Travels With My Aunt, p.1Graham Greene
About the Book
About the Author
Also by Graham Greene
The History of Vintage
About the Book
Henry Pulling, a retired bank manager, meets his septuagenarian Aunt Augusta for the first time in over fifty years at his mother’s funeral. Soon after, she persuades Henry to abandon Southwood, his dahlias and the Major next door, to travel through Brighton, Paris, Istanbul, Paraguay. . . Accompanying his aunt, Henry joins a shiftless, twilight society: mixing with hippies, war criminals, CIA men; smoking pot, breaking all the currency regulations and eventually coming alive after a dull suburban lifetime.
About the Author
Graham Greene was born in 1904. On coming down from Balliol College, Oxford, he worked for four years as sub-editor on The Times. He established his reputation with his fourth novel, Stamboul Train. In 1935 he made a journey across Liberia, described in Journey Without Maps, and on his return was appointed film critic of the Spectator. In 1926 he had been received into the Roman Catholic Church and visited Mexico in 1938 to report on the religious persecution there. As a result he wrote The Lawless Roads and, later, his famous novel The Power and the Glory. Brighton Rock was published in 1938 and in 1940 he became literary editor of the Spectator. The next year he undertook work for the Foreign Office and was stationed in Sierra Leone from 1941 to 1943. This later produced the novel The Heart of the Matter, set in West Africa.
As well as his many novels, Graham Greene wrote several collections of short stories, four travel books, six plays, three books of autobiography – A Sort of Life, Ways of Escape and A World of My Own (published posthumously) – two of biography and four books for children. He also contributed hundreds of essays, and film and book reviews, some of which appear in the collections Reflections and Mornings in the Dark. Many of his novels and short stories have been filmed and The Third Man was written as a film treatment. Graham Greene was a member of the Order of Merit and a Companion of Honour. He died in April 1991.
ALSO BY GRAHAM GREENE
The Man Within
It’s a Battlefield
A Gun for Sale
The Confidential Agent
The Ministry of Fear
The Third Man
The End of the Affair
The Quiet American
A Burnt-Out Case
Dr Fischer of Geneva or The Bomb Party
The Tenth Man
England Made Me
The Power and the Glory
The Heart of the Matter
The Fallen Idol
Loser Takes All
Our Man in Havana
The Human Factor
The Honorary Consul
The Captain and the Enemy
The Last Word and Other Stories
May We Borrow Your Husband?
Journey Without Maps
The Lawless Roads
In Search of a Character
Getting to Know the General
Mornings in the Dark
A Sort of Life
Ways of Escape
Fragments of an Autobiography
A World of my Own
Lord Rochester’s Monkey
An Impossible Woman
The Little Train
The Little Horse-Bus
The Little Steamroller
The Little Fire Engine
H. H. K.
who helped me more
than I can tell
I MET my Aunt Augusta for the first time in more than half a century at my mother’s funeral. My mother was approaching eighty-six when she died, and my aunt was some eleven or twelve years younger. I had retired from the bank two years before with an adequate pension and a silver handshake. There had been a take-over by the Westminster and my branch was considered redundant. Everyone thought me lucky, but I found it difficult to occupy my time. I have never married, I have always lived quietly, and, apart from my interest in dahlias, I have no hobby. For those reasons I found myself agreeably excited by my mother’s funeral.
My father had been dead for more than forty years. He was a building contractor of a lethargic disposition who used to take afternoon naps in all sorts of curious places. This irritated my mother, who was an energetic woman, and she used to seek him out to disturb him. As a child I remember going to the bathroom – we lived in Highgate then – and finding my father asleep in the bath in his clothes. I am rather short-sighted and I thought that my mother had been cleaning an overcoat, until I heard my father whisper, ‘Bolt the door on the inside when you go out.’ He was too lazy to get out of the bath and too sleepy, I suppose, to realize that his order was quite impossible to carry out. At another time, when he was responsible for a new block of flats in Lewisham, he would take his catnap in the cabin of the giant crane, and construction would be halted until he woke. My mother, who had a good head for heights, would climb ladders to the highest scaffolding in the hope of discovering him, when as like as not he would have found a corner in what was to be the underground garage. I had always thought of them as reasonably happy together: their twin roles of the hunter and the hunted probably suited them, for my mother by the time I first remembered her had developed an alert poise of the head and a wary trotting pace which reminded me of a gun-dog. I must be forgiven these memories of the past: at a funeral they are apt to come unbidden, there is so much waiting about.
