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The sex life of my aunt / Mavis Cheek.

By: Cheek, Mavis.
Material type: materialTypeLabelBookPublisher: London : Faber and Faber, 2002Description: 282 pages ; 22 cm.Content type: text Media type: unmediated Carrier type: volumeISBN: 0571205089(pbk.) :.Subject(s): Kaye, Marilyn. Sisters -- England | Middle-aged women -- England | Wives -- England | Adultery -- England | Aunts -- England | Middle-aged women -- England -- Fiction | Wives -- England -- Fiction | Adultery -- England -- Fiction | Sisters -- England -- Fiction | Aunts -- England -- Fiction | Deception -- Fiction | Deception | Middle-aged women -- Fiction | Wives -- Fiction | Adultery -- Fiction | Aunts -- Fiction | General fictionDDC classification: 823.914
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Enhanced descriptions from Syndetics:

Dily's life is perfect. Apart from the envy of her less contented sister, she has everything she could possibly want - a loving husband, a beautiful home, a privileged lifestyle - and she's proud that she has achieved so much when she began with so little.

But then one day her illusion of perfection is shattered when she meets a man at a train station. As she hurtles towards either her destruction or her liberation, she discovers that life isn't as simple as thought, and that the right choice, like truth, is rarely pure and never simple.

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Excerpt provided by Syndetics

1 On Temple Meads Station I Sat Down and Wept I believe I was around ten years old when I first realized that boys were more than just rivals for adult attention. And it was not much later that they began making it quite clear that they had realized it, too. I've been holding my nose up high in the air at the slightest flicker of interest across a dinner table ever since. Even as a respectably married woman. No - flirting was not in the blueprint. Indeed, I am so averse to it, so inept at it, so entirely and comprehensively unengaged by it, that when I went out for lunch with a woman friend and she suddenly went all peculiar around the eyeballs, I thought she was having an ocular aneurism. Worse - when I realized what she was doing eye-wise with the man at the table by the lavatories, I felt distinctly queasy. To the point where I couldn't finish the fish ... To the point where, if the salmon was feeling a little on the seared side, it was nothing to my sudden transformation into St Lawrence with the griddle turned up ... One of the stateliest and most intellectual of all the women I knew, transformed into some simpering, vulnerable missy from Kate Greenaway. It only needed the bonnet and the frilly pantaloons. Ogle, ogle, ogle, she went. I thought it was disgusting. Entirely disgusting. And wholly enviable. But I'm no good at it. No good at all. I would not have known where to begin. All of which undoubtedly accounts for my marriage to Francis. The first person to tell me I was loved. And despite Carole's disapproval, my husband he would be. Carole was my dearest friend. She was everything that I thought my sister should be and wasn't, and she always put her head above the parapet. She flirted as if it was a crusade. One in five, she reckoned, was a good pulling average. If they said they were only looking at the squirrels she just shrugged, smiled and walked away. Unscathed. 'Try it,' she used to urge. But I never did. Too risky by half. She thought Francis was too dull for me, and he was not afraid of her, but wary. Her life plan was fun now, love later, while I didn't have one, so Francis was very welcome. On meeting him for the first time, Carole said, 'Hi, Frankie!' To which he replied, very politely but very firmly, 'Francis.' Which wrong-footed both of them from the start. 'I'm Dilly's best friend,' she said defiantly. While everyone - family, friends, colleagues - called me Dilly, or Dill, Francis only ever called me Dilys. 'Dilys', he said simply, 'is a beautiful name.' When he asked me what it meant, and I said I didn't know, he took the trouble to find out.'Dilys', he said, 'means the Perfect One. And that'll do me.' He meant it. Dilys, and only Dilys, would do. He was not being pompous - he was just himself. Perfectly and wholly Francis Edward Holmes. He loved me with gratifying desperation and I thought, Well, that'll do me. In those early days I could read it in his eyes, see it as his hand shook, feel it blasting out of him like supersonic vapour. Than which, in matters of being wooed, there is no greater aphrodisiac. I caught some of the fall-out. He seemed the best thing ever to happen to me, and I think he was. When he said that he loved me, something fluttered and bumped against my ribs - stirring up the emptiness, apparently dispatching it. But what I did not know, not yet having read Flaubert on the subject, was the Big Truth behind 'In my heart there is a Royal Chamber that is forever sealed ...' So - Francis. To whom I was certain that I had given all of myself, and for ever. We met at the art gallery where I worked in the late sixties. Something had happened after 1960. Angela Carter blamed all that free milk and orange juice and cod liver oil which put a yeastiness in the air. Life fizzed. We took what was due to us and reserved the right to ask questions. It was a kind of democracy. Someone from my background could now enter the hallowed portals of the world of art just by answering an advertisement in a newspaper. In the past the job would have gone to a friend of a friend called the Hon. Priscilla de Vere Something. So there I was, hair like a pair of curtains, eyes weighed down with night-black mascara, in Bond Street, when Francis walked in to get himself some contemporary art. He was a lawyer - just qualified - and he wanted a Hockney etching for his chambers. Indeed, at that point in the development of Arts into Investment, particularly in the City where he worked, not to have something by Scarfe on one wall and Hockney on the other was as bad for your image as turning up for a job interview at the GLC sans Guardian during the reign of Our Ken. It was the proper thing to have, and Francis was simply incapable of not conforming. But at least he liked contemporary art. At