OTHERS

Bereavement

CHRISTOPHER HURST writes about the recent loss of a life-long friend.

THE word "bereavement" is usually taken to refer to the death of a close family member, and up till the present I have been spared any particularly painful experience of this kind. My wife, children, grandchildren and siblings are all still alive. I was 14 when my father died, and although I was fond of him, I did not really feel his death - possibly because he was old enough to be my grandfather and, being deaf as well as a workaholic, a somewhat remote figure. My mother's death years later made me conscious that the umbilical cord had finally been cut; but at a deep level we were not really close. The reason for this is explained below.

Like many children born into moderately well-off English families before World War II, I was entrusted to the care of a nanny within a month of my birth. I would see my mother around the house and garden, she would come into my room to kiss me goodnight, and when my father came home in the evening I would be tidied up and sent into the drawing-room to be with my parents and my sisters - to play games or just play the fool. But my constant companion, day and night, was Nanny.

I cannot remember what we actually did for most of the time. She was very musical, as I was, and we would listen to music programmes on the wireless; or we would look at books together, or go for walks. Once just the two of us went for a holiday on the south coast. If I was upset over anything, I would run round the house looking for Nanny - no one else could administer comfort.

The other nannies I met from time to time seemed old and starchy, and I can only be thankful that I was not in the care of one of those. My Nanny was young and warm - only 23 when she first came. She had, some years earlier, been an under- nurse looking after my sisters, and my mother - who was not easily impressed by people - invited her back to look after me. She stayed until I was five and went to kindergarten. She never spent so long with any of her other babies - thus, when the time for parting came, the bond between us was indissoluble.

Who was she? Her home was in the city of Lincoln, in the north- east Midlands, where her father ran a small but successful "funeral carriage" business, which he had started while still in his teens - that is, he was not an undertaker who actually prepared the dead for burial and conducted funerals, but he provided the hearse and large, dignified black cars to convey the bereaved family to the funeral. The drivers, whom he also provided, wore black suits and top-hats. Nanny's father was a man of the utmost solidity and rectitude, who had left school at 12 and was virtually self-taught; his father had been a chimney- sweep who could neither read nor write and liked strong liquor.

Nanny herself was the eldest of five children and, having inherited her father's brains, did well at school and looked set to become a teacher. But she wanted to travel, and so took a job as a children's nurse in the affluent south. My family were her first employers, and as we always took winter holidays in the Swiss Alps, her wish to travel was soon granted. It seems to have been due to a combination of factors that she never married. Certainly she was "plain" - not beautiful in a conventional way, as my mother was - but that was not the main reason, which was that she had moved out of her own class but, by the nature of things, could not enter another one. However, it was clear, as she got older, that independence of all ties except those she could control herself was all-important to her. As an unmarried woman with a good head on her shoulders she was the acknowledged head of her family after her parents died, living alone in the modest house where she and her siblings were born, and running the business.

As soon as war started in 1939, she left her employment in London and returned to Lincoln. Her brothers had joined the forces, her sisters were married, and her father was getting old, so she immediately started driving the hearses and big black cars, and doing the office work. Briefly, after the war, she took another job as a nanny, in America, but it was to be the last one. In middle age, as a businesswoman, she joined the Soroptimists - the women's equivalent of Rotary - and became president of both the Lincoln branch and the North Midlands division. In about 1980 the family closed down the business - they were too old to carry on, and the younger generation of the family was not interested.

In my early adult life I saw little of Nanny, but as time went on I would go up to Lincoln about twice a year, and phone more frequently. As she passed the age of 80, and became frail although her vigorous character and mental powers were undiminished, we both valued our extraordinarily close relationship more and more. It was demonstrably different from her relations with her own family, to whom she was a rather formidable figure. She admitted to me that I had always been "her baby" - by chance the age a child of her own might have been if she had had one - and loved me accordingly. Everyone who has ever known me well has known how important a place this love had in my life and that it was amply reciprocated. Her political views were right-wing, and I took care never to disagree with her when our talk got into these areas.

Her Christian faith had always been absolute, and she recalled the fury of one of her early employers, a scientist and non- believer, when he found her reading Bible stories to his child. It seemed like a revelation of her spiritual nature when, in the 1990s, another early employer, by then a very old lady, phoned and said she had been thinking about Nanny all day and could not rest until they had had a talk - which they did for over an hour. Apart from exchanging Christmas cards, they had had no contact for well over 50 years.

In the early spring of this year she suffered two strokes, of which the second took away her speech. A few days before her 94th birthday I took the train to Lincoln and visited her in hospital. Although she could not speak intelligibly her brain was unimpaired and we could communicate. I had gone to enable us to say good-bye, and this we did. She died a fortnight later, and I asked - and was allowed - to give the address at her funeral. It would have been uncharitable to wish for her to live longer, but my sense of bereavement is acute.

I count it the height of good fortune that I had this relationship, and that it lasted beyond my 70th year. In whatever way one lives, there is no disputing the force of early influence - and during our five years together, when I was just waking up to life, this woman lavished on me all her abundant intelligence, love and moral goodness. Why am I not a better person in spite of her influence? My answer is the one given by Evelyn Waugh when asked in a TV interview how he could profess the Christian religion and yet be so disagreeable: "Without it I would be far worse."

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