I am the great-grandson of a Finnish bigamist.
Hetty’s daughter told me: that’s how I know. Thanks to Hetty, that’s all I know.
Hetty was my mother’s sister. Evelina, Hedwig, and Gudrun: three sisters. I knew them as Evie, Hetty and Mam. Evie and Hetty were part of my childhood. (‘Aunty Evie and Aunty Hetty to you, young man.’) The whole family lived within a few streets near the dockyards and often helped Mam with childcare. Evelina, Hedwig, and Gudrun were not Sunderland names. They had Swedish ancestors. It was a matter for pride.
Evie lived with her mother all her life. She made jerseys for me and, until I was thirteen, I liked them. She was an expert knitter. She did complicated Fair Isle patterns in bright colours. She could do cable stitch and rattle off a cricket pullover without using a pattern. She knitted constantly, usually with a novel propped in front of her.
Hetty lived with Uncle Gregor, a taciturn chap who wore colourful jerseys. He kept budgies. He only had one at a time, but there was always a budgie in the house and it was always called Peter. Gregor taught the birds to speak. He would stand by the cage saying ‘Pretty Peter, Pretty Peter’ until the bird responded. Once Peter got the basics, Gregor would become ambitious: ‘Daddy’s taking some pennies to go to the shops to buy some birdseed for Peter.’ He had little time for visitors.
‘He calls all his birds Peter: too lazy to think of new names,’ Dad explained. ‘Gregor likes them to talk so he always gets male birds. It’s not like people, where women do all the talking.’ Mam gave him a dirty look.
I once asked Dad why Gregor never spoke to us. ‘He’s a Swede. Miserable lot, the Swedes. Always miserable, like your Mam. Except when they’ve got their dander up. Oooh, yes! It’s better to keep them miserable, on the whole.’
Forty years later, when Hetty died, I discovered that the sisters had Finnish blood, as well as Swedish. Though Gregor really was a Swede.
‘Why are Swedes miserable?’
‘Long, dark winters. You mustn’t tell your Mam I said that. You’ll only make her miserable. Or she’ll play war.’ Dad winked. He liked to explain things, even things that baffled him. And some explanations were not to be passed on. They came with ‘mustn’t tell your Mam’ warnings. Conversations in our family were about people telling each other things they mustn’t tell each other.
Anyway, Hetty was the middle sister, two years younger than Evie, eleven years older than Mam. Evie never married, had no children of her own. She was only interested in knitting and reading. (As a teenager, I discovered her books were quite racy.)
Hetty was a formidable woman. That’s what Dad said. Evie said: ‘Your Dad tried to court Hetty, but when Hetty caught Gregor, your Dad had to settle for Gudrun. Your dad was too old for your Mam, really. Mind you, you musn’t tell anyone I said that.’
I remember Hetty taking me to the shops once. I was about seven and for some reason Mam had left me with Hetty. I knew Hetty well. She was always good to me, but stern, so was on my best behaviour. She took me to Jopling’s, the biggest shop in Sunderland. We had lunch in Jopling’s café.
After beef pie, I asked for semolina. The waitress was surprised and concerned.
‘Oh, no! You don’t want semolina. We’ve lots of nice things to eat.’ She was a thin girl, quite young, with a gentle voice. Perhaps she disliked semolina herself.
‘Don’t you tell him what he doesn’t want!’ Hetty snapped. ‘If the lad wants semolina it’s your job to bring him semolina, not argue about it!’ The waitress slunk away. ‘Silly girl. Doesn’t know how to deal with customers. No tip for her.’
Had I ordered the wrong thing? I felt a rush of queasiness. Maybe I was mixing semolina up with slimy sago? Sago made me feel ill. I realised that I would have to eat it now, whatever it was that came. In the face of Hetty’s anger I began to fret. I hadn’t done anything wrong, but trouble was brewing. I tried to remember the different puddings. Should I have asked for tapioca? Hetty could make grown-ups cringe, so what chance did I stand?
