Planning a short trip with some of my students later in the year to the UK, to Hampshire; they want to see Jane Austen's house and visit a typical English tea room. The town of Alton was always handed down in family memory as the place where my father's aunts lived. My father's father came from Somerset, as I think I've mentioned before, but there was another branch in Hampshire. These may well be confused and mixed up received memories from different sources, that's how it goes with these things.
The Aunts at Alton
1940, just married, our parents found
petrol enough out of the ration
to take Dad's Austin Seven down
from Hertfordshire to Hampshire,
to see the Aunts at Alton.
Their number and identities are blurred,
- and who's there left to ask now? -
I think though, there was Kate,
and Tilly, and a perhaps a third,
Lucy, my namesake sooner than a saint of light,
or Wordsworth's shrinking violet girl.
Kate, they said, eschewed a skirt,
wore trousers like a man, was quite a sight
to see out on the tractor, and smoked,
even, perhaps, a pipe, she'd light
from rolled-up paper spills out of a jar
up on the mantelpiece, something
to keep your fingers busy by the fire.
'Father', who'd mostly lost his teeth and wits,
sat in the background, fed on slops, which
fifty years on still made my mother shudder.
Indeed, there wasn't that much food around
for anyone to chew on, but she did recall
a good round cheese, and relish
made from grated beetroot and horseradish.
It was December - the photographs show Mum
in a coat we knew was blue, its collar velvet,
which Aunty Joan made from a remnant,
she was good at that - the farmhouse rooms were cold,
the water in the jug and basin on the chest of drawers
still colder, and Dad too shy to ask for any hot.
A wartime honeymoon, of sorts then: food,
and petrol, warmth and comfort, rationed
and in short supply. And though the names and tales
were handed down like heirloom curios, I never could be sure
if it were quite a happy memory or not.