All My School Reports

It turns out that my mother kept all my school reports. I’m sure that I didn’t see them at the time. Those from my primary school are dutiful and of little interest. They detail my pleasing and early literacy and my enthusiasm for making things out of old eggshells, which is what we did in those days, finger paints still being rationed. What I mainly remember of my primary school is the enormous girls. Boys were taken out and sent to their prep schools at the age of eight but girls by and large were considered not to merit an expensive education and stayed till they could be shipped off to a state school or dodgy convent at the age of twelve, so the playground was at the mercy of these giants. There was only one boy I remember who stayed until he was twelve. He was called Oliver. He was an honorary girl.

The reports for my secondary school are too agonised to make easy reading. They are conscientious, often going on to a second piece of paper. They document with increasing desperation my total inability to write Greek poetry that looked as if an ancient Greek person had written it. My teachers had very high standards. There was no question of all must win prizes. They railed against my habit of playing the saxophone when I could have been learning Latin vocabulary. There is an enormous sigh of relief when I finally achieve a place at one of the Universities, albeit Oxford and not (thank God) Cambridge, for which I had been intended.

There is more pleasure in my prep school reports, when nothing really mattered. They detail my career from the age of eight to thirteen. These were undoubtedly the most miserable five years of my life. My parents didn’t want to send me off to boarding school at that age (thank God, again), but the school that they chose was a boarding school and I was one of only a handful of day-boys. No one is treated worse than a day boy at a boarding school. Maybe it is different now, when children at these institutions are encouraged to go home for weekends, but that is how it was then. Day boys were thought of as having access to the treats of the outside world, such as chips, and out of envy they were bullied. Even if they weren’t bullied they missed all the social life of the school which took place after the end of Games, mid-afternoon, when I was collected and went home.

And Games themselves were a nightmare: endless Rugby matches of being thrown about in the mud and sat on; boxing, the worst, standing there in front of a crowd of assorted ill-wishers and hoping to achieve a state of Zen mindlessness at least until the end of the round, while another boy, more inclined to play the game, drew blood all about my eyes and nose and one of the masters shouted, ‘Blood! I want to see more blood!’.

I had a group of friends who conceived a tactic for procuring some of the treats of the outside world. The manual work of running the school was consigned to a group of men who were of orc-like intelligence and foreign. I worked the foreign aspect out when one of them, called Reg, shambled up to me in a corridor one day fingering his penis and muttered confidentially, ‘Saucisse’. I realised at once that he was either French or had a background in catering. It was this Reg to whom my friends offered a deal: hand jobs for sweets. I was allowed to share in the Smarties, which were less highly valued than some others: but only Smarties, since they and not I had had to manhandle the man’s sticky but, they said, surprisingly firm member. They took this obligation strictly in turns, regardless of Reg’s own preferences.

This was not the point of view from which I was assessed in the termly reports. My attempts at sport, for example:

Swimming: Cannot swim.
Hockey: Jumps well.
Games: His appearances on the sports field have provided him with the necessary exercise and others with a great deal of humour
Rugger: Played in the end-of-term matches much to his consternation and astonishment

But it was work that mattered, and here I had a fundamental problem. I made a flying start at the school expressing myself, as I tend still to do, with a pencil. But when I was nine it was decided that I would have to use a pen instead. That meant a dip pen, a nib on the end of a stick dipped into an ink bottle. I never mastered the art of conveying the ink onto the page in the form of words to the exclusion of blots. This meant that I was:

Appallingly untidy.

One of my teachers thought that he discerned literary ability in me. He encouraged me to write and I shall always be grateful to him. This was clever of him because the official archetype of imagination at the school, as in my senior school later, was a florid affair involving adjectives and feelings, and not what I was best at. But it was one of his colleagues, another English master, whose reports I cherish more now:

He is sparing of effort.
He veils flashes of intelligence under a bashful nonchalance which the unimaginative might take for laziness.
His imagination is a poor limping thing…


Quiet endeavours below the blots

They took trouble with reports in those days. Mr Marshall, English teacher whose precepts I have entirely forgotten, cricketing umpire endlessly innovative with the LBW rule (which I suspect he never mastered), Mr Marshall with the languid manner, the refusal to take seriously anything since the War except his Austin Healey, Mr Marshall, dead now I believe these many years: with my poor limping imagination and the dogged remains of my long-term memory I salute you.


