And All That Jazz
written by: Angela Huskisson
Tuesday’s child has far to go. My mother Annie born strong and lusty with a good set of lungs on the morning of October 29th and nearly a century later she’s still here, still shouting.
It was the kind of day where a lot would change, and where the reverberation of this would pass around the world like a tidal wave, otherwise known as Black Tuesday. Even worse if you hadn’t seen it coming, despite the warnings, and you hadn’t made any kind of preparation. But that was my great grandfather all over.
This Tuesday’s child born as a capricious Capricorn. The year that my grandmother Millicent-Anne popped into the world, full of character, strong of body and will, and practically still a child in her head when she gave birth to my mother whom she promptly named Annie, in part after herself. Well, she’d done all the hard work after all and would now call her daughter exactly what she wished without any interference from anyone, thank you.
I suppose that you could call my grandmother a ‘society girl’ bred from good stock, luck, and a once excellent fortune. But, of course, all of that was set to change. There had been what I suppose one would have termed, a ‘shotgun wedding’ to the once highly desirable Gilbert- a raconteur and such a very obvious wow with the ladies. I am also presuming here that this teller of tales and colourful anecdotes was probably also my grandfather. Millicent-Anne, whom my mother latterly referred to as a ‘thoroughly modern Millie’ was a petite, pert blonde with a turned up nose and an oft turned down mouth (because she had been so dreadfully spoilt as a child) with a high pitched adenoidal whine to her voice which summoned her father (Harold) on every whim and fancy to dance to her outrageous requests and which he could barely ignore. He was therefore less than pleased when a wedding had to be hastily arranged to raise neither blood pressure nor eyebrows- in no particular order – from any of the close set. He was a busy man, a success, to whom money came easily in his particular line of business- that of the construction industry- and all the game changers that it could bring to a man who had already amassed a tidy fortune. He’d been through the war, the one to end all wars that is, as an officer and one might even hope a ‘gentleman’- mostly pushing paper and giving orders far enough from the battlefield to keep himself nicely safe within his skin. And then he just picked up his small fortune upon the untimely death of his own father (Reginald) who had sadly died from the Spanish ‘flu, like so many did at that time. Anyway, marching on, Harold and his wife (Ancestry couldn’t decide whether she was a Mary or a Mavis- it must have been the way it was written, but fairly inconsequential nonetheless) spawned six children, two of whom sadly didn’t make it beyond birth. The other four did however with the last one being the sassy, truculent, and extraordinarily high-maintenance Millicent-Anne who made her own very timely arrival as Mary (or Mavis) gave one final gasp and exited the world a mere five minutes into the New Year. Harold had been out celebrating and seeing the New Year in while his wife was just as busily seeing it out. He arrived home full of bonhomie and alcohol to be rudely faced with a scene of utter despair and equal devastation. The now remaining children, Arthur, Freddy and Rupert were charming whimsical little boys, artists by nature, who painted and wrote poetry in their latter years while indulging in deep conversations about the meaning of life.
Millicent-Anne unfortunately became the very thorn to their sweet roses. But they sadly lost all of their ‘meaning’ in the Second World War, as the first war hadn’t actually been the one to end all others after all.
