close encounters


 

Being on the Parish Council was his contribution to village life. Bob did very little there except get up,  go to work, and go to bed, and he did go to Open Evenings at the school. And that was about it. Well he really didn’t have time for anything else which is a shame because villages need you to join in and have a sense of belonging or else you might as well go and live where nobody knows you. So he belonged to the Parish Council and did his bit once a month on a Friday in the church rooms and after at the Queen's Head. They all had different responsibilities: graves and the churchyard, but he’d always steered clear of that. There’d be time enough for that! There was the planning applications and roads which is alright if you’re in to that sort of thing, but he couldn’t get excited about loft extensions and new garages and site lines. Then there was publicity and the magazine. Well that’s what he did in town anyway so he didn’t want any more of that. Me? I’m his ‘assistant’ or ‘deputy’. I’m learning from him because I’ll be taking over next year.

              So what did he do? Well he looked after four old alms houses that were given to the parish in perpetuity in 1703 for ‘poor parishioners’ by Joseph Barden who lived in Little Fontwell which used to be on the other side of the road. I say he looked after them; that’s not really what he did. What he did is visit once a year to see if anything needed doing to them. Why don’t we get a professional to do that? You don’t need a professional when the old folk will tell you what’s wrong for nothing. If there’s anything needs doing then we get a professional to tell us what to do. So once a year he knocks on the door, has a cup of tea and is a good listener. They’ll tell him everything, mostly about anything but the place they’re living in. They’re old of course and I guess they don’t have many relatives, or at least visitors, so it’s a treat for them when he turns up to have a listener and to be honest to hear the stories they tell you is better than anything you’ll hear on the tele. Sometimes I go with him and I wonder if I should be listening to this because it's about people in the village, some of them still alive mind you. They don’t care. Who’s going to sue them anyway? And its all bread and butter to people who’ve lived all their lives in a village

               As I said, there are four of these cottages and very nice too if you want a convenient place that’s cheap and well cared for: and only the old villagers can apply. They’ve got a front room with only a small garden between it and the road. There’s no hall of course because you go straight into the front room. There’s a room at the back which they generally use as a dining room though if they’re on their own they don’t need it really because they eat in the kitchen which is behind that. That’s a modern add-on. They’ve all got huge back gardens, and the soil! You wouldn’t believe how black it is! Of course it's been there for hundreds of years and it couldn’t be more fertile if they’d buried all the village in it. The only thing that I would want if I were going in there would be double glazing, but we’re getting that for them next year so I’m looking forward to retiring there!    

              He has to go to all four of these cottages and always sets off as if he can do them all in one go, but by now he should know better. You see, they’re old folk and they don’t see many people, and when they do see someone they make the most of it. Funny thing is, they don’t seem interested in what’s going on out there, they want to tell you all about themselves. They just enjoy talking; a bit like someone who’s been in solitary confinement. They want to hear their own voices.

              As he said, “There’ll come a time I expect when I've heard it all before but it hasn’t happened yet and perhaps by then they’ll give someone else the job.” He meets all of them and writes a report for the council afterwards.

              In the first one is Mrs. Locks, always known for obvious reasons as 'Goldie'. Before she was married she was Mercy Bush but, poor girl, she always seemed to have the nickname ‘Holly’, some say because she was always a prickly character! But not surprising is it always being teased? She’s a widow. She worked up at the house and lived in a tied cottage. Her husband was Walter Locks and he wasn’t short of nicknames either! Perhaps it’s a rural custom. He didn’t have a chance to live it down. He was stable man and groom for Sir Peter and was killed by a terrible accident. It seems the halter got tangled round his ankle, the horse panicked and he was dragged round and round the yard. He died in hospital and as soon as he decently could Sir Peter got Goldie out of the cottage because he wanted it for the next man. So what with one thing and another she’s got plenty to be unhappy about.

              Then next door there’s Gwen Partridge. You’ll hear plenty about Gwen I expect when we meet Goldie so I won’t spoil it for you. Gwen’s been a bit of this and that all her life. If there’s a story about anything that’s happened here in the last fifty years Gwen will be in it somewhere. She came from London originally during the war and was in the Land Army, and I wouldn’t be surprised if she wasn’t one of those who gave them their earthy reputation. If she didn’t then, she did her best afterwards from all that I’ve heard. She’s told me that when it was over she found it hard to settle down. She didn’t want to go back to London and she only knew about farming and there weren’t any jobs on farms so she just drifted doing odd jobs. For a time she was scullery hand up at Sir Peters, but she said she never saw daylight there and she was everybody’s skivvy. Then she was cleaner and caretaker at the village hall and that was alright till she forgot to lock up one night after a dance and someone helped themselves to the beer. Some said it was a boyfriend but it was never proved. Funnily enough she finished up at The Queens Head when they needed an extra hand like at Christmas or a funeral. She seems to have done most things has Gwen, perhaps some she shouldn’t, but that’s how she is.

