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!