When I was a teenager I used to spend part of my summer holidays staying with a maiden aunt in Oxford.

The expression ‘maiden aunt’, whilst true, is unlikely to conjure up the right image.  My aunt Joan was glamorous and lived an utterly hedonistic lifestyle. She was always immaculately turned out and wore red lipstick that left fascinating imprints of her lips on cups and glasses.  She used to sweep into expensive restaurants, with me in tow, announcing to the astonished waiters, ‘The boy needs meat’.  On the rare occasions she cooked a meal, it was always scrambled eggs on toast accompanied with a small mound of peas (she had read somewhere that a growing boy should have something green).

She was promiscuous, with many lovers in the days when it was scandalous. Sometimes I was banished from her flat under strict instructions not to return before a stipulated time.  On one such occasion I returned and she confided that she had made love on the hearth rug in front of the electric fire. I pretended to take this staggering revelation in my stride but inwardly I was gobsmacked.  Never before had I heard an adult admit to having sex, let alone so recently and in a location right there at my feet.

I kept the rug and electric fire as mementos after she died.  My grandson once asked why I hung on to such an old rug.  My heart missed a beat but I said casually, ‘Oh, it used to belong to an aunt’.

Quite why my aunt Joan ever wanted a spotty, gauche teenager cramping her style is a mystery.  I think I fell into the category of ‘putting something back’.

Not only was my aunt embarrassingly candid by my naive standards, she also drank and smoked and encouraged me to join her. In the evenings we’d sit drinking gin and tonics, getting slowly tipsy. She was an avid reader, devouring a novel every couple of days was typical, and she introduced me to the writings of Evelyn Waugh, John Steinbeck and Somerset Maugham.  After I’d finished a set book, she’d quiz me on the contents to check my comprehension and, I suppose, to satisfy herself that I’d really read it.  Quite often she’d take me in her Morris Minor to Stratford to see plays by Shakespeare, always insisting that I read them first and discussing the play at length on the journey there and back.

One night when we had downed quite a few gin and tonics, she gave me a portfolio containing her late father’s (my grandfather’s) watercolours.  He had amazed everyone by suddenly taking up watercolour painting in his retirement having shown no previous inclination or creative flare. The watercolours were amateurish (he hadn’t got the hang of perspective), wishy-washy views of Oxford.

My grandfather died when I was ten.  I remember him as a tall, grumpy man.  I never saw him being playful or getting the giggles.  I once dared to ask him what would happen if I turned the ignition key while his car was in motion.  ‘Don’t you ever touch it’ he snapped.  This was typical; curiosity slapped down with an instant rebuke.  I used to feel small and inhibited in his presence, exactly, I imagine, the effect his behaviour was designed to bring about.  Seen but not heard.

So, despite never warming to my grandfather, and having little regard for his watercolours, I dutifully kept the portfolio aunt Joan had given me.

A few years later, in preparation for my parents move to a smaller house, I had to ditch some of my teenage clutter. I fretted over what should go and what should stay. My collection of Eagle comics, for example, carefully stored in chronological order between two sheets of hardboard.  The Victorian blue and green medicine bottles I had rescued from deep foundations being dug at a nearby building site.  The woollen samples I had been given on a school outing to the blanket factory in Witney.  Stuff like that.

However, I didn’t agonise over what to do with my grandfather’s paintings; the whole portfolio went onto a bonfire in the garden.  I didn’t even stay to watch.

Many years later, aunt Joan, tipsy again, suddenly said, ‘I wonder what happened to dad’s paintings?’.  She had obviously forgotten she had entrusted them to me.  Taken by surprise, the moment to come clean passed and, I’m ashamed to say, I treated her question as if it was rhetorical and provided no answer.  Cowardly, but there you are.

Over subsequent years, not often, but every now and again, she would pose the same question in a puzzled sort of way as if she was trying to reach some inaccessible corner of her brain.  Each time, I remained silent or quickly changed the subject.

I was very fond of my aunt, but when she died there was a little bit of me that felt relieved; no more awkward questions about the whereabouts of her father’s paintings.

My father, aunt Joan’s elder brother, survived his sister by 15 years.   He never mentioned his father’s paintings until, at the age of 98, a couple of months before he died, he suddenly said, ‘I wonder what Joan did with dad’s paintings?’  I hadn’t the heart to tell him.

After my father died, to assuage my guilt, I attempted to track down watercolours painted by my grandfather.  I scoured junk shops throughout Oxford and even placed an advertisement in the Oxford Mail.  No finds and no replies.

So, if you have a watercolour of Oxford, with wonky perspective and the initials CJH in the bottom right hand corner, I’ll buy it.


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