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Nothing Can Come of Nothing

ISSUE:  Summer 1981

I often used to wonder if I would miss my father when he died. We had not been close or even had much contact. Would it really matter if he were no longer there, across the ocean in England, puttering about his pseudo-ancestral property in Sussex or going up to his mews house in Belgravia? The notion that he might leave me something— money or property—was a pleasant prospect. I would be grateful for any such inheritance. But whether or not I would feel the loss of the man was more difficult to decide. I had hardly ever known him, spending only a few days here and there with him between his air journeys or mine. How much warmth can there be in the fact of a father’s existence?

At least I can say that he was always pleased to see me. I like to think so, and there are supporting images—flashes of contact usually at airports or in doorways—greetings and partings—that sum up our bond at its most promising. He was an expectant man despite the remarkable stiffness in his every word and gesture, the result of some extraordinarily successful stifling of self, which made it so hard to be other than stiff oneself in his presence. He comes to mind careful, compact, his rebelliously wavy gray hair mustered into place, standing at the slightly forward-leaning angle that suggested both eagerness and restraint. I could sense a pressure of feeling as he carried my suitcase to the Bentley, and then in later years when he was economizing, to the Jaguar, or “Jew’s Bentley” as he once referred to it, giving vent to the anti-Semitism that was one of his few articulated opinions. His niece’s husband, a Jew, had once “diddled” him of £20,000, which he never abandoned the expectation of recovering. I think that every letter he ever wrote to me once I was grown-up and could appreciate such matters rambled on about H—, a “real so-and-so,” and the lost money. My father’s world was full of people like H—. They fooled you and then cheated you; they led you into sudden loss. He seemed to relish his disappointments. They confirmed that others were not to be trusted.

I like to explain—it somehow makes him more coherent for me—that my father, Trevor Creswell Lawrence Westbrook, was a study of the self-made man. The youngest son of a widowed mother whose circumstances were genteel but constrained, he had left school at 16, gone to work as an errand boy for Vickers-Armstrong, and risen to be head of aircraft production for Great Britain under Lord Beaverbrook during World War II. It was at this zenith of his career that my mother, herself a war correspondent from the U.S., had met, married, and divorced him. Wishing to give him his due, she used to tell us, his American children, of England’s unpaid debt to him. “Trevor Westbrook produced the plane which saved the nation in the Battle of Britain.” It was one of those stories which foster our abiding awe for our parents’ capabilities. The designers had brought in the plans for the famous Spitfire. Other engineers had pronounced it an impossible project. But Trevor Westbrook, to whom, It can’t be done, was like “a red rag to a bull,” had pursed his mouth in determination, muttered “We’ll see,” and set about proving them wrong. He ought to have been knighted after the war, but he had been so untactful to some of his colleagues, those he considered incompetent, that he was eased out of British aviation, acknowledged with the lesser C.B.E., and otherwise overlooked by his country.

Photographs of the Spitfire, the Wellington, and my father’s other planes hung on the walls of his austere little room—the smallest bedroom at Little Brockhurst. He had created Little Brockhurst, Lurgurshall near Petworth, from two laborers’ cottages, which he had knocked together into one three-story, six bedroom, four bathroom, ivy-covered mansion. The house stood as an emblem of the conflict in his nature between social aspiration and resolute penuriousness. Little Brockhurst had all the trappings of grand country living—flower beds, swimming pool, tennis court, picture window and patio, and overlooking the Sussex Downs. But he refused to heat the swimming pool for more enjoyable use in the cool English summers. The tennis court was of the type which required a top covering of pebbles to ensure a smooth surface, and once the initial load of green pebbles wore thin, they were never replaced. As for the flower gardens, they were my father’s special province since one of his few pleasures in life was “to work” on tangible projects with intense, taciturn absorption. The gardens were really lovely. I remember looking out through the picture window at a panoply of roses, violets, irises, gladioli, against the lawn, the sky, and the downs. But then my father got too old to cope with them by himself, and since he refused to hire any help, they too, along with the frigid swimming pool, the unplayable tennis court, the decrepit old armchairs in the living room, and the kitchen linoleum which was dotted with bits of green adhesive tape to cover the cracks, became a sign of his miserliness and of Little Brockhurst’s decay.