least he wanted to see it hanging on his walls or displayed on a plinth or table (he bought one or two pieces of sculpture, too) - which was not always the case. I had, in my time, sold Alan Davie lithographs to television executives, Dubuffet screenprints to bankers and Armitage bronzes to venture capitalists, only to find later that the sweet, unsuspecting items either hung upside down on their walls or were carefully placed the wrong way round and spotlit. On one occasion a complete set of big, gorgeous colourful Paolozzi screenprints was purchased, wrapped in strong brown paper and immediately placed in the vault of a bank. A good investment. When Francis entered my life, I was nineteen and the only member of the sales staff present in the gallery that lunchtime (the current Hon. Priscilla de Vere Something had gone off to sort out her wedding list at the Army & Navy that day - a strange choice, I considered it, wondering what on earth, as newlyweds, they would want with military and naval artefacts and being unversed - then - in the erstwhile needs of Empire Wives). Of course, I was on safe ground, and of course our eyes met, though there was nothing daring or flirtatious about it. I just knew my ground, that was all. Besides, there is absolutely no way you can sell someone a picture without meeting their eyes occasionally. Indeed, if you go through the spiel of 'Very small edition ... this is an early one so the lines are sharper ... something rather wonderfully Hogarthian about his narrative line', blah-de-blah, and you are staring at the ceiling throughout, you will never get to first base with the client's wallet. Besides, I was selling a picture, not selling myself, so it was always easy. I was also wearing a purple velvet quasi-Victorian frock from Laura Ashley - long skirt, buttons up the front, ruffles round the sleeves and hem - because I was going to an opening at the Tate that night. Odd as it may seem now, long, ruffled velvet frocks - and purple to boot - were considered stylish then. I was dressed to attract and it worked. He smiled, I smiled, he bought. At first just the etching, but then, when it was framed and he came back to collect it, he also bought me. He took me to Rules, which was just round the corner, to 'celebrate the purchase', because Rules was the proper place to have lunch with a possible new girlfriend. Rules showed her you knew what was what, that you valued her enough to spend a decent amount of money, and it was proper enough to say My Intentions Are Perfectly Honourable. They also happened to offer those twin delights of the English Luncheon - oysters and game pie. Well, if I was no good at flirting, I certainly knew what to do with oysters. There was no way you could get through life in the Cork Street circuit in the sixties and not know how to eat oysters, so I had learned. Oddly enough they never worried me - either in looks and feel, or luxurious price. My grandmother, who apparently suffered from quinsies (tonsillitis nowadays) throughout her childhood and who lived in the mean streets of Borough during the 1880s with a father who was a drayman and a mother who was a laundress, nevertheless was fed chopped oysters when she could swallow nothing else. They were - quite literally - ten a penny then. I grew up thinking of them - if I thought of them at all - as very ordinary, so neither Rules, nor oysters, fazed me. But I also now knew about their suggestive qualities. I might not be able to flirt, but I certainly knew how to manipulate the props. The main thing for a bashful girl in those days was to appear not to know the effect she was having, while having it. Not being able to flirt in an eyeball to eyeball manner meant that I tried harder with obliquer forms of attraction. It was the sine qua non of dating life, since the film of Tom Jones and the erotic, slavering eating scene, to try to turn your dining companion on by giving tongue to glistening morsels while appearing not to know you were doing so. I knew this was attractive, although - like quite a few of my girlfriends - I was unclear then what was so sexy about chewing, dribbling and slavering over meat and two veg while smiling like a drunken tart. But we did it anyway. Oral sex had not quite impacted on free love then. We knew something was out there, lurking, but we were not very clear what. Of course, it was Carole who told me eventually. Anyway, I certainly gave good slaver to the oysters that day in Rules. I suppose the occasion was made the more erotic by the propriety of the place and its very name, both of which exude an air of correctness. The whole experience was undeniably sexy, I could see that - Francis was beside himself while attempting to continue normal conversation - and I - bathetically - enjoyed his company and appearing to be the centre of his world. Perhaps, after that lunch, just like the etching and its frame, he really did think that I was paid for too ... No, no - that is too cynical, too unfair. I am just looking back desperately to find causes, reasons, justifications for what has happened since. But it was the Hollow Woman - not Francis - who let it happen. In a way - yes - I was bought by him, but it was my choice. He was not like that. Not Francis. What he was - I should say is - like is, well, say the difference between Martin Luther King and Cassius Clay. Both good men, both dynamic men, but the one for ever honour-bound by his beliefs, the other set free by his achievement. Francis was wholly good, worthy, dedicated - but never going to punch anyone on the nose and reach for the stars. I don't even think he had a dream beyond the very normal ones of home comfort, hearth happiness, and high attainment in his profession. Honour was near the top of his list of required characteristics for both himself and the rest of the world, and even when he stumbled on the path, which was almost never, he quickly and genuinely repented. When he asked me to marry him we were at Henley, another bit of de rigueur in those days and not yet metamorphosed into a businessman's bunfight. The Henley Regatta, then, was still a proper part of the Season, and any corporate hospitality was both expensive, discreet and restrained. Proper. We stood in the greeny shade of a willow watching the scullers, and he handed me a glass of champagne, looked me in the eye, raised his glass and said, 'To the next Mrs Holmes?' Which was very daring for Francis. I remember looking out over the water and watching the huge, gleaming muscular thighs of the men in boats and thinking 'Cor', and then Francis said, 'Penny for them?' And I was so anxious to avoid his guessing that I was actually wondering what it might be like to be had in the Biblical sense by one such as they that I said 'Yes' to his question immediately. 