Thursday, 19 March 2009

A story of love's not so young dream and 'Forever Young' keeps a stiff upper lip.

Along the lane to the church are several cottages, and in Church Cottage, the one nearest the old church, a pretty white painted cottage dating from the 19C, its front door festooned with red roses and white honeysuckle, lives Mr Bartholomew.
Mr Bartholomew, always known by his full name, is a retired bank manager, now in his mid-seventies. A tall gent with somewhat military bearing, and it's said by those who knew him when he managed the bank in the nearby market town, that he ran the operation like it was a military unit. Not a man who suffered fools gladly, who could be a bit gruff at times, nor a man who leant the bank's money willy-nilly, yet for all that, he was much respected, and liked by his staff and regular customers alike. He has been retired over ten years now, giving up his flat above the bank to live out here in the sticks.
Because he is called by his full name, don't get the idea he's a bit of a snooty old gent, or reclusive in any way. He just seems a man who commands respect somehow. It's true that he keeps himself pretty much to himself, doesn't go to the local more than once a month for lunch, isn't a member of any groups in this village or the others around here. He's a regular visitor to the library, and a glimpse through his front door, open on a sunny morning whilst he works in his front garden, will reveal a hallway lined with bookcases, so we know he's a reader. And should you pass him out walking in the village, or on an errand to the post office perhaps, he will always smile and say 'Good day', but makes it clear he's not a man to hang about on the street having a mardle, as they say in these parts.
We also know he's a keen, and very good, gardener. Not only are there roses and honeysuckle around the door, but neat flower beds filled with cistus and hydrangea, old fashioned pinks and lavender... the smell is quite heady on a warm day. There are no weeds daring to poke their way through the Norfolk Red bricks laid in a herringbone pattern, that makes up the path leading to the front door. Behind the house is a well-stocked vegetable garden, with wigwams made of old branches, up which grow purple podded and green runner beans, amongst the peas held up with twiggy pea sticks, nasturtiums grow alongside salad crops and leafy cabbages. Green and red tomatoes tumble out of hanging baskets and grow in his greenhouse. He has a small orchard of trees, one each of cooking and eating apple, a pear and a plum, fruit bushes too with different currants. Nothing grown in large quantities, but enough to keep him supplied. The garden can only be properly seen by those who are lucky enough to be friends with Mr Bartholomew.. the rest of us can just glimpse it through the yews in the churchyard.
In his garage sits an old Volvo, which he lovingly washes once a week, spending hours on the inside and the outside, putting most of us to shame. Well, all except for 'OOH-ME-BACK', one of my neighbours who sometimes walks almost bent over like an old man (yet he's far from being old) and at other times manages a sprightly walk to the local. But if ever anyone asks how he is, his reply usually starts with 'Ooh me back's been playing me up again', hence his name. Yet he can spend a whole day cleaning his car, surrounded by buckets, cloths, hoover, and rubbish bag.
Anyway, back to Mr Bartholomew.. of course we were all curious about him. Rather like Jane Austen we assumed that as he was a single man in possession of, well if not a fortune then a portfolio of stocks and shares and a good pension at least, he would be in need of a wife. Maybe he had had one, 'been there done that' kind of thing. Maybe he was a tragic widower, though he didn't look tragic. (Though what does a tragic widower look like? Gaunt? Big sad eyes constantly red-rimmed from unshed tears? Unkempt? Certainly none of these fit Mr Bartholomew). Maybe he still had a wife, tucked away somewhere... a mental hospital, suggested the same drama queen who thought him a tragic widower at one point. Short of asking him of course, there was no way any of us would find out. A man of few friends, and none of them local for they all arrived in cars, sometimes staying for a few days, so clearly not from these parts, not a man to invite confidences nor offer them, so all we could do was guess, and imagine.