My father lent himself to caricature, and I collected my stock of anecdotes about his penny pinching, his narrowness, and his zeal for self-denial, which meant that luxury was for others and as for himself, well, it sufficed to sit alone in his inelegant kitchen with a tin of Dinty Moore Beef Stew, eating from the tin with a plastic spoon. I had also seen him rescue a hunk of indisputably stale bread from the rubbish bin where I had tossed it and moisten it under a tap. “That’s good bread,” he had grumbled. “For the birds?” I asked. “No,” he said. “For me.” He was capable of quite reckless extravagance when in pursuit of a business deal or a woman. But I think he was happiest when he felt “hard up” and called upon to make his little economies.

What I begin to understand about my father is the depth to which he was solitary. Why though, I can only conjecture. He had been bullied as a little boy at school. An older brother had drowned at sea. He had been very attached to his mother, the constrained, genteel widow, who had ruined him, said my mother, by encouraging him to think he was always right. She did seem an inhibiting sort of woman, though I say this having encountered her only once before her death when, as a child of eleven, in England for the first time, I paid a visit to her Eastbourne nursing home. Scraggly and austere, she gave me a strand of tiny pearls, a family heirloom, which I was instructed to hand on to my own daughter and which I lost years before I had the chance to do so.

A framed photograph of his mother sat on the dresser in my father’s bedroom. He also had photographs of his two ex-wives, my mother and the subsequent one, and one of me. But depending on how he felt about us at the time, our photographs would be either facing the room or stuffed into the back of a frame. He had only two frames, so it was impossible to have everyone face forward at the same time.

My own mother’s photo had its moments of favor, not because he really liked her but because she was glamorous. I judged that they had married quite unthoughtfully, she on the rebound from a romance with a man who had died, he because her smile and her glamour and her circle of friends impressed him. The war kept them largely apart, though they managed to conceive two children before their union dissolved with greater logic than it had formed, and we grew up, our mother’s charge, an ocean away from our father.

Subsequent women in his life struck me as all rather dreary. There was one nice one, but she, he said, just wasn’t “quite quite.” As for the others, they were cold and flashy, all carefully blond and carefully ingratiating. But invariably these involvements would end in some betrayal or disappointment, and he would be back again on his own, eating out of tins, wearing the old tweed jackets he was proud to have preserved for 30 years and puttering about Little Brockhurst. It’s hard to know what his children meant to him. He never much liked my brother, whose gentle and unpersevering nature so differed from his own. I was the favorite, but this was a dubious honor. If often struck me that he lacked the instinct for fatherhood. The imagined antidote to loneliness was a glamorous woman, not a child, and anyway we were clearly our mother’s responsibility. Once browsing through some of his old photographs, I discovered a letter that my mother had sent him shortly after their divorce. Chiding him for his neglect of the children, she enclosed, for what it was worth to him, one of the letters that I, age four, had dictated to my nurse. I read it. “Dear Daddy, When are you coming on the airplane to give Wendy a big kiss?” Such expectancy surprised and rather touched me. I couldn’t remember ever worrying about his coming or not coming. My letters to him that came most readily to mind were grim thank-you notes for Christmas or birthday presents, in which I would produce a paragraph exuding delight at the gift and another detailing my current activities and interests. When the gift was not a traveler’s check, it was handkerchiefs—year after year of monogrammed handkerchiefs, first for me and my brother and then, when I married, for my husband and children as well. And throughout all those decades of handkerchiefs, my father never thought to ask whether I liked or used them, and I never ventured to express other than my grateful pleasure for his “lovely and useful” gift. The handkerchiefs were a joke among the recipients. “Have you received your handkerchiefs yet?” we would ask one another. And somehow they always got lost before the next batch arrived.

