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The Warp

Bad Relatives

On many summer afternoons Grandmother would sit in her wheelchair under a yew tree, with Sophie on a hardbacked wooden chair beside though slightly behind her.

Both regularly attended services in the church that lay across the lawn and Grandmother, herself an organist, told me more than once that at her funeral she wanted nothing to do with the dulcet tones of dulciana or lieb gedacht. ‘Pull out the trumpet stop,’ she cried, ‘and let the organ peal in triumph for the arrival of one more soul into the realms of light!’

My father insisted that we children visit her for half an hour a day. He went more often, and often read to her from ‘Pilgrims Progress’. As I played with my boats on my miniature lake by the engine room, or hung around the soldiers seeking information about their various vehicles, I became accustomed to hearing my father shouting Bunyan’s story at Grandmother from the upstairs window in the cottage, so that the tale of Doubting Castle and the Slough of Despond vied with the tinny Forces Programme jerking along on a battery radio in the army area.

One afternoon, unaccustomed words came booming down from the little upstairs window across the yard. My boats paused in mid lake and one or two of the soldiers also stopped their mechanical tinkering to listen.

‘I had to strip and kneel on an arm chair and touch the floor,’ my father roared at Grandmother.

‘Excuse me, Christopher, what was that?’

‘I had to strip and kneel on an arm chair and touch the floor ... And then I had 12 with the riding whip,’ my father continued to shout. ‘JC had given me the choice of a beating or losing my pony, so obviously I chose the beating.’

‘How old would the girl be now?’ I heard my grandmother demand.

‘Well,’ shouted my father, ‘I would say, sixteen. A sixteen year old girl horse-whipped by her own father. Oh dear.’

‘Yes, oh dear.’

‘She goes on to say,’ shouted my father, ‘that she’s left home now after going to the police. She left because she was unhappy, the atmosphere was so immoral.’

‘Shut the window, Christopher!’

It had occured to Grandmother that this should not be a public conversation.

My father appeared at the window and, looking nervously across the yard, shut it as I and the soldiers became once again busy.

‘Daddy, what were you reading Grandmother this afternoon?’ I asked my father as I later jogged along on my pony beside his large horse.

‘Pilgrims Progress. Why do you ask?’

‘I know you usually read Grandmother Pilgrims Progress, but today it wasn’t. What does ‘immoral’ mean?’

‘Oh, immoral. That means evil, not good.’

‘Like what?’

‘It means getting drunk, a too great interest in female parts, people who choose their wives from the chorus line in musicals, fornication with women you are not married to. That sort of thing.’

‘Who was the letter from? And who was it about?’

My father reined back his horse a little, wondering how to deal with this. Then he said, ‘People living in Africa. Distant relatives. Nothing to do with us.’

‘Grandmother sounded worried. Was the girl asking for help?’

‘There’s a war on. She doesn’t realise we’re not able to send money out there.’

‘Would you like to? Get her away from the immorality?’

‘We can’t,’ said my father in firm tones, urging his horse into a trot to indicate that the conversation was finished.

The people involved in this drama were my Uncle John, his wife, and his daughter, my cousin Juanita, all of them living in Kenya at that time.

The incident alerted me to the fact that we had ‘bad’ relatives as well as good ones. Uncle John was clearly amongst those who were bad.

Later I learned how he threw Juanita into a shark-infested bay to teach her to swim; and once had to be smuggled out of Spain by my father in the boot of his car because he had been gun-running. Worst of all, he once threw a pet hen belonging to his wife out of an aeroplane high up among the clouds while looping the loop, to see if it would survive.

The hen, I have been told, expostulated all the way down and on arrival back on earth lay completely still for a while, clearly stunned. But, I am glad to say, it made a good recovery and within a day or so was wandering around again.

Why my bad Uncle John had subjected it to this torture is that it had laid an egg on a sofa in the drawing room, and he felt that this was ‘going too far’.

His first marriage had been dissolved by Act of Parliament in the House of Lords as he was a minor peer.

Part of the reason was said to be that he had whipped his wife with a sjambok or cattle whip, hurting her quite badly.

Friends, however, claimed that there had been an error; wild cheetahs roamed the Carbery estate and household and well-wishers claimed he was actually merely dealing with a cheetah which had got out of hand. His wife Josie had intervened on behalf of the cheetahs and had accidentally received some of the whipping herself.

Other friends alleged merely that whipping with a sjambok was part of their lovemaking process and therefore should be seen as a sign of affection.

Whatever the exact truth, the House of Lords duly authorised a divorce for Josie.


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