Once Mary (Mavis) had left Harold alone and completely bereft, having shrugged off her hugely burdensome mortal coil he was able to call upon his two unmarried sisters, also known as the Maiden Aunts (or more fondly as the Ugly Sisters) to fetch, carry and pander to his suddenly motherless children. They were known as Florentina and Isobel, the only pretty things about them being their names. He was also fairly sure that they’d never be seduced by the charms of men and all was well until the complete abandon of the roaring twenties hit them both with such a bang that they cropped their hair, raised their skirts, and escaped with men of dubious means who were probably also not of good character or even slight fortune; but what the heck. Life was for living after all, and so very many had suffered from The Great War through to the pandemic where loss was sadly becoming all too much of an acceptable thing. But who actually gave a toss in the great scheme of things? This philosophy of sorts rubbed off somewhat on my grandmother who, as soon as she was able, and with no-one to control her, quickly followed suit. She threw decorum to the wind and lived her adolescence through a complete blur of parties, the Black Bottom, and everything else in between. Millicent-Anne emerged into puberty just as the clock struck midnight and she was thrown head first into that ‘decade of pure decadence’ which in itself was such sweet and perfect timing. So far so good, until the absolutely predictable happened and our ‘thoroughly modern Millie’ fell absolutely and thoroughly with child. Gilbert used to call her his little ‘Milly-an heir’ or his ‘delectable pot of gold’ none of which was lost on my grandmother as he had one eye firmly fixed on a future with maybe even a stake or three in Harold’s then burgeoning company. And heaven forbid that he might one day be expected to marry the girl with whom he was dallying, while the rest was certainly something more of a hopeful work in progress.
Just as a large and unexpected fly arrived in the ointment…
Having had no mother to guide her and a father who would never dream of broaching such indelicate subject matter with his very wayward daughter, none of this came as a surprise to anyone. And not forgetting that throughout this unfortunate mix the Maiden Aunts were possibly still ‘maiden’ and thus no help to man, beast or even poor Millie. Gilbert had thrown his hands up in despair when she had confided her very unfortunate situation upon him as it was not part of his plan of stealth thus leading to wealth. And suddenly he was thinking he could do a midnight runner before Harold possibly killed him, or challenged him to a duel or something else equally dastardly. But Millicent-Anne told her Pa and that stopped him dead in his tracks with his suitcase tight in his grip and the clasps still exuding an element of warmth. Whereupon Harold marched him straight back inside, poured him a stiff drink and made him propose to his daughter forthwith. ‘Think about the sheer scandal of it,’ was all he said as Gilbert quaffed the fiery liquid in one strong gulp while hoping that his heart could stand it (or maybe not).
And so a ‘society’ wedding was quickly arranged with Harold informing all and sundry that it had been on the cards for an ‘absolute age’, which most people within their immediate circle neither knew about nor cared. But it was, for them, a brilliant excuse for a party. In fact, anything was a brilliant excuse for an over the top party at this time, with no expense or thought spared for such a giddying Gatsby-style display of sheer outrageousness. A giant cake was thus ordered (taller than Millie). A beautiful (white?) dress, which had to be let out at the waist by several inches. A jazz band playing with gusto until first light and enough fireworks to force daylight into the darkest hours, plus, of course, enough obligatory champagne to create a small lake. So all in all it was a mighty success, but it was the next day when reality hit big. Millie wasn’t all that chuffed with Gilbert who had actually gone missing on their wedding night and was later discovered, by his best man, in flagrante delicto in the summerhouse with the Maid of Honour (who was no longer a Maid and without a shred of Honour left to her name). So when Dennis, the best man, who adored any slice of wicked gossip, sneaked this sugary little plum towards Millie all hell was let loose. Following that, she wanted no more to do with that cad Gilbert although they both now apparently inhabited the same house, albeit in different wings, whilst contemplating a divorce forthwith which Harold, naturally, had plenty of money to pay for, as well as forking out for the wedding. It was all a most unfortunate and highly inconvenient state of events.
So, when my mother arrived, a mere seven months later, as a robust 8lb 2oz newborn there could have been more than just a singular raised eyebrow, or two, but events had fortunately rearranged themselves a little too prematurely, so that the birth of baby Annie slipped quietly into the shadow of time. The world had changed as if overnight and within a few sad hours Harold was a pauper. And so the decade of debauchery was to end almost as suddenly as it had begun and when Millicent-Anne’s birthday chimed in the New on that more than fateful Year’s Eve it began to resemble the exact opposite of all that had gone before as the weight of The Great Depression made its doomed entrance.