When the pudding came it was semolina, which I liked. It had currants in. There were lots of currants, not just the half-dozen I got as an occasional treat at home.
As we approached the store’s exit we passed a little crowd. A salesgirl was shepherding people into the group. ‘You’ll see lovely, unbreakable cups and plates.’
Hetty pushed to the front. ‘Let the lad see.’
A small, smiling man in a grey suit tapped two plates together, proving they were unbreakable. They made a dry, clicking noise, like Evie’s knitting needles. He said you could drop them on the floor and they wouldn’t break. (Why would anyone want to drop plates on the floor? Had his Mam never told him: ‘be careful with those dishes?’)
He wore a bow tie, which fascinated me. I’d only seen one bow tie before, the one Dr. Jowett wore. This tie was clean. Was this man a doctor too? Did Dr. Jowett sometimes sell cups and plates? But this man was smiling at everyone, and Dr. Jowett never smiled.
Hetty’s voice axed through the patter: ‘Unbreakable, eh? Give us a look.’
Dr. Bow-tie offered a pair of cups. Hetty took one and he let me take the other. It was bright yellow on the outside and white on the inside. (I liked yellow, but not with white on the inside. It had no design. Proper cups have a design. Is it the design that makes them breakable?) Hetty examined her cup closely, like Mam checking I’d washed my hands.
Suddenly Hetty raised her arm high and hurled the cup at the polished floor. She was a strong woman, taller and broader than Dr. Bow-tie, and she threw it with all her might. Dr. Bow-tie’s mouth dropped open, his eyes wide. He was the opposite of the Cheshire Cat: his body was still there but the smile had gone without trace. The crowd leaned back, staring as the cup bounced high off the floor and rebounded off the ceiling. Hetty pushed Dr. Bow-tie aside to catch the cup on its way down.
She scrutinised the cup again, very closely. She dangled it by her ear and tapped it sharply with the metal point of her brolly. It pinged. She handed it to Dr. Bow-tie.
‘All right,’ she said, ‘it’s un-breakable. But it’s Bakelite. Cheap, foreign rubbish.’ She’d had her say and now she left, pushing through chattering onlookers, relying on me to follow in her wake, bearing my cup like a trophy.
She’d said ‘foreign’. Did she mean not-English or not-Swedish? She could have meant not-Finnish, because Hetty knew about the bigamist even then. She hadn’t told anyone, except her daughter, and she’d told her daughter she mustn’t tell anyone.
I was mightily impressed by this incident. Back home for tea, I told Mam and Dad about it, showing them my cup.
‘She’s descended from berserkers,’ said Dad. ‘It didn’t infect your Mam or Aunty Evie, so Aunty Hetty got a triple dose.’
‘What’s a berserker?’
Dad explained: ‘Berserkers are a kind of Viking. Warriors dressed up as bears. They wear bear skin from a big bear they’ve killed with their own bare hands. They work themselves up into a mad rage, and use a big axe to kill loads of people.’ (Berserkers sounded horrible. I liked bears. Berserkers didn’t sound impressive just frightening.) ‘It’s all part of being Swedish …’
Dad looked set to go on, but Mam cut him off. ‘That’s enough. Hetty had no right. She’ll give the lad ideas.’ She glared at me, as if I already had designs on her dishes.
Mam was good at anger. Perhaps she had been infected like Hetty.
After Hetty died, her daughter told me about the Finnish bigamist, the little she knew. She said: ‘You mustn’t tell Evie or your Mam. They’d go berserk.’
If the sisters were Finnish, not just Swedish, would that be better or worse? Sibelius was a Finn. Finnish music calms berserk rages? Or does Sibelius drive people into berserk rages and finish them off? If they can invade Sunderland, seducing sweet Swedish girls into bigamous marriages, Finns must be very bad.
The interesting bit was how Hetty got a letter from the Finnish embassy. And how she destroyed the evidence.
But I mustn’t tell you about that.
Someone might hear.