For some reason my Quaker Meeting decided to make a big thing out of my ninetieth birthday. An outdoor party, they said, as it would be May – with lots of food, and naturally a cake. Brenda volunteered to make the cake; she would, of course. Brenda can always be relied upon to get involved, whether appropriately or not. No, that’s not fair; I made a resolution last January not be nasty about Brenda; I can safely leave that to the younger ones.
“We thought we’d have it at my place, if you wouldn’t mind too much, Charlotte?” Ursula peered at me anxiously
through her thick pebble glasses, as she balanced a mug of tea on her knee. I laughed. “That sounds superb, Ursula dear – why on earth should I mind?”
Ursula ran the local library, and lived alone in a large detached house with a rambling garden. Her husband had been killed in a car crash about ten years before, and her youngest child was away at university by now. I love Ursula’s garden, and it struck me that if we were lucky her glorious rhododendron bushes would be out in time.
“We were afraid you might want to have it at the Meeting House,” Ursula went on. “As it falls on a Sunday?”
“No, not specially. Have some more cake, Ursula?”
She leant across and took another slice. “In that case, Ian wondered if you’d mind if he did a barbecue? His son gave him a kit for Christmas and he
tries it out at the drop of a hat…”
“What fun!” I cried. “We could get some steaks, and lots of sausages. And chicken legs. Oh and we’d have to have plenty of vegetarian stuff. Those
vegeburgers can be quite tasty. In their way…”
There was more to it than the food, of course. Someone – Ian, I think: it would be so like Ian – had had the bright idea of doing a sort of ‘This Is Your Life’ for me. I don’t know what dark secrets they thought they were going to unearth, mind. Bankruptcy, drug addiction, a succession of lovers, unsubstantiated allegations that I’d once been a member of the Conservative Party, that sort of thing… No, he probably had more in mind old photographs and keepsakes.
I like Ian. He’s a social worker, rather a short man, with a thick graying beard. I suppose he was in his early forties by then, worked off his feet of course; why is it that everyone nowadays seems to be either unemployed or have far too much work to do? Ian
lived alone just across St Peter’s Close from my own sheltered flat; he used to call in now and then, late at night: he was lonely, I think.
When Ursula had gone, I decided to look out some of my old photograph albums in case they were required for this occasion that the Meeting apparently wanted. I’d kept all my albums when I moved out of our home after Arnold died, even though my daughter Susan had
tuttutted a good deal and sniffed and said that surely I wouldn’t have room for all that junk in the new little flat?
I kept Arnold’s battered old trunk that he’d had in China during the War; it fitted snugly into the corner of my tiny spare room, and in it I stored my letters and photographs. Down at the bottom were the oldest – my mother’s record of our childhood. Not personal pictures from our home of course – my parents never possessed a camera, but whenever one of us reached some significant landmark in life we were hauled down to the photographer in the High Street for an official portrait among the aspidistras. There was rather a charming one of me, aged about six. I was wearing a longish white dress with puffed sleeves and a locket round my neck. My fluffy fair hair was held up in a bow, and I stood solemnly between my parents, not one of us smiling. My father’s handlebar moustache was trim; he sat sideways on an armchair, facing the camera with his bald head. My mother sat bolt upright, her long dark dress fastened at the neck with a velvet bow, her hands clasped decorously in her lap. The sheer determination in the set of that chin: how often had I observed it in Susan!
I remember that day. I’d been sick twice that very morning and there was some doubt about whether they could bring me after all: but the photographer had been booked at great expense and my mother was loathe to waste the money. The man took for ever arranging the chairs and I was wondering what would be the polite thing to say – and do – if I felt sick again: an eventuality which seemed to grow ever more likely the more I dwelt on it.
The next photograph showed our whole family, taken perhaps a year or so later. My parents were seated next to each other in the garden with me standing just behind them, peering over their shoulders. On either side of them stood their only two surviving sons, for a number of babies and young children had died in the years before my own birth. Tom and Freddie looked almost grownup in that picture – ah yes, Freddie was wearing an academic gown: it must have been the year he went up to Oxford.
I leafed through a few more pages – a number of cousins, most of whom lived near us, and a few picture postcards. Then the last page, a single photograph on its own: Tom in the uniform of an army officer. He stood tall and upright, unblinking – as though he knew the photographer was going to make a sudden flash and he was determined not to react. Tom was just eighteen.
I took the photograph album into the sitting room and found a space for it on the bookcase. Then on impulse I decided to ring my old friend Oliver; as it happens he is also my solicitor bu this wasn’t official.
“Have you heard about this Do they’re having for my birthday?” I demanded. “I suppose it was your idea, was it?”
He chuckled – I love the deep fruity way he does that on the phone. “Oh it was one of those ideas that seem to strike lots of people all at the same moment. I suppose it may have been me who first mentioned your greatly advanced age and indeed your impending anniversary… Solicitors are supposed to know things like that, you know.”
“And straight away Brenda said we couldn’t possibly let such an occasion pass unmarked. You know what Brenda is like.”
“I’m afraid I do.”
“And Gerry said he could bring along his homemade elderflower wine, so long as we didn’t hold it at the Meeting House of course.”
“Ah that was it. Would he bring his wife, do you think? I haven’t seen Bel for over a year.” I rather liked Gerry’s wife.
“Gerry said she might just possibly come,” Oliver told me. “But she doesn’t want a fuss made about her sudden reappearance!”
