Friday, 14 February 2014



By Michael Bott

Many years ago when I was a teenager I used to cycle home from school and would often call in on some friends of mine, the Turnbull’s. Jim and his wife Marjorie were English, their family had grown up and moved on, and they lived in an old house that Jim, who was an architect, had extended and painstakingly restored.

When I used to call by they were in their youthful 70’s. Their offspring, like most children eventually do, had flown the coop, established families of their own and would only return for Christmas and the odd occasion.

Jim and Marjorie had a huge garden, full of old rhododendrons, bay trees, fruit trees – groaning with fruit in season and a large kitchen garden with raspberries, strawberries and gooseberries and rows of neatly ordered vegetables.

Anyway after school probably once or twice a week I would call in, park my bike in the car port and go into the kitchen for a glass of milk or a cup of tea and a piece of slice or a biscuit from the tins and would either help in the garden or just talk with Mrs Turnbull about how to take the laterals out of young tomato plants, or about a piece of poetry or anything.

As we talked I would marvel at the old furniture, paintings and books that festooned the walls and tables. Jim and his wife came from very old stock and over the years had inherited and or bought pieces of furniture from “the old country.”

One day, an old welsh dresser turned up in their living room, I marvelled at it. It was intricately carved with lion head handles, scrollwork and rope edging. The wood was heavy and dark with the grease of hands, long since passed.  This was a novelty to me. When I was a child, anything that was old was “got rid of”, and old carved kauri or oak pieces from family that had passed on, were taken to the tip, to be replaced by the latest mass produced chipboard and plastic veneer offerings. “Where did that come from?” I asked. “That’s an old dresser that comes from my mother’s house. We’ve had it for over three hundred years” Mrs Turnbull replied. “She’s brought some of the larger items with her and come to live with us. I was then introduced to a small shrunken Welsh woman who looked almost as old as the dresser.

Mrs Evans was small and wizened with dark eyes that sparkled with mischief and life. She was the first person I had met who was 100 years old. Seasons came and went and my visits also included time with Mrs Evans. We would read to each other, play backgammon and I would listen enthralled and Mrs Evans would tell me about living through the War, “making do” on rations and of hearing Churchill on the radio.

Over the next two years we became good friends. As I visited I became aware that the passage of time was moving quickly for Mrs Evans. I watched her shrink even more than I first thought possible and by degrees she stopped venturing out and in the end began to spend her days resting in her bed.

When I was small time used to travel, I thought, very slowly.  Christmas, the event by which I marked time, took an aeon to come around again. As I have grown older it seems to come around in the twinkling of an eye. So I guess for someone as old as Mrs Evans was, though she moved at glacial speed, time must have felt like a roller coaster.

I have a clear memory of Mrs Evans resting in her old carved double bed. It was autumn and the leaves were turning a thin parchment brown and gradually falling to the earth. I was reading her "The Hand of Glory” from the Ingoldsby Legends:

ON the lone bleak moor,
At the midnight hour,
Beneath the Gallows Tree,
Hand in hand
The Murderers stand
By one, by two, by three!
And the Moon that night
With a grey, cold light
Each baleful object tips;
One half of her form
Is seen through the storm,
The other half 's hid in Eclipse
! ….

As Mrs Evans rested, her eyes shut in meditation a thin stream of spittle formed on the corner of her mouth and travelled to her chin. She laughed as I read. Suddenly she stirred and produced a small cellophane bag containing nuts from under her pillow. “Here have one,” she said. “They’re really rather good.” I gratefully took the bag, grabbed a couple of nuts and placed them in my mouth and began to chew. “You know”, she said, “Some friends sent me these lovely toffees from home, I suck the toffee off, but my teeth can’t handle the nut centres, so I save them.”

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