There are two suitcases under my desk and I don’t want to open them. My mother’s in one and my father’s in the other. This is where they are now: in the diaries, documents, photos and press cuttings that are all that’s left of them. I’ve been through the cases superficially of course, but only to get a sense of what’s there. I was more interested in the texture, smell and appearance of their contents than wanting to delve into them.
I’ve stored both cases in the foot-well of what was my mother’s desk. It’s imposing and richly veneered, with brass trimmings and a hidden compartment – much like her. My father’s case is like him: neat, battered, and carefully zipped and buckled. I’ve kept them there to nudge me because, unlike the desk’s hidden compartment, they may contain secrets.
My sister transferred our father’s case from the boot of her car to mine on an empty country road in Dorset half-way between where we both lived at the time, as if delivering a consignment of counterfeit money – a precursor to something that really happened. She gave me our mother’s case after the funeral.
They keep nudging me.
The cases, that is.
Well maybe my parents.
So I open the smallest one first. My father’s.
It’s made of brown leather, I’d guess in the 1920s or 30s: the handy kind of thing you’d carry on a train if you had to keep moving. It’s packed with notebooks, drawings, pocket-sized diaries with entries in English and Italian, fading monochrome photos, spools of negatives, war-time letters in German and Russian, skinny paper detailing his legal struggles, crumbling press cuttings, transcripts of battles with my mother, copies of his letters to me after he had left – and my replies – and anguished letters from his final home: a curtained-off section of a corridor in Tel Aviv; everything neatly arranged, just as he’d left it in an attic by a lake in Italy. The scuffed, musty case which he’d carried from hotel room to boarding house is a history of loss and frustration.
I’m not ready for this; it’s too long ago and painful.
I zip and buckle it up.
Then I drag out my mother’s case, more utilitarian than her red leather Harrods one I remember, but still bulky.
On top of the densely-packed contents, along with a lingering smell of perfume, is one of her many albums of photos. I open it, and there she is at one of her art exhibitions, looking like a fusion of Elizabeth Taylor and Zsa Zsa Gabor, offering her hand to a man who’s surely Arabian, her eyes holding his with her Hungarian magnetism, his deflected and hooded. She’s says he’s Prince Faisal. Behind him’s another prince too, from Bengal. How does she meet them?
There are many more photos of her, both personal and by press photographers: commanding attention from the rail of her yacht beside someone who looks like the mafia; posing on a deckchair in a swim suit and dark glasses like a film star; snapped in the corner of a restaurant with an elderly, smitten suitor; and queening it on a wicker throne for the Daily Express with a man half her age whom I’ve never seen before or heard about and to whom she’s just announced her engagement. Who are these people?
There are also thirty-six typed pages of her memoir. I’ve read this before of course but haven’t been able to digest it, so rich is it in name-dropping, as if she values herself in terms of whom she’s met and expects others will do the same.
In her photos of me as a teenager, I’m languid and scrawny, observing her with cynicism from the edges of the frame while she fills it. In restaurants, she’d have waiters fussing around her while she complained to the manager and I sank under the table through the folds of my ‘room-to-grow’ suit.
Her cloth-covered address books, one for each continent she visited, are so full of names they spill over their allotted alphabetic space onto notes attached by paper clips; some, with accounts of romances highlighted in red, include far more information than their contact details. Reading them I feel like an intruder, but am struck by her gullibility; mostly they involve dodgy entrepreneurs on the make. She’s more circumspect about the well-known people she’s involved with, and says almost nothing about her intimate involvement in the biggest financial scandal in the 1960s which made headlines for weeks and was her downfall.
A double-page colour spread in the Times Register is a final testament to what’s described as her ‘glamorous life in London and Mallorca’; but it reflects her own distortions as if she’d written it herself.
She had an extraordinary story to tell, although publishers weren’t interested. It would have over-stretched their legal departments. In any case writing wasn’t her thing; she preferred long phone calls from unexpected parts of the planet. She’d ring me and I’d switch off, with non committal grunts while she told me her latest deal with this business venture, film production, art exhibition, cultural centre, or yacht club, involving that film star, politician, prince, queen or king.
She inherited her wealth from her father, who started a company called Airfix which became a legend in the toy industry. When she lost ‘practically everything’ she took up painting and had exhibitions in London, Paris, Palma and Rome. As far as I could see, she couldn’t even draw. When she tripped round the world to recoup her losses with a bit of business, she managed to delay the opening of India’s parliament and, according to her, the Apollo moon shot.
I’d had years of this, could no longer believe any of it, and was sick of trying. The question of what lay behind all the glitter, façade, and fuss didn’t even occur to me. My mother had a lot of something, that’s for sure, and in areas she knew about, business acumen. But much of it also seemed phoney and flawed. Why didn’t people see she couldn’t draw? What was it about her that wasn’t her wealth? She had much more to her than that.
While she tried to find out who she was by seeking recognition, I rejected her values and became an actor so at least I could be someone else. Later, after years trying to unravel myself in therapy and groups, I retreated to woods near Land’s End to help others do the same. When I told her I’d qualified as a psychotherapist she said ‘Is there money it?’
My mother had tremendous magnetism, but we were at opposite poles and far from being attracted, I was repelled by it. Now, with her suitcase, I have no excuse. Who was she really? What made her the way she was and, because she was my mother and one way or the other made me, who am I?
Amongst her press cuttings is a 1960s cover of a British European Airways holiday brochure. It shows a couple sunbathing on a sandy beach, and the background, presumably to suggest an idyllic setting, consists just of the sea and my mother’s villa in Mallorca, with two of her yachts moored near a raft off the rocks by the villa’s terrace.
In a strange counterpoint to BEA’s image of the perfect escape, that raft was my escape too – from my mother.
But, as the brochure’s strap line says:
‘It takes more than sunshine’.