Monday, 11 April 2011

Sid Vicious - RIP

Ellen posted a story yesterday about the wrens she has been watching and it reminded me of yet another story about our chooks ... the ones we had in the village.

As soon as one chook got broody they all did, they would hide their eggs and start to settle on their clutches; if you disturbed them they would just go and find another spot to hoard their eggs in and start the whole process again, sometimes they were broody for so long we genuinely feared for them - to break the cycle we had to get fertilised eggs from our breeder and let them hatch a clutch.

It was always very cute when a clutch hatched out. Little fluffy things chirping, running around in dizzy circles. Hens aren't particularly clever and they all imagined the little ones were there own, so we might end up with ten chicks and eleven mothers at once.

The mothers would waddle along besides the chicks, constantly chivving them this way and that, rushing at any bird that landed suspiciously close to them ... I have mentioned before that our hens were free-range, so the poor old girls had a lot of ground to cover and dangers to face down.

Our most successful mother was a Bobsy-Bobs, she was a Black English Game Hen - she had one first prize in the all England showing of "wet-feathered" hens (don't ask its too complicated); her brood of six little cockerels thrived under her bustling, clucking, coaxing and cooing. I remember watching her, in the heat of the afternoon she calling them all to her, spreading out her wings and sheltering them from the sun.

One afternoon I heard a terrible commotion going on in the garden, I looked out of the window and saw Bobsy-Bob flapping her stiff black wings, screeching and rushing at ... a fox in the garden, on the other side of the fox our cockerel was crowing and strutting. The fox was greedily eyeing up the chicks, it was cool, staying just beyond the reach of the angry chooks, even sat down, waiting for them to tire ... I rushed downstairs to the kitchen and found our two dogs waiting at the back door, desperate to get out and see off the intruder - I opened the door and out they rushed; the Ridgeback, the Collie, Bobsy-Bob and Chicken Supreme suddenly all threw themselves at the fox. The smug, self satisfied look on it's face was quickly wiped off as it raced towards the hedge at the back of the garden, reaching it only inches before the dogs. From then on the dogs stayed outside, helping the hens in their vigil.

Although Bobsy-Bob was a tireless mother her six little cockerels soon became too much for her ... they were constantly strutting up and down the path, circling each other, chests puffed out, spurs at the ready. Our cockerel, Chicken Supreme, was also unimpressed with the would-be usurpers to his throne and he began to chase them; the garden was no longer a harmonious place to be. We asked the breeder to come and collect the boys ... she was delighted, apparently they were all fine specimens, ideal for "showing" ... all except one. She left the straggliest one behind - Sid Vicious.

Now Sid was still a youngster so was fussed over by his mother and his aunts constantly; Chicken Supreme watched him from a distance, aware that one day, (in the not too distant future) this scruffy looking fellow with a lopsided comb and too-long wattles would challenge him. He had already started to throw back his head and make a silly noise which sometimes ended up being a strangled crow.

So it came as no surprise that one fateful night, as the girls and Sid all bustled along to the coop to be locked up, Chicken Supreme singled Sid out and pushed him off the run leading to the doorway. Sid struggled to his feet and tried to duck past the older bird but Chicken Supreme was having none of it. He stood with his feet firmly planted on the run, like a bouncer in a Nightclub "Sorry mate, your names not on the list."

Sid wandered around the garden on his own, and being quite resourceful found a tree that he could roost in safely out of reach of any predators. The tree was by my daughters bedroom window. At sparrows little Sid threw back his head and crowed his not-quite crow loud and long - waking the entire household.

Sid lasted quite a few weeks in the tree, he grew bigger and more daring each day, he even tried to rape one of his aunts! Each night he would try to gain entry to the coup, each night Chicken Supreme would face him down. We got used to the sound of Sid in the tree, first thing in the morning - that was why we realised, early one morning just after he threw back his head to annouce to the world that day was about to break, he hopped down - straight into the jaws of ...

