It must have been in the spring of 1962 that I received a message one afternoon asking me to call at nearby Bow Street Police Station. (“What has she done now?” I thought.) It was a telephone call (I had no telephone in London) from the Immigration Department at Newhaven; they had my friend Maximiani Portas there; she had only £9 in money and had come from India with very odd luggage, and they were not disposed to allow her in.
They put her on the line (in near hysterics), and I calmed her down. She had two jobs to go to in France in three weeks and was hoping to spend the time with me and go to Stonehenge. There was no problem about how she would live as she would be my guest as I had explained. She now made things worse by saying that a friend would like her to give his son extra French tuition for the time she was there; this brought up the question of a work permit, though it was merely a friendly suggestion. I said I would come to Newhaven in the morning. I gave her the £3 I had put by for the Stonehenge trip, and saw what the officer had meant about her luggage. I think he was very amused indeed. She bad a smallish old suitcase, several smaller bags and parcels (some exuding insect-powder); she was not very well-dressed herself, and her dreary little headscarf did not help matters; but I think they might have let her in. She went back on the midday Channel ferry, took up one of her two teaching jobs, and all went well; she was a splendid teacher. The other friend was Peter Greenslade (of the luminous swastika notion); I had to go and find him that evening in I forget which endless suburb, far from train or bus, and explain it all. I had advised Savitri to get herself decent luggage, and she did; which, in view of the circumstances of her next appearance was a good thing.
She arrived on the 26th July, 1962. The British Nazis were to set up a camp in “Dead and Bury Hollow” in Gloucestershire, to which, of course, she planned to go. She had brought a large swastika flag which she unfurled over my sitting-room; I flew to draw the curtains. On the 31st of July we went to Stonehenge. She was much concerned, on the bus from Avesbury, to see a small boy in a cowboy hat with a sheriff’s star on its front, with a rabbit in a hutch on his knees. “That boy . . . he is wearing the Star of David on his hat. . . and what is he doing with that rabbit?” I think she visualized some proposed form of non-Aryan torture. “Why should an English boy want to dress up as an American sheriff?”
She found Stonehenge smaller than she bad expected; she had imagined dimensions more resembling Karnak. She had the swastika flag with her concealed in a discreet brown paper carrier; she laid it down on the Altar Stone and silently invoked the blessing of the ancient gods, while I contemplated the trilithons.
On August 8th the flag was set up in the already rain-soaked field; when the Gloucestershire locals would have no more of such doings someone let go with both barrels of his gun and blew out its middle.
The story of the camp and the ringleaders’ trial at Bow Street has been told elsewhere; there is no need to repeat it here. I was certainly not there myself, and Savitri only very briefly. The whole affair was more ludicrous than otherwise, made more so by the mud in which the Nazis and the locals fought it out. It all coincided with my first interview with Hutchinsons, so I had much more to concern me. Things looked very favourable. But there was the question of necessary cutting to resolve. My editor and John Smith thought that the heroine’s adventures in Athens should be almost entirely taken out; I have never agreed with this and neither have others who have read it. (“Why didn’t you tell us what happened in Athens?’) But I did get my way over another suggested cut, and it was afterwards admitted I was right. In the end, in 1964, I knew I had made it.
It must have been in 1964 that Savitri came again. I remember showing her my sketches for suggested jacket covers.
All this time Veka had lived next door; she had worked in the BBC foreign section for some time now and changed her rather frumpy image for one of some elegance. She had had a couple of emotional and transient love affairs, the second culminating in a bungled suicide attempt (on Christmas night, as she hated all to do with it and other Christian festivals and always worked through them if she could). I played fairly with her, told no one the truth till it no longer mattered.
It gathered from certain evidence that she was contemplating a move, and I was determined to get her rooms (and the landing to myself) if she did. She told the other people in the house she was going soon, and asked them not to tell me, which of course they did. She told Savitri when she came but it was no news to me. I went to the agents’ and said that if ever the rooms became vacant, I wanted the first refusal; the owner was a solicitor who knew my solicitor, so I got hold of him as well. The agents’ office thought it very funny, as indeed it was. In the end Veka told me and professed surprise when I said I wanted the rooms. She promised faithfully not to tell anyone — she who had let it out months before. She thought she had what she called “A Hold on Me.” In 1967 she really did move to Brighton, and we parted amicably. I skipped round the empty rooms, and all went well. I put in electric light (she still had gas, in 1967, as I had till 1957), did six months’ good D.I.Y. and made things rather exciting. She was honest enough to admit her surprise when she came to see me. She could be so damned nice that it was a pity she so often felt the urge to be so damned nasty; but she had to fuel that sense of power. Like “Alinda” in The Distance — in whom she was delighted to see herself — she preferred to be respected.
