My great aunt

I never really had a grandmother growing up. One had died when I was small, one lived in Canada and was hardly spoken of. But I had my great-aunt, and she was enough. She was Miss Margaret Murray, to most of her acquaintance: she worked for forty years in the Department of Labour, voted Conservative most of her life, read the Daily Telegraph, and retired to live with her widowed mother. She went to the local Presbyterian Church on Sundays and grew roses in her garden.


I knew her as Aunt Margaret, a dry, elderly, retired civil servant, who provided us with old-fashioned boiled sweets and invited us for tea at weekends: we would eat cake and homemade scones and watch Doctor Who.


I didn't notice that she also taught us how to play Whist and Seven-Up and other card games, though she carefully instructed us that we must only ever play cards for matchsticks, not for money.


She was my mother's aunt, and my mother, I realised later, was a little afraid of her. No other adult in our lives would have been allowed to teach us how to bet on cards, even for matchsticks.


When I discovered I was a lesbian, and told my mother, she was emphatic: I must not ever tell Aunt Margaret. Aunt Margaret, said my mother, wouldn't be able to cope: she would have a heart-attack or a stroke. My mother, I realised, wasn't coping too well herself with the discovery that her eldest daughter was one of those people: it is a problem that homophobic parents have, when they find out that a child they love as dearly as anything else in the world, is one of the people they loathe and fear. This is painful for the lesbian daughter, of course, as I know from experience: but it is also a terribly painful dilemma for the homophobic mother. However, this story is not about my mother. I didn't tell Aunt Margaret for some years, because I loved her very much and didn't want her to have a stroke or a heart attack.


After I left home, I kept on visiting my great-aunt at weekends: we'd have tea and scones and talk. She asked occasionally about boyfriends and I'd bite my tongue and evade the question. She'd listen politely as I talked about computer programming, science fiction, and politics based on being a devout Guardian reader: I'd listen politely as she talked about rose gardening, Westerns - she liked a good gunfight at the O.K. Corral -and politics based on being a devout Telegraph reader. She stopped voting Conservative when Margaret Thatcher started closing down perfectly good NHS hospitals in Scotland.


She still voted, of course. She'd voted in every election since 1929.


She always reminded me, and my sister, and her niece, my mother, to remember to vote whenever there was an election. I asked my brother once, did he get those reminding phone calls? No, he said: and my father said he didn't either. She was born in 1908, my great-aunt: the first general election she could vote in, was the first eleciton in the UK where women voted on the same terms as men. For her, the struggle for the right to vote was the political battle of her youth. For her, getting women out to vote was what women did.


I was unemployed after I left school, living in a shared flat, and claiming housing benefit. Then I got a part-time job. My great-aunt invited me round to tea the first Friday after my first pay-slip, and as I looked tired and depressed, she asked me what was wrong? I told her: I'm still entitled to some help with my rent, because I'm only working part-time. But the NHS gave me a handwritten payslip, because they haven't yet got me on to their computer system, and the DHSS say they won't accept that as proof of my pay so they'll cut my housing benefit completely and I can come back next month and re-apply, and I don't know what I'm going to do about paying the rent for this month.


She must have asked me for a few more details: I was too tired and too depressed for concealment: and on Monday morning, approximately two hours after the first post was delivered, I got a phone call. The man introduced himself as a civil servant in the Housing Benefit department, and explained that there had been a misunderstanding over my payslip: it was perfectly acceptable evidence of my pay per month, and I would get the proportional Housing Benefit I was entitled to, just as usual. I thanked him, quite bewildered but very relieved.


And then he said "And would you please tell Miss Murray that everything's all right now?"


When I asked my great-aunt what she'd said, she smirked, and wouldn't tell me: but she admitted that after I'd left on Friday night, she'd written a letter, using all her forty-year civil service experience to phrase it just right, and nipped out down the road to drop it in the post box in time for the evening collection. I estimated afterward that the rocket she dropped on somebody's desk took less than two hours to get my housing benefit reinstated. "It's just a matter of knowing what to say and who to say it to."


I had a story published, a few years after that, my first professional publication in an anthology published by Polygon Press: And Thus Will I Truly Sing. I wanted to show it to my great-aunt, and I was by now fairly convinced my mother was wrong about her having a heart-attack or a stroke: but I didn't tell my mother I was going to. I showed her the book: she read the title, and then underneath it, "an anthology of Scottish lesbian and gay fiction" - "Jane," she asked, "what are you doing in a book with these people?"


"Well," I said: "I am one of those people."


"You're not!" she said.


"I am."


She didn't have a heart-attack: she didn't have a stroke. She got up and collected a packet of Epsom salts and went out into the garden and killed aphids around her roses for a while, while I sat in her living-room and wondered what she was going to say when she came back.


What she said was, "Let's have tea," and we did, with scones, and the only change was that she never asked me about boyfriends again. She kept the book: my mother found it on her bedroom shelves after she died, and gave it back to me.


A few years later still, I had just moved into a flat shared with two other women about my age, and acquired a second cat. My first cat had formal permission from the landlords: my second cat, a rescue kitten, I'd just planned on hand-waving past the authorities on the assumption that permission for one meant permission for two.


The landlord, a veterinary lecturer at Dick Vets, paid one of his unannounced inspections on Saturday morning. Complained we hadn't done the dishes, and when my new kitten walked into the kitchen, offered to have her put down.


I was visiting my great-aunt for tea that afternoon. I told her about our landlord. She didn't take his threat to have my kitten put down very seriously, but when I told her that we didn't like him visiting unannounced on Saturday mornings, where he'd complain if the kitchen wasn't immaculate but never told us when or if he'd turn up - he had his own front door key, a legacy of an affair he'd had with a preceding tenant (one of my co-tenants also worked at Dick Vets and had told us about this).


My great-aunt's eyes lit up. Bright blue with rage.


"His wife is also your landlord?" she checked. She was: she'd done all of the work of finding the tenants, apart from the one who worked at Dick Vets.


"You call her up. Her, not him. And you tell her that you'd like him to call first, because you don't like him arriving first thing Saturday morning when you're all in your skivvies." She rapped the table, emphatically. "You tell her that, and I'd be surprised if he does it again."


I did just as she suggested. And he never did it again.


My great-aunt: climbed Ben Nevis twice. Worked for forty years in the Department of Labour, getting employers to make the necessary adaptations to their workplace so that they could hire employees with disabilities. Snorted with fury at Conservative objections to the cost of mandatory public building adaptations. Fierce, small, undaunted.


My great-aunt: a rebel. I miss her so much.


rebellious great-aunt, memories