Not many people attended the service, which took place at a famous crematorium, but there was that slight stirring of excited expectation which is never experienced at a graveside. Will the oven doors open? Will the coffin stick on the way to the flames? I heard a voice behind me saying in very clear cold accents, ‘I was present once at a premature cremation.’
It was, as I recognized with some difficulty from a photograph in the family album, my Aunt Augusta, who had arrived late, dressed rather as the late Queen Mary of beloved memory might have dressed if she had still been with us and had adapted herself a little bit towards the present mode. I was surprised by her brilliant red hair, monumentally piled, and her two big front teeth which gave her a vital Neanderthal air. Somebody said, ‘Hush,’ and a clergyman began a prayer which I believe he
The funeral of my mother went without a hitch. The flowers were removed economically from the coffin, which at the touch of a button slid away from us out of sight. Afterwards in the troubled sunlight I shook hands with a number of nephews and nieces and cousins whom I hadn’t seen for years and could not identify. It was understood that I had to wait for the ashes and wait I did, while the chimney of the crematorium gently smoked overhead.
‘You must be Henry,’ Aunt Augusta said, gazing reflectively at me with her sea-deep blue eyes.
‘Yes,’ I said, ‘and you must be Aunt Augusta.’
‘It’s a very long time since I saw anything of your mother,’ Aunt Augusta told me. ‘I hope that her death was an easy one.’
‘Oh yes, you know, at her time of life – her heart just stopped. She died of old age.’
‘Old age? She was only twelve years older than I am,’ Aunt Augusta said accusingly.
We took a little walk together in the garden of the crematorium. A crematorium garden resembles a real garden about as much as a golf links resembles a genuine landscape. The lawns are too well cultivated and the trees too stiffly on parade: the urns resemble the little boxes containing sand where one tees up. ‘Tell me,’ Aunt Augusta said, ‘are you still at the bank?’
‘No, I retired two years ago.’
‘Retired? A young man like you! For heaven’s sake, what do you do with your time?’
‘I cultivate dahlias, Aunt Augusta.’ She gave a regal right-about swing of a phantom bustle.
‘Dahlias! Whatever would your father have said!’
‘He took no interest in flowers, I know that. He always thought a garden was a waste of good building space. He would calculate how many bedrooms one above the other he could have fitted in. He was a very sleepy man.’
‘He needed bedrooms for more than sleep,’ my aunt said with a coarseness which surprised me.
‘He slept in the oddest places. I remember once in the bathroom …’
‘In a bedroom he did other things than sleep,’ she said. ‘You are the proof.’
I began to understand why my parents had seen so little of Aunt Augusta. She had a temperament my mother would not have liked. My mother was far from being a puritan, but she wanted everything to be done or said at a suitable time. At meals we would talk about meals. Perhaps the price of food. If we went to the theatre we talked in the interval about the play – or other plays. At breakfast we spoke of the news. She was adept at guiding conversation back into the right channel if it strayed. She had a phrase, ‘My dear, this isn’t the moment …’ Perhaps in the bedroom, I found myself thinking, with something of Aunt Augusta’s directness, she talked about love. That was why she couldn’t bear my father sleeping in odd places, and, when I developed an interest in dahlias, she often warned me to forget about them during banking hours.
By the time we had finished our walk the ashes were ready for me. I had chosen a very classical urn in black steel, and I would have liked to assure myself that there had been no error, but they presented me with a package very neatly done up in brown paper with red paper seals which reminded me of a Christmas gift. ‘What are you going to do with it?’ Aunt Augusta said.
‘I thought of making a little throne for it among my dahlias.’
‘It will look a little bleak in winter.’
‘I hadn’t considered that. I could always bring it indoors at that season.’
‘Backwards and forwards. My sister seems hardly likely to rest in peace.’
‘I’ll think over it again.’
‘You are not married, are you?’
‘Of course not.’
‘There is always the question to whom you will bequeath my sister. I am likely to predecease you.’
‘One cannot think of everything at once.’
‘You could have left it here,’ Aunt Augusta said.
‘I thought it would look well among the dahlias,’ I replied obstinately, for I had spent all the previous evening designing a simple plinth in good taste.
‘À chacun son goût,’ my aunt said with a surprisingly good French accent. I had never considered our family very cosmopolitan.
‘Well, Aunt Augusta,’ I said at the gates of the crematorium (I was preparing to leave, for my garden called), ‘it’s been many years since we saw each other … I hope …’ I had left the lawn-mower outside, uncovered, and there was a hint of rain in the quick grey clouds overhead. ‘I would like it very much if one day you would take a cup of tea with me in Southwood.’
