Sadness washes over me like a warm tide. The tears are salty too. A childhood memory surges through the wave of grief, and I smile.
The undiluted joy of receiving a tiny, tinny transistor radio from my aunt and uncle when they stayed with us in Singapore, en route back to England from their posting in the Solomon Islands. I was about seven and confined to bed for six months with suspected rheumatic fever. That little wireless was my constant companion as I whiled away the long days, and I remember thinking it fantastic that people like Cliff Richard or Brenda Lee, or The Beatles, all came to our little island. They didn’t of course, but no one dissuaded me.
I called my uncle and aunt ‘Jonjulu’. Their names, John and Julia, merged into one amorphous and interchangeable sound. In those early days, before the islands in the Pacific became their home, Jonjulu lived in northern Nigeria where my uncle was a district officer. We lived mainly in the south, in Port Harcourt, Lagos and Aba. Christmases were spent together. And I, as the only child around, was very spoilt. Early on I tried to adopt my aunt’s favourite pose. That of standing on one leg, the other tucked up behind her calf. I, a chunky toddler, of course would fall flat on my face.
Julia reminded me of that this summer. We had lunch together when I visited her in Sherborne, England. She was by then in an old people’s home conveniently located across from a very nice hotel. Her short-term focus was drifting away but her long-term memory was remarkably intact. We talked about my uncle, long dead. About my father – also dead – and his delight when, after introducing his commanding officer to his sister via letter, their meeting culminated in marriage. We talked of their cottage in Suffolk and the joy their children had given them in that idyllic part of England.
Whilst reading and talking about the menu was enjoyed, deciding what to eat was an ordeal for my aunt until, with a little nudging, she finally decided and we ordered from the busy waiter whose patience never wavered.
We talked about the gardens surrounding the hotel, of the self-important robin redbreast hopping beside the raking gardener and, suddenly, Julia reminded me of arriving on their Dorset doorstep at three in the morning. Saudi, their spaniel, shushed by my voice licked my hand and bade me enter the unlocked door to the kitchen. She followed me up the stairs, her head cocked as I whispered through the bedroom door, asking for a bed for me and my friend. “Do you want to meet Fiona,” I, by then a young woman, remember asking. “No, I do not. You know where the beds are. We’ll talk in the morning,” my sleepy aunt replied.
Along with stories, we shared a bottle of wine. Probably excessive at lunch time, but I’m so glad we did. Because my much-loved aunt died on Sunday.
The final person who knew me well as a child despite not always living in the same country. Who knew my parents in their early days of courting and who answered my questions, as well as she could, when I first learned of my half-sister’s existence – my parents, who I would not see for a year, having left London to return to Papua New Guinea. An adaptable woman who was often easier in the company of Hausa tribesmen or Pacific islanders than her compatriots.
It was Julia who taught me the subtleties of English dining – artichoke and asparagus – “Only ever eaten with the fingers, Apple.” I was thirteen and more used to rambuttans and breadfruit.
Remembering her influence, I think of how many expatriates worry about family ties being broken by miles and oceans. A few years in Nigeria and a couple more as a young woman in England are the only time I lived in the same country as my aunt, and yet she knew me better than most – my foibles and my dreams. Distance was never an object to our closeness.
My aunt was the product of an era now passed. Of when duty was considered paramount. Of when doing the right thing was expected and not rewarded. She had sadnesses, like everyone, but she was a private person brought up to not make a fuss, to get on with it. Truisms seen now as anachronistic.
My father, Julia’s brother, was a military man and when I was a child he would say to me, “A soldier’s daughter never cries.” Not something I espouse and, as I type, my tears fall for Jonjulu, my last true memory keeper.