Displaying Those Family Photos
In the distant past before AirBnB, when I used to visit London more regularly, I used an agency which organised bed and breakfast with the well-to-do who had fallen on hard times and had to make a crust by offering accommodation. So it was that I came to stay with a host who lived off Manchester Square. The arrangements for entry to this mansion block were on the clandestine side - I was forbidden to use the bell and had to arrive at a precise time. I soon found out why. I was ushered through the gloom of the entry hall by the shadowy figure of an old lady gesturing urgently from her flat doorway. She pulled me inside wordlessly and closed the door.
“I’m not supposed to be doing this. It’s against the rules!” she hissed.
I was intrigued and even more so when I when she led me into her living room. It was furnished in that mode of shabby chic which is the speciality of the bourgeoisie. The walls, however, were lined with works of art which were clearly not Athena poster reproductions. They looked seriously good. But it was the photograph over her fireplace that most caught my eye. It portrayed a man perhaps in his thirties, seated at a desk, pen in hand. The 1940s décor and accoutrements placed it in history, but what was most striking about this photo was the fact that its subject was dressed in Nazi military uniform. Was it the SS or the Wehrmacht? I can’t remember.
We chatted over tea and biscuits. She must have been in her 80s, with what sounded like a mitteleuropean accent. Mostly she talked about the lease on her flat which was coming to an end. She was furious that it was not to be renewed and had hatched a cunning plan to frustrate her landlord – a plan which, if I followed its many twists and turns correctly, involved her own death. This account took many detours from which I deduced that she was a member of some kind of Carpathian noble family who had fled their estate on the communist takeover after the war.
She had obviously clocked my interest in her art and launched into the story of how she had managed to get it out of – was it Rumania or Yugoslavia somewhere? She had been blocked by the authorities at every turn.
“Well, what would you have done?” she asked triumphantly at one point.
I tried to look like a man who would have had several solutions to the problem. But she pressed on regardless.
“Well, it’s obvious!” she cried. “I gave them to the British ambassador and told him to send them in the diplomatic bag!”
Of course. She had clearly had impeccable connections.
I stayed listening as long as I thought polite before going out to eat. She was a wildly entertaining talker. When she let me out the following morning I had to leave as furtively as I had arrived.
That photograph stuck in my mind but it was not until a year or two later that a newspaper obituary caught my eye. The Countess so-and-so of somewhere. Bit by bit as I read I realised it was her. Much of what I had surmised turned out to be roughly correct. And she had indeed been a bit dotty in that aristocratic way. Apparently, if you were invited by her for dinner you always got exactly the same pasta meal which she went out and bought at Waitrose, microwaved and served up.
Even better, that photo figured. Her husband had indeed been a high-ranking officer in German military intelligence. He had also been a British agent. That is how they got to the UK after the war. Nonetheless, to display the photograph on the fireplace was an act of some bravura. Your eye swivelled towards it the moment you entered the room. It was both distraction and focus. Now I wish I had grasped the nettle and asked her about it. Would she have told me that he had been a spy? Would I have believed her? These are murky waters after all. But is that not why we display family photographs: so that questions may be asked of us?
If I had asked I can’t help thinking that I would have closed some kind of circuit: the photograph would have served its purpose. She would have launched unstoppably into another stream of history and I am sure I would have been fascinated. She was a charming old lady and the photograph was another way to charm her visitors. I really should have asked.