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Summer At Aunt Cecilia

EXTRACT FOR
Summer At Aunt Cecilia's 
(Michaela Francis)


Summer at Aunt Cecilia's

Foreword

 

When my grandmother passed away at the ripe old age of 94 a few years ago I was charged with the responsibility of putting her affairs in order and making an inventory of her estate. It was a bitter sweet assignment for I had loved her dearly and she had left a lasting impression on me as she did on all who knew her. She was one of those larger than life characters who had lived an extraordinary life of high drama, romance and adventure. The contents of her house were testimony to that remarkable life but the greatest prize among them went at first unnoticed and disregarded.

It was when I was taking stock of all the many books in her library that I came upon the row of bound volumes on a shelf. Opening one, I found not a printed text but plain paper pages covered in my grandmother’s small, but neat handwriting. Reading a little, I realised that I had happened upon an extraordinary find. The volumes were nothing less than Grandma’s memoirs; a chronicle of her astonishing life, laboriously written down in her own hand. In excitement, I understood that these memoirs were not only a truly remarkable piece of family history but also an erotic classic by a woman who had lived her life to its richest fullness and to the devil with what anybody thought of her.

Grandma had always been a colourful character, full of life even until the day she so sadly left us. There’d always been that delicious whiff of scandal about her and the legends about her in my family had been legion. The stories of her adventures had entertained us all as long as I could remember and her outrageous escapades had fascinated me even as a child. She seemed to belong to another world… one full of romance and fantasy far removed from the drab mundanity of life. I had never known how much of her story was true or how much were simply the legends that grow naturally about such towering figures.

These memoirs showed the full story however. In her own words, Grandma had told the story of her life and it proved even more remarkable than the legends woven about it. I determined there and then that one day I would have her memoirs published for posterity.

This then is the first part of her tale. It recounts the summer in the late 1920s which my grandmother spent at Meadowdale House under the charge of the lady she called Aunt Cecilia who was, in fact, not related to her. It is a startling account of her sexual awakening in her Aunt Cecilia’s home and her early training in her, for want of a better term, chosen profession. I will say no more, preferring to let my grandmother speak for herself.

I have, as best I can, tidied up the punctuation and corrected Grandma’s occasionally eccentric grammar. Otherwise the chronicle is as close to the original narrative as possible and the words  are the authentic voice of my grandmother. I find her story both shocking and beautiful; both moving and illuminating. I hope it will find such resonance among its readers and bring back to life one of the most fascinating people it has ever been my privilege to know.


 

Chapter One

 

I am, I’m afraid to say, a very naughty girl and we all know what happens to naughty girls. Or at least I know now. Back then it was not so clear at all. Back then I was not at all sure just what it was that a naughty girl deserved or, more to the point, what she needed. It took that summer of 1928 to teach me that; that summer in my auntie’s house to teach what it was that were the just rewards of a naughty girl. For naughty girls must be firmly punished and, throughout that long and magical summer, when the sun seemed to shine in perpetual benevolence over the little corner of England that I inhabited, I was punished most strictly indeed. But naughty girls must be punished most properly by those who love them and, in my Aunt Cecilia’s house, my punishment was sweetened by the love afforded me. I have been a naughty girl in gratitude ever since.

I was just eighteen years of age; ripening into young womanhood but still innocent and unworldly.  I was a troubled girl however. Those who knew me casually thought me rather timid and reserved; introverted even. It was true that I was a quiet little thing who stayed in the background, kept my own counsel and made few friends. In reality, however, my shy demeanour masked emotional turmoil, bottled up in me, and dangerously passionate yearnings married to an over active imagination. I was at that perilous crossroads of life when one is of an age to be overwhelmed by the mounting imperatives of maturing sexuality but not yet old and sensible enough to control them. It was that time of life when one most needs the steadying influence of a wiser woman. It was a guidance that I lacked. My few friends were even more innocent than I and, in those days, sex was a taboo subject among older people. What I most needed was my mother. That was not an option.

