I lost my grandparents when very young, not my fault, not theirs, but unfortunate and I wish it had not been like that. However I was very fortunate to have ‘aunt’ Mary in my life. To me she was my surrogate grandmother. In my early years our relationship was not strong, but as I reached puberty we seemed to get closer, a trend which happily for me continued throughout her life right to the end when she gave me her power of attorney.
Mary lived in London, a sunny second floor flat in Fulham, west London overlooking the Bishop’s Park to the river Thames. I remember watching the University boat race from her sitting room window, mmm sweaty hunky athletic guys. Her home was filled with eclectic antiques and objets d’art, collected by her and her late husband when they were definitely out of fashion and obscenely cheap. Open an exquisite Georgian Tallboy and out would tumble crested silver forks and spoons, her linen cupboard was stuffed full with hand embroidered nineteenth century napery. Being born into a traditional Northumberland family in 1911, after-all a very different age not surprisingly her life was more than somewhat ritualised and very traditional.
The obligatory drinking of sherry before dinner was intimidating. Choosing the correct Georgian glasses from the cupboard in the dining room, putting two on a silver salver, remembering not to forget the lace doylies, filling the glasses just to the right level, and then the walk across hectares of worn red Wilton to her favourite chintz armchair in the sunny bay window overlooking the gardens trying so very hard not to let the contents spill. She would throw down the Daily Telegraph and her fountain pen, she had been doing the crossword, and she would smile up to me. I put her glass on the exquisite polished wine table next to her, and then moved sheepishly to the other armchair, slightly larger than hers, it was that of her late husband. Placing my doyley and glass on another pretty priceless table, I would wait for her to take the first sip before doing the same. We would drink two or three manzanillas, after which Alec might be described as slightly tipsy.
Our friendship strengthened, and in the 1980s I would be given a front door key and allowed to come and go as I pleased. What luck, a pied a terre that I, a guy in his early twenties could use in London, I visited whenever I could. Obviously the rituals of sherry and formality continued, and whilst I did extensively explore London, I also spent time chatting with ‘aunt Mary’ in her sunny bay window.
By now she was in her early seventies, but still fit and with a sparkle. She had reprised her interest in antiques, then so fashionable and was helping out in a couple of the antique shops below the flat and in the nearby King’s Road. In the 1980s Fulham and Chelsea were the ‘in place’ and there were many specialist antique shops owned and run by a vast gamut of guys. Mary would recount tales of exquisite pieces, of how they were discovered and to whom they were sold. Her social circle increased exponentially and she recounted of the many dinner parties held in her flat with her ‘boys’ the guys who were in the trade. Despite being very ‘Victorian’ she was also modern, one of her favourite menus being large battered plaice and chips from the chippy across the road, ok, served on the Meissen and accompanied by a crisp Chablis sourced from another of her boys, and served in Baccarat glasses, a real lady with style.
Over sherries on one visit to aunt Mary she started to tell me of Nick, one of her young friends, who she had talked of for a few years and through him got to know his mother. Nick had gone into hospital. It seemed he had been struck down suddenly and was seriously ill in Charing Cross hospital, the doctors did not exactly know what was wrong but they were very concerned. He was in an isolation ward. Needless to say aunt Mary found time to visit him. Nick died, and his death was followed by the sickness and death of so many of aunt Mary’s guy friends in the antiques business, the illness knew no social boundary, owners of the smartest chicest uber expensive shops were struck down as equally as those who ran the ‘tat’ rag and bone second hand stores, as it did the wine merchant and the lawyer. It was into that halcyon world in London that AIDS first struck, and it struck hard.
At first I was unaware exactly what it was. Aunt Mary knew long before me, and amidst the sadness of losing many many young friends she continued her hospital visits, comforted grieving partners and parents. I know she was badly affected by these tragedies, and in those early days AIDS was highly stigmatized, the gay disease, stay away, don’t touch or sympathise, but this elderly lady did, she was a regular visitor to the special wards. I remembered having met so many of these intolerably handsome Adonises, I was in love with many of them, why did they have to go, and in such a horrible way?
Roll the clock forward forty years. I am in Umbria, Italy, running a gay guest house. Since opening Bellaugello Gay Guest House, I am sure that there have been many HIV positive guys who have stayed as guests. To see them outwardly one would never know they are positive, indeed I could not point them out, but statistically they must have been here. Today thanks to much research and hard work involving many many people who have largely gone unnoticed, and of course the retro-viral treatments life with HIV is no longer a death sentence or a such a great stigma.
So I am proud to post on my blog on World AIDS Day, a day when I remember friends who have departed, and give thanks for the amazing work done by so many in developing treatments, those who fund-raise to support the cause, and most importantly of educating people of all sexual persuasions the need for safe sex. This evening, I will be downing a glass of Manzanilla and toasting late ‘aunt’ Mary and remembering how very fortunate I was to have know such a very progressive and supportive person and just how she coped in an un-stigmatising way, maintaining friendships with people living with and dying of HIV.
And to close this post on a continuing happy note an anecdote that made me chuckle:
A friend called from Australia, we chatted and he told me he is on PrEP. For those of you who don’t know pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, is a way for people who do not have HIV but who are at substantial risk of getting it to prevent HIV infection by taking a pill every day. I went to my doctor to enquire. He told me that although it is legal in many countries, here in Italy it has not been approved by the drugs administration and on account of religious sensibilities. “But if you want it ask a friend who lives in Rome to go the the Vatican pharmacy, you can get it there…..”.