“I’m not sure what anyone can do to prevent that,” I said. “Anyhow, I can leave someone else to sort that out. Tell you what, Olly – why don’t you turn up as Olive?”
There was a pause.
Just long enough for me to wonder if I’d put my foot in it.
“I doubt if that would be a terribly good idea, Charlotte love,” he said at last.
“Why not? Don’t you think it’s about time that Olive made our general acquaintance? She’s had enough of quiet soirees at St Peter’s Close. Ian agrees with me – it’s time Olive branched out a bit. Now let me see – how about that lovely lemon yellow gingham dress? Really summery – perfect for a barbecue, you know.”
He laughed. “I’m not sure that the Meeting is ready for Olive yet, my dear. I’ll think about it…”
The very next day a postcard arrived from the Great Wall of China. I put on my glasses and peered at the picture – you know, the familiar one of the ancient highway weaving its way up and down the steep mountains which stretched endlessly into the distance. I’m sure Arnold never went there when he was in China. Is it really true you can see it from the moon?
The card was from Jenny of course. My granddaughter Jenny, the youngest by a long way, and the only one who lived round the corner from Arnold and me when she was little. I turned the card over and read it. “Hi, Gran! Arrived safe from Cairns last Friday. Got taught how to snorkel on the Great Barrier Reef by a huge hunk of an Ozzie – you must try it some time. China is amazing! Have been cycling all round Beijing. I’m with some people who
want to try and get to India, but I’ll be back long before your birthday, promise. Lots of love and blackcurrant jam on toast, Jenny.”
I smiled and began to clear a space on my kitchen notice board – that list of coffee mornings at St Peter’s Retirement Flats could go in the bin and so indeed could ‘Your Cholesterol Lowering Diet Plan’ that my daughter Susan had put up for me. I pinned the Great Wall of China in the centre and stood back. I really ought to phone Susan – she and Walter had been getting a little anxious about Jenny a week or so back: but maybe they too had had a card this morning.
Dear Jenny. How was she? She sounded almost her old self.
Jenny used to work in her father Walter’s stationery firm, in fact in another year or two he had planned to make her a partner. Well it was better than being involved in the arms trade, I suppose. The business was thriving – people would always need paperclips, Susan
said, and you couldn’t argue with that; but I did wonder if there wasn’t something which one could sell that was in between paperclips and spare parts for land mines – oh I don’t know, books for instance, or theatre tickets, or trips in hot air balloons, or vodka.
Jenny’s marriage at only twenty had come as a great surprise to me. I’d known the young man for years – he was destined to be Walter’s junior partner in the firm, a solid reliable kind of fellow, not bad looking if you liked that type. Susan liked him a lot, I could tell. They had a big wedding at Susan’s church – reception at the town’s most expensive hotel – the works. I was photographed at the lichgate as the
Grandmother of the Bride. I overheard someone muttering that I was Marvellous for my Age, which does irritate me so. And ever worse – someone else muttered that I certainly still had all my marbles.
Jenny left him eight and a half months later. I put her up in my spare room and shared a good few bars of chocolate with her while I let her cry. We sat up
late every night and talked about lever-arch files and ball-point pens, Penelope Lively and Joanna Trollope; about Arnold’s absence in China when our
children were little and his curious absence now from St Peter’s Close; and about the Victoria Falls and the Grand Canyon – and Adelaide, where two of
Jenny’s closest school friends had recently gone to work.
It was I who gave Jenny the money to go out to Adelaide on an open-ended visit.
Naturally Susan was furious with me.
“How dare you interfere, Mother?” she demanded. “The child’s behaved abominably – to all the rest of us, let alone her wretched husband! Who is
distraught, incidentally, not that you would care… And as for her poor father, Walter can’t even bring himself to talk about her.”
I did care about Jenny’s husband, as it happened, but I could see that Susan was not going to credit that. I couldn’t help remembering something that my old friend Harold Loukes wrote – oh, more than thirty years ago when he and Arnold were working on some committee together, but I’m gratified to see his words still appear years after his death: I was glancing at that new red book only the other day. Harold talked about the breakdown of marriage, and the need to support those to whom it happens. He said that if we can’t do that, it would be like saying that letting someone down within a marriage was a specially unforgivable sin – whereas we know that in reality it is hard to avoid, unlike robbing a bank, which is easier to avoid and more open to forgiveness… That appealed to me.
But Susan was not impressed. “Really Mother I wonder about you sometimes! What the hell has robbing a bank got to do with this sorry mess that young Jenny has got us all into?”
The day I got the Great Wall postcard, I rang Susan after lunch. It turned out that she and Walter had not heard from Jenny for a couple of months now.
“Nice of you to let us know,” Susan said icily. “Poor Walter was beginning to wonder if she’d set off for a short walk to Ayers Rock.”
“Isn’t it great that she’ll be back for my birthday,” I went on, ignoring her tone. “By the way, there’s some news about that – you’ll never guess what the Meeting is planning to do…”
I told her. Susan said that in that case, if the Sunday was booked, I’d better come out to dinner with the family on the Saturday night, which sounded fine to me. She’d get in touch with her brothers and their wives and all their numerous offspring. “And I hope you’re behaving yourself these days, Mother,” she went on.
“I can’t think what you mean!”
You see I’d had a check up at the doctor’s a few months ago, and they were so pleased with me that I was walking particularly cheerfully over the world afterwards, and ended up at my favourite fish shop. As the assistant – who looked vaguely familiar – was weighing out some prawns in their shells for me, I had a sudden dreadful thought: I’d been so anxious about the check up that I’d come out without my purse.
