Early in the 1920s
In the early 1920s, my uncle David drove a car across the Sahara Desert. But that was before I was born. My aunt Eva was a beautician in Bond Street in London. She used to boast that she had slapped the Duchess of Gloucester`s face.
Family stories flew around and I believed them all, or at least most of them. I wondered how they could be true, but did not dare question my elders. I tried to imagine uncle David in the dunes near our house and doubted that a car could traverse the slippery, shifty sand. Everybody knew that you took one footstep forward and two back on the windblown sands that towered at the back of our beach. Mauve rocket flowers grew in that waterless wilderness, and sea-holly and blue-green marram grass but I never saw any vehicle except a horse and cart being filled with seaweed or dry sand.
Mother said that Santa Claus came down the chimney on Christmas Eve, but all the pictures showed him jolly fat. All the bedrooms in our house had tiny, black, wrought-iron fireplaces, embossed with art deco wavy stems, peaked with stylised flowers. I wondered how could he get down my chimney, and even if he could, I would surely have heard him.
Aunt Eva eventually gave up her beauty career to marry her dental surgeon fiancé. They came to our house for their honeymoon. (It was the first time I knew anything about how babies were started. They put their lips together and wriggled). Aunt Eva`s hats were amazing; they were very close to her head, just like my rubber bathing cap, only made of wool or something, with flat ribbons. Her skirts were short and she had very curvy legs; I often saw uncle Ray smoothing her legs. I didn`t ask what he was doing, but when he saw that I was looking he explained that he was making sure that my aunt`s stockings were straight.
And then there was my aunt Stella. I did not know her at all. She never used to come to Cornwall, but I knew about her marrying uncle Terry. Some time later, I heard the whispers; something called d-i-v-o-r-c-e. (I thought it must be an illness). Aunt Stella and aunt Eva had been educated in France, at a Convent they said, with nuns for teachers. I thought nuns lived in nunneries and were extra holy. So were my aunts blessed people?
Father was a pianist and mother played the viola. They provided the music for afternoon tea dances in The Moravia Hotel in our seaside town. I was not aware that father played in a jazz band in the evenings, but Daddy did yawn a lot during the day. Mother liked to wear velvet. For the tea dances she wore a brown velvet frock and she made Daddy wear a brown velvet jacket. Velvet is very smooth. I liked it better than satin; satin made my teeth grate, but velvet was a bit like a tennis ball, all short, furry and soft.
On Monday afternoon, the one afternoon of the week when the there was no tea dance, I attended a dancing class, in the hotel ballroom. My preliminary remembrance was of a gloomy, hollow place with a black floor. Actually, it was quite a large room with big bay windows and an oak panelling dado on the lower walls. Ranged around the walls were stylish gold painted chairs. Curtains and drapes were omitted because, so they said, of the akoo-sticks. I couldn`t see where the sticks came in. On Monday mornings the cleaners polished the wood floor with lavender scented wax and when the children gathered, the room seemed to warm up and become light brown and pungent with scent of lavender. And the music made a difference too; Suppe`s Poet and Peasant, Litolff`s Spinning Song and Liebestraume or Love Dreams by Franz Liszt. Mother would accompany us on her viola.
I was accustomed to music in my home. We had a gramophone with lots of records, all classical works, but they were treated lightly and often my mother would put words to the familiar melodies. For example; to number seven of Dvorak`s eight Humoresques she would sing: "ladies-will-you-please-refrain\from-passing water-on- the-train\especially-when-it`s-standing-in-the-sta-tion." I wondered about the passing water for a long time.
In the summer when I was nearly eight, the Grand Gorsedd was held in the town. Cornish Bards were created for their contribution to poetry and things and The Grand Bard would initiate the new Bards at the ceremony on the Castle Lawn. An older girl, dressed in a white Grecian gown was to carry a bunch of corn and poppies to present to the Gorsedd Harpist. I was thrilled to be chosen to dance and the organisers sent a roll of dark green cotton fabric to be made into short tunics and knickers. In our hair we would have fresh flowers. About ten of us, in all, must hold onto a long rope of greenery that we would finally ceremoniously drape on the platform. Then the outgoing Grand Bard would crown the new one for that year.
The music for the Gorsedd was, of course, composed by one of the Bards, played by the Official Gorsedd Harpist. But for several Monday afternoon practices, in the absence of a harp, mother had to pluck the viola. It sounded awful but our rehearsals seemed to be going well, nevertheless.
The dress rehearsal pleased our dance teacher. As she taught us, we each pointed our big toe to the ground as we skipped, holding the rope with one hand and flapping our other hand to the beat of the tune.
