Prayers, Pipe-smoke and the Problem Page

I have a bit of a soft spot for Woman’s Realm. Not that I buy it. Oh no, that would be… a no-no. Mostly I get a heap of them, back-dated, in a Tesco bag. It’s a bit like one of those drug-dealer exchanges on motorway slip-roads. Betty passes them over to me in the car park of Mum’s care home. We meet up there before the Visit, cars parked neatly side by side, both of us dreading the Going In and longing for the Coming Out. It sounds awful, doesn’t it? Not wanting to go in? I feel a bit better because Betty feels the same. I email her in advance.

Are you OK for a visit to Mum this Sunday, usual time and place?

And inevitably she emails back something like: I’m game if you are or If you can do it, I can.

I realise she is not coming to see Mum, now, but to give me the courage to see her.

Older than Mum, she has been with us both since before I was born. She knew me when I was an awkward bump. She used to look after me every Friday evening so that Mum and Dad could go out. A single lady, she told me recently she was terrified every time that Something Dreadful might happen to me whilst I was in her care and it would all be her fault. And yet she is reassurance itself.

It has always seemed to me that Betty could cope with anything. She is the very embodiment of Keep Calm and Carry On. But I sense that she is out of her depth in this nightmare of a place, and with the nightmare Mum is becoming. Too close to home, I guess, to be sat amongst those who are the same age as you or younger; in constant peril of being mistaken for an inmate and hoisted into a wheelchair or forced to drink yet more cranberry juice from a plastic cup.

Mind you, the inmates mistake me for an inmate sometimes. And other times they mistake me for the person who knows where their lost suitcase is, or the person who has come to cut their toenails, or the person who speaks fluent Italian. I made the mistake last week of trying out my few phrases of Italian on Maria, whose word-of-choice is Bella! (Mum’s is Well…)

Yole vole lavare quista camichetta? I ventured, remembering the phrase from a long-ago BBC Learning Zone programme. Non parl… speak Italian… much.

Poco? She pinches her fingers together. She has no teeth. Her chin all buts the end of her nose, like the witches in fairy-tale book illustrations.

Si, molto poco.

Bella!

La sciarpetta?

Poco.

And then a lady from the church arrives to bring her communion. We watch as the priest-lady sets out a tiny cross on a white handkerchief. It has been ironed into quarters. She takes out a prayer book, and a little silver container of communion wafers. She has just gone through the exact same service for the only other Catholic lady in another room. We listen to the prayer for the sick, and to other prayers. We listen as she says In the name of the Father… and Maria crosses herself and mumbles in nomine patris…Bella! I find the prayers soothing, though they are not intended for me. I wonder if I should start reading the Bible a bit, knowing I probably won’t.

Betty, I sense, does not find the prayers soothing, rather the opposite, and yet she is the nearest thing to a Guardian Angel I have ever known. She guarded Mum and now she’s doing what she can to guard me. But she is fidgeting and trying not to look at the door.

Well occasionally in moments of extreme stress I do buy a Woman’s Realm. Woman’s Realm is to me what chocolate – or Baileys Irish Cream – are to other women: comfort reading, because the magazine reminds me of Nan.

Every Sunday I used to go along the road to Nan and Grandad’s for Sunday Dinner and Sunday Tea. A whole day’s respite, if you counted Sunday School first, from having to keep out of my father’s way and from having to protect my mother from anything that might set off her Nerves again and have her lying on the sofa with her eyes shut, clutching a handkerchief in hands that shook and shook.

Every Sunday – well, I’ve written about it before – but while Nan was cooking our Sunday Dinner I would hang around with Grandad in the living room. He would fill his pipe with St Bruno Flake and fill the whole room with a thick fug of aromatic, if unhealthy, smoke. He would idle through pink back-copies of The Carpenter & Joiner and I would read Nan’s Woman’s Realm.

