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My brother, Andrew

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Not a happy home
Diana Athill Writer
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When she got out there, she never said a word about it. And my sister said, 'I longed to ask her, but I thought I can't. She's spent all my life not saying anything about it for my sake. I can't bring it up now'. Which is a pity, because I think in fact my mother would have liked it. But she never did.

[Q] How did you know?

Oh, there were tiny little things. I don't… I hardly know what made me… well, excepting that it… what made me suspicious. She… the way she talked about a certain doctor who was, in fact, the doctor who had saved the situation, who had said… who had taken her into a nursing home and given her a sleep cure, which is what… because she was having a breakdown, completely, and had said to her, 'Look, keep calm, don't worry, it'll be alright'. And so he had sort of got us through it. And he had obviously meant something very special to her. But how did I know that he meant things like that? And then once, when she thought I was up to something, quite rightly too, and she said, 'You needn't think you could ever get away with anything, because one never can'. And I thought, 'Oh, aha'. At once I thought, 'She's talking from experience'. And the fact that my father was extra nice to Patience. He took her once for a bicycling holiday in France, and he'd never done anything like that for Andrew or me. And that, given his character, sort of suggested it. And the fact that both Andrew and I resembled... and we always said, 'Andrew looked just like him and I looked just like her and isn't it funny, Patience doesn't look like anybody'. We used to say it quite happily, which must have been very, sort of, awkward for her to hear, really. But Patience didn't look at all like us.

And these little things. But when I first had my suspicions, I thought, 'Now, this is ridiculous. You know, one can't make assumptions on such small grounds'. So I never said anything. And when Patience was at about the same age as I had been when I came to that conclusion, she said to me, 'You know, I think I'm not Daddy's daughter'. And so then we exchanged notes and we'd both noticed… we'd picked up the same things. And we thought, 'Well, the only reason why we could have picked up, from these tiny things, the same feeling, must be because it's true'. And so then, from then on, she became rather superior and used to say sniffily, 'You boring old legits'.

The marriage was an unhappy one for a long, long time, and they got through it by him working away from home a lot. And really, I don't think… they got… they went… after the war, he came out and they went to Africa together. And they had an interesting time together, and I think that during that time, I suppose sex mattered less by then and they became more good friends. But I really think that it was only after his death that my mother, sort of relaxed.

She became quite a happy old woman, but I think she was a very frustrated woman for a long time. And he, poor man. It was the saddest thing, was after his death, I was going through letters, and I found a letter from Abyssinia, announcing that he'd be home at last and he'd be home soon. And he said, 'Oh darling, I do wish… I know you don't really want me to come back. I do so wish I could have made you feel about me like Peggy felt about Geoff'. Peggy was her oldest sister… son… sister, who adored her husband. And my poor darling father, all this time, had sort of felt it was his fault. He was a very, very generous, nice man, but when you think of how we lucky we were, of course we lived in places where there was masses of space. We could escape it.

I mean, Andrew and I were aware that we didn't like this situation. We used to say to each other, 'Why does she always… why does he always do the thing that makes her lose her temper?' We felt they were silly. But on the other hand, in two twos, we should vanish off down the garden and have our own time, our own play and our own ponies, and there was a sort of buffer state of governesses and nice people who must have understood a bit what was going on. I remember someone once saying to us, 'Well, you see both your father and your mother are very, very nice people, but perhaps they ought not to have married each other'. And we used that. Andrew and I used to say, 'Well, you see, they perhaps… they were nice people, but perhaps they oughtn't to have married each other'. It was logical, it was sensible, we could see that. So it didn't depress us all that unduly.

Born in 1917, Diana Athill is a British literary editor whose publishing career began when she helped André Deutsch establish his company. She has worked with many notable writers, namely Philip Roth, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean Rhys and VS Naipaul. Following the publication of her memoirs, she is now hailed as an author in her own right.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is a London-based television producer and director who has made a number of documentary films for BBC TV, Channel 4 and PBS.

Tags: France, Africa

Duration: 6 minutes, 1 second

Date story recorded: January 2008

Date story went live: 23 December 2008