'I'm so happy,' he said, as I looked away from those pumping thews back at him. 'So am I,' I said firmly. And that little watery vignette of desire, which I had completely forgotten until recently, should never have been ignored. The fact was that having been born into the opposite world from his, I observed the privileged classes at play, and while I was not seduced into pretending I was of them (and therefore becoming what my Grandmother Smart called being 'no better than she ought to be'), I was utterly and completely seduced by the elegance and the confidence and the trappings that went with it. In any case, in those heady democratic days of the sixties, it was a positive plus to come from the working class. This was our time, youth and a revolution that cut across all barriers. If I had put on a pound for every Hon. who adopted a Liverpool accent 'twixt '62 ('She Loves You') and '70 (bloody old Yoko) I'd be the size of Hampton Court. Social democracy was here to stay. We believed it. We had no idea it would last only approximately ten years. Having spent all my growing up in a hand-to-mouth existence in two suburban back rooms, I was ready for a combination of La Dolce Vita and the High Life. Being courted by Francis allowed me to open my arms to what money can buy and what old money, generally, already owns. Quality, elegance. The absolute quality and elegance that goes with wealth. Not twenty-nine shillings and eleven pence mock croc stilettos from Dolcis, but the real thing, caught in an Amazon swamp, fashioned by craftsmen and sold in Bond Street at three times the price of Russell & Brom, with handbag to match. I observed how certain things were done, and I learned on the hoof. By the time I was taken down to meet the parents-in-law-to-be in their West Sussex pile, I could pass muster as the right sort of gel (still necessary with them as the social revolution had not, quite, spread to the Raj generation) - if a little iffy on the family tree. My accent, bearing, looks and job all fitted. When my future mother-in-law asked me what my father did, Francis very quickly stepped in and said, 'Army.' Which was true. He did not, of course, add that my father rose from humble Private in the RAMC to leave the war as Lieutenant, and was then stripped of his rank a few years later on account of a little embezzlement charge. Nor that my mother still worked in a factory. Nor that my father was a bigamist, which left my mother with two little bastards to support. Nor that she had learned to manage poverty at her mother's knee, my grandmother also having been abandoned, a mother of ten (abandoned in both senses, presumably, given that number of children) who exemplified another of her favourite slogans, 'Hard work never killed nobody', by going out cleaning offices in Gray's Inn, City Road, and surrounding areas. Curiously enough, she probably cleaned in the same building that housed Francis's first chambers by then. A possibility that we both found strange, though for quite different reasons. Francis was easy with it all. When I took him home to meet my mother and he had to virtually climb over all the post-war furniture and tattiness that was home (she spread into the whole of the house she had shared with Grandmother Smart after she died), he made no comment about the telly remaining on, if low volume, and accepted the glass of sweet sherry with good manners. When she greeted him with the customary words of welcome to a man entering the house, 'Plenty of work?', he merely said, 'Yes, thanks,' instead of puzzling over it. His shrewd brain realized that to work was to live, quite literally, when you had grown up at the sharp end in the Depression. He did a very daring thing and, without being invited, began calling her by her Christian name, Nell. Later, in the kitchen, when I asked her if she minded, she said, 'No, of course not, it makes good sense.' It was as if I had asked her if she minded the Queen calling her Nell. Absurd. Francis was quality . He was also fair-haired. My mother liked him, of course. She always did have a penchant - as she said afterwards - for fair men. Her first husband - well, her only husband, given my father's wife extant - was killed at the beginning of the war. No time to beget children. He was fair, I knew, from the photographs. Her constant preoccupation as she grew older was the cruelty of the Fate that took Fred from her and the even greater cruelty that let it lead her on its cloven hoofs towards my dad. If Fred had lived, she would never have met my dashing bastard of a father. Nor been taken in by his educated voice, his red-gold hair and blue eyes. The only photograph I had of him was black and white, their wedding day, and that was hidden well out of sight. But I knew his colouring, because I had it too. Grandmother Smart, who was always praising Virginia for being a Smart to the letter, was also very firm on the subject of my being physically my father's daughter. It was to my mother's credit that she never held it against me - for she hated him, and his memory, with a passion. 'If you get a good man, you hold on to him ...' she said. With more feeling than I could ever remember. I was far too relieved to have got any man not to hold on to him very, very tightly. I'd begun thinking I was on the shelf at seventeen and a half. At nineteen, when I met Francis, I was convinced of it. He and I were married six months after we met, four months after he proposed, at St Martin's, Holborn. And if my side of the family caused his side some confusion in the matter of their not knowing the form, it really did not bother us. With that spirit of real democracy abroad, even his parents caught some of it in the end and grudgingly welcomed me into the family. I remember Francis's mother saying, 'Why only six months?', and looking at me suspiciously. 