Adapted from a post that appeared on my old blog on January 19th 2012.
As recounted in my post My old house, during my childhood I lived in a terrace house in a quiet street in Brighton. More than a street, it seemed to me a little world or perhaps a theatre and upon its stage many characters played their parts, whether great or small, and looking back with the purblind eyes of memory, I remember some of them and now find that with the passage of time, a few have somehow acquired an aura of mystery.
For example, there was Miss Pink who lived a few doors along the road from us. When I think of her I see her through the imprecise eyes of childhood and it is difficult for me to say now what age she would have been. I think she might have been in her 40s, but that’s only a guess. She was a short, plump lady with long straight hair and an unremarkable face.
Miss Pink was regarded as odd and didn’t seem to have much to do with her neighbours. She would sometimes disappear for a while and then return and take up her life as before. No one mentioned this and I only knew of it because I noticed when the house was shut up and vaguely wondered where she went.
One day my mother told me that Miss Pink had asked if I would cut the grass in her back garden for which she would pay me. I duly went along to Miss Pink’s house, assuming that she would have the necessary gardening tools, such as a mower or shears. Imagine my reaction, then, when she led me to the kitchen, opened a drawer and took out a rather blunt carving knife. She demonstrated its use as a gardening tool by seizing hold of a tuft of grass and vigorously sawing at it with the knife!
The back gardens belonging to those terrace houses weren’t enormous but cutting the whole lawn with a knife was quite impractical. I proposed going home to fetch our shears (we didn’t possess a lawn mower in those days) which would be a much better option. Miss Pink was reluctant to let me go. I suppose she was afraid that if I left, I would not come back. However, I manage to persuade her, went off to fetch the shears and duly returned to cut the grass on what was a very rough lawn.
It was the only time I cut the grass for her, so how she accomplished the task on other occasions, I do not know. Perhaps she cut it herself, using the carving knife as she had demonstrated. If so, it must have taken her a good few hours each time, not to mention the back breaking labour of crawling about on her hands and knees, sawing the grass with a blunt knife.
My wielding of the shears must have won Miss Pink’s approval for on another occasion she approached my mother to ask whether I would do some painting for her. When I turned up at her house, I was shown the job, rather an awkward one. The room in question had been freshly papered but the woodwork had not been painted. That was to be my task. Now everyone knows that you do the painting first and the papering afterwards because if you do things the other way around, you are bound to get paint on the new paper. I cannot now say how good a job I did as I no longer have any clear memory of it but I completed the task as requested.
I do remember that I did not get paid. This was because Miss Pink managed to confuse me about the money. When we went into the room, Miss Pink pointed to a table on which there were two small piles of coins. “This is your money,” she said pointing at the heaps. “Not this one, though” she added, pushing one of the piles slightly one side. It was all too quick for me to see which pile was which, and as I was afraid of taking the wrong pile, I took neither. I intended to ask Miss Pink to clarify things afterwards but in the event, the chance was denied me. This was because Miss Pink was busy holding a party.
On arrival, I had seen that Miss Pink was dressed up. She was wearing a black dress and a little hat. Having shown me the painting job I was to do, she left me to get on with it and went back to her party in another room. As I worked, I could hear a murmur of conversation.
Having finished the job, I looked into the room where Miss Pink was enjoying her party. As I did so, she half turned and seemed to notice a drink on the mantelpiece. “Oh, is that for me, dear? Thank you,” she said, quite naturally. I assumed she said this to whoever she thought had brought her the drink.
What of it, you may ask. That is all quite usual and normal and not at all remarkable. Well, yes, it would have been normal but for the fact that Miss Pink was the only person in the room! It seems that the good lady had dressed up to have a party, all by herself, complete with drinks and pleasant chitchat with well, with whoever she thought was at the party with her.
She was obviously too busy to attend to me so I left, without thanks and without the money. As far as I know, neither the job nor the money were ever mentioned again.
One day after this, on my way home from school, as I passed her house, I spied Miss Pink in the window. She was reclining, as on a couch. She was wearing what might have been a nightdress and she was staring out into the street, running her fingers absently through her straight hair.
Her posture seemed rather odd and I stopped in front of the house and gave her a little wave. She did not respond nor did she give any sign of recognition. Her eyes seemed fixed on the middle distance, perhaps on things that only she could see. To my impressionable eyes, there was a certain wildness in her expression.
As I turned to leave, a police constable arrived. He cheerfully addressed Miss Pink with a “Hello, my dear, how are you?” and, meeting no response went inside the house while I sped home to report the case to my mother. Miss Pink then made one of her periodic disappearances and was gone for quite a while. She returned to her house in due course but I was never again invited to do any jobs for her and I do not know what eventually became of her.
As a child, busy with my own life and interests, I paid little attention to the people around me or to their lives and adventures unless for some reason they impinged in some direct way on my life. That now seems strange to me. It also seems a waste of an opportunity. I have become curious about these lives that ran in parallel to mine, lived by people who, as well as being interesting in themselves, must have possessed useful knowledge about my world and its past. Would that I could return to that place and that time and ply them with the questions that now so easily spring to mind. But it is too late, much too late, and they have taken their memories and experiences and their precious knowledge with them into the hidden places of history.