“I know you, don’t I?” I said.
“Marmalade,” he smiled. “I’ve seen you in Meeting – you’re Charlotte, aren’t you?” He had long dark hair tied back in a ponytail and was wearing a white coat which disguised how absurdly thin he was. I’m afraid it took me a moment to recall that Marmalade was in fact his name: a friend of mine in Watford Meeting had written to our Clerk to ask her to look out for a shy young Friend called Marmalade who was moving to our area.
I explained with some embarrassment that I’d forgotten my money, but Marmalade just said he’d pay for the prawns himself until he saw me again. He recommended the skate too, and I went home with a nice wing for my tea.
I really shouldn’t have told Susan this story.
After my phone call to Susan, I went into the kitchen and put the kettle on. Marmalade, now; I hadn’t thought about him for a month or two – had he been in Meeting? I knew Ursula was worried about him; he didn’t know many people, and he lived alone in a rather dismal bed-sit near the station with a small pet snake called Rupert. Perhaps I should ring him that evening?
I glanced at the calendar, which I keep pinned up next to my favourite poem. Jenny had copied it out for me in beautiful handwriting a year or so ago when she was doing calligraphy in an evening class. The poem is called Warning – I don’t know if you know it? It’s by another Jenny, Jenny Joseph.
“When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn’t go and doesn’t suit me
And I shall spend my pension on brandy…”
Jenny – my Jenny that is – said the poem reminded her of me because of the bit about sitting down on the pavement when I’m tired, and gobbling up samples in shops, and pressing alarm bells. She could just see me doing that; not a bit of it, I protested, although I did wonder if running my stick along public railings might be rather fun. But I don’t want to learn to spit, and I certainly wouldn’t pick flowers in other people’s gardens!
Marmalade was delighted when I rang that evening. He wasn’t busy – he was about to go out alone and buy himself a Chinese takeaway, so I suggested he should let me treat him, and bring two portions round to my flat to share together.
“Ursula tells me you have a pet snake,” I said as I popped the beef chop suey and egg fried rice into the microwave.
“Yes that’s right – Rupert.” A look of what I can only describe as serenity came over his face. “He’s only five months old.”
“That must be… er… interesting. I suppose you don’t have to exercise him – not like having to take a dog for a walk!” I rather hoped that he didn’t take Rupert out at all.
“I have to keep him in a tank at seventy degrees all the time, which gets quite expensive. He’s very affectionate,” Marmalade went on. “His skin is quite smooth to handle, you know. People are surprised; they expect it to feel scaly.”
“Yes, I see.” Frankly I wished afterwards that I hadn’t asked him next what he fed his snake on.
“Mice, mainly. I have to get them at the market – they’re
cheap at the moment.”
“Really – how fascinating.” I swallowed, and changed the subject. “By the way, have you heard about this party the Meeting is having for my birthday?”
He had indeed. He and Ian had apparently been planning a free-standing display screen which Ian intended to borrow from the Social Work department, and they were wondering what they could put on it. After we’d eaten, I took him into the living room and showed him my photograph album.
“So did you come from a military family, Charlotte?” he asked as he settled back comfortably on the sofa to listen.
I told him that my father – one of the gentlest people I’ve ever known – was in fact a bowler-hatted civilian official in the War Office who worked in Aldershot. After I was born we lived on the main road to Frensham Common, where the army held its manoeuvres - sham fights, we called them. Our family was brought up to believe that the Royal Army was an institution to be justly proud of. I remember as a little girl getting terribly
excited when the soldiers came galloping down the hill outside our front gate, trailing their guns behind them. My cousins and I would sit on the gate post to watch them, and we’d cheer like mad as they passed by. Nearly all my cousins were boys, and sometimes if my mother wasn’t looking I’d sneak off with them onto Frensham Common and play in the heather when an army manoeuvre was planned.
“An exciting thing happened to my brother Tom once, on Frensham Common,” I told Marmalade.
“The one in the photo?”
“That’s right – but long before that photo, when he was only a child. He was hiding in the heather one day during an
army exercise and he saw a small cavalcade of horsemen coming. Suddenly this huge great horse jumped right over him. The rider had no idea there was a little boy hiding there, but afterwards Father told us that it had been none other than the King himself, that is Edward VII.”
“Wow! That would be before the First World War, then? Do you remember the war, Charlotte?”
“I should say so,” I told him. “I was eight when it started. I remember going out for a family walk in the country the day before – our family always went for a walk on August bank holiday, all of us together. It was Monday August 3rd. Father was very quiet; he obviously knew that war was on the cards. Tom and Freddie were preoccupied, too – no one seemed in the mood to play with me. I felt like a little puppy who suddenly finds itself ignored!”
Marmalade laughed, and helped both of us to some more cider. “So your brother Tom joined the army?”
“Oh yes – he was down on the steps of the nearest recruiting office the moment it opened next morning.”
“He’d been in the OTC at school of course – the Officers’ Training Corps, you know? So he was made an officer straight away and eventually sent out to France. He was in the second battle of Ypres…”
“What happened to him?” Marmalade lent forward and looked at me.
“In three days he was dead.”
“Oh Charlotte how dreadful!” The young man’s eyes filled with tears, and it struck me that he must himself be only three or four years older than my brother Tom had been. I was more touched by Marmalade’s tears than I could tell him.