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Gunfight at the OK Corral or Another Afternoon in the Village Pub

The village had once been a collection of large farms, the villagers mostly farm labourers or servants in the "Big" houses. There had once been two pubs, two shops, two tea-rooms, a Post Office, and a forge. By the time we came to live there all the working farms were turned over to grazing land for horses, it only had one shop, a post office (amalgamated with the one remaining shop), the forge, one pub and no tea-rooms (we actually converted the old bakery at the side of the shop to become the new tearoom). The village was in the London Green Belt and a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty so no development could take place, all very well for the people who wanted to preserve middle-England, keep the price of their property high, but the employment of youngsters with no new businesses? The villagers mostly commuted elsewhere to work and the youngsters moved out taking the next generation with them.

One of the few employers in the village was Wainey - he ran his own firm of Landscape Gardeners. It was here that most of the village lads turned to when they left school and where our own son trudged off to during the long summer vacations when he was at university. The boys laboured on big new developments in nearby towns, mowed lawns, cut back footpaths for the Council, strimmed hedges and planted flower beds. They would all meet at Waineys barn around 7 a.m. then be driven off to the various locations to put in a days work, before being driven home again. On the way home they were all dropped off at the village pub, here they had a couple of drinks and then tired from a day outdoors and a couple of beers they wandered home. My son claims it was the best job he ever had! He came home one day proudly announcing that at last he was a man - tentatively I asked what that meant ... "It means that like workmen the world over I leered at women (any women) as the truck we were all sitting in hurtled past them." I'm not sure that pride is actually what I felt as I heard these words.

One Saturday afternoon Wainey was driving past the pub in his truck and he spotted a couple of the lads who worked for him hanging around the entrance; he pulled over to pass the time of day - but he didn't pull over far enough and the car behind him was forced to stop - the horn was tooted. Wainey got out of his truck slowly, he was a brawny, weather-beaten individual, who imagined himself to be much taller than he actually was - hours of sitting on his drive along mower meant he always walked a little as if he was John Wayne. He swaggered over to the car that had tooted, leaning on the bonnet, he asked (a little bluntly) what the problem was. Well the problem was no-one could pass him. Wainey grinned, apologised but as he turned to go back to his truck a sudden urge to kick the car crept over him ...

... the driver sat passively, he was dressed in his best bib and tucker having just left the Church, the wedding of his brother in fact. He said nothing, waited for Wainey to move then drove quietly to the wedding reception.

Some hours later Wainey was sitting at the bar of the pub, pint in hand, discussing racing tips a bar stool crashed over his head. And that was the start of the Great Fight - between the Landscape Garden Boys and the Boys From The Wedding Reception (nobody asked but it must have been an Irish Wedding). Eye-witnesses describe it as being like a scene from Bonanza; participants re-counted their parts in the brawl with pride - it seems the local lads came off best, but only just. The funny thing was that Richard (the well-hard man child I wrote about earlier) sadly missed the whole thing - well he would have wouldn't he? Hiding behind the hedge across the road, invisible to those falling around inside the pub - but not to those sitting in the Beer Garden outside.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Village Day



The Saturday morning of the Flower Show always dawned bright and clear, the "perfect weather" pray had been answered, but then the sun always shines on the righteous doesn't it?

Since the February addition of the Parish Magazine, when the Flower Show Schedule first appeared, this day had been eagerly anticipated, whether you were entering the competitions, organising the event or just out for a stroll around the field, a tasty cream tea and a try at hurling a wet sponge at the Rector this was the day village celebrated being a village - and of course tickets for the evening Hamper-Hop had sold out weeks beforehand.

On Tuesday morning the grass in the field had been cut and the horses that normally grazed in it moved to another one for that week.

On Wednesday last minute orders placed at the village shop for anything needed on the day that had previously been overlooked (heaven forbid).

On Thursday afternoon the Marquee tent company would arrive to erect it (oh yes every year we had that joke too!) ... the usual argument (did I say argument - oh perish the thought), the usual good-natured discussion about whether or not to rent a dance floor with the tent had taken place and the proceeds from the Village Quiz night had been set aside especially for it.