We awaited his annual Christmas card with the same mocking certainty of its failure as a fatherly gesture. Dependably it would arrive: “Best Wishes for a Happy Holiday Season from T.C.L. Westbrook,” except the one year that he felt too up against it and Christmas cards became a dispensable extravagance. But even that year I think we got the handkerchiefs.

The last Christmas before he died, there were no handkerchiefs and there was no card from T.C.L. Westbrook—only a tauntingly effusive card from the woman, Carmel, his second ex-wife, who 25 years after running off to Australia with another man, absconding with the tortoise shell and silver-backed brushes that had been an earlier wedding present to my own mother, had come back to take care of him in his dotage in return for the inheritance of the estate. It was for both of them a prudently calculated arrangement. He at 75 needed someone to look after him; she, 20 years younger, must have reasoned that he really wasn’t such a bad old fellow and, anyway, he couldn’t last that long—though once confined at Little Brockhurst (he at this point had given up the town address as too expensive), she clearly hated it and him. She complained to me that his chewing, that meticulous, relentless chewing of his food, simply drove her to distraction. So Carmel spent much of her time up in her room on the third floor, drinking gin and typing long letters to her relations in Australia, who, in my more suspicious moments, I imagined as accomplices in an elaborate conspiracy to gull my poor old father. At the end, I gather, he was very senile. “He spends all his time just sitting in front of the fireplace or the television,” explained a Westbrook relative who had gone down to Little Brockhurst to check things out. Somehow it made sense to me that in old age my father should atrophy. The stiffness that was so inculcated in his character had simply taken over until he ended up a fixture in one of his old armchairs, not even looking out the picture window.

About eight years earlier, when my father was still a spry man and the flower beds at Little Brockhurst were all in trim order, he had communicated to me that, unless he remarried, I was to be his principal heir. My photo enjoyed preeminence in the bedroom frame, and I, in turn, tried my hardest to make sense of a father’s significance. My brother was in the will for only a few thousand pounds, a distinction that embarrassed me, and I determined to split whatever I got between the two of us—there would certainly be enough to provide comfortably for us both. For five years I enjoyed my fancies as the prospective heir of Little Brockhurst, the Jaguar, and other untold assets of the T.C.L. Westbrook estate. Then the second ex-wife resurfaced, and that was that—I like my brother would be remembered with a few thousand pounds. I wasn’t surprised. Nor did I really feel cheated. I had only been heir faute de mieux, aware even in the midst of my expectancies that the connection with my father was fragile and unreliable. Our efforts to strengthen and affirm it had never been more than half-hearted.

I had at one point made it a project to know him and to like him better. When I was 16, it had struck me rather forcibly that no one is by nature a caricature, that my brother and I have made one of the man whose zeal in fixing little things led us to call him “Clever Trevor,” and that perhaps we hadn’t been fair. Also I liked the notion of a second parent. It seemed to broaden life’s scope.

That was 1958. In the ensuing 20 years—he died in ‘78— we met perhaps a dozen times. I spent a number of summers in Europe, always touching base with him in England. On his part there were two or three business trips to America, and he came over expressly for my college graduation and for my wedding. But we were always so awkward together that I can’t in fact remember a single comfortable moment spent in my father’s company. I am convinced we both hoped for something from the other so that I, for one, would be heartened by any flicker of a bond—the expectancy in his greeting, even a grunt of pleasure on his part that my school grades or my teeth were looking good. But there were too many small fiascos and disappointments. He took me for dinner at the Royal Thames Yacht Club, treating me to grouse, which he considered a delicacy. I nearly gagged on each raw and gamy bite; nor did I feel free to confess I didn’t like my meal. He welcomed me, my mother, and brother, to his mews house for what was supposed to be a three-week stay, giving up his bedroom to my mother and even providing her with blue satin sheets. These were a failure since she found them cloying and heavy. He removed them obligingly if uncomprehendingly. But somehow we found it impossible to settle in. Three days into our visit, we devised a change of plans and departed, guilty and relieved, for Paris.

