A Neighbourly Manor [Part 3]

In Part 3 of ‘A Neighbourly Manor’, Lena and Richard return from a holiday and meet yet another of Jackson’s visitors. Richard is less than impressed…

A Neighbourly Manor [Part 3]

                 We left Chiddlehampton and the UK a few days later to spend April in Marbella with our son, who works there as an architect. We prefer to visit in spring or autumn when the Spanish temperatures are less sweltering than in summer.
On the day following our return I collected Molly from some friends in the village who look after her when we are away and decided from her disgruntled expression and affronted manner that I should offer a brisk walk as a placatory gesture, so I combined this with a route through the estate. I was keen to learn what changes had occurred and who might be in residence.
In our absence the mature trees in the grounds had taken advantage of the balmy May sunshine to burst into blossom so that intermittent drifts of white or pink petals showered across in a light breeze. Scaffolding was still in place around the creamy walls, although the roof replacement looked to be almost complete.
Around the back in the car park area I noticed that an unsightly, corrugated pergola had been removed to reveal a semi-circle of elegant columns, a stunning feature. Jackson then had not been idle. His car was parked next to one of the sets of French windows facing the lawns. I loitered for a few minutes in hopes of spotting him or Imogen, or even Kristina, but with no obvious signs of human activity I continued through to the meadows with Molly.

That evening, when Richard suggested we stroll down to the pub and catch up with some village news, I needed no persuasion. Since the evenings had drawn out and drawn the locals out, the garden of the Cuckoo was as busy as the two bars, making it tricky work getting to buy a drink. I noticed that most of the tables were occupied with diners, too.
We’d just managed to gain access to the counter and the attention of the bar staff when I felt a rangy arm clamp around my neck and winced as a deafening voice boomed in my ear.
‘Well, well! The wanderers have returned! Welcome back you two. Did you have a good time? You must come down and see all the changes we’ve made. You won’t recognise the place! We have a table over in the alcove. Come and join us. You will let me get those, won’t you old chap?’
This was addressed to Richard, who’d not turned his head during the greeting, but responded while taking a note from his wallet and handing it across the counter.
‘We only came in for a quick one.’
I could have predicted my husband’s reply, however I was not about to allow an opportunity to talk with one of the two women pass me by.
‘But we’ll come and say Hello. Where are you sitting?’ A quick scan of the tables revealed no one resembling either of them.
We picked up our drinks and followed Jackson through the throng to the alcove. A woman was seated there, not Imogen, not Kristina; a young woman with a mane of dark curls and a heavy pasting of make-up, dark, sooty eyelids and a scarlet gash of lips. Jackson introduced us. When she stood she revealed a swell of cleavage above the line of her blouse.
‘This is my friend Liliana. She is an architect and has come to help with the interior design plans.’
The woman placed her hands on Richard’s shoulders and kissed his cheek, one side followed by the other, continental style. Her fingers, resting on my husband’s upper arms were long and tapered, nails topped with the same livid red as her mouth; as she leaned to offer the same treatment to me I caught a whiff of sweet, pungent perfume.
‘I am happy to meet you’ she breathed; her speech coloured with a strong Latin accent which was confirmed by Jackson’s adjunct.
‘Liliana is Italian.’
Beside me on the bench, Richard was silent, concentrating his attention on his pint of Best as Jackson continued.
‘She is also a terrific artist. We’ve brought some of her canvases down to see where they’ll hang. You must come and take a look.’
As he spoke the woman’s lips smiled in their red slash, her eyes narrowing until I thought she might purr like a pampered cat stretched on a hearthrug. To fill the conversational void I murmured something non-committal and took a sip of my wine. Richard lifted his glass and tipped it back it in uncharacteristic gulps before turning to me.
‘We can’t be too long, Lena. Don’t forget Bob is coming round this evening.’
As we walked back along the lane I asked him, ‘Who on Earth is Bob?’
‘No one. Anyone. What does it matter?’ he replied, ‘I just couldn’t spend any more of my time with that insufferable man.’