Harold had failed to note the warning signs and by the time he had even considered the news reports in any serious kind of way, his fortune was all but gone. Now this period in time heralded the longest, deepest, and most widespread economic depression of the 20th century- so why didn’t Harold sense it coming as his personal income plummeted and where the sudden collapse of the stock market threw more than just a wild card. The Crash basically affected the entire world like a whiplash initially emanating from America. And at that very moment when baby Annie arrived to a tearful and screaming Millicent-Anne and where Harold had insisted on being ‘at home this time’, history had begun to repeat itself in an altogether slightly differently devastating manner whereby birth, once again, brought bad tidings hot on the heels of the newborn. The banks had been cleaned out after people had collected their savings in hard cash, running home to hide them under floorboards or suchlike, after queuing in fractious lines for days.
Later he would ask himself how all of this had happened, right under his very nose, and while he was so obviously distracted. This had to be the second worst disaster to ever befall to him, although if you now counted his daughter’s disastrous wedding and impending divorce, it could just be that magical number three in the great scheme of things. His fortune was busily slipping through his fingers and he had no answers and especially with his kind of business being hit the hardest of all.
When Millicent-Anne eventually raised herself from her state of ‘lying in’, she wandered into the breakfast room to find her father in tears and hardly what she would have deemed in any kind of ‘manly state’. She was so thrown by his confusion and was at a complete loss as to quite what to do, so she just sat herself down on the chaise longue to try and fully comprehend this rather awkward situation. At some point, he looked up and through clenched fists he spied her staring helplessly at him. Fortunately, there was no one else to witness this scene and all Harold muttered was, ‘We’re ruined.’ He’d always been a man of few words, so why change the habit of a lifetime. He didn’t even seem to be in the least embarrassed by the way that his daughter was now staring at him, with what one might call more than a quizzical expression. She didn’t rush over and throw her arms about him as they weren’t after all ‘that sort of a family’. Instead, they just sat and looked at each other, where no words flowed after his initial statement but where Millicent-Anne had received the message in its full and utter sobriety. After a while she changed position, decorously wrapping her morning gown around herself. With maybe mourning with a ‘u’ might have been a more appropriate use of the word here. Her breasts and abdomen had been tightly bound to encourage the cessation of milk (aided by a generous daily dollop of Epsom Salts) and to thus allow her stomach to return to its pre-pregnant state as soon as possible and to enable her to pour herself back into one of those delicate shift dresses which she so adored. A polite tap on the door forced itself into the delicacy of the moment as the nursemaid Alice entered with the sleeping baby: my mother. The room quickly released any tension therein as baby nestled happily into her mother. The nursemaid knew her place having undertaken her necessity of duty and so Annie slept long and contented with a tummy full of Cow and Gate baby milk and Millicent-Anne was more than grateful to be spared the duties she would much rather defer. Alice was thin, gaunt and looked as if she could benefit from a square meal and much less running around, my grandmother wondered at how much longer they would be able to afford her indispensable duties as Millicent-Anne knew she wouldn’t be able to cope with preparing feeds and managing dirty nappies, the like of which left her in search of the nearest smelling salts.
A few days later Harold and his daughter faced each other across yet another breakfast time, aware that neither of them had actually deemed to face the problem which filled every space, but was still un-named except for the word ‘ruin’. The ever-ethereal boys had grown into delicate young men who were simply of no use at all and without a single grounded bone in any of their beautiful bodies as Harold wondered as to where they had sprung. He mused that it must be Mary (Mavis’s) side of the family as they were most frightfully odd, to say the least. Collectively, all three boys were busy writing a poem of Longfellow proportions which they called ‘The Death of Almost Everything’. Must have got wind of something then, thought Harold in an idle moment- of which there were now far too many. He also mused at how the only earthed one of his children just happened to be female.
‘I’ve been thinking…’ began my grandmother, knowing she would have to choose her words with care. ‘…That Gilbert is our only hope.’
