A skeleton in the closet

PETER CUNNINGHAM tells how a family mystery led him to a dark secret that had been kept locked away for 70 years

PETER CUNNINGHAMtells how a family mystery led him to a dark secret that had been kept locked away for 70 years

I GREW UP in the shadow of a family secret. It comes out in my fiction, where the search for identity is always compelling. I grew up in a framework of fabrication and concealment that had gone on since my mother was a child and was still in place when she died.

My mother’s name was Mory Frederick Lester McIntyre. She was born in 1920, the only daughter of Frederick Lester McIntyre from Moree, New South Wales, Australia, and Rhoda Lauder, Sutton, Co Dublin.

My grandparents were straight out of the Roaring Twenties. Fred was a professional gambler, Rhoda a scratch golfer. They both liked to party. Between 1920 and 1931, they moved between Sutton, Bournemouth, Deauville and Monte Carlo. When Fred went to the racecourse in Deauville, Rhoda played golf, sometimes with Edwina Mountbatten, whose husband would later be Viceroy of India. Lady Mountbatten once told Rhoda that she would trade the pearls she always wore for my grandmother’s swing.

Fred died in 1931, I was told. Two years later, Rhoda married Danny Bowe, from Tramore, Co Waterford. (Rhoda died in 1947, the year I was born.)

As a child, although I was not conscious of any concealment, I can now think back to moments when adult glances were exchanged and faces went red when the name of my grandfather came up. Then one day in Saint Fintan’s cemetery in Howth, Co Dublin, I stumbled on the first clue to a family secret that had been kept for 70 years.

The old cemetery in St Fintan’s lies on the west-facing flank of the Hill of Howth. When I was brought as a child to pay my respects, trams from central Dublin still ran up the nearby hill to Howth’s summit. The inscription on the Lauder headstone read:

In loving memory of

Edmond Stanley Lauder

Caramore, Sutton

Who Died 17th May 1895

Aged 35 Years

Also His Beloved Wife Mary Lauder

Requiescat In Pace

Who Died 27th March 1950.

“in the midst of life we are in death”

Also Their Devoted Daughter Rhoda

Who Died 1st November 1947

I stared for a long time before the penny finally dropped. Any casual passer-by would have to conclude that Rhoda, the devoted daughter, had never married. Yet Rhoda, my grandmother, had been married not once but twice. Why then was her married name not given? Why not describe her by her full name, Rhoda Bowe?

Whenever my mother spoke of Fred, her father, it was with fondness. Fred “was lovely”, she always said. Already a widower when he met Rhoda, he had come to England from Australia, probably around 1913, just before the First World War, with his adult son, Norman, I was told. Fred’s best friend and contemporary was another Aussie gambler called John Rowan, who arrived in the UK around 1913. Rowan became one of the biggest punters in the English betting ring in the 1930s.

I had been told that Fred died in 1931. So, where was he buried? Who had gone to his funeral? My mother was always vague in this matter whenever I asked. My father used to hide behind his newspaper, until eventually he would emerge, hissing, “Why don’t you leave all that alone?”

Photographs of Fred exist in old family albums. He is a handsome, urbane-looking fellow, with big hands and a wide, winning smile. He is dressed impeccably, and wears a fedora. One picture shows him outside a casino in Monte Carlo. In another he is perched on a rustic fence, lighting a cigar.

I set out to try to track down official evidence of my grandfather’s life and death, starting with the fact that he had been married in Australia. No marriage record for a Frederick Lester McIntyre existed in New South Wales. All attempts to connect Fred to any one of the many McIntyre families (I investigated 25 families) in New South Wales failed. No one of my grandfather’s name had been born in New South Wales between 1850 and 1880.

NO CHILD called Norman McIntyre had been born there over a 50-year period. No Mrs Fred McIntyre had died. And after multiple trips to records offices in London, Dublin and Australia, I could say with certainty that no one of my grandfather’s name had died in either the United Kingdom or Ireland from 1920 onwards. Nor had Fred died in New South Wales, any more than he had been born or married there.

As far as the records went, Frederick Lester McIntyre had never existed.

Danny Bowe married Rhoda McIntyre on June 21st, 1933, in Saint Luke’s Catholic church in Pinner, Middlesex. Danny and Rhoda’s place of residence at the time of their marriage was given as 28 Love Lane, Pinner. I discovered that in 1933, 28 Love Lane was the presbytery of Saint Luke’s. Danny and Rhoda had stayed the night before their marriage in the same house as the priest who was marrying them. I looked closer. The signature on their marriage certificate was that of a Father John Caulfield. Danny’s mother was a Caulfield. Father John Caulfield was Danny’s first cousin.