First thing Friday morning the Committee would be out in full force,
"Peter have you checked that Mr. J knows its this weekend he needs to bring the extra tables down from Teds barn?"
"Yes."
"Yvonne have you got all the hessian sacking?"
"Yes."
"Who did we ask to put up the bunting?"
"Already done."
"Oh no - have we checked there are enough footballs for the Parish Councils stall?"
"Done."
"Have the National Trust arrived yet?"

The good ladies of the WI were out in full force, measuring and laying out the positions for tomorrows floral displays; the Parish Council were there to check that all the games they would be supervising had all the pieces, the Festival Committee were all at their different posts directing the delivery of straw bales (for the dogs races), checking the generators and the loud speaker systems. By the end of the afternoon the field was transformed - coloured tents erected around the Marquee, dozens of smaller commercial stalls set up and a general buzz of excitement everywhere.

And then the day dawned ...

From 8 a.m. until 10 a.m. the village was a hive of activity all the entrants for the show were busy in the Marquee laying out their wares, a quick glance at other entries as we put the finishing touches to our own displays. The commercial stall holders started arriving to arrange their goods in eye-catching arrangements. At 10 a.m. the Marquee was emptied and the judges ceremoniously led in ...
The Flower Show officially kicked off at mid-day - the flaps of the Marquee were fastened back and the villagers swooped in to check the results, to admire the floral displays, the paintings, the poems, the longest beans, the heaviest pumpkins, the plumpest tomatoes, the tastiest jams, the lightest sponge cakes, the most perfect loaves of bread, the most delicate embroidery, the photographs ... the childrens races took place, ice-creams were bought, cream teas consumed, bargains struck at the second-hand book stall, footballs kicked, dogs hurdled over bales of hay, or walked politely at their owners sides in the "Dog who looked most like its owner" competition. Once our very own Border Collie took second prize in the obedience competition - darn that attractive little poodle who distracted him with her fluttering eyelashes ... Some years we had challenged our neighbouring villages to a Tug-o-War - these battles were preformed in the heat of the afternoon, the partisan crowd cheering on their own team - good natured banter floated through the air, even though our rivals obviously had ringers in. Sometimes Marching Bands played, sometimes Morris Dancers preformed, always something special to keep the crowds interested.

At about 4 o'clock prize giving took place ... cries of "fixed" as the Rectors wife took a first in the hanging baskets, photos taken of the longest bean and its grower, self-congratulatory speeches made and then the auctioning off of all the vegetable entries. Then a pleasant sun-burnt walk home whilst the Festival Committee rushed around transforming the Marquee to a Dance Hall.

The Pig-on-a-Spit man arrived with two fatted specimens, the Band began tuning up and then the real party began ... the Hamper Hop ...

Everyone had pre-arranged which tables they would be sitting at, for weeks who would bring which salad had been discussed, now the all important task of eating, drinking and dancing began. In all our years there never once did we see any altercation at these parties, old grievances were buried (just for the evening) as the village joined together to celebrate, there was always plenty of time the next morning when the "clear up" teams arrived, for grudges to re-surface.

Thursday, 24 February 2011

Salt of the Earth

I realise I am guilty of painting the Village a collection of eccentrics and drunkards, this is not true or intentional, it's just that those people seemed to be easier to write about. There were some very normal, thoroughly decent people, who led quiet lives behind their neat-as-pin cottages.

One such family were our near neighbours, Dorothy and Ern and their disabled son, They were in their late 70s and their son was probably a couple of years younger than me. When we first moved there Dorothy still worked in the shop, a couple of mornings a week. It gave her a break from her menfolk, she told me.

Dorothy was an open friendly woman - she had been born in the East-End and when War broke out she quickly volunteered to be a Land Girl and was sent to work on a farm in Norfolk - one of Erns relatives owned the farm. She met Ern at the end of the War, when he came back home from serving in the Navy; all those years later he still had the rolling gait of a man walking on board a ship.

