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Sport 10: Autumn 1993


That was the only tour we ever made. There were solitary visits after, one or other of the aunts would be descended upon, but we never again took the page 50 Pontiac which was used less and less because silence could not compensate for fuel economy. My mother was pressing for a smaller car and a licence of her own. When we visited in future it was by train and ferry and we were collected by cousins in nifty new Fords at railway stations. I no longer had to sit beside Douglas and endure his grimaces: instead I would lean over a ship's rail and imagine I was on a great voyage. Or take lungfuls of train smoke, imagining the red angry sparks that flew into the sky were the eyes of a lover, passionate and bloodshot.

Aunt Cora's lanky tongue-tied sons hardly existed beside two specific cousins. The dashing Fergus who drove his Ford at midnight along the Taieri Flats at nearly 100 mph. The little car rocked savagely but I denied him the screams of fear I knew he anticipated. He managed his mother, Aunt Agatha, with consummate ease. Then there was Aunt Hermione's son, Rupert, who apple-pied my bed before escorting me to a dance at which he was charm personified. I can still remember the shock of trying to insert myself between the sheets and his laughter behind his own firmly closed door.

Compared to Fergus and Rupert, Aunt Cora's sons—I hardly remember whether there were four or five—resembled the Irish setters belonging to the man who owned the local concrete works. Each evening they were released to circle the block and after encountering them for the first time and flattening myself against a wall I realised their supreme disinterestedness. They passed like ghosts, coats rippling, limbs tumbling over like waves, muzzles fixed on private scents. I must have been becoming a prude that year because I found myself agreeing with overheard remarks of my mother that Aunt Cora's socialising was ineffectual. 'It's not as if it adds up to anything. Or advances those boys into jobs. I don't even believe they enjoy it.'

'Fenella might,' my father remarked, mildly. 'I believe she takes after Cora.'

'Well if a husband results for Fenella,' my mother conceded, for she knew not to take her strictures too far. 'Perhaps then it will be some return. But the man Fen marries will need to be a millionaire or own a yacht or a piece of Monte Carlo.'

When Rupert or Fergus visited—separately of course, they had no idea of the other's charm—there was news of banking and stockbroking. Rupert fancied himself as a broker, answering two telephones at once or clasping, when the news was bad, one telephone to his breast. At least this is what page 51 stockbrokers seemed to do.

'You could be a chalkie one of these days,' he said to me, kindly. But I told him I was going to be a nurse. 'Just like dear old Aunt Ag,' he said. 'She'll be pleased when she hears.' Then he went on to lecture me about nurses being ahead of the field, having witnessed birth and death, so odd requests from mere males could not daunt them.

'You mean they might go so far as to imagine their suitors dead? Imagine they were kissing a corpse?'

'No girl I ever kissed could entertain such a thought,' replied Rupert, airily. 'And I suggest you don't go out with any corpse material either. My advice is keep your knowledge of bedpans to yourself.'

'I'll bear that in mind,' I said, rather haughtily. But it was impossible to be angry with Rupert for long.

Fergus took me to the races for the first time and pressured me into large bets. My whole spending money went in the first race. When his sure bet came fourth he encouraged me to open my pay packet—the size of a doll's envelope—and join him in a double. That the results were fourth and last seemed to perturb him not the least and we went into a tent to drink champagne. I forgot to mention Fergus was not solely my escort: two exquisitely dressed women in wide hats came with us and one of them won the Best Dressed Racegoer award. This called for more champagne and when eventually I was returned to the nurses' hostel I felt distinctly wobbly. As we parted Fergus pressed a little roll of banknotes into my hand, more than enough to cover my expenditure.

But generally, because we lived in the North and all our cousins in the South, we had less contact as the years passed. Fergus married a spectacular blonde, moneyed as well as beautiful, and began to rise in banking which to my mother was an indication of thrift. I doubt if she could conceive of a crooked bank officer or an embezzling clerk. Rupert had a number of escapades before he moved on posting to Singapore; he broke hearts and was forgiven; Aunt Hermione thought he was destined for the diplomatic service. Aunt Cora's only daughter, Fenella, received an enormous twenty- first birthday at the Masonic Lodge to which we were invited. My mother replied with a note and looked around for something that would survive in the post. The gold-rimmed invitation stayed on the mantelpiece beside the clock for weeks, like a moral lesson.

'What are Masons?' Douglas wanted to know. 'And why can't we go?'

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He passed a Masonic Lodge on his way home from night classes, its windowless walls as sealed as a bunker. It was numbered like a bunker as well. He was thinking of becoming a journalist and his first assignment might be to crack the Masonic handshake.

But there was one good result of the Masonic twenty-first. Cousin Fenella became engaged to an ironmonger. He was considerably older but he owned a hardware emporium. My mother thought he added a touch of stability but my father only said we could buy a coal scuttle and a pair of firedogs next time we passed through.