CHARLOTTE BINGHAM -           Novelist and Playwright

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Travel with my aunts
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          They were both beautiful. Yet,  as if nature was determined on fashioning them in different ways to suit their very differing personalities, they were never taken for sisters.   Perhaps it was the fact that the younger woman was born so late to my grandmother, whatever the reason. Suzanne and Judith, my beloved aunts, were salt and pepper. 
          Suzanne was tall with shining black hair that fell down to her waist.
Judith had dark brown curling hair that framed the most enchanting, mischievous face. Suzanne had an hour glass figure that suited Dior's New Look to perfection. My first introduction to her was when aged four, I was sent to live with my maternal grandparents.
         Breakfast was not exactly a lively affair, a maid hovering at the sideboard, my grandfather staring in silent indignation at the pat of butter that rationing decreed was meant to last all week, but which he took sadistic enjoyment in demolishing in seconds on a couple of  triangles of toast. 
          This particular morning the maid was brushed aside at the dining room door, as my aunt, her long black hair flowing and flying, burst into the quiet of the room shouting, 'Daddy, Daddy, he tried to shoot me!'
         I have to be honest that her tears quite put me off my rasher of bacon and half a grilled tomato. Up until then I had led a very sheltered life, waited on hand and foot by a silent, if vaguely morose nanny who, as is often the way with nannies, always made a point of preferring my brother.  This never bothered me. I didn't expect Nanny to love me.  Nanny was Nanny, and as long as she was there, waiting on me hand and foot, I felt secure. My aunt crying on my grandfather's shoulder made me insecure, in fact it even brought a lump to my throat. I daresay it must have upset my grandmother too, but Edwardian to the core, she frowned in disapproval at my trembling lips, my clutched napkin and above the sound of my aunt's sobbing she told me to eat up my bacon and tomato, 'because there won't be any more.'
          Divorce was a shocking thing, but everyone must have realised that even divorce was better than murder, so my aunt got divorced and came to live with me and my grandparents.  My grandfather was firm in the opinion that having her hanging about his sumptuous apartment was going to be like the pat of butter in front of his breakfast place - a pretty poor show - so she was duly sent out to work, leaving the apartment every morning, sometimes in the Rolls with Davies driving, sometimes in a taxi, always dressed immaculately by my grandmother.  Little snippets of conversation come down to small children, like titbits from the table to a dog - from 'underwear in rags' to 'that dreadful day in court' and 'thank heavens we can get hairpins at last.'
          Tiny hairpins, dozens of them, were what I used to watch my grandmother using on my aunt's swathe of hair, always put up into a great chignon. My grandmother's hands folded the hair over so carefully she could have been a chef folding cream, after which she would step back and remove some lightly veiled or feathered hat from the bed to place it on my aunt's head, before surveying the whole scene as if she had just painted it, which in some ways she had.
          With my aunt's arrival at the flat, the whole Edwardian atmosphere changed. From sundown onwards glamorous young people arrived to be given drinks or dinner. I remember being allowed to peer round the drawing room door at a  beautiful red haired young actress by the name of Adrienne Corri, of whom my grandmother approved most heartily, because she loved beauty.  Clever men who worked in radio, which my grandmother still called 'the wireless' stayed for dinner, or escorted my aunt to the theatre. Sexy clever men who'could have stepped out of the pages of Charlotte Bronte's 'Villette', bright funny men who moved in theatrical circles, which my grandfather referred to as 'the world of the demi monde.' came and went. And everyone seemed to be laughing and talking.
          My grandfather had bought a television on which I was allowed to watch Muffin the Mule.  Once Muffin had finished dancing on Annette Mills' piano, I was sent to bed.  It seemed a long time to wait until morning, only the sound of the occational bus pulling up Sloane Street breaking the quiet of the apartment, until my aunt came back, bringing with her gaiety and friends, stories of the office, or gossip from Andre, Paris and London,who ran the fashionable hairdressing salon further down Sloane Street.
          Perhaps my Aunt Suzanne went away for a few weeks, but all of a sudden the atmosphere at the apartment changed again. My Aunt Judith was getting married, and my brother was to be her page. Judith wanted me to be a bridesmaid, but my mother, on a flying visit, said I would only fidget. This irritated my grandmother who kept saying 'she's no trouble, put her on a chair and tell her to stay and she sits and stays!' From an inveterate dog lover this was praise indeed.
