Authors: Mavis Cheek
Aunt Margaret, surrogate mother to teenage Saskia, has just waved goodbye to her niece. She has sent her to Canada for a year. Now, buoyed up by an unexpected legacy that's given her a year of freedom, Aunt Margaret decides to kick up her heels a little and have some fun...
Mavis Cheek was born and educated in Wimbledon, and now lives in West London with her daughter. She worked for the art publishers Editions Alecto for twelve happy years before becoming a mature student at Hillcroft College for Women, where she graduated in Arts with Distinction. Her short stories and travel articles have appeared in various publications and her first book,
Pause Between Acts,
won the SHE/John Menzies First Novel Prize. She is also the author of
Parlour Games, Dog Days, Janice Gentle Gets Sexy, Sleeping Beauties, Getting Back Brahms
Three Men on a Plane.
by the same author
Aunt Margaret's Lover
This book is also respectfully dedicated to the honourable women and men of this planet who struggle and may fail but who nevertheless attempt the good.
O, thou art fairer than the evening's air, Clad in the beauty of a thousand stars. Brighter art thou than flaming Jupiter, When he appear'd to hapless Semele: More lovely than the monarch of the sky, In wanton Arethusa's azured arms, And none but thou shalt be my paramour.
Not tonight, Josephine.
Woman, 39, seeks lover for one year. I offer good legs, bright mind, happy disposition, in return for well-adjusted, solvent male between 35 and 40. April to April. No Expectations.
It is not at all surprising that Elizabeth I of England chose not to marry. Indeed, given the forces surrounding her birth and upbringing, she needed to be one neck short of an execution block to even contemplate the notion. Since her formative years were spent ducking the whizzing heads of assorted uncles, cousins, stepmothers, not to mention her own mother, and other once favoured wives were either dying of broken hearts or forced into sisterhood, her unwed state seems a peculiarly oblique debate among historians.
The comfortably scholarly notion that marriage would have made her submit to her husband as her Lord and therefore cede her sovereignty is bullshit. The uncomfortably hysterical notion that she was physically unable to receive the Noble Kingdom of the Phallus due to gynaecological malfunction is quite batty and says more for male medical hierarchy than it does for female common sense. When in doubt, commit calumny. Ben Jonson to Drummond after dinner at Hawthornden: 'She had a membrana on her which made her incapable of man, though for her delight she tried many
Well, Ben, I do hope so
No, no. At heart (aye, and stomach too as she affirmed) Elizabeth was a woman: a romantic woman, but not a fool. Quite simply, she had seen too much of where the other state could get you and said codpieces to it. Wise woman. She appointed a lusty and beautiful favourite or two to flatter and fawn on her (a state halfway to Paradise) and got on with it. So what if the Tudor line died with her? So what if the poncy, proselytizing James of Scotland should follow her on? She had chosen happiness in the single state and went to her death battered by no one's supreme hand but her own. She had seen what other husbands could do and she did not, fair enough, like it at all.
It is therefore not surprising that others who have witnessed filial destructions surrounding
choose the same maidenly path in modern times. Others like Aunt Margaret, who stands alone, a little apart from the other spectators, on the rather chilly dockside at Portsmouth. She waves a fluttering handkerchief at the immense grandeur of P&O's cruise ship, bound for New York, as it slowly slides away. She is, herself, of the age that Elizabeth reached when her counsellors began to panic seriously about her spinsterhood. And she, too, for the first time in eighteen years, is suffering a mild panic about the issue of aloneness herself. It will pass, she counsels, as the ship hoots, the bunting flaps and the band on the quayside plays jolly rousing tunes. She waves more heartily. The handkerchief was one of her father's and she knows it will be seen. She squints and can still just make out Saskia waving back, her bright young face alight with excitement, her golden head tipped to one side as if to see better, her new pink angora sweater a fuzzy cloud among the drabness of raincoats surrounding her as she leans across the rail.
'Go with my love,' calls Aunt Margaret softly, the words lost in the roll of the sea. 'Go and good luck.'
And she means it. Surrogate motherhood is free of that umbilical dimension a blood mother might feel. She experiences only a profound relief mingling with the tears. A job well done. Now her niece is bound for a reunion with her father. Her real father, not a surrogate. The father she has not seen since she was a tottering toddler. Saskia will be away for a year. Margaret Percy thinks she will be away for a great deal longer than that, for when she returns she will be someone else. Bound to be. Litde Saskia has gone, to be replaced by someone differ
ent. Little Saskia has gone for
ever. Inevitable. Margaret Percy is sad but has no sense of ownership. Two strands have reknit themselves. She has expected this moment to happen and endured the requirement to encourage it when it did. Mothers possess by the right of birth pain, the owings; aunts do not. Margaret Percy turns away and walks back to the car. She is alone now, as she always expected to be, and mild panic is also inevitable.
She takes one last look at the receding bows of that great floating world and then looks up at the sky. To the dense clouds above her she says, 'Take care of her if you're up there!' And she wonders what will happen in the somewhat blank year ahead. 'Look on it as an adventure,' she says as she gets back into her car.
She revs the engine. 'Thirty-nine is not
old.' She revs it again, perhaps a little harder than necessary. 'At any rate, it isn't, yet, forty.'
On a summer's night in his MGB, in the waning days of flower power, mysticism and universal love, Dickie Donald was driving very fast, very dangerously and very drunkenly, through the English countryside. He was returning from Petworth - not the stately home of Turner fame, but the locale. He had just sold a pair of his watercolours for a very handsome price. It was what his young sister-in-law, Margaret Percy, afterwards referred to as his Judas money.
