BERNARD Part 2 (from Ribbentrop's Chair)
‘“Of course, you do your best to destroy each other without knowing it,” said Georgia … far from being an indictment, the comment merely acknowledges the latent fear that exists on both sides of any close and demanding relationship – which is the fear of the dissolution of self, the threat of destruction that lies beneath a powerful love.” (Roxana Robinson: Georgia O’Keeffe – A Life)
I still miss my father.
It’s a cruel biological flaw we are born with and have to bear all our lives: this longing for those we’ve lost. Raw as an oyster, we wrap the wound in time and distance. The longing becomes a deeply embedded reminder of something vital that was once part of us.
But his spirit is strong. His candle burns for days.
After nearly 20 years’ absence, Bernard returned to the country of his birth.
During the war stories of his exploits had been shared by three beautiful women: his mother’s youngest sister Connie, her best friend Bessie Victor and Bessie’s young sister Rosalind.
Connie peered around the door, black eyes blazing, “He’s coming back!” she whispered, then finding her voice she screeched, “Bernie’s coming back to England! He’ll be here on TUESDAY!”
Connie and Phil’s dark, dormant house in Kensal Rise came back to life with a great sigh. Blackout curtains were flung open to the sun, grime cleared from the windows, linen shaken out and the cat shooed into the garden. Connie’s legendary feather-light macaroons floated in formation along the hall, hovered briefly in the parlour and landed in perfect pyramids on the dresser. The air was soft with the scent of almonds. Phil (Connie’s husband) and Lionel (her resident brother – Phil’s best friend, who’d even accompanied Phil and Connie on their honeymoon) were suited and booted, and with a gentle babble like the rush of water into a bottle The Victors and Avadises; parents, uncles, aunts and cousins, poured into the house, eager to welcome Bernard home.
Although Rosalind had dreamed of someone with the looks of Stuart Granger and the physical grace of Gene Kelly, and although the moment he walked in it was clear Bernard possessed none of these attributes, she wasn’t disappointed. This thin, balding, rather shabby young man, skin burnished by years of work on the land, intrigued and fascinated her. Not handsome, but with generous features, a deep sonorous voice and great animal vitality, he captured her within minutes of their meeting. He had large, piercing eyes the colour of the sea and spoke the perfect English of one who had just re-learned the language. Bernard graciously embraced and greeted each and every member of his family and the family who would soon be his, before drawing Rosalind aside and disappearing with her into the discreet shade of the overgrown garden.
After that day he wrote her an eloquent, passionate letter every morning and they met every evening. After two weeks he proposed – and she accepted.
Once back in London Bernard was finally free to pursue the career he had always wanted. He enrolled at college for a diploma in Fashion Design and set to, industriously. He was a naturally gifted student with an obsession for detail, and graduated with distinction within a year.
As a designer Bernard played his part in the renaissance that pulsed through Europe after the war. An enthusiastic exponent of the “New Look”, his designs celebrated the corseted wasp-waist, full skirts and colourful fabrics now available and – because of the move from haut couture to pret a porter – more affordable.
And he married Rosalind – a talented milliner from a genteel but impoverished family of Moldovan immigrants living in Portobello Road.
My mother was tiny, effervescent and coquettish. My father celebrated his bride by painting her as a symbol of victory and hope - in a dress of many flags representing a united post-war world.
His parents did not approve of the marriage.
Before the war Rosalind had been apprenticed to Elsa Schiaparelli in her London boutique, but Bernard considered it his duty to be the breadwinner: a benign assassin, he snuffed out her promising career and any idea she harboured of having one. He took her hands and danced her into a life more ordinary.
They moved to Yorkshire and Bernard worked as the lead fashion designer for the firm John Barron, where he created Fashion Sport, an innovative brand of clothing for women under 5’ 2” inspired by his wife’s petite frame. The range featured cinch-waisted peplum jackets and pencil skirts and was sold all over the country.
They had three children. I came first, followed two years later by Jackie and 12 years after that by our baby brother Laurie.
Dad travelled regularly to and from Paris, sketching the seasonal collections, gathering ideas for the English market. On each trip he brought back dolls dressed in the latest fashions for Jackie and I. When we were too old for dolls we packed them away in shoe boxes but, unwrapping them many years later, we discovered with dismay that their rubber bodies had perished, leaving nothing but their clothes. All style and no substance.
Dad organised fashion shows to showcase his designs. There he stood, microphone in hand, our Olivier of the catwalk, describing each outfit in deep, seductive tones; “And here comes Josephine in a cocktail dress of orange tulle. Note the way the skirt swings as she moves.”
In fact Bernard , son of Mordechai, son of Abraham, possessed magical powers: transforming everything he touched. We lived in a small 1930s bungalow on a steep site. Dad terraced the land around the house and planted a productive vegetable garden at the back and a rockery at the front, riotous with alpine flowers. His passion for horticulture was rewarded with 2nd prize for the best garden in Leeds… and his obsession with interior decorating was expressed in the constantly changing appearance of our home. Every wall of every room was a different colour.
Dad furnished our house in avant garde style: G Plan furniture, Roger Capron ceramics, abstract French prints, much to the entertainment of our Yorkshire neighbours. And he dressed his daughters in Young Jaeger, much to the amusement of our schoolfriends and our discomfort at being marked out as hoity toity.