          With the change in aunts came a great change in visitors.  Judith's visitors were all Navy.  Although she was marrying into the Army, she had been a Wren, and judging from the wonderful presents givien to her by all the young officers - gold cigarette cases and lighters, and jewellery of the loveliest kind - she must been very popular.  The Lenare photograph taken of her in her wartime uniform shows her seated, her beautiful face framed by thick dark curling hair, her Wren's hat on the back of her head, one arm with the badge she had been awarded for proficiency in cleaning guns, proudly displayed.   
         If voices reflect character, my Aunt Suzanne had a pretty light, modulated voice. She had once been auditioned at the Albert Hall for some special event, but my grandmother, herself an instrumentalist, had been horrified at the very idea that any daughter of hers would be caught singing publicly. Judith's voice was totally different.  Her voice was that of a boy, and unlike Suzanne she loved to smoke, fitting her cigarettes at regular intervals into a very expensive holder.           
        I travelled down my childhood years with both my aunts, staying with Judith in country houses which boasted large vegetable gardens, and endless ground floor bathrooms, home to every kind of insect.  She and my grandmother were passionate dog lovers.  Judith had spaniels.  The spaniels came in from the fields with ticks.  She taught me how to remove the a tick without leaving behind their dreaded legs, and then would say gleefully, 'now throw it in the fire and hear it pop!' 
         Suzanne on the other hand would have become quite faint at the mention of a tick.  She worked in a famous American advertising company, building up her department from a couple of part time employees to a big staff.  When I was fourteen she took me on as a temp putting flyers into envelopes, for which I was paid the princely sum of a pound a day.  My fellow envelope stuffers were more often than not out of work actors, who went on to become very famous never again to be out of work actors.   Suzanne wrote novels and short stories at night, and became one of the first women to be made Romantic Novelist of the Year.  When I was living in Paris she came to see me, and took me to hear Juliette Greco, and told me about her godmother who lived in the sixteenth arrodissement.  Besides writing novels and short stories, at which she was very, very successful, Suzanne wrote poetry, a great deal of it in very good French.
           Both my aunts continued to have legions of admirers but for rather different reasons.  Suzanne loved the ballet and was in love with Roland Petit who had come over to dance with his wife Zizi Jeanmaire to the fascination of all London.  Judith on the other hand told me, quite solemnly, that if any of her children became ballet dancers, she would shoot them.  This was no mean threat.  Judith, like the heroine of the musical Annie Get Your Gun, was a crack shot.  She was also unlike her sister, an elegant rider, adored horses and dogs, and had the kind of sense of humour that would make Suzanne leave the room.
         They used to say that travel broadens the mind, and my travels with my aunts certainly changed my life at every turn.  Suzanne always kept hand cream on her office desk, and used it almost every hour. She adored the theatre and actors. She loved France and French manners, was never happier than when she was working, and had little time for anyone who was not the same.  She was in the habit of saying 'there are two kinds of women in this world, those that work and those that don't.'  I still say, as she always told me to, 'as you know' at the start of a sentence that might be about to make me sound what she called 'a know all'.  I still think of her saying 'if someone asks you - can you do me a favour - always say 'yes' never ever 'that all depends what it is.'  Judith taught me never ever to laugh at a dog, 'you can laugh with it, not at it.'  Taught me to say 'hup' not 'sit' which dogs can get confused with 'fetch it'.  She loved country life, and walking fields in wellies, being outside in the fresh air, and watching for fish to rise.  She also told me never to marry a man who couldn't make me laugh.
         I travelled a long way with both my aunts, yet I don't miss them at all because they're always with me.
         Now I must stop to put on my hand cream. and take the dogs for a walk to watch the fish rise on our little lake, knowing that the man I married will be sure to make me laugh, because as you know, laughter in a marriage is vital to happiness.


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blog on 06 October 2012 23:33
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Bottes Isabel Marant on 23 November 2012 10:52
This is a great post, and a great topic to explore. Thanks for sharing
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Fiona on 14 January 2013 08:15
Wonderful presentation of the beauty with some cool tips of being happy, too. I can imagine the dark and thick wave of her curly hair. It's lovely. However, thanks for a pleasant content.
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