Aunt Ellie had a secret past. As kids, we all instinctively recognised this from the way the family treated her. There were a lot of sidelong looks, lowered voices, and a general air of disapproval whenever her name was mentioned.
We all loved her. She was so different from all the other grown-ups, with her wild grey hair caught up in a comb that never quite managed to capture those wayward curls. She wore long floating skirts, and low-cut tops showing acres of chest that crinkled like tissue paper when she folded her arms. In summer she wore sandals, and in winter, soft leather boots with a smelly old shaggy coat she called an ‘afghan’. And she walked around singing all the time.
We weren’t allowed to stay overnight at Aunt Ellie’s, the way we did with all the other aunties. Mum said it would be ‘inappropriate’. That was a word that people used a lot when they talked about Aunt Ellie. I heard Mum say she was a ‘tart’, but we all thought she was much more exotic than that; we thought she was more of a ‘gateau’, sort of foreign with lots of rich things going on inside her, things you could only begin to dream about.
Dad looked sad when Mum said this, and he said Aunt Ellie was just a ‘free spirit’. We liked that; it made her sound kind of spooky, and in a way she was. Dad also said it was ‘inappropriate’ for Mum to call her sister names, being a vicar’s wife and all. It was the only time I ever heard anyone use that word about Mum. She was very cross, and her neck went all red and blotchy.
Aunt Ellie used to let us go through the big packing cases she kept in her attic, and we found photograph albums of her when she was young. She was so beautiful, and she was with all these famous people who are still famous even today, pop stars and musicians. They all had their arms round her, and in one of them she was being kissed by Mick Jagger. That couldn’t have been so good, we thought, not with those lips. But you could see why he’d have wanted to. Her face was softer somehow, fuller, and she wore her hair loose, with flowers threaded through it.
There was a photograph of her with my Mum and even then Mum looked like she disapproved of Aunt Ellie. She held herself kind of rigid, and stood slightly apart from her sister. It was the only photograph we found where Aunt Ellie wasn’t being embraced by somebody. She was obviously very popular.
My cousin said she heard her mother call Aunt Ellie a groupie. Then her mother was embarrassed when she saw she’d been overheard. It was no big deal, we thought. Obviously she was a groupie, every single one of her friends belonged to one group or another. What was wrong with that?