My great aunt died a few months ago, age 90. We shared a birthday so in addition to being my Granny’s sister, and wife of my Grandfather’s brother, she was also my twin. I burst into tears upon turning Two when she told me it was her birthday as well, but from then on she held a special place in my world as ‘Twinny’. A wonderful woman, batty in the best possible way, hostess supreme, a million friends and as many anecdotes, and, right until the end, talked at the speed of a non-stop train.
After visiting my Twin, I’d always leave slightly exhausted but with a smile on my face. My response to her constant chat was to match pace. Felix, in contrast, would slow down to almost incommunicado in response to the barrage of questions and answers that would be, delightfully, thrown at him.
She’d always ask the perfect who’s, what’s, when’s, and where’s, was always interested in new stories and remembered silly details from my last visit. Was I living on a boat now? How was my new house? Did I love Canada? I must. The fact that I didn’t, didn’t seem to matter. Next time she would yet again assume that all was wonderful in Rhian world. And it was difficult at the moment of the visit to believe anything other.
Some time in my early teens, she introduced me to creme-de-menthe, stored in a beautiful drinks cabinet inherited from her mother. I was staying the night and remember sitting with her in the living room of her large London flat, giggling. Truth be told though, I usually left her flat feeling a bit tipsy even if it was broad daylight and I hadn’t had a drop to drink.
I loved her lots; we all did. My Granny probably misses her most, though I obviously can’t speak for her direct family. Granny and she spoke virtually every day, often a few times a day, for the best part of their married lives. Plus, of course, childhood. Ok, perhaps not during the war or when one travelled abroad, as they both regularly did, but I should think 40 or 50 years worth of daily conversations must have accrued. By definition, your siblings are the people you’re likely to know longest, and these two remained close throughout.
I inherited a photo-montage from her, picked out by my Granny. It contains four sepia photos, in series, of my great-grandmother and her two youngest daughters, daughters from a second marriage, aged approximately 3 and 8. Eighty-two years on, the resemblance of face and character captured in those moments is still recognisable. There is still a similarity of expression even though it’s funny to see my grandmother as a three-year-old.
I went to the theatre with Granny, and my dad, last week. A matinee of The Voysey Inheritance at the National. Excellent. The kind of play you enjoy for the acting, the theatre, the set and costumes, and a bit for the script. The main female lead was played by a friend who I went through junior school, secondary school, and University, with. Though I follow her life’s evolution with interest, we neither of us play an active role in the other’s. I may have not seen her for years, but I hear of her exploits via friends and parents of friends.
She was fantastic. Such a stage presence: tall, slender, beautiful, and a rich, gravelly silk voice that I hope one day becomes as famous and recognisable as Dame Judi Dench’s. Her name is Nancy Carroll and I urge you all to keep an eye out for her. And that’s not just out of personal loyalty; we went to see the play in the first place because my Granny had previously enjoyed her performances so much. Me, I haven’t seen her on stage since University and, before that, in the school hall… years before she embarked on her LAMDA training, got film roles, and worked with the RSC.
But that’s the thing; for me, it was the same person on stage. She was the same age, had the same talent, as she has always been. The same timeless age as I am to myself. We remain the same person, age dot to ninety, despite changes through training, development, maturity and experience. A huge amount of who we are is defined before we even have the consciousness to decide who we want to be. By then, the question becomes more a matter of what we want to do with our lot.
Nancy and I may only see each other every 5 or 10 years, but what a wonderful opportunity to see what someone makes of their same character in a different place and at a different age, the same age as me.
Thinking of life as a ninety-year experience grounds me somewhat. I need that at the moment as it’s been a busy few weeks, months. All those great philosphical discoveries and decisions that I made at Halley, about living one life, in one place, with one community, and one evening activity, to be savoured utterly.. have been thrown to the wind. Or, I hope, scattered like seeds.
I am currently in a state of flux. In my house, I am packing up and sorting. On my boat, I am unpacking and arranging. At the office, I have a new job and am trying to settle in. The thing I need (computer, jeans, house keys, phone) is invariably in the place I’m not. Life is busy and chaotic and it’s probably fair to say that I’m not entirely on top of it.
Worse, I can’t explain what I do in ten words or less. That used to be the ultimate test for communication skills and I’m failing it utterly. It used to drive me mad; all these friends I have with jobs behind screens who, even after an hour of explanation, I still didn’t know what they did all day. I’ve become one of them.
Oh yes, and travel. I went to Brussels and Vienna, then Egypt for holiday, pages I could write on that, and now (for work again) Argentina, followed by Sweden and Edinburgh. It’s all very exciting but goes right against the grain of my Antarctic Life Philosophy, and is rather discombobulating. I must recognise, however, that this chaotic and colourful life is more in line with the rest of my years’ existence, characteristic patterns you might say, than my one year of quiet and still.
Which is not to say I am rejecting that philosophy but rather, I now realise, that I must find a way to weave that white thread into the multi-coloured tapestry of jumble that, like it or lump it, I was born as.