound in you too, Henry.'
'I don't — hue — think so.'
'We may discover it in time. You are your father's son. That hiccup is best cured by drinking out of the opposite rim of a glass. You can imitate a glass with your hand. Liquid is not a necessary part of the cure.'
I drew a long free breath and asked, 'Who was my mother, Aunt Augusta?' But she was already far away from that subject, speaking to the driver. 'No, no, my man. This is the Crescent.'
'You said turn right, lady.'
'Then I apologize. It was my mistake. I am always a little uncertain about right and left. Port I can always remember because of the colour — red means left. You should have turned to port not starboard.'
'I'm no bloody navigator, lady.'
'Never mind. Just continue all the way round and start again. I take all the blame.'
We drew up outside a public house. The driver said, 'Ma'am, if you had only told me it was the Crown and Anchor ...'
'Henry', my aunt said, 'if you could forget your hiccup for a moment.'
'Hue?' I asked.
'It's six and six on the clock,' the driver said.
'Then we will let it reach seven shillings,' Aunt Augusta retorted. 'Henry, I feel I ought perhaps to warn you before we go in that a white funeral in my case would have been quite out of place.'
'But-you've-never-married,' I said, very quickly to beat the hiccups.
'I have nearly always, during the last sixty or more years, had a friend,' Aunt Augusta said. She added, perhaps because I looked incredulous, 'Age, Henry, may a little modify our emotions — it does not destroy them.'
Even those words did not prepare me properly for what I found next. My life in the bank had taught me, of course, to be unsurprised, even by the demand for startling overdrafts, and I had always made it a point neither to ask for nor to listen to any explanation. The overdraft was given or refused simply on the previous credit of the client. If I seem to the reader a somewhat static character he should appreciate the long conditioning of my career before retirement. My aunt, I was to discover, had never been conditioned by anything at all, and she had no intention of explaining more than she had already done.CHAPTER 3
The Crown and Anchor was built like a bank in Georgian style. Through the windows I could see men with exaggerated moustaches in tweed coats, which were split horsily behind, gathered round a girl in jodhpurs. They were not the type to whom I would have extended much credit, and I doubted whether any of them, except the girl, had ever ridden a horse. They were all drinking bitter, and I had the impression that any spare cash they might have put aside went on tailors and hairdressers rather than equitation. A long experience with clients has made me prefer a shabby whisky-drinker to a well-dressed beer-drinker.
We went in by a side door. My aunt's apartment was on the second floor, and on the first floor there was a small sofa which I learnt later had been bought by my aunt so that she could take a little rest on the way up. It was typical of her generous nature that she had bought a sofa, which could barely be squeezed on to the landing, and not a chair for one. 'I always take a little rest at this point. Come and sit down, too, Henry. The stairs are steep, though perhaps they don't seem so at your age.' She looked at me critically. 'You have certainly changed a lot since I saw you last, though you haven't got much more hair.'
'I've had it, but I've lost it,' I explained.
'I have kept mine. I can still sit upon it.' She added surprisingly, 'Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair. Not that I could have ever let it down from a second-floor flat.'
'Aren't you disturbed by the noise from the bar?'
'Oh no. And the bar is very convenient if I suddenly run short. I just send Wordsworth down.'
'Who is Wordsworth?'
'I call him Wordsworth because I can't bring myself to call him Zachary. All the eldest sons in his family have been called Zachary for generations — after Zachary Macaulay who did so much for them on Clapham Common. The surname was adopted from the bishop not the poet.'
'He's your valet?'
'Let us say he attends to my wants. A very gentle sweet strong person. But don't let him ask you for a CTC. He receives quite enough from me.'
'What is a CTC?'
'That is what they called any tip or gift in Sierra Leone when he was a boy during the war. The initials belonged to Cape to Cairo Cigarettes which all the sailors handed out generously.'
My aunt's conversation went too quickly for my understanding, so that I was not really prepared for the very large middle-aged negro wearing a striped butcher's apron who opened the door when my aunt rang. 'Why, Wordsworth,' she said with a touch of coquetry, 'you've been washing up breakfast without waiting for me.' He stood there glaring at me, and I wondered whether he expected a CTC before he would let me pass.
'This is my nephew, Wordsworth,' my aunt said.
'You be telling me whole truth, woman?'
'Of course I am. Oh Wordsworth, Wordsworth!' she added with tender banter.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Travels with My Aunt"
Copyright © 1969 Graham Greene Estate.
Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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