Now, who on earth's to speak of my Aunt May
If I don't? Well, so what? I hear you say;
What does it matter after all these years?
Why rake up ancient scandals for new ears?
Her sisters all felt she was best forgotten.
The youngest told me, "She was simply rotten,
That's all there is to it." The next, "Quite mad,
Poor thing, so not her fault of course. We had
A frightful time with her when we were young.
Went for us tooth and nail — not just her tongue."
The last, more charitable, all the same
Said, "She had no-one but herself to blame."
May was the first of four girls, Father's pet
From the beginning. With him she could get
Away with anything. Pretty and charming
In nursery days, her manner quite disarming.
"Difficult", governesses thought, but Father
Quite disagreed, blaming the Fräulein rather
Than his sweet girl, for she could do no wrong:
Days in the schoolroom were too dull and long.
May was born more than seventy years before
That date immortalised by Larkin for
The origin of sexual activity,
For which May showed a pioneer's proclivity.
She put her hair up and her hemline down,
Talked much about the Season up in Town
For which she longed in vain; Mother had been
Presented all in white to the Old Queen,
But May would never curtsey to the Crown —
Her father married up, her mother down,
A fraction (all it takes) . . . . May met a man
Properly introduced it seems — began
To burn with love. He was "all right", which meant
He proved to be an officer and gent,
But (as her parents never once suspected)
He had a wife at home; he had neglected
To mention her before the facts came out —
A breakfast-table bombshell. "That damned lout!
The cad! The bounder!" Father raged some more
Until his wife besought him not to roar:
"The children, William! And the servants too!
Remember how we all look up to you.
And — where is May?" The absence of his daughter,
His favourite girl, made Father's breath grow shorter,
His face more purple, as he realised
May and the cad he anathematized
Had run off. She was ruined, he disgraced;
It was a harsh world now his family faced.
What next? The anticlimax: May came back,
The bounder never did. (We do not lack
Examples who, like May's chap, came — and went.)
She was subdued, seemed almost penitent.
Nothing was to be mentioned, not a word,
For storms occur in teacups when they're stirred.
This calm was brief; Mother suspected first,
Told Father, fearing that his veins might burst.
They summoned May for questioning and found her
Defiant still — and pregnant by her bounder.
The hushing-up proceeded; May went off
For "country air, to heal her dreadful cough."
Married churchgoers took the child for theirs.
Thus decent people settled their affairs.
(Though decent scarcely was how people saw
Girls of May's kind before the first World War.)
May was brought back; "welcomed" not quite the word
For her reception. The sisters far preferred
A quieter life, broached only by the noise
Of boisterous brothers — well, boys should be boys.
May's curses and hysteria were a case
Entirely different, and they had to face
The prospect of long years and years of this,
Unless they could escape to wedded bliss.
It lasted months or years — how can one learn
When the informants prove so taciturn?
No doubt it seemed to them an endless time
Before May crowned it with another crime.
A second cad with gentlemanly ways
Tickled her fancy as he sang her praise.
(By now you'd think the penny ought to drop;
Poor May can't have had much at work up top.)
Again, he came, he went, she was with child.
Again the tears, the accusations wild.
May was so ignorant. Whatever good
Those governesses did, planned parenthood
Was not on their curriculum; perhaps
She feared no consequences from her lapse,
Believing in some old wives' tale or other
About what caused a girl to be a mother.
(If she was so superlatively dim,
So much the more blame must attach to him.)
May dug her heels in; this child was her own,
She'd never part from it. No-one had known
She could be so unswerving — took the train
And disappeared, not to appear again.
Or not for quite a while. In the interim
Father had died (it was too much for him).
When May resurfaced with her baby daughter
Her sisters might have chosen to deport her
To some far colony, out of their sight,
But Mother saw things in another light.
The little girl was Bunty and her aunts
Loved her in spite of her inheritance.
They missed her when she left, yet were relieved
That May went with her; felt distinctly peeved
That Mother doted on their eldest sister,
Forgave her everything and fondly kissed her.
May never stayed away for long; she'd go
In fury over some dissension so
Trifling that no-one could remember later
What caused her to leave them — and them to hate her.
Then without warning she'd crop up again,
Settle at home with Bunty, make it plain
She'd come to stay — till the next tempest blew,
She wept, she cursed her sisters, feathers flew,
Doors slammed. May grabbed her little daughter's hand.
Soon in the hall the pair of them would stand,
Coated and gloved and hatted at the door
Which May declared she'd never darken more.
How Mother could account for all this, how
She thought about May's life, it's hardly now
Possible to decipher. Satan's work?
She may well have supposed Old Nick to lurk
At every turn, awaiting opportunity
To ambush spotless maidens with impunity.
Did mademoiselles and Fräuleins get some blame?