They met, fell in love, married and then produced four boys - three strapping, good natured, hard-working men and K. I mean no disrespect to K, Dorothy told me that his had been a difficult pregnancy and she had been offered a medication to help her with the difficulties ... then he was born with "short arms and short legs" - for years he had been able to work in his brothers garage but then, quite suddenly, he lost the use of his legs and became wheelchair bound.

The three brothers helped Dorothy and Ern as best they could; K had a fancy electric wheelchair - he could have gone quad bike racing with it! - he had a lift in his bedroom that took him downstairs directly into the living room. Mindful that both parents were elderly the whole house was transformed to suit K ... lights all at his level ... en-suite bathroom with state-of-the-arc wheelchair access ... a kitchen that looked like a set from the Thunderbirds - you pushed buttons and cupboards dropped from the ceiling or surfaces flipped revealing eye level kettles and microwaves. K had an automatic car, the controls were in the steering-wheel, he opened the drivers door and a platform shot out - he rode his wheelchair onto the platform got tipped into the drivers seat then pressed a switch and his wheelchair folded and flipped onto the roof, securely fastened onto a roof rack. "Its like something from a James Bond movie." we marvelled.

When K could no longer work Dorothy and Ern were desperate that he should have interests to occupy himself with, interests that would give him a molecule of independence and encourage self-esteem ... Ern a keen and talented gardener created a section in his large garden for K - all raised beds - K grew carrots, spring onions and strawberries in his beds - in his greenhouse (one of the three they had) he grew tomatoes, aubergines and chillies. All three of them worked tirelessly every day, what ever the weather, on their vegetable patches, or in the potting shed, or in the greenhouses. In the evenings they poured over seed catalogues, discussed the colour scheme for the front gardens floral display and made plans, filled in charts and diaries about the progress of everything they were growing.

Every Christmas Ernie made a large batch of sloe-gin and gave me a little bottle of it, they taught me how to make it - and for several years, after Ernie died, I returned the compliment of a small bottle for Dorothy. I can still see Ern now, leaning on my wooden posts watching my face as I discovered the tiny courgettes that I had left, to get a little bigger last week, had become marrows - laughing at my surprise/delight. They gave me carrots and blueberries in exchange for fresh eggs and marrows.

Every year the older boys treated Dorothy and Ern with a chauffeur driven trip to the Chelsea Flower Show. Birthdays and anniversaries were marked with treats like a helicopter ride, a journey on the British Pullman - Dorothy and Ern would never entertain the thought of leaving K alone for a night, so everything had to be planned as a day trip.

At the beginning of December each year Ern would climb his ladder and decorate the front of the house with a giant Santa waving from his sleigh, the reindeers all flashing green and red; Dorothy would spend a couple of afternoons making mincepies and brandy snaps for the inevitable round of Carol Singers. We used to laugh that we knew Christmas wasn't far away - the lights were up! All of the sons and grandchildren (and eventually great-grandchildren) descended on Dorothy on Christmas Day - one of her grand-daughters was a chef so she would prepare the lunch ("Trimmin's un all") so it was no extra work for the old couple. As if having 20 people around were no extra trouble!

I was humbled by the hard work and sacrifices that Dorothy and Ern made - without a word of bitterness or complaint - to make life as manageable as possible for their son. Neither stood with outstretched hand waiting for Government handouts ... everything they had they worked for "No man will say of me that I didn't pay my way." He once told me.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

On the Road

It was the afternoon of the day before Christmas Eve, our first Christmas in the village, when a stranger walked into the shop - well to be honest most people were strangers then but this one was more distinguishable than the others.

This was an elderly woman, with wild uncombed hair, a hint of moustache, and a large very grubby grey overcoat hanging almost to her ankles. It looked like one of those joke coats that shop lifters wear - I half expected her to open it up and see frozen chickens in extra pockets on the inside.

