The drive down to her parents’ house in Dorset was a slow one. For three hours Sasha drove behind Volvos filled with kids waving from the rear window, and elderly drivers in the left hand lane of the M3. She had lunch at Blandford Forum and arrived mid-afternoon.
Gilbert and Anna Waresley were in the garden dead-heading roses, both wearing ridiculous hats.
“Hello darling! Was the traffic ghastly?”
Sasha knew that meant her mother thought she was late. She nodded, not wanting to mention the hangover she was still nursing, and succumbed to her mother’s thin arms, almost choking from a liberal dose of Christian Dior’s Dolce Vita. Her father waited his turn.
“Hello Sash. Look at you.” Dressed in gardening clothes which wouldn’t look out of a place on a Guy Fawkes dummy, he beamed at her. Any interruption was welcome. Her father detested gardening as much as her mother loved it, but like everything since their retirement, they did it together. “Come on, it must be five o’clock somewhere. Let’s have a drink.”
They went through to the conservatory at the back where tea was usually served. Gilbert, however, was having none of it and poured gin and tonics, generous on the gin.
“You’re a sight for sore eyes.”
“How are things at uni, darling?” Anna arranged her features into a face that appeared interested but Sasha knew that her mother was bewildered by her choice of subject.
“Good, mum. It’s getting really interesting.”
“I’ve not quite grasped what cultural studies actually means.”
“Mum, we’ve been through this. We cover politics, sociology, media theory, cultural anthropology…”
“And what are you going to do with that young lady? Can you teach?”
Sasha shifted in her chair. “I don’t want to teach.”
“Of course, you don’t Sash. You’re a doer. I for one want to know what you’re up to. Ignore your mother, she has no poetry in her soul.”
Anna smiled at her husband and stayed quiet.
“I need to interview a mature person about their life. Obviously it has to be as interesting as possible. It’s a fabulous challenge, especially if I’m going to be a writer but I’ve drawn a blank on who I could write about.” Sasha’s face dropped for a moment. “What have you guys been up to?”
“Oh, the usual. Appearing to be sweet natured pensioners while knocking off the odd visitor and burying them in the garden.”
“Never mind him, darling. I’m feeling a bit giddy after all that gin. What say we have dinner early?”
So many of Sasha’s friends hated going home for weekends, complaining about feeling claustrophobic under their parents love and their transparent way of living their lives through their off-spring. Anna and Gilbert were both strong characters. They loved her dearly but they had their own lives.
“What about Julia?” Gilbert had a mouth full of meat. Sasha and her mother waited while he finished chewing.
“Julia? Wouldn’t she be perfect?”
“Aunt Julia? The elderly grey-haired spinster woman?”
Anna laughed. “She may be old but she has lived, my girl.”
“I hope you don’t shock easily, Sash.”
It was a month later, as the air cooled and leaves changed colour silently on the trees that Sasha followed Aunt Julia’s instructions on how to find her flat. A Victorian house divided into apartments, just off the Chiswick High Road with a communal front door displaying a line of labeled door bells. Sasha pushed the one marked Julia Cadogan. It was some minutes before the door opened. Sasha noted that the old woman had walked down two flights of stairs using a walking stick. She followed her back up to her flat, Julia silent in response to Sasha’s nervous chatter. She wasn’t her real aunt, Julia was an old friend of her parents. Her hair had turned white but it was still worn elegantly pinned at her neck. Sasha remembered seeing her one evening whilst staying at her parents’ house, sitting on the guest bed, combing a river of silver hair which reached beyond her waist.
Julia walked shakily through the door of her home and using her stick, pointed to an armchair. “Tea?”
“That would be lovely, Aunt Julia. Do you want me to make it?”
A withering stare answered her question. “I may be old but I manage to look after myself. If you let others help, you lose your abilities. I need to keep all my muscles taut, especially this one.” Her free hand tapped her temple. She was dressed in black as if in mourning and although thin, did not look frail.
Whilst Julia moved about in her small kitchen, Sasha took out her notebook and glanced around the apartment. Every wall was painted a bright colour; vermillion, peacock blue, orange and what looked like William Morris wallpaper, gold leaves on a burgundy background. She was pleased to see several floor to ceiling shelves crammed full of books. Paintings signed by C P Lawrence hung against this vibrant backdrop, mostly nudes with a few of a young woman dressed in a black, a black shirt as it turned out.
Julia appeared with a tray, she had dispensed with the stick. She put the tray down on the dark wood coffee table in front of Sasha.
“I only need the blasted stick for the stairs.” She sat in the armchair to the left of Sasha. The early afternoon sun shone through the window, obscuring Julia’s face, framing her hair in the light.
