Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Death Row

A wealthy land-owner bequeathed some land to the Council to build cottages specifically for villagers who had spent their lives in service in the "Big Houses", (living in tithe cottages) finding themselves homeless at the end of their working lives. The street became known as Gods Waiting Room or more unkindly (but just as accurately)Death Row.

One Bank Holiday Monday the paper boy was away on holiday so I took the short walk down Death Row, my shadow - the Border Collie - beside me.

A Daily Express for Jack and Esme. Esme, born and bred in the village, Jack moving in after they were married - Jack was quite deaf and suffering from dementia, he shook as he walked on account of some strapnel being left in his legs after an explosion during the War. Jack was sent down to the shop every Saturday morning with a simple shopping list, he managed most things on it but sometimes needed help finding items, especially if we had rearranged the shelves. Esme became ill with cancer, Jack had to go into a home - Esme made a valiant recovery but after a month or so in the home Jack had forgotten who she was, how do you forget the person you lived with for over sixty years? Jack didn't last long in the home, poor Esme never quite forgave herself for not being able to look after him on her own.

No need to deliver to Young George next door, a mischievous widower, every morning he would be waiting patiently outside for the shop to open, with his friend Percy from a couple of doors down. Georges middle name was Lancelot, so he and Percy became The Knights. George carried a ladies handbag (which had belonged to his late wife), he didn't seem to think it was at all unusual. Every winter George joined his son and his son's "friend" for a month in Portugal; on his return I said how nice it must have been eating all that lovely Portuguese food - he looked at me in horror. Apparently he had taken tins of food from home to see him through the month, although he did concede that they made quite nice bread over there.

Next door to Young George was blind Dot. She had lived in the village most of her life and for many years ran the tearooms opposite the Forge. All the old boys in the street fussed over Dot but she was having none of it - a wonderful independent, (well as independent as you could be when you were blind) old girl, but she would rely on them to come in and read the interesting articles from the paper to her!

Percy, the other half of the Knights, lived on the other side of Dot. In his late eighties he still rose at the crack of dawn, still worked as a gardener for an even older lady in the nearest town and still drove his old car, very slowly. Percy had been a farm hand, a reserved occupation, during the War - so all his War stories were about the hardships he had endured as a young man on the land. After the War he became a milkman and then a market gardener. Percys wife was wheel-chair bound and suffered with "her nerves", Percy did everything for her, cooked, shopped and cleaned. He came into the shop the day after she died, I said how sorry I was to hear his news. He looked quite surprised "Oh did you know her then?" he asked - the truth was I didn't, I had never seen her. "We were married for over 65 years," he said "So I suppose I will miss having her around." He never mentioned her again, but when his cat died he was heartbroken.

Down the path to the next house, push a copy of The Sun through Alf Mackies door; Mackie was a Scot, and although he had never returned to live in Scotland after the War he still spoke with a broad accent. He'd been a POW in Changi during the War, one of the slave labourers who built the Burma railway. Mackie came into the shop every Monday afternoon, collected his pensions, paid his newspaper bill, bought a few groceries and regaled us with tales of his past. Not all his stories were about the War, after his wife died (and apparently before) Mackie was renowned for being a ladies man, he'd been a postman and had plenty of "opportunities" for meeting women on their own, "in need of a bit of company". Every week he carefully counted his pension, tucked it away into his pocket and asked "Hae ye got yar bag packed then lassie?" Sean would look up and he'd wink at me "Oh Lord I didna see ya there Sean, but ya'll know shes all set to run away wi' me!" he'd pat his pocket "It's ma money she's after." In his eighties and still working one of the "Big Houses", opening and closing the gate for the lady of the house when she went out riding, looking after the cats and house-sitting for them when the owners went away. He had a son and two fine handsome grandsons; he was always telling me about the fortune they would inherit from him when he died. I'm sure it was true too - he collected 3 pensions from the post office every week and got paid for his gate-opening job! One day Mackie came into his little cottage to find he had been broken into, nothing taken but that act destroyed him - he moved out of the village shortly afterwards, into sheltered accommodation, where he sat staring at the walls waiting for the Grim Reaper.

Mr. Whippet lived next door - so named because he kept several of them. A thin, wheezing man who smoked a hundred fags a day, or so it seemed. He never got over the death of his wife, he became belligerent and argumentative, fell out with neighbours and his only daughter the year he died. She didn't even come to the cottage to sort out his belongings - just left it all for the Council to do.

