On my Mum’s side she and Dora (of the illustrated letter, which I will post soon) were natural artists but their brothers were too stiff and manly-serious for that or music.
Dora ended up a bent and crooked old thing with facial hair sprouting out and could have made a good witch model except that she had a personality that invited little kids to nestle round her, blind to her deformities, and be entertained with her stories and wonderfully witty observations on life.
The three sisters together, even in infirmity, were the source of successive waves of hysterics washing through the house and generations so that by the time they separated everyone was exhausted from laughing.
She could even get away with upsetting the precise routines of my grumpy old father with her “stuff and nonsense, Gilly, it really is not that important” (later, at her husband’s funeral the coffin-bearers were appalled to discover, on opening the front door, the whole house in hysterics and afterward, as friends approached in deepest sympathy at her terrible loss she laughed and said, “I’m glad he died,” adding, to calm these poor shocked souls, “if you loved a man as long and deeply as I have, how could you bear to see him suffer as he did, and not be overjoyed at its ending?”)
My father had actually originally been in love with this extraordinary woman and only married my mother, Mary, as next-best after Dora married his own best friend, an event he could little influence, being half a world away in the steamy jungles of Malaya to which he had been sent as a trainee rubber-planter (his uncle I think was a grandee in Singapore at the time). He only discovered his friend’s treachery when he arrived back on leave and, being a practical man, seized quickly upon my mother and hauled her off to the tropics before she had time to realise the implications of being transported from her large victorian merchant’s mansion – peopled by servants and so many siblings and spinster-aunts upon its several stories that the prospect of solitude was as unknown and romantic to a young girl as that of being swept off her feet to a tropical paradise. This turned out to be to a large-windowed but glassless, two storied ‘bungalow’ in the humid, stifling heat of a tropical rain forest with little entertainment but her books and radio. A house full of servants, granted, and with the frenetic banter to which she was accustomed in her childhood home, but in tongues incomprehensible so that during the day she was as a stranger in her own home. In the evenings, as sunset fell like a curtain drop into sudden darkness, my father returned from his rubber-estate duties to reenact the established rituals of colonial togetherness, clinking ice in gin and tonic glasses to the swirl of cigarette smoke, rising to the ceiling across which incessant “chee-chaa’s” stalked or plopped unexpectedly onto the floor or laps. And from the purple pitch outside, the eerie prattle of crickets and squeaking of bats was only interrupted occasionally by the hoot of owls and more sinister howls.
My mother learned the necessary skills of the planter’s wife, the use of the silver cocktail shaker, the recipes for Pink Gin, Stingers, Singapore Slings and other amusements to while away the evening hours over the bridge or canasta tables on those rare occasions that visiting couples graced the huge ground or first floor living rooms under the slowly rotating blades of the ceiling fans. More often though these poker-faced four-sided combats were held in the Royal Selangor Club in Kuala Lumpur or the Royal Klang Club.