Saturday, 1 September 2007

The phone rang ‘Your aunt died last night. Can you come?’ I hastily arranged cover for the family and drove the two hundred or so miles to the village that had once been my home.

I had thought my aunt’s life was tragic until the day when I was clearing her cottage out and found a few notes in her desk. She had written ‘I never regarded myself as disabled’ although she had been born with a congenitally dislocated hip which was not identified till she was two and led to twenty seven operations before she was five. In those days parents were not allowed to stay with children in hospital so at times of great pain she was abandoned to the care of strangers. She had been baptised Naomi Avis Primrose and my grandmother insisted that she was called Primrose despite her dark complexion and nearly black hair. Her father had been killed in the first month of World War I and her mother spent much of the remainder of the war in deep depression, quite unable to meet the needs of her little girl.

Primrose turned out to have a beautiful contralto voice and a good mathematical brain but with her limp and dark visage she had not the looks for the stage and in 1920, though she gained a BSc in civil engineering, there were no opportunities for young women. She was presented at court and did a season but most eligible young men were frightened of girls with brains, especially ones who had an aggressive determination to survive. World War II gave her the opportunity she craved and for five years her talents were in demand. Despite being in constant pain and having one leg substantially shorter than the other she clambered over bomb sites and cycled to work through the black out until she was knocked unconscious by a passing car and remained in a coma for five months. After that she became a recluse, living with her cats and seldom talking to anyone except in monosyllables.

The cottage where she died had been given to me by my father as a wedding present and because my husband had a sea going job I had lived there on my own when I was first married and my son had been born there. The cottage was full of happy memories. After a time I was able to travel with my husband so I was overseas when she, having run out of money, finally asked for help so it made sense for her to have it. The post mortem showed she had died of malnutrition and hypothermia. The family would have employed a local contractor who advertised house clearances to sort things out but I stepped in and said I would do it. The RSPCA took the skeletal cats away and I began my self appointed task.

The smell was terrible but by opening the doors back and front the air began to clear. Aunt Prim had stored carefully sorted rubbish in hundredweight paper meal sacks; one filled with dead matches, one with the inner match box, a third with the outer covering. Bright red Bournville chocolate wrappers were packed in one sack, gold wrappings in another. As I heaved the sacks outside the floor began to creak and crack until the boards, soft with wood worm and wet rot, gave way in one corner.

A village worthy came bustling in and began poking in corners. ‘No need for her to be cold’ she said as she lifted the lid of a metal meal bin ‘Look she had fuel for the boiler in here and there’s pies in this box. She didn’t have to go hungry.’

I didn’t point out that she had had a stroke and sat for a week in her own urine before anyone thought she might need help, no one brought her a blanket or a hot drink. She had nothing but her indomitable courage and determination to keep her going, and her books to keep her company.

I worked on through the day putting aside anything of value, her books, a small oil painting, a silver fob watch with raised numbers and no glass made for a blind person and ideal for someone working in the blackout. All the while I could hear rustlings as I disturbed the mice the cats had been too weak to catch.

Tied firmly to the top shelf of the book case was a blue felt parcel. Carefully I cut away the string and sat down for the first time that day to examine this thing that had been so precious that it had to be tied down. Layer after layer came off and I thought of the little girl who would have played pass the parcel long ago. Finally the heart of the treasure was displayed on my lap, a Victorian carriage clock in working order. I have it still.

Outside the sun was setting, the cottage bathed in golden evening light. The small garden that I had tended as a bride was a tangle of briars and brambles but half hidden and unnoticed by the front door I found a perfect white tulip. Next morning I cut it carefully and took it with me to the funeral. There were no flowers on the coffin. After the service the coffin was carried to the grave yard below the church. As the undertakers prepared to lower their burden into the grave I placed the single white flower on it. No, my aunt’s life was not a tragedy for she certainly would not have considered it so, she lived her life heroically and maintained her independence to the end.

© Carenza Hayhoe 2007


Telmis said...

There is more to life than living; more to death than dieing.

This is a tragic yet wonderful tale in which courage is lived as a matter of routine.

Thanks for sharing.

Viki Lane said...

John had put it perfectly. This is a moving tale, beautifully told.


Viki Lane said...

John had put it perfectly. This is a moving tale, beautifully told.


Ola said...

beatiful and evocative story. thanks

Northern Creative said...

this is beautiful.

I've linked to you. I hope you don't mind.

love from Northern Creative (also known as Joanne Hartley from OU A176)