She looked shiftily all around the shop before asking if we were alone.
"Oh no, a hold-up." I thought and then wondered how quickly I could call out to my family upstairs, or more importantly how quickly they would respond (the dogs were still in quarantine).
"My husband and family are upstairs." I warned. She smiled, a crooked toothed smile and then laughed.
"Your new 'ere aren't yer love? I thought I 'eard the shop ud changed 'ands ... agin." She began to survey the shelves, taking items down, examining them carefully before placing them on the counter ... she went to the freezer and started rummaging around, selecting items carefully and adding them to the growing pile on the counter. I was a little alarmed, the pile was growing and this old bird did not look as if she had the means to pay ... at the back of my mind I wondered if this were a trick, run up an enormous bill then start spinning me a sob-story about not having the funds ... could she put it on credit?
"Would you like me to start ringing up these items Mrs ... ?" I asked tentatively.
"If yer like love." she chirped back. I preferred her to be standing in front of me when I started to ring up, I didn't want to enter any dispute that I had overcharged. She returned to the counter.
"I'm Doris Stovell love." she said extending a wrinkled old hand. I knew the surname, the Stovells were an old and well respected family in the village. She laughed as she gaged my reaction "Oh I know I don't look like one of those toffee-nosed gits but I'm one of them." She nodded her shaggy head vigorously, "I lived with Vic for over 30 years, we 'ad 3 boys together - they all took 'is name ... and then to spite the family 'e married me on 'is deathbed and left everything in Trust to me an' the boys." she laughed again "An' there's nofink they can do about it." I marvelled at her candidness as I began packing away the items I had rung up. I was still wary of how she intended to pay for her purchases.
"Me an' the boys." she repeated, "although there's only one left now. Me youngest drowned in the pond up by the Church ... you should 'ave seen the funeral we give 'im. They come from miles to see my poor boy buried."
I mumbled my sympathy to her, as tears formed in her eyes ... all the time wondering how I was going to extract payment for the goods. With a quivering voice she continued,
"Then me eldest 'ad a 'eart attack ... just like that!" she clicked her fingers "Getting on the train 'ome from Clapham Junction - just dropped, 'e was dead before 'e even 'it the deck." tears tracked down her wrinkled cheeks as she warmed to the story she was telling. Now I really was starting to panic ... the bill I had rung up was high and I had no idea how I was going to break in and tell her the final cost. She told me more funeral details, she told me about the remaining son and his money grubbing wife, she laughed about her neighbours and told me how they were always trying to steal land from her by moving their boundaries
"They may fink I don't notice an inch or two 'ere an' there ... but I tell you love there's no pulling the wool over the eyes of Doris Stovell. I weren't born yesterday." she winked at me knowingly,
"Neither was I," I thought, I blurted out the total of her purchases almost apologetically.
"Blimey." she looked at the bags on the floor, around her feet "I got abit carried away there didn't I?" My heart sank ... she was going to ask for credit ... and then she opened her old coat removing a wad of notes, I mean a huge wad of notes - there must of been at least £1,000 in that roll.
"Mrs. Stovell, you really didn't ought to be carrying that much cash about." I said as she began to unroll the notes.
"Call me Doris love," she looked up and laughed "I've got a couple more rolls somewhere in 'ere. I got lucky on the dogs." She winked again, "An' whose goin' to bother me, they'll take one look an' fink I'm on the road."

Doris came into our shop infrequently but when ever she did she bought huge amounts, talked about her dead sons and paid cash from rolls stuffed into the pockets of her coat. I often saw her trapsing around the lanes when I was out walking the dogs - she was a great walker and would always walk over to the race-course at Epsom and home again. When she died a friend of mine bought her house from the Estate - Doris had lived with no indoor bathroom, no electricity upstairs, and the house hadn't been decorated for over 30 years. I often wondered who had found that old grey overcoat of hers and if they discovered the rolls of cash hidden in the pockets.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Nellie

