“If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure that it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.” Ernest Hemmingway
(This week a friend of mine was buried. ‘Friend’, such a loose term to describe so many relationships. This woman was somewhere between a friend and a colleague. At funder’s meetings it was us against the big boys: us taking a mocking pop at their privilege, laughing quietly as they wondered how they’d manage without X thousands, when we only had X thousands to lose. And then, the company she’d developed from nothing lost all of its funding – which she found inexplicable – and so, she retired, gracefully. She was in her late 50s then. Without warning she disappeared off her social media channels and, in the way of these things, we discovered she’d had a terrible illness followed by an accident where she pulled a tray of hot fat from the oven onto her legs. So a mate and I made a version of the badger video – a joke we shared about not sleeping and a misheard line about badges – which featured us instead of those little black and white critters, as a get well soon (though it’s hard to imagine now how we thought this would help!) She made a full recovery, in spite of our video, and then she returned full-throttle in the real and virtual worlds directing her vitriol on those who deserved it – her last Facebook post hours before she died poked fun at Trump and May. She was witty and funny and clever and I will miss her. She was never broken by life but it killed her all the same.)
The World Breaks Everyone
Lily was slight and, for want of a better word, shriveled. She was curled up in the chair nearest the bay window in the house she shared with her sister Nelly, but did not speak beyond a whispered hello and once, “don’t touch that child.” After that, she barely acknowledged our presence at all, largely, I suspect, because she did not know we were there. The crocheted blanket made of bright squares seemed to trap her in place; she was neatly tucked in, held down. She looked beyond the room as if she was remembering a time before she was confined to it.
Nelly, on the other hand, was robust. She was 5′ 7 or 8″ and broad shouldered. She had an air of practicality and, whenever we arrived, she seemed to go into hyper-drive. It was my father – even Lily perked up when she heard his voice. They both loved him. This love extended to us although it was rare for us to go to their house. This was something my father did, on a Sunday. When we did go, the table would be laden with large scones, cream and jam or cakes and orange squash. It was a challenge to balance all of these things on a lap under the scrutiny of Nelly, but we’d manage it. When our refreshments were through, we’d go out in their garden to play…in the corner there was an Anderson shelter which was cool inside and pitch dark. It doubled as a den.
Nelly and Lily were my father’s aunts – somewhere there was an uncle, Mark, and another aunt too – who’d married a semi-professional rugby player – but those two did not hold a place in my father’s heart in the same way. The sisters – referred to by society at that time as ‘spinsters’ – lived down Lomond Road off Springbank West, a hop and a skip from where dad had grown up and as a child I could not imagine why they’d mattered so much to him. But there was a deep bond between them all, a co-dependency. Lily and Nelly, I assumed, were the women left uncoupled by the war, with partners lost or in for a quick dalliance and then gone for good back to wives elsewhere. They seemed sad, lost. I didn’t know. Nelly always seemed to me to be formidable – scary even, whilst the unconnected and unresponsive Lily, benign. I was wrong.
One time my grandfather, Ernie, related to the sisters by marriage to Florence, my grandmother, told me the truth. Lily was a demon. She was utterly unforgiving and very popular with men. And she knew it, he said. She would cast a spell and entice them in and then, when they were hooked, she’d let them go: she was a woman before her time. After that, I looked at her disbelievingly – how could this tiny, shrunken creature be as he described? It taught me important lessons: things are not always as they seem and that there is a back-story to everyone that you’ll never truly know. She could be harsh, cruel. “I never really liked her,” Ernie said, “and she didn’t like me. She broke the world as if it was a wild horse, which is fine, but then there should always be room to be kind. Not Lily. She got her kick in first. Every time.”
I was shocked by what seemed to be anger. It spoke of something else – something disapproving which was ironic given Ernie’s history as the playboy of the western world. And Nelly?
“The sweetest woman in the world. Always so giving and gentle,” Ernie said, “But the love of her life was taken from her grasp. Too nice. Too, too nice.” He lit a cigar and inhaled deeply and said nothing else. He’d tantalisingly left a door onto the past ajar, but nothing more…
And then I knew. Lily. Ernie never said and I didn’t ask. But I knew it was Lily. It was what Lily would had done, this taking from her softer sister. And I imagined how she’d be with this dalliance, a plaything cast aside after she’d finished and lives broken with all trust gone. And Nelly was to never love again. Was she broken? In any case, Nelly picked up the pieces, practical, kind and decent and made the best of things. I often imagined what the conversations were like between them over all those years that they lived together in that tiny house or if they ever spoke of it again, but it was beyond my experience.
As they set towards middle-age, and Lily’s power waned, my father became a bigger and bigger part of their lives. He’d pop round, make himself useful, build shelves and mend things, generally looking out for them. In return they fed him and loved him unconditionally. Who wouldn’t thrive in that situation, and who wouldn’t return time and time again? It was an escape for him – an escape from the step-father who was in his way and who he, naturally, hated for a time.
Then Lily died and no one really spoke much of her again.
Nelly soldiered on. And dad, loyal to the very end, would go round taking one or two of us with him. He’d sort her garden, fix her door, work out why a cupboard was sticking or decorate her living room. She’d smile and laugh and chat about the week that had gone.
And then, before too long, Nelly died too. Dad packed up her house and the linen that they’d used became our linen, towels and sheets and so on. Until very recently we still used Auntie Nelly’s stuff. Her financial legacy got me through the first year at university – mostly I purchased LPs with it (I was not sure she would have approved.) But it was always Auntie Nelly’s this or that and never both: as though Lily came and left a trace, yes, a shrunken memory, but because she was neither very good nor very gentle nor brave her life was, mostly, erased whilst Nelly’s lived on.