“We never got over it,” I said. “No one in the family, really. Tom was everyone’s favourite, all his life. We worshipped him.”
“What about your other brother –Freddie, was it? What happened to him? If that had been me I’d have been so angry that anyone had killed my brother that I’d want to hit back as hard as I could.”
I shrugged. “Yes, a lot of people did feel that. Do you know they even stoned dachshund dogs in the streets because they
“Oh yes, there were lots of stories like that. And I daresay the same thing happened in Germany. But Freddie was quite different from Tom.
The phone interrupted us at that moment, and Marmalade stood up, saying he’d really have to be going home because Rupert missed him so much if he was out too long. I waved him off and returned to the phone. It was Oliver, to tell me about a concert at the Town Hall soon. “It’s Brahms’ First, among other things, and I know that’s one of your favourites, Charlotte. Ursula is free, and we’re all meeting for a quick pizza beforehand.”
That sounded fun. When we’d finished talking, I went back to the kitchen to clear up. Dear distant Tom – he suddenly felt very close to me,
that evening as I stood at the sink washing up. I’d never really known him in life, not in the way siblings can know each other as adults. I’d only been a
little girl, and he’d been away at school most of the time. But I remember the excitement in the house when he was due home for the holidays, my mother instructing cook to prepare his favourite meal the first day. I even remember holding my breath – quite literally – when I was lying in bed that night, because my father told me that Tom would not come home at all until I went to sleep like a good girl, and since I couldn’t possibly do that I had to pretend. I could never understand why it made my father laugh so, while I quietly went purple in the face.
I enjoyed my flat here at St Peter’s, I reflected as I put away the plates in the pine cupboard above the cooker. It was modern and light, well designed with big wide windows overlooking an interesting street on one side, and a leafy garden on the other. But the strange thing about it was… well, that somehow Arnold wasn’t here. Believe me, he was everywhere in our old house, which we’d shared for forty years. Not just obvious places, the living room, the bedroom. He was even in places like the garden shed, where he used to go and sit reading on a deckchair when visiting grandchildren got too boisterous, and the cupboard under the stairs, a big place that you could walk right into, that Arnold used as a dark room for his photography.
I left all that behind. I knew I had to; people told me it was only sensible, now that I was on my own. But it was Oliver, my dear friend, not just the solicitor handling the sale of the house, Olly who warned me that it would make it much harder to begin with. And he was right – I missed Arnold far more in the new flat. Ah well.
Like most people, my friend Oliver is a mixture; he is capable of being extraordinarily sensitive over things like my having to sell my home, and if I were ever in serious trouble it is certainly to Oliver that I would turn. He’s kind, and considerate, and thoughtful, but at the same time he has a life-time’s experience in a busy solicitors’ practice; he has a fine and penetrating legal mind and he has made his way up the profession by being competitive and often aggressive. But what makes Oliver so odd is that he himself sees these different qualities as belonging to two different personalities. You know the funny old chap actually thinks that it is ‘Olive’ who is sensitive and caring, while ‘Oliver’ is assertive and cutthroat. I suppose that’s why he needs to dress the different parts. I don’t seem to be able to convince him that we are all of us a mixture. At least, that’s my view – but I’m sure there’s a lot about it that I don’t understand.
A few days after Marmalade’s visit I went across to see Ian in the evening and found a large map of North America spread out on the floor. He was going to apply for a job in Oregon, he told me.
My heart sank – I’d really miss him. And perhaps I wouldn’t be the only one?
“Oliver’s getting tickets for a concert at the Town Hall, did you know? I think Ursula is coming,” I said hopefully.
In fact I saw Ursula the next morning – I walked over to the library, and Ursula told me that the latest Dick Francis novel had come in and she’d slipped it under the counter for me.
“Oh how kind of you!”
I mentioned Ian swanning off to Oregon but she looked vague and didn’t appear to have heard about it. She was keen to tell me that Brenda was coming in that morning – it was her morning for the flower arranging class upstairs.
Damn. I would have left changing my library books till the afternoon if I’d remembered that.
I heard a clatter of footsteps along the passage and a sudden whoop of delight. “Charlotte! How wonderful – you’re looking so much better…” There was no mistaking Brenda’s penetrating voice as she came into the library.
“I am?” As far as I could remember, last time she saw me I’d had a slight cold.
I had a horrible feeling she was going to hug me.
She was. One or two people turned round. Ursula coughed and asked us if we could keep our voices down, but Brenda took no notice.
“One of these days,” she went on. “I’m going to winkle out your secret and find out what it is that keeps you so young!”
“Well…” I put out my hand to steady myself on the counter.
I noticed that Brenda was carrying rather a striking red duffel bag with two blue and two white stripes around the base. She put it down on the counter. Presumably it contained her… well, I don’t know: whatever you need for flower arranging.
“That’s a nice bag,” I whispered. “Is it new?”
“Oh yes, do look – isn’t it lovely? They are selling them as a special offer at the market this week. Upstairs, by the pet stall.” She went on inexorably. “How lucky that I ran into you, Charlotte. I was thinking about you only yesterday.”
“Were you?” I said cautiously.
“Listen, I want to take you out in my car…”
“I’ve got much more time now I’ve retired, and I’m determined to be useful. I thought I could take you shopping, you know – or pick up one or two little things for you. And I want to drive you over to visit that sweet little old lady who lives by the park. She never gets out – it would be so nice if you two could have tea together, now wouldn’t it?”
