120. Pain in the Neck.

By Peter Fraenkel

She really had a genius for making others feel bad. “Oh, you’re SO fortunate! What a fine house! Wonderful furniture! Rich!”

In fact, my establishment was quite modest but she still succeeded in embarrassing me. I toyed with the wicked idea of tipping her 3 pence …. But I didn’t. Would that have shut her up? Very unlikely.

“What a wonderful coat … must have cost a fortune.” She herself, as she told us repeatedly, was poor, desperately poor.

It wasn’t easy to avoid her. She had a small flat adjoining Hampstead Heath and the house I shared with a friend was very close. I loved walking on the Heath and so did she, so it was difficult to avoid meeting her. She was delighted when she discovered I could speak German and always tried to launch a conversation in that language.

There was a question mark over her name. By origin, she said she was Austrian and a Catholic and she remained a regular churchgoer. She told me she went to confess her sins regularly. But how had she come by a name like Chowdhury? Was that one of her sins?  Had she been married to a man of that name … an Indian? A Pakistani? Or had she not?

Richard, her bloody-minded, awkward son-in-law, married – he said – to her daughter Myra was sceptical. He appeared to have fun teasing Mrs Chowdhury about her name. Or names?  He always addressed her by an Austrian-sounding one – Mother Muehlwerth or Jänne Muehlwerth.  This annoyed her greatly. Was she trying to hide that she had no right to that Asian-sounding name … that maybe she had never been married … ergo that her daughter was not “legitimate”?

At that time and at that period this would have mattered very little, but she was rooted in another era so it infuriated her.

Richard only came to London rarely. To me he boasted that he had “a girl at every port”, but when the cold of winter came he always moved in with Myra for a month or so and – every time – he left her pregnant.

A Jesuit from a beautiful little Hampstead church – it had once been the Bavarian embassy’s church – dropped in frequently for a cup of tea and to offer advice. What Mother Chowdhury/Muehlwerth told me about his advice astonished me. But that was after Myra had taken up with Richard.

“Better an affair than a marriage. An affair – she can break off any time. Ending a marriage? That’s more complicated …and slower!”

It’s not advice I had expected from a Jesuit. Had the church changed so much? Or was he simply …eccentric?

I tried once to raise my puzzlement with Mother Chowdhury but she never responded. She was on again about her poverty. Fortunately I managed to escape before she could get round to my alleged great fortune.