'Because I can't wait any longer,' he said. She looked a little shocked at such a wanton display of emotion and pointed out that there was barely time to get our list out to Peter Jones and the Army & Navy ... I now understood this particular emporium perfectly. I was astonished at the wedding presents - really astonished. We were given a whole canteen of exquisite silver cutlery, linen bedlinen, silver wine coolers, crystal glasses, so that my mother's towels from the Co-op and my various aunts' and uncles' gifts - Cora's teak salad bowl, even the upwardly mobile Arthur and Eliza's cut-glass vase - looked cheap and tawdry by their side. Francis was being accurate when he said he couldn't wait. He was nearly beside himself with the waiting - and I wasn't far behind. For some crazy reason he had suggested - and I agreed to - our not having sex until our wedding night. If there was something very pure about the concept, there was nothing pure at all about its heightened consequences. In restaurants I teased him with asparagus, in the street I wore mini-skirts bordering on the prosecutable, and when we parted I gave him a long, lingering, dangerous kiss. During those months we very nearly eloped several times and I was driven so nearly demented with frustration that I never could think beyond it to the more delicate matter of Love. At the wedding my mother behaved with great dignity and wore what she called a 'nice two-piece costume in navy' and a small, elegant piece of millinery which I helped her choose. She showed a flair for good dress sense that I never knew she possessed. It was Francis's older sister, Julia, who suggested a small hat. Quite rightly, she said that people who were not used to hats got into terrible muddles with them. The only sign of how strained my mother felt among my new family was that she stuck out her little finger when sipping her wine and nearly jumped out of her skin when the master of ceremonies banged his gavel on the table. Apart from that she seemed quite serene. And she was so happy for me. And for herself. If her daughter had married well then she would be looked after in her old age. And she would have been, too, if she had lived. No matter how unsure of herself she felt inside, ultimately she knew she was the bride's mother and therefore carried the dignity of the day. But Virginia, my sister, was another matter. Something had got right up her nose and there was nothing to be done with Virginia. She was eaten up with envy for my job, and now for my good fortune (both spiritual and fiscal) in my husband. Some time before, she had married a lovely man called Bruce who worked in his father's three-hander building firm, and they had the usual local church and local church-hall wedding at which I was, very grudgingly, allowed to be the chief bridesmaid. My Grandmother Smart said to Virginia that there was no way out of it - a family wedding was a family wedding and a sister was a sister. The implication being that I was still that irritating little insect. To Virginia my high-class wedding seemed a snook-cocking exercise. Bigger, grander, richer than hers, one she and the family could not interfere with because they weren't paying for it. The cost of it was beyond them. It was also announced in The Times . When Virginia heard, she rang me up about that, calling it a very silly bit of showing off. She was a little flummoxed when I said I agreed with her, but that Francis's parents had insisted. The other thing that got up Virginia's nose was that she could take no ceremonial part in the big day, because she was about eight-and-a-half-months pregnant. Even my mother intervened - not something she usually did - to say to Virginia that she wasn't going to boil the water if all the standing around and whatnot brought it on. I think even Virginia realized that she had gone too far when she said that we'd just have to change the date. My husband-to-be stared at her wondering if it was a joke. Just to make sure, he put his arm around me and said, 'We have to remember that this is Dilys's day, Ginny.' And though she didn't look at all convinced, so it was. But if she couldn't walk down the aisle with me, she was damn well going to show the world that she was as good as anybody. When I said that nobody doubted it in the first place, she wheeled around and yelled that 'there I went, patronizing her again' - it was a favourite accusation of hers. 'You might have persuaded Mum to toe the line with her hat,' she yelled, 'but you're not dictating to me. Not you ...' Thus, in the matter of wedding headgear, there was no telling Virginia. She wore a huge cartwheel hat, the brim so stuffed full of flowers that she looked like a woman whose preferred form of shopping trolley was on her head. One who had not - quite - got the hang of it. The brim kept catching in people's nostrils, and at one point her husband, the mild-tempered Bruce, thought someone had punched him in the jaw and even raised his fist slightly before he saw her peering up at him like a pregnant mushroom. At table she sat rigid-backed, which pushed the bump out aggressively. And she tried not to be impressed with anything. The bishop seated next to her helped her to more wine - drink not having been banned by the pre-natal lobby at that point - and on her other side Francis's seventeen-year-old cousin engaged her in a conversation - well-meaningly enough - about the pleasures of the Hunt. Virginia never forgave me. It wasn't the foxes she minded, it was how inadequate and hunted it made her feel. In our family Virginia was not used to feeling either. I muttered something about the unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable and that the lack of dignity was all his - and that he was only seventeen, after all - and she turned on her heel, called me patronizing, and refused to speak to me in anything but the coolest of ways for several years, until our mother developed the first of her cancers. The usual pattern of our vast family's weddings. Generally someone ended up in a huff. We honeymooned in a quiet part of Corfu. In a villa owned by one of Francis's friends. All the way there Francis exuded repressed lust and I was as much amused as excited as gripped by the power I held as by the need for sex myself. I had no idea, then, that this would be the basis of our love life. What all this suppressed desire did, of course, was cover up the quiet way I felt about Francis. The pragmatic sense of relief at having finally tied the knot. 