Making Things Up About Uncles

There are various stories of my family’s history in Cornwall. There are of course also stories about my paternal family’s history: almost none from our centuries in Barbados but thick and fast when we get to London in the 1870s (my great uncle’s alleged fraud and imprisonment and the national campaign for his release – but that’s another story). There are my mother’s relations in Devon who slaughtered each other on a remote farm because one of them fell in love and it was necessary to keep the blood pure. All these stories with the exception of the last, about which the facts, though gruesome, are clear and documented in a book (Earth to Earth), are the subject of endless family debate, but since I have just come back from Cornwall, it’s the stories of my family’s history in Cornwall that I am particularly concerned with now. Here is one.

My great uncle, or probably an uncle more remote in time than a mere great uncle, was a sea-faring man. Ancestors get promoted with every generation, so he was a Captain. His name is forgotten.

He may or may not be the same sea-faring man as the one whose name people have also forgotten and who sailed to Mauritius and came back with a Mauritian bride, to the annoyance of the Royal Navy, who thought it would be only proper to return her to Mauritius toot sweet. He and she were the parents of my much-loved Auntie Rene.

Actually there is some doubt on that story too. At the end of her life my mother insisted that the sea-faring man whose name everyone has forgotten met the mother of my Auntie Rene not in Mauritius but St Helena. I think that this must be wrong. There are no native people in St Helena: only temporary clerks and possibly penguins. Furthermore Auntie Rene had the features of someone from the Indian Ocean, not the South Atlantic.

Anyway, the first – the principal – sea-faring uncle fell overboard. This would have been during the Nineteenth Century and I think that he must have fallen from a sailing ship, because if it had been steam he would have been caught up in the screw and killed, wouldn’t he? He didn’t die. He was involuntarily keel-hauled. He went down below the keel and right up the other side, scraping his skin on barnacles as he went, whereupon he was rescued by his shipmates. He survived but unsurprisingly he lost his nerve: he couldn’t bring himself to go to sea again.

The Royal Navy found him a berth within their purview that didn’t involve his sailing any more. He became a Coast Guard. He had a Coast Guard’s hut on the cliffs above Polruan, from which he would gaze. If he saw a ship in trouble or a bank of fog he would communicate this fact to the authorities by pigeon, or, probably by that stage, telegraph. If not, he would just stare at the great waters on which he would never again journey: never in this life anyway.

He died, full of the honours that the Coast Guard service reserves for its best, but it was never enough: he’d thought that an admiralship was there for the taking, and in his lonely hut he’d had long enough to brood. (I’m making that bit up.)

In due course (the story goes) communications between ship, shore and weatherman improved. (They were weather men in those days; female weather-casters had not come onto the scene.) As a result the coast guard hut above Polruan was no longer needed. It fell into disrepair and many years later was leased by Daphne du Maurier, who would go there to write her books in peace and possibly fulfil her Sapphic assignations. I must be careful what I say here. My family never actually speculated that Ms du Maurier used the hut for her Sapphic assignations, because no one yet knew about them. The ground-breaking biography, the name of which I forget, was still to be written. I made that bit up too.

I added a literary note of my own. In Rose Macaulay’s novel Crew Train the heroine, who is in Cornwall in a town not unlike Polruan, escapes her dreary and over-literary companions and makes a refuge for herself in a hut on the cliffs. Clearly, I thought when I read the book, Ms Macaulay didn’t make that up; she got it from Ms du Maurier, possibly at a novelists’ soirée; it’s my uncle’s hut, doubly celebrated in literature.