Another memory is the evening of dining and dancing at the Savoy. I was 20 at the time and passing through London— though not staying with my father—on my way back to college. We had quite a nice outing—I listened to the elliptical narrative of his business deals and losses and at the same time could look about me at the decorous young debutantes and their escorts in the ballroom. But then, on our way out to the car, my father disconcerted me. In response to my thanks for the evening, he rested his hand very suggestively on my bottom. And two days later in the mail I received a disquieting plea. He had always been so lonely, he said. He had such hopes we could be closer. I could mean so much to him.

The letter frightened me. I did not want the responsibility of this lonely man’s emotions, and furthermore, it angered me that he did not know how to be fatherly, that his overture to me was so fraught with sexual stirrings. My reply was evasive, and our relationship slipped back to within its habitual constraints.

Neither of us ever totally gave up on the other. We corresponded, saw one another every year or so, and he helped me once to pay my graduate school tuition—though with clearly expressed reluctance. Then about three years before his death, when Carmel was already entrenched at Little Brockhurst but was off for a while with friends on the Isle of Wight, I asked for £1,000, of which I stood particularly in need, and he gave it very willingly and graciously. The idea of his helping me, when really I expected very little of him, was so exhilarating that I went around for days exclaiming to myself, “My father has given me £1,000.”

I visited him at Little Brockhurst to thank him for the gift, and we sat together in the living room drinking afternoon tea. Carmel had left him in charge of her dog, a noisy little terrier named Tina, which yapped at our feet and for which he had developed an obvious affection. He told me a story about a dog he had had as a young man when he lived in a lodging house in Bournemouth and was just getting his start in aviation. It was clear that the dog had been his great friend, and I felt in listening to him that this was perhaps the most personal revelation he had ever made to me. He was also very grateful for some jars of peanut butter and jam that I had brought him. “Goodbye, sweetie,” he said, very affectionately, when it was time for me to leave him. As I went down the red macadam driveway, which years earlier he had built single-handedly, I could see him on his way out to the overgrown garden, the little dog scurrying at his feet. His loneliness was palpable, but there was nothing I could do about it. About six months later when I was settled back home in America, I received the first of several inquiries: when would I repay the £1,000?

Carmel’s presence at Little Brockhurst made it harder than ever for me to feel at ease with my father, though I did manage to see him twice in what turned out to be his last 18 months. On the first of these occasions, I dined with him and Carmel at the local pub, our party also including a cashiered stockbroker turned publican and his snobbish wife. I sat beside my father, who concentrated on each mouthful of his dinner with that slow, meticulous intensity that Carmel found so bothersome. Having cleaned his plate, he dozed intermittently while the others chattered, mostly ignoring him, though every now and then Carmel would turn his way to urge, “Come along Trevor. Wakey, wakey.” I could see that Carmel’s life at Little Brockhurst was an incarceration from which she sought whatever relief possible elsewhere. I could also observe my father’s decline. He wrote out a check for our dinners as deliberately as he had eaten. A palsy was beginning to affect his hands and legs.

It was dreadful to see my father at the mercy of this woman who disliked him; yet it was he who had cut off his children to obtain her care, the children who, granted, had never loved him much but who had never tried to fool him either. It seemed best to distance myself from the situation, and I accepted that I would probably never see my father again, particularly when he failed to send his usual greeting at Christmas. Nonetheless, that next June, when again I found myself in London, something nagged at me to go to Little Brockhurst—whether it was a sense of duty or the old habit of touching base or my realization that this truly might be the final opportunity to see him. I did not want to be alone with him and Carmel, but my mother, also in London, agreed to accompany me on a Sunday outing. We would go down by train and take a cab to Little Brockhurst from the station. Really, the expedition promised to be as painless as possible. We even cajoled a witty young friend from America, who was knocking about London at loose ends, to come with us for what we assured him would be a bizarre and amusing day.

