Repeat It Today With Tears

Anne Peile
was born in London; she has lived in the South West and Belfast and worked as a cook, writing emails for the BBC and in educational support. She lives on a houseboat and works for Foyle’s bookstores.



Repeat it today with tears

Anne Peile


A complete catalogue record for this book can be obtained from the British Library on request


The right of Anne Peile to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988


Copyright © 2010 Anne Peile


The characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, dead or alive, is coincidental and not intended by the author.


All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher.


First published in 2010 by Serpent’s Tail,
an imprint of Profile Books Ltd
3A Exmouth House
Pine Street
London EC1R 0JH


ISBN 978 184668 7464


Designed and typeset by
[email protected]
Printed and bound in Great Britain by Clays, Bungay, Suffolk


10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1



I’m Tad

For my father



he first time I kissed my father on the mouth it was the Easter holiday. A chill clear spring afternoon, the trees still black twigs and a lemon glaze on the white cloud sky. The room looked down upon Phene Street, a small quiet road in Chelsea.

Through the window I had been watching the dog from the Phene Arms, overweight as pub dogs tend to be, rummaging in a garden hedge. Sensing that I was so close to joy, even the heedless dog seemed a toy, a comedic charm staged expressly for my amusement. I watched it for a moment longer, and then I stepped forward and kissed my father on his lovely mouth.

It was a wide mouth but the lips themselves, beneath the modelled philtrum, were thin and pressed, especially so the top one, as if he were frequently angry or displeased or feeling pain. Perhaps because he had once drunk heavily but nowadays did not.

The kiss was of such bliss that even in the moment of its ending, as there was only air between us again, I had acknowledged and accepted that I could never have another like it. I could say that it was an attar of kisses, worth taking even just for once in a life. The Devil is not ungenerous when he makes you a bargain.

My father merely turned away and said, ‘Oh, Christ.’ In other
circumstances a thought might have flitted across my mind, a spindly stick of anxiety that he had not liked my kiss and that was why he had said, ‘Oh, Christ.’ It did not though; in none of this did I ever know any doubt.

His back towards me, he stood in front of the painting desk, his long rangy body and the shoulders slightly stooped. On the desk were laid out the inks for an illustration he was finishing, it was a vignette of a landscape with hills, a commission for the
Radio Times

In my head there was a self-sufficient triumph, a very quiet and sure triumph for one who was not yet seventeen.

‘I’ll go now,’ I said, to the length of his penitent’s back and his bowed, ashamed head. His hair was falling forwards, it was the colour of unpolished brass. I could see that his fingers with their beautiful half moon cuticles – which I had not inherited – were pressed upon the edge of the desk.

‘See you then,’ I said. I closed the door as on a sleeping person and walked down the three flights of stairs from the room in Oakley Street and felt that I was filled with grace.

I should explain our history, until that day in Chelsea in 1972. Mine more so, because he was only there at the beginning and at the end.

My father, Jack, John ap Rhys Owen, was born in South Wales in 1916. His father was a mining engineer; the family owned the town colliery and much of the town itself. They were wealthy and comfortable although his mother mourned in perpetuity for the daughter named Ora who had died. My father was indulged and a ne’er-do-well in youth. Discreetly expelled from Clifton College, he dallied with this pursuit and that, never settling to anything, spending freely, and drinking heavily.

In the late 1930s, the health of both parents in decline, the family left Wales for ever and moved to a mansion flat in Finchley Road. My father, contrite and remorseful in his hangovers, would buy his mother little boxes of coloured Kunzle cakes to tempt her to eat. Perhaps also to please her, he announced his engagement to one of the girls from the crowd with whom he went to jazz clubs and to Skindles on Monkey Island and for weekends at Brooklands racing circuit. She was small and blonde, I believe. They married in August 1939 and my father joined the Navy on the day that war broke out. During the war his parents died, within weeks of each other. He, serving on the Arctic convoys, was unable to attend either bedside or funeral. It was during the war also that he discovered that he could paint. He went from demob to the Slade.

The only photograph I ever saw of him was taken at about this time. In it he is standing by the wide doorway of a building, a museum or gallery perhaps. He wears a jersey with his shirt collar out over it, a jacket which must have been tweed, and a scarf. His features then were almost delicate, fine in his long thin face; he looks towards the photographer with tolerant contempt. From his mouth it is not clear whether he was about to be cruel or humorous. Even though the photograph is black and white, you would know that his eyes were blue.

Something about him in the photograph is very English. My mother remarked that his family were never proper Welsh, that it was all just affectation, with the name and everything. We never shared his name. In the time that she and my father were together he did not establish that the Brooklands wife, encouraged by her parents, had been granted a divorce in his absence.