But then something happened to Mr Bartholomew. Those of us who notice these things, namely the drama queen, who I shall tell you is Elsie Drew, self-styled purveyor of village news aka gossip-mongering, has said that every Thursday evening he has been seen in his sitting room window, looking out. How does she know? Well, that's choir practice evening in the church and what better place to gather 'news' than when a group of people are gathered together like this, so not surprisingly, Elsie belongs to just about every group and society hereabouts. Sometimes he goes in the church and sits, listening to the choir practising. He has also taken to going to the library on a certain day, at a certain time, has joined the local history group there which meets once a month on Monday evenings.
It seems he is rather taken with one of the newcomers to the village, who belongs to the choir, the local history group too. Miss Asquith, a retired school teacher in her early seventies, arrived in the village in the autumn of last year, having left her home in the North of England for a new life in the area she had always holidayed in with her late husband. (Thanks must go to Elsie for this information!) As with most villages, once the dark nights set in, although people still go about their business, curtains are drawn early and a lot of it goes on unnoticed. Mr Bartholomew keeps his open on Thursday evenings, and on Sunday mornings, as the choir and other church-goers saunter past, he can be seen sitting reading his paper, or pottering in the front garden. He has been seen smiling, ever so sweetly - and for a man of his bearing this comes as somewhat of a surprise - at Miss Asquith, who returns it, sweetly, which is more becoming a lady of her bearing, a smidgen over five feet, slim build, well-dressed, pleasant, open happy face. Of course, Elsie has them married by now... the rest of us will just sit back and see what develops, but it gladdens the heart to see love, possibly, blossoming for a couple in their seventies.
Of course, not everyone is interested in such matters, some people are too consumed with their own lives. Take 'Forever Young' for example. She disappeared for a few days recently, and we all awaited her return, if not with bated breath exactly, with some interest shall we say. Because whenever she has gone away for any length of time before, she has always come back not quite the woman she was when she left. Some of the changes were not evident to anyone except her 'intimate' friends shall we say; after all, who wants to go flaunting their cellulite (or sudden lack of it) in public? And most of us could have done without the graphic description of the gunk that was sucked out of her by this medical version of a Dyson apparently. But the flap of skin under her chin disappeared, and we all noticed that. Then she acquired these perfect bag-free eyes all of a sudden. A breast implant job meant she was away for a longer period and was quite happy to flaunt the new boobies as she called them on her return. This time she came back protesting her innocence, she had just gone to visit an old school friend she said, with a stiff upper lip. Of course she hadn't had botox, she said, still with a stiff upper lip. Perhaps she'd have done better to stay away longer, let the swelling die down a bit. Because it did, and there was hardly much difference really, though she said it improved her kissing technique.. which was too much information really!

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Two T's and a slice of hot gossip please!

When it comes to going out for morning coffee, afternoon tea or a light lunch, we are spoilt for choice in this area. There are several coffee shops attached to garden centres, some in old converted buildings, a couple in bookshops, but my favourite is one owned by Violet, and attached to her studio/gallery where she displays work by local artists and craftspeople. Here at various times of the year you can find examples of batik, watercolours and acrylic paintings too, felting, wood-carving, hand-knitted bags, wonderful cushion covers in silky fabrics, and the pottery done by Violet and Laurie, a tall, willowy blonde in her fifties who hails from California.
Out of season it's quiet, which makes it an ideal meeting place for the knitting group I belong to, along with the aforementioned Laurie, my good friend Rowena, Lizzie the freelance writer, Sue who's married to the vet, and Daisy who, together with her sister Esme, spinsters both, owns a village store in one of the other villages in this area. When we're not meeting at Violet's, we meet in each other's houses... summertimes in gardens or summerhouses with the buzzing of bees, splashing of fountains, and birdsong accompanying the clickety-clack of our needles, the occasional giggles breaking into the gentle hum of conversation, drinking sparkling wine or iced tea. In winter we might meet in Laurie's large kitchen, all sitting around her big old table by the Aga, mugs of home made soup to hand, or in Sue's conservatory, a huge iron edifice attached to the old vicarage where she and vet husband Peter, three children and several pets live in what looks like continual pandemonium to an outsider.
Anyway, out of season like now, it's usually quiet in Violet's coffee shop, nobody to bother us and nobody for us to bother, so it was with a sigh of dismay that I opened the door, walked into the warm, cinammony smell of the coffee shop, and espied the Two T's as they're known, sitting at one of the tables, papers and OS maps around them.
