When I first took to country living – not the idyllic, glossy magazine lifestyle that implies but rather a sort of rough-hewn version carved out of the Lancashire rocks – we moved into a falling down Victorian Villa. Our metropolitan friends assumed we had entered into a collective madness: water poured down into the kitchen forming a small stream that never dried up and the front conservatory had more holes than windows (and there were a lot of windows!) In fact, none of the windows opened anywhere in the house. The balcony, built on the whim of Mr Waring (who we were trying to buy from and who was indeed very wearing) almost claimed our builder (it leaned sideways as he explored it, and he did a near perfect comedy fall gently settling on the ground like a giant leaf. ) Every single room was bruised by an unforgiving brown hue: dark brown doors, brown walls, brown skirting boards, brown architraves. The stairs, and indeed most rooms, had extra carpets so that they were less stairs, more a ski-slope. The toilet was on a pedestal: meaning every visit was like a tiny performance, staged for an audience of trees (and, occasionally, unsuspecting workmen.)
But in the midst of this madness there was also magic. At the top of the stairs, for example, a wardrobe like cupboard (also brown) stood. It opened to a ladder which led into the loft and we, though neither Snotty or I spoke, both made the decision to buy the house at that moment. Climbing up the ladder and spying yet more carpets (along with the bumpiest floor known to mankind) sold the house to us. Totally without thinking it through we made a cash offer over the phone later in the pub as if we were in a very bad episode of a Channel 4 programme: the second time we’d done something that reckless. We were entranced by its potential, by the 3/4 acre of overgrown untamed vegetation around it, and the unspoilt view of the Pennines.
In fact, it was really only semi-rural. And although it looked perfectly lovely, it also sat in a very poor area of the country – rural poverty cheek by jowl with great riches. A famous Man United player lived round the corner, for example. But so too did families who had endured unemployment for three or four generations. Our house sat on the very end of what we laughingly called shoe mile. Rossendale was renowned for two things: mizzle and felting, the mizzle being the prerequisite of the latter. Through the Industrial Revolution, city folk moved to mills neither caring for or loving the country, and set up home. That was how it worked.
Our house (Glenmallan) was originally the Under Manager’s house at a long-closed down Foundry and though smaller than the Manager’s next door (Palm House, where Mary and Howard lived) it was in possession of a significantly better aspect. Below sat three cottages converted from an old coach house. Together, this was Foundry Vale and the day I moved in I halved the mean age of the residents. If I’d have thought about it, I should have realised that this was a worry: old people get older. Older people need care and help. Aside from Howard and Mary next door: the cottages were occupied left to right Mr and Mrs Speke, Tommy and Agnes and Joe and Betty.
My first introduction to Agnes and Mr Speke was a bit inauspicious. A few weeks after our arrival Agnes shouted up to me, “Do you have a black and white cat?” We did. We had three. Two of these, Jelly and JoeCat had belonged to our friend who had emigrated and they had struggled to integrate: particularly Jelly who had transitioned from female to male (a case of mistaken identity) and who would not, in spite of our best efforts, come in at night.
“I do,” I said.
“I think it’s not very well,” Agnes said, “Or maybe sleeping.”
I walked through Agnes’ house to reach her garden. It smelt of cigarette smoke and fried onions. There were catholic icons on the walls. Agnes’ thin frame darted ahead. She looked desiccated.
“I don’t think he’s sleeping,” I said.
Mr Speke popped his head over the wall: a powerful chap, an ex-farmer with ruddy cheeks and the sort of Lancashire accent no longer heard, deep and musical. “That cat’s dead, that is,” he said. Very soon afterwards, within months, Agnes herself would be dead. I saw her one day cocooned in a blanket and on a stretcher chair, oxygen mask strapped to her face. She was driven away in an ambulance and I never saw her again.
Mr Speke was right. He also carried Jelly home and we buried him (possibly her?) under a slab of concrete topped with a stargazing hare.