Along with cads who fouled the family name.
A chemical imbalance? — No — avoid
Anachronisms please; while Sigmund Freud
Already in his prime, had not found entry
Among these old North-country gentry.
Such parents never thought the fault was theirs
If children strayed or suffered from nightmares.
Some certain facts they thought they knew, and we
Think we know better, and that's as it may be.
May's youngest sister, a little schoolgirl still,
Was led to think that May was somehow "ill",
Since, for all females until full maturity,
No path but ignorance could lead to purity.
War came; their brother Charles, nineteen years old,
Fell at the Somme, the details never told.
Soon after, one girl married and moved out.
Another learned to drive Brass Hats about.
The younger brother, marked down as a failure,
Grew up, packed bags, and took off for Australia
Which left just Janey in her middle teens
With little opportunity or means,
Or mere desire, for all one knows, to go
Away from home or Mother. Even so
Surely from time to time it crossed her mind
To run and leave the whole damn lot behind.
About this time some further complications
Arose to shake the family relations,
Already far from cosy. Bunty and May
By now had moved to live in London; they
Occupied furnished rooms, moving when rent
Fell far behind, or when May chose to vent
Her temper once too often on the one
In power (her landlady) as she had done
Repeatedly before. Winter that year
Was more than commonly dark, wet and drear,
The lodgings worse than ever, damp and chill.
Bunty was eight years old, became quite ill:
A cold, a cough, a fever, till at last
May called a doctor in. The time was past
When he might hope to help. No doubt he tried.
Pneumonia took hold and Bunty died.
Telegrams bore the news they always bear,
Sympathy, masked reproach, and May's despair.
Her brother-in-law rode through dismal rain,
Not on a white horse but a slow steam train,
Paid for the five-foot coffin and the grave,
Saved May from May; Bunty he couldn't save.
So, hammered by successive blows, dispersion
Of this diminished family, their version
Of the Diaspora, had left them all
Yearning for a lost life, before the Fall
Dragged them from Paradise. Since Father died
(And Charlie, and the little girl beside)
Money became much tighter; Mother never
Claimed, in financial matters, to be clever,
Though talented at spending tastefully.
The big house needed servants, at least three.
May wanted frequent cheques to keep her going.
Janey, though undemanding, kept on growing
Out of her shoes, quite tiny for her age,
And still took dancing classes at this stage,
With fees to pay. Norah was safely married,
With rosy, pigtailed daughters, an unharried
Demeanour, and a gift of keeping calm
Which came from God knows where. There was no harm
In leaving H. behind, for she had fled
To keep house for a well-heeled aunt; she said
It was more slavery than job. One cup
Had been already swallowed; they'd sold up
The country place in Wales that Father bought
When the first babies came, because he thought
Life among dogs and horses was an Eden
Where children would thrive best and they would feed on
Those memories for ever, which came true
In part, as prophecies so often do,
For H. at least; she died at ninety-three
Still telling of the only house where she
Was ever happy. It was near the place
Where Father first set eyes on Mother's face
As she rode sidesaddle across the sands,
Reins loosely held between her slender hands,
Straight back, high head, an air detached and proud,
Provoking him to stare and cry aloud:
"Look at that gel! American, I swear!"
(Quite wrong in that. She was a Londoner.)
So that house went, and now the other one
Where all their train of troubles had begun
Was sold off too, and Mother took a decent
Flat down in Cheltenham, where she thought the recent
Past could be blotted out. There no-one would
Know the bad parts; she'd only tell the good.
So far May's life is largely history,
Lightly embroidered; but from now on mystery
Takes over — it's a blank in fact — the truth
Harder to pull than an impacted tooth,
And now impossible, or almost so:
The one surviving sister has to know
How May went on, but in her nineties she
Demands, and has deserved, some privacy.
May wrecked her life, she reckons; it gives pain
To pester her about it, so — refrain.
May lived through fifteen years or rather more
From Bunty's death until the next World War.
Such years are quickly told, but there were days
And nights and hours — many thousand ways
They may have dragged for her. Another man
Or men seems probable and no-one can
Know that, but surely none stayed with her long.
Did she have friends? One never heard of any.
And even when she scraped up every penny
Mother could part with, that could scarcely pay
For rent and stamps, and bread and tea each day,
Let alone tickets on the old Great Western
Line down to Cheltenham when she needed rest on
Some unexplained occasion. It's clear of course
She must have found another hidden source —
A charity connected with the church —
Cousins who wouldn't leave her in the lurch,
Especially when a modest pound or two
Could turn her from their door without ado.
But this is nothing more than speculation
On how she might cope with her situation.