I should perhaps briefly introduce them to you.... they have an almost-unpronouncable surname, one you have to be really careful saying or you'll end up making an embarrassing blunder, so people just started calling them Mr and Mrs T, or the Two T's. They see it as their job to keep these streets safe for the rest of us; they initiated the Neighbourhood Watch schemes in all areas of this village; they were instrumental in getting community police introduced to the villages around here and a mobile police station to visit one of them as well on a regular basis; they were involved in the setting up of a team to keep the green areas planted, weeded and generally tidied; they bought several benches and had them placed at strategic spots in the village for people to just sit a while; in short, if there's anything good going to be done around here, then the TwoT's will be in there somewhere, rallying the troops, getting things done. A nice couple, but despite all their involvement in the village, nobody really knows anything about them, they tend to keep themselves to themselves when not embarking on some village project or other.
Anyway, it looked as if they were up to another scheme now and I was a bit worried our liveliness would distract them, but as I moved over to where two tables had been pushed together to accomodate the six knitters, they gathered up their papers, almost furtively as if they didn't want me to see them, and hastily made their exit.
I smiled over at Laurie, sitting with her first cup of coffee. There was an air of excitement about her, she looked as if she couldn't wait for me to sit down, flapping her hands at me, beckoning me over, making sure I sat close to her. It seemed she had been privy, accidentally, to some juicy titbit of gossip, had been keeping it to herself all week trying to decide what to do, whether to speak out or not, and wanted to tell me now, before her courage failed her and she once again began havering as to whether to spill the beans or not.
Looking over her shoulder to make sure Violet wasn't around, she leant in towards me and I almost expected her to adopt a phony French accent and utter those immortal words...'Listen very carefully, for I shall say this only once.' Of course she didn't.. but what she did say certainly had me listening carefully.
Last week her car had broken down, she'd had to leave it with Vic at the garage but needed to get into Norwich, so had to go on the bus. She lives away from the centre of the village, at the other end to our wonderful Phoebe, in a beautiful converted barn. Luckily there is a bus stop not too far away, and alongside it, a rather dilapidated red telephone box. As you can see from the photo, it's a bit lop-sided, sadly in need of paint, but even so, has much more character than these glass and plastic things that BT replaced them with. (Perhaps the Two T's ought to have a campaign to restore these red telephone boxes, most villages around here have at least one of them, all falling into disrepair, but still operational.)
As she was waiting for the bus, the phone in the box began to ring. This is one of those dilemmas isn't it... do you answer it or pretend you can't hear it? Worse if it's in a busy public place, but here, isolated really, easier to ignore it. However, Laurie is an inquisitive soul and of course, had to answer it. Before she had chance to speak, this rather husky male voice at the other end spoke. 'Look babe, I can't speak long.. she who must be obeyed is due back any minute, said we had to be at someone's place by six and you know what your sister's like about time-keeping. Anyway, I'm going to have to cancel tomorrow evening.. I know, I know... I promised this time nothing would stop me coming over, but it can't be helped, it's a work thing babe, sorry. We'll get together soonest babe, promise. And when we do....' and here he made a deep growly noise which he presumably thought was sexy but sounded more like a St Bernard with laryngitis according to Laurie. Then he suddenly hissed 'Bye babe' and the line went dead.
Laurie said she put the phone down when she saw the bus coming, but something about the voice was bugging her all week. She was sure she recognised it she said, and then last night, it came to her. She knew who this man was, knew who the 'she who must be obeyed' was, and her sister too. And we all knew them!
I was about to urge her to tell me more, when the little bell tinkled above the door, and in walked Sue and Daisy, and the moment passed. 'Later', Laurie hissed at me, smiling in greeting to our friends as they neared the table.
Well, 'later' hasn't yet arrived.. Laurie has been called away for a few days, and so here I sit, wondering who I know who has a sister, who's particularly fussy about time-keeping, and more importantly, who could possibly be married to someone cheesy enough to call a woman 'babe'?