Eleanor James was a tiny, small framed lady who lived three doors down from the shop. When we knew her she was well into her 80s - she had snow white hair, which was always beautifully maintained and wore sensible, but elegant little shoes, tweed skirts and twin-sets with beads. She had her paper delivered each morning and every Saturday would come into the shop to pay her bill and buy a few groceries. She would walk up to the counter and place her purchases onto it,
"I'm number 3 account." she would giggle "My Bill always used to say that I was his Page 3 girl."
Then her eyes would glaze over, "Oh I am sorry dear." she would say, her bottom lip trembling "I do miss him." Embarrassed by her show of emotion whoever was serving would look away, giving her a moment to pull herself together ... in that flash Nells hand would shoot out, whip a tin off the counter and drop it into her basket. Her deft movement and brazenness had to be seen to be fully appreciated.
"Shall I start ringing up Mrs. James?" the shop assistant would ask pointedly looking at the tin in her basket.
"Oh haven't you started yet dear?" she would reply innocently, taking out the tin she had inadvertently already taken off the counter, "I am sorry." And once that tin was safely back on the counter she would quickly pick up another and place it in her basket, pretending she had no idea that it hadn't been rung up yet.

She had been housekeeper for many years to Lady Waites, her husband Bill had been the Head Gardener. "Well of course I was more than just a housekeeper" she would say pulling herself up, "I was also a Ladies Maid." When Sir Ronald died the Waites family sold up their grand home in the village, they bought a little cottage for their two faithful old servants. Once or twice a year Lady Waites came to visit Nell. Nell would prepare for a couple of weeks before the visit, twittering and fussing about the tea she would serve, baking and cleaning, hiring young lads to come and mow the lawn and prune the bushes.

Days beforehand Nell would test her baking skills on all of us ... bringing in small slices of cake and half biscuits for us to sample and pronounce "Delicious". After the visit she would come in to share every minute detail of the great occasion, "Lady Waites wore her blue ensemble - set off with her pearl brooch that Sir Ronald bought her on his trip to Japan. He always bought her something like that..."

Sometimes Nell would stop in the shop on her way to the graveyard where Bill had been buried; wearing her usual outfit but carrying a neat little trug filled with potted bedding plants, her gardening gloves and a trowel. On her way back home she would just wave to us tearfully.

Often Nell would come into the shop in a state of high distress, "Is your husband about my dear?" if he wasn't she would bite her quivering lip and look anxiously around for a familiar male face - "Oh Eddie/Alf," spying them standing quietly behind her "Could one of you spare a moment? Only it's the light in the living room ... I've asked next door but Ernies out and Seans not here." Of course poor old Eddie or Alf had a moment ... and once he had changed the light bulb he had to have a cup of tea, and a piece of cake, or scone.

Every Thursday she would come into the shop 15 minutes before the Post Office opened, so that she could be first in the queue. "Do you think you could open early dear? It's just I have a bus to catch." She was always in a big hurry to get her pension. She would count it several times before putting it away, most weeks she would come back at lunchtime to tell us that we had short-changed her. "I'm sorry Mrs. James but once you leave the counter we can't entertain that we have made a mistake."

Nell started to fall over, we joked - rather cruelly - that she should stop putting brandy on her cornflakes, but one day she fell and hit her head on the corner of the work surface. It turned out she had a small, but growing brain tumour ... her son took her away to an old peoples home in Hove - she didn't stay there very long.

Saturday, 29 January 2011

The Man-Child

When we first moved to the village we were quite surprised by the number of single, adults - many my age - who lived at home with their parents, and always had done. We joked it was the "Village Way".

One such was Richard, he had been born in the village, the youngest son in a family of 5 or 6 children, he was one of those men who upon reaching the age of 17 decided he liked it and stayed there. But in real life Richard was the same age as me, he worked as a garden labourer at a number of the so-called "Big Houses", he would be seen several times a day driving his white utility truck (with the red cross of St. George painted on the bonnet) carefully around the village. Each evening, at about 6 o'clock, freshly scrubbed and wearing a clean England football shirt, he would march up the road, past the shop, to the village pub. There he would stand, freely sharing his opinions, mostly on immigration, the state of football and who (in the unlikely event the opportunity should arise) he would take to bed with him; then at about 10 o'clock, he would stagger home singing (loudly and tunelessly), football anthems. Some nights a couple of other village lads would join him - on those nights, Richards bravado knew no bounds! To prove what an absolute wag he was he would stop at the shop door, open the letter box and start barking, it drove the dogs mad. Richard would then collapse laughing in a heap, the other lads would pick him up and they would carry on noisily down the road ... all the way to the turning of the road he lived in and then ... he would suddenly stop and walk home silent as a mouse, just in case he woke his mother; Richard was a big tough man about the village, swaggering around with his chest all puffed out, until he saw his mother, and then he became a small child again - he was absolutely terrified of her!

