My cousin Belinda, with whom I spent huge amounts of my childhood, died suddenly last week. She was part of the fabric of my life.
While many people approve of the saying, "God made our relatives, thank God we can make our own friends", I have a different perspective. I thank God for giving me relatives, as the bond between my relatives and me seems to me more durable and often more truthful than the bond of many of my friendships. Additionally, precisely because my cousins haven't been chosen by me from my own private bubble, but are mostly people who have quite different outlooks from mine and who lead lives quite different from my own, they broaden my horizons. My life is enriched through being in contact with them.
And I'm especially grateful that I was given Belinda as a cousin, because I know she would never in the normal course of events have chosen me as her friend - I wasn't very good at riding, I was rather serious and gloomy, and I was younger by almost two years. Yet she was stuck with me and somehow between us, though neither of us would normally be soppy enough to admit it, an unlikely but deep and lasting bond was formed.
My childhood memories of Belinda are almost exclusively in horse related settings. She was a skinny little girl with buck teeth who lived almost constantly in jodhpurs and blue aertex shirts. She had a wonderful Welsh mountain pony called Charlie who was so reliable that at the final stop during a dressing-up race at a gymkhana when I, to Belinda's shame in front of her pony club colleagues, leapt on in great haste and realised too late that I was facing backwards, Charlie cantered genially to the next stop, without blinking an eye. Charlie's replacement after years of solid service was a skewbald called Harlequin and, making up the numbers was a huge bay hunter called Trilee. She belonged to my aunt, Belinda's mother, but, before the arrival of Harlequin, when I was staying, I would ride Charlie and Belinda would ride her mother's horse.
If the weather was good - that is to say, if it wasn't actually pouring - Belinda and I could be found either at the stables, attending to the ponies with dandy brushes, currycombs, hoof picks and all the other things that transformed grooming from the mere process of brushing a horse into a recondite art which only initiates could practice, or riding through the shady Hampshire lanes, or hurtling across fields, often, if Trilee was involved, not entirely in control.
There were also winter dawns when an enormous truck would arrive and the horses would be loaded, ready to be taken to a meet of the local hunt. Not that I was anywhere near brave enough to go hunting. I was a total amateur, while Belinda was fearless and rode like the wind.
If the weather was bad we would either pore over books about the Spanish Riding School or a treasured volume called Horses of the World or play with the greatest toys ever made, Julip ponies, which could only be bought from one place, a small shop in Beauchamp Place in London. They had manes and tails of real hair and tiny exquisite saddles and bridles and rugs. They had owners, but their faces and features were never as carefully rendered as those of the horses themselves - which was exactly as it should be.
The horses were handmade from some kind of rubber that, sadly, perishes. As a result, Belinda and I each discovered years later when we went to find our beautiful toys, planning to hand them on to our children, that our much loved horses had turned into rather revolting, misshapen objects that would only terrify a child.
Away from both live and toy horses, we were capable of other pastimes. At granny's, after one visit when our brothers, having tricked us into believing they would play horses with us, instead tied us both to a tree with our skipping ropes, we learned to divert our attention from equine things. Instead we would head either to the compost heap, where we spent astonishing amounts of times imagining the dead flowers we found there were ballet dancers, or to a little bridge over the river Itchen, which ran along the bottom of granny's garden, where we spent whole afternoons playing pooh sticks. Talk about simpler times.
In Trebetherick, in Cornwall, where Belinda's parents had a holiday place, I remember running round and round the house, imagining we were in some complicated adventure involving the kidnap and rescue of Cattie, Belinda's beloved companion, a small oddly shaped and frankly fairly hideous thing that appeared to have been fashioned from a knitted string dishcloth - I doubt if there was ever a more underserving object of affection. And of course there were races up Brae Hill, and trips to the beach at Daymer Bay or Greenaway - but only after the grown ups had amused themselves by getting Belinda to mention her Wed Wubba Wing at least half a dozen times, (she never was able to say R).
In her early teens, while practising dressage in a field where no one would easily hear her, Belinda fell from Harlequin when he shied at something. Terrifyingly her foot caught in the stirrup and she was dragged for some time. In the end, a man in the next field turned off his tractor and heard her screams, but by that time she needed to go to hospital, where she spent quite some time. When she came out, horses had lost their charm.