Ursula glanced pointedly at the clock above the door and Brenda realised she was going to be late for her flower arranging. She gave a gasp, gathered up her red duffel bag and departed.
“Thanks, Ursula!” I said, and I didn’t just mean the book she’d hidden under the counter for me.
Ursula grinned, and turned to the queue which had formed by now.
Oliver gave me a lift home from Meeting the following Sunday and stayed for some soup and a bite to eat. He hadn’t seen Jenny’s Great Wall postcard before.
“So you’ve heard from your globe-trotting granddaughter, have you? When’s she coming back?”
“With luck, in time for my birthday! I’m so pleased.”
I cut some bread and put it on the table between us.
“What’s she going to do next, do you know?” he asked.
I sighed. “Well obviously not go back into her father’s stationery firm! She’ll be lucky if Walter can bring himself to speak to her when she gets back.”
Oliver nodded sympathetically. “Young people have such a difficult time getting started these days, don’t they? Clearly I can’t take early retirement myself, can I – with my three still struggling.”
I laughed. “My dear Olly, you’d be bored to tears if you left the practice, you know that perfectly well.”
“Oh but I could always devote more time to Doing Good, like our friend Brenda, couldn’t I?”
After lunch he told me about a day the Elders had asked him to give a talk at.
“Have you heard about that, Charlotte? Ministry to the Dying, Gerry’s calling it. He thinks it’s time the different meetings pool their experience on this. Some of the smaller meetings have had a few unexpected deaths lately, of quite young people.”
“Did you say TO the dying?” I couldn't help smiling.
“Yes, it’s supposed to be one of our duties. We’re supposed to comfort people, though I can’t imagine what use I would be…”
“You could keep Brenda off them, for a start! No that’s unkind,” I went on. “She means so well. But surely Olly, you should look for ministry FROM the dying?”
He sat back on the sofa and glanced out of the window at the sunlit lawn. “Ah now that’s an interesting thought, Charlotte.” He turned and looked at me. “Would you have anything to say about that? Not that you’re dying, of course – rarely have I seen such a rude picture of health – but all the same…”
“Yes quite – I take your point. When one’s pushing ninety. I don’t know, Olly – this is difficult, you see. It all depends who I’m talking to.”
He raised one eyebrow at me, the way he does.
“Death doesn’t bother me at all, myself,” I went on. “Certainly not my own death. It’s quite bad enough, coping with other people’s death, isn’t it?”
“Oliver, do you remember old Horace, years ago? He used to say death was like setting out on a journey over an ocean to a strange place – he didn’t know at all what it would be like when he got there, but he knew the boat builder so he wasn’t worried about the voyage. I’ve always felt Horace was right.”
“Ah yes, I like that,” Oliver said. “Like Tennyson’s poem – do you know it? Crossing the Bar.”
“But so many people I’m deeply attached to these days – well, take Ian, for instance. He’s convinced that this life is all that there is. I’m not going to argue with him about that. It’s probably the right view for him and in any case I don’t want to get involved in all that; I’m far too busy living, just at the minute!”
“I don’t want to start talking about death being just slipping into another room. You know, Canon Scott Holland and all that – if I talk like that, people like Ian and Ursula will find it impossibly trite and I don’t want that because I’m so fond of them.”
When he got up to leave a little while later, I asked him what talk he’d been asked to give, himself, at this day they were having.
“Well Gerry wants me to say something about prayer. He’s put me in the slot just before lunch so I doubt if I’ll get much attention! Which won’t matter because I haven’t got anything useful to say. What about you, Charlotte? You could give me some ideas. Seriously, will you have a think?”
I smiled. “Maybe. The trouble is, my ideas on prayer were formed when I was eleven, so you might find them a trifle unsophisticated!”
We parted, promising to meet at the Brahms concert the following Thursday.
“You know Ursula is coming,” I said. "Why don’t we ask Ian too? I’m sure no one would mind.”
“Charlotte, my dear old friend, you wouldn’t be indulging in a touch of match making with our friends, would you?”
I believe I had the grace to blush at that point.
“You’re a wicked old woman, Charlotte, do you know that?” He laughed, and just before he left he added, “By the way, I’ve been thinking about what you said the other day – about Olive coming to your birthday barbecue thingy. Do you know, I rather think she might.”
That afternoon I decided to have a look through Arnold’s old trunk in the spare room in case there was anything that would do for the display Ian and Marmalade were arranging. Surely there was more here than photographs? Ah-ha, there it was! A small tattered scrap of paper, folded in four. It was a letter, nearly all of it printed, with short gaps for words to be filled in in ink – the date, the addressee and so on. I took it into the living room and sat down. It had faded yellow in eighty years, but my brother Freddie’s signature was there as clear as ever.
Freddie disappeared when I was ten. That is, no one at home ever spoke about him. Nor did anyone in my cousins’ families, not anyone in the village at all. I wondered if he could be dead like Tom, but surely not – for it wasn’t at all like when Tom was killed. Then everyone talked about Tom, even the Vicar in his sermon the following Sunday. The Vicar had gone on and on about Tom and how brave he was to lay down his life for his country, even though he must surely see that my mother couldn’t stop the tears pouring down her cheeks. But with Freddie – nothing, a blank wall of silence. Months passed. I think it was well over a year.
