My Uncle and Aunt invited me down to Devon when I was sixteen. I was to stay for a week. To this day I’m not sure why they suddenly took it into their heads to invite me. Childless themselves, maybe they were assessing me for an inheritance. If only that had worked out. Maybe my parents had secretly begged for me to be taken off their hands.
I doubt if my Uncle and Aunt were enchanted by me either – a sullen, awkward lump of a teenager with nothing to say, who insisted on going to church on her own on Sunday and spent most of the time holed up in the spare room of their narrow Victorian mid-terrace hammering away on a black Imperial typewriter she had found there. What was I writing, I wonder? Something terribly creative but not terribly good, probably.
My Uncle was blind – well, as good as. He had those creepy gobstopper glasses. Green glass, perfectly round. At that point he was still keeping up his bicycle round as a door-to-door collector of insurance premiums. He had an inner map of all the streets in Exeter, and navigated using this. When I visited years later, with my new husband, we managed to get ourselves hopelessly lost in some godforsaken suburb of the city. I had come down on the train when I visited before, so I had no idea how to drive there. We telephoned Auntie for help but Uncle answered and proceeded to talk my then-husband through the entire route to their house in the town centre from memory; which still doesn’t explain how he managed to stay on his bicycle when he couldn’t see more than an inch in front of him.
Uncle was bold, quite fearless and seemingly unaware of danger. Walking with him on the quayside at Brixham one afternoon, my Aunt and I were in a constant state of fear, ready to retrieve him as he strode towards fallen ropes, anchors and bollards as if they couldn’t possibly exist, and somehow managed to avoid them all. Later, though, he wasn’t so lucky. Someone had left open a pavement hatch leading to a coal-cellar, and down he tumbled.
On the night of the moon landing he stayed up all night in an armchair, leaning forwards, his nose pressed almost against the glass of their tiny black-and-white TV. ‘Your Uncle will be in a very bad mood by morning,’ my Aunt warned me. ‘Best we stay out of his way.’
They were an odd couple to look at – she a gawky, big-hipped, toothy six footer – far taller than other women of her generation – he a small, round man with a West Country accent thicker than clotted cream. They had met at night school somehow – quite how I don’t know, given the geographical separation between Devon and Kent – and married when my Aunt was over thirty and well-settled into the old-maidhood for which she seemed to have been designed.
Instead, Uncle whisked her off to Devon to spend many years running round after her mother-in-law, who despised this unexpected ‘foreign’ giantess of a daughter-in-law and quickly developed dementia. Years later, Uncle also got dementia, so Auntie was destined for the double whammy. But in between these two episodes of horror there would be a good few decades of peaceful companionship. My Aunt was a patient woman and content with very little – visits to the allotment; a part-time job in the Post Office; a never-to-be-realised fantasy of one day retiring to Herne Bay, where she would open a genteel cake shop on the sea front, and a series of semi-adopted neighbourhood cats, all known as David.
It may have been that night or another when I discovered paperback copies of The Kama Sutra and The Perfumed Garden in the bookcase, in my attic room. Full colour illustrations of exotic, glassy-eyed men and ladies doing strange things to one another with oddly abstracted expressions. They were concealed by a row of dull Fabian Society pamphlets and thick layer of dust.
I read them, of course, then hid them again. It added a certain spice to the week and I learned quite a bit, though nothing that was to come in very useful, really. Whatever Cosmopolitan said, there never seemed to be a lot of call for all those contorted and excruciating positions… ah, well. I did memorise a number of words that have come into their own recently in Scrabble, so they weren’t wasted.
But the mystery remains: which of them had been reading The Kama Sutra and The Perfumed Garden, given that Uncle was blind and Aunt so very school-girlish and corseted?
And why, exactly?