'Well, now that's done and I'm glad it's over,' as T. S. Eliot's typist would have it. This settled state was hidden in amongst all the buzz of the excitement of our four months' denial. By the time we staggered off the plane and our driver dropped us at the villa, we were both crawling for each other. And although we both vowed we'd never wish it on ourselves again, it was not quite so odd then as it would be considered now. Once in the legally wedded Kingsize, with the sound of the sea and the crickets, he proved himself to be an enthusiastic lover, very English public school - bags of energy but no style. Not that I was sure of anything. Neither of us was a virgin - but that we were to each other made it feel that way - and on our first night Francis was so completely overwhelmed with fear and desire and, I imagine, the eternal guilt that befalls the British and the pleasuring of themselves that we ended up at three in the morning sitting on our terrace playing Scrabble. It was all right eventually - by the time we returned to London we had competently rogered the hide off each other, and Francis was relaxed about our love life from that day forth. Indeed, I swear he preened himself as we came back down the aircraft steps at Gatwick. I was always happy and satisfied with the way we were together but never electrified like Francis. He liked it and made no bones about it and in all our years together he was never uninterested. Of course, over time it died away a bit, but it never went away completely. Well, not for him. I had no other grand passion to compare. My previous experience of any significance, with an out-of-work performance (called 'Happenings' then) artist and poet of nineteen, had not been any wilder. He smoked so much marijuana that it was always touch and go whether he would quite make it or not - and I certainly never did. But he did - bless his heart - teach me how to go solo. For which I was ever after grateful. Even if he did teach me so that he could fall back into a brain-dead Nirvana with a clear conscience because I knew how to get on with it. Nevertheless, after Corfu I had a sense that there was something wild and wonderful out there that I had never experienced, and now never would. I didn't pine for this Great Unknown. I just knew that there was something so all-engulfing that people were even prepared to die for it. Unless Balzac and Shakespeare and Puccini were liars. But I was blessed. Francis could not have been more different from what I knew, very hazily, about my father. I knew he would never demean me in any way, and I thought that if I kept that other little bit of myself, the bit that he didn't reach, the streak of passion, if you like, as my secret place, then we would be fine. And there it was. In that Royal Chamber. Dormant but not dead. We were happy. I went on working at the art gallery for a few more years, until our first child, James, was born, whereupon we moved from Francis's flat in Holborn to a smart little house in Fulham and had our next child, John. After which we moved to a considerably grander house in Fulham where we stayed. Virginia watched all this enviously. I did the motherhood bit, working from home with a regular round-up spot in The Art Buyer and reviews for other magazines. For me, working was a kind of sanity. In the soothing silence of the Tate's archives, going through old Richard Hamilton catalogues or choosing a slide or two, I often forgot that I hadn't had a complete night's sleep for two years. Virginia considered it all self-indulgent. It was hardly real work. She was struggling with her two and doing all the business side of things for Bruce, who was now working solo. He loved plumbing and that was what he did. As our children got older, while I pottered around the fringes of the art world and began curating the odd exhibition here and there and writing the occasional bit of catalogue copy, my sister burned the midnight oil over account books and invoices and the cost of copper piping. And she was not at all pleased when my picture appeared in the press - as it very occasionally did - at the launch of a show. I always thought there was an edge of hope in her voice if ever she rang up and asked, 'And how's Francis? Everything all right between you two?' Our lives diverged, especially after our mother died, and that was a much easier way to be. When James and John were both at senior school I had a miscarriage, with complications. The daughter we both wanted. It was suggested by Dr Rowe that we left it at that. I did not recover very quickly. I was angry, miserable, unkind for a couple of years afterwards. And Francis had a brief affair with one of the pretty girls with shoulder pads who worked at his chambers. It's possible that she thought she was on to something, but he was too good and honourable at heart. The affair lasted about four months. 'I don't know how it happened,' he said to me. 'One minute we were sitting talking at the office. The next I was in her bed.' He blinked with puzzlement. He had no idea what a trophy he was. He ended it and told me about it and asked me to forgive him. Which I did, because I really could not blame him, and because it brought me to my senses. If I carried on behaving the way I was, I would lose everything. It never occurred to me to wonder if everything was what I wanted to keep ... For a long time afterwards he flayed himself, metaphorically, for this fall from marital grace. After that we settled down quite peacefully. He arranged a long holiday to coincide with my fortieth birthday and we took the boys all round America. I'm not sure if love was reborn between us. Had it ever gone away? But we got back into the routine of intimacy, and James and John loved the trip. For them it was the journey of a lifetime - they now talk to their own children about it and still remember a surprising amount. I