I was supposed to be reading it only for a cartoon about a family of little robins – Mummy Robin, Daddy Robin and… Other Robins, but I didn’t understand the cartoon much. What I liked to look at was the knitting patterns – lantern-jawed husband-material posed stiffly in black and white, showing off their new blackberry-stitch cardigan – babies surrounded by lacy layettes, a halo of little shawls, bonnets, cardis and bootees of infinite complexity.

fair isle.jpg

I seized my chance to create one of these challenging little lacy things – a cardigan, it was, complete with buttons and knitted buttonholes – for my youngest sister when she was expecting her first child. It didn’t go down too well. Apparently the modern baby wears the baby-grow.

I read at least sections of those endless romantic serials, wondering why there was such a scarcity of stern, broken-hearted Highland Lairds in my part of Kent.

And, of course, I read the Problem Page. It was always at the back, so easy to find. From readers’ letters I learned, after a fashion, the facts of life. My innocent requests for the Meanings of Long Words forced Nan to explain, albeit in a whimsical and euphemistic manner, Certain Things to me that might come in useful later (though not very useful, as it turned out). I doubt if Mum would even have mentioned them.

I’m ‘Enery the Eighth, I am

  • I’m ‘Enery the Eighth, I am,
  • ‘Enery the Eighth I am, I am!
  • I got married to the widow next door,
  • She’s been married seven times before
  • And every one was an ‘Enery
  • She wouldn’t have a Willie nor a Sam
  • I’m her eighth old man named ‘Enery
  • ‘Enery the Eighth, I am!

I remember this song being rattled out over the radio when I was a child. For non-British readers I should mention – though it’s probably fairly obvious – that the lyrics are slightly saucy, and would definitely have been so in 1910 when the song was written, since Willie is the common term for a gentleman’s naughty-bits.

(My Polish vet accidentally managed to amuse me by enquiring of William, one of my many ginger moggies “And how’s my Leetle Willy?” I kept a straight face – inherited from Grandad, see below.)

It was written in 1910 and originally sung by music hall star Harry Champion. He must have made a record of it since even I am not old enough to have been to the music hall, although my Grandfather did. My Grandfather was a silent, dour sort of chap. You had to know him well to tell when he was being humorous. No twinkle appeared in his eye. He never smiled, or particularly looked in your direction. There might have been no one in the room with him. He just went on, puffing at his pipe, staring into space and suddenly you’d find yourself thinking – that was funny!

But obviously he couldn’t always have been like that, since he once told a story about sitting up in the balcony with his mates at the music hall –a rather risqué place to go in those days – peeling oranges and aiming the peel down the collars of the people in the seats below. I suppose he may have had his pipe clenched between his teeth like Popeye even then, since he told he started on the old St Bruno Flake at nine. Or was that also a joke?

Anyway, that was the sort of song he would have heard, and probably enjoyed singing along to. And some of the songs lived on, long after music hall itself had faded out, overtaken by the new cinemas of the 1920s. My father used to come out with a scattering of semi-nonsensical verses to amuse us. Most of them required a cockney accent, but then most of us in the C1 to E demographic can do a fairish cockney accent, if encouraged and in cheery mood. (Unlike Dick Van Dyke who in the 1964 musical film Mary Poppins perpetrated absolutely the worst cockney accent of all time):

  • Oh! it really is a wery pretty garden
  • And ‘Endon to the westward could be seen
  • And by clinging to the chimbley
  • You could see across to Wembley
  • If it wasn’t for the ‘ouses in between

and

  •  My old man said “Foller the van,
  • And don’t dilly dally on the way”.
  • Off went the van wiv me ‘ome packed in it,
  • I followed on wiv me old cock linnet.
  • But I dillied and dallied, dallied and I dillied
  • Lost me way and don’t know where to roam.
  • Well you can’t trust a special like the old time coppers.
  • When you can’t find your way ‘ome.

and

  •  Oh! Mr Porter, what shall I do?
  • I want to go to Birmingham
  • And they’re taking me on to Crewe,
  • Take me back to London, as quickly as you can,
  • Oh! Mr Porter, what a silly girl I am.

