A few years ago my great aunt gave me a little black and white photograph, in a mottled brass frame. It shows a boy in dungarees, about three or four years old, standing with his hands to his face, looking contemplative and a little sad and lonely. Yes, that’s me, I thought when she handed it over. I wondered where and when it was taken and treasured this little link to my past. A few years later my mother told me that it wasn’t in fact me, but a relation. “I didn’t want to tell you before” she said, and seeing that I looked downcast “I thought you might be a little upset”. That’s how secrets start, I thought. But in fact it’s a bit of a relief. There’s something about the child all alone with that worried look. I wonder what happened to him and if he still has that expression.
My great aunt was Polish and lived in a creaky house in Fulham, long after her husband, an artist who had survived time in a gulag, had died. I used to stay there from time to time when I was between flats. In a little self-contained apartment downstairs that had a 1960s kitchen with formica cabinets, a fridge that smelled of fridge and a cooker with a grill pan that slotted in at the top. I would go upstairs to eat with her and sit in her own little kitchen while she told me about her past and how much I looked like her brother. She was in her seventies then but she seemed much younger, and we chatted like friends. She would offer me gin and tonic in a grimy glass and cheese straws from a big square tin that were probably as old as their container. I would wander around the studio containing all my great uncle’s paintings, creaking across the shiny parquet floor and leaning down to look at the sun-faded spines of his old books, layered on shelves.
Eventually she became ill and moved somewhere she could be looked after. The house was sold and is probably a banker’s palace now, with slate bathrooms and recessed lighting. Although she died before my daughter was born, shortly before her death she gave me the gold coin she had brought with her when she first came to this country as a refugee. It was her emergency money, and she had carried it deep in her clothing. She told me it was for my daughter. Wrapped in a little cloth it still shines warmly, the eagle gazing out imperiously and proudly.