The Sixties were swinging, and they certainly swung for me. The Distance was published at last in May 1965, after a postponement from the previous October — Hutchinsons wanted to make it stand out and did not want it swamped by the flood of Christmas books. So on May 10th, 1965, I had the day of my life. A party was given for me in the Cheshire Cheese; I made myself a glamorous outfit, and it was Havelock Ellis’ “story . . . told in bed” come true for me. I had certainly told it to myself in bed many times. I was on Anglia TV (no space for me on London). We had sold enough copies to feel confident. I had had several interviews — and later at least twenty-seven reviews — including the T.L.S. [Times Literary Supplement] in a double box with Philip Lindsay; and Mary Renault, to whom a copy had been sent without my knowledge, did me very proud indeed in the South African Sunday Times. A pity the projected trilogy has mostly stayed in my head,
The hippies were flourishing in this new world of new ideas, and in the Lane next door but one to 180, the “Arts Lab” opened. I got on well with the more sensible elements, acted in some of their plays and films, and had a little taste of it all before it was — inevitably — spoiled by those who never knew where to stop.
The improvers had got their claws, ready to seize Covent Garden, and we founded a Community Association to try to frustrate them. We had a really good time doing it and succeeded in a lot we hoped to achieve. I think it is partly due to my own efforts that 180 still stands, though in the end we who had lived there so long had to move. My (controlled) rent was still, when I left in 1978, £3.63p — in the heart of London, a few minutes from my beloved British Museum. It was enjoyable to march into Trafalgar Square with our protest banners.
I was not going to let Them put me into a tower block or Council property with restrictions on pets and decorating. I had always imagined myself returning to the country when I retired, and I went seriously cottage-hunting in 1971, when rents and prices were still reasonable — incredibly cheap they seem now. There was a lot of good property in East Anglia. On March 25th, 1972 (again The Day) I had a letter from an agent in Braintree offering me this house, which was to become Moira Cottage, I begged them to give me time to get to Braintree before selling it, and they promised. After a dash to Halstead for the keys I was driven to this small red-brick cottage (really timber-framed but bricked over) with a good garden and, as I saw when I got indoors, possibilities.
I have spoken of the “interior voice”; never has it spoken to me more clearly than it did, in this sitting-room where I now write. “This is it — settle for this — you’ll be all right here. This is the one.” “But it’s so small,” I answered in my mind. “Never mind — take it.” So I did. I paid my deposit in the Halstead office as the telephone rang with the other offer I had been told about — but I was there.
I have had the happiest years of my life here; a lovely view, with a Norman castle included, accessibility from London, the house in good condition, and the best neighbours I could have had anywhere. I planned to call wherever I found myself Moira something — Moira Cottage, Villa, House, or whatever; the Greek name for Fate. It is far too small, and in late years the lack of space has become a problem, but no one can take from me the 23 happy, happy years I have had. I kept on my London flat till 1978, when I had to leave; but it was beginning to be needless to have two places. In 1978 I began to have arthritis in my hip and had a replacement in 1981, entirely successfully. Three months later I sat in the Strand all night, with my old Drury Lane neighbors, to have a good view of the Royal Wedding. My knees are a problem now and it inhibits me from doing many things, but till a few years ago I could manage almost anything.
Veka died in Brighton in 1972, just after I had told her that I had got my country cottage (she probably thought I never would). Savitri went to India — I think she was too old now to teach in France; and sometime in the early seventies her husband died.
It is difficult, sometimes, to think of Savitri as a married person. I think her marriage was successful in its way; during the years I knew her, she and her husband spent very little time together, though he was with her during his last illness. She always spoke kindly of him and followed the usual Hindu customs: serving him first at meals and, upon his death, cutting her hair and discarding her jewellery.