Those governesses in her schoolroom days
Tried to enlighten her in various ways:
A little French, a very little German,
How to absorb and paraphrase a sermon,
A spot of sewing, just a scrap of art,
Sovereigns of England — that's the greater part
Of all they taught, for nothing like a trade,
Or an accomplishment which might be paid
Was supposed necessary in those days
For girls in cosy families like May's.
She certainly would think it quite demeaning
To work in shop or factory, while cleaning
Hotels or hospitals perhaps was worse.
The shadowy world of governess or nurse
Was ruled out by her background — parents wouldn't
Give charge of children to someone who couldn't
Provide firm proof of moral rectitude:
May's past would be unfavourably viewed.
One pictures her at times employed to care
For aged persons with a little spare
Room where their lady housekeeper could sleep
Or their companion (either would come cheap).
Miss O. was free to criticise the maid
Which fed her dignity, though she'd be paid
Almost as little: She was still Miss O.;
Being a lady, as she'd have you know,
Only her family should call her May.
The situation wouldn't suit her long,
Months possibly, till some imagined wrong
Or real insult from the old employer
Would fall on May's ears. First it might annoy her
Then rouse her fury, at which point she would
Shout "Damn you!", pack her bags, and leave for good.
And at such points as this she'd take the train
To Gloucestershire to rest from stress and strain.
All this is only guesswork, all except
The swift descents on Cheltenham, where she slept
In Janey's bed and Janey brought the tray
Of breakfast — "like a skivvy" as she'd say.
Compared with May's, the other sisters' lives
Are open books, where every page derives
Truth out of memory, letters, scraps and snaps.
Legends develop as the years elapse
But in May's case the legend too is lacking:
No footsteps in the sand, no way of tracking
The where and when and how, the what and who.
Yet shots in the dark may hit, guesses come true.
Then 1939, Sunday the third
Of the ninth month. Again war cries are heard.
Shelters are opened, gasmasks handed round,
Ration books issued. Airraid sirens sound.
Everyday life's transformed. And what became
Of the four sisters? Nothing stayed the same
So how could they? Poor Janey fared the worst.
At only thirty-four she'd be the first
To go; but Mother made her claim exemption
(Caring for aged parent) so redemption
Slipped from her grasp — her last chance of escape
(She may have known) from the oppressive shape
Her life assumed in war and peace alike:
She was a daughter. Daughters did not strike.
For H. the war was opportunity
To leave her rich Aunt Nellie with impunity.
The patriotic spirit was abroad,
And serving without hope of a reward
Meant serving King and Country — not one's aunt.
"You'll swim all right," said H., "and if you can't
Then sink for all I care!" This was not gentle
But H. felt anything but sentimental
Towards the old slave-driver (who drank her fill
Of vengeance soon when she rewrote her will).
H. joined the WAAF where she felt tough and free
For the first time since childhood, joyfully
Wearing the tailored uniform that quite
Expressed her nature absolutely right.
It suited her, and infinitely more so
Than baggy tweeds with woolies round the torso,
Or dull silk frocks for social afternoons
When Nellie's niece must pass the macaroons.
Now in the Mess with the male officers
Her language, jokes and whiskies equalled theirs.
Norah's life too was changed, but rather more
By personal events than by the war.
Her family moved south to rural Surrey
Just as the war broke out; her foremost worry
Her children's future and her husband's state
Of health, now failing (and in fact his fate
Was to die during, though not in, the war).
Belts were drawn in, but they were far from poor.
Except the last, their daughters now were grown
Or very nearly so; the youngest, Joan,
Knew her two aunts, but no-one breathed a word
Of the surprising fact she had a third.
What of Aunt May? Did she in '39
Find an escape like H.? Or just resign
Herself in perpetuity to cold,
Resentful tedium? She was too old
By now to be called up, past menopause
And in no state to think of fighting wars.
But jobs abounded, shoes that needed filling
By any women capable and willing
To take the place of men who marched away
In Army boots. In wartime even May
Might understand that it would not demean
A lady to dish spuds in the canteen
At a munitions factory; all work
These days was warwork; if you seemed to shirk
You were no patriot. So at her ripe age
May could have earned at last a living wage.
Perhaps she did. Perhaps one guesses wrong.
In any case she didn't stay there long,
For soon in 1940 came the Blitz.
May saw no point in being blown to bits
As thousands were in London. Time again
To pack a case or two and board a train,
A Southern Railway one this time. She went
With all she owned to Tunbridge Wells in Kent,
A safe though stuffy town, a place for ending
Lives spent in empire building or defending
Its outposts. May's maternal forebears were
Of that kind; she had had a great aunt there,
Probably dead by 1940, yet
The area still seemed her soundest bet.
There would be cousins of some kind around
Who could be counted on when they were found
To stretch a helping hand to a relation:
"Bombed out my dear. A dreadful situation!
