Although, as the poet says, “we all gotta go sometime”, there is a great variety in the manner of our going.Some march off into battle to the sound of trumpets and die a hero’s death and become a legend for later generations. Others slip slowly and quietly off into death at an early age in an African famine and the world knows nothing of it. And yet others live long, quietly bizarre lives and then expire in a truly dazzling manner like a glorious firework whose fuse has been smoldering for many years. This is a commemoration of the strange life and remarkable death of my Uncle Edward.
My grandfather, John Lloyd Davies, was born in 1869 and mostly raised in Denbigh, in North Wales. He was one of nine children of Robert Davies and Anna Maria Lloyd; the Lloyds were a prominent family and so Lloyd got folded into the surname from then on. In 1875, his sister Mary Edith was born and, in 1883, at the end of the roster, came their brother Edward. Shortly before my grandfather finished his education, the family moved to London and a core of his siblings remained there all their lives. Although the family was large, they failed to reproduce themselves and now the name is about to die out, and my two daughters are the sole hopes for the future of the Lloyd-Davies gene pool.
Mary Edith and Edward lived together their whole lives – over 80 years. Theirs must have been an intimacy unknown to most married couples. They achieved it by relying on symbiotic principles of living, supplemented by brute force where necessary. Mary Edith, or M.E., as she was universally known, was the brain. She was smart and aggressive and had sound managerial skills. The one thing she lacked was a reliable body – she was somewhat overweight and her feet always hurt and she had a lot of aches and pains that made it very difficult for her to get around. Edward, on the other hand, had just that reliable body. He was quite thin, a little frail, but never sick. He would ride his bicycle around town, doing shopping for them both and tending to the garden and all the other physically demanding chores. He was decent and not stupid, but as long as I know him, he had no interest in deciding things. When something needed to be done, M.E. would articulate it, give him precise instructions and off he would go. If decisions needed to be made along the way, he would likely duck them, in which case he would get a tongue-lashing on his return, but this would in no way upset the fundamental equilibrium of their lives. He was content to be the body – who knows, perhaps he gloried in it in some secret way – and he had absolutely no interest in taking over M.E.’s role as thinker and decision-maker. She was a little more ambivalent about her divided role – she certainly complained about having to rely on Edward for everything, but I’m sure she was basically content with being 50 percent of a fully functioning person.
It is tempting to speculate about how they got that way. Did they see the perfection of their union while they were still children? Or did they expect to live separate and more normal lives? Did Edward dream of marriage and a status as head of household? Apparently, while a young adult, Edward had indicated some interest in pursuing a friendship (and more?) with a young lady. The story has it that when he told his siblings about it, they laughed him out of the idea and he never saw the young lady again. This incident suggests, first, that he was not completely set on a life of subservience to his sister, and, second, that he never had much in the way of backbone.
For many years, M.E. and Edward lived in a small row house in Harrow, in the outskirts of London. My parents lived about a mile from them and we visited them regularly. At that point in their lives, Edward had retired from his job as a minor functionary and they were living on a meager pension. I found the house rather unpleasant – it was dark and had a distinctive and not very pleasant smell. It had no toys or other kid paraphernalia and I was expected to behave like an adult. They always served very strong tea, which I didn’t like and they expected me to drink it very hot, which I liked even less. Whenever possible, we would avoid having to eat with them, in part because my parents didn’t want to be a financial burden on them, but more importantly because their plates were always dirty and their food was dreadful. On the one hand, they were kind to me and my sister in their way. On the other, their lives revolved around the Lloyd Davies blood line and many times they were thoughtlessly rude to my mother who was only a Lloyd Davies by marriage.
As M.E. grew older, she took on more masculine characteristics. She was already much larger than Edward and her chin now began to sprout bristly hairs which tickled when she kissed you. My sister and I irreverently dubbed her ‘my hairy aunt the baboon’, after Kipling. She became increasingly immobile and would spend the entire day in a chair in the kitchen, directing the affairs of the house. Her bedroom was still upstairs and more and more effort was expended in getting down in the morning and up again at night. I remember as a child being somewhat puzzled that the two of them had separate bedrooms, since they seemed as much of a couple as any other pair of grownups I knew.
