by Catherine M. Stewart
OPENING of Projekt: Heinrich
Our generation used to call her Aunt Hobbit behind her back, though, quite naturally, we were much more respectful to her face. My father and his cousins had called her Hottentot in oblique reference to her brief stint in Africa as a missionary. And my grandfather - father's father - who was her brother, allegedly had called her by the name, Pixie. But all those names were misnomers.
For though Aunt Hobbit was uncommonly small, with the homely sturdiness of a dwarf rather than the suppleness of a pixie, she had a lively interest in the world-at-large, a spritely wit and bird-bright grey eyes, twinkling alertly behind a fringe of white hair that was as white as arctic mink. She had been indecently old when my father was a boy.; and my own youthful memories of her were of a wrinkled, heavy dark skirt, white poplin apron trimmed with ancient lace, black clocked stockings and a pungent smell of rose and lavender.
She had lived forever in a small London flat with her sister, Aunt Print, who was as tall as Aunt Hobbit was short. Aunt Print's nickname derived from her career as a pulp writer - apparently she was a big success in Germany, where her gothic-horror-cum-science-fiction-cum romances were still in vogue. Occasionally, a translation into English of her 1940's best-seller, "Projekt: Heinrich" was mooted, but her British publishers never seemed to think that the market was quite ready for it...yet. My father had once explained the plot to me, and I perfectly understood the publishing house's reluctance.
I first met the great-aunties after I finished my training in California, and, after a short furlough home, went down to London. Mother made arrangements for me to stay temporarily with them, while I looked around for my own place. It was immensely convenient - their flat was directly opposite the studios.
Father told me all the half-mythical stories about the two of them - about how Hottentot had lived for two years in Kenya during the Mau-Mau uprisings, and her only comment to the family on the experience was: "I spent a lot of time monitoring the radio in those days." And he told me that Aunt Print had been a radar operator during the war (by which he meant the Second World War, of course), that she had been the secretary of the local UFO Society for over two decades (that made me determined to be especially wary of opening my mouth about work), and that she was an incurable romantic who had kept her vow never to marry after the tragic death of her fiancé, Henry.
He also told me the family legend of how Hottentot acquired her diminutive size. Sometime round the turn of the century, when she was three or four, she had cut her finger, and, instead of putting ointment on it, she had dabbed it liberally with white paint. Lead paint. It was that toxic chemical that was supposed to have stunted her growth. Whether it was true or not was debatable, but this was the unchallenged version of why Aunt Hobbit and Aunt Print were so disparate in size and personality that was faithfully repeated to all curious strangers.
I arrived at their flat, having reported briefly to the studio, late on Sunday night - just in time for high tea. Aunt Print opened the door almost as soon as I'd lifted the knocker, greeted me breathlessly with, "Good-evening-Robert-!-Did-you-have-a pleasant-trip-?-How's-your-dear-father-?--" and without waiting for a reply, left me and my bags standing in the doorway, and rushed out through the kitchen onto the fire escape.
I didn't see her again for over a month. After this blink-of-an-eye introduction to Aunt Print, I began to understand what my father had meant by hyperactive eccentricity. I wondered about senility as well, but on such short acquaintance, it was impossible to tell.
Aunt Hobbit, on the other hand, was exactly what I expected - the perfectly dotty maiden aunt - all sweetly solicitous for my welfare, toddling around to show me where to find everything, helping me against my protests to carry my bags into the guest room, presenting me with my towel and extra blankets, and insisting that a growing boy should have supper whether he felt hungry or not. Apple lard and onion rings on toast was not exactly my idea of supper, but Aunt Hobbit had gone to so much trouble to make it, I couldn't refuse. I put on my best smile, and decided it was only polite to grin and bear it. She wouldn't let me help with the washing up, said she was going out, told me not to worry if she was not in until late, and left for her church service.
I unpacked one of my suitcases, rang the studio to verify the time I was expected on duty in the morning, and hunted up the previous day's newspaper in order to make plans for finding an apartment the next day: plans that, in the end, never eventuated.