A Daily Express for Old George. Old George in his mid nineties, too young for the first War, too old for the Second - or was he? He hobbled down to the shop on his ulcerated legs every week to pay his paper bill and post his winning ticket in the Readers Digest Lottery. He told us wild improbable stories about his war-years, a pilot stationed in North Africa. We put his inaccurate ramblings down to old age! One day he fell and broke his hip, whilst waiting for his friend to collect him for his weekly trip to the pub, he insisted on going to the pub - he knew it would be his last trip, he bought a round then went noisily off to hospital. They told him he was not capable of looking after himself and needed to be put into a home. He called in his solicitor that afternoon, wrote his will and died the next day. The Rector had to research his life story for the Eulogy and found out that George had indeed been too old to serve in the Second War - he had been an artist, a very famous one - painting the posters for West-End Shows, his little house was full of them! In his dotage he had taken on the persona of his younger brother, a pilot in the Second World War - killed in action.

A Daily Telegraph for Minnie Mouse - a tiny frail old lady who collected magazines, cut them up and made them into scrap books to take to Old Peoples Homes. When her husband died she was gifted a television, the first she had ever been allowed to own, and sat watching re-runs of Little House on the Prairie. The sweetest old girl you would ever meet, one night someone broke into her house whilst she was eating her dinner; quick as a flash she switched off the lights, rang the alarm, and clobbered the intruder. But it left her shaken and ate away at her confidence. It wasn't long before she was carted off to the Old Peoples home, to sit and look at the scrap-books?

Manfred and Hannah next along the path - they didn't take a paper; their world was each other, they had no need to know what went on in the other world. When Manfred died poor old Hannah went quite mad, she didn't stand a chance without him.

A Daily Express for Cissy - Cissy who had no children of her own, having spent all her life waiting hand and foot on Frank, her large, domineering husband. Frank who spent his life pouring after bulb catalogues, growing and showing the most beautiful flowers in the row. Frank who sat in a wheel chair, even though he was perfectly able to walk just enjoyed that poor Cissy had to push him around. When Frank died Cissy sat in her kitchen for hours on end staring at the catalogues with unseeing eyes - the papers piled up behind the door.

The Mirror for Gladys, and a small bottle of whiskey to put on the tab, paid off on pension day. Gladys always glammed herself up for a trip on the bus into town, a nice red jacket and hair coiffured. Invited Paul in every afternoon, the pair of them getting as drunk as a lords, eventually taken off to sheltered accommodation after she was found wandering around the street in her nightie in the winter.

The Mirror for Wynne - Wynne who liked her G and T, with a slice of lemon if you don't mind. Ran away from hubby number one, outlived number two; a hoard of children and grandchildren all living close by, always popping into the shop to settle Mums account.

A TV Quick, once a week, for Old Doris next door. Old Doris? Of course she was old she lived on Death Row - but Doris was the oldest, nearly 100 and still hopping on and off the bus like an eighty year old. As she approached her birthday it was discovered there was a mistake... someone checked her birth certificate, she was a year younger than they thought! The daughter and her husband moved into the tiny one-bedroomed cottage with her, shoved her into the broom cupboard and persuaded her to challenge the Council into letting her buy the property - she won the right to buy it, the first on that row to ever be sold. She then willed it to the daughter, any guesses how long she would last in the broom cupboard?

No paper for Charlie on the end. Served his time in India, loved curries - every week he came in to collect his pension and buy stamps to pay his phone bill and electricity bill. His arms were decorated with old faded tattoos, he surprised himself each year when his birthday came around again. One week he came in to collect his pension "No stamps today love.. I won't be around when they send the next bill, leave it to someone else to sort out." I laughed at his joke, then saw he was quite serious.

As the old people died off the Council decided that they could no longer keep the cottages just for the elderly and started moving younger strangers into the village. It caused resentment amongst those coming up to the age that thought they might be entitled to them, even more when those that moved in started buying them.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Fire! Fire!

Country Folk have little regard for the rules and regulations that govern the lives of Townies - and the "no-burning your rubbish in your own back garden" nonsense was blatantly ignored by all in the village; surely we couldn't really be expected to pay the council to come out, their huge silly trucks blocking the narrow lanes for hours, to remove rubbish that would take less than twenty minutes to burn away?

One day as I was walking my dogs through the neighbouring yard I spotted the Rector piling papers into an old oil drum at the bottom of his garden. Now the Rector was really a Townie but he was trying hard to embrace the traditions of the village - he had piled the oil drum high with papers and packaging. As I passed by I stopped to pass the time of day, share a joke. Just as I was moving off a glint caught my eye, a small can of petrol lying on the grass beside the oil drum.

"No!" I screamed to the Rector as I watched him light a match in slow motion and fling it into the oil drum....

"Run!" I shouted to the dogs as the oil drum whooshed into life, throwing the Rector off his feet....

An unholy oath sprang from the Rectors lips as he landed on his bottom, his beard singeing, flames leaping from the oil drum.

