To the letter
A LETTER arrives out of the blue, from a name that I recognise as that of the son of an old friend, who wishes to communicate with me on “a matter to do with my late father”.
My mind wanders inexplicably to Jarndyce and Jarndyce, and I am intrigued, especially as I have met other members of the family over the years, and would have expected any communication to come from one of these. The friend died last year — indeed, I wrote in these pages of his lockdown funeral, where all of us present found gifts of chocolate on our seats along with the order of service.
I learn that he has left several of us a generous legacy, with the following instruction: “I give free of tax the following pecuniary legacies to my friends whom I cherish and who today have given me kindness, encouragement, and joy. I give the sum of [£x] as a small token of my gratitude for your affection, laughter, and love. I hope you will squander it unwisely.”
Squander it unwisely, I will. Friendship is terribly underrated in a world that thinks everything is about love.
MY HOUSEHOLD has temporarily increased from one to five, plus two dogs and a cat. A friend with three children has had an annus horribilis, culminating in a period of limbo while the chain of house purchase creaks forward before they can move into their new home. I have largely retreated to my study downstairs and my sanctuary upstairs, in what the family blithely call the “West Wing”.
The culture shock is enormous. For the first week, the cat took refuge in the airing- cupboard; the dishwasher has given up the ghost; and I have just found a pogo-stick in the pantry and a half-box of Ritz crackers on the stairs. But, seven weeks into the arrangement, the surprises are outweighing the challenges and proving to be a lovely thing.
I HAD wondered what my neighbours would make of the comings and goings of the new household, its bikes and barking, suitcases and school runs. Up until now, they’ve been living next door to a largely quiet writer, bar the occasional bit of excitement attached to the ferrying in and out of the eccentric stage props that have landed here for storage (last on the move were Molly the life-sized sheep, one chaise-longue, and a Puginesque lectern).
But my apprehension has proved unfounded. My ever-hospitable Hindu neighbour came round with a bulging bag of satsumas and grapes. Far from being frightened of the two dogs, the children of my Muslim neighbours asked whether they could take them for a walk. And the man across the back — Plymouth Brethren and largely reclusive — popped round with a big smile to return a space rocket fired from a plastic launcher: “I think this might be yours.”
My rockery is transformed, planted by my garden-loving guest with primulas, and strung with solar lights. My neglected hanging baskets bloom in gratitude for a bit of tender loving care. The chiminea has been resurrected, and we sit around its leaping flames in the darkness. I reflect that all this is a further chapter in the new life triggered by widowhood: another significant milestone on the long journey that is coming to terms with loss.
For whom the bell tolls
THE lovely Methodist chapel, near neighbour to our parish church, is to close. We are saddened beyond belief because, if there is a definition of “good people”, this is it. Over the past few years, the congregation has dwindled in front of our eyes, and it was deeply poignant to attend the World Day of Prayer service last month and find that, since Arthur’s death, they no longer had anyone who could play the organ. We sang to CDs, and it hurt. When they bravely made the announcement of likely closure, they had tears in their eyes.
It is a simple, whitewashed chapel, with faithfully polished pews and a couple of back rooms where we held joint events in the heyday of ecumenism. Few people now remember that, a few doors further down Chapel Street, the building that is now a day nursery was once the Roman Catholic church. That congregation has long since decamped, merged for survival with a larger church. We in Church Street remain, but we are diminished by the loss of both.
COVID has decimated our church choir, knocking out singers one by one. But our relay of collapse and our staggered returns resulted in perfect timing for having voices back in every part for Good Friday and Eastertide. Mine is still unpredictable: I open my mouth to sing “Praise to the holiest in the height”, and nothing comes out except a squeak.
As the sermon starts, I surreptitiously cross the chancel to slip a throat pastille to Anne, in the stalls opposite, who is stifling a cough. Roll on summer days; roll on lungfuls of mountain air, and the wind that sweeps away the cobwebs. I hug myself at the thought of walking down a seaside pier, and think there is nothing better in the whole wide world.
Pat Ashworth is a journalist and playwright.