One day in the summer of 1917 I went down to the river and climbed the old oak tree on the bank. You could hide in its branches. No one would see you if you were up there, and my brothers had used it for games when they were children. But this July day I sat in it alone. I was eleven years old. It was one of those blisteringly hot days that you sometimes get at harvest time. The smell of haymaking drifted across the river towards me, and over the brow of the hill I could hear the noise of all the villagers at work. Here by the river it was quiet and I sat there for a long time.
All of a sudden I had the powerful sense that I ought to be thinking about Freddie. I had no idea why – I had not heard his name as much as mentioned, I could not remotely guess where he was at that moment: in England or Flanders? In Africa or Australia? Or was he indeed quite near by, on an army manoeuvre on Frensham Common like the ones we’d witnessed when I was very young? All I knew was that suddenly it was terribly important to hold him in my thoughts as if he was in the palm of my hand. Just Freddie.
I didn’t tell anyone of course, but the feeling stayed with me for days, a fortnight or more. As I went about my daily business all that time – lessons at school, some interesting, most utterly boring, walking home with my friends, cook’s best strawberry jam for tea with her scones hot from the oven; all that time, underneath the surface, my mind – my whole being – was concentrated on Freddie.
As I sat now in my little flat at St Peter’s Close nearly eighty years later, I looked at the printed letter I had unearthed from the trunk. It was headed H.M.Prison, with the name W.Scrubs filled in in handwriting, and the date May 1917 – my birthday, in fact. ‘Mother’ was the word Freddie had written after the printed ‘Dear’.
The typescript read “I am now in this Prison, and am in” – here Freddie had written “usual” …health. If I behave well, I shall be allowed to write (here the word “another” had been crossed out) letter in about (Freddie had put eight weeks time) “and to receive a reply, but no reply is allowed to this.” In handwriting it said “my sentence is 112 days.” Freddie had signed it and entered his Register Number.
It was years before I found out why it had been so important to think about Freddie that particular week in the summer of 1917. He had of course been imprisoned ever since conscription had been introduced early in 1916, because he was convinced that it would be wrong for him to kill. He’d been moved round several different prisons, travelling by train, and that summer of 1917 found him sewing mailbags in Exeter Prison, where in fact he met Corder Catchpool, who was a decade older than him and the first Quaker Freddie had ever got to know. As he and Freddie went out for exercise every morning at six o’clock, the men would look up and get a glimpse of the foothills of Dartmoor beyond the prison walls. They were haymaking down in Devon just as they were in Hampshire, and he caught the smell just as I did myself when I climbed the oak tree by the river that morning.
Just at that time Freddie developed a sudden severe toothache. It was so bad he couldn’t open his mouth to speak, which was pretty awful if you were kept in a cell for fixed hours every day and only allowed to talk during what he called ‘ekker’. Even more depressing for my brother was that he couldn’t eat hot food any longer; he had to let it cool down before he could tackle it at all. The toothache raged so long that he had to request to see the prison dentist, and he had to have two teeth taken out. It was, he later told me, the lowest point of his entire three years in all the various prisons he served in.
I took the official Notice of Incarceration round to Marmalade’s bed-sit that evening, along with a few other letters from Freddie, and also a piece of fine silk that Arnold had brought back from China.
Marmalade was very interested. “So you knew nothing at all about your brother Freddie being in prison at the time, Charlotte?”
“Oh no – his name was never mentioned at home. He was an utter disgrace to the family, obviously – white feathers, conchies, all that. But my mother kept that Notice of Incarceration in a secret drawer in her bureau. We found it when she died, just after the war ended.”
“So she never saw Freddie again?”
“No, but my father lived on for another twenty years – he and Freddie were reconciled in the end, though Father never really understood why Freddie became a Quaker.”
I showed Marmalade the other letters from Freddie that I’d found. He had written to an old school-friend from prison, since Mother refused to correspond with him at all. The man’s widow gave the letters back when her husband died in the Spanish flu epidemic, and Freddie passed them on to me when I grew up. He said I was the person he really wanted to write to, but of course that was out of the question; our parents would never have allowed it.
As Marmalade began to read the letters, I took my coat off and wondered about removing my jumper; it really was very warm in the lad’s room. Then I remembered Rupert; ah that was it, Rupert required a constant temperature of seventy degrees. And there he was - I spotted him curled up in a glass tank on the top of a chest of drawers. Marmalade had taken the lid off and heated up his room to match the tank. I rather hoped it wasn’t time for Rupert’s Evening Ekker, as they would have said in Dartmoor. There were several branches of wood in the tank, all much the same colour as Rupert. He was coiled in the back corner of the tank; he appeared to be asleep.
“This is amazing, Charlotte. Can I keep these letters for a few days? I’ll take good care of them.”
I assured him that he could. As I left him, I picked up my coat from the bed and noticed a familiar looking red duffel bag on the floor.
“Isn’t this nice?” He saw me looking at the bag. “I’ve only just bought it for Rupert – he’s really thrilled with it. It was on special offer at the market, just next to where I go for his food.”
I enjoyed the Brahms concert at the Town Hall. The four of us went in Ian’s car, which smelt delightfully of vanilla. Oliver wanted us to go for a
pizza first, but they were surprisingly busy for a Thursday and Oliver insisted loudly that they give me a chair while we queued for a table, which was embarrassing. Then he had to speak quite forcefully to some poor waitress, explaining that we had already waited fifteen minutes and we did have concert tickets. Ursula hung back at that point, looking as though she rather hoped no one would think she was actually with Oliver. Oh I do love Oliver sometimes!
