The Basque wars were a dim memory by the time I came across the garment in a musty bottom drawer. Peach satin and black lace, home-made, whalebone carefully stitched into the seams to cinch a waist to hand span proportions. It was impossible to reconcile this saucy item with the generous proportions, (think Clarissa Dickson Wright) of my elderly and somewhat masculine Aunt. Yet there it was, painstakingly wrapped in tissue paper, preserving the memory of nights long ago, of a youthful persona.
The hours of careful hand stitching deserved more than being slung in the rubbish bin; it certainly couldn’t go to the charity shop, it was of no use whatsoever to its semi-comatose owner, now lying in a nursing home bed. It took its place, along with the rusty Carr’s biscuit tin in the shape of a London bus, full of letters and photographs, and quite illogically made a new home for itself in the bottom drawer of the utilitarian chest beside her hospital bed.
Why? I have no idea. I hadn’t felt able to pry into the contents of the tin, so obviously private; just a feeling that this was the essence of a woman the nursing home staff would only know as a somewhat rotund and awkward patient, to be turned, washed, and fed by rote.
The house was ‘cleared’ eventually – in the language of the probate solicitors. The generations of irons, still preserved in their original boxes as new fangled versions took their place, went off to a museum. The ‘Sam Brown’s’ in leather suitcases found a home with a collector. I still have the tags from the gas masks, the ration books, the white china shoes from my Grandmother’s wedding cake.
Eventually the call came – ‘come quickly!’ I sat by her bedside, speaking aloud of nothing in particular, hoping that she could hear my voice and it would give her some comfort as she slipped away. An hour turned into two, three, and running out of subjects to speak of, I remembered the basque and the tin.
Gnarled fingers moved imperceptibly as I placed the soft fabric into the palm of her hand – did she realise what she was holding? I opened the tin, and feeling emboldened by her presence, started to read the letters aloud.
Letters posted at 7am, answered at coffee time, the reply received in time for lunch, and the postcard announcing that he would be there at tea time. Did we really once have so many postal deliveries? Apparently so. The conversations that lovers have by text these days, recorded for ever on tiny sheets of lined paper.
‘Precious One’? My down to earth Uncle, with his pipe and slippers, his dry humour, his potting shed and his cacti, was ‘Precious One’ – he too once had another life I had never glimpsed before. A life when ‘Darling Girl’ fretted as he took the early morning train to war time London, and sighed with relief when she opened the mid morning post to learn that he arrived safely at his conference. ‘Darling Girl’ would be at the station on his return at 4.30 and they would take tea at the AddlePieOttel (there’s one for my fellow Scousers) before racing to the matinee performance at the Philharmonic Hall.
Questions only vaguely referred to in the sparse family history were answered. The comical phone call I had once taken in the middle of a business meeting from the Coroner investigating my Uncle’s death – did I know where and when my Uncle’s testicles had left their normal emplacement…..try answering that one with a straight face. Now I did. A series of letters between them told of his illness, childish stick drawings showed him lying on a table undergoing some sort of radium therapy; discreet allusions were made to a childless future together if ‘Darling Girl’ could possibly contemplate that.
Well, well, well, so the sardonic asides that theirs had been a marriage of convenience in late life were untrue. There were other reasons that made marriage not so necessary besides the fact that the Civil Service would not countenance married couples working together. Why not maintain the fiction that he was ‘Dave the lodger’; why wreck two careers, if there were never going to be children? The Basque spoke of private desires fulfilled.
Deeper into the box, and the photographs. The fine young man in his ‘It ain’t half hot Mum’ shorts, leaning proudly against the land rover against a back ground of palm trees and sand in an age when he couldn’t have dreamt of driving a real motor car in working class Liverpool. ‘Donald’ was scrawled across the back. Good Lord my Father! I had never seen him as a young man.
Seven identical sepia photographs, taken against the same curtained background of young men in First World War air force, army and navy uniforms, carefully named on the back each time. Of course ‘- the Great Uncles’, only three had returned from that carnage, but with what pride had they been photographed, carefully portioned out between the armed services, as they set off to do their duty for King and country.
And the five Great Aunts! All photographed in a stuffed Victorian armchair, apparently all possessed of identical dresses…or maybe there was just the one dress deemed grand enough for the family portraits.
A nurse peered over my shoulder, momentarily distracted from her task of checking fading blood pressure. ‘Is that Ailsa?’ ‘No’ I said, ‘these are her Aunts, and look they all have the same blemish on their right jaw as Ailsa, and my Father here, and, and’…..I nervously fingered my own jaw. I had noticed a slight lump appearing in middle life. She lifted a wrist to check her pulse and the Basque fell from her grasp, I put it back in Ailsa’s other hand. What’s that’, she said. ‘A blast from the past’ said I.
At the bottom of the tin ware two metal photographs. My Great Grandmother – naturally with an Aspidistra, and a Sweet Shop in Scotland Road; the escape from the poverty of Edinburgh. The new life which had taken them all to Liverpool, a life spent boiling sugar, burning fingers, and hand wrapping boiled sweets carefully stored in glass jars.
Years ago, if you frequented the auctions, you would come across boxes of such photographs, unwanted by the family, or perhaps unappreciated by the Solicitor given to clearing the family home for probate sale. I used to wonder why no one wanted them.
Now I wonder, what do we leave for future generations to pore over? The love letters sent by text; the photographs downloaded onto hard drives that expire and we lose them all; the clothing, disposable and cleared out on a regular basis to make way for new things; the sheer mobility of modern generations. We head like lemmings to the genealogy sites, downloading the hard cold census facts; but do we leave future generations the copy of ‘Cacti for Beginners’ and the tangible evidence that its owner was dreaming of ‘Darling Girl’ in her Basque as he navigated the sharp spines?
Think on as your family gathers together this Christmas, find an old biscuit tin, preferably rusty, and put together your own collection for future generations.