It’s difficult to explain how very comforting these silly old tunes and daft words can be if you’re British, especially in beleaguered times when disgusting diseases, criss-crossing warplanes, random shootings and chemical weapons feel as if they’re coming out of the woodwork at us. They act as a kind of charm and a litany – akin to the Shipping Forecast on Radio 4 every night. The announcer starts: And now the Shipping Forecast, issued by the Met Office on behalf of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency at [time of issue] today – then embarks on his measured, methodical progress, clockwise around the waters around the British Isles.

And somehow you feel… it’s OK. We’re still an island, safely surrounded by tracts of water we can’t imagine and which the majority wouldn’t recognise if we saw them, and over which it might currently be hailing or snowing, blowing a gale, threatening rain. There they all are: Viking, North Utsire, South Utsire, Forties, Cromarty, Forth, Tyne, Dogger, Fisher, German Bight, Humber…

Nothing bad can have happened –Radio 4 is still talking to us and we’re still wrapped in our blanket of sea. It’s not the words themselves it’s the sound and the rhythm, like poetry. In a world of nuclear weapons, random shootings and dire diseases, they are a charm and a litany. They comfort us greatly.

As, of course, do a few special pieces of music. And this is one of them:

 

South Korean violinist Julia Hwang, then aged 15

The Lark Ascending: Ralph Vaughan Williams

 It was inspired by a poem of the same name by George Meredith (1828–1909) which begins:

  • HE rises and begins to round,
  • He drops the silver chain of sound
  • Of many links without a break,
  • In chirrup, whistle, slur and shake,
  • All intervolv’d and spreading wide,
  • Like water-dimples down a tide
  • Where ripple ripple overcurls
  • And eddy into eddy whirls….

I have to say I’m not convinced this picture, which was listed as ‘lark’, is actually a lark, or a sky-lark. I thought they were plain brown and speckled. No doubt bird-watchers the world over have been muttering to themselves throughout this piece either ‘That’s not a lark!’ (if it actually isn’t) or ‘What a pretty lark’ (if it actually is). Whatever – it’s meant to be a lark. It symbolises lark… It represents lark…

Autumn: Michaelmas Daisies and Fallen Leaves

As they drew up to the crematorium they passed the men with the yellow digger, scooping up yesterday’s flowers. It was a familiar sight to Godfrey Snaith. As Vicar of Birchmarsh his attendance had been required here more and more frequently as time went by. Birchmartians, as he tended privately to think of them, preferred to be cremated nowadays, and that was that. They liked this fake, white-walled Texas-cattle-ranch–cum-Grecian temple better than the ancient gloom of St Swithin And All Angels, and untidy graveyard behind and to the side of it. There were burial plots enough for several more generations of  but it seemed these would never be filled.

He had always loved the graveyard with its drunken, weather-smoothed memorial stones, its tufty, unmanageable grass, the monster compost heap against the wall and the surly gravedigger, Ronald Potts. He liked the sense of peace there, the way butterflies crash-landed on the headstones and slow-worms lived under Ronald’s tool-shed next to the church’s flint wall. He liked the way trees overhung the perimeter wall and nobody bothered to cut them back. As now, in Autumn, red and orange leaves fell from these trees, burying the graves nearest the edge, as if to provide an the dead with an extra blanket through winter. On occasion, when he had felt in particular need of a quiet commune with The Boss, he had even gone into the graveyard at night. Leaning unafraid against one side of the mossy family tomb of a sixteenth century local bigwig and his family – Sir Horace Kingsford, Bart, His Lady Wyfe Margaretta Mary and their Vssue Horace Matthew, Chas. Montagve, and Jennet Elyza – and relishing a discreet pipe of St Bruno Flake, Godfrey had loved the way church mice stole out from wherever they secreted themselves during the day – in all those tapestry hassocks, maybe, or behind the wainscoting in the vestry, scurrying about in the search for food. Until he moved here from Bermondsey – could it really have been twenty-nine years ago? – he had taken it for granted that there was a distinct breed of mouse called a church mouse, just as there were field mice and dormice. But it seemed that a church mouse was just any mouse that decided to make its home in a church, braving loneliness and poor pickings. As he leaned, and smoked, and talked to The Boss, the fox would come sniffing round the graves, and owls would glide over.

  • …nearer God’s heart in a garden
  • Than anywhere else on earth…

He murmured to himself.

What was that?

Nothing. Talking to myself. Old man’s habit.

At this point, New Lady Vicar was supposed to say something along the lines of, Oh Godfrey, you’re hardly an old man. Plenty of life in the old dog yet, but she didn’t. His replacement was not much of an empathiser, he suspected; worse, she had no sense of humour. Why had she chosen this particular career, he wondered, when she might have been a lawyer, a doctor or the CEO of some multinational company. Women could do anything nowadays. Inability to see the funny side of life was going to be a problem if she intended to stay in Birchmarsh for any length of time. But perhaps she was ambitious and wouldn’t stay. Might have her eyes on the Archbishopric, for all he knew. Everything seemed to have changed in Birchmarsh – it began so slowly he hardly noticed it, but of recent years everything seemed to be accelerating. Peter was the last of the old ones. He had lived into his ninety-eighth year, unexpectedly outliving Rose, his wife, by a whole ten years. “I shall be glad to go,” he had told Godfrey recently. Glad to go. Godfrey felt the same – except that in his case ‘going’ only involved a return to Bermondsey.

He was unfamiliar with Lady Vicars and had only met this one the day before yesterday when she arrived with a big removal van, to take over the Vicarage. He was being put up in a hotel for the next few days – the ‘debrief and handover period’ as the Archbishop was pleased to call it. Then he would be off, returning to his city roots. He was going to live with his sister, Doris, who was in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease. She needed him and he needed a home so it made sense. He had decided to write detective stories. And furthermore, though it sounded conceited, he knew he would be good at it. How could he not be, when he had spent a lifetime devouring them? Detective stories and St Bruno Flake: his twin guilty pleasures.

It was a plan that still surprised him. It also made him happy. Godfrey had never really stopped thinking of London as home. He pictured himself back there, comfortably installed in the downstairs front bedroom of his sister’s terraced house, with his shelves of books (he would put them up himself), his new yellow portable typewriter and his wicker waste-paper basket full to the brim of screwed up pages (in illustrations, writers always seemed to be surrounded by screwed up pages). His beloved sister would be pottering round, able to call him if she needed him. He imagined himself sat in the bay window – he would need to get a second-hand desk – looking straight out onto the street, watching people going backwards and forwards about their daily lives, and perhaps taking inspiration from them.

A few streets away there was a little park, not one of those enclosed ones for rich residents, but an open square place, with horse chestnut trees, and benches built round the trunks. I shall go for a stroll every day, he thought. I shall take my pipe, and my notebook. Maybe in the summer I will even write a paragraph or two out there. Maybe Doris would like to come with me.

But there was this cremation to get through first. He wished it did not have to be the cremation of his old friend and parishioner Peter Browning, and he wished it could be him taking the service rather than the New Lady Vicar he was now ‘mentoring’. She didn’t seem all that interested being mentored. Knew it all. You’ve prepared some notes on the life of the deceased? Just let me have the paperwork if you will, and I’ll peruse it this evening.

Peruse. It was the wrong word. Solicitors perused, Doctors, politicians and company chairmen probably perused. Vicars – surely there should be another term – studied, absorbed, meditated upon. Perused was so cold; nothing to do with flesh and blood people. And this was Peter’s funeral. It was for his sake and for that his deaf grand-daughter Sophie, who would be at the service. Godfrey had so wanted the thing to be done right. He had hoped to take care of this one last thing himself.

New Lady Vicar parked the mini neatly in the car park and leant across to open the passenger-side door for him. Does she think I’m senile? Godfrey wondered. Can’t remember how to work the door-handle? He caught a glimpse of the woman’s face in the rear-view mirror. It was pale and irritable-looking.

*

Sophie folded Maria’s push-chair and left it in a corner of the ante-room reserved for close family. It should be safe enough. She would walk in with her daughter in her arms. Granda would have liked that. He had never been a fan of what he called “contraptions”, preferring simplicity, and the old ways. Her husband hadn’t been able to make it, today. He was being interviewed for the headship of an inner-city school and the two dates had clashed. He did so want that job. She would be keeping her fingers crossed for him, but for the next few hours must concentrate all her energies on saying goodbye to Granda. She wished it could have been in the parish church, but her parents had favoured on cremation. She also wished it could have been Reverend Snaith taking the service. He looked lost, perched at the end of the front view. The new lady was already standing up at the lectern, flapping a sheaf of notes about and fidgeting. Panicking – Sophie could see it instantly – but pretending not to be; putting on a front. Deaf from birth, Sophie compensated with other senses. Unable to hear the things people said, she sensed the things they didn’t.

The first hymn went without a hitch. Sophie didn’t sing, of course, and she could not feel the music through the floor as well as she might have done in church. She knew what they were singing, of course, since it was she who had had planned the service. It was The Old Rugged Cross: an old- fashioned hymn, ill-suited to the surroundings, but suited to Granda. Granda had been a carpenter and, in his spare time, a whittler and carver of wood. He would have understood the cross, would have related to it, possibly more than to the man crucified upon it.

*

New Lady Vicar launched into the body of her sermon, and that was when things started to go badly wrong.

We meet here today to honour and pay tribute to the life of our brother Paul, and to express our love and admiration for him. Also to try to bring some comfort to those of Paul’s family and friends who are here and have been deeply hurt by his death.

Oh God, how am I going to stop her? thought Godfrey Snaith. She’s got the wrong name.

Paul was not a particularly religious person, so it’s befitting that his funeral ceremony should reflect what he was, a gentle, kind, loving person; devoted to his wife and family…

I can even see how she did it, he thought. She forgot the name – for all her blasted ‘perusing’ she must have forgotten poor Peter’s name. Instead of stopping and asking, which would have been the sensible thing, knowing it began with a ‘P’ she through the Apostles – ah, Paul. It must be Paul. Let’s go with Paul.

Paul wasn’t a particularly religious person but it was thought that his funeral service should include some form of religious content and prayers.

I’ve got to stop her – but how? Godfrey Snaith stayed rooted to his seat. He was not a brave man. He was not a man designed for emergencies.

Sophie passed her sleeping daughter to the woman next to her and stood up, her eyes fixed on New Lady Vicar. She was signing something, repeatedly.

New Lady Vicar saw and was confused, but unfortunately not enough to stop talking.

It’s only natural that we should be sad today, because in a practical sense, our brother Paul is no longer a part of our lives…

Sophie signed the sign again, and again. New Lady Vicar fell silent, looking backwards and forwards in disbelief from the young woman who had until recently been Sophie Browning, to the old man who had until recently been The Reverend Godfrey Snaith. Godfrey Snaith came to his senses.

Peter, he said in a low voice. She’s signing Peter.

New Lady Vicar simply looked confused. She was as frozen to the lectern as Godfrey had been to his seat.

Godfrey took a deep breath and stood up.

Might I say a few words, my dear? You see, Peter Browning was a good friend of mine.

Lady Vicar sat down, cross, embarrassed, still confused but relieved to be out of the limelight.

Godfrey turned to the congregation with a smile.

A good friend of many years’ standing – he, his late wife Rose and his Granddaughter Sophie – all friends. You might say the four of us have grown up and grown old together. Peter was a difficult chap, in some ways – grumpy, not what you might call the life and soul of the party. Not much of a churchgoer, either. He might turn up at Christmas, under duress, and very occasionally at Easter; Rose never did him to a Harvest Festival, though it was her favourite service. But if you should decide to pay a visit to our beautiful parish church, St Swithin and All Angels – where, by the way, funeral services can also be conducted – you will notice a carved altar rail – Peter did that. He bought the wood, he designed and carved the rail and he gave it to the church. It took him six months to complete. And the lattice screen – the one with the birds and flowers? Peter Browning made that too…