remember less of the travelling and the places, more how Francis and I were with each other. When we began sharing a bed together again we were so careful, so newborn, so considerate and gentle, that it was like another honeymoon. Looking back, I realize that was what he had in mind, though he never said. It still wasn't Krakatoa, but it was like coming home again. Warm, reassuring, peace again. Of the two of us, I think Francis was the more bruised by his straying. He had hurt me, so he thought, at a time when I was weak, and it was unforgivable. I, on the other hand, took it in my stride. These things happen, I told myself, and closed the door on it. Francis thought I was being wonderful, but I wasn't. The fact was, it hardly touched me at all. That was the bigger shock and the one I kept to myself. I did not, really, mind that my husband had been making love to another woman. Like the vignette of the scullers, this was, perhaps, something of which I should have taken more notice. In a way I thought it was funny. The whole thing sat so awkwardly in the nature of Francis. I also had to keep a straight face during some of the confessional. Apparently the power-suit took him to the Ministry of Sound for his one and only experience of clubbing and he was convinced he would have a heart attack. She also told him that he should drink his beer straight from the bottle and introduced him, for wacky fun, to the delights of the Late Nite Drive-Thru McDonald's - both of which he made a mess of. 'The only thing I could taste', he said, with some perplexity, of the burger, 'was the gherkin.' Memo to young women seeking older men: dignity is all. As a final full-stop to the whole thing, Francis bought me a Ceylon sapphire, the lightest, clearest blue - a symbol of fidelity, he said - and vowed he would never betray me again. I think he had frightened himself at how close he came to busting his world apart. Virginia looked at the winking bright blueness of the ring with a mixture of admiration, envy and contempt, and said very crisply that he should have waited, since sapphires represented your fortyfifth wedding anniversary. I laughed at something that seemed impossible and so far away, and Francis - who knew human nature rather well and understood my sister's hidden scars - said bravely, 'Well, I'll buy her another one then.' Not the kind of thing to say to Virginia. But there was no time for her to take offence again. She and I needed each other in the following year, because our mother finally died. The battle against cancer had been long and arduous. Twice she went into remission, and eventually it went to her bones. I was angry. She had neglected to think the aches and pains it began with were anything more than the sufferings an ageing woman could expect. A long, hard working life in a factory - its structure lined with asbestos - and the accompanying lifestyle of stress and smoking was more than likely to end that way. She was also lonely and bitter, and the past, like the cancer itself, gnawed away at her. The family was all. She had no friends. Shame made her wary of people. As she said, 'Once you have been kicked in a gutter by your husband, in full view of the street, you don't want to meet anybody's eye ...' My growing up had been rich with graphic morsels such as this, the whole story of which I could only imagine. Francis and I made her life more comfortable, but it was always difficult with Virginia. She watched our relationship and our gifts to my mother like an angry hawk. I was obliged to consult her on everything. My mother knew this - and sometimes she would whisper to me, looking very nervous, that she'd better not do, or accept, something because 'You know what Ginny's like ...' The cancers were relentless. She battled for too many years to count. If there was a God, I vowed, then it was not the kind of God I could worship. There was no room for envy or recriminations between Virginia and me during all that final suffering and they were set aside, I hoped forgotten, in the greater task of getting through the pain of it all. After the funeral, when it came to sorting through my mother's possessions, I found a large brown cardboard box containing her hat from our wedding, never worn again, and the corsage presented to her that day by Francis's father. These were both swathed in tissue paper and surrounded by stalks of long dried lavender from the garden. She had also saved the order of service, the wedding breakfast menu and one of the champagne corks. I knew my mother had loved that day. Had loved the dressing up, the perfect little hat, the matching shoes and handbag, gloves - being at the centre of it all and coming out of herself for a while. It was a precious find that I kept from my sister. There was not a trace of her wedding, apart from a photograph on the mantelpiece of the smiling bride and groom, with me standing somewhat edgily behind. Even then I could not win. I made the mistake of suggesting to my sister that she take everything of our mother's that there was, which was not very much since the house was rented, including the small savings our mother possessed (the pitiful amount she put away for her funeral), for her children. James and John were content with some of the family photographs and a cup and saucer each, and I just took the green glass dressing-table set - always the essence of mother. But Virginia saw this as just another flaunting. 'We will share it,' she said of the money. I suggested that we gave it to a cancer charity. Mistake. ' You may be able to afford that sort of thing,' she said. 'We can't.' All the good that had built up between us during our mother's illness just melted away. It was en guard again. And very wearying. Virginia was just too late for the sixties revolution. She had worked at a bank - which was considered an excellent job until the sixties burst all that wide open - instead of at an art gallery, and she had married a plumber instead of a lawyer. Blue collar, not white. After leaving his father's business, Bruce was a one-man band, and he remained a one-man band, and he made plumbing an art. After he put in our central heating, we used to show our friends the piping. It was beautiful. Exquisite. A symphony in copper. A Morris Louis of lines. He never had to advertise. When I saw the work in progress on the refurbishment of the London Underground, which had exposed the hidden perfections of the Victorian builders, I told Bruce that it reminded me of his work. Pure artistry for artistry' s sake. He went to see it. Virginia thought I was both showing off and comparing him with the navvies. 