People like us must help out one another;
Besides, we are related though her mother,
Whose father was a Saunders, don't you know,
In India with the Army years ago.
Cousin of my grandfather, of the same
Regiment too. Hugh Saunders was the name."
(Among the guesswork here profusely stacked
Are several sharp steel needles of hard fact.)
In Tunbridge Wells perhaps May fitted in
As well as anywhere. Her distant kin
Would treat her decently, as long as she
Did not demand too much, and it may be
Some aged aunt or uncle would have found
A helpless poor relation quite a sound
Investment; but I hope instead something
More purposeful was tried — a quiet string,
Or several, pulled, to help her earn her keep
And find her own small place to eat and sleep.
Did she serve eggless, fatless wartime cake
In some genteel tea shop? Or could she make
A living rubber-stamping ration books
In Tunbridge Wells Food Office? Her sweet looks
That brought her mostly trouble left no trace
Upon her plaintive middle aged plain face,
And more than likely time had pencilled there
Sketchmaps of disappointment and despair,
Annals of loss and hate, frustrated rage,
Indelibly recorded for old age.
Leaving these purple passages aside,
Though no such details can be verified,
A stranger's eyes would see a heavy frown,
A mouth turned irrecoverably down:
Misery blended with hostility
All sealed in unapproachability.
Not verifiable? The family stored
Photographs, did they not? Indeed, a hoard
Of dozens, among which just one of May
Survived to come to light at this late day.
I suspect Janey, not unjustified
In venting anger after Mother died,
Ripped every shot of May out of its frame
Or album and consigned it to the flame,
Missing this one; she never could have known
It lay there to be found by her niece Joan.
In 1950 (thereabouts) did all
Four sisters gather at the funeral
Of their old mother? If so, it was a day
Of wrath and gloom; because Aunt May
With H. and Janey made a fiery mix,
Combustible as petrol on dry sticks.
A stressful day for Norah — for her rôle
Would be to keep the others in control.
Peaceful and kind, she could be stern as needed
And (so it seems) Janey and H. conceded
That her authority on all affairs
Of conscience was a better guide than theirs;
And May as well might try to modify
Her manner briefly under Norah's eye.
By now Aunt May was once more on the move
Hoping as ever life would soon improve.
The coast (now free of mines) had some appeal
For her: Hastings to Hove, Dover to Deal,
Bournemouth to Bexhill — each time she'd believe
This was her last move, she would never leave.
But landladies could not for long endure
A tenant so tempestuous, past cure,
And paying rent so intermittently
You'd think she had some right to live there free.
Home truths would be exchanged, pride kept intact
(On both sides) and again my Aunt May packed.
Once from some seaside town she wrote to Surrey,
Throwing her widowed sister in a flurry.
Moving again, said May, this time she planned
A change of style — some thirty miles inland
Near Norah's house. Would Norah help her find
Permanent lodgings of appropriate kind?
Firm words from Norah nipped the new idea;
May travelled on to Eastbourne for a year
Or eighteen months, and then perhaps to Brighton.
At last the haven she would set her sight on
Was Hastings, where she'd stayed before. She yearned
For a familiar spot; if she returned
She'd call it home forever — and she did.
Money was just sufficient: several quid
From postwar governments, and the remains
Of Mother's shrinking legacy; no gains
In prospect, only further deprivation.
Her rooms were clean but noisy, near the station,
And old age made its presence felt by now.
She must have had one final flaming row
With a landlady, after which she signed
Up with an Old Folk's Home, leaving behind
Her wandering life for good. One sister still
Kept up with her. Janey had had her fill;
Forgivably, she never could forgive
Those breakfast trays as long as she might live.
H. travelled south to London every year
But never spared a single day (I hear)
To visit May. Norah, with not so far
To go, would fairly often drive her car
To visit May, with homemade marmalade
And garden flowers; but she only stayed
Long enough to take tea and chat a bit:
Pity and loyalty demanded it.
Much later, quite out of the blue one day,
Norah remarked: "My poor old sister May
Died recently. The matron wrote to me.
Such a kind letter." She spread it on her knee
And read aloud: "As I am sure you know
We did our level best for poor Miss O.,
Your sister, but she was not happy here.
Our people are so friendly, but I fear
She chose to stay aloof. She did not find
Companions she considered the right kind,
So she was sad and lonely." Norah sighed.
"They did their best," she said. "I know they tried."
Her thoughtless daughter answered, "What a shame!"
But Norah said: "Nobody was to blame.
Nobody but herself." And by her tone
Precluded further argument from Joan.
So there lies May — part scapegoat, part black sheep,
Part tragic clown. Surely a few will weep
For my poor wandering aunt; others may laugh
And some do both, at this her epitaph.
revised May 1998