The longer you live in a place, the more you rub along with your neighbours. Over the years, relationships deepen. The fact that you are significantly younger than your neighbours makes not a jot of difference when you are trying to find common ground. We enjoyed a Christmas drink with Joe and Betty, but it was Mary and Howard whose life began to intertwine with our own.
For a while, like our neighbours, we speculated about Howard and his issues. He seemed a lovely chap, but distant and occasionally physically uncertain. Gossip (mostly from Betty) suggested that he was a depressive, but given his failing vocal chords (he squeaked when he spoke) it seemed more complex than that. And who were we to judge in any case? As time moved on, he looked up less and shuffled more but we did not assume (as Betty did) that he had an alcohol problem, neither that he refused to work or that he’d always been a mummy’s boy. He was, largely speaking, self-contained. He sometimes did engage. Sometimes did not. Mary, his mother, was also diffident, not given to self-aggrandisement or big displays. Mary popped over occasionally, to chat about a bird she’d seen or some other piece of news about our cat Charlie who she fed milk to, but mostly they kept themselves to themselves and we were fine with that. Mary was religious, kind, a musical lover and passionate about animals (she was often distraught about animal cruelty).
Our journey to close was slow and then very fast. Things began to change when Mary could not make her legs work. Well, that only tells some of the story. We began to look out for Howard and Mary when her cleaner who – not be too unkind – was quite stupid, and her equally stupid partner said they were moving in. Stupid, but still an eye for the main chance. All the alarm bells that side of the Pennines started to ring out: Mary’s hip had seized up and she could not get up the stairs to bed. Perhaps their motives were laudable but they also requested payment for everything: for shopping, for bringing the bed downstairs, for doing the garden… and so on. And they’d taken a sudden interest in undertaking a lot of different chores around the place many of which didn’t need doing.
The trouble was, Mary was old by this time, and vulnerable and she was often persuaded that her back door did need painting or of some other spurious and entirely unnecessary job. Snotty – the other half – got wind of this, and knocked all that shenanigans on the head straight away. It wasn’t that they were unkind: but they did see Mary and Howard as cash-cows, living in that grand old house as they did, always having cash around and about.
Soon, Snotty, being neighbourly, was bobbing in and out of Palm House on a daily basis, making sure that both were okay. Taking in cakes, making a pot of tea, cooking up a storm: sharing our food. Howard, it transpired had Huntingdon’s disease: a miserable, low-down, sneak of a condition that stole away another bit of his personality every single day; that robbed him of his abilities by degrees. It was the same miserable disease that had killed his father twenty years before, an unforgiving hereditary illness that wipes out whole families.
In the next few months before Mary had her hip operation, Howard changed on a daily basis and before long he was confined to bed, unable to move without assistance. It was his blessing that he was zen-like in his deterioration; uncomplaining, benign, taking each new insult the disease lobbed at him with a resigned metaphorical shrug. There was no raging into the night with Howard.
After that Snotty became the unofficial unpaid manager of both their care packages, looking out for them, making sure carers turned up, and did the best they could for them. Snotty took action when carers stepped over the line (including instigating disciplinary proceedings against one who had taken to, oddly, lying beside Howard on his bed and stroking him.) Every day, month after month, Snotty popped in once, twice, three times a day: often taking the last shift because some carer or other had not turned up and helping to put them both to bed.
Months before Howard died Snotty arranged for the owl man to bring his birds to his room: he had always loved birds of prey (and drag car racing, apparently!) Howard was as animated that day as he’d been for years. When he died, the owl man, in his own time, came again and let the birds fly across the willow coffin at the end of the service: quite the most moving thing I’ve ever seen. Howard was buried on the side of hill near Settle in an environmentally sound place where buzzards fly freely…
Mary soldiered on for another two years. She loved music – I lent her my digital radio so she could listen to classic FM. But soon, her hearing began to fail. And that was when the curtain began to slowly close on her soul. She took ill on the second anniversary of Howard’s death, and died days later. Mary was buried beside her son, exactly two years to the day of his burial.