We wrote often to each other, but sometime in the seventies she asked to be excused from writing so often, as her sight was so bad she needed to conserve it for her work. She told me, “I have the threat of blindness hanging over me like the sword of Damocles.” I told her to write when she could, but about herself, her cats, India and so on, and leave the Jews out of it. (When I saw statistics and rows of noughts, I generally knew what they signified and skipped them.)
Later she had a stroke; I believe she was cooking for her cats when it happened. She now had partial paralysis, but could still write, though her old-style schoolmistress’ writing was sadly changed.
In 1982 I had several letters from friends of hers, saying she was going to America and wanted to visit me on the way. I was surprised to learn she had friends in her loathed America; I did not then know of the group of her “comrades” established there.
About three a.m. on Sunday, October 17th the police knocked on my door to tell me she had arrived in England and would be looked after till I could contact her later. Near midday a car drove up, and a voice hailed me, after all these years, as if we had scarcely been parted: “Allo, Muriel darling! Will you give the driver £10 — I have not enough money . . .”
One on either side, the Bengali driver and I helped her up my drive, and through my doors. “So many thresholds,” she sighed. She wore a thin white sari with very little beneath it, and on top the ruins of a black Fifties Dior coat, obviously once belonging to her friend Françoise Dior, sometimes known as “Nazi Nell.” She had a small metal chair on wheels which had supported her on her journey, a (good) suitcase and carrier bag, and a small yellow plastic bucket. I wonder what the rest of Townsend Thoresen’s ferry passengers made of her.
She sat in my chair and began to talk as if we had only parted last week. My bed was downstairs in the sitting-room; I had a garden lounge there for her to sleep on. She wanted her head to the east — another of her fancies — but it was not convenient in my small room. She would quite happily have obstructed all movement and inconvenienced everyone. I doubt she would have thought of it. She ended in my big armchair. I was expecting to have her for three weeks till her flight left.
Next day she wrote letters while I was concerned with the new window being put into my kitchen. On Tuesday we had a really pleasant day talking over old times and congenial topics. She had ideas about seeing Japan on this trip, so her spirit was still unextinguished. She looked rather nice with her new short hair. I made her take off her olive oil-stained sari so that I could wash it; she would not trouble to put on a new one but sat in her petticoat and come inadequate upper covering; it was as well that I kept good fires. She was always cold, but never took the pains to achieve acceptable comfort. She did not want her food put into my refrigerator. She ate like a bird, but for all that she could gorge on something she liked. She loved Brussels sprouts, so on Wednesday we had them for our evening meal. She flooded hers with olive oil, and the result, at three a.m., can only be described as disastrous.
Someone had lent her a servant in Delhi, and she had obviously got into the habit of shouting at him and others in the way familiar to those of me who enjoy Indian films. I had to tell her plainly that I was willing to help her, but I was not the dhobi-wallah. She was enormously apologetic. On Wednesday, a friend of hers, now dead, had called and said he would take her to Heathrow when the time came.
At noon on Thursday she asked me if it was still dark outside. “I do hope I die before I go completely blind,” she said. She did not feel well and lay on my bed (with a plastic bin-bag under her) and a warm cover. I went shopping to the village; when I came back, she asked for a thermometer, which I did not possess. She had “a fever,” she said; she was hot and cold by turns. I insisted on calling the doctor; she did not want him, but I said I could not be responsible if she was really ill. I telephoned him, and he came very quickly. He thought it was mainly the changes in food and water as she went through the various countries to get here, but saw my problems and said privately that if she was not better next day, he would see about getting her to hospital. I would frankly have been very relieved. I am no nurse, but I did my best. She would have been a real problem in hospital.
Needless to say, she abhorred TV (“I would ban it altogether save for half an hour a day propaganda”). That evening I put mine on for the first time. “Turn it off! Turn it off! You do not know what it does to me . . .” I had to have a break and went upstairs to my little writing room to deal with a letter. I could hear if she needed me from there. I left her warmly covered, with a hot-water bottle, on my bed, with a big fire burning. I shall always be glad that I made her so comfortable at the end.