Anyway, I said to the better half when we visited Polruan that we should climb up to the cliff top where we might find a ruined hut. And so we did and we found not a ruin but a fully-operational Coast Guard unit, with aerials. This surprised me considerably. There was a ruin, but it was a church from the Sixteenth Century or something, and they are two a penny down there. There was a nice man in uniform, who was not immediately engaged in scrutinising sinking ships or ominous cloud formations and was happy to talk to us. I told him the story, though not getting as far as the Rose Macaulay bit, which depends of course on the reliability of the Daphne du Maurier bit.

Oh no, he said. Not at all. This hut and the huts that came before have always been Coast Guard huts. Our eternal vigilance demands it. Better telecommunications: pfui! It’s never been decommissioned, not since it was first built, centuries ago. Daphne du Maurier used to write her books in a house that she rented down by the Bodinnick Ferry, the ferry across the river below.

So where does that leave us? My uncle and his coast-guarding are probably true, and it’s entirely possible that he did go under a ship. But the connection with famous people is just my family’s fantasy. It’s all too easy to do.


The better half, Bella and I went for a week in Cornwall. We stayed in a cottage near Falmouth. It was on a farm with pigs, some of which we ate; it was all entirely satisfactory. I had not been to Cornwall for some forty-five years and the other two had not at all. Nevertheless the county was a large part of my upbringing. My mother’s maternal family were all Cornish and she herself was born in Millbrook, just in Cornwall on the banks of the Tamar, the river that divides Cornwall from the rest of the World. Her father was from Devon, but he was a mild man and his ancestry tended to be discounted.

We would drive down the A303 (motorways not yet having been invented) at Christmas and for our summer holidays. My parents decided that, traffic being what it was, they should drive through the night. We children slept in the back of the car but when it was the summer holidays we would be woken up at about five o’clock for breakfast at Stonehenge. We would lean with our backs to the great stones at dawn drinking my mother’s Everything Soup and eating cold sausages. The great stones, I am glad to report, survived all this, as presumably now they wouldn’t. We would visit venerable and sometimes terrifying relations in Fowey, Polruan, Falmouth and Mousehole, and, in the down time, rush with the family dog around the beaches in our Aertex shirts and discover caves.

We were never in any doubt that Cornwall was separate, one of the five great Celtic nations: not in England; not in the West Country.

In between being a child and becoming grown up I went back without my family. I discovered the folk clubs of the Sixties. I heard Ralph McTell when he was unknown, Clive Palmer after his first, and authentic, outing with the Incredible String Band, Barbara Wootton – so majestic live and so disappointing now on CD – Henry the Jug and John the Fish. I sat unfocused on St Ives beach, while ethereal girls drifted this way and that, dressed in Laura Ashley.

I found love, after a fashion, though not with a Laura Ashley girl. Then, having fallen out with my inamorata and with my best Cornish friend, who thought that she was his inamorata, I left and didn’t go back: until last week.

Cornwall is still separate. There are deep mysterious lanes, hedgerows with flowers unseen elsewhere in our island since the 1950s, and at the end, sticking out into the Atlantic beyond St Ives, is West Penwith, the ‘headland of slaughter’ as Daphne du Maurier translates it, possibly fancifully. The better half, who has a more practical approach to these things, noted that the sea was never far away and you could swim and kayak in the estuaries. Our local estuary was called Carrick Roads, which sounds like an American poet, and she did indeed kayak on it and then run home.

(By the way: what a waste of space Tate St Ives is. I had naively thought that it would show the work of the great St Ives artists of the 50s, Feiler, Lanyon, Hilton, Frost, Nicholson and so on, who challenged the abstract expressionists of New York gesture for gesture. But no. There is no permanent display. There was a paying show of dazzling vacuousness, the usual café and shop and a lot of unused space.)

When we had crossed the Tamar and left England behind, Bella, smelling the sea, took on her avatar as Swims Like Seals and prepared herself to surf. This turned out not to be straight forward. There were signs at the entrances to the beaches as follows:

No Dogs.
No Aertex.