              Next to her is Dot Walker but she hasn’t been there long. Before her it was Bert Dadds. He was a carpenter. He’d been in the army in the war and it seemed to leave him a bit sort of eccentric. Not dangerous or anything, just a bit odd. He never married.

              Then last in the end cottage there’s Grace and Fred Fish. A quiet couple. They were up at Sir Peter’s together, her as cook and him as head gardener. Well, they had to have a cottage didn’t they? There’s not much to say about them because you never see them out or doing anything much. They’ll say hello if they can’t avoid you, but generally they’re not out at the front, but judging by the back garden he spends all his time there

              There was this time when he said I should go with him because he was busy at work and I could help him write up the reports afterwards. I didn’t mind: in fact I quite like listening to old folk talking about the old days and what it used to be like here. I met him outside the alms houses and I thought he would want to say something about what  might be on the ‘agenda’ but he went straight ahead.

              “Well, we’ll knock shall we? Don’t worry about Goldie. I didn’t say I was bringing anyone but she won’t mind; in fact she’ll be pleased because she’ll have a bigger audience. You see, she won’t even question why you’re with me."              “Hello Mr. Saker. I was just thinking ‘Its time Mr. Saker was here,’ and here you are! And you’ve brought a friend. Well that’s nice. Come to see how I’m getting on like have you? Not so bad, not so bad,” and she brushed a cat out of the chair by the fire and pointed to another for me while she took one by the table at the window where she could talk to us and watch whatever might be happening outside.

              For the next few minutes we might have been riding a magic carpet and overcome by the exotic perfumes of Arabia for all I knew because I was riveted by her appearance for which Bob Saker had done nothing to prepare me. Clearly she had lived alone so long that she gave no thought to appearances. She was clean alright and the room was tidy enough in a rough and ready sort of way. But as for herself, where to begin? Her hair was steel grey, straight, cut uncompromisingly short as though with shears, in an unwavering straight line from one ear round to the other, parted down the middle and held down with kirby-grips. If she had ever had trouble with her hair, and this was the only explanation that came to mind, she had clearly determined that she was having no more nonsense from that quarter and slaughtered whatever its pretensions might have been for ever. A kindly nature might have described her face as characterful or memorable. She had a powerful nose, neither broad nor arched, but well-made and purposeful with a small carbuncle beside a nostril from which I counted just three hairs had established themselves. Deep lines ran in a curve from the nostrils to the corners of the mouth and the whole was completed by a rounded chin from which sprouted the faintest suggestion of fluffy down. On the stage she would have been a deeply sinister character but she had a brilliant smile with teeth her dentist might boast of and a  braying laugh showed a woman who delighted in the comic quirks of human behaviour and the farcical situations we make for ourselves. When she laughed her face broke up, her eyes glinted and she searched our faces, almost hungrily,  to see whether we shared her sense of the ridiculous. She sat with one hand on the table, the other reaching across to her other knee with an expanse of faded cotton housecoat stretching across the gap and revealing thick wrinkled rayon stockings in a pair of checked carpet slippers. Leaning forward, her face continually turned from one of us to the other as if her hearing might betray her or as if to confirm that we had thoroughly understood her meaning. Such enthusiasm for human contact and the stories which arose from it! This was the Goldie who had seized my eyes.

              “You said about Dot Walker. Funny enough she was only in here this morning. Now if you want to know what it was like here in the old days she’s the one. The things that went on and she was in there somewhere most times. Of course she would know what was what ’cos she was behind the bar for years. Never married: says she knew the men too well already and from what I’ve heard she’s probably right. Anyway she never went short and she still seems happy enough, but some of the girls won’t speak to her. But as she says, it’s not her fault if men are made that way.

              “Before her though there was Alfie Dadd. Did I tell you about him? Now that was sad that was. Really sad. He’d been in the war you know. Another one who never married, but not because he knew the girls too well. No, he was a quiet one. He said what he had to, but no more. We never had a cross word, but then we hardly had a word anyway. I think it was the war that did it. He was a carpenter and he worked in his tin shed on his own, doing odd jobs. I remember once he mended the pews in the church and he put up some shelves for them up at the house when I was there. Well, when he retired he moved into where Dot is now. Very quiet he was. Never heard him except he had a parrot. Now this parrot didn’t talk believe it or not. Not really surprising because you have to teach ’em and how’s it going to learn if you don’t talk to it? What it would do is bite! Vicious little creature it was. Anyway he really loved this bird. Funnily enough he would chat away to it but not trying to teach it words or anything, just talking as if it understood him and was his partner.

              “Well one night I heard this noise, a sort of scrambling, scratching noise and then a clatter. It wasn’t dark and there are street lights anyway as you know so when I went out I could see alright but at first I couldn’t make anything out. And then I heard a sort of  soft moaning noise and I looked in the direction of his place, just down the road a step as you know, and there he was. He was spread-eagled across the roof almost as though he’d been crucified. He had one leg straight out behind him and the other with its knee bent upwards as though he was trying to push with it. His arms were splayed out above him and his head was on one side with his eyes staring up at the ridge of the roof. And there was that bloody parrot, prancing and preening along the ridge with not a care in the world, except now and again it would stop and cock its head on one side and give him the eye. It was like a still photo for a moment and then he started to slowly slide down the roof. For a moment his foot caught in the gutter, then the gutter gave way and he sort of flew off going backwards with his arms spread out and he landed on his back at the front just a few yards from where I was stood. The steps he’d used to get up there were lying down beside him. They must have fell away when he was scrambling up. Somebody must have phoned the police ’cos they were there in no time. He seemed not too bad at first and when the ambulance came they stretchered him off and he was conscious but he never came out again. He got pneumonia and he was gone. We never saw the parrot again. It just flew off and I hope a bloody cat got it. So that’s how I got Dot for a neighbour. Cup of tea or coffee?”

              “No thanks Mrs. Lock. We only popped in and we ought to be seeing Gwen next door at least, even if we don’t get round to the others,” said Bob.

              “Don’t mention her name in this house. If she had her way she’d drive me out of here but I’ve been here too long to let her get away with it.  She’s not going to ruin my life don’t you worry. To think I had lovely Mary Carey before. Such a lovely girl she was. Never do anyone down. Used to be behind the counter when Austin’s was a grocers and old Mr. Austin was still alive. She never spoke about it but some said she had a boyfriend from another village and he got killed in the war. She never said but that’s what I heard. She was quiet and so polite and obliging. I know for a fact she used to stay late and help Mr. Austin till all hours and knowing him she wouldn’t get a penny for it. As I said she was so quiet but then on occasions she used to sort of cheer up and I could hear her through the walls singing away, all sorts of loud sentimental songs and there would be a kind of thump as if she’d knocked something over. Well I had my ideas as you might guess, but she was always up and about the next day and she never missed a day’s work. You couldn’t have a more respectable lady for a neighbour, you really couldn’t. And what do you think? She went and married him, and him old enough to be her father, and within a year he was dead and she had it all. Well if ever anyone deserved a bit of luck she did.

              “But what did I get? I got Gwen Partridge. What did I do to deserve that? There’s something about her that gets right under my skin, and it’s got now that I can hardly stop thinking about her. Of course she does it on purpose. You know the sort of thing. Being in a terrace with back gardens so close together you’ve got to be extra careful not to annoy and sometimes I know you can upset people when you don’t mean to and that’s what she plays on. She does something and she can see I’m cross so she comes all apologetic and I’m all upset and she’s smiling as sweet as you like. Once she moved her dustbin from her back door to the other side so that it was still on her land but right under my kitchen window. So I never said a word; I just put it right back again and she comes round and says, 'I’m sorry about that but I thought it would be better for the dustmen.' Another time it was a nice sunny day and I had Grace and Fred from the end round. They never go out or see anybody and I thought they’d enjoy a chat in the back garden with one of my cakes and a cup of tea. So what does she do? She only hangs out her washing so its flapping about and putting us in shadow all the time. I can’t go shouting the odds when I’ve got company and by the time they’ve gone I’ve calmed down and I can’t rouse myself. Another time I put my washing out and she goes and lights a bonfire of all her smelly garden rubbish. And you listen now! Hear it? She’s got the radio on all the time   first thing in the morning till she goes to bed. There should be a law against it. Well there is I know but it’s not loud enough for that: just loud enough to hear it if you listen hard enough. She’s so annoying!

              “You’re not going are you? Nice to see you again. Sure you won’t have a cup of tea? As I said I’m not so bad. Mustn’t grumble. Grumbling never did anyone any good anyway did it?” And with that we scrambled out and on to the pavement where stood Gwen Partridge leaning on the picket fence and looking up and down the road as we walked past. She gave us a polite ‘Good evening’ and a pleasant smile.

              We made it round to the others before the next meeting of the council, but only just, and presented our report saying that everything seemed to be going along as usual. That was our duty done for a while. A month or two passed and then I heard that Gwen Partridge had died and her funeral would be the coming Tuesday. That’s last Tuesday and I went to represent the council but also because I knew her. She was one of the flock so to speak. All the old villagers were there and the church was pretty full. At the end I met Goldie standing with some of the others outside the porch and I was just saying the usual things when all of a sudden she started sobbing into her handkerchief. “It’s so sad. There’s not many of us left you know. I’m going to miss her. She was such a good friend.”     

 

 

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