Upstairs, I simply fell asleep at the typewriter, having written my letter. I awoke about 12:15 a.m. and came down and heard her, as I supposed, snoring. I did not disturb her. My cat asked for her food; I got it from where it was ready in the kitchen, set it down, and came back to Savitri. She was snoring no longer and lay quiet with closed eyes; she was very still indeed. I spoke to her and had no reaction. Her hands were laid lightly on her breast; I lifted them and let them fall; lifted her feet and did the same. I put my hands behind her shoulders, raised her from the pillow, said, “Savitri, can you hear me?” There was no reply. She fell back as I took my hands away. It was 12:25 a.m. on the morning of Friday, the 22nd of October.
I went to telephone (my neighbours were still up) and called the doctor. “She’s either dead or in a coma,” I said. He came at once. “I’m afraid the poor dear lady’s dead,” he said. What I had taken for snoring had been the death-rattle.
Anyone who has had a foreign visitor die on them will know what that entails. I am only thankful, for many reasons, that Savitri did not die on the Channel ferry. I could not be sorry that she had died before blindness overtook her. She looked dignified, rather handsome, and entirely at peace. I said my farewells, thanked her for all her friendship had given me, covered her over and never looked at her again. Soon the first policeman came and — over a cup of tea — I let all her cats out of the bag. It was easier than expected; he said there were a lot of National Socialists about. After he had gone, I went upstairs and got what rest I could in a chair. In the later morning, the mortuary van arrived, and there was concern because it was necessary to up-end the coffin to get it through my door. I said she had more sense than to mind if she knew anything about it. “That isn’t my friend.” I said, “It’s her discarded dress.”
Later, especially in the evening, I went through her possessions — fortunately few as she had disposed of most things before leaving Delhi. A few clothes — very few; some German books; a good many letters, of most of which it seemed wisest to dispose; not only her Greek passport, but a British one, which surprised me. It did not seem to trouble the police at all. I have no notion how she came to have it. I also found what seemed to be the address of her Indian in-laws, her only relations, and the money she would have needed to get into America. This eventually paid for her funeral. I also, after some delay, got back the price of her ticket from British Airways and returned it to the friend (Frau Lotte Asmus) who had given it.
I arranged her cremation, but the police stopped it, saying they had to find her relations, if any. They did not commit themselves about the address I had found. Weeks after all was over, they admitted they had found someone who knew her, but did not want anything to do with it. It had to be the address I gave them.
She lay in the mortuary at Braintree from the 22nd of October till permission was given for cremation at Colchester on the 7th of December.
I arranged what I thought would please her. Colin Jordan sent a young man to see me, who came with two friends to the simple ceremony, all three dramatically dressed in black. I was the only one to follow her coffin through England’s green fields to Colchester. A small battery of Press cameras awaited me some distance away. I set out some photographs of her as I had been asked to do, and spoke a tribute to her I had written, which has seemed to please everyone and certainly could offend nobody. I saw the last of a very special friend with arms outstretched towards her coffin as it glided away. I think she would have liked what was done.
I made it clear to one reporter that I was most certainly not what might be thought, and did my best to be discreet about Savitri. I did not check if there was any report in the Colchester papers as I felt I did not want to know. Now I wish I had, and I would welcome information.
I have written in some detail of my life, and more minutely of a long and rewarding friendship which changed it for the better and was the cause of my achieving the best and most satisfying work I ever did. Savitri said to me once, in Greece, “I should hate you because you are so damned Minoan, but I don’t. I love you. I believe she did — though I could have killed that love at a stroke by expressing my true opinion about certain things, about which I did not care enough to stir up trouble — and I suppose I loved her also — as a good friend and congenial companion. I think I liked her the more because I so often wanted to laugh at her, and I think also that I helped to awake in her a sense of humour, though that always took a little work to achieve. Now, with my eighty-second birthday drawing ever nearer, I wonder if I would have as much patience with her — idiosyncrasies? — as I did in my middle-age; perhaps not. But I have many happy memories of her as I knew her then, and it may well that we shall meet again in another life and continue those conversations which taught me so much. I can only wait and see. I will not say “Rest in peace, Savitri,” for I think she would not want to be too peaceful; she once said she would be bored by Elysion. She would be happier in Valhalla.
* * *
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 A. K. Mukherji died on March 21, 1977 at Savitri’s apartment in New Delhi.
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