'How bloody patronizing,' she said. Even Bruce dared to tell her to shut up over that one. But it was never going to be resolved, this resentment, and I walked on eggshells with her in case admiring their new patio, or some new purchase, caused even more of an outburst. Conversation between us became stilted and false. She was still locked into the old way. I had gone up in the world, and that was turning yourself into someone who was no better than they ought to be ... Well, certainly not that irritating little sister. Fortunately I had Carole cheerfully buzzing about in my life. Virginia resented that too. It was as if I should never have existed. I never really understood the game. It seemed to me that success or good fortune was something you celebrated - not resented - and besides, Virginia and Bruce were comfortably off with a between-the-wars villa in Kingston and a half share in a small villa in Spain. Their son, Alec, is a bank manager in Leeds, and their daughter Colette teaches games and sport to under-elevens and runs the marathon when she can. So, as Bruce would say, A Result. But not quite for my sister. Virginia was both proud of my marriage to a high-earning, high-achieving lawyer - and eaten up about it. And the only time I really let rip at her was after Colette's wedding, when she said, 'Of course they won't be going to Barbados for their honeymoon ...' (we had paid for our son John's honeymoon there) and 'Sorry it's only hock and not champagne ...' once too often. 'Hock', I said, driven beyond endurance, 'really betrays your origins. A nice white burgundy would have been so much more stylish ...' That was another six months of sisterly union down the drain. Fortunately I stopped myself just in time from also telling her that I had earned my sapphire on account of my husband shagging one of his secretaries. That would have stopped her in her tracks. In her eyes Francis was the perfect provider and she often told me so. With many a sigh. If she'd known the truth she would probably have told me to keep quiet, let him get on with it, don't rock the boat, think of the mortgage ... Actually, we didn't have one, but I would never have dared to tell her that either. There are three holes in people's lives. One is the hole that remains open because you do not get enough love to fill it. The second is the hole that remains because you do not find a fulfilling direction to live by. And the third is the hole that remains because you do not have enough money to make up for one or both of the other holes. I had, it seemed, plugged each one. Virginia was not even sure she had plugged any of them. Love for her was a controlling thing. If you love me, you will do this, be this, not do that ... Her family learned to love her around it. And if she was unsure about love, well, she certainly did not feel she had fulfilment, nor enough money. And her little squirt of a sister apparently had it all. How maddening it must have been when I said, from my lofty heights, that of the three of them I would give up the money most easily. How smug I felt. It was so good to know that. I never seriously thought it would be tested. So, there I was, with a little bit of blue fire on my finger symbolizing forgiveness of sin, and bugger my sister's Look Through Green Glass. Francis loved me and I loved him and the boys were coming along nicely. Total happiness. Interview us about our marriage for the posh Sundays and there would be no angle. Mr and Mrs Couldn't-Be-Better. And if part of all that was having nice things - well, why shouldn't I? On we went. Francis and me. Me and Francis. There is something very seductive, very soothing, in being cared about, while being cared for. No wonder women took so long to gain the vote. Francis was - no - is a good man, a good husband, a good father, a good lawyer - though I had very little to do with that side of things. I went to the necessary dinners and anything else to which he invited me and we discussed a few of his cases. But work and home were generally kept apart. His only two stumbles on the path of honour were his affair with the shoulder pads, and being stopped late at night, breathalysed and found to be a little over the limit. His donation to the Policeman's Ball dealt with that. 'Look,' he said, when I teased him for corruption, 'I made a very small mistake for which the penalty and opprobrium would be out of all proportion because of who I am ... I don't want to lose this case, and if a couple of bob to the local nick does the job, so be it.' It was the truth, too. He was working on a child snatch at the time. A Muslim father had exerted his rights over his estranged British wife and taken their sons back to Lahore. She had snatched them back again. The case was so sensitive that it seemed everybody from the Attorney General downwards was on tippy-toes. Francis was right - a glass of wine over the limit, or his client's and his client's children's future happiness? Francis saw it as no contest. He won the case. And that was it. A couple of misdemeanours, of no great import, during a marriage of over thirty years. An existent, if not volcanic, sex life. The occasional display of temper, the occasional streak of selfishness, the once-in-a-blue-moon bouts of depression - and there you have it. A good marriage compared with many people - but for the nagging little gnawing something or other, That Royal Chamber, sealed, safe, never quite going away. Back to flirting. The thing I cannot do. The thing I now know you do not have to do in order to attract. For in my case, I wasn't flirting at all. I was waiting for my train alone because Francis had flu, and I was rapidly discovering that Bristol Temple Meads station in March was not the most conducive of places for any activity - and certainly not that one. A chill breeze whipped around the benches, my black wool coat was pulled up tight