Reflections on life

NO MAN IS AN ISLAND…

…entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.

John Donne

Many people have left an imprint on my memory, for all kinds of reasons, and they slip into mind now and then when something triggers a recollection. An image, a conversation, a story – and there I am right back in that moment, or in those years, remembering. 

My first experience of being completely in awe of another person was at boarding school. I was new, it was confusing trying to fit into rigid discipline having grown up roaming free, and I was often in trouble for forgetting the rules. Each time I received an “order mark”, the disciplinary note that was put on your school record, forever, I had to report to one of the senior girls, for a reprimand. 

I knocked timidly at the sixth form common room door, and stood back.  Alexandra Marr was unusually tall and athletic with wild black hair and large, dark eyes. She was seventeen and I was thirteen. I mumbled my excuses and backed against the wall as she towered over me, delivering a long, loud torrent of complaint about my behaviour, face flushed, eyes flashing furiously. Then she turned, the door slammed behind her, and I stood looking at it in wonder. I’ve met few people since with such intense and powerful energy. She was magnificent, and I’ve sometimes wondered what became of that powerful presence.

Some years ago I was sitting in the window seat of a plane, waiting for everyone to board. I turned as a young woman arrived next to me and we exchanged a smile. She pushed her handbag under the seat in front and sat back. At a glance I noticed only that she wore dark clothes, and that her face looked grey and tired. 

As we gathered speed down the runway I saw that her hand was gripping the arm of her seat so hard her knuckles were white. Glancing at her face it was ashen, her shoulders were trembling, and yet she was doing her utmost to remain still and make no fuss. Instinctively I put one arm around her shoulders and the other hand on hers, slowly freeing it from the arm of the seat and holding it in her lap. And I talked, quietly, soothing, holding her tight until we were high in the air and I felt her body slowly begin to ease.

We had bypassed all conventional social norms in seconds so neither of us were uncomfortable in such close proximity. She was grateful, and I asked her to tell me how she came to be flying. She was South American and worked for a couple who had a jewellery business, and flew all over Europe every year to trade fairs. They always sat together and she was free to find her own seat. They had no idea she was terrified of flying and she wasn’t going to tell them, she could lose her job. “So you go through this over and over, and it never gets easier?” I asked. She just smiled. “It was easier today.” 

We settled in for the descent in just the same way, she steeled herself, I held her and murmured nothing of any consequence. We were safe. As we prepared to leave the plane she rummaged in her handbag, pulled out a little silver bracelet, obviously a sample, and gave it to me. We agreed that we would never forget each other.

And of course I never will, she’s the bravest person I’ve ever met. To know such fear, time after time, and to meet it with all the courage you can muster and without a trace of complaint is extraordinary. So that you keep your job and look after your family. Humbling.

The first home I remember was a white washed stone cottage, one of two adjoining, sitting in the middle of a large, sloping field that ran down to a river. There were stone flagged floors, no electricity or gas, an open fire where the kettle boiled, paraffin lamps and candles. Mum lit the fire in a big black range every day to heat the water and cook. We moved here in 1950 when I was three, and left when I was five, so my memories are fragments, but clear.

Ted and Lizzie lived next door. Ted drove a bus, one that would later take me to school, and Lizzie spent her days cooking and cleaning. He was solid, taciturn, always wore a cap, walked slowly, head down, and rarely smiled. So when he did, it took you by surprise.

Lizzie was taller than him, her face thin, with small, deep set eyes behind glasses, and wispy hair. She had a loud, sharp voice, but a kind smile. I often played in her kitchen, and sometimes she would cut off a piece of pastry dough for me to squeeze like putty in my hands, and bash with the rolling pin until it was paper thin. 

Then we moved to the old timber mill further down the river which had outbuildings and enough land for Dad and Mum to start a business. When he retired from the buses, Ted and Lizzie rented Mill House, and he ran our new showroom at weekends. He came alive, a natural salesman, chatty and friendly, whose tall stories entertained customers. 

The business grew, I was sent to boarding school, then college, and eventually came back to join the company. Ted and Lizzie aged of course, but nothing else changed. The kitchen in Mill House was simple, spare, and rather dark, but there was a fire lit winter and summer, and an easy chair on either side. Through all those years sometimes I would sit with Lizzie and a cup of tea, not saying much, just being there. And it was a safe place.

In my early thirties both of them died. The house had been cleared and was to become office space. In the empty kitchen I pulled open a drawer and found some unwanted bits and pieces, amongst them three of Lizzie’s well worn kitchen knives. I took them home. That was forty years ago, and I use them every day. So she’s still with me. 

There have been times in my life when I’ve felt unloved, under valued and unknown, often amongst other people, as if no one could really see me. And I know this is common, most of us experience feeling alone, but I’ve learned that it’s far from the truth. We’re all making an impact on everything and everyone around us, one way or another, in every moment. We live in others in ways we’ll never know, just as they live in us. And we each make a difference.

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