Suddenly, the door opened and there was my aunt Stella.
`No, mes enfants!` she cried, striking a ballet pose. Her skirt was made of large white lawn handkerchiefs sewn to her waistband, points to the floor and her bodice was daringly low-cut. Her black hair was coiled in plaits around her ears, in a style that was called "earphones" in deference to the things worn when listening to the wireless set. Her eyes were very dark brown, like my father`s, and her gaze rested on each one of us in turn.
The vision of my aunt caused a whispered hush. I heard mother sigh. The dance teacher shrank into a corner. We children waited for what might happen next. I wondered who mes enfants were, it could not be us, we were not French. I knew French, of course, because of "Apres-midi d`un faune" by Debussy.
`Pirouette!` sang aunt Stella, performing a perfect twirl on one foot, showing silk stockings and white bar-shoes.
In no time she had us all extending arms and fingers above our heads in an oval shape. She taught us how to sashay, that is strut or walk with a swagger, as does a ballet dancer. Skipping and hopping was definitely out.
`One and two and three and four, and one and two and three and four`she sang. We found it quite easy, except when my poor mother was prevailed upon to play the music. The viola pizzicato was nothing like the sweeping chords of the harp but we did not know that. My aunt Stella complained; Mother objected and she and I went home. I think everyone went home, it was a disaster.
Saturday arrived. The afternoon was fine. Aunt Stella had taken over totally and the dance teacher was under her spell. Mother, relieved of the burden of providing the music, helped to organise the children. She pinned the flowers in our hair, took charge of our sandals and cardigans and lined us up one behind the other along the line of greenery. The big girl had been having special lessons for her performance. She looked very grown-up and confident, while we shivered with expectation.
First the Bards processed from the railway station, up onto the Castle Green. Our little routine was after the Bards had gathered in a big circle and the Grand Bard had ascended the steps to his throne on the dais. The Harpist separated herself from the circle and settled behind her instrument and began to play. We children were behind the bandstand, waiting for our signal.
At last the Harpist began our tune. We looked at each other aghast. This did not sound a bit like our music! But aunt Stella appeared on the bandstand. All eyes turned towards her standing triumphant in a flowing golden gown. She sang words to our tune, not in English, not in French but in the Cornish language!
Our dancing classes were never the same after that. My aunt Stella went back to Park Lane, to her esteemed school of dancing, next to the Dorchester Hotel. Our teacher went there to take a short course of ballet and returned a woman transformed. No longer did my mother play the viola, father played ballet music on the piano. Mother had become very fat; because of eating too many chocolates, I supposed.
At Christmas, we put on a display. We all wore ballet shoes now but only the big girls went up on the points of their toes. I remember the day of the display. I went with father to the ballroom before anyone else arrived. We were doing "Le Casse-noisette", a story about a nutcracker that came to life and his fight with the Mouse King. I was one of the mice. I had a tail and my face was painted with whiskers. We danced with our hands curled in front of our chests.
Father opened the piano and did a few arpeggios. Then he strolled over to the mantelpiece where little bowls of chocolates were ready for the guests after the show. He pinched one. Suddenly there was a whirlwind and my aunt Stella was there, smacking my father`s wrists. It was great. I had never seen my father scolded before.
`What on earth are you doing here?` Daddy asked his sister.
`To see the display of course` she looked at me and smiled.
I could see that father was worried. If my aunt took over the whole thing it would embarrass everybody. It was then that our teacher arrived. I told you, she was a transformed woman didn`t I? We had to call her `Madame` although I knew she was still a mademoiselle.
`Ah you are here, Stella` she said, `good. I have put you in the front row.`
I looked at the gold painted chairs set in rows at the other end of the ballroom. In the front, in the centre, was what might be called a throne, a carving chair with arms, with red velvet cushions on it.
`But I must be in the wings! To make sure everything goes well. `My aunt`s velvet brown eyes were flashing and she was waving her beautiful silk fringed shawl around her shoulders.
Then the guests began to arrive and she was surrounded by people welcoming her and smiling. And she sat herself elegantly on her special chair. Madame caught hold of my arm and took me into the annexe where every one in the show was congregating. She was very kind, more attentive than usual and I wondered why. But I had no more time to think, the ballet was beginning.
All went well, thank goodness. My aunt Stella wriggled a few times and put forward a graceful hand once or twice, as if to dispute. I noticed it when we mice were lined up and staying very still, waiting our turn to dance. Father played the piano with special perseverance I thought. He stared into space and his hands moved over the keys automatically.
It was not until everyone had gone home that they told me that I had a baby brother.