The ban on Aertex could be coped with, as most cafés on the beaches sold PODLARK®-themed smocks and billowy shirts, which you could slip on over the top, but the ban on dogs was a real problem. Finally we found a bit of industrial waste abutting the sea in Penzance, where, to judge by the detritus as well as the absence of a sign, nothing was forbidden. The better half threw a strand of seaweed with a rock attached as far as she could throw it. Bella plunged in, disappeared for a minute or so, broke surface and swam to shore bearing the seaweed and rock, whose neck she proceeded to break. A small crowd built up on the esplanade, mainly guest-workers of the Cherokee diaspora. Word had spread. They muttered appreciatively, in their own language.

We also had problems with Bella at Rick Stein’s restaurant. The Rick Stein empire has spread out from Padstow and reached Falmouth. There are two entrances, the take-away and the restaurant. Dogs are admitted through neither. We had fish and chips from the take-away. The fish tasted so fresh that it can only have been frozen, and the chips were so-so, but the better half had conceived a desire to cover herself with chilli crab, so we went back the next night to the restaurant, having arranged a dog-sitter.

We both got food-poisoning. I don’t complain about that; any restaurant can serve fish that is off. What upset me was the shandy that they sell. This is branded as ‘Chalky’. Chalky was Rick Stein’s dog. In the early television series before he died, peacefully I hope, he could be seen gambolling on fishing boats, riverboats, in galleys, generally getting under the feet of the celebrity chef. I do not recall the line: ‘In the name of health and safety, Chalky, begone.’ This is rank hypocrisy. If I can’t have my dog by my feet don’t put yours on the soda bottles.

I don’t blame Stein. Like Stalin, he loves us and is unaware of what is done in his name. If the television is anything to go by, he is anyway on a beach in Australia cooking termites on hot rocks.

But I think he should be told.

The Table

When my father was demobbed after the end of the War my parents married. They bought a house and furnished it. Some of the furniture was from one side or other of the family and some my parents bought in antique shops or sales; but some was new. One of the new items was a dining table. It had been made in accordance with Utility standards. The top was (as I recall) veneered.

I was born a couple of years later. As a small child I did not like the dining table. I took the pessimistic view then – and I have rarely had occasion to change it since – that the main function of veneer is to come adrift – not, I believe, that on this article it did. Maybe it wasn’t veneered. But it was flimsy and a rather down-at-heel mahogany colour.

About 1965 – fifty years ago – my parents moved house. My father thought that it was time for a new dining table. When the first table had been bought there was nothing to be found from Europe, where in the phoenix-like rebirth from the ashes of Nazism furniture was not a priority, and the good stuff made in England was exclusively for export. There were no such limitations in the early 60s, but, as with food, if you wanted the best you had to look for it. My father discovered that in Denmark they were making stylish, simple but sturdy furniture and from the photographs he liked the look of it. He decided to buy a Danish table. There was no internet then, but there were public libraries and in his lunch hour he identified the table that he wanted and sent a letter placing an order, using an airmail stamp, because we were not then in the European Union.

He was notified that the table had arrived by ship. He drove to St Katherine’s Dock, which was then still a dock, paid the Customs duty, because we were not then in the European Union, and drove home with his purchase. I was away at school but my sister and my mother assisted in this adventure.

When I came home I didn’t like this table either. This was for completely different reasons. I was then in my teens and I despised my parents’ taste in absolutely everything. At this distance I’m not sure what I would have preferred. Ten years later it would have been something made of hairy stripped pine, but that was yet to come. I remember that we all then hated the architecture of my school, which now seems ravishingly mid-Victorian Gothic, so it wouldn’t have been the desire for decoration. Probably I was just being bloody-minded.

Actually my father went overboard with 60s design. My bedroom for example was orange and black. The living room, where the new table stood, had one wall papered. The design was bold and abstract. My father was delighted with the effect until about a month after finishing the papering. He said to me, ‘Do you see that big purple mass? I’ve just noticed that it’s a fat female opera singer. She’s singing. You can see her tonsils.’

He never really liked it again, and I wish that he hadn’t pointed out the opera singer to me, because nor did I. I might never have noticed. And, being wallpaper, the tonsils repeated every few feet.