‘He couldn’t be bothered,’ my mother told me. ‘Of course, it would have been different if we’d had a son. If one of you had been a boy he would have tried a lot harder.’

In a mews behind Belgrave Square there was a pub called the Star Tavern. In the post-war years it was a place of great celebrity. Milling and thronging in its bars were film stars and embassy people, lawyers and artists, writers and racehorse trainers and Sunday paper gossip columnists; all of them held in the thrall of the hollering Irish charisma, with its charm, oaths, insults and divinity, of the landlord, Paddy Kennedy.

My mother worked in a government office in Belgrave Square. She and her colleagues called in at the Star, as a scene of entertainment, before their tube or buses. One evening she took a drunken Jack back to her room for scrambled eggs. It became habitual. When my sister was born in 1950 my mother pretended to be married with a brass curtain ring. People in the office sent her to Coventry, she said.

At the Slade they thought Jack very good. For the first time in his life he showed application, they had asked him to stay on and teach a class. He and my mother lived in furnished rooms in Clapham on very little money; in the evenings she had no wish to drink cider and talk of Samuel Palmer. Jack began to stay away from home increasingly; my sister always maintained that she remembered nothing of his presence. He secured commissions to travel and illustrate for Shell guides. My mother took to writing to a man she had met during the war, an agronomist working for the Australian government. It seemed that back in 1946 he had made her an unconditional offer of marriage but, at that date, she had been unwilling to commit to emigration.

There must, however, have been some brief and intermittent rapprochements with Jack. I was born in June of 1955. My mother told me that she spent Christmas Day of 1954 in a hot bath drinking gin. When she found that she could not shift me she went to stay with her mother in Whitstable. I was born in a dim bedroom with lithographs of Canterbury’s Westgate and
Bell Harry Tower upon the walls.

My father must have seen me once when I was a newborn infant, before I had a name. They summoned him to the little bungalow and he arrived, drunk, in the taxi hired out by Mr Dunk’s garage. He was told that my mother was going to Australia and to let that be an end of it.

The agronomist in Australia developed acute myeloid leukaemia. A sister of his cabled from Canberra to tell my mother when he was gone. My mother took us back to Clapham. It happened that she was a favourite of the landlord, a little wizened man with cycle clips and a belted gabardine. All day long he cycled the quiet South London streets between the Commons, inspecting his many properties and collecting his rents. He found us a proper maisonette; many others were less fortunate in the postwar dearth of housing stock.

My mother began looking for employment, remarking that it was a shame that my sister and I were the wrong generation for her to have been widowed in the war. A lot of women got away with that one, she said. She found a job in a post office in a parade of shops not far from Clapham Common. She was good at figures, she enjoyed balancing columns in red and black and all the attendant paraphernalia; the bobbled rubber thimbles for counting notes, snapping bulldog clips and date stamps to bang down hard on order books. It must have been comfortably predictable and methodical for her, after Jack as he was in those days.

In the long school holidays my sister and I were sent to stay with our grandmother. My sister made friends there with facility; she was always out and about, one year even spending a great deal of time with the road gang who were laying tarmac on the lane to Silk’s shop. My sister’s name was Belinda but my mother said that it had been his choice and shortened it so that she was
always Linny or Lin. My grandmother disliked me but favoured Lin, dressing her hair with huge white ribbon bows and telling her that she was dainty and helping her to make cross-stitched tray cloths from a material called binker. Me she criticised for being plump and clumsy. When I tried to make amends by refusing cake from the stand on the tea table she would snap, ‘I can’t think why you’re so fat, you never eat anything.’

When my grandmother recognised that I was able at English she softened towards me to the extent that we read poetry together, she would pause at the end of a verse to draw on a cigarette left resting in the ashtray of Benares brass. Her choice of poems was invariably melancholy, Ralph Hodgson’s ‘The Bull’, ‘The Forsaken Merman’, another one addressed to a bulldog whose master would never come home from the Great War.

My grandmother had always been a statuesque woman, standing on her dignity in the square neck costumes with dress clips that she had worn since the ’forties. But in the summer that I was twelve I saw that she had lost weight rapidly. It became apparent to me that she was bleeding from inside, I wished not to have realised this symptom. Her remarks were more spiteful and unkind, even to Lin, although my sister appeared either not to notice or to care. For her there were men and boys everywhere. Lin exuded sexuality; she had been what my mother called ‘bosomy’ for years, now she seemed swollen by sex, not just in her breasts but in her hips and her parted lips which she made rough by chewing them. There was a sex smell that came from her too, not least from the top of her head. The odour from her pillows filled the air of our bedroom. The only concern that seemed to trouble Lin was the greasy condition of her hair, several times a day she puffed it despairingly with a little bottle of dry shampoo. In a magazine she had read that washing only made it worse.

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