The following morning, I found porridge bubbling on the stove for me, and a note on the table to bring the milk in. I did. I left for work at 5.57 a.m. and reported at central operations precisely on time at 600a.m., discovering that my schedule included immediate departure for Moonbase. Talk about being thrown into the thick of it straight away! I only just had time to ask Miss Ealand to send a message to the great-aunties not to worry about me, as I was off on location filming for an indefinite period.
The next month, my first as a fully-fledged operative, was both exciting and hectic. After a short tour of duty on Moonbase, a stint in New York operations control, and a flying trip to the new Skydiver dock in Alaska, I was prepared for an exceedingly long rest - and the London flat, on my return, seemed like a positive haven of calm.
The first thing I did when I got back was to plonk my souvenir moon-rock on the mantlepiece, and the second was to unpack my other suitcases. Aunt Hobbit sat me down for a wonderfully unsynthetic meal of suet pudding and blackberry flummery. Aunt Print came in from the fire escape, gave me a brisk nod, saying, "Long time no..." She broke off, with a stare and a start, and glared at the mantlepiece and its new decoration. Then, without another word, she sat down and joined us at tea, but all the while I rattled on about how marvelous the scenery in Barbados was for our new pirate adventure film, she scrutinized my moon-rock from a distance with an almost alarming intensity. Finally she announced, "You didn't get that meteorite in Barbados, Robert. Why don't you simply admit that you've been on location in Antarctica? Your lack of suntan gives you away..." But she didn't wait for a reply -- she was gone from the kitchen and out to the fire escape before I could overcome my shock enough to formulate any kind of reply.
I swallowed uneasily at her departure. Some Antarctic rocks are amazingly similar to moon-rocks. That she knew enough geology to make that sort of identification was unnerving. Especially since she'd used the word, 'meteorite'. Though inaccurate, it was a bit too close to the truth for comfort. As for her accusation that I had not been to Barbados, I shuddered. To think that it had ever crossed my mind that she might be senile!
"Pay no heed to Violet," Aunt Hobbit said to me kindly. "She's a mite upset about Project: Henry. We had hoped to have completed a dictionary by this time, but we're still struggling with the basic linguistics. It's very frustrating..." And then she stopped, and smiled at me - far too demurely for my own good, I realized at once - and padded over in her black stockings to sit on the sofa. "Robert..." she beckoned me in her soft, papery-rustle voice, and she patted a plump cushion by her side, "I wish to have an important talk to you..."
I gulped and sat down. "Aunt Ho.. Aunt Amy," I began, but a warning hand was raised against me.
"Now, now, Robert," frowned Aunt Hobbit, "do not interrupt me while I am marshalling my thoughts." She smiled. "I can't think about two things at the same time as Violet is able to..."
And then she proceeded to dress me down, in the most genteel way, of course, about my job. It was one of the best sermons I had ever listened to. Aunt Hobbit came from that religious era that classed dancing, drinking and smoking as the province of the devil. Celluloid, she made quite clear, was a close relative of these demonic pursuits, and the fact that I had abandoned a promising career in favour of the glamour of films, simply showed the precarious situation of my soul, since, no doubt, I had been lured by the diabolical dollar, the love of which is the root of all evil. Had I not been completely misjudged, I would have felt guilty when she sadly shook her head over my irresponsibility at tossing in my masters degree in computers and astro-physics for the decadent film industry.
As it was, I was sorely tempted to drop the old dear a hint that nothing was further from the truth, but the thought Bwana Straker spiking my head on a pole I so much as uttered a Freudian slip, kept my mouth firmly shut.
"A wicked, wicked waste!" Aunt Hobbit finished her lecture, glared at me and her finger at my undutiful heart. She would pray for me, and I smiled wan and thanked her. She then informed me she and Aunt Print had discussed the matter at length, and they would be happy for to stay at the flat indefinitely.
I was mildly stunned - but infinitely grateful for the offer.
Grateful for two reasons - firstly, I was a lousy cook and living by myself did not promise to be a delightful culinary experience. Secondly, and much more importantly - finding an apartment even a fraction as convenient as this flat was doomed to failure before I began the search. With the film studios directly across the road, I could get out of bed two minutes before arriving at work.