I was at the front of the house one day, doing something ordinary and unmemorable so it’s long since forgotten, when I heard a rhythmic clink, a strange quiet sound, as a neighbour I know vaguely but not by name, walked past and up the hill. She’s a strange little creature, wispy, wild grey hair, maybe 50 years old or maybe 70, it’s impossible to tell because she wears a dress and trousers, an anorak and wellington boots even in the height of summer, and there’s a cycling helmet firmly strapped on whether she’s out with her bike or not. If it’s true that we reveal our tribe by the clothes we wear, this lady is the last surviving member of an ancient Iceni clan, but with her serene smile I think she would have been a bit pants when they went to war.
That day her dress was even more idiosyncratic than usual, her boots slapped her calves as they always did, and her hair exploded from the rim of her helmet as it always did, but she walked to a new accompaniment of clicks and clanks. Over her dress (which was over her trousers) was a net curtain, hanging upside down, as a skirt. The top of the curtain was at ground level, and the strange noise came from the plastic curtain hooks that were still attached.
Curtain lady lives alone, in a higgledy piggledy cottage, with a higgledy piggledy garden, the stone walls a tumbled mass of brambles and glorious weeds and, at this time of year, courgette flowers. The vegetable beds are haphazard things, but ladened with fat joyous marrows or bouquets of vibrant lettuce, and sometimes a clump of corn – seeming to have wandered in from some other more exotic place.
I’ve tried to talk to curtain lady, but she just smiles and returns the greeting and walks on. If she’s on her bike and I’m in my car she returns my wave. I would love to know her better, I think her mind will be interesting and her soul will be warm. I can imagine her looking at the plastic curtain hooks and shrugging to herself “They’re not doing any harm… let them be.”
I wonder if she has cats?
Wales isn’t the only place where ‘Characters’ come to enjoy old age. When I lived in Derbyshire I lived next to a man I came to know as ‘the cat killer’. I won’t go into details except to say that he always helped the distressed owners to look for the cats he’d killed and once said to me “It’s the least I can do.” At the time I thought he was a kind and good and selfless bloke, until I discovered why so many felines went missing thereabouts. After that, I found him quite scarey. I didn’t dwell on his mind or his soul too much.
Another of my neighbours in the Midlands was a retired scientist, who had turned his back on science to study History. He was very posh, very dishevelled (and not ever so clean) and lived in a small miner’s cottage, which had stood derelict for many years before he moved in. His love of the past was such that he had done nothing to modernise this little hovel at all. I mean, at all. There was an earth closet in the garden, one cold water tap at the back door, and no electricity. When the town held a festival celebrating its history, and houses were opened for the public to admire, his was very popular – our visitors thought it was a historical reconstruction of a Victorian slum.
People are endlessly fascinating. I think of my friends right now, and in the past, all of them singular, some unconventional, all intelligent, free thinking, some quirky, one is a still calm pond of deep reflections, one a tempest, one an eternally sunny day. One is an anvil just demanding that life beats itself to a pulp on her unhappiness. Some are hard to know, difficult and edgy, but so worthwhile. Me? I’m me. I don’t kill cats, or wear net curtains. That’s all I can say about me.
I look at those three characters – curtain lady, cat killer, history man – and I love their richness, and their peculiarity. This is life. This is story, the stuff of drama. Was curtain lady ever loved with reckless passion? Did she once give up everything for a faithless man? Or was she deliriously perfectly happy until her lover was killed in a storm at sea (forgive me, I’m a dramatist)? Did cat killer, growing up in the last world war, dream of being a hero, of valour and goodness and nobility? Does he dream of them still, hopelessly? History man, what does he think of his own history? Has he hankered for an impossibly lost past or has he somehow lived it?
I feel like David Copperfield, who was a witness to all those amazing characters; Mr ghastly Murdstone, delightful Barkis, loving Peggotty, Uriah creepy Heep, useless little Emily…. what personalities, what stories! But David, who the hell is he? He’s no one. A narrator. He has nothing going for himself but the story he tells. That’s how I sometimes feel now. The richest part of my life has been the stories I’ve woven. Excuse me while I go on a bit of a rant: Dickens didn’t have to make Copperfield such a tabula rasa. He chose to. He managed to make Pip in Great Expectations a fascinating character, and while both David and Pip narrate their own story, one is full of personality and wit and insight and the other, well, just a cardboard cut out, like my Captain Kirk.
Ah, you don’t know about my Captain Kirk. I had a life size cardboard cut-out of Captain Kirk and he would loom above my desk (Mr Spock too). When I first unpacked him, he made me smile for the first couple of weeks. After two years, I was bored by him. His conversation was crap and when visitors ‘oohed’ and ‘ahhhed’ at him, it was just tedious. He was David Copperfield. Life played out in front of his glazed eyes but he was irrelevant.
The secret, I think, to a happy old age is to be someone who loves characters, who delights in other people, who enjoys the rich variety of old and young, and who fights to remain relevant. I paddled in the sea yesterday with a neighbour, a man of my age, who has never lost the wonder of life. He stood in the gentle surf, gazing with delight at the flow and ebb of a small jellyfish, its frilled petals opening and closing with every wave. A writer to my bones, just a storyteller, I looked at my friend, under God’s wonderful sky and in God’s teeming sea, and I was filled with praise for the lives we have. All of them. For the years we have had, all of them. For the span of our lives, short or long, gifted by God. For the unique histories and the hidden stories we all have to tell. For the richness and variety of all He has given us. For net curtains and cycling helmets and jelly fish. For laughter and tears.
And for the love God has for us.
“God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life.”
I know we’re a sinful lot, but when I think of my friends, the people I know, the people I live among, I sort of understand why He loves us.