After the fastest cipolla pizza I’ve ever eaten, we finally got there.
Brahms First has always been one of my favourite pieces. There’s a tremendous sense of all shall be well in the end. It reminds me of when Arnold came back from China; it was the first concert we ever went to as a family.
Arnold had been with the Friends Ambulance Unit in China for most of the war. He was one of the oldest – at thirty-five he was already a doctor in a busy general practice, with a wife and three children, but we had talked about it at length when another war seemed inevitable in the late thirties, and we had agreed – I wanted it as much as he did – that he should go and serve.
I had no idea what it would mean – how could I? It was just one of those decisions that you make in the dark, in trust. As it turned out, we didn’t see him for five years; the children hardly knew him, especially Susan. When Susan got whooping cough and nearly died in the winter of 1942 I would have given anything to have had Arnold back there with me; but somehow one shrugged one’s shoulders and coped, like everyone else in the country.
When Arnold came back he was a different person. He was exhausted of course, but also full of exciting talk about the United Nations and peace and reconciliation. Quakers asked him to represent them on this and that committee, to travel again – to Europe, to America. I tried to tell him about butter rationing and the V2 bombers; most especially I tried to get the children to talk to him, but it was hard. Then one evening we all went together to an impromptu performance of Brahms’ First in one of the earliest halls to be restored after the bombing, and it all began to come together again. Not suddenly, not quickly; I knew it would be difficult, but at least I knew it would happen.
As I sat here listening to the same symphony some fifty years later, it still gave me the sense of threads coming together. This party they were arranging for me, bless them, in Ursula’s beautiful garden – it had already been announced after Meeting a few times, and a lot of people had told me they were looking forward to it. Ian said he’d cleaned his barbecue for it. Gerry had already driven vast quantities of his elderflower wine round to Ursula’s kitchen. Everyone planned to bring food to share.
And what about Ian? I must find out if he was serious about getting a job in Oregon. How could I persuade Ursula to put a stop to that?
I closed my eyes again, and Brahms came to a triumphant finish.
The phone rang on the morning of my birthday.
“Just thought I’d like to talk to my favourite nonagenarian,” said a familiar deep voice. “Didn’t get you out of bed, I hope?”
I laughed. “Oh Olly, I should have thought you’d have known – I wake up long before this!”
“Ah. Actually there was something I was ringing about, Charlotte.”
“I woke up this morning with the sun streaming through the curtains and first I thought, it’s Charlotte’s birthday, hooray!”
“Thank you, dear.”
“And then I thought I’d offer you a lift to Meeting, and it suddenly struck me that this would be a great time for Olive to go to Meeting for her first time. And on to your party afterwards of course – what do you think?”
“Oh yes definitely,” I said, putting my toast down by the phone. “Great idea. What are you going to wear?”
“Well I think your suggestion the other day was a good one – the yellow gingham, you said, didn’t you? Very spring-like.”
“So can I pick you up, then?” I caught an almost imperceptible note of pleading in his voice.
I hesitated, then said that yes of course he could, and I’d be on the pavement at half past.
We rang off, and straight away I phoned Ursula. “Sorry to bother you so early, but would you mind not picking me
up after all, Ursula?”
“Oh Charlotte, don’t say you’re ill?”
“No, no – never felt better, don’t worry. It’s just that… Well, Olive’s decided to come to Meeting today. She’s never been before and I thought a bit
of support might come in handy. You know how it is. So I’ll go in Olive’s car.”
Being Ursula, she understood at once.
“I’ll see you there, then. Everything’s more or less ready this end. We’ve just been putting chairs out in the garden. Isn’t it a beautiful day? We’re so lucky!”
“What about the barbecue? Is Ian bringing it to Meeting in his car?”
“No, he brought it round last night. He’s just assembling it in the garden as we speak.”
That’s taken the wind out of your sails, I told myself severely as we rang off. There you were, trying to match make those two, when all the time they managed it perfectly well on their own.
The next person to ring was Susan, sounding quite mellow for once. “Have you recovered from last night, Mother?” The family had taken me to rather a special restaurant the night before.
No one had as much as mentioned Jenny. I could see one of my sons was poised to say something like ‘wasn’t she supposed to be coming home for your birthday’ when my other son caught his eye and shook his head gently, so nothing was said.
On the phone I thanked Susan profusely for the evening, and we finished the call.
Olive was early of course – I saw his car slide past my front window a good five minutes before he was due. Before she was due, I suppose I should say. I can’t cope with these different pronouns; I just think of him as my friend Olly. Anyway, I was ready so I just grabbed my favourite cardigan by the hall table and went out to greet my old friend. It’s got gigantic pockets, this cardigan, which come in very handy for hankies and you never know what else.
“Oh very nice,” I said as I got into the car. I kissed him lightly on the cheek.
“The lipstick is just the right shade, and I’ve always liked you in
“That’s good,” he said as he pulled into the traffic. “I wasn’t sure…”
Brenda’s cake was produced after Meeting with the tea and coffee, so that anyone who couldn’t come to the party would still get some. She really had made the most tremendous effort; it was a huge rich fruit cake, beautifully iced, with a large Ninety on it and various other bits and pieces.
As for the sudden appearance of Olive – well, most people at Meeting must have assumed that since it was my birthday I had probably brought along a friend or relation. They were a little startled when Ian hugged my ‘visitor’ and Ursula kissed her. I saw a puzzled look dawning on Brenda’s face, so I diverted her by asking what dried fruit she has used for her wonderful cake.