My mother, in spite of being scorned as an outsider, took the primary responsibility for seeing that they were OK. She would pop in regularly to check on them and make sure that both body and mind were functioning properly. She had struck up an acquaintance with a neighbor and had given them our phone number so that she could be alerted at any sign of trouble. And finally, in late 1966, we received a call from the neighbor saying that the milk, which was delivered every morning to the house, had not been taken in for several days in a row.
My mother immediately went over to see what might be the matter. There were five bottles of milk standing on the porch. She first went up to the front door and rang the bell. There was no answer and so, feeling much dread, she went around to the back to see if she could gain entrance through the kitchen door. She could see into the kitchen and, to her surprise, saw that the light was on and both Edward and M.E. were in there, instantly dispelling her vision of them both lying crumpled at the bottom of the stairs. When she knocked, they let her in and at once she could see that they were disheveled and greatly agitated. “Margery!” they exclaimed, “So glad you came! The most dreadful things have been happening!” My mother entered the kitchen and sat down at the kitchen table to get the full story.
It appeared that things had started to go wrong several days earlier when there was a ring at the door. Edward had opened it and found a well-dressed black man with a suitcase standing outside. “I have come for the room,” he said and brushed past Edward, went into the dining room and closed the door behind him. Edward had drawn a blank on how to deal with situations of this sort and so he reported back to M.E. in the kitchen. She had proposed that Edward knock on the dining room door and ask the man his business but Edward seemed strangely reluctant to do so. While they were discussing it, the doorbell rang again. Edward went back out into the hallway and opened the front door. There was a black woman and two children standing outside, the woman carrying a suitcase and the children each carrying a cat. “We’re with the man,” they said, stepping around Edward, to the dining room, opening the door and then closing it behind them.
Well, this proved to be only the beginning. After some point, Edward would not go to the door any more, but the mysterious visitors continued to arrive and they let themselves in anyway. They were all black and they none of them explained their presence in a satisfactory manner and they took over more and more rooms of the house. They kept to themselves, although some of the children had requested milk for their cats. Soon, they had occupied all of the downstairs rooms except the kitchen and then Edward reported that he had seen them going upstairs, so M.E. decided that she and Edward should stay in the kitchen, which also had a small bathroom off it, rather than risk confrontation over the bedrooms.
My mother was astounded. Had M.E. and Edward been eating? There were some dirty dishes around, which suggested they had at least eaten something over the past five days. Had they slept? They had not been to bed all that time. Had they been out of the house, perhaps to get help in finding out what exactly had been going on? Apparently not. Were the visitors still arriving? Edward reported having heard the doorbell ring several times that very day.
With some trepidation, my mother announced that she would get to the bottom of the mystery. She opened the door to the hallway, which appeared to be empty. She opened the door to the dining room. No one was there, no suitcases, no cats. She opened all the other doors to all the other rooms, upstairs and down. No one was there either – every room was in its normal state, dark, a little dingy, with not the slightest sign of black families with cats. The only thing that was at all out of the ordinary was that there were a number of saucers of milk on the hallway floor, presumably placed there by Edward in response to the visitors’ requests.
So, what had happened? There seemed to be several possibilities. Perhaps the visitors had found out that they were at the wrong address and quietly slipped out the door to avoid making a fuss. Or they might have been sociology students working on a project about the befuddlement of the elderly. Or they might have been interplanetary spies who completed their assignment and then beamed up to the mother ship, waiting for them in orbit behind the moon.
Well, the truth was more prosaic - it turned out that Edward had had a stroke. This had caused a variety of hallucinations, including his hearing the doorbell ringing all the time and the sight of the families of visitors at the door. He had reported these to M.E. and she had not thought to question them, any more than I would have questioned the evidence of my own senses. His erratic behavior had somehow spread to her, and then lack of food and sleep had added to her confusion. Edward was whisked off to the hospital, where he kept apologizing for being such a nuisance, but died within a week.
Once Edward left for the hospital, ME quickly regained her normal equilibrium. She could not, however, handle living on her own and so my parents arranged for her to move into a nursing home where she lived for several more years, terrorizing the staff and generally treating them the way she used to treat Edward.
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