Aunt Irene had always been too big for her surroundings. A large lady (though expertly corseted) she had a theatrical taste in clothes – fur coats, turbans, velvet smocks, beaded shawls, giant black handbags, flowing silk pashmina’s…
She had earned the right to be theatrical. Before her retirement she had been a teacher of elocution at the famous Stardust School of Speech and Drama in London. I’ve been told by former pupils of hers, some of whom also happen to be friends of mine, that she was a kindly but ruthless teacher, alternately bludgeoning and cajoling little boys and girls into speaking the Queen’s English (“Although nobody but the Queen seems to speak it nowadays, my dear”) and preparing them for careers in the stage, or show-business – or at the very least in advertisements for frozen peas or washing-up liquid.
Everything Irene said was enunciated, the stress placed on exactly the right syllables. Every word carried to the furthest corner of whichever room she happened to be in. As time went by she also became a little deaf, which made our joint visits to the supermarket something of a nightmare:
“What does that trollop in the pink hat think she looks like?” she would boom.
“If only he could rid himself that ghastly spare tyre he might be moderately attractive.”
“Salt and bacon crisps! How many jumbo-size packets can one family possibly consume in a week?”
Aunt Irene had never been married but that didn’t mean she had led a sheltered life. On the contrary, there had been a succession of Young Gentlemen. Aunt Irene had grown older – how much older she had never been prepared to admit – but the Young Gentlemen continued to be young, or at any rate under forty. And there seemed to be no shortage of them, for she was a lively and entertaining companion.
By and large, the Young Men had been harmless. Aunt Irene seemed to thrive on their adoration and they seemed to thrive on the small presents she occasionally gave them; the shared restaurant meals for which she picked up the bill; the theatre tickets. And it probably didn’t hurt that she had connections in show-business and the arts. When you were with Aunt Irene, you never knew who you might be introduced to. The Young Men were ambitious.
The last one, however, had been a different kettle of fish. His name was Everett. I had been introduced to him once and didn’t take to him. He was slick and empty-eyed – struck me as creepy. Unfortunately, Irene trusted him implicitly. He not only cheated her out of her entire life savings but borrowed on her credit card and absconded with it to South America, running up some truly spectacular debts in the process. The police never did catch up with him, and even if they had done it would have been too late for Aunt Irene. She was forced to put her house on the market and apply to the Local Authority for help.
A young woman arrived from the Housing Department.
“There’s a room vacant in Rose Mere at the moment,” she told us. We can probably get you in there if you make up your mind a bit sharpish.”
“It’s a retirement home, out Peckham way. It’s clean and well-run – TV in the lounge – terrestrial channels only, of course – dominoes, sing-songs, chair-a-cise, bingo afternoons – that kind of thing. The previous occupant of the room, er, decided he had no further use for it. Yesterday. I happen to have an application form in my briefcase and I can assist you to fill it in right now, if you’re interested. They go like hot cakes, these rooms.”
“Assist me to fill it in?” queried Aunt Irene in what I recognised to be a dangerously sweet tone. “No doubt I appear decrepit to you, young lady, but last time I checked I was still able to wield a biro!”
I thought I’d better intervene, before Irene had time to build up a head of steam.
“My aunt would not be at all happy in an old folk’s home,” I said. “What alternative can you offer us?”
The alternative was a high-rise social housing apartment on a dodgy estate in Tottenham, which was better, but not much.