Not the Lover that Rhymes with Cover…

I’ve begun to notice interesting developments on social media recently. Some conversation threads have started to engage and pull in Facebook contacts from different spheres.

Take, for instance a news snippet concerning Lover. Lover [correctly pronounced Low-ver and rhyming with Dover] is a tiny satellite hamlet and part of a much smaller village called Redlynch, in the county of Wiltshire, England. For many years Lover post office has cashed in on its oft mis-pronounced name whenever Valentine’s Day became a distant speck on the horizon of February. Would-be beaux, belles and partners have made a habit of flocking to this backwater to post their cards and declarations of love in order to have ‘Lover’ stamped upon the outside of their envelopes.

In 1957, at the age of four I began school life in Lover, walking down through the village with my mother on the very first day only and after that having to accompany my brothers. There was no soft, part-time option, no lollipop person to see us across roads [there was no traffic either], no inside toilets-[a bucket under a wooden seat in a building across the playground sufficed], only two classes-infants and juniors-and thirty seven or so children altogether. We played all together in the playground [schoolyard], did country dancing to the accompaniment of a wind-up record player and played rounders on the field at the back which was shared by a farmer’s dairy herd. Anyone succeeding in attaining a rounder would have to run the gauntlet of cow deposits as well as fielders.

I loved my infant teacher, Miss Hunter with a devotion matched only by my fear of the head-teacher and junior class teacher, Mrs Reardon. Miss Hunter taught us fractions by bringing in a beautiful Battenburg cake that demonstrated halves and quarters. Mrs Reardon violated my fragile confidence by shaming me in front of the class for my ignorance in the mysteries of tracing. Miss Hunter took us for nature walks, holding hands with our partners in a long, snaking crocodile as we learned the names of trees and wild flowers. Mrs Reardon applied soap to the mouth of a small, swearing boy so that he ran around the playground crying and frothing at the lips.

I was in the junior class for a short period, probably no more than a year and yet I spent a good deal of it sitting by an older girl to help her with her grey, English workbook-mortifying for her and tedious for me. Distractions were provided by newts inserted into inkwells [we had to dip our pens into them, never managing to write without the inevitable blot] or someone’s misdemeanour prompting a few whacks across their palms. I laboured over sums involving pounds, shillings and pence or stones, pounds and ounces or yards, feet and inches.

At age seven my family moved to a different part of the country for my father to take up a promotion. There I attended another two-class primary school in a rural area-this time almost remote enough to be another country-but that is altogether another story…

Fiction Month Week 3-New Short Story Begins Today!


Trap! Paralyse! Consume! An unwitting moth flutters in an innocent, random pattern only to be ensnared, caught in a mesh of elastic threads, thrashing wildly but doomed as the predator pounces to inject the body with piercing jaws, stilling the spasms, rolling it with rapid efficiency into a food parcel; to be consumed later.

Here in my father’s back yard, in the still warm air of a September evening, I am glad of a distraction from my task. I light a cigarette and inhale, watching the curling twist of smoke wind upwards. Excitement over, the rotund spider withdraws to the shadows, out of sight until aroused by the next tweak.

Back inside I gaze around at the devastation I’ve wrought and think it’s enough for today. Amidst the piles of books, sets of musical scores, files of correspondence and personal papers in my father’s study there is a box containing old photographs and it is these I’ve been perusing, losing a sense of time both literally and figuratively as I delve back into his life; a jumble of grey-brown, faded and dog-eared images chronicling events and scenes, depicting some characters I remember and many I do not.

I realise I am hungry but have no wish to eat here, alone amongst the detritus. I will walk down through the village to the pub. Before leaving I slip a photo into my pocket, a picture of Imberton Village Dance Band on stage. In the twilight, the quiet of the somnolent village street is punctuated only by the last, retiring song of a blackbird as he defends his province and by the distant, mechanical hum of a lawnmower.

To stroll along this street is to walk in my childhood steps, the way I went to school; down along the hot tarmac, treading on the raised tar bubbles that erupted like sticky larva under the sun’s  hot rays. Here in the gateway by the open field my brother and I paused to see who could pee the furthest as our exuberant, steaming fountains arced over the gate. On past St Mary’s where we languished, imprisoned at Sunday school, the time hanging heavy until we could loosen our collars and race back home to lunch, through the ivy clad churchyard, whose deceased inhabitants now play host to a newly interred inmate.

It is growing dark by the time I am level with the gravel track that slopes up towards Abbott’s, where a lone street lamp casts enough light for me to make out vestiges of the faded imprint on the side of the building; ‘Abbotts Grocery’. I pause for a moment, remembering. The old red brickwork had been painted yellow, the words in red and green, though now all that is visible is a faint square of flaking cream with a few pinkish lines. Old Ma Abbott, who’d seemed ancient to my seven year old self, must be long gone by now. But what of June? To my naive, infant scrutiny she had appeared grown up, although she couldn’t have been much more than sixteen when we plagued the shop in our crude, heedless bids for amusement. She would greet us, soft voiced, smiling with wide spaced, guileless eyes like a baby fawn’s as she tipped Rhubarb and Custards from a jar into a paper bag or ladled out ‘Eiffel Tower’ lemonade powder. I’d peer at her upswept, beehive hairdo and the way her wide skirt fanned out like daisy petals, buoyed up by layers of stiff petticoats as she climbed the step to replace the jar.

I’d been the youngest, tolerated but not acknowledged, the tagger-along, more spectator than participant as we roamed the village in search of diversion. We built dens, made bows and arrows or rudimentary, wooden guns, climbed the hay bales in Worts’ barn, fished in the stream, spoke in hushed whispers about the mysterious Bryant sisters, whose nocturnal activities had provoked speculative gossip from our parents. We played endless games of Cowboys and Indians or Cops and Robbers, when my involvement was accepted if I agreed to be the Indian, or the ‘baddie’ and submitted to the inevitable tying to a post to be danced around and jeered at or executed by bow and arrow or firing squad.

A few heads turn as I enter the pub, one or two nodding and murmuring in uneasy recognition. I am known to them nowadays only by association with my father. They are caught in the uncomfortable circumstances that accompany a meeting with the newly bereaved. I order my meal and take my pint to a lone, corner table, allowing them to continue their conversations unburdened by the obligation of sympathy.

While I wait I withdraw the photo and place it on the table. The band members are on a wooden stage flanked by velvet curtains in what looks like the village hall. My father is seated on a stool at an upright piano, to the right of the picture so that his face is only visible in profile, mouth open, his head tilted down, intent on his fingers as they depress the keys; one foot underneath pushing down on a pedal. To the left of the stage his brother Dib sits leaning forward to strum his banjo, a bowler hat perched at a jaunty angle, staring a broad grin into the camera despite the cigarette jutting from the corner of his lips. I guess that the slim, smiling woman in the centre at the microphone, dressed in a neat, dark frock with a lace collar is Doris Lampard. Behind them, less distinct are a guitarist and a drummer.

I am aware of someone standing at my elbow; a stooped, portly, elderly figure leaning on a stick, sharing my view, peering with rheumy eyes at the picture. I recognise him as Arnold Goodridge, one of my father’s friends, although I’m unsure of the connection. Perhaps he’d been a fellow parish council member, or they went to cricket matches together.

“That would have been a Saturday nighter,” he says, gesturing at the photo. “There’s your Dad, on the old Joanna, and your Uncle Dib up front. He was a lad, that Dib!”

The bloodshot eyes are lit with interest as he leans forwards to peer closer. I pull out a chair, inviting him to sit and he accepts my offer of a pint. He squints at the aged image, pinching it by the narrow, white border as he holds it up to the light.

“I know that Doris used to sing,” I tell him, “but who are the other two- the guitarist and the drummer?”

I wait while he examines the scene, his breathing rapid and wheezy, the sound my father’s piano accordion made when he was warming it up. He takes so long to answer his pint arrives and he lifts it to take a long draught before he speaks.

“That there,” he prods the guitarist in the picture with a thick, stubby finger, “is old Ernie Brabrook. He used to have the butchers, up on the Copseway. That’s up the road behind your Dad’s place. And that fellow behind the drums is Dick; Dick Abbott that had the grocers shop. You’ll remember that from when you was a nipper.”

I nod.

“I do remember. Walking past it tonight made me think of when we used to go up there for sweets. I’m afraid we went in more for the thrill than to buy anything. We were terrified of Mrs Abbott so we dared each other to enter.”

The old man smiles his understanding.

“Oh ah! She was a hard woman, Mae Abbott. Bitter, with a wasp sting for a tongue. Weren’t no one missed a tongue lashing from Mae at some point. ‘Course Dick got it the worst. He spent as much time as he could out of her way; he had his grocer’s round in the daytime, doing deliveries, then he’d be out with the band as often as you like, four or five nights a week sometimes. He played in the darts team, too.”

“So Mae didn’t go along to see the band? I suppose if Dick was on stage she’d have no partner for dancing.”

“Mae? No! She weren’t one for dancing. Back when they was first married she had June to look after. She only ever went out on a Sunday, to church, as I recall.”

“June must have been born quite soon after they were married, then.”

He scratches his head, frowning at his glass.

“Things was different then.”

For now the old man has completed his narrative. He drains his pint and hauls himself to his feet as my meal is delivered to the table with enquiries as to whether I’d like any sauces and another drink.

Arnold is shrugging his coat on, turning to leave then he stops to voice a thought.

“I might have one or two of them photos at home, the band and that. I’ll have a look and bring them round, if you’re interested.”

I am. I thank him.

“Arnold, before you go, can you tell me anything about June? Does she still live in the village?”

He grips the chair back as he faces me, his knuckles white, his breath whistling.

“I’d have thought your Dad would have told you. She passed away. Must have been twenty years ago; not that long after Dick, but before Mae. It were a sad business.”

The spiders have retired for the night when I go out to take a last cigarette in the cool air of the yard. This small space, illuminated by a shaft of light from the doorway is cluttered with accumulated rubbish and scruffy with weeds, neglected and unloved, another task to be undertaken before I leave. My father had been devoted to his small garden, growing gaudy dahlias and rows of fat onions, trimming the hedge and tending the pond, now relapsed into a murky, stagnant pool, clogged with choking blanket weed. When my mother died he’d withdrawn to the house, leaving his beloved plants to fend for themselves, as if the garden itself had been responsible for her death. Grief affects people in strange ways, driving them to relinquish lifetime habits and adopt new ones. I think how little I knew him in the later years, my visits short and peremptory and executed from a sense of duty.

I make my way to bed in the tiny, inhospitable guest bedroom, crawling between slippery sheets topped with unaccustomed, heavy layers of blankets and an eiderdown; the bedding a relic from when we were boys, although never in this cramped bungalow designed for retirement. The elderly bed springs creak and protest as I fidget, sleepless with memory. June Abbott; she’d have been in her sixties now. What had happened to her?