Fred had not died, just disappeared. This is why there was no death certificate. Yet Danny, although he must have had a shrewd idea that Fred was not coming back, still needed to hedge his bets. Any other priest would have insisted on seeing evidence that Rhoda was a widow. Cousin John Caulfield was prepared to overlook this requirement. No wonder my father hissed and spluttered. No wonder Rhoda’s married name, Bowe, never made it to her headstone. Her second marriage was unsafe. Rhoda was a bigamist.

With nothing to show from my search for Fred, I turned to his friend, the gambler John Rowan. According to contemporary press reports, in October 1939, at Devon assizes, John James Rowan had been sentenced to 18 months’ imprisonment for obtaining a £10,000 cheque by false pretences with intent to defraud. Police records state that Rowan was born in Australia and his real name was Hugh Henry Lewis. He claimed to have changed his name by deed poll to Rowan in 1913, around the same time that Fred McIntyre had popped up in Ireland. Had they left Australia together, perhaps to dodge the impending military draft? Or for reasons to do with gambling debts? I felt I would never know. Fred had covered his tracks so well that he would never be found.

A couple of years later, I was researching in Trinity one day, reading The Irish Timesfrom 1919. I suddenly remembered: Fred and Rhoda had married in 1919. I scrolled the microfilm to April 16th, 1919, the day after my grandparents' wedding. There it was: "The Marriage has taken place between Miss Rhoda Lauder, The Burrow Sutton and Mr Frederick Lester McIntyre, The Marine Hotel Sutton . . ." I peered at the screen, since the type was smudged. I read: " . . . and formerly of Mudgee, New South Wales.

IT WAS THE first mention of Mudgee. I gently asked my mum, then very ill, if Mudgee meant anything to her. She shook her head. A few weeks later, she passed away.

The following month I received an e-mail from Jeanette Byfield, of the Mudgee Historical Society. “I think I have your man,” she wrote. Then the next day: “All my research to this time suggests that Frederick was really Arthur A Lester, son of William Richards Lester . . . Arthur married Mary Payten in 1890 and had a son, Norman, born in 1891”.

Jeanette then sent me photographs of Dr Charles Lester, Arthur’s brother, who became a ship’s doctor. The resemblance to Fred was more than striking. It was undeniable.

I felt relief and sadness in equal measure. Had I received this information a month earlier, I would have then been faced with the decision of whether or not to tell Mum. I could never have done so. I had become the latest guardian of my grandfather’s secret.

Six months later I found myself in the town of Mudgee, 150 miles to the north-west of Sydney. It is the centre of a wine-producing and sheep-farming region that is flanked on three sides by the Great Dividing Range. The aboriginals called Mudgee “Little Nest in the Hills”.

The Lesters are an old established family of New South Wales. David and Mary Lester, reserved and polite, are in their late 70s. David, the grandson of Dr Charles Lester, is a tall man with the strong arms of a cricket bowler, and he looks remarkably like Mory, my mother. Sitting over a beer in the evening on the back porch, as cockatoos thrashed around in eucalyptus trees, David Lester told me that as family lore had it Arthur had been killed in France during the first World War. Arthur was a gambler, the black sheep of the family, my cousin David Lester said. Arthur had married in Sydney in the 1880s, but had later divorced. No one had ever met Norman, his son.

Where Fred disappeared to in 1931, or what befell him, I cannot say. Perhaps, as in Sydney 20 years before, the bookies were closing in. He might well have still been alive in the 1950s, hence the caution around the Howth headstone inscription. He was, after all, the same age as his friend John Rowan, who on July 11th, 1950, hanged himself by a cord on the door of his bedroom in a hotel in Russell Square, Bloomsbury, London.

During my searching, a fondness for Fred grew in me. I often smile when I imagine that April day in 1919, in Sutton's Marine Hotel. When the moment comes to send the notice of the wedding to The Irish Timesfor publication, Fred's hand falters. Is he to cut all ties with his home? He cannot lie on this day of all days. He writes, " . . . and formerly of Mudgee, New South Wales". He seals the envelope. It is done.

The following January, at my mother’s christening, he included Lester in her name. He was leaving clues for the unborn generations, perhaps, so that they could make contact again, as I have now done. So that his successors could one day come home.

Peter Cunningham's new novel, The Sea and the Silence, is published by New Island Books