BY AMANDA CUMMINS
My father’s paternal grandfather, born in 1828, was married not once or twice but thrice. With prodigious issue.
His first two wives were young ladies from Barbados, a place he visited during his service as a surgeon in the Royal Navy. Both these brides were from “old Bajan families”.
Inevitably, they were cousins. Both died young. My great-grandfather returned to County Cork following the death of his second wife, and there he married for the third time. Dad’s father, my grandfather, was the fourth child of that marriage. There was a considerable gap between the birth of great-grandpapa’s first child and the last.
This threw up the anomaly that someone of my father’s age did not share a grandfather-in-common but, instead, would share a great-grandfather with me.
Complicated, or what?
The wives and children of the first two marriages paved the way for the cousinship which creates another strand in the gossamer thread which attaches me to the West Indies.
In effect, if you are “related” – however tenuously – to one family you are related to everybody. Not just on one island. The cousinship stretches north and south in the Caribbean. And there are those who possess an encyclopaedic grasp of the intricacies, the nuances, of The Family.
Debretts? Burke’s Peerage? The Almanac de Gotha? None of these are a patch on the ladies of a certain age, the dowagers, who – at the drop of a hat – could tell you who married whom in, say, 1729.
Cousin Sheila was one such walking encyclopaedia.
Moments before I left my cottage in Warwickshire for a 3-week trip to Barbados, which already included a memorial service for a close family friend, the phone rang. It was my mother, phoning to say she and Dad had heard that Cousin Sheila had died. Her funeral was in 3 days’ time, at the church in Holetown.
I have to admit to a screech of “MUMMEEEEEEE”. (I regret to say that this was not a moment in which I was consumed with grief about my father’s elderly cousin having died, but what-the-hell-do-I-wear? Unlike members of the Royal Family, my going abroad wardrobe does not include black or even navy blue. I couldn’t conjure up something to shove into my suitcase!)
Someone made a helpful suggestion. I could probably buy something when I got to Barbados and, anyway, what was I wearing for Harry’s memorial service at the end of the week? I said that the family (I was staying with his widow) had said no mourning and the brighter colours the better.
Faintly panicky, my first morning in Barbados was spent on a shopping mission.
Shopping in desperation in the heat is not a good idea. I spent hours in Bridgetown, trying to find something, anything, that fitted the brief. Hopeless. Impossible.
We gave up and went to the Yacht Club for lunch and a swim. Where one of the far-distant cousins, part of the dowagers’ coven, was ensconced at a table beneath the trees on the beach, enveloped in a “bathing dress” and with a turban creation atop what was seemed newly-coiffed hair.
She imagined, she said, that I was in Barbados for Cousin Sheila’s funeral. Did I know that family members from Trinidad were travelling to Barbados for the service?
I gave up trying to solve the wardrobe problem, deciding that attending the service was more important than what I was wearing. I would wear the one and only dress I had packed. Okay, it was pink. But, on the plus side, it was silk. And demure, with a high neck and elbow-length sleeves. Rather smart. Who knows why I had packed it.
I set forth for Cousin Sheila’s funeral. In pink. Physically and literally. A combination of sun and embarrassment. However, Cousin Sheila loved a Good Frock. Pink silk would have to do.
The church was packed. Clothes at funerals are taken very seriously in the West Indies. Deepest, darkest mourning. Pantone shades of mourning. Black and white linen seemed popular. And there were hats. I walked in, mustering as much confidence as I could find.
The well-upholstered head undertaker – resplendent in tails, and with a serious inventory of heavy gold jewellery festooning his person – asked me, somewhat incredulously, if I was member of the family. Upon hearing that, yes, I supposed I was, he suggested I sit behind a pillar. In a corner of the church which nobody could see.
I slunk into my corner. And watched. While trying to be invisible. Pink silk? Shorts and a t-shirt might have been less conspicuous. You silly, silly girl. The church was Cecil Beaton’s Ascot scene in My Fair Lady.
Then we went on to another church for the interment, the church in which my great-grandfather had been married at his first wedding. Even more embarrassingly, I was overcome with terrible, nervy giggles.
Despite his best endeavours, the well-upholstered undertaker could not find a place to hide me. There was a hydraulic gizmo for lowering the coffin which got stuck and groaned. I started to wheeze in sympathy. A friend kicked my ankle as she could see I was borderline outright laughing.
As I left the churchyard, I saw one of the Trinidad cousins. What you might call the Senior Cousin. I braved the throng and went up to say hello. He looked me up and down. A pause. A pause longer than is usual.
“I see that ‘no flowers’ doesn’t extend to you.”
Quite a good joke, really.
Well, I think it was a joke.