Sunday, 27 March 2011

Tales from Argentina – The Letter



Elizabeth Taylor’s death last week has reminded me of my cousin Janet – daughter to the Uncle John of recent stories.

When I was between the ages of 10 and 13 Mum and her brother John thought it an excellent idea to bring their two youngest offspring together.  Mum enjoyed visiting her brother during the summer holidays and the seven hour drive - in the days before motorways - was an adventure for me.  She would stay for a couple of days, then leave me behind and return to Buenos Aires. 

I always had very mixed feelings about these holidays.  I adored being anywhere near Uncle John; it was sheer heaven to be invited to accompany him in the pickup to look round the farm, and I would hop out at every field to open and close the gate.  Being told about the problems caused by lack of rain and the various pests which beset the cattle made me feel trusted and grownup, and I was glad that Janet never wanted to come – I preferred to have him to myself.

My aunt Ruth - his first wife – was kind to me, though I was nervous of her because she had a sharp tongue and they had terrible rows.  While John was devoted to the farm and the 24 hour a day responsibility it represented, she hated being confined to the country with little or no social life, and she yearned to go into town to the cinema and shops more than once a week.  This was rarely possible, and she had to content herself with sunbathing in the garden every day; she knew she was a handsome woman, and her baby blonde curly hair and blue eyes contrasted wonderfully with her permanent tan and dazzling smile.  She was also a sublimely witty person who could leave you weak and helpless with laughter, yet she could be waspish to an extraordinary degree about people.  You laughed at a hilarious yet cruel summing up of someone you both knew, yet wondered whether it would be your turn as soon as you left the room.

Janet was another story.  A year older than me, she was a freckly, button-nosed, pale-blue eyed, golden haired angel as a small child.  All who saw her fell in love with her and wanted to ‘eat her alive’, not least her mother, who doted on her and frequently broke into baby talk with her even when she was in her teens.  To say she was merely spoiled is incorrect;  the household revolved around her.  By the time I started to get to know her when I was 10 and she was 11, the spoiling had affected her disposition, and she was still prone to tantrums and slamming doors if she didn’t get her way.  Her permanent expression was a sulky one and her parents admitted from time to time that they should have indulged her less. 

We got along fine just as long as I knew my place – Janet was the hostess, I the guest, she the eldest and the Catholic with the mother-of-pearl rosary, I in the year below her scholastically (and in a different city) and an Anglican.  Her family were 'kind enough to have me to stay because we couldn’t afford holidays', we were 'the poor relations who were only too grateful to receive handouts of this sort'.  I was also envious of the fact that she spoke Portuguese because they had lived in Brazil for a few years, and I didn’t – it was something she shared with her father that I couldn’t.  It didn’t always make for a fun holiday, though I still loved going out and about with my uncle.

They had a son and another daughter ten and eight years older than Janet respectively, the former who worked in Buenos Aires and visited occasionally, and the latter, Delia, a beautiful girl with dark hair and brown eyes who taught English in the nearest city at a language institute rejoicing in the name of "Toil and Chat".  She lived in a rented flat during the week, coming home to the farm on weekends. 

Delia was the only one I felt relaxed with, and I looked forward to Friday evenings.  She and I had a corn-on-the-cob eating competition once – it was one of the crops on the farm and you only had to cross the road to pick them – and she won with 16 while I lagged behind at 14... and we both knew all about it the following day, I’m ashamed to say. 

She used to bring movie star gossip magazines for us to look at;  Janet and I started individual scrap books - we would read the gossip about our favourite stars and then cut out their pictures ready for pasting in the scrapbooks, although at this stage I hadn't seen a single film with these artists in them.

My number one actress was Hayley Mills (I was convinced I looked exactly like her...) and Janet’s was Elizabeth Taylor.  As queen of Hollywood there were plenty of snaps of her of course, and I learned from those magazines that people got married and divorced a lot in that part of the world.  There was ...

 ..Hayley Mills in In Search of the Castaways,
which later became my favourite film until it was
displaced by The Sound of Music... 

