3 November 2011

Once

The old caravan at Ford (1958)

It's funny how urban life can be. Sometimes years can pass by without getting to know the neighbours. For both Shirley and I, growing up in small rural communities, life was never like that. You knew everybody and if you wished to live anonymously, there was no hiding place. Maybe nowadays, things have changed in England's villages. There are more commuters, more in-comers, more ways of opting out of village life.

It must have been the winter of 1992 when I saw an old couple edging nervously down our frosty pavement. I had noticed them before. They lived five doors up in the corner house. Previously, I had never spoken to them but that morning, noticing their difficulty, I greeted them and asked them if I could help. Did they need a lift somewhere?

They almost snapped my hand off and I duly drove them to the local post office and home again. They were ever so grateful.

That was the beginning. In the next five or six years we got to know them very well. She was called Doris and he was Ken, Ken Bradbury. They had married in their early forties and had no children. They were the sweetest old couple imaginable and though they were not short of a few quid, they lived a simple, rather frugal existence in the semi they had occupied for almost forty years.

It was like walking into a museum. No television, no microwave, no refrigerator, no fitted carpets, no central heating. Instead there was a piano, an old radio hi-fi in a long teak cabinet, linoleum on the floors and ancient floral paper on the walls. Their memories were like precious jewels that they examined regularly. They were hardly living in the here and now. Ken's printing business at Attercliffe. Folk dancing weekends. Doris's leadership of a brownie group. Ken's World War Two experiences with the British army in Italy. The old caravan that they visited at weekends in the hamlet of Ford in Derbyshire. Hiking with their friends. Their beloved niece Josie who had gone to live in New Zealand and of course, Kathleen the other niece who had Down's syndrome. It was a treasure chest of happy memories.

Our children came to know Doris and Ken like substitute grandparents. We were there for both of them at the end of their lives because they had no living relatives in England. Separately, they both suffered strokes which ultimately put them both into residential accommodation. First Ken and then Doris. I visited them in hospitals and broke the news to Doris when Ken died.
I planned his funeral with her. She was blessed with the ability to make flowing poetic verse and we decided that one of her verses would appear on Ken's gravestone. Two years later, Doris also died and I arranged her funeral too - in the same plot as her Ken.

Then I had to prepare their house for sale. Shirley and I sorted through their things before the house clearance people arrived. It was as if we were disposing not only of the evidence of two lives that were lived but of a different way of life - letters, sheet music, reams of poetic verse, brownie publications turning brown at the edges, diaries, knitting patterns, gardening magazines.

Their joint will instructed that the entire estate should be left to Josie in New Zealand but £500 were left to both Ian and Frances and £2000 to me and Shirley. It was a kind and unexpected parting gift from a lovely old couple who enriched our lives with their simplicity, their decency and their gratitude for the help we gave them. Occasionally, I still visit their grave and I reflect on all that happened after I had simply offered them a lift that frosty morning back in 1992. Doris and Ken Bradbury - remembered and thank you.

5 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  2. This post touched a nerve. Me and Mrs P were reflecting on this the other day. About all the 'things' we amass over the years that are so precious to us that will end up in a skip when we shuffle off to the great void.

    But the biggest waste will be the memories. All the things we've done, the places we've been, the people we've met all gone in the snap of your fingers. All ultimately meaning nothing.

    Dammit, I'm beginning to sound like Rutger Hauer in Blade Runner, so I'll shut up now!

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  3. Proof once again that the best things in life happen when we are not searching for them, but when we "allow" them to come to us.

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  4. Everything starts with a little step. Or one word. I think that's some Zen saying...
    I imagine their lives were greatly enriched by your family's friendship, and the other way around too.

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  5. I came across this post quite by accident, as I was looking for old photographs of Attercliffe, were I used to work. I first came to know of the Bradbury' and their stationery/printer shop through my Headmaster, who used to send me there to collect printing he had done. I came to know them and subsequently went to work for them straight from school as a trainee compositor. They were very good to me and I completed my apprenticeship there. Eventually I moved on to gather more experience but have always remembered those first days at Elias Bradbury's, and it's nice to know they finished up with good friends.
    David Higton

    19.3.2012

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