Thursday, April 05, 2007

Secrets and lies

At my grandfather’s funeral, I stood up in church and read “Everyone Sang” by Siegfried Sassoon, which was written in the month he was born (April 1919). I’d forgotten to bring my print-out of the poem, so in a little modern twist, as we drove on the motorway from London to Leicestershire I called a friend in Edinburgh on my mobile and he Googled it and dictated it to me.

Families perpetrate many injustices upon each other – ask anyone – but the one involving my grandfather is worse than many. As global injustices go, this one may be small, but so convoluted and cruel is the story that it’s hard to know where to start.

Granddad was a commercial artist who had ended up sculpting models for shop-window mannequins. His life story was full of regret: he talked most eloquently about his war experiences, his memories of a friend who was court-martialled and shot for falling asleep at his post, and the loss of the family business when the factories were requisitioned for the war effort. Painstakingly, after the war, he rebuilt the business, but then he went into partnership with a cad who betrayed him, and he lost everything again as a result.

Granny died in the 1980s; Granddad lived alone in a beautiful old English village, in a slowly decaying house called Pear Tree Cottage (not just a conceit: there were pear trees in the garden). I spent many happy hours in that garden as a child, polishing a statue of Peter Pan with rose petals. Peter’s hand had been broken off and rather hamfistedly reattached with epoxy and I could never get him, or his reattached limb, clean.

My father was the second of four children. The oldest – let’s call her Ann – went wrong from a young age: she pawned Granny’s jewellery in her teens, asked for (and received) her inheritance in advance in her twenties, dyed her hair blonde, smoked, married badly, divorced, married badly again but this time to money, moved to America, and generally hurt her parents upside down and inside out. How they loved her, though! As teenagers my sister and I were heartily sick of being compared unfavourably by Granny and Granddad to Ann’s children.

By the time of Granddad’s funeral, there was something rotten in the garden: Ann had got very close to Granddad before he died, uncomfortably close, and had taken out an injunction to prevent any of her siblings from entering the house on the grounds that one (J) had been stealing heirlooms (unlikely), one (L) had threatened Granddad with a gun (sadly true), and one (my father) was not to be trusted.

Consequently the wake, such as it was, had to be held in the garden, and fearing that it would be a washout, we had packed the boot with bottles of Cava and plastic cups. Cousin P (Ann’s daughter) brought strawberries and we toasted Granddad on the sunny lawn as if nothing was wrong. Of course there was a nasty aftertaste, and I was astonished to overhear Ann telling the neighbours that she’d organized the “champagne”; but the real bombshell was the news that Granddad, in his will, had left nothing to two of his children (J and L), a small share (some 5%) to my father, and the rest, including the house, to Ann.

My father and his other sister tried and failed to challenge the will on the grounds of undue influence. The will was executed by Ann’s lawyers who claimed it was valid and that Granddad knew what he was doing. Old and frail, and hospitalised for some time before he died, he could easily have been persuaded not to trust the other three of his children by the one with the facelift. So righteous and confident was she that she arranged the sale of the house to the next-door neighbours, who had coveted it for years, as we stood in Granddad’s garden in the sunshine with cups of Cava in our hands.


QM said...

I can honestly say I cannot match your verbal eloquence therefore will make no attempt at doing so, so let me just say this Anne sounds like a right bun!

LottieP said...

Yes, she is. You know, in the context of Darfur, and Baghdad, and similar infamy and injustice of global proportions, this story seems slight; and let's face it, I don't really believe in the concept of inheritance: who has earned it? But here, there's no happy ending: Ann gets the money. And I can't help wishing that there could be an ending where she has to *pay for it*.

jamie said...

Hello Lottiep. This was really rather painful reading, although beautifully written as ever. I mean, really quite outstandingly well written.

You finished your comment to QM by saying that you couldn't help yourself wishing that there could be an ending where she has to pay for it. Quite. This would be a perfectly normal reaction, I feel.

One of the most weakeningly infuriating aspects of dealing with people like this Ann you mention, lies in their ability to pull the wool over the eyes of others. People - touchingly, I suppose - are extremely reluctant to believe that a seemingly sincere and confident and, if needs be, apparently wounded person, could ever be so flagrantly conniving and deceitful and downright treacherous. It is a mirthless task trying to combat their lies and deceptions, whilst all the while knowing that they are up ahead of you on the street, painting your reputation black.

When it is a family member behaving in such a manner, the pain inflicted can feel acute and deeply, unsettlingly, wounding.

My father stole the life-savings of his own mother, my granny, and left others to help her out as she lived the rest of her life with nothing. He never expressed the remotest hint of regret for this.

She did briefly extract a minor and satisfying revenge, by refusing to consent to a visit from him as he sought weekend release from prison. He was acting all holy at the time - finding God, I seem to recall - and had convinced his keepers that he had to see his dear, much loved, mother. Ha!

But this crime against his mother was not even the reason he was in jail - this act was just one of the many that he perpetrated against family members that went unreported and unpunished.

You know from previous conversations and, I think, from some newspaper reports, that he was banged up for a simply horrible fraud committed against unsuspecting family friends.

And behind those particular scenes, lay the spectacle of furiously wounded people hounding us, the rest of his immediate family, because he told them that we had their loot. Nice move, dad.

You'll know that I gave him another chance, and you'll know what it did to me - although I did manage to royally screw him in the process, which was good.

Before packing him on his way with enough money to keep him out of my hair for a couple of years, I forced him to stump up tens of thousands of pounds to a couple of women he had stolen from. He wasn't to know for certain that I was going to give him money anyway, so it was a grim joy to listen to him bleating and weeping and, of course, threatening his way through stark phone calls.

How could I do this to him? he would demand wailingly. Easy, really, you're a bastard, and you deserve to pay at least a small price for what you have done.

I think you also know, Lottiep, that last year he started his (expected) campaign of "revenge". Hmm. In the very near future this may turn out to be the most stupid move he has ever made.

Which brings me back to your line to QM. There does have to be a way that people are made to pay for their most horrible actions. There just does.

I feel pretty calm. He will need to do something slightly more disruptive than he has done to date, in this latest mad game of his, but when he does - and he will - then I will be happy to finish him off, because it is my fervent belief that he will deserve everything that's coming to him.

All it will take is for him to approach my girlfriend, sisters or mum. That's how close he is to complete and permanent ruination.

I hope you don't mind that I haven't linked back to my own blog. The reasons for this are, I hope, obvious.

Instead, I've linked to a song. We've talked briefly elsewhere about music and the way it provokes memories. This song, by no means the kind of thing I normally listen to these days, just happened to be playing before a particularly seismic meeting I had with my father. For whatever strange and utterly bizarre reason, it filled me with a cool and detached kind of a fury.

And the meeting shortly thereafter turned out to be the first time ever that I actually saw fear in his eyes.

It will hardly surprise you to learn that, wherever possible, I would play this song, just as loud as possible, before any subsequent engagement with my bastard father or his lawyers. It seemed to do the trick, certainly.

I'm realy sorry for taking up so much of your space, sweetheart, but your story touched a very raw nerve.

Watch out daddy, the ice age is coming.....