‘At the moment I would prefer something stronger and more tranquillizing. It is not every day one sees a sister consigned to the flames. Like the Pucelle.’
‘I don’t quite …’
‘Joan of Arc.’
‘I have some sherry at home, but it’s rather a long ride and perhaps …’
‘My apartment is at any rate north of the river,’ Aunt Augusta said firmly, ‘and I have everything we require.’ Without asking my assent she hailed a taxi. It was the first and perhaps, when I think back on it now, the most memorable of the journeys we were to take together.
I WAS quite right in my weather forecast. The grey clouds began to rain and I found myself preoccupied with my private worries. All along the shiny streets people were putting up umbrellas and taking shelter in the doorways of Burton’s, the United Dairies, Mac Fisheries or the ABC. For some reason rain in the suburbs reminds me of a Sunday.
‘What’s on your mind?’ Aunt Augusta said.
‘It was so stupid of me. I left my lawn-mower out, on the lawn, uncovered.’
My aunt showed me no sympathy. She said, ‘Forget your lawn-mower. It’s odd how we seem to meet only at religious ceremonies. The last time I saw you was at your baptism. I was not asked but I came.’ She gave a croak of a laugh. ‘Like the wicked fairy.’
‘Why didn’t they ask you?’
‘I knew too much. About both of them. I remember you were far too quiet. You didn’t yell the devil out. I wonder if he is still there?’ She called to the driver, ‘Don’t confuse the Place with the Square, the Crescent or the Gardens. I am the Place.’
‘I didn’t know there was any breach. Your photograph was there in the family album.’
‘For appearances only.’ She gave a little sigh which drove out a puff of scented powder. ‘Your mother was a very saintly woman. She should by rights have had a white funeral. La Pucelle,’ she added again.
‘I don’t quite see … La Pucelle means – well, to put it bluntly, I am here, Aunt Augusta.’
‘Yes. But you were your father’s child. Not your mother’s.’
That morning I had been very excited, even exhilarated, by the thought of the funeral. Indeed, if it had not been my mother’s, I would have found it a wholly desirable break in the daily routine of retirement, and I was pleasurably reminded of the old banking days, when I had paid the final adieu to so many admirable clients. But I had never contemplated such a break as this one which my aunt announced so casually. Hiccups are said to be cured by a sudden shock and they can equally be caused by one. I hiccupped an incoherent question.
‘I have said that your official mother was a saint. The girl, you see, refused to marry your father, who was anxious – if you can use such an energetic term in his case – to do the right thing. So my sister covered up for her by marrying him. (He was not very strong-willed.) Afterwards, she padded herself for months with progressive cushions. No one ever suspected. She even wore the cushions in bed, and she was so deeply shocked when your father tried
I leant back hiccupping in the taxi. I couldn’t have spoken if I had tried. I remembered all those pursuits up the scaffolding. Had they been caused then by my mother’s jealousy or was it the apprehension that she might be required to pass again so many more months padded with cushions of assorted sizes?
‘No,’ my aunt said to the taxi-driver, ‘these are the Gardens. I told you – I am the Place.’
‘Then I turn left, ma’m?’
‘No. Right. On the left is the Crescent.
‘This shouldn’t come as a shock to you, Henry,’ Aunt Augusta said. ‘My sister – your stepmother – perhaps we should agree to call her that – was a very noble person indeed.’
‘And my – hic – father?’
‘A bit of a hound, but so are most men. Perhaps it’s their best quality. I hope you have a little bit of the hound in you too, Henry.’
‘I don’t – huc – think so.’
‘We may discover it in time. You are your father’s son. That hiccup is best cured by drinking out of the opposite rim of a glass. You can imitate a glass with your hand. Liquid is not a necessary part of the cure.’
I drew a long free breath and asked, ‘Who was my mother, Aunt Augusta?’ But she was already far away from that subject, speaking to the driver. ‘No, no, my man. This is the Crescent.’
‘You said turn right, lady.’
‘Then I apologize. It was my mistake. I am always a little uncertain about right and left. Port I can always remember because of the colour – red means left. You should have turned to port not starboard.’
‘I’m no bloody navigator, lady.’
‘Never mind. Just continue all the way round and start again. I take all the blame.’
We drew up outside a public house. The driver said, ‘Ma’am, if you had only told me it was the Crown and Anchor …’
‘Henry’, my aunt said, ‘if you could forget your hiccup for a moment.’
‘Huc?’ I asked.
‘It’s six and six on the clock,’ the driver said.
Travels With My Aunt by Graham Greene / History & Fiction / Humor / Actions & Adventure have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes