She is aging, but still very active and independent, and somewhere along the road she has become an eccentric, though she hasn’t realised this herself yet.
I ask her questions, a surreptitious interview.
Her pronouncements are strange.
“My earliest memory? Well I think it was sitting in a pram on a street corner, but I’m always confused about this because I was facing the wrong way and that doesn’t make sense, and anyway how can anyone really remember being in a pram, I suppose it must have been a dream, though no, it was me, and there was this big sort of black and white chequered flag, some sort of advertisement, though heaven knows what for.”
She has a very, very slight smell – an unpleasant smell – though of course I would never mention such a thing to her, she is clearly so proud, so proper, she would be mortified.
“How did I meet my husband? Oh, it was during the war, he was stationed nearby and would come and see me on his bike, and we would go dancing together, oh I so loved dancing, though to be honest he wasn’t really very good at it, he always disappointed me a bit you know, but there you go, we got together and spent over forty years together, I always knew I’d miss him and I was right, I missed him a lot.”
She doesn’t seem too upset, though, as she sits stirring her cup of tea with a tiny teaspoon.
“You know you have to stir tea clockwise, I’ve always done it and it’s very important, I will not drink a cup of tea that’s been stirred the wrong way, I just don’t know how people can be so careless – clockwise, clockwise, always clockwise, that’s right, make sure you don’t forget.”
For a moment I’m not sure if she is being serious, but it seems that she is, very. I don’t know if this is some sort of superstition or just a strange personal ritual, though when I look into it later, I find that it’s not uncommon to have this sort of fixation about tea stirring. Which way I stir my tea (if at all, as I don’t take sugar) makes no difference at all to me, but clearly it does to some people.
“How did he die? Well, well you know, heart attack, that sort of thing, never understood it really, here one day, gone the next, it’ll be me soon, but there you go, no-one will care when it’s my turn, only they’d better make sure about my coffin, you know, I’ve always worried that my coffin won’t be strong enough and I’ll fall out of the bottom of it, you know, cost cutting and all that, can just imagine how shoddily it will be made, I don’t want to be carried into church and fall out of it, not acceptable really, and nothing to be done about it, I won’t be able to complain, but not good, not good at all, that sort of thing really should not happen.”
I try to assure her that funeral directors can surely be relied upon in such matters – but then who am I to comment? Maybe they can’t, maybe it happens.
“Where did I work? Oh for many years in a factory, packing things, putting things in boxes, when I first started it used to make me dizzy, the conveyor belts going by in front of you all the time, day after day, in one direction, you’d sit at home by the kitchen table and it was like everything was whizzing off the end of it, but then you got used to it, it was a boring job, oh yes very boring, but me and the girls used to chat and have a laugh, yes it wasn’t really so bad and we all have to work, don’t we? And someone has to pack the bread rolls, don’t they? Or was it balls, children’s toy balls? I can’t remember, both I think, but not at the same time, no!”
She laughs to herself and I notice that her teeth are bad. She clearly doesn’t believe in visits to the dentist.
“Holidays? Well, I’ve never left this country, you know, don’t see the point of it. Everywhere’s the same, it seems to me, and I’ve seen it all on telly now, yes they show you everything anyway and you don’t have to leave the comfort of your own home! Oh, sometimes we’d go to the seaside, of course, but I was never one for traipsing up and down the pier, and it’s always so windy, isn’t it, and if it’s sunny it’ll be so busy you won’t be able to move. No, the older I’ve got the less I want to go anywhere. Stay at home safe, that’s what I say, let the world take care of itself.”
Personally, I’m pretty proud of the fact I’ve been abroad every year since I was sixteen, so a complete lack of interest in travel is a difficult thing to understand. But I’m sure she’s far from the only one. A bit sad though, never to have seen a mountain or sat on an a hot foreign beach.
“Children? Oh, I can’t talk about that dear. Didn’t happen I’m afraid, and always difficult to think about, but what can you do? God must have wanted it that way. And I’ve had my cats, you know. Lots of them over the years, my sweet lovely cats, always enjoyed them, can’t answer back at you and never grow up, he he!”
I’m running out of questions so I ask her about her hobbies, and this is where she starts to go off the rails and into the realms of the obscure.
“Marrows. We used to grow giant marrows, take them to shows, win prizes. Oh many years we tried and tried and then eventually we came first, it was a proud moment. And then he started to get more interested in leeks, but to me they don’t have the same effect, no they just don’t look as impressive, though there was something about them he liked for some reason, always trying to get bigger ones, always fussing that they had to be just right. I carried on without him for a while, but then I gave it up, the allotment you know, too much hard work, and always scared someone would steal the produce, steal the marrows. Has been known, a lady I know had her prize turnip stolen right from under her nose, you wouldn’t believe it. I wonder if they ate it or just threw it away? How many people need a prize turnip, I mean really, what’s the world coming to?
“And of course the matchsticks, I spent many years building a giant matchstick church, you probably don’t believe me but I’ve still got the photos somewhere. It seemed so important at the time, something to put all my energy into, something to point to as an achievement, but so silly, so lonely when I look back. I should have made more effort to meet people and make friends, instead of sitting at home for hour after hour with the matchsticks and my jigsaws. Five thousand pieces was the biggest I’ve ever done, took months and months, can’t remember how many now, but a long time, and you know, I don’t even remember what it was supposed to be of, it was just like a cartoon picture with fishes and birds, I don’t know, what’s the point of that, but you have to fill time with something, you have to fill your life with something, and well, since I didn’t have husband or children, well it had to be marrows and cats and jigsaws, and what’s wrong with that? Tell me, what’s wrong with that?”
She finishes on a mystifying note. “I could tell you about the jackdaws you know, had a long, long battle with them. But it’s not a nice story and I don’t think you’d want to hear about them, would you? Especially not that strange fat grey one, oh I hated him, he was evil!”
I could ask, but she has exhausted me – I’ve had enough. I will never know whether the fat grey jackdaw was really a jackdaw or perhaps some person in a bike gang, nor why he was evil.