It was drizzling lightly when our cab deposited us on my father’s red macadam driveway. The grass was uncut, and the flower beds were a tangle of weeds. No one answered our ring at the large oak main door, but finding it unlocked, we made our way to the living room armchairs to wait for our hosts to appear. Initially, when Carmel had taken up residence at Little Brockhurst, she had made improvements: rooms were painted; the kitchen linoleum was replaced; fresh flowers brightened up the living room. Now everything was shabbier and in greater disarray than ever. I wandered into the kitchen where a chair was propped against the broken-latched refrigerator door. A terrible stench permeated the room, which I traced to nine bottles of sour milk—the refrigerator’s only contents.

After about 20 minutes, we heard a loud roar in the driveway. Carmel’s car, one further emblem of decay, was missing its muffler. It was a shabby little Simca, the Jaguar having met its end when my father, confusing the gears, spurted forward in the garage instead of reversing. Carmel had just left him at the pub where he was holding the table for lunch. But first, fetching down the gin from the third floor and turning up a bit of sherry from the kitchen, she insisted that we have a drink at the house.

Carmel wanted us to know the details of my father’s senility: his incontinence, his addled memory, his sporadic lapses of consciousness. Once, most dramatically, he had wandered into a field, collapsed, and lain there undiscovered for 24 hours. Still, the man refused to keep a nurse. And what, asked Carmel, could one do with him?

“Hmm,” said our friend, Bill. “It sounds like my grandfather, and he lasted until 94.”

“Well,” said my mother. “If Trevor is in such a bad way, perhaps we shouldn’t leave him alone at the pub.”

Our concerted anxiety was not to be resisted, and off in the mufflerless Simca we went to join him.

Huddled in his old overcoat at the head of a long, empty table, my father acknowledged our arrival with an eerie smile and futile attempt to rise. To describe the deterioration in his appearance since that other pub dinner the preceding year, one could say that his hands were more gnarled, his voice huskier, that it was a task now for him to form his words. But the horror did not really lie in these particulars of physical decrepitude. What made me start involuntarily to cry in the midst of my effort at sociable chatter was the shock, not of his paralysis, but of my father’s pathetic and stubborn aliveness. I could feel the pressure of an inner intensity that survived within the painfully arrested body and that asserted some claim on those around him. It was the same pressure of feeling to which I had always been sensitive, still insistent though more frustrating and unanswerable than ever. For what response, sitting next to this wreck of a man with his occasional inquiring smile, could I now make to him? He asked after my husband, whose name, I noted with a sense of triumph, he had not forgotten. I responded with news of the family, though clearly to talk and even to listen exhausted him. He ate with more doggedness than ever, mustering his resources of energy and attentiveness to cut, raise to his mouth, and chew each bite of food. I made sure that he got the salt and the bread and a second glass of cider, and when it came time for him to make out a check, I reminded him where the sums should be written. Carmel was gesturing from the other end of the table that I should fill out the check and just have him sign it. But it seemed more loyal to bear with his slowness.

My mother and Bill were also very kind to him, attending to his wants and helping him afterwards to shuffle back to the car. He had trouble lifting his legs into the Simca, and Bill eased them through the door. We had been joined for lunch by two blowsy ladies, evidently pub friends of Carmel. They seemed good-hearted, and their presence had helped to mask the sadness of the occasion. One was to take us in her car to the station, but first, the whole party stopped at Little Brockhurst, where we helped my father out of the Simca. And there on the red macadam driveway, saying goodbye and take care of yourself, I did my best to show my affection and to infuse him somehow with the life to carry on.

It was Bill’s comforting comment on the train ride back to London that my father had “good color” and that strangely winsome smile that rescued his plight from the intolerable. Carmel, we all concurred, had a drinker’s unhealthy bloatedness. Perhaps my father would outlast her. Or if not, and his, death seemed suspicious, we should be sure to insist on an inquest.

My father died in September, a few months after our visit. I learned of his death quite by chance about a month after it occurred. Someone who had read the obituary in The Times told my mother, and she, of course, called me at once. He had died in the nursing home to which he had been confined since August. His solicitor, whom I then contacted, apologized that he had not known where to reach me.