The small-time aristocratic couple who had bought the pictures were pleased at the story they would have to dine out on, both about the acquisition and about the painter. 'My dear,' they looked forward to saying over the brown Windsor, 'he was an absolute hoot. Drank like a fish and pinched Lucinda's bottom
despite his wife being there. Nice little thing. Pretty. Adores him of course . . . Who wouldn't with those eyes? And then he positively
out of the gates in his battered old sports car and raced away to his Bohemian hovel somewhere.'
Dickie obliged them by putting his foot down hard and it almost came true.
But not quite.
He roared out of the gates, sped along the lane, and raced straight under the wheels of a lorry. He was thrown clear with minimal damage. His wife, pretty little thing, was scattered all over the countryside, mercifully dead. And the small-time aristocrats had a slightly different story to tell over the rattling soup spoons. 'Such a tragedy. Never heard of him since. Never exhibited in London again. Work in great demand because so little of it exists. And Bertie and I made a killing -
I mean doubled the value of our two overnight. . . Tragic of course . .
It was not the first time, as Margaret told the coroner. Sometimes it was drink, sometimes it was drugs, sometimes both. It was why Lorna went with him to places - to keep watch, make sure things didn't get out of hand. She left their daughter, Saskia, with me that day. She quite often did. I feel part of his betrayal. I introduced them to each other. I thought he was dashing and fine, loved him myself in a dazzled way - adored the wedding, which was wild, wanted one like that for me when the time came. Apparently he puked all night. Lorna was three years older than me and imagined herself on the shelf. Saskia came quickly. Saskia because of Rembrandt. Delusions of grandeur. He puked all night after that, too. He was a lousy husband and a lousy father. Saskia will stay with me. I am her aunt. I will bring her up. He can disappear off the face of the earth for all I care
And so he did. He made no contact except through my father's solicitor, through whom he agreed to my caring for his daughter and taking on the tenancy of their crumbling hole of a house in Holland Park. I chose to live in it, with Sassy, and eventually had to buy it or get out. I chose to buy it and looked upon the mortgage as my carapace for life. Nobody, I thought, looking at all the noughts on the mortgage agreement, ever escapes from something like
I looked from the noughts to Saskia. Love. Commitment. A double bind.
My father found the whole thing too difficult to deal with. My mother had died five years before and he was still smarting from that. How could she go and leave him just when he was about to retire? If I sound cynical, I was. But not so much now. Time is mo
re than just a healer, it is an
instructor. There are many worse atrocities in the world than murder by drunken driving, and there are more betrayals in the world than a father retiring to Dorset and remarrying a blue-rinse. When Dad died, Millicent didn't exactly hold on to every last farthing, but she made it clear that artefacts, memoirs, perhaps a little furniture from the old days, were acceptably mine. The rest was hers. The grieving widow.
She began to say to me a few months after the funeral, 'Your father was not quite the gentleman I thought, you know . . . Our marriage was not
without its seamy side, dear . . .' I told her that was enough, I did not want to know. I had done with poor marriages and bad husbands, just as Gloriana made judgement and had done. My father died when I was thirty and Sassy was
nine and by that time I was settl
ed, secure, and did not need to hear about marital iniquity. Was I not tucking up its results every night?
Well, well. At least I had both a heart to love, and a job to pay for the noughts. And business in both departments became, happily, both satisfying and rewarding. I even had something of a patroness.
I had been framing Mrs Mortimer's pictures for years. Big ones, little ones, abstract and figurative ones. She was an avid and compulsive collector and, as some people left alone in the world choose to garner objects or signatures or stamps, so Mrs Mortimer chose art.
Her wheelchair only enhanced her elan. That she was sixty when I first met her and buying post-war modernist stuff increased it further. No turgid English landscapes or safely pedigreed genre stuff for her, though she did draw the line at Life Seen Through a Tampon and Conceptual Used Lavatory Paper.
Those were the days of no ramps, no concessions to the chair-bound unseen, and her visits to galleries caused interesting havoc. Sweated havoc. Mrs Mortimer bought, Mrs Mortimer bought well. Mrs Mortimer had to be accommodated somehow. And she would emphatically not do what the Queen, whom she loved, might do. She would not go separate and alone to special viewings. Oh no. Mrs Mortimer went to private viewings. And she liked to be in amongst the Rioja-swilling crowd. I think Mrs Mortimer really enjoyed getting firmly and obtrusively in the way.
She laddered my Mary Quant tights at the Blake Gallery. I was quite poor then, do
ing framing out of Dickie's old
studio at the top of the house, with Saskia to support and no certainty of success. Framing was more or less the last account to be paid by artists or their galleries, and 'cash flow' was an over-ambitious term for the way the money came in. So a laddered pair of gentian blu * and highly prized hosiery was not something to dismiss
It had been a bad day in any case and I was
if an elderly lady, wheelchair-bound or no, was going to have mc apologize simply for standing still. So instead of saying, 'Oh, don't mention it,' as one who has been a Brownie should, I said, 'Oh, for God's sake now look what you've done
She said, 'Why didn't you move out of the way? Surely you saw me?' And I said, 'Because I was trying to see the Rosenquist and I
She looked at the picture. 'It's a good one. Not a great one, as they say. But a good one. It could, however, be better framed than that. Aluminium is boringly prevalent nowadays. And look how the shine detracts from the paper's edge. They could at least have given it a matt finish.'
Since I had been thinking much the same, I said that it would look better in a simple dull mahogany moulding, floated more generously so that the deckle edge showed. She nodded agreement and I went and found her a glass of wine. When I came back she gave me a pound note.
I said, 'Oh no. The wine is free.'