To a young boy, it's all relative

'Is Auntie Mabel switched on?" "I'll check.... Yes, she is." I imagine every family speaks in code sometimes. But I suspect Auntie Mabel must have puzzled a few of our visitors. We knew what we meant, though. "Auntie Mabel" was a hot plate residing on the dining room sideboard. It (she?) was a dullish metal rectangular object with cabriole legs. Today this useful thing might be a candidate for an exhibition of 1930s domestic design, not because it was particularly distinguished as design, but because it belonged to that period.

I think it was called Mabel. Or was it Muriel, or Gracie? It was definitely an Auntie (she really existed), although I'm not sure why it was named after her. Perhaps it was her wedding present to Mum and Dad. Perhaps she had made some quaint auntish remark about it. The point was that such things belonged to a time before my arrival, and they were among those aspects of family life that were never entirely explained to me.

I have no recollection of ever having met Auntie Mabel or Muriel or Gracie. I have vague memories of some rather imposing female relations of auntlike demeanor at the tea table, but that's about it. Every year at Christmas a gift or two - a handkerchief or lavender soap - would mysteriously appear for my mother from one of them.

Part of this mystery was due to the fact that my father had been married before. His first wife, the mother of my two older half-brothers, Derek and Brian, had died, and these were her relations. But much of what was past was quite firmly kept in the past in our family.

Oddly, I don't seem to recall hearing of uncles much on that side of the family. But there was"Peter," and there were the trunks in the attic containing a lion and a tiger - or was it a leopard? These fascinated me. Below the neck they were rugs - just pelts - while above it they were stuffed animal heads. They were hunting trophies, and came from India, I think. Why we stored them in our attic is beyond me.

Peter was not in a trunk in the attic. But I connected this absent personage distinctly with those trunks. Maybe they also contained some of his stuff. I think Peter was a young man about the age of my half-brothers. I can't remember meeting him, but I nevertheless was convinced he was extremely thin and dark-haired. Was he away at the war, as Derek and Brian were? I have no idea. All I know is that Peter had lived in our house at some point.

I suspect he stayed with us when his parents were abroad. In India perhaps? Was his father the hunter of the wild animals? Was his father in the British Army in India?

The "unknown" relations in this particular branch of our family were not the only ones. There was a bunch of them in New Zealand. My father's father and his family had emigrated there. At some point my dad had returned to Britain. His brother Leslie had also eventually come back. As far as I was concerned, New Zealand might as well have been a distant planet and that's where the remaining members of that side of the family stayed. So although I knew my dad typed occasional letters to my Uncle Eric, I had never met him. And my grandmother I never knew at all. There were New Zealand cousins, one of whom I did meet when he visited us later on with his wife. I think I was secretly surprised he didn't look much like a Maori warrior.

Another source of Christmas gifts was my mother's cousin, Noel. I don't remember what she sent my mother, but every year without fail my Dad received a small round pot of "The Gentleman's Relish" - or in Latin, Patum Peperium - a paste made of anchovies. To me there was a great mystique about this. So much stranger than the socks most people seemed to feel my Dad would like. Clearly in Noel's mind, this was an ideal present for a gentleman. Dad smiled enigmatically every year, as if to say "Ah, Noel again." I am uncertain whether he liked anchovies more - or less - than socks, given their difference in purpose.

But Noel became a known factor when we moved from Yorkshire to Surrey. Outspoken, brusque, she was what is generally known as "a character." I suspect she knew it, too. She had been personal maid to the Duchess of ---. On Noel's retirement, the duchess had settled her in a rose-smothered cottage.

The cottage was rent-free, but had strings attached: She had to serve afternoon teas to daytrippers who came to see the Blue Pool, limpid and indeed a weird blue color. These trippers were "the enemy," and Noel did her utmost to pretend she was never at home, hiding behind the rambling roses and the curtains.

Knock on her door, and you might well be snapped at. But when she discovered it was you, and not "them," she was garrulous and affable. I enjoyed visiting her and her antiques. She even gave me a Victorian cast-iron garden seat one time, which we still have, though now it needs new wooden slats. The old ones have rotted away.

But sometime I will replace them, and we will sit outside on a fine day and have afternoon tea. The toast will be spread with Patum Peperium. And we will relish it while we reminisce about relatives we knew and relatives we didn't.

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