It was from the solicitor that I learned the provisions of the will. Little Brockhurst went outright to Carmel, who had already put the property on the market. Then there were a few cash bequests, the largest being £2,000 for me and £1,000 for my brother. The remainder of the estate would also go to Carmel, but my father’s affairs were in disarray and the extent of assets beyond Little Brockhurst was unclear. The estate would be in probate for six months to a year, and it was not at all certain that there would be enough, once all debts were paid, to cover even the specific cash bequests.

I had never imagined that my father’s death could stir in me such bitterness. My brother, whom I phoned with the news, was more dispassionate. “What a sad life,” he said. For me there was a more acute, personal disappointment. My ignorance of his move to the nursing home, the delay in my hearing of his death, the loss of Little Brockhurst, the fact that even the £2, 000 might not be forthcoming, all pointed to our pitifulness as father and daughter. I had not been of help to him nor he to me. Now he was dead, and I cut off by his will from all gentler feelings for him. An inheritance could be a parent’s way of continuing a protective sway—something my father had never extended to me, but I must have still hoped for it or I would not have felt so keenly this definitive, incontestable proof that my father was not to be counted on, that he had no loyalty to his children.

There was a single clause in the will that attested to fatherly sentiment. I was to have first choice of a memento from among my father’s furnishings and personal effects, by which, he had specified, I might cherish his memory. The gesture bemused me. To be provided so scrupulously with a memento but otherwise remembered with so little care somehow called to mind the years and years of handkerchiefs that I had never had any use for. When I received the Little Brockhurst inventory, I decided to choose something that I could then sell. This would call us quits with no lingering pretense of connection. On the list and valued at £200 was a canteen of silver, each piece engraved with the Westbrook crest, a mail boot, that my brother and I had dubbed “the order of the boot” when we were children and had always found so pompous and funny. Still, £200 was double the estimate of any other item. I would send for the canteen and sell it. Despite the boots and three pieces missing from the 66-piece set, I could probably get a good price.

And then one night, as I lay in bed wondering if my canteen was by now on some transatlantic freighter, my thoughts turned to Little Brockhurst, and as one does sometimes before sleep, I started to play a game of remembering, trying to picture the rooms in my father’s house as completely as possible. Beginning with all the musty rooms downstairs: living room, kitchen, dining room, hall toilet, I then moved on to the second floor, to my father’s little bedroom at the head of the stairs, where in the end he was incontinent but which I could see as it used to be—tidy and austere. I recalled the narrow bed, the dresser with its competing photographs of mother, wives, and daughter, and the photographs on the walls of the airplanes. There were other photos, too, taken mostly on airfields and featuring my father at high moments of his career. Several commemorated an encounter with King George VI, in each of which my father can be picked out, dark haired and neat, one of a group of men escorting the King on an inspection of a wartime airfield. Another that I remembered shows my father in his early thirties. He is striding along a runway, young, vigorous, slightly windblown, carrying a duffel bag for the man a few paces behind him. The other man is Charles Lindbergh, whom my father hid out from the press in the aftermath of the Lindbergh kidnapping case. It is a picture I have always liked because it captures my father in a burst of such purposeful motion. He looms free of all the tentativeness and constraint that I detect in his posture as he waits on King George. And lying in my own dark bedroom, remembering this photograph of two attractive young men, both aviators and one of them my father, I felt a terrible sadness that I had missed my chance to claim it as my memento.

I have since learned that an aunt, my father’s only sister, requested some of his photographs, and perhaps she now has the one of him with Lindbergh. I could write her to inquire, but somehow this seems difficult. In any case, my canteen arrived, and I decided to keep it. The box is very handsome, bearing an inscription that identifies it and its contents as a gift to my father from the Directors of the Heston Aircraft Company Ltd. upon the occasion of his marriage to my mother. We use the silver when guests come to dinner, and their inquiries about the unusual mail boot engraving lead me to talk a bit about my father and about his bequest to me of a relic from Little Brockhurst. I do my best, since it seems sensible, to maintain a wry perspective. In truth, though, I have found an odd and heartfelt comfort in the possession of my memento.


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