"You alright?" I asked - he nodded in embarrassment, he wasn't physically injured, just bruised pride that I had witnessed the scene; knowing that the story would be repeated - with embellishments for dramatic effect, and trying to remember the curse he had uttered, he wondered if he would ever shake off "That bloody Townie" appendage.

I first wrote this story in reply to Magpie Tales prompt - but as it was a true story I thought I could get away with re-posting it here where it really belongs.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Should You Look A Gift Horse In The Mouth?

The Heath was owned by the National Trust, it had been bequeathed years ago by the father of one of our worthies. The National Trust employed a Warden - living with his family in the aptly named Wardens Cottage, just behind the cricket green, opposite the Heaths carpark.

Gordon the Warden was a tall, very tall - just one inch off being categorised as a giant - thin man with long black hair and a thick bushy black beard. So thick was his beard and hair that one day hot summers day (whilst out walking the dogs) I wondered who it was walking towards me with a balaclava on!

Anyway enough said about poor old Gordons beard. He was a pleasant friendly man, he spoke with a slow West Country drawl and like me grew most of his vegetables. We had a lot of time for Gordon and his wife, Debbie, so it came as no surprise when we were invited to Gordons 40th birthday - a Surprise 40th Birthday Party Barn Dance, being held in one of Ted Cross' spare barns. Poor Debbie was having a devil of a time keeping the whole thing a surprise, Gordon was always popping up when he was least expected and to be honest he was getting a little miffed that Debbie was not making a big enoough fuss of his birthday as he thought it deserved. In the week leading up to the party a steady stream of party guests visited the tearoom, with plates of food and drink to be hidden in our fridges and freezers before the Great Day. Gordons mother arrived a few days before hand to take control and keep Gordon occupied... but Gordon smelt a rat and started behaving badly - the day before the Great Day I think poor Debbie was on the verge of leaving him! (I jest but you get the picture)

Anyway the day arrived and friends rallied around got everything organised and stood in the dark waiting for the great moment. Quite what Debbie said to lure him out in the dark to an old barn standing in the middle of a field that nobody, but dear old Ted, had access to is beyond me - but there you go it happened and Gordon was suitably surprised - the band struck up and a great party was had by one and all.

Sorry that wasn't the actual story, just the background. The party guests were mostly fellow villagers, a few National Trust wardeny types and family that had travelled up from the West Country. So over a few glasses of beer, home-made pasties and country music we were cornered by one of the village "characters" a strange looking man, with wild staring eyes, a frightfully long pedigree and enormously long double-barrelled name to match. He whispered to us in a conspirtorial way that he was having to cull a few feral sheep (feral sheep? For Gods sake what is a feral sheep?) he couldn't bury the wretches on his land anymore (new EU regulations), he couldn't sell the meat (they weren't being slaughtered in a slaughter house), it was going to cost him a small fortune to have them removed and incinerated, did we want one? "Of course" said Sean, the tearoom freezer had plenty of room now that all of Gordons party goodies had been removed. It was a chance conversation and when nothing appeared the following week we weren't really disappointed.

About a month later I was working in the shop when I saw the battered utility truck belonging to aforementioned nutter whizz into our carpark. In the time it took for the truck to screech around it was hurtling back out down the road again. I thought nothing more of it - about an hour later Sean came in from deliveries.

"Whats that great big black bag doing in the garden?" he asked.
"Black bag?" I replied blankly.
"Oh typical some stupid sod has dumped a black bag of rubbish into the garden." He stormed off to investigate. He came back minutes later shaking his head.
"Theres a bloody sheep in that bag."
Ahh so that was what his nutter-ship was doing in the car park.
"Well get it into the freezer quickly."
"I can't put it into the freezer - its a whole bloody sheep!"

Now I don't know what we were both expecting but to have a whole dead sheep chucked over the garden wall was not quite how we had interpreted the conversation at Gordons party. Neat little piles of chops and legs neatly jointed was what I had in mind. Sean spent the rest of the day rigging up ladders, hooks and ropes in order to winch the beast up with - although Sean was a big strong bloke a whole sheep was quite cumbersome for him to haul around and hook up, whilst keeping a couple of very intrigued dogs at bay. He chopped the beasts head off, gutted it and began the task of skinning it (all skills he had acquired working in the African bush for De Beers quarter of a century beforehand). The kids came home from school and turned into the yard to be greeted by this weird contraption with a sheep hanging from it, the Ridgeback running around with the head in her mouth and the Collie lying watching, (in only the way a Collie can), their father stripped down to the his shorts covered in blood, brandishing an extremely offensive weapon. I was on the vegetable patch pretending it was a perfectly normal rural sight.
An hour or so later and Sean had managed to cut the sheep up into some pretty decent joints and chops - but we weren't happy, the kids didn't want to eat anything their father had butchered, so we fired up the braai and cooked the lot there and then, and the dogs fed happily off it for a couple of weeks. The rest of the carcass we burnt.

