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.


  1. Many interesting characters - how good that they had each other and knew and were known in the village. The townies could learn a thing or two from them.

  2. Your village stories are so interesting. I loved these little portraits.

  3. I really enjoyed this. I'd be buggered if I'd push a man around in a wheelchair when he could walk. A couple of punctures would've helped :)

  4. Towards the end it's become tragic...everyone have had a unique life as soon as he/she recognise it

  5. It was an odd little street - but they did all look out for one another, noticed if curtains weren't drawn etc and they were all quite independant, given that the youngest was over 75!

  6. Enthralling piece! How terrible that the cottages were sold off that way.