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 a hedonistic lifestyle.  She was promiscuous (in the days when it was scandalous), she ate in expensive restaurants (she couldn’t cook, only heat things up if she had to), she drank and smoked too much, and she was an avid theatre goer and reader of books (a novel a day was typical).  Quite why she ever wanted a spotty, gauche teenager cramping her style is a mystery.  I think I fell into the category of ‘putting something back’. 

One night when she was tipsy 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 interest in doing so.  The watercolours were rather amateurish (he hadn’t got the hang of perspective) views of Oxford.

I kept the portfolio for a few years, looking at the paintings very occasionally.  When my parents moved house, I had to ditch some of my teenage clutter. As I agonised over what should go and what should stay, Miss Hap appeared and was adamant that, amongst other things, my grandfather’s paintings should go. So, out went the portfolio.

Many years later, Aunt Joan, tipsy again, suddenly said, ‘I wonder what happened to dad’s paintings?’  She had obviously forgotten she’d given them to me for safekeeping and I’m ashamed to say, I treated her question as if it was rhetorical and kept quiet. Cowardly, but there you are.  Over subsequent years, every now and again, she would pose the same question in a puzzled sort of way as if she was trying to gain admittance to some inaccessible part of her brain.  Each time, I’m ashamed to say, 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 my grandfather’s paintings.

My father, my 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?’ 

What did I do?  That’s right; I kept quiet.  Miss Hap, hovering behind my father, winked.


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