Authors: Lorna Sage
For Sharon and Olivia
Starting a memoir, you open a door on to the past. The moment
became real to me was when, in my mind's eye, I saw
just which door, and who was leading the way:
“Grandfather's skirts would flap in the wind along the
churchyard path and I would hang on.”
I am still pleased with the book's first words, though I had no idea what I was letting myself in for. My bitter, theatrical vicar-grandfather, stagnating in the remote rural parish of Hanmer in North Wales for his sins (women and drink, mostly), was my reference point, my black flag on the map of the past, my arrow pointing â “You were here”, this is where you begin.
“He often found things to do in the vestry, excuses for getting out of the vicarage (kicking the swollen door, cursing) and so long as he took me he couldn't get up to much. I was a sort of hobble, he was my minder and I was his. He'd have liked to get further away, but petrol was rationed. The church was at least safe. My grandmother never went near it â except feet first in her coffin, but that was years later, when she was buried in the same grave with him. Rotting together for eternity, one flesh at the last after a lifetime's mutual loathing. In life, though, she never invaded his patch; once inside the churchyard gate he was on his own ground, in his element. He was good at funerals, being gaunt and lined and marked with mortality. He had a scar down his hollow cheek, too, which Grandma had done with the carving knife one of the many times when he came home pissed and incapable.”
He died when I was only nine, but that strengthened his hold on my imagination. He did not let me down as he had all the others, starting with my grandmother and my mother, their daughter. Instead he vanished into the dark with his mystique intact.
When, in my teens, I quarrelled with my mother, she would say in despair and disgust, “You're just like your grandfather,” meaning that I was promiscuous, sex-obsessed, that the bad blood was coming out. My bookishness was part of that inheritance too, and though she and my father approved in theory of my love of reading, and my coming top in exams, we all knew that books had a sinister, Grandpa side to them. You could always tell which were his books because he had had the bright idea of inking out their titles and authors' names in case visitors to his study asked to borrow a Dickens or a Marie Corelli.
My name, Lorna, came out of one of the blacked-out books, Lorna Doone, and he had chosen it when my father was away in the war. He also taught me to read when I was three, and that confirmed me as his creature. After he was dead I'd commune with him in the vicarage books that no one else read. My mother never opened them; she had given up on all that when she turned against him and chose Grandma's side.
Writing about him, trying to bring him back to life, I succeeded in ways I hadn't expected. Family legend had it that my grandmother, who slept at the opposite end of the house and did not speak to him, had blackmailed him for years with the threat of showing his diaries to the bishop. Certainly she had a tidy sum in the post office, and it was true that he was always completely broke, but was that why? My mother was dead, but my father had no hesitation.
Certainly it was true. But how did he know? Well, he had the
diaries; my mother had kept them: two small volumes filled with cramped handwriting covering the years 1933 and 1934, when he had first arrived in Hanmer, and â as it turned out â fallen from grace almost immediately. Suddenly, instead of my own vivid but patchy childhood memories, I had his words before me, with ironical marginalia from Grandma: “Here the fun begins” and “Love begins (fool!)”. I transcribed them with difficulty, and with growing fascination, all one summer, peering back to the very different summer of 1933, when he arrived in his new parish, and tried to recapture how it was:
“Everything is suddenly on the move, unfixed, the old landmarks of his depression left behind in the Rhondda â along with his wife and son and [my mother] Valma, too, for the momentÂ .Â .Â . All at once he's alone in this new place (“a lovely spot”) where people don't know him from Adam. Mobility. Freedom of a kind. He must take up his duties immediately, now that the old Canon, long ailing, has finally admitted defeat and been persuaded to go. His two churches are three miles apart down shaggy, meandering country roads blistered with cowpats and hemmed in by weedy ditches. He acquires a bicycle, and finds himself walking it up gentle hills (no mountains here) and freewheeling down again the other side. The diary shows him threading his way along a necklace of new place names â Bangor-on-Dee, Wrexham, Ellesmere, Horseman's Green, Eglwys Cross, Bronington, Bettisfield, Whitchurch â marking out a map on which, more and more often, his path crosses that of the District Nurse, Nurse Burgess, who of course has a bicycle too.
“Just days before, ironically enough, he is all prepared to be lonely and bored. “Hanmer is very quiet,” he notes ominously, “veryÂ .Â .Â . Time hangs somewhat on my hands in this place.”