...The scandalous saga of this fascinating trio
- Elizabeth Taylor, Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds... 

...The so-say fairytale romance of
Bobby Darin and Sandra Dee... 

...The saucy stories about the affair between
Suzanne Pleshette and Troy Donahue...

...and the fibs we swallowed about
Rock Hudson and Doris Day...

...Jane Fonda as Barbarella...

...Alain Delon, the most beautiful man I'd ever seen...

...particularly when acting opposite
Romy Schneider in Sissi...

...the cool and smooth Cary Grant and Grace Kelly...

...Tony Curtis in the Ben Hur days...

...Brigitte Bardot and those lovely,
seemingly careless hairstyles...
(My father's oft repeated joke was that
her name should have been Brigitte Bar-two-dots...
I know, I know...)

...the gamine Natalie Wood and the
fabulously romantic film of the time -
Splendour in the Grass...

...not forgetting the Fab Four,
my favourite being Paul McCartney of course...

...and the gorgeous three Italians:

The pouty lips of Sofia Loren...

...The plunging necklines of Gina Lollobrigida... 

...and the impish looks of Claudia Cardinale.

There were times of course when Janet was good company; we would go horseback riding together and when not discussing these filmstars endlessly she would tell me about the Sacred Heart Catholic school she attended and how hard she had to study.  She also had an enormous collection of comics - in Spanish and Portuguese - and I was comic-starved.  Learning speech-bubble Portuguese seemed a small price to pay to double the number I could read, and Janet was only too happy to teach me what the words meant.  One year a neighbour of our age came over for tea with her guitar, providing me with a watershed moment - I fell instantly in love with the sound and longed to acquire the skill.  I did not rest until I had persuaded my parents to give me one for Christmas.  I took lessons and played it regularly and often for the next twenty years.

My cousin's overbearing traits eventually proved to be too much for me.  On a boiling hot Monday in January 1965 – I remember the date because everybody was talking about the fact that Winston Churchill had died the day before - Delia and her brother had headed back for the smoke, and I felt trapped with a cousin I seriously didn’t like and who made me feel inferior; that very morning she had been harping on yet again about how much gratitude I should be feeling towards her family. 

The rest of the summer stretched interminably before me, I wouldn’t be collected by my parents till after carnival at the end of February.  I didn’t dare tell Uncle John – he would never have indulged in tittle tattle or listened to criticism of his children.  And as for fighting back and standing up for myself - I had no idea how one went about this, no one had treated me like this before.

So I did what with hindsight was one of the most unwise things I’ve ever done.  I sat down and wrote a letter to my parents, in which I poured out my misery and begged them to come and take me home.  ‘Janet’s a spoilt brat,’ I scribbled, ‘she’s horrible to me and always gets her own way.  I hate her’. 

At which point Aunt Ruth reminded me that it was time to have our showers and put on better clothes for dinner, and would I like to go first.  So... the letter remained unfinished, inside a folder.

With my head and eyes covered in lather I suddenly heard Janet’s voice through the bathroom door.  “I saw what you wrote” she spat, “ you’re soooo rude.  I’m going to show my mother and my father, because you’re so ungrateful, after all we’ve done for you.  I don’t want to see you ever again, I hate you, I’ve always hated you.” 

My heart was pounding with terror, and I realised how indiscreet I had been.  I hardly dared come out of the bathroom, but of course I had to.  I felt foolish too, and distressed by the knowledge that Uncle John would get to hear about it.  We were all very quiet for the rest of the evening, and later when Janet and I went to bed we couldn’t help but hear the raised voices.  Uncle John said “Well, she’s right, Janet is a spoilt brat”, and Aunt Ruth “but it’s very rude of her to do that while she's staying in our house”.  I had a very bad night in the room I shared with Janet, as she continued to spit out her anger.

The letter was never sent, and slowly things got back to normal.  Neither of them spoke to me about it, and I never apologised – it was never mentioned again, and somehow I stayed on at the farm until carnival.  Recently among my mother's papers I found contemporary letters from her brother John to their mother, and when discussing his children he mentions that his youngest daughter had a sour disposition and he was aware she would have problems ahead of her due to her having been so spoilt as a child, although he conveniently blamed it all on her mother and not on himself.  He was the same with all three siblings - fond but detached.

