An Unlucky Family

I come from an unlucky family. We tend to lose people. This is, generally, because they die, often before their time. My grandfather, my father, my mother, my stepfather, and one of my sisters have all been married twice and not a divorce among them. On top of that, two of my sisters and I have both lost children. Maybe there is a family curse. If so, it comes down from my father’s side and although it doesn’t begin with my father, because people seemed to have been getting prematurely lost for a generation of two before his, he seems to be the focus of it.

In 1929, or thereabouts, he married Mabel Felgate, a beautiful young woman who he met through the local church. They taught Sunday School together. Within a few years, they had two daughters, Janet and Judith. Barely three years after that, Mabel was dead, carried off by leukaemia or pernicious anaemia, as it was then called. My father, aged thirty, was left a widower with two pre-school children. Fortunately, his mother was available to help out. Unfortunately, two years later, she, too, was dead, of a heart attack this time.

In January 1938, my parents were married at Kings Hall, a Methodist Church in Fountain Road, Hull. My mother is listed on the marriage certificate as having no occupation; I guess her job as shop assistant for W H Smith didn’t count. She was 24 and now took on the role of step-mother to a five-year-old and a six-year-old. I’m not sure why she did it, to be honest. We’ll call it love.

Whatever the reason, I was born almost five years later and my youngest sister Bridget five years after that. When Bridget was three and I was eight, however, our father died of a coronary thrombosis. My mother, now aged 37, who had still never had an occupation that anyone would write on a certificate, was left with four legal dependants: their ages 19, 18, 8, and 3.

Me and my three beautiful sisters c. 1947

Me and my three beautiful sisters c. 1947

Twenty years later, on the other side of the world, she got married again, to Harry Clifford, a widower with a nine-year-old son.

All these permutations have left me with two half-sisters, a sister, and a step-brother – the kind of arrangement that gives the people who draw family trees a headache.

For much of my growing up I was ignorant of these complexities. This was a good thing in one way; it meant there was never any question that Janet and Judith were my sisters, pure and simple. To the modern mind, though, such lack of openness is a peculiar and unhealthy trait. Was there anything to be ashamed of? Surely not. And yet, if there wasn’t, why keep quiet about it?

I remember an incident just after my father died. We were cleaning up in preparation for moving north from London back to Yorkshire. I can picture the darkness of the room where I am kneeling on the hearthrug in front of a blazing fire. Janet is on my left, my mother on my right. Between them is a pile of papers. They are going through them, sorting them out, feeding the fire with the ones that aren’t needed. I’m watching the paper catch and flare and turn black and then grey. Some of the grey bits, fringed with tiny red sparks, float up the chimney.

Suddenly, Janet says to my mother, ‘Shall I tell him?’ She has a piece of paper in her hand.

‘No,’ my mother says.

There is a tense little moment and then everything goes back to the way it was.

I say nothing. I let it go. I know something important has just passed by but you don’t question things in my family. You wait patiently, trusting you’ll find out in the fullness of time.

I found out three or four years later. The answer was in a book that I had had on my shelf for several years – a copy of Tennyson’s collected poems. Inside was an inscription. I can’t remember the precise wording but it was something to do with the marriage or the engagement of John Else and Mabel Felgate. I was horrified. It was as if I’d discovered some dirty secret – incest or something equally nasty. No doubt some of this reaction was down to the peculiar sensibilities of an eleven-year-old but some, too, probably arose from my shock at realising I’d been kept in the dark.

I didn’t mention my discovery, of course. I kept it to myself. The odd thing was, though, that my mother somehow found out that I knew. Maybe I left the book out on my desk and she read the inscription for herself. Whatever the reason, she began to avert openly to my father’s first marriage, as if it had been common knowledge all along. It seemed that it was not the events that were the problem but the initial telling of them, the awkwardness of the moment of revelation.  The longer you leave something, the harder it is to speak of it. I guess there was never a right time.

One Response to “An Unlucky Family”

  1. maggie@at-the-bay.com Says:

    What will happen to all these lovely revelations for future generations when they are rendered into geotweets and schmap stories (indiscretions tweeted)…. I’m enjoying your story Chris, and I quite like the idea of the strange privacy that people held so dearly to, although of course, I know it hurt as well. You say unlucky, but in some ways, the step and half and extras make for a rich history, and your sisters look lovely. Family trees are usually a headache unless they are fiction, and then they are funny.

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