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.


  1. courgettes, marrows? usually I can figure out words I don't know through context but these have me baffled.

    another wonderful story. I always admire people who give their lives over selflessly to impaired children.

  2. Ellen - a courgette is a zucchini, I don't know what a marrow translates as ... an overgrown zucchini?

    Dave - Thank you, they were an inspirational couple ... in the true sense of the word!

  3. From what I make out....i guess the family were very well to do!

    For a disabled person from a middle class family, I would say he may nt be able to 'pay through'

    btw a quite refresh from the sad / eccentric tales

  4. I think there are different standards here. Ern was a working man and Dorothy had been a school dinner lady. The other three boys had all worked hard to get to a comfortable enough position to help their parents.
    I will try and scratch my head for some more inspirational stories.

  5. Oh, I really liked this! Well done!


  6. Another lovely village tale.