Around the same era, Belinda started to come to stay at our house in London. She was always absurdly excited by being in the city. Each year we would go together to Olympia to visit the Daily Mail Boys' and Girls' Exhibition, which was actually a complete swiz, full of stalls selling total trash, with just one or two gimmicks, such as the chance to see a Dalek, to attract the crowds. Somehow we had a great deal of fun there all the same. We saved up our pocket money for it and we spent masses on the most hopelessly stupid things. I suppose the worst of our universally dreadful purchases was the can of spray-on hair colour which turned out to be a kind of pink paintlike substance that dissolved much of the hair on which it landed. The highlight of all our annual visits was seeing inside a Dalek.
After my mother returned to her native Australia and took me with her, I saw less of Belinda for a while, although we always met up in London when I came back to see my father - we would go to a film, (most notably, we saw Cabaret and Fellini's Roma together) and afterwards to whatever was the latest London fad, eg The Great American Disaster
When Belinda finished school, she was sent off to learn something called Speedwriting, so that she could become part of that now long gone but at the time thriving species, the hilariously hopeless female secretary. As spelling was very much not Belinda's strong suit, she found it extremely difficult to read back her misspelt shortenings of already misspelt words. I don't know how it came about but an unsuspecting military historian was her first client. She went off to his house in Carlyle Square each day and took pages and pages of Speedwriting notes as he dictated his forthcoming book. When she had typed these up, she presented him with a manuscript in which he set out his theory that Napoleon's initial successes were the result of a combination of heavy duty candelabra (cannon), huge numbers of sausages (soldiers) and the skilful deployment of large bananas (battalions) across the battlefield. She wasn't asked back to Carlyle Square, but other work was always available. I remember visiting her in an office near Fenwicks, where her only role seemed to be to make her bosses laugh. It was a gentler age, before the advent of management consultancies - although luckily for everyone Belinda did eventually find a vocation more suitable to her talents when she discovered the craft of gilding.
When I came back to Britain and decided to live in London, Belinda was quite extraordinarily hospitable to me. She slotted me into her social life as if I'd always been there and any time that she was having people for dinner or a party - often - it didn't seem occur to her that I shouldn't come along. Although some of the people I met through her would not pass muster in today's woke culture - (a man known as the Groper who always wore a purple rubber glove springs to mind) - I am overall endlessly grateful to her. My life in London could have been extremely lonely, had it not been for her kindness
Which is not to say that Belinda was an old softie by any means. Like all of my family, including me, she was extremely impatient. Which was why, when she mentioned that she was going to do Bed and Breakfast at her house, I had my doubts. While sociable, none of us, not me, not my father, not Belinda, are full of good cheer at all times, and particularly not at breakfast. When I inquired some time later how the venture was going, she asked me if I thought that she was unusually formidable. I replied by asking why she was asking. She explained that at the end of a week-long stay, she had asked one American couple if they had enjoyed themselves and they had said they had but then, very nervously, had admitted that there had been one small problem - they hadn't been able to find the switches on any of the lights (presumably they were not familiar with the British habit of having the buttons on the lamp's stem) but hadn't dared tell her. Additionally, after the departure of some guests who she had not liked and felt she had been particularly tolerant and gracious to in the circumstances, she had been unable to find the brand new towels she had provided for them, bought from Peter Jones two days before their arrival. She had assumed the couple had nicked them and had gone about feeling livid for several days. But then she had discovered the towels, in the linen cupboard, still in their cellophane wrapping, inside their Peter Jones carrier bag. At which point she realised that the couple she thought she had been so kind and hospitable to must in fact have been so utterly terrified by her demeanour that they had preferred to dry themselves on loo paper or the curtains or who knew what, rather than approach her to ask if they could possibly have even a single towel.
Belinda was a mother of four, grandmother of four more, a very good amateur painter, a brilliant cook and able to transform any house she lived in into a haven of comfort and charm. These are achievements that are of more value than many of the things for which people become famous and celebrated nowadays. Belinda was also always much better at having fun than I am - and shrewder, more practical and possessed of far more commonsense. In an antic frame of mind, she could be very naughty, enjoying nothing more than trying to make me burst out laughing on occasions when that was the last thing I was supposed to do.
I wish I'd had a chance to say goodbye to my cousin. I already miss her presence in the world.