Early in the 70s my father died. My mother moved house, and ten years or so ago moved again, taking the table with her. It sat in her home in Yorkshire, perpetually covered with a table cloth. On very special occasions, when the family was there in force, the extensions were pulled out. They were a more pristine colour than the main section of the table. By now it had become Mid-Century and rather fashionable, but in my mother’s house it was surrounded by furniture and other bits and pieces in a miscellany of styles and it didn’t look fashionable.

And the sad thing is that one has one’s taste influenced by articles on design and trendy shops in places like Clerkenwell and Stoke Newington, and I realised that I liked it after all, quite apart from the respect due to age, and I would give it an affectionate pat when staying there.

In March my mother died. After the obsequies there has been the melancholy business of disposing of the goods and chattels around the family: the immensely distinguished dinner set that no one would actually give house room to; the modern sofas, DFS’s finest, newish, destined for landfill. One thing that quite a lot of people competed for was a brass owl; it has mysterious and inexplicable innards but a certain presence and a history going back to our childhood. No one else wanted the table, to my surprise, so I have it. Fortuitously the table that we had recently bought had cracked, in the manner remarked upon by the Lady of Shallot, from side to side and has been returned to its manufacturers, so there is room for this one. Last night we assembled it. The better half applied hot soapy water to it, as is her way with things she encounters. It is the same as tom cats pissing on them, a way of taking ownership – but much more hygienic.

It looks very stylish in our living room. At each end there are my Eighteenth-Century Chinese yoke chairs: something my father never aspired to. Tables bear the traces of family histories. I know one (inherited by one fine painter from another and then bequeathed to a third) that has a large gash where one member of the second painter’s household went for another with a kitchen knife. Ours has had a more bourgeois life. There are traces of spilt wine, ghosts of tea cups, small gouges where scissors slipped when Christmas presents were being wrapped. I hope that they will not all disappear under the better half’s soapy water.

My Mother 2

When you die, there is a process by which all the public authorities and utility companies are informed, so that existing arrangements can be brought to an end and all that is necessary is done to tie up any loose ends. I am the named point of contact in my mother’s case.

Two letters arrived in this morning’s post. In one, HMRC commiserated with me on my own death. They said that they recognised that it was a difficult time for me. More dramatic was the letter from British Gas. It starts:

Dear The Estate of Mrs J B-

We’re sorry to see that you have cancelled your HomeCare® agreement. But of course we understand that you have your reasons.

We’re still there for you.

If I believed in an afterlife, I would find the idea that I would have to share it with British Gas particularly chilling.

My Mother

One of the reasons why I have posted nothing recently is that my beloved mother took ill rather suddenly, a month or so ago. She was in Southampton General Hospital for ten days, where her family maintained a vigil around the clock; and then she died. She was cremated in Southampton and a week ago we held a memorial service at the village where she lived in Yorkshire. This is what I said at the service:

When you get old your mind tends to prefer to deal with things that happened long ago, at the expense of the here and now. My mother started this process about a year ago. Last summer her grandson Will was surprised to find himself swapping war stories from the classroom with her. In the autumn she was full of memories of how she met my father. Last month, on our last stay here, she talked a lot about her childhood. And then, having reprocessed everything to her satisfaction, and with huge dignity, she died. And in a way I think that that was fitting.

Because she was a remarkable woman as well as a very nice one, I thought that it would be right to reverse the process and say just a little about her long life.

She was born in the closing days of the First World War, in Milbrook, in Cornwall. Her father was a solicitor’s clerk, studying for his exams in the evening. Her mother was a teacher; she was Cornish, and in the school holidays my mother spent much time with relations further west, in wild Cornwall: particularly Polruan. She developed a life-long fascination with the sea.

Her father qualified as a solicitor and they moved to Plymouth.

My mother went to university: Bedford College, London, one of the places that pioneered higher education for women. When her father came to London on business they would go out together. Once they arrived late for a performance by the Crazy Gang. This was as dangerous then as it is with Dame Edna now. Bud Flanagan (or maybe Monsewer Eddie Gray) broke off in the middle of a sketch. ‘You dirty man,’ he said. ‘She’s young enough to be your daughter.’