School Days-not Always the Best Days

For four years, from the age of seven until eleven I lived with my family in a village in a remote part of north Norfolk-the part which is generally known as ‘The Fens’. Here the landscape is, at best minimalist-bearing no hills or trees as far as the horizon-only flat cultivated fields bordered by drainage ditches or ‘dykes’. At that time, the early 1960s, transport links were sketchy. Many village inhabitants had travelled no further than the village boundary and never to the nearest metropolis of Wisbech, six miles away, which was accessible by private car or by the school bus-leaving in the early morning and returning in the late afternoon. I attended the small village school until the ’11 plus’ examination decreed that I should make the daily journey to Wisbech High School, a grammar school for girls housed in an old building along the side of the River Nene. It was a culture shock. My primary school in the remote village had been tiny-only two classes-and now I entered an institution as disturbing as a mausoleum, with winding staircases, austere classrooms and landscaped grounds. We wore scarlet berets as part of our ‘outer wear’ and many of these could be spotted floating along the river each morning as we crossed the bridge from the bus stop, so that we soon learned to clutch our hands to our heads on the way over. I was relieved that my best friend, Gillian Farley had also ‘passed’ the exam and could share an experience which could only be described as a kind of endurance test for small girls. Our form mistress, Miss MacFarlane presided over us in a ferocious manner and with a draconian set of rules and regulations. She was also our mathematics teacher, an unhappy situation for those of us for whom maths was a constant mystery. Gillian was even worse off than I and was sent home one weekend with 2,000 [yes-2,000] lines to write on the subject of x times x = x squared. She’d committed the unforgivable sin of writing x times x = 2x. What a shocking crime! My red shoe-bag, proudly constructed by my mother as a money-saving ploy, was not quite the same ‘red’ as everyone else’s. My gymslip, again a proud home-make, did not appear to be shop bought. These differences led to daily mortification. Small errors, omissions or mishaps were punished by shaming order marks, a collection of three leading to detention. This would mean staying behind after school in the library and copying from books, a huge deterrent to those of us who would then miss the only bus home at the end of the day. When I collected an order mark for forgetting to bring a text book to a class and having to share with someone I spent weeks worrying about getting two more. After we sat end of term exams our desks in the form room were positioned in ‘exam order’ beginning at the back of class, to affirm the superior status of those whose average was top as opposed to those at the front-near Miss MacFarlane’s elevated platform-who had struggled. Poor Gillian was one of these, doomed to spend form time under Miss MacFarlane’s disapproving nose. I had somehow managed to get myself into the anonymous ranks of the middle. Do schools like this still exist? I hope not! I could never reflect that days at Wisbech High School were the happiest of my life. No child should ever be terrified of school!

Celebrating a Long and Well Lived Life

There is no other life event that compares to a funeral. You expect weddings to be picture book pretty, baby-naming to be joyful, divorce to be bitter and embattled, but a funeral can be any or all of these things and more besides, depending on your relationship to the deceased.

Last week I went to my cousin, Gordon’s funeral. He’d reached the grand age of 92 and was the son of my eldest uncle. Like many families of the age, my father’s family was and is an enormous, village tribe consisting of so many branches I’ve lost track of who everyone is and how they are related to me. Being the youngest of seven my father was uncle to Gordon at an almost identical age, prompting my grandfather [who died before my birth] to use ‘Uncle’ as his nickname.

Gordon’s funeral was held at the church in the village of my birth, a tiny, country church in a beautiful, picturesque setting, bathed in the glow of the May sunshine. The small building was packed, as it was for my father’s funeral five years before. My brother and I were directed towards the front pews. Would we know anyone? We are from the family that ‘got away’-my father having left the village with us to take up employment in another part of the country, hence contact with the many aunts, uncles and cousins has been sporadic and increasingly rare.

We made our way up the aisle, aware that curious looks were pursuing us. The lack of familiarity was mutual. I stopped by the first pew with some space. The occupants turned their faces to me, the fleeting blankness eclipsed by impulsive wide grins of recognition. These are two of my best remembered cousins; my recollections of them ingrained as glamorous, fifties belles in stiff, circular skirts, heels and beehive hairdos. They stood to hug us as we all exclaimed our pleasure at meeting.

Of my grandfather’s four sons, my father was alone in pursuing a career away from greengrocery, and Gordon had continued the fruit and vegetable business his father [Edgar] ran. His coffin was born past us adorned with a riotous profusion of flowers, fruit and vegetables, including bright bunches of carrots, vibrant spears of broccoli and large, emerald cabbage leaves. What more life-affirming sight could there be than a mountain of freshly picked plants?

I have attended a variety of funerals during my life; some consisting of no more than six attendees, sad affairs that make you glad, at least that the deceased was not present to witness such a poor turnout. Gordon was a gentle, amenable man, affording to everyone he met the same smiling courtesy and kindness and nobody would have been more proud and delighted to have seen the crammed church, the smiles of recognition and the pleasure we all took in re-acquaintance.

Hymns sung and thoughts sent, we all gathered in the village community centre for tea, cake and recollection.

For those closest to Gordon it was of course an unutterably sad event but there must be an element of comfort to be gained from reflecting on what turned out to be a cheerful and celebratory occasion.