Howie Firth reviews Auntie Robbo, by Ann Scott-Moncrieff
Everyone should have an Auntie Robbo.
Outwardly she looks “the very picture of what an old lady should be”, but her great-grand-nephew Hector knows she is something more than that.
Her hair was snowy and strained neatly into a bun at the nape of her neck. She wore a black satin gown which flowed in ample sober folds down over her shoes. Her hands lay still as doves on her tight-corseted stomach. A most proper and placid old lady. That’s what you or I would have said. But Hector knew better. He knew his aunt was only sitting still and peaceful because of the good big dinner she had eaten, and her hands were folded not in piety but over the fullness of her stomach. Auntie Robbo was in fact thinking of the duckling and roast potatoes and claret and vanilla pudding that reposed beneath them. She sighed, a gentle satisfied sigh.”
Auntie Robbo looks after the orphaned Hector, taking him out on the ponies to explore the hills, telling him about the countries she has travelled in, teaching him to read French and enjoy Gaelic poetry – all to his great enjoyment.
Sometimes we do sums. We keep account books, and history – lots of history; then afterwards we ride over the battlefields and go and look at the castles where the murders were done.’ ”
But into their world comes the figure of his stepmother, Merlissa Benck.
Merlissa Benck’s eyes were cold and round and yellowish-grey, like a couple of Scots pebbles, the uglier kind of Scots pebbles, or perhaps the kind that is made uglier because of their setting. Hector stared back into those eyes as if he had been a rabbit come face to face with a stoat.”
His newly-arrived stepmother decides he should be sent away to school – but Auntie Robbo is not going to allow that to happen; and so they take to the road. First there is the bus to Edinburgh, and then the train to Perth, with Auntie Robbo ensuring they have a large picnic basket for the journey.
On the train are a worried-looking young man, Brinsley Burston, and three children – Mary and Sando and Pete – who he has mistakenly taken aboard as relatives on their way to stay with his mother. The children themselves are not too perturbed, as their home life with aunts and stepfathers is not too happy; but Brinsley Burston is much distressed by the confusion.
But when Auntie Robbo handed him a cardboard plate full of chicken and potato and salad, he took it unresistingly and was soon absorbed, with a handkerchief tucked under his chin, a roll on one knee, and a wineglass at his elbow, making a hearty meal.
”As for the others, they shared the rest of the chicken between them and finished up every scrap of the things that went with it. Auntie Robbo drank out of the claret bottle, much to Sando’s admiration. He said he had never seen any other woman able to do that without spluttering, even Pete’s aunt, who was by way of being a hardened, life-long drinker.
‘It only needs intelligence,’ said Auntie Robbo. ‘Intelligence and practice.’
The children practised with the milk bottle. Some milk unfortunately got spilt on Brinsley Burston’s coat. Auntie Robbo quickly gave him a peach before he could notice it.”
And she and Hector come up with a solution. Brinsley’s mother hasn’t seen the expected children since they were babies, so won’t notice the difference if the group of children on the train stand in for them, and Auntie Robbo can take the part of Miss Comrie, the accompanying governess.
‘Well, there you are,’ said Auntie Robbo, with an easy gesture of her hands. ‘All settled, Mr Burston. A load off your mind, I’m sure. Now don’t fret yourself about where we’re going to sleep or anything like that – we don’t mind in the least. An attic will do me. But what is the cook like? That’s really important.’
’It’s not that, Miss … Mrs …’
’Call me Miss Comrie, then you’ll get used to it.’
’It isn’t that at all. It’s the deception. I can’t be a party to …’
’Oh, dear, the deception!’ cried Auntie Robbo, and bit the tips of her fingers. ‘I quite forgot. You’ll have to stop the real Miss Comrie from turning up with your three nephews, or from making inquiries. I’ll tell you what; send them a telegram to their hotel; say there’s an epidemic raging in the neighbourhood and that they’d much better not come till next year. I expect the governess will take them straight back home, all the better and none the wiser for their little trip to Edinburgh. Or she may take them to Troon. Troon’s very nice, I believe. Have another chocolate?’
The old road north
A happy stay is cut short when Merlissa Benck appears, but they take her car and escape and then join up with a tinker in his cart and find an out-of-the-way route north – “the old main road to the Highlands”.
Sometimes it was narrow and overgrown, little more than a tunnel between dense hedges and overhanging trees; sometimes it became quite respectable, passing through a farmsteading or a village; and then for a mile or two it would turn into the real main road again, tarmacadamed and telegraph-wired, bristling with signposts and traffic signals. But always it became as they had first found it, splitting away from the main road to seclusion and neglect. It disappeared into a cornfield, but the tinker said they would find it again on the other side.”
And there are campfires and clouds of midges dancing in the evening air, and stories and sleeping out on the ground below the cart – and the wonderful feeling of waking up to a new day of freedom.
The world was marvellously fresh and brilliant. The grass smelled as he had never known grass could smell; he could see a little birch tree with gleaming white stalk in the sunlight and a shower of minute gleaming leaves; and the birds sang their loudest and longest as if they believed nobody was there to hear them.”
By June they have reached the Caledonian Canal.
The Highland summer was at its best – long, sun-filled, wind-cooled days when the sky grew only more deeply blue as the hours passed, flaring at last into splendid sunset, dying into the pale gloom of night. They got up with the sun, they went to bed with it. All the world was newly green – as if spring was in summer there – bright grass, unfurling bracken, young heather. Wild flowers crowded the ditches and burns. Hayfields and new corn shone, their short crops combed by the summer wind. Far away hills lay like static blue clouds against the bluer sky; and near at hand, sun-striped and tawny, like great beasts lapped in sleep.”
A white shingly beach
The journey continues to the country of Ross, then to Oban – and a journey by fishing-boat to the island of Shanna.
Nothing could have been more unexpected and charming. They slipped between two outjutting pillars of rock into sheltered water where the waves merely fretted against the white shingly beach. They passed above gently waving weeds and a sandy bottom. The stone slip ran out to meet them, and there was the boathouse at the top of the steps and the comfortable hull of their boat sticking out of it. And behind, a winding well-kept road led up to their house. It was delightful, better than even Auntie Robbo had imagined.”
On Shanna there are more adventures – and for the rest you will have to read the book! It was published in 1941, and written at a time when the world was at its darkest point, and is a book to bring the feeling of resilience in the face of head winds, and the joy of adventure and fresh discoveries, and it is a book for today and tomorrow. Everyone needs an Auntie Robbo.
Auntie Robbo, by Ann Scott-Moncrieff, was published in hardback, and later in a Puffin paperback, and although currently out of print, copies are still available online.