The village pub changed hands every couple of years - which was just as well for Richard, because after about 3 months under new management the new Landlord would tire of his company, a disagreement would occur and he would be banned from the pub. During those periods Richard would walk to the next village, that village had 2 or 3 pubs so he normally managed to keep away from our local for almost 6 months - then he would sneak back, tail tucked between his legs ... he would behave for a couple of weeks and then the whole cycle would start again.

In the beginning I wondered why so many people tolerated Richard, if ever anyone dared to criticise him at least a dozen Worthies would leap to his defense, and then I started to notice that very quietly every Sunday morning he would walk through the village carrying a black bin liner picking up the rubbish that had been carelessly discarded by people driving through. One Sunday morning I was out early running the dogs in a quiet part of the village when I saw Richard, with his black bag, on the path ahead of me, I watched him pick up some scattered paper and put it in his bag; later I spotted him again, I was about to call out a greeting when, to my astonishment, I watched him empty the contents of the bag in a more visible part of the village. I was momentarily puzzled - but then the truth slowly started to dawn on me; he stood for a couple of moments, then head modestly bent he began to busily refill the bag, aand that was when I saw them too - the Great and Good all heading off, in their Sunday best, to the Church. They all stopped to greet Richard and praise him for the work he was doing ... maybe Richard wasn't as stupid as I thought he was after all.

Saturday, 15 January 2011

Marion and Judith

In the year 2000 our millennium project was completed and we opened our Tearoom. We had converted the old bakery into the Tearoom and an old storeroom into the kitchen. One of the ladies in the village ran it in the mornings,whilst I worked in the Post Office and then when the Post Office closed at 1 p.m. I took over from her. It was open 6 days a week (closed on Tuesdays) but the village lady only worked there during the week - the busiest two days were the weekend, when I had 4 or 5 waitresses at my beck and call.

The Tearoom was a great success, at first. The hustle and bustle at the weekend was unbelievable and the girls worked hard for their money and tips. We quickly built up a following of loyal supporters, mostly from outside the village - cyclists, (our favourite Merlin, a bearded, long white-haired retired English teacher, clad in outrageous pink lycra came all the way down from Croydon every weekend) walkers, elderly couples taking an afternoon drive, the boys from the Forge, builders and workmen, even a star from a long-running soap, all descended upon us. I say it was successful at first because it was - for about 6 years and then I became tired by it all - we had had no holiday in all that time and I needed a new challenge so I advertised for a manger, a few women showed a little interest but no-one really wanted to work the busy weekends, until a couple of old girls showed up - Marion and Judith.

How rude to describe them as old girls! Marion was a youthful 66 year old - she was a true cockney and had, what some would describe as, a cheeky charm. She flirted quite openly with all the male customers - and although I couldn't see at first I came to understand that she must have been quite a head-turner once, (I only spotted it when she introduced me to her stunning grand-daughters) when I knew her it would not be unfair to say that there were signs that she had had a hard life. She had married at 16, had her only child shortly afterwards, and then a couple of years later run off to Spain with a Spanish waiter - she lived in a small village in Spain for the best part of 20 years but when "Joe" dropped dead quite suddenly his family turfed her out and she returned to England. She had worked in kitchens and cafes the rest of her working life and could bake a mean fruit scone and apple turnover. At the time that I first met her she lived in a small flat in Maida Vale with a man she referred to as "Grandad." Grandad came down with her every weekend and tottered about with two small Yorkshire terriers, studied "the Form". "'E ain't really me Granddad," she explained to me "Really just a friend of the family, more like me older bruvvers mate."

