Department of Mathematics and Statistics

A Necessary Balance: Alec and Harry Aitken 1920-1935
P.C. Fenton

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23.   Harry; death and funeral

The Aitkens’ moved from Sycamore Terrace to 54 Braid Road on 18 December, to be closer to schools. Braid Road was a spacious house, on three floors and unfurnished. Winifred scoured the auction rooms and filled it with fine pieces at knock-down prices, which she listed in a letter to Pearl with barely concealed delight.196

Much, much later ACA confided in me that he had been really worried about the way Mother furnished the whole house at once; financially worried I mean. I thought later: did he have no say in it, could he not have been a bit firm about doing things in a more measured way? But I just know that he couldn’t; it wasn’t his nature or his way. And I can absolutely understand how Mother, after years of difficulty and constraint, illness and hardship, went to town over furnishing the first house where she had a choice – the first house of her own, it would seem, though they didn’t own it.197

On Thursday 22 March 1934 Aitken received a summons from West Park and went at once.

I was directed to Harry’s bed; I might otherwise have failed to recognise him. His cheeks were sunken to the bone with famine, for he had lost the coordination necessary for mastication; his last vehement cries of protest were made the night before – so a patient in the next bed, greatly emaciated but with no appearance whatever of insanity, told me; he was now in a torpor. Only once did he emerge from this, and that was when I spoke in his ear, “This is Alec, Alec speaking, brother Alec here.” He started up from his pillow; for perceptible seconds the pupils of his eyes took focus and sharpened on me; then he lay back and lapsed into sleep, his breathing became calm and regular and his face and limbs relaxed towards their final quietude. I knew, without confirmation from the doctor, that the end could only be a matter of two or three days.

And so, except for meal-times, I spent most of the rapidly waning hours by his bedside. He did not return to consciousness, but remained in that peaceful slumber. On the night of Thursday-Friday, March 22-23, I sat up all night in the ward. The other patients, distracted and ill, raved from time to time in their sleep. One repeated at exact intervals, in a high, remote and ventriloqual voice, “My name is Alfred Turner – my wife and daughter are perfectly respectable”; but by midnight he too had slid into sleep. A remote door opened and an official, in uniform and peaked cap, and bearing keys, entered on his round of nocturnal inspection, found that all was “normal” and quietly departed.

After he had gone the male night-nurse, whose name was Blundell, and an orderly kept themselves warm before a coal-stove in the upper end of the ward and conversed in low tone. I became cold and eventually joined them. The room was in darkness, but for the flickering gleams from the stove. Some time after 1 a.m. Blundell visited Harry and felt his feet, which were icy; and a visit at 2-45 a.m. showed that he was no longer breathing, and that his heart was silent. His brief and tortured life was ended.

The routine moved as on wheels; the official with the keys entered again and took charge. These dispositions had no place for me, nor any regard. Like a husband at a confinement, or any relative at a death, “j’ai étais pour si peu là-dedans”. I withdrew, hardly noticed, found an empty staff dining-room, and lay on a seat there, between the table and the wall, until six o’clock. My throat was by now very painful, though during the long vigils I had scarcely been aware of it.

This was now Friday. I visited the registrar at Epsom, Mr Pullenger, and an undertaker, Mr E. Longhurst, of Longhurst and Sons. Mr L-, a short-built, illiterate man, received me in his office; he took a pen and a black-edged billhead and noted details with some appearance of ceremony.
Q: “What was your brother’s religion?”
A: “Methodist, so far as I know.”
I watched his pen write “Unconserated [sic] ground”. “Unconsecrated ground” meant that, because of certain susceptibilities of a class of persons (including, doubtless, Mr L- himself), “decent burial” could not be had in the neighbourhood. The consecrated ground was reserved for those who conformed, who had a particular conformation of belief; for those of a different conformation the funeral would have to be at a general and promiscuous cemetery, Battersea Park, almost at Morden in South London. Mr L- passed to topics of swansdown pillows, of the precise quality of wood for the coffin, of handles, of permission from West Park. I had no heart to question any of these details, especially the swansdown pillows. He seemed like an agent, or auctioneer. At any rate he quickly succeeded in obtaining permission from West Park, and named the time of the funeral as Saturday morning; I was to join, near the gates of Epsom Station, at 10-45.

I think I may have visited Harry’s former New Zealand friend* [(at the bottom of the page) and almost fiancée?], Miss M.E. McIndoe, at Bourne Hall [the school at which she was working], on the Friday afternoon; or it may have been the Wednesday – my memory, clear on almost all points, is blurred a little on this one.

At 10-45 on the Saturday I met the cortège, for it seemed no less. The whole family of Longhurst appeared to be there, the short father among his tall sons, all in faultless crape, but in almost effusively good spirits. Mr E. Longhurst, the senior, welcomed me as if I were a long-lost cousin, and we set off eastward to the cemetery, several miles away. I was downcast, but not too downcast to take notice. It is a great and spacious cemetery, in which the chapel, though introduced by a long and impressive avenue of cypresses, seems generalized and merely incidental. Death had been romanticized here. The Longhursts placed the coffin on the trestle in the chapel, and a young Methodist minister – Mr Brackridge, if I recall rightly – evidently surprised at finding a solitary mourner (for the Longhursts had considerately retired) read a service; quite well, I think, with sincerity and sympathy if only I could have kept my mind on the words. Then the Longhursts entered, and not without a certain ritual dignity carried the coffin to a grave near a stone wall – it was now midday – and there, under a card marked SU2474 and next to the grave of some little girl, Harry was laid to rest. I do not remember the lowering – for my mind repudiates the falling dust – nor indeed anything except the feltered noonday sun of March falling against the wall, where a robin flitted to and fro, a symbol of life among all the apparatus of death. All was now over: the Longhursts shook my hand and invited me to enter their coach again. They swung aboard themselves, looking for a moment like firemen mounting a fire-engine. At the main road they left me, after money and a receipt had changed hands. I walked eastward towards Morden, but was soon overtaken by a helpful bus. So from Morden to King’s Cross by Underground, and then by train to Edinburgh. Most of the Easter vacation still remained.

And here I feel unable for the time being* to resume any sort of chronicle.
[(bottom of the page) *indeed for many years]198

196  WMA to Pearl, 4 May 1934.
197  MM to me, 10 Nov 1997.
198  Copy of the Memoir in MM’s hand, Centre for Research Collections, Edinburgh University Library.

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