around my neck, a black and white scarf hung down as limp as I felt, my hands were chilled even in black leather gloves and my exposed ankles were covered in goosebumps despite the thick black tights. I slumped on to a bench in the rawish, dampish air like a defeated magpie and the misery of the loss of my friend Carole overwhelmed me again. With shades of my own mortality thrown in. The cold had penetrated through to my bones; I, too, could be lying in clay. I began to weep. She was a year younger than me and part of my own history died with her. She alone, for example, knew about the Henley moment, and she alone knew that when John was seventeen and his school did Plautus's Pot of Gold, I went all peculiar looking at one of his friends who was up on stage with not a lot on. She was my friend. When comes such another? She was the first of my friends to die. Parents go - and that is not easy - but it is expected, it fits the pattern, even if they go too early. But a friend, a contemporary, one of those whom you took to your bosom out of choice and, more to the point perhaps, one who also chose you ... Now that is hard and cruel. Besides which, Carole was wonderful, exceptional, gifted; the best teacher of remedial children that money could not buy. The dizzy, Biba-booted girl of the sixties and early seventies turned into a woman of honour, commitment and dedication - which gives hope to even the most faint-hearted parent. Her life was worth something, and now she was dead. Horribly dead, too, with no hair left, no flesh left, her sense of humour all gone. Dead and praying to die. We used to joke in the old days and say that they could send a man to the moon but they couldn't cure the common cold. Now it was no joke. They could build a little kingdom of men in the moon nowadays but they still couldn't cure either the common cold - or the common cancer. Fishy, in my opinion. For what would all those big profitable drug companies do with their expensive treatments for either colds or cancer if a cure were suddenly found? Carole couldn't hang around to see. So what the fuck if I cried in public? They were lucky, in that station, that I did not run down the length of it and beat my breast and rend my clothes and push lumps of dirt into my mouth. But I only wept, and not very loudly at that. I was remembering the Humanist burial service, chosen by her, with me much consulted, and staring at the railway lines, and hearing her voice, and hearing the voices of the people who stood up and delivered their messages of how wonderful she was - and the tears started. I was also thinking that I had lost my one true sister. Hand-chosen, unlike my biological one, and capable of all those pleasures that sisters in books experience. Katy and Clover, Marianne and Elinor, Gudrun and Ursula. A mighty great hole had opened up inside of me and I couldn't think that it would ever be healed. That was when the tears turned to little sobs, and then bigger ones, and then - as if in the nick of time - someone sat next to me on the bench and handed me a large, clean, white handkerchief. I looked up, gratefully, into the concerned eyes of a man wearing a leather jacket, jeans and a thick woolly hat pulled right down over his head. Muggers don't carry clean white hankies, was my first thought - such is urban life. He didn't look dangerous on any level - criminal or otherwise - though the hat did give him a vaguely sinister air. If he had walked away from me at that moment and I had later been asked to describe him, the first word that would have come to mind would not have been attractive. But his eyes, I remember noticing, were brilliant blue - the colour of my sapphire - their sharpness probably due to the extreme cold, because his nose was nearly the same colour too in that unkind air. Grief is a sturdy shield from cold, but he, apparently free of it, was obviously suffering. He smiled a little tentatively and said, 'Don't let me disturb you, but I thought you might need this.' I took the handkerchief, sobbed into it, and then had the embarrassment of seeing mascara streaked all over its whiteness - closely followed by the thought that if it looks like that on his handkerchief, what must it look like on my face? Which made me sob a bit more thinking that there was no longer a Carole to share the joke with ... 'Why do we go on?' I asked. Not really of him, more of the world in general. I was still staring at the railway lines. 'To see what's round the corner?' he asked. 'Hrmph.' I said. Sorrow allows you to be impolite. 'To see if there's anything better round the corner, perhaps? ' That seemed adequate, so I nodded. Then there was an announcement saying the London train was delayed. ' Plus ça change ,' he said with irritation, and stood up. 'Are you going to London?' I nodded again. He reached down and touched my elbow. Just that. Unthreatening contact and about as much as I could take. And then he added, 'Come on. Let's have a coffee in the buffet. In the warm.' I stood up and I thought, This will probably be the very last time I ever come down to this town. I took a last look around the platform, the station, and beyond it to the familiar rise of buildings. He cocked his head in gentle inquiry: should he go and leave me there, or was I coming? 'Just taking my leave of someone special,' I said. 'A sister.' Perhaps a warm drink with a stranger would help that cold, hollow place inside. He opened the door of the buffet and held it for me. 'Not a real sister,' I added, as if strict truth were paramount. 'Better than that.' He nodded and I felt that he understood. I was suddenly immensely pleased to be back in the warmth again. There was a table for two straight ahead of us, as perfectly placed as if it were part of a film set. And as I walked towards it I suddenly thought, Oh my God - it's Brief Encounter . Without the grit but with the handkerchief ... And that made me laugh for a moment because I distinctly heard Carole's voice saying, 'Shame on you. Picking up a man on the day of my funeral ...', followed by her laugh. 'You're not a doctor, are you?' I asked. He shook his head. (c) Mavis Cheek, 2002 Excerpted from Sex Life of My Aunt by Mavis Cheek All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.