Before too long, most people had sorted themselves out into various cars and headed off for Ursula’s home. As I arrived, I remembered to ask Ian what had happened about an interview in Oregon.
“Oh sorry Charlotte – I forgot I’d told you about that! I changed my mind. I’m going to do a part-time Masters here instead.”
“Oh I’m so glad! I would have missed you,” I told him, and he seemed quite surprised.
Gerry was already pouring out glasses of his elderflower wine in the garden. He’d set up a trestle table over by the rhododendron bushes, which had indeed, as I’d hoped, flowered in time for the occasion. Gerry’s wife Bel was helping him. I felt quite honoured that she’s come after so long an absence.
I heard a screech behind me. “Bel how fantastic!” Brenda was powering towards us with the wind in her sails.
I caught the hunted look on poor Bel’s face, and remembered that she hadn’t wanted a fuss. “Brenda – so glad you are here…” I came out with this, before I worked out what to say. “Er… There’s a dreadful crisis in the kitchen! Can you possibly come with me at once and see what’s going on?”
Brenda looked slightly startled, but she dropped her red duffel bag and meekly followed me into the house. Well not
followed exactly – she was way ahead of me by the time we reached the kitchen.
She marched in. “Now what’s the problem here? What can I do to help? You just let me get on with it!” she said to Ursula, who was uncovering great bowls of fruit salad. “Or would you rather I went to help Ian with the barbecue?”
“Oh no!” Ursula cried gallantly. “Ian’s got all the children helping him – piling on sausages, that sort of thing. Best leave them to it… Much better if you help us in here.”
By the middle of the afternoon, after a spectacularly splendid lunch, I must admit I was beginning to wilt just a little. I went upstairs to the loo – well of course she had one downstairs, but I love going upstairs in people’s houses. There was a lingering smell of vanilla on the top floor.
When I came down I put my cardigan on and went to sit in the shade under a tree next to Oliver – Olive, that is. He – she – looked a great deal more relaxed than she had first thing that morning and was telling entertaining stories. Most of the others were sitting around on the grass at our feet. Marmalade was lying flat on his back with his hands resting under his head, his eyes closed. He looked very peaceful. Clearly not missing Rupert this time – ah no, I spotted that he’d brought his red duffel bag.
Over on the patio in front of Ursula’s sitting room was the display that Ian and Marmalade had prepared, which had been much admired by everyone: the red silk scarf which Arnold had brought me back from China, Freddie’s Notice of Incarceration, and a splendid array of photographs spanning all my ninety years.
A comfortable silence settled upon the assembled company.
Broken by Brenda: “Now then, Charlotte – we must hear from you!”
“This is your day, after all. You must tell us what it feels like to be ninety!”
I suppressed the impulse to say it was rather like being eighty-nine.
“Come on, we’re having this great occasion just for you. It’s almost like having a funeral, isn’t it?”
This remark didn’t go down too well. Several people said they looked forward to seeing in the next millennium with me.
But Brenda was not to be deterred. “No but it is important to think about funerals. You ought to decide what to have at your funeral, Charlotte. Did you know,” she went on, sitting up on the grass and addressing the company at large. “Did you know that you can get biodegradable cardboard coffins nowadays, and have yourself buried in woodland?”
“Come off it, Brenda,” Ian interrupted her. “This isn’t the time…”
“No but this is interesting,” Brenda said. “I picked up a leaflet about it in the library last week – you must know about it, Ursula.”
Ursula looked blank.
“I’ve got it with me now, if anyone wants to see.” Brenda reached across and picked up the red duffel bag. “I brought it in case…”
There was a pregnant silence.
Then Brenda let out the most piercing scream I have ever heard, and leapt to her feet.
“What on earth…” someone shouted.
“Brenda, whatever’s the matter?”
The poor woman dropped the red duffel bag and collapsed onto the grass. There was a flash of grey at the neck of the bag and suddenly a streak was seen disappearing into the nearest rhododendron bush.
“Rupert!” Marmalade howled. He leapt up and dashed off into the bush.
“Would somebody mind telling me what’s going on?” Olive had vanished in an instant and it was clearly Oliver who stood up and took control. The yellow gingham dress was quite irrelevant.
“Yes I rather think I can explain,” I said.
Some hour or so later most people were feeling extremely hot and sweaty. Brenda was lying down on Ursula’s bed. Ian was giving Marmalade a stiff whisky and telling him everything was going to be all right. Oliver was organising the search in the back garden.
No one seemed to expect too much of me; well, being ninety does have its advantages, I suppose. I wandered alone into the front garden and stood at the gate looking up and down the road, speculating idly on how far pythons can travel. Very young ones, that is, those that are only thirteen inches long and likely to pine for their owners.
Suddenly a taxi came swerving round the corner and drew up outside Ursula’s house, its engine throbbing.
“Gran! There you are! I’ve been looking everywhere for you. Mum said…”
Jenny threw herself out of the taxi and flung her arms round me. “Happy birthday, Gran!”
“Oh darling, how wonderful!”
She smelt of stale aeroplanes and crumpled sleeplessness and airline soap but she looked great: sunburnt, her hair longer and prettier – and I rather fancied she’d put on a little weight.
“Gran, can I ask you something?” Jenny said several minutes later, when she had paid off the taxi and put her luggage down for the time being in Ursula’s front garden.
“Gran, why is there a rather small snake peeping out of the pocket of your cardigan?"
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