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.