Judith lived in the neighbouring village and had been a friend of Seans for years. It was clear to see, that she had never been a beauty. She was 55 years old, roughly 5ft 2in and weighed in at an impressive 200lbs. She was a moustached Romanian Jew and had worked at everything from cab driver to computer builder. I liked Judith, she was a sharp clever woman but clearly smoked and drank far too much. Judith had been married once, "A marriage of convenience, when they tried to deport me." Although she had lived in Britain for over 30 years her accent was still heavy and she spoke in gutteral sentances.

This unlikely pair took over the tearooms for us! They laughed a lot, took a huge number of ciggie and beer breaks, fought constantly - nearly every day one would reduce the other to tears and someone would need to step in and serve customers whilst they ranted and raved, swore to kill each other, then hugged, kissed and made up. Such was life with these two - because unbeknowst to me (and only me, everyone else assures me) Marion and Judith were lovers.

During the course of that summer they told me that it was more convenient for Marion to leave London "Grandad can cope on his own" and move in with Judith in her tiny caravan -"Saves the travel, don't it darlin?" Marion told me. (Everyone else winked and nudged each other). Towards the end of the summer Marion started to complain of a sore stomach, she would take an hour or so off every day to lie in her car, and I must admit I sometimes thought (very uncharitably) that she was taking advantage. One day I found her bent double clutching her stomach and insisted that she see a doctor ... I think she knew it was serious and that was why she had put off going. The worst possible diagnosis was made and sadly Marion died very quickly of pancreatic cancer.

But it was during those last wretched weeks of her illness that I came to understand her relationship with Judith, or at least Judiths relationship with her. Every day Judith would come into the shop with a swollen lips and eyelids - every day I would listen to the next installment of Marions strange life. Judith learnt that when she ran off with her Spanish waiter she had never bothered to divorce her husband ... it transpired that Grandad was in fact not only her older brothers mate ... Judith learned that she was the last in a long line of lesbian flings ... every day a new insult would lay Judith low, Marion would promise her a precious keepsake the next day the offer was withdrawn because another had laid claim to it ... Marion had been the love of Judiths life and now Judith was finding out a lot of things she really didn't want to know.

Finally Judith came in with the news that Marion had called for the Last Rites, she died shortly afterwards. I accompanied Judith to the funeral, it was a sad small affair - her daughter, a spiteful, vain woman pointedly ignored Judith, Grandad stood looking lost and bewildered, the grand-daughters bored, the handful of people in attendance were looking at their watches - wondering how quickly they could slip away. When I took Judiths arm and led her away, she was sobbing uncontrollably - the final insult was hitting home and I was the one who innocently delivered the blow.

"Tell me," sniffed Judith "I am not a Christian so I don't understand your faith. Tell me what sort of service was that?"
I shrugged, the image of the Priest in his robes, wafting incense around and muttering popped into my head. The Church had been called St. Joseph's and times of the Mass were published on the Notice Board outside, clearly stating what times the Polish services were. "Well it was Catholic of course." I said.
"So," said Judith sadly "She even lied about that."

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

LTA1

Mrs B was an amazing old girl - full of life and vigour she drove herself to the Heath every morning and walked her old dog for a good half hour, she was in her late 90s then. She had been a Ladies Wimbledon Champion and her number plate was LTA 1 (Lawn Tennis Association 1), she would stop at the shop to buy some boiled sweets for her little walk - "One doesn't have to worry about ones teeth at my age!" she would chuckle.

One day the inevitable happened and she fell and broke her hip - and although she had a replacement (and recovered) her great age meant she had to give in and accept the offer of a carer her son (himself in his 60s) offered to pay for.

She always had young South African girls, from middle class backgrounds, well-educated girls working in England to earn enough money to see themselves through the next year of university studies. We got to know the girls because Mrs B was a great supporter of the shop and they would come in to speak some Afrikaans with Sean.

Every month Mrs B would order a crate of Brandy and one of Sherry "One always has to have something in to offer ones girlfriends when they come around for an afternoon of Bridge" she would say, we tried to imagine how much Bridge she managed to play each month! She was 102 when she finally passed on - so maybe there was something in that!