It was at the house in Plymouth that she met my father. He was billeted there during the War. The other lodgers were Air Force pilots. My father was in the Royal Army Dental Corps and my grandmother was relieved to have someone with a life expectancy of more than a week or so.

My father was the love of my mother’s life and she was the love of his, and there is nothing more to be said about this.

When she graduated my mother taught history at a girls’ school in Wimbledon. In the 1945 General Election she campaigned for Ernie Bevin. The family was horrified and sent a delegation up to London. ‘You know he’s a socialist,’ they said. ‘Of course I know,’ my mother said. ‘That’s why I’m campaigning for him.’

This turned out to be a passing phase, however.

She and my father married in 1947 and they lived first in Dorking and then in Peaslake, in the Surrey hills, where my mother was to spend more than half her life.

After my brother, my sister and I were born, she returned to teaching. In was in her blood and she continued to learn and to teach long after it ceased to be her day job. Emily, her eldest grandchild, remembers her Granny teaching her to read.

She was an infinitely loving and practical parent. She was also no-nonsense: she knew her own mind even when she was quite wrong. One of her convictions was that it is always possible to have a picnic on Easter Monday, and I remember at least one occasion, with the family sitting forlornly around the picnic basket wearing all the clothes we owned, while the snow fell softly around us.

She never put up with any nonsense from the cold.

My father died in 1972, tragically young. The illness took years. My mother cared for him and ran his dental practice, hiring and firing locums and when he was asleep doing battle in correspondence with the Dental Estimates Board.

Widowed at 53, she volunteered as a probation assistant. She was modest about this, saying that she did it for the petrol money. But I know that she fought indefatigably for the wives of the prisoners on her books to get their rights, ferried them around in her car, gave them all very direct advice, and developed a sometimes astonishing sympathy for wayward behaviour.

As a family we had always had adventurous holidays, driving through pre-motorway and pre-budget-airline Europe. My father would have spent the previous six months, mastering the local language: he had a talent for that. When she got to retirement age my mother took to travelling again: Russia a number of times; round the Mediterranean; small boats off the coast of Turkey; China once. She scorned America though. I’m interested in history, she said, but America has only geography.

She also had her caravan, on the south coast, where she took her grandchildren for memorable stays. She was a vigorous and loving grandmother. She had in a way a more straightforward relationship with her grandchildren than she felt able to, until quite recently, with her children. And until not so long ago she could out-walk any of them.

My mother had a fractious relationship with cars, but she relied on them in Peaslake. When it occurred to her that she would not be able to drive for ever she abandoned the village where she had lived for fifty years, with characteristic lack of sentimentality, and moved here. She had more or less run Peaslake, presiding over the WI and as an interventionist churchwarden, but she said that at nearly 90 she deserved a rest: she would no longer involve herself in local matters. This turned out to be over-optimistic.

Some time after she left Peaslake there was a huge row there, with resignations and an article in the Daily Mail. Someone rang me up. It wouldn’t have happened if Joan were still here, they said. She would have sorted them out.

I have my own private memories, as do all her family and friends, and they are our own business. In time they will be memories to be treasured rather than as now unfillable holes in our lives. But this is the more public side of her remarkable life, and it deserves to be honoured too.

Shallow Assets: Cousin Alicia’s Book

I don’t remember much about the next couple of days. Augustus Sly left, saying that he would be in touch. “I’ll text,” he said, tapping the side of his nose significantly. Then the nurse came back in and told me off for shouting. “We could hear you in the Community Space,” he said, shaking his head and giving me pills. I think that they increased the dosage of my medication (I hope that I never get so inured to them that I say my ‘meds’) because, as I say, I don’t remember much of the next couple of days.

Then, as promised, Augustus Sly texted.

I have a plan. Will take a few days. Read [imp. not trans] Cousin Alicia’s book. P 96 et seq. Regs, Augustus Sly. PS Delete this message.