I was born in the late winter in 1910 and my mother had a hard time of my birth. It is probable that the complications of labour precluded my mother from having any further children for I grew up without brothers and sisters. I was still a little girl when Daddy went away. I remember how everybody was very excited that the men were going off to teach some bully a lesson. I thought they meant the man who ran the mill and who had frightened me one day by shooing me away when I was playing in the mill yard. But he had been called Mr Carter and the nasty man the men were away to sort out turned out to be somebody called Mr Kaiser.

Before he went away to have stern words with Mr Kaiser, Daddy made provisions for his young family. He placed us in the care of the wife of his best friend in their big house in the country. The lady was called Cecilia and I grew up calling her Aunt Cecilia even though we were not related. She and my mother became the dearest of friends and she was invariably kind to me. I adored her. They were happy days at Aunt Cecilia’s house for the countryside is a wonderful place for a child. I ran wild around the fields, chased the chickens in Aunt Cecilia’s garden, picked wild meadow flowers and brought them solemnly home to be put in vases, made myself sick eating strawberries in June and raided the orchards and bramble patches in September. I learned my letters in the little village school and paddled with my friends in the stream, chasing minnows with a net.  They were the happiest days of my childhood.

The only thing that scarred those golden days were the frightened looks on my mother and Aunt Cecilia’s faces when they read the newspapers. Daddy and his friends were having a lot of trouble with Mr Kaiser it seemed and whenever I asked when daddy was coming home my mother would weep and clutch me to her bosom. We went to the little church in the village and it seemed scarce a month went by without the vicar leading the congregation in remembrance for somebody who would not be coming home. I remember the awakening of fear that one day it might be daddy.

But daddy did come home. He came home battered and scarred. He had a scar on his face from a piece of shrapnel from somewhere called Ypres and a bullet in his leg, that would make him limp for the rest of his days, from a place called Mons. But he did come home. Many didn’t. Aunt Cecilia’s husband was one of them. He vanished somewhere near Marne in July of 1918. They never found his body.

Aunt Cecilia retreated into grief but my mother and father looked after her; consoling her and seeing to her needs. I remember feeling unutterably sad. With the shadow of grief that had fallen over my beautiful and kindly Aunt Cecilia, it felt as if the carefree, happy days of childhood had been dashed from my grasp. But at least, with daddy’s return, it seemed as if my family had weathered the storm. We could put the dark days behind us and start to live happily ever after. Only fairy stories end like that however.

No sooner had the guns fallen silent than my mother fell ill. Some say that as many as 100 million people died around the world in the flu pandemic of 1918-20. One of them was more than just a statistic however. One of them was my mother. In just two weeks she went from a healthy, vivacious and beautiful wife and mother to a cold corpse in a box in the parish church and her passing tore the heart from me.

My father and I moved back to the city to live in my grandfather’s house where my father would  re-join his father’s business; running the big cotton mill. People deal with their grief in different ways. Daddy buried his tragedy in his work; spending seven days of the week at the mill and immersing himself in its business. I was left lonely and isolated in the city. My grandmother was ailing and fragile and daddy and grandfather were always working. I missed my mother terribly and daddy never seemed to have time for me. I thought he had stopped loving me.

I was foolish of course. I know now that my father loved me well and he would remember it in the end. They were just hard times for him. He had passed through nearly four years of hell on the Western Front, seen his best friend and most of his comrades die. The nightmares of that horrible war would torment him all his life. He had come home, barely intact and spiritually shattered, in the hope of finding some peace and happiness. Then even that frail hope had been snatched from him with the death of my mother. It would have broken a lesser man and even daddy would take years to emerge from it. He was angry at any God who would allow such things and professed himself an atheist until his dying day. People saying that something was the will of God would enrage him and he would allow no minister in the house.

In all his anger at fate and his grief, he was quite incapable, back then, of showing his affection for me. Part of the reason, I think, is because he saw so much of my mother in me for I resembled her closely. The sight of me would remind him of her and rob his mind of reason, threatening to overwhelm his sanity. He could barely even bear to look at me for those first years and I know that it broke his heart that it was so.