Then the new bike arrives. There is an August heatwave, the kids are swimming in the mere just as we would 20 years on (except that in 1933 it's only the boys) and on the very day he admits taking his first ride with the nurse (“Here the fun begins”) they are both summoned to the mereside in their professional capacities, because one of the young men has drownedÂ .Â .Â . His body doesn't surface for three days and the whole of Hanmer keeps a vigil, people standing in hot huddles talking under their breath, gazing at the innocent flat water only dimpled with fish taking flies. He was a strong swimmer, too, so there's a niggling element of mystery about his death: cramp, or weed, or cold currents must have got him, and it's true â was still true 20 years later â that sometimes when the water near the edge was soupy warm you'd suddenly find your legs entwined with cold streams snaking in under the lily pads, just before the bottom shelved right away.
Grandpa was swiftly out of his depth as well, but he was having a marvellous time and only noticed how far he'd gone when his family actually turned up. Out of his depth and in his element. He and Nurse Burgess, now MB for short in the diary, pedal to paradise every day of the week, including Sunday. Trailing a cloud of midges, they'd hump their bikes off the road, through some muddy gateway and, behind the hedge, hug and knead each other among the mallows and Queen Anne's lace and nettles dusty with pollen.
Perhaps they spread his tobacco-scented black cassock on the ground to protect them from ants and the crawling wasps drunk on crab apples. Or more likely they'd keep their uniforms on and each get to know the other's body. He is lean and wiry, MB in her starched blue linen is substantial but not yet stout, well muscled because of all the exercise she gets, her arms mottled pink and
white from soap and sun. She has a midwife's hands. His fingers are inky and curve to caress an imaginary pipe bowl, or a preacher's palmful of air, and â now â the generous breast where her watch ticks away. It's nearly always afternoon, they are supposed to be out to tea, strawberry jam and fruitcake, and so they are, so they areÂ .Â .Â .”
A voyeur across the years, I conjured them up in as much fleshly and fruity detail as I could, thinking of the paintings of Arcimbaldo, in defiance of my puritanical mother. Well, yes, I am like him.
But as I read on, the picture darkened: Grandma arrived and of course found out, and there were epic, all-night rows. Taking stock at the end of the year, he hands the whole messy intrigue over to God: “So ends a most memorable year for me. I have had the move I wished for to a lovely country churchÂ .Â .Â . I have met MB and therein hangs all the tale of the future. What will that be I wonder? God knows, since it is his doing that all this has come about. So then I commit the future to God.” After reading between his lines for long weeks at a time, I became convinced that this solemn talk meant that he was wondering if God was proposing to make him a widower. He had made some sort of vow to MB on the Bible, and Hilda had been very ill indeed with asthma in south WalesÂ .Â .Â . If I'm right, he must have felt cheated, for the move from the Rhondda to Hanmer proved very good for Grandma, who got much stronger in the country. Certainly his relationship with MB now rapidly soured, to the point where he found himself longing to believe that she had, as gossip suggested, another lover. But in the event it was he himself who was unfaithful to her, and this was another of the diaries' revelations. I had known vaguely about the affair with Nurse Burgess â it was part of village mythology â but not about Marjorie,
“Marj” for short. People knew about that too, but did not talk about it, because it was too shocking, for Marj was my 16-year- old mother's best friend, only 17 herself.
This was the sin that spoiled his relationship with my mother for good, prevented his promotion in the church, and made him such a shady character in Hanmer, though people flocked to hear his sermons. And even that wasn't quite the end of the diary story either, for it looks as if MB wasn't the first. Perhaps he was on the run when he arrived in Hanmer. I realised that I didn't really want to take after Grandpa when it came to deviousness and self-pity and self-dramatisation. There were moments when he seemed to reach a skinny hand out of the past to take hold of me, as when he confided to the diary, “Today” (October 7 1934) “I had the old inspiration back again to write”; and again in December, “I make another resolution to spend my time in journalism and writing. I think I can make good nowÂ .Â .Â .” Well he didn't, but in a strange way he was now doing it through me.”
I still thought of him â still think of him â as my great familiar and mentor, the making of me, though I now see that that carries all sorts of baggage with it that I had not expected. Writing about his sins, his sermons, his last illness (he had a stroke in mid-flow in the pulpit, I was there in the front row of the choir), I gave myself the impetus to go on to explore my parent's lives and my own first marriage, at 16.
Indeed, marriage, and its changing nature over the years, became one of the book's themes, and so did secrets and lies. He represents for me now the glamour of the past, and its sinister pull, like the force of gravity inside your life. He refuses to die. When Grandma was packing up to move out of the vicarage I called by on my way from school and she told me that she had met him on the stairs.
I was thrilled, but she took it in her stride â it was just the kind of theatrical trick he would pull. “If the old bugger thinks he can frighten me that way,” she wheezed, “he's got another think coming.” And I treasured up the story for future reference, though it took me nearly half a century to get around to writing it down.