“Don’t worry child, I won’t bite. Lapsang souchong?” Sasha nodded. “What do you want to know?”
“I have been asked to interview a mature person, who has lived an interesting life for part of my cultural studies degree.”
“And you thought of me?” Julia sat back in her chair, clutching her tea cup with a look on her face Sasha couldn’t place. Was it scorn or amusement? Sasha cleared her throat. “Mum and Dad suggested you. I don’t know much about you, to be honest.” Sasha’s face reddened. “They said you were a fascist.” To anyone else this would be an insult, maybe even to Julia.
“I am a fascist, girl. I’m not dead yet.”
Sasha thought back to the conversation she’d had with her parents a few weeks ago.
“A fascist! How the hell did you meet a fascist?”
Anna placed her wine glass over a gravy stain on the tablecloth. “We were on the tube, traveling from Richmond to Liverpool Street.”
“No, dear, we lived in Barnes then and we were going to Blackfriars.”
“Who’s telling this story, Gilbert? And when has accuracy been necessary in a good story?”
“I want the truth, Mum.”
“The bits I can’t remember, I’ll make up. Not the important bits, of course, I always remember those. Anyway, we were sitting opposite a woman, middle aged but very elegant. Her hair was swept up into a chignon and she held an un-lit cigarette, waving it around and chatting to a bunch of unsavoury looking youths.”
Sasha’s father took over. “They were skin heads, the real McCoy. Shaven heads, high-waisted jeans worn half-mast over Dr Marten boots, braces over their t-shirts. Quite obviously BNP.”
“They were National Front in those days, Gilbert. They were listening to Julia, completely swept up in her charm. They asked her back to their flat in Bethnal Green to show her their Nazi memorabilia.”
“And she was quite keen to go. Even though we didn’t know her, we had to intervene.”
“How did you stop her?”
“We had tickets for an experimental theatre in Liverpool Street.”
“What’s an experimental theatre?”
Anna stifled a laugh. “The actors were naked, darling. Your father gave his ticket to Julia.”
“Julia loves a bit of nudity, even over entertaining a mob of skinheads.”
“And they were happy for her to go?”
“Julia insisted they exchange telephone numbers of course, never passed up an opportunity to talk shop. I don’t know whether she followed it up.
“What did you do, Dad?”
“I waited in the coffee shop across the road.”
“We joined him for doughnuts afterwards.”
“So, Julia, were you born or created?” It was a risk but Sasha felt Julia wouldn’t respond to Bourgeois questions. Julia chuckled darkly.
“Very good, dear. I was born in 1918, in London, at the end of a very messy war. Between the wars, as it turned out to be, was a promiscuous time, as if we knew it was the last hurrah.”
“What about you? Did you meet anyone interesting?”
Julia laughed, a strangled noise collecting at the back of her throat. “Oh, yes, I met someone. At a party in London, in the late 1930s. Cedric, my lover, was an artist and strongly right wing. He believed that if Marxism ever took off in England then it would be the end of us. The Bolshevik’s were a fearsome breed and Cedric was an idealist. I was 19 when I started posing for him. Do you mind if I smoke?”
“Sasha shook her head, not wanting to interrupt the flow as she struggled to keep up her notes.
“There was more social freedom, of course, higher hemlines than the previous generation, higher life, higher ideals. Cedric had heard from friends of the Italian prime minister who was one of the key figures in something called Fascism.
“Of course.” Julia put out her cigarette and closed her eyes for a moment. “He had previously been involved in the Marxist movement but he had a change of heart after a spell in the military. He studied the works of Plato and Nietzsche, among others, which formed the basis for Fascism. You heard of Nietzsche, Sasha?”
“Not one of my favourite philosophers, God is dead as an excuse to behave immorally.”
Julia smiled. “I like him for just that reason. Mussolini wanted to raise Italy up to the levels of its great Roman past. It was very exciting. And then in 1932 when the BUF was created by Oswald Mosley, we had our own movement in England.” Julia paused and Sasha watched her. She had the look of someone who had discovered religion not rejected it. A light shone behind her eyes making her appear younger.
Sasha knew about the British Union of Fascists, they were anti-communist and racist, protecting their own race, as they saw it. Copying Mussolini, they wore the all black uniform.
“We always clashed with the Communists and the Jews but when the Black Shirts stepped in and removed the hecklers using force at the Olympia rally, let’s just say it didn’t go down well.”
“But you weren’t there, you were too young. Strong-arm tactics lost the election. They were bullies, even then. How can racism and anti-Semitism be right? 20 million people lost their lives, surely you can see how evil that was?”
