Back to grandmother Millie … she was petite, tiny in fact, slim, dyed blonde, smelled of expensive perfume, gin and cigarettes. She was a complex character. In the UK, she set up her front room full of African things, where she would sit and think of her son, so far away. She would brag about us all, especially Mom, who she clearly adored.
In South Africa though, it was a slightly different story. On her and Len’s first visit to us, I was three/four years old, my brother yet to be born. I remember her clearly. I also remember picking up a fractiousness between my grandmother and my Mum, and grabbing hold of my Grandmother’s hand on a visit to the Japanese Gardens when my Grandmother became upset. Not understanding the reason for it, I simply sought to comfort her.
Little did I know that the night before, she had calmly walked into the kitchen when my Mum was cooking dinner and asked, pointing to me, “so whose child is this, then?” My mother, both startled and annoyed, gave her a tiny piece of her mind.
The next visit, when my brother was a baby, included a tour up and down the coast. On Amanzimtoti beach, with his family around him, my grandmother leaned over to my Dad, patted him on the knee and said, “Never mind Fred, if this all goes wrong, your room is still waiting for you”.
It became a riotous family joke and when my parents flew over for my wedding, they stayed in “his room”, my mother laughing her head off at what Millie might have thought of that.
It would be easy to paint my Grandmother as a prize bitch but actually, she wasn’t. She loved my Dad with an intensity that can be traced back to those early days when society meant that she was lucky to have kept him at all. Her lies and evasiveness must have helped tremendously.
Further investigations revealed that the “private nursing home” my father had been born in, never existed. He was born there but it was a block of flats. My aunt Irene, by then a midwife, in all likelihood delivered him. It would also explain my aunt’s equally fierce, if not so clingy, love for him. I cannot imagine bearing a child in secret and raising him, going to register his birth and dealing with the shame of illegitimacy. It is to her credit that she never, ever visited this shame on my father. Instead, he grew up wanted and loved and it took him years to find out that his parents had never married.
My grandmother was devoted to us. She spent hard-earned money on presents and shoes. She pretended that she was sending me shoes she no longer wore but in truth, brand new shoes and the most adorable, expensive clothes would regularly wing their way across Europe and Africa to reach us. Smelling of her perfume, as did her letters, they were little parcels of love and glamour that I lapped up.
Twice a year, on Dad’s birthday and at Christmas, we would get together for a phone call. In those days, routed through an operator, they had to be booked and great excitement would build whilst we waited for our appointed slot.
When I was 13, Mum, driving me home from school (always for some reason a good time for her to drop bombshells, which she always prefaced with the words “Mantha, be brave”), told me that my Gran was ill, had cancer and was not likely to live much longer.
I was heartbroken but at one remove. Unbeknown to us, my parents had already started saving to bring us over to the UK on a holiday and they immediately redoubled their efforts.
Meanwhile, way back in the past, there had been further scandal in the family. Millie’s brother (also Fred), had gone away to wage his part in WW2, a wife and two children back in Blighty. Along the way, mysteriously in Germany or France, he met Joan, ostensibly a nurse.
Things get a little murky and secretive here too. They met in 1942/43. When I met Joan, years later, she was still a strikingly beautiful, intelligent, dignified woman. She was kind enough to show me her old photos and we spent a wonderful evening going through them all, with her introducing me to the great love of her love, my Uncle Fred, sadly deceased some years back.
My rudimentary knowledge of and interest in WW2 was piqued when Joan made a slip. We were talking about how they had met and she said that she had met Fred when he was injured in the war and she was nursing him. At the time, the picture in my hand of them both had a notation on the back of a town in Germany. “Oooooh, what were you doing in Germany during the War Aunt Joan?” I asked, no doubt my eyes big in my face.
“Don’t be silly,” she said, “we met in France, not Germany”. The conversation ended abruptly with tea being served and she went on to tell me about the wonderful friendship she and my grandmother had shared.
She never mentioned a word.
Joan also was the main suspect in the odd visit to my Dad, evacuated with his school to Cornwall. There, near the ruins of Tintagel, he led a marvellous rural existence, touched only occasionally by the vicious war being fought all around him. At regular intervals, he would be visited by his Mum and his stern but kind Grandmother. Also, on occasion, by mystery lady who he had never met before, bringing him cake and family news. It took 50 years and a photo of Joan, taken during war time and placed on my dresser (by which time Joan and I were firm correspondents), for him to recognise her.
Uncle Fred took one look at “nurse” Joan and the rest was scandal and history. On their return to the UK, he deserted his family and whisked her off to Scotland where they lived as man and wife near her family, Joan taking his surname.
When Joan died, in 2005, her family looked in vain for her marriage certificate. I, of course knew that they had never been married and could not have been, but her family only knew of it after she died, calling me to confirm what they had started to suspect.
Fred was by all accounts a very taciturn man. My cousin remembers as a child locking him in the outside toilet after he was mean to her mother, my aunt Irene. But perhaps we are a little unfair, given what he might well have experienced during the war.
My grandmother, for all of her glamour and graciousness, did not give two hoots about their status and she and Joan started a lifelong friendship, probably the closest my gran had ever had. They had no secrets between them, not one, writing every week for decades and when the occasion allowed it, visiting each other.
And of Fred’s family? Not a lot is known. My lovely friend R, has traced both his sons and I am summoning up the courage to contact them. What is a vague family memory is that both my grandmother and her sister Irene, would occasionally set off on an unknown journey. My cousin and I suspect that they stayed in contact with Fred’s family, secretly.
Quite frankly, with all of these characters rattling around in our background on my father’s side, it is hardly surprising that we never quite fit the mould.
What remained an enduring mystery to me, however, is the interest, love and care that my father’s paternal family invested in him. It just did not make sense. My father and I would amuse each other endlessly with the thought that he should just pitch up at whatever country pile they had in Scotland and say hi, remember me. But he never seriously thought of doing it.
It remains a mystery, but recently, there have been some clues.