It seems that these gifts had been distributed around the village to most of the guests at Gordons party - Pete Osborne, a villager who once worked in the local slaughterhouse, had been called in by all the others - he had spent a day skinning and gutting the poor beasts and been given a leg by each of them. His wife had roasted one of them for dinner that night. Pete had cut into it and then phoned everybody he had worked for and told them to throw it all away immediately. Maybe our nuttership wasn't such a nutter after all - he had disposed of 20 unwanted carcasses for the cost of driving around the village.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Show Chooks

One of our friends in the village bred and "showed" chickens. A hitherto unknown hobby made a sudden impact upon our lives when she suggested that our garden would be an ideal environment for her aged champions to retire to.

We were given an old coop that we patched up just in time for our first delivery of retirees. Seven fussy old girls and two cockerels. One cockerel is normally enough for any garden but one of them was a Dorking - a large docile bird aptly named Dork, the other Chicken Supreme , a splendid looking silver Egyptian Fayomi, strutted around his domain without bothering to cast a glance in poor old Dorks direction. The seven old beauty queens were (our son and daughter took on the responsibility of naming them) - Bobbsy-Bob, an Old-English black-hen (she, we were reliably informed had been placed 3rd in the National "Wet Feathered" Championships), Kentucky Fried (a bustling, bossy white hen), Chicken formerly known as Mary (always referred to by her full title) Mable (the most adventurous and luckiest hen ever), Rosa (a Chilean variety with rosy red cheeks) one-eyed Iris and Lily.

Having never kept chooks before we found their behaviour fascinating; they were let out of their coop each morning - Chicken Supreme, always the first one out, would begin his morning by raping each of the hens as soon as he could - Dork would shuffle off, preferring not to be involved in this barbarity. Once the girls had satisfied his lust Chicken Supreme would fly to the gate and begin his crowing, he was a vile, conceited, boastful specimen! He knew no boundaries and would boldly march into the kitchen then up the stairs to crow and shout from the banisters. He started to become much too bold and aggressive - as I hung out the washing he would fly at me brandishing his spurs and beak. I must have looked a sight hanging out the washing with one hand, fending this brute off with a broom handle in the other. Eventually I tired and complained to our benefactor.
"Oh for goodness sake stop being such a wimp." she told me, "You just have to be firm."
I walked out with more purpose, even took the dogs out with me for protection, but that damn rooster just saw this as an even greater challenge. The next time my friend came over I insisted she come to witness his behaviour. He eyed her up menacingly, but kept his distance,
"See, " she smirked "He knows whose boss."
She shook her head and turned her back, it all happened so quickly I can't say for certain now the correct sequence of events, maybe as she shook her head her hat fell off and she bent to pick it up or Chicken Supreme took a flying leap at her and knocked it off? Whichever he was suddenly on her scratching and pecking before she had a chance to defend herself, she shook him off and clutched the back of her neck and as she took her hand away I saw blood.
"Oh my God!" I exclaimed, secretly pleased, she really shouldn't have been so smug. "Here let me..."
"You little sh..." she cried, and before I could say another word she had grabbed her assailant and wrung his neck. I watched in horror as his body flopped into a lifeless rag. My friend raised a wry smile "Well, " she said staring me straight in the eye, "You just have to be firm. Now you don't mind if I take him home for my Lurchers do you?"

She bought us another cockerel the next morning, a golden Fayomi, Kataff. He was an absolute gent compared to his predecessor and lived happily in the garden for four or five years.
The chooks were easily tamed - Sean would call to them from the kitchen door, they would hurtle down the path, jostling each other in their haste to reach his open hand filled with pellets for them to feed off. He would stroke them and talk to them softly, telling them each which sort of sauce he would like them to be served up with. Every time he walked into the garden a little line of chooks would follow him, blissfully unaware of his evil intentions.

We kept a succession of hens for the next six years, they rewarded us with four or five eggs a day and hours of amusement, as they scritched and scratched over the whole garden. They turned my soil over in the vegetable patch every spring - but had to be chased off and netted out once the seeds were in the ground. Mabel the intrepid explorer escaped with monotonous regularity into the yard next door to rummage in the manure heap for worms, Bobbsy-Bob fended off foxes from her chicks, Lily got broody and made nests in the most unlikely of places, Kentucky Fried fussed and clucked and kept them all in order. One by the one they died or strayed too far into Mr. Foxes unforgiving reach - the last two Lily and Kataff wandering around together, an inseparable pair, ended up a little pile of feathers.