Later that year he accepted a job as manager of a farm in the interior of Brazil, where he and his family had lived during the previous decade, so they would now be returning.  A summer or so later my parents and I travelled by car over several days to stay with them.  It was an adventure for me as I had never been to Brazil; I was mesmerised by the dazzling light, the bright colours, the brick red soil, the fragrance of the frangipani bushes, the walls of water falling from the sky every day and seeing avocados growing on trees... but Janet and I were uneasy with each other by then and we avoided one another as much as possible. 

In fact after that summer I didn’t see her again until over 10 years later in late 1977 when my English husband and I were returning from our honeymoon in Argentina and Bolivia, and we stopped off in São Paulo, Brazil for the night, to get a connecting flight the following morning.  Janet was working as an airhostess at the time, and her brother had told me at the wedding that she would very likely be on duty at the airport, as she was ground staff.  I went to the information desk for her airline and asked for her, and she emerged from an office with a look of surprise on her face. 

We talked for a quarter of an hour, during which I noticed that the contours of her face – her mouth particularly - all seemed to point downwards, as though her once sulky expression had settled into a permanent sourness.  Her smile didn’t reach her eyes, and I thought she looked disatisfied or unhappy, but that may have been my interpretation of our past together, and I could have been wrong. 

We asked her advice on which taxi to get for our hotel, and she directed us to a particular taxi rank outside the airport.  It turned out to be a special luxury taxi, the usual ones being round the other side, and we paid an astronomical fee for a very short ride.  Was it my naivety or her spite?  Probably the former, my slant was perhaps unfair.   I understand she still lives in São Paulo and cares for many cats, and I would identify with that.

Jealousy and envy made fools of us both – I wonder if we will ever be in the same place at the same time to talk about it one day.

-oOo-

Photo Finish
from Lonicera's digital archives

(Although the filmstar pictures are too hard an act to follow...)

A few pictures I like and one I don't...


I love the clouds in this one



Here's a failure - I was trying too hard to be clever.  There was an enormous contrast between the dark foliage on the left, the path and the young man, compared to the bright sunshine on the right and in the distance.  In forcing them both to come closer together I've made it obvious that it's been Photoshopped.  Oh well...it sort of looks like a drawing now, doesn't it?

Another of my favourite window views from Chepstow Castle

If you're a horse in Patagonia, gorgeous sunsets
are neither here nor there...

The corrals, Estancia Huanuluán, Patagonia

Gate over 130 years old, shearing shed, Estancia Huanuluán

A little birdie on the sand in Fuerteventura...

-oOo-

7 comments:

OneStonedCrow said...

Another great story Caroline - good stuff - your reference to Hailey Mills brought back so many memories ... I used to have such a crush on her ...

Joyful said...

Enjoyed reading your story and seeing all the old photos. Have a wonderful day.

Joyful said...

Just want to let you know that I can see the photos now (in the normal way) :-)

Lonicera said...

Thank you Graham and Joyful, and for your help with the images saga. Seeking help on Blogger I found a way to change the HTML language to make them appear, but it's fiddly, and I shall go mad if I have to do it every time. It's also happening with my other blog, so I clearly need their help (which I have requested). In my "real" life I don't know anybody who's interested in blogging unfortunately. Thanks again.
Caroline

Sandy Lee said...

Sorry it took so long to reply. Guess you got it fixed because it displays all the pictures. Some days with Blogger are worse than others. I've had to go edit my HTML sometimes when the photos got messed up. I have no idea why. I posted about 20 photos and they flipped all out of order. I should have started from scratch but kept at it. Nice post.

Vagabonde said...

Sometimes it is hard to love everyone in one’s family. I enjoyed your pictures of stars – I liked Alain Delon a lot – he certainly was eye candy!

Lonicera said...

Thanks Vagabonde - Alian Delon is one of those stars who kept their looks well into middle age, though I'm not sure about now...
Caroline

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