As if on cue Harold looked up from his devilled kidneys with a somewhat quizzical expression. ‘Gilbert?’ Millicent-Anne fancied a question mark hanging in a Punch-style cartoon bubble somewhere above his head.
‘Yes, Gilbert. It would save on the divorce proceedings and after all, I am still married to him.’ Harold pondered slightly on this, ‘And?’ Another question, another bubble.
‘And, realistically, divorce is only for the wealthy.’
‘Which we are now not,’ answered Harold, nodding his agreement, unsure about having anything more to do with that scoundrel Gilbert who now lived alone (except for his butler) in the East Wing of the house everyone scrupulously avoided each other whether it be in the house or the grounds. And with the only raison d’être being that of saving face.
There was an extended inhalation of breath from my grandmother as she prepared herself to deliver her well-prepared sentence, ‘Gilbert has made a decision to go into politics, make something of a career out of it,’ she paused, imbibed a protracted sip of tea. ‘He rather fancies his chances with Ramsey McDonald.’
Harold’s reaction was completely expected. ‘The PM. In a Labour government.’
‘Well, he’ll never get my vote.’
In more ways than one, thought my grandmother. At that moment it was more than just The Great Depression which began to settle on Harold who was now both heavy of heart as well as head.
A bit later she said, ‘We are rather going to have to depend on Gilbert you know, if you want to hang onto any of this.’ Her eyes and hand swept around the room as the words settled on Harold with their own force.
Harold sighed then because he knew that his fate was sealed and thus sat itself somewhat uncomfortably within Gilbert’s grasp.
‘Oh, and it rather slipped my mind, what with one thing and another, but Gilbert has recently come into some money. Quite a lot actually.’
‘In the middle of a Crash and he comes into money?’ asked Harold with a sardonic edge to his voice. ‘And dare I ask how?’ His mind raced headlong towards some kind of skulduggery and possible underhand deals. But Millicent-Anne offered her sweetest of smiles and simply said, ‘His Great Aunt Mimi.’
‘I didn’t even know he had an Aunt Mimi, since when?’
‘Since forever or he wouldn’t have inherited her money would he?’
Harold couldn’t dispute this, but it was certainly news to him.
The Grandfather clock in the hallway slowly struck the hour as Harold folded his newspaper with meticulous care while at the same time allowing his daughter’s words to settle with full weight and gravity with regard to all of their futures. Straightening himself up he replied, ‘Divorce is such a dirty word after all,’ as he proceeded to exit the room.
So, Gilbert did rather save the day, with Millicent-Anne accepting a half-baked apology (of sorts) from him and he then being allowed the comfort of the marital bed, under her strictest terms and conditions. The house was then signed over to him with the caveat that Harold would live out the rest of his days, wanting for nothing and in his own home, with the sound knowledge that he would not be consigned to the ‘poor house’ under any circumstance whatsoever. Gilbert made a good show of his political career, albeit a short one, relying on his natural wit and flamboyant nature to carry him through the next few years or so. He also relied on his matinee idol good looks, with their passing resemblance to those of Clark Gable, until they too began to fade and he started to lose both his vigour and form. My mother Annie remembers such little of those days, just fragments from a much bigger picture, so together we weave the stories which help to create us as a family from anecdotes passed down and where those ‘Roaring Twenties’ fired up so much, but which also included such loss and the way that one thing leads naturally to another and nothing really stands on its own. Harold died an old man, Millicent-Anne as an elderly lady, and with dear Arthur, Freddy, and Rupert taking barely a sniff into middle age. And what of Gilbert you might ask? Well, he sort of disappeared into the ether at the age of forty-four, never to be seen again, and search as we have there is no record of his activity (not one single trace on Wikipedia).
Sleep well my mad, crazed, wonderful family. Tempus Fugit.
Tuesday’s children indeed; where would we be without them?
- And All That Jazz - May 20, 2023