Getting into the eaves requires a Houdini-like dexterity, as the space is so narrow. Getting out is even harder, reminding me of the claustrophobic tunnel scenes in The Great Escape. On several occasions, when my wife has failed to hear my hysterical shouting, I've had to phone her and ask to be rescued.
Fortunately, this time I seemed to be more pliable (perhaps six weeks away from the 9 to 5 routine has relaxed my tensed muscles?) and managed to move around easily, unpacking boxes that had remained unopened since we moved here ten years ago.
Almost everything I found was of no use or value to anyone, but there was one exception: a small square box with a Super 8 cine film inside.
This is what it contained:
The woman pushing twigs into the kettle was my mother's sister, Patricia Eunice Dorothy Prior, who worked as a midwife in a small town at the foot of the Atlas Mountains, in Morocco. Officially she was a missionary, sponsored by a number of churches in Britain, but as it was against the law to promote any religion other than Islam, my aunt had to limit her activities to good works.
Pat grew up in a family of six who lived in the upstairs half of a small, terraced house. She shared a bed with her two sisters and at night she would lie awake listening to the sound of mice scuttling across the floor.
Her parents' ambitions for her were typical for their background: at 14 she could either go into service or get a job in a shop. But Pat was bright. She passed her 11 Plus and got into Richmond Grammar School, where she sat her final exams during an air raid.
If Pat had come from another background she might have gone to university, but higher education was never an option. Fortunately, her parents didn’t object when Pat announced that she wished to train as a nurse.
By all accounts Pat was an exceptional student and the skills she learned at West Middlesex Hospital would prove invaluable a few years later, when she decided to train to become a missionary. In Pat’s words, she had a ‘calling’ and felt compelled to pursue it. A gruelling training at Bible College followed, during which Pat had to learn to become fluent at reading and writing Arabic.
I can’t begin to imagine what it must have been like for Pat when she first arrived in Morocco, where a young, single woman was a second-class citizen. However, during the next 25 years, my aunt carved out a successful life for herself, respected by everyone in the community.
It helped that almost every person under the age of 20 had been delivered by my aunt, sometimes under difficult conditions. Many local families felt that they owed Pat a debt.
When I was 16, Pat invited me to stay with her. We couldn’t afford to travel as a family, so I flew alone to Casablanca and met my aunt at the airport. It was a 300km journey to her home and, as we drove south, my preconceived notions of an arid, desert-like country were replaced by vivid memories of lush pine forests, snow-capped mountains and orange-blossom scented air.
It was a culture shock. I had grown up in a dull London suburb, where evening meals alternated between fish fingers and beef burgers. Suddenly, I was plunged into an alien world of strange food, exotic landscapes and opulent souks.
I had been terrified of eating the local food (particularly when I learned that I would have to eat everything that was put in front of me), but I needn’t have worried. After two weeks of dates, artichokes, couscous, mint tea and carrot and orange salad, I learned that eating could be a pleasure as well as a necessity.
Morocco changed my life. It awakened me to a new, sensual world of smell, taste and colour. But, more importantly, for the first time in my life I learned to see my own society more objectively, realising that happiness was not related to GDP.
I was in a privileged position in many ways. As my aunt enjoyed some prestige in the local area, we were invited into several homes and I was struck by the contrast between the public and private worlds of the local people. Outside, I only saw impoverished-looking mud-brick walls and austere, veiled women. Inside, the veils came down and I found myself in colourful, comfortable rooms, full of laughter and conversation.
Using my aunt as an interpreter, I was able to have conversations with people and, perhaps because of my age, I could get away with asking direct questions.
I had arrived at the right time too. Television aerials were starting to appear on buildings, but the town was still largely cut off from the outside world. As a European, I could have encountered some hostility, but the days of French colonialism belonged to a past generation and religious enmities belonged to a future one. I was treated as an honoured guest.
When I returned home, I felt very depressed for a while. I looked out of my bedroom window at the different shades of grey, from the slate roofs of houses to the low-lying clouds, and yearned for blue skies, prickly pears and orange blossom. I could see why my aunt didn’t want to come home.
Nine years later, my aunt was reluctantly contemplating retirement in Britain. She would have to swap social status and a large house for the genteel poverty of a state pension and a pokey flat. I think she dreaded it.
Pat came home for a short visit to sort out her affairs and work out where she was going to live. On the last day, I said goodbye to my aunt and wanted to hug her, but Pat wasn’t a physically demonstrative person and I was afraid that I might unnerve her, as if we were saying goodbye for the last time.
The next day Pat arrived at Tangiers Airport and was planning to get a lift home from a friend, but a Moroccan lawyer was waiting for her and insisted that she travelled with him instead. He was interested in buying her house and wanted to get her signature on some of the legal documents. They argued for a few minutes until Pat finally agreed.
During the journey from the airport, a lorry crashed into the side of the lawyer’s car. My aunt died a few hours later. The lawyer escaped with a few scratches.
Most of my aunt’s friends were Christians and their attempts to find some meaning in her death only increased my sense of the utter futility of it. I couldn’t accept the argument that some crude form of divine intervention had spared my aunt the horrors of retired life in England. I know that she would have made a successful new life for herself and been a doting great-aunt to my sons.
My aunt’s death was tragic and pointless, however her life certainly wasn’t, because I know that in a small town 2000 miles away, there are dozens, perhaps hundreds of lives that wouldn’t have been lived without her.