Mum had eccentric, theatrical friends who from time to time trooped through our living room. Irving Kaye, who could play the violin and whistle simultaneously, would stand in front of the fireplace and play “Simonetta”. Mum’s friend Betty, who looked like Ava Gardner but lived above a chemist’s shop with her husband Bob, had once been a chorus girl and impressed us by kicking up her incredibly long fishnet-stockinged legs and touching her knees with her nose.
Our parents took us to the theatre to see The Merry Widow: “Vilia, oh Vilia, the witch of the wood!” and Iolanthe (with fairies!), to the circus to see the fabulous Cairoli Brothers, and to Leeds City Varieties to see a tableaux of naked people painted pale green imitating the figures on a Greek vase; holding their breath so that none of their bits stirred. On a family trip to Paris we saw the Bluebell Girls: more boobs and high-kicks.
On Saturdays Mum went to town, returning hours later with large bags full of guilty pleasures from Lewis’s: the soot-blackened citadel of earthly delights still standing after bombs had obliterated much of central Leeds. In her absence we stood well back, laughing, while Dad fried eggs for lunch by throwing them into boiling oil along with the chips.
Early on Sunday mornings I’d walk with Dad through the park to the green-tiled kosher deli to choose a pickled cucumber from a barrel of brine and a lobe of smoked cod’s roe from the counter, where they were lined up like little pink babies. Later we’d all go to the pub and, after her pint of Guinness, frogmarch Mum, giggling, all the way home.
Some summer weekends we went on long hikes to Ikley and climbed the Cow and Calf with bare feet.
Dad spoke like an Englishman but continued to eat, dress and flirt like a Frenchman all his life. He wore a yellow silk cravat, beige beret, and sandals with socks. He had a favourite yellow jumper which he wore until his elbows poked through. He ate raw onion sandwiches. He rolled his own cigarettes using a little Rizla machine that he kept on the bedside cabinet - next to Mum’s Photoplay magazines - and packets of cigarette papers that he kept in the top drawer along with his packets of Durex. (Jackie and I investigated all of these items thoroughly).
I remember our father singing in the bath, his rich baritone echoing around the house, and the tobacco floating in the toilet after he’d had a secret smoke. And his ballroom dancing – he taught us the Quickstep, Cha Cha, Bebop and Swing. We balanced on his big feet as he shuffled round the room humming to the sound of Edmundo Ross and his Orchestra.
Although Dad’s talent for mimicry and clowning could reduce a room of people to tears of laughter, he also suffered, from time to time, from acute anxiety. Every time he went out he locked and unlocked and locked the door several times to make sure the house was safe. He could be either reckless or ponderous, depending on the weather. These, and many other aspects of his personality eventually drove our mother to distraction.
Mum complained that Dad had the advantage of a better education and made her feel stupid in company. He complained that she wore her mother and sister on her shoulder like parrots and couldn’t make her own decisions. And that she loved her brothers more than she loved him. And that she couldn’t cook to save her life. She complained that he spent more than he earned. And that he spoke French in front of her when he knew she couldn’t understand. And that he snored like a road drill. And that he smoked in the toilet. And that he flirted with all his models. Most of these accusations were true.
And then the world fell apart. In 1961, soon after the arrival of our parents’ long-awaited son, Dad lost his job. An American company took over John Barron, keeping no one on. Dad spiralled into despair: fashion was in his blood; it was the way he and his father and grandfather had supported their families and proven themselves to the world. He felt he had failed everyone.
Reeling from the sharp shock of redundancy and the shame of homelessness, he and his family were suddenly thrown into the arms of Mum’s kind, patrician brothers. We were unceremoniously uprooted and replanted in London, where the five of us lived for a year in an overcrowded house with my grandmother, uncle, aunt, and cousins. As we were penniless my mother’s brothers tided us over. Dad mistook their sympathy for condescension and never forgave them for their generosity. His own father was still working, and didn’t offer him a job. A distant cousin who owned a department store in Regents Street interviewed him, kept his portfolio and showed him the door.
Dad struggled to regain his dignity. The most horrific moment of a battle is when a soldier gives up the fight and accepts his fate – and he was determined that would never happen. He worked as a French teacher, a tourist guide, a book keeper in a betting shop and a nighttime telephonist for the International Telephone Exchange (he could converse in five languages), often going without sleep. And he bought a big house beyond his means.
Over the next ten years he came home trembling with exhaustion. He suffered from dark depressions. He was an old man before his time. I remember him silently hunched over his spade in the garden for days on end. He forgot he had a wife and daughters who loved him and a son who needed him: a little boy on a bike with his father’s eyes and hair the colour of sun-struck corn.
He continued to smoke heavily, which weakened his lungs, and one terrible evening when we were talking on the landing looked at me with surprise, keeled over and died.
Our mother was inconsolable. We hadn’t realised how much she had loved him – and neither had she.
My father died way too young. I wish I had said to him while he was still alive: try to look ahead. Look into the eyes of your children. Try and imagine our children and their children (yes, you have great grandchildren now!) Weave stories about them. Visit them in your dreams. Think of the branches of your family spreading out into the future. Let them touch the branches of others. See how many children inherit your joie de vivre, your expressive hands, the timbre of your voice. Your face will appear again and again many generations from now, centuries from now, when the sky still looks the same, the ocean, the forest. Hands will still feel warm, hearts will still beat. Nothing is ever lost.