‘Is your Mammy in?’ asked the man at the door.
‘There’s nobody here but my Auntie Peg,’ replied my sister politely. (Politeness mandatory at the door.)
‘What?’ He tried again. ‘Is your Mammy at home?’
Somewhat testily my sister repeated, ‘There’s nobody here but my Auntie Peg.’
‘What?’ He frowned in puzzlement.
She snapped. ‘Ach, there’s nobody here but me Ant.’
My Auntie Peg taught English and French to young ladies in a convent school in Ealing. She was most particular about language. She read The Times Literary Supplement. She knew Old Vic personally and had seen Olivier play Yorick in Hamlet. She appreciated how he fleshed out the role. She had wit and very good table manners. In fact she often mentioned table manners to us. It was a recurring topic at dinner. She did not appreciate haste or loud noises in the consumption of food. In deference to her strange preoccupation with hygiene, we washed thoroughly behind our ears, before she came to stay, as she did several times a year. She travelled during her holidays and sent glossy colour postcards from exotic places. Louis XIV had a very nice house in Paris and a few others around the country. There was a Hall of Mirrors. It was probably easy for him to check behind his ears, before my Auntie Peg arrived, with her entourage of young ladies, although I don’t think he was too hot on hygiene. There was The Eiffel Tower, a radio mast built before radio. The French like to be prepared. Think Maginot Line. Think Cognac, bottled today, but not to be opened for half a century. If I had anticipated the modern television programmes about antiques and ’eminently collectible’ old photographs, my album of Auntie Peg’s postcards would make me a rich man. But, malheureusement, (Gallic shrug) what can I say?
I actually know very little about Peg. I remember her long conversations with my mother, but they segued into French if there was anything of interest coming up. I know that there was a young man in UCD, before the war, but he turned out to be a bit of a cad. There was talk of a Canadian paratrooper, killed in Crete. She told us about her new coat, obtained with precious ration coupons and ruined when she had to lie down in the street, during an air raid. I imagined the sirens and the crump of bombs. I could see the burning buildings reflected in the wet tarmac. She told the story ruefully, but I imagined her crying. I think she had a lot to cry about, but politeness prevented her. She loved Tom Jenkins with The Palm-Court Orchestra of the Grand Hotel. It was a Sunday evening ritual on the BBC Home Service. ‘We go over now, to Tom Jenkins and the Palm-Court orchestra of the Grand Hotel…..’ Everything stopped for Tom Jenkins. I tried to imagine what the place looked like and whether the musicians sat among the trees or behind them, but all I could see in my mind was the silver cake stand with the selection of iced cakes glazed in many colours. On the rare occasions that aunts of any kind brought us out to tea, this cake stand appeared, piled high with a bewildering variety of cakes. The other person always gets the nicest one. I thought that…. but no. Table manners decree that you take one and one only. You can look but you may not touch. Was she remembering afternoon tea with her Canadian, in a shady palm-court long ago?
I came in one day in a foul mood. It was raining. There was nothing to do. ‘The weather is lousy,’ I said angrily. She fixed me with a Miss Jean Brodie stare. Silence. My well-washed ears began to burn. All my crimes were manifest. ‘I will not tolerate such language,’ she said, icily. ‘Kindly leave the room.’
I shrugged. I didn’t care. ‘Huh!’ That’s not bad language. Do you really want to hear bad language? Anyway the weather was lousy. However, I left the room, just to keep her quiet; just because I am a reasonable man who can bear the injustices of life with philosophic resignation. C’est la vie, (Another Gallic shrug). Peg was a good friend. Margaret and I met her in London on our honeymoon. She brought us to afternoon tea in Piccadilly. There were cakes. My ears were impeccable. She produced theatre tickets and then got up to leave. We protested. ‘You’re on your honeymoon. You don’t want an old aunt around.’ I suppose that was tact and politeness.
Long afterwards, Margaret bought a climbing rose, Grand Hotel. I thought of Peg. It climbed and produced flowers in great profusion. You don’t prune a climbing rose. You steer it. It climbed along the party wall. It approached the house. It became necessary to put up supports over the window. Does anything suggest domestic harmony as well as a climbing rose over the window? A cascade of red roses flowing around our blissful home. Poets write about that sort of thing. Tom Jenkins probably had an orchestral piece on the subject. I went to John Kingston’s hardware shop. John had the answer to every problem. He would even throw in instructions and advice. It was probably the only shop in the world where you could buy a single screw… and take it back if it was the wrong length. Lesser men use drills and rawl-plugs with screws made to the correct thickness and length. They are the kind of poor devils who have to measure before they cut a piece of wood or drill a hole. I use masonry nails. Masonry nails are for wild free-booting, buccaneering types like myself; men who know how to use language when the nail hits a flint or an impenetrable stone in pebble-dash. There are few things more satisfying than the feeling of the masonry nail going firmly home. You could climb the Eiger, north face of course, with masonry nails. Lesser men climb the south face.
I got the step ladder. There are dangers in working at altitude. My grandfather died in a fall from a ladder. Admittedly it was Christmas. He owned a pub. He was hanging Christmas decorations. There might be other contributory factors there. I ascended warily, with a pocket full of masonry nails. I began to work. I got one nail in at the first go. I reached for another. I became aware that I was higher than the party wall. I was higher than the Grand Hotel . I became aware that my neighbour’s beautiful daughters were practising their gymnastics in the back garden. They had a full sized wooden beam, on which they were balancing and executing dismounts with double forward, backward somersaults with pike. It looked very dangerous. I addressed myself to my task. I just checked again, that they were all right, precisely as I struck the nail. I hit my thumb. The masonry nail shot out, with a pling and struck me on the cheek, drawing blood. Masonry nails are unforgiving. I lost my footing and fell astride the rung of the ladder, barking a shin and causing extreme pain elsewhere, at the same time. With admirable presence of mind, I grabbed a handful of rose bush to steady myself. I grabbed the thorns, not the beautiful, red petals. I suffered five different wounds in the space of a second. Ollie and Stan would have had to rehearse it . The only recourse was profanity.
‘There’s no need for that kind of language,’ said Margaret, reprovingly. There was. There was. The injustice of it all struck me. ‘A man more sinned against than sinning.’ I thought of Peg and her Shakespeare and her ‘Kindly leave the room.’ I retired to nurse my grievances. The rose would have to wait, at least until gymnastics practice was over and my thumb regained some mobility. On a more optimistic note, on another occasion, after the young ladies had practised in the front garden, two lads working on the telephone connections across the road, left a hammer, a vice-grips and a big lump of lead behind, when they left. That would have cost me a few bob in John Kingston’s.
Our Grand Hotel in Skerries was a pretty shabby place. The lead must have been stolen from the roof. It leaked. It became part of the school where I taught for some years. I met a pupil whose father had stayed there on the night that Harry Boland was shot. Harry was shot in the room at the end of the corridor. The boy’s father and uncle hid under the bed. There was a chamber pot under the bed. The chamber pot was full. If they used language, it was surely under their breath. There was no Palm-Court or orchestra in that Grand Hotel. It wasn’t even ‘grand’ in the Irish sense. It was pretty awful. Peg would have been amused. Although I saw her become an old woman in poor health,she retained her droll wit. At her funeral, a tenor made a dog’s dinner of Panis Angelicus and Ave Maria. He was brutal. My cousin leaned across to me. ‘Peg would have enjoyed that,’ she whispered.
She left us that evening in London. I have a memory of her walking away, against the crowd in Piccadilly, a small, rather stooped, lonely figure. She danced there with a sailor on VE Night.