There was one positive consequence of my father’s single minded dedication to his work. The business boomed and very soon we were very well off. The most immediate impact of our newfound wealth, on me personally, was in my education. Daddy could afford to give me the best. At the tender age of eleven, I was packed off to an expensive girls’ boarding school.

I hated school in the beginning. Many of the girls there came from the upper classes and looked down on the daughter of a mill owner. I found it hard to make friends and I was the sort of shy, timid girl who attracts bullies, who invariably prey upon the vulnerable. In time, however, I found my niche and, if I never came to love my school, at least I became accustomed to it and able to hold some little corner of it for myself. At least I did well in my studies for I was clever and quick to learn. I loved reading and I devoured books greedily. All things being equal, I should have finished school with fine qualifications and, in the new age of the 1920s when women were at last emerging from behind the tailcoats of their menfolk, there might have been a fine career ahead of me.

I came home at Christmas in 1927 to find a strange woman in the house. My father introduced me. This lady, he informed me, was to be my new mother. I hated her on the spot and I hated my father too that he could so defile the memory of my mother by taking this woman as a replacement. That started all the trouble. They were to be married in the spring.


 

Chapter Two

 

I know now that it was unfair; unfair of me to so hastily judge my father’s second marriage. My mother had been in her grave some nine years and daddy deserved his second chance at happiness. I was doing his new wife, Jude an injustice too for she was a sweet and gentle woman and not at all the evil stepmother I took her to be. I was not thinking clearly, however, and this woman seemed to have not only usurped my mother’s position but mine as well, for I thought I perceived father transferring all the affection I thought should rightly be mine to her.

I returned to school full of loathing and jealousy. It did not help, of course, that I was saturated in those hormones that burst forth so unexpectedly in a young woman and torment her with her passions. I was dangerously unstable and volatile. I vowed that nothing would compel me to attend my father’s wedding. When my father wrote to me at school and said that Jude had suggested that I be a bridesmaid at her wedding, it was the final straw. I resolved to run away.

I don’t quite know where I thought to run to. I think I had some mad idea about fleeing abroad and living in a studio in Paris. I read far too many romantic novels in those days. In any case, I took all my savings and ran away from school to catch a train for London. That was about as far as I got. A kindly policeman found me alone and weeping on a station platform in London in the dead of night. He took me to an office and, over a cup of hot cocoa, he extracted my story from me. A telephone call was made to my father’s house and, the next day, he arrived in London to take me home.

The school had informed my father that I had gone missing and he had been frantic with worry. When he collected me in London, he gripped me so tightly in a huge hug that I thought my ribs would break. In my present state there was no question of sending me back to school. My father took me home.

It was a tense mood at home. My father and Jude both tried to be kind and considerate to me but I was sulky and rebellious. My father despaired what to do with me. There were earnest whispered consultations and much worrying over me. My father even called a doctor to see me who declared me perfectly sound and healthy in all respects other than a propensity for glowering morosely. In this hour of need, my Aunt Cecilia entered the fray.

We had, of course, stayed in close touch with Aunt Cecilia during the intervening years since those tragic days at the end of the war. Indeed she had paid us a visit on several occasions and my father had spent a week at her house when I was fourteen. We corresponded regularly and exchanged gifts at Christmas and on birthdays. The events of the war and its aftermath had bonded us closely. Aunt Cecilia was family.

A visit from Aunt Cecilia was always a highlight for me for I was very fond of her and she was almost a surrogate mother to me. She invariably remembered my birthday and the presents I received from her were always the nicest. When she came to visit, she would bring me pretty clothes for it vexed her that father dressed me so drably. She would protest that I was a pretty girl and that it was a crime to dress me like an old woman as she put it. This irritated father who was deeply conservative in many respects. Aunt Cecilia was glamorously fashionable and had embraced the daring new styles of ladies’ fashion that so shocked older generations in the roaring twenties. Father disapproved of these modern fashions and considered them entirely inappropriate for a young girl, if not downright scandalous. Aunt Cecilia was a very difficult person to say no to, however, and daddy had to bite his tongue.