I had no copy of Shallow Assets of my own so I put on my dressing gown and went down to Reception, where two or three volumes were available to be borrowed by those curious about the history of their current place of resort. There is a big, not to say grandiose, sign above the heads of the receptionists, of whom the institution runs unnecessarily to two. Beneath an escutcheon that undoubtedly fails to comply with the rules of the Royal College of Arms it reads:

Shallow Assets
Part of the P- Group
Providing Worldwide Care
For the Mentally Frail

Then, on a separate and rather more chatty bit of board it tells us:

Shallow Assets was the country home of General Sir Featherington à la Blague (1856 – 1921). Sir Featherington was widely famed as a friend of the North African Moslem Community. The unusual name of the house is possibly osier-linked. The mentally frail have been cared for at Shallow Assets since 1957 and it passed into the custodianship of the P- Group in 1999. The P- Group is proud to take its place in an exemplarily fine tradition.

I had been intrigued how Sir Featherington had contrived to befriend the North African Moslem community here in rural Gloucestershire until I read Cousin Alicia’s book, in which she tells us that he was known affectionately in the village as ‘the Hammer of the Fuzzy-Wuzzies’, following some imperial war in that part of the world. That must be what the P- Group had in mind.

I bore the book away.

“Only a few pages, Mr Alablague,” said one of the receptionists. “Don’t tire yourself.”

I assured her that my intended researches were highly specific.

The relevance of the incident to which Augustus Sly drew my attention was not immediately clear. It concerned a washerwoman.

When I was still a child a curious incident occurred regarding a poor unmarried woman of the village, who took in the washing of some of the household’s linen. She was not of an age where one would suspect her to be susceptible to romantic inclinations; nor did the attractions of her features encourage any such thoughts. She was, moreover, big of bone. It was therefore a surprise to us all when it was reported that she had attained a certain condition and was no longer to be seen in the village. Needless to say, these rumours found their way to the Nursery long after they had exhausted their novelty in the Drawing Room, and some of what I have to relate I assembled in my mind long afterwards.

It is still not clear what happened. Months later she reappeared, but not in the way in which she had been accustomed to attend upon the household: modestly and at the back door. It was in the middle of the night, long after all were abed. She was seen striding through the corridors. The butler was sent for but he was found to be so profoundly asleep that by the time he had been awakened and properly dressed for the intended encounter the woman had gone. This happened on more than one occasion.

Dame Rumour, it need not be said, made play. The woman had died, it was conjectured. The more extreme theory among our friends below stairs, to which as I say I became privy only years later, was that the natural course of her condition had reached its conclusion most unnaturally: unaided and fatal. Accordingly, concluded those to whom this version appealed, the woman seen prowling the corridors was her ghost.

Was there a suggestion that the household had failed her in some way and that the revenant was there for the purpose of casting blame?

Papa, when I spoke to him of the matter years later, had a simpler explanation.

“That was no ghost. Stuff and nonsense. She was a healthy one. She’d been seen in the village with Belkin, the under footman. I was pretty sure that he was intimately concerned in the condition in which the woman found herself. No proof of course, but I sent him to the London house till it was all over. It was him she was after, I reckon. Revenge or marriage. One of the two. Probably didn’t know which herself. Or distinguish.”

Those determined for the supernatural explanation pointed out that the doors were all locked at the time of the woman’s visits, more particularly after the first, and that there was no apparent explanation for the means of her entrance and exit.

I returned the book.

“I’ve been reading about the ghost of the washerwoman,” I said.

To my surprise they knew only too well what I meant.

“Oh, she appears every so often,” they said. “Mind you, some of the poor souls here may be over-sensitive to seeing that sort of thing. Begging your own pardon, of course, Mr Alablague.”

I smiled to show that I had taken no offence. It’s safest in a place like this, where they dispense powerful drugs according to whim.

But why, I wondered, had Augustus Sly drawn my attention to the passage? And what was there about Edwardian washerwomen, nagging at the back of my mind?