“It was to protect the purity of race. Mussolini didn’t believe in a perfect race, he felt we were already tainted but Hitler really believed we could wipe out the mistakes of the past and start again, shiny and new.”
“You make it sound like an informed choice, it wasn’t. Hitler, Mussolini, Mosley, all monsters!”
“But Sasha, it was an informed choice. We were nearly elected. Diana Mitford, part of British aristocracy, married Mosley. Prince Edward and his new wife were sympathisers.” Julia laughed. “I loved her. The Princes’ American wife.”
“I still don’t see…” I still don’t see why my parents befriended you, thought Sasha and she had said so the last time she had visited them.
“Sash, whatever Julia was isn’t relevant anymore. There have been many people with high ideals throughout history, who have been manipulated by wicked leaders and dictators. It’s not Julia’s role to take the blame for all that loss.” Gilbert’s face was serious for once.
“She’s very proud, darling, but she’s not bad. That bloody lover of hers should have shouldered a lot of the blame. Her parents refused to see her, she hasn’t had anything like family in her adult life. But she’s always had a place here, in our house. It was the right thing to do.” Sasha wasn’t so sure.
Julia was starting to tire, her lined face appeared to slip further down her cheek bones.
“One can make anything plausible if it you present it in the right light. The 30’s were a very political time, war on the horizon. We needed strong leaders. Today our leaders are weak, fat and self-satisfied. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, what sort of examples are they to our young? Margaret Thatcher, now there was a leader.”
Thatcher was hardly a memory for Sasha and was an old woman herself now. She knew that the Iron Lady had few sympathisers among her parents generation, although maybe some who wouldn’t admit support now had put their cross in the Tories box way back then.
“You’re confusing bullying with strength.”
“I kept diaries.”
A gnawing sensation passed through Sasha’s insides, of both desire and disgust. Desire to see those diaries, she was under no illusion as to the value of them, and disgust for the madness they would be filled with. What else could explain the exclusion and worse, of so many innocent people? To protect the race, what about Jews, blacks, homosexuals, gypsies? Even writers were robbed of their voice.
Sasha planted a dutiful goodbye kiss on Julia’s furrowed cheek. “You look tired, I’ll go. What happened to Cedric?”
“He went back to his wife. He wasn’t as strong as I had hoped.”
With two forces alive in her belly, Sasha drove back to campus. This was wrong, her cheeks were aflame as if she were guilty of Julia’s past. Her stomach churned as if she were infected with sores of shame. She still longed to see those diaries, what was the matter with her? Reading them could only make her feel worse. It would be best to let them die with the old woman than poison her own mind.
One of the last things Aunt Julia had said to her had been about Mussolini’s death. Italian partisans had found him and his mistress and shot them by Lake Como. Their bodies were taken to Milan where they were hung by their feet with piano wire in Piazza Loreto for all to see. Italy rejoiced, over 400,000 Italians had died because of this man. So much for protection, so much for leadership.
Months later Sasha picked up the phone, it was her mother to tell her that Julia had died. Sasha didn’t go to the funeral and after she had handed in her assignment, she tried not to think of Julia at all.
The following summer, sitting in the garden at her parents’ house, her mother handed her a blue ceramic urn and a note.
“Not Aunt Julia’s ashes?”
“Read the note.” Her mother urged.
Sasha slowly extracted a piece of flimsy paper from its envelope. Julia had addressed the note to her.
“I never wanted anyone to read my diaries, I hadn’t even considered it until I met you. I want to thank you for the most interesting afternoon I’ve had in years. I don’t have many friends still living now, apart from your dear parents who took me under their wing, despite my ideals. Don’t blame them for this. And although I may pick at the scab of Fascism from time to time, not even I wish to open up old wounds. Our ideals caused suffering. I have made many mistakes in my life and most of them are here in my diaries. They would make a great record of a terrible time but here is what is left of them. You won’t have to read them now. Better dead than read, darling. Be good. Julia.”
Sasha wiped away a tear. “Why did she leave this to me? I want to forget her. I can’t feel fondness for someone with such terrible beliefs”
But when Sasha got back to London she placed the ashes of Julia’s words on her desk. She wasn’t sure why and she meant to throw them out. But as the weeks passed, putting distance between time and her uncomfortable memories, Sasha thought that perhaps the academic views of Julia’s idealism were not part of Fascism itself. Maybe it wasn’t so clear cut. Could Sasha have respect for Julia and not for her beliefs? After all, her parents had been kind enough to see through that black shirt to the heart of a gutsy woman. She left the urn where it was, for now