Aunt Cecilia, it has to be said, had emerged from the tragedy of those dark days in rather better shape than daddy had. I would not say that it had not touched her for she had never remarried and remained childless. There was, nevertheless, a core of resilience to her that had allowed her to confine her grief to the past and move on beyond. She was in her later thirties now but the years had been kind to her for she remained still a strikingly beautiful woman who invariably dressed in the finest clothes and was always immaculately coiffed. Tragedy had not broken her but rather tempered her; granting her a sagacity beyond her years and a deeply soothing tranquillity and compassion. I adored her and had more than a little crush on her.

In one other respect, Aunt Cecilia had weathered the years well. She was, to all appearances, very comfortable financially. Her affluence was something of a mystery however, She still lived in the big house that mother and I had spent the war years in and maintained a lifestyle that indicated that she was in no way an impoverished widow. She wore expensive clothes and jewellery, drove an expensive and very fast motorcar, travelled extensively, dined out at the best restaurants, attended all the best balls, kept a pair of thoroughbred horses at a local stables, never missed Royal Ascot if she could avoid it and hobnobbed with the rich and famous at Henley. Father confessed himself at a loss to explain where all her money came from. It certainly wasn’t a war widow’s pension and, while it was true that she had inherited some money from her family, they had surely not been rich enough to maintain her in such a life of sybaritic luxury.

Some hint of the source of her wealth had been suggested only that year however. Grandfather had more or less retired from the family business and daddy had taken over the reins in his stead. There had been some troubling issues to resolve however. Grandfather, as is often the case with older people, had disliked change. For years he had been stubbornly resisting modernisation with the result that, when daddy inherited control of the factory, much of the machinery had been virtually obsolete and falling into disrepair. In order to remain competitive, the whole place had been in imperative need of updating. The firm, however, had lacked the ready capital to effect such an overhaul and daddy had been at his wit’s end. Aunt Cecilia had solved the problem by introducing daddy to a very close friend of hers; a certain Lord Danworth who, it transpired, was the major landholder in Aunt Cecilia’s corner of England and fabulously rich. Lord Danworth had been willing to invest a considerable sum in daddy’s business on Aunt Cecilia’s recommendation alone. I think, to be honest, daddy, who distrusted the idle rich aristocracy as he called them, had had to swallow his pride to accept Lord Danworth’s cash but money is money after all. It did, however, cast some light on Aunt Cecilia’s own financial status that she had the resources of a Lord Danworth to call upon. It fuelled rumours of course. Lord Danworth’s wife had passed away some years before and Aunt Cecilia was, herself, a beautiful and unattached widow. It didn’t take a mercurial intellect to put those two pieces of the jigsaw puzzle together.

In any case, daddy was deeply in Aunt Cecilia’s debt and, when she suggested a solution to his troublesome daughter, he was unlikely to object. I think, in fact, he was somewhat relieved at Aunt Cecilia’s solution. With his impending wedding and all the concerns for the business, he didn’t have the time to give to a rebellious, teenage daughter. Aunt Cecilia, you see, had suggested that what I needed was a woman’s firm guidance through this difficult period. It was unfair to expect daddy’s new bride to provide that and, therefore, in honour of the memory of my mother, she, Aunt Cecilia would take responsibility for me. I was to be shipped out to Aunt Cecilia’s house in the country for the summer.

When daddy sat me down to inform me of his decision, I was delighted. I thought it intolerable at home with Jude always about the place. Anywhere else would have been preferable but Aunt Cecilia’s house was just perfect. I worshipped Aunt Cecilia and the happiest memories of my life were associated with her house in the countryside. So it was then that, when the daffodils and crocuses bloomed in April of the year 1928, I packed my trunk and daddy drove me to the railway station where I boarded a train to journey into a future I could never have imagined.