Wednesday, 16 July 2014

A guest at my table - Ernest

I am sitting here at the kitchen table looking at a photograph of two old men, perhaps in their late seventies, early eighties. It is taken sometime in the early 1980's. It is a bright sunny day and they are both screwing up their eyes slightly and turning their heads to face the camera. The photographer is saying 'Cheese' and they are putting on a broad grin showing lots of off-white teeth. Their bodies are turned towards each other as if they have just been talking and someone holding a camera has said 'This way please.'

The two men in the photograph have snowy white hair and the kind of beaten leather suntans freckled with liver spots that says that they are men of leisure now and like to be outdoors. There is a similarity between them, something in the shape of the forehead, the hook of the nose. It says, we are related, we are brothers; though one of them is tall and gaunt and bending to the level of the smaller one. He is thicker set - solid really - and shorter, but not remotely fat in any way. I would recognise his smile anywhere for I know him very well. The other one has met me only once when I was a baby and I don't remember him at all.

The thing about this photograph that captures me the most is something about the eyes; a kind of desperation about the smile. It tells me that they are very close - they are very pleased to see each other and to be in each other's company - but also about a kind of regret and longing and a desperation to hold the moment in the palm of their hands and never let it go. They are old men now. They have been apart so much of their lives; who knows if this will be the last time that they will see each other.

The taller of the two, the one I know least well, is coming to dinner. He is a child of Edwardian times who has lived through two World Wars and many changes. He has lived much of his adult life abroad on a small Island, where he paints. We are related.

His choice to live quietly abroad is a kind of voluntary exile. He lives with another man. It is not a crime, now, in the early 1980's, but it is still subject to a quiet prejudice, reproach from older relatives and 'friends', and shame. I am amazed to realise that decriminalisation came as late as 1967. But what of the years passed by since then? How many other people - older people, in particular - chose this form of voluntary exile just so that they could live and be happy? And what of the pain that that separation inevitably brings to families everywhere - to closely-bonded brothers like these two, whose wistful smiles belie the pain they feel beneath.

I look up the meaning of exile. The dictionary tells me it is a form of punishment and solitude, 'to avoid persecution' or 'an act of shame or repentance'. There is something incredibly sad about all this. We live in a world, thank goodness, that has moved on from all this. Even in the early '80s, younger men had an easier time of it, somehow, I think. For me, it is noting what is lost by such prejudice. Time, precious time, with the people you love. And who can put a price on that?

The meal I am making for my guest is a sort of 'retro' dish  of Chicken in Cider which I first made in the early 1980's. It is a dish Ernest will recognise and appreciate, I think. We sometimes need to be reminded what has changed and what has stayed the same in order to appreciate where we are right now. It makes us more aware, I think, and reminds us not to be too complacent and oblivious to the injustices still around us.


  1. Another beautiful post, Martha...and one that resonates with own uncle (now dead) also lived a life abroad, for the very same reason. Luckily, we are still in touch with his partner- & think of him as our uncle too- but this did touch a chord. Thank you, as always x

  2. Hello Rachel, thank you for sharing your own story here. We are lucky to live in a better world, in some ways at least, but it will never undo the pain or injustices of the past. I think a great many of us have similar stories to tell in the depths of our own family histories, if we only looked.
    Take care,
    Martha x