Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters – Part One

rapae_pupa_green2It was a Saturday morning in November. Ruth Feather was looking out of the kitchen window at a set of old flagstones, which she and her boyfriend, George, had piled against the back wall. They’d salvaged them from a local yard. The radio was on and she was listening to the news, “Doha climate change deal clears way for ‘damage’ aid to poorer nations”. ‘Climate change will have to wait’, she said to herself. ‘What am I going to do about my backyard?’ It was raining hard and, as she’d found out when they’d moved in, it sloped the wrong way, back towards the house. Despite being an athlete, George was not that interested in DIY. And she…yes, well, she liked to start things but was first to admit she didn’t always have the patience to see them through. She touched the glass, following a rain drop, chasing the channels downwards, trying to guess which way it would go next, rolling into other channels, getting bigger on its way down towards her clay floor below. She sighed. They’d just have to get someone in to look at it, that’s all. But how much will that cost? Money was tight just now; more sighing, a bit of grimacing and a heigho. ‘Time to get back to my lecture.’

Ruth worked as an Earth Scientist at the university, carrying out research into climate change. She was working on a talk for a group of adult students. “Fracking law needed to control British ‘dash for gas’, says MEP.” Another news bulletin on the radio. She put her pen down and listened. It had stopped raining, so she decided to go and take another look at her sloping floor. It was a small backyard behind their terraced house with an alleyway behind, protected by security gates. It was often used as a short cut for people in the road behind. She’d nodded in greeting to a few people she met but she didn’t really know anyone to talk to. Still, it had only been six months…early days yet.

She heard a giggle of laughter from over the wall, then a shriek. It sounded like a young girl, running up and down the alley. She hesitated a moment before drawing back the back door bolt. She had rubbish to put out, anyway.

A little girl, about six, almost collided with her, swerving at the last minute. There was a man with her, further down the alley, walking up towards her. Ruth paused. She hadn’t really met anyone yet. When the man was within a few yards of her, he smiled, ‘Hello, I see you’ve met Tilly, then! Sorry about that. I bring her out here once in a while to let her run off some energy. She’s got quite a bit. Tilly’s my granddaughter, by the way.’

‘She’s lovely’, replied Ruth. ‘It’s nice to hear someone having fun out here for a change. All you usually hear are wheelie bins and pigeons.’ ‘I know’, said the man. ‘remember when we had the Queen’s Jubilee in the summer,  well, I took Tilly and the family up to the social club on the hill. There was nothing happening here. But, look see, you could put a bench here and a bit of paint on the walls and even put in some raised beds for flowers and things and this could be a really nice place to pass the time in the sunshine…don’t you think? Ruth gave him a sideways look. ‘I sweep up outside my own back door for her sake but no-one else is interested.’

‘Why d’you say that? I’d come out here and help out.’ Ruth started thinking how busy she was at work. Wher would she find the time? All she ever wanted to do was eat and sleep when she came home. ‘No, everyone round here’s too old or just not interested. That’s what I think. We’ve lived here for three years now and you’re the fifth, sixth person I’ve spoken to. No-one’s that bothered any more. Why should they be?’

‘My name’s Ruth, by the way. Nice to meet you.’ ‘I’m Barry,  and you too.’ They both smiled. ‘Sorry about that, going off on one again. I get so angry at times. The wife tells me to calm down.’ ‘We’ve only been here six months and you’re the first person I’ve met out here. It would be good to do something out here, wouldn’t it, like have a summer party or something, don’t you think?’ He just looked at her. ‘I like your accent. Welsh, isn’t it?’ ‘Yes, I’m from a little place called Bwlchgwyn originally. Well, best be heading off. It’s been nice talking with you, Ruth. I’d better get Tilly Mint her dinner started. She watched them walk back up the alley and disappear before turning back in to her own yard, closing the door behind her. She looked around. Standing in puddles on the damp clay, she let out a long sigh and went back to her lecture notes upstairs.

George was out back, mopping up the puddles. He could hear the news headlines on the radio from the kitchen. “What’s next? Loss of our islands? Seychelles negotiator tells US.” ‘Oh, will you turn that off’, he called inside. ‘You and your climate change talks! It’s so depressing.’ Ruth came out onto the step. ‘They’re really important, George. You know that.’ He couldn’t help but notice how cute looking she was in her huggie slippers. ‘ I’ve told you we’ve got four years left to save the planet. There’s exploding sun spots and volcanoes, el Niño and El Niña, clouds and surface albedo, all caused by ever growing carbon emissions. Something needs to come out of these talks or else earth temperatures could rocket by up to 6 degrees and…’ ‘Oh, you and your bloody surface albedo!’, George erupted. ‘That’s it. I’ve had enough. It’s the weekend, the weekend, do you remember that? Can’t you just give it a rest for five minutes..?’ He was still holding the mop while he fumed but couldn’t think of anything else to say. Knowing she was probably right and he was actually in a corner – it was her job to know about these things, after all – he turned on his heels, struggling to pull the bolt back on the door. When he did get it open, he leant the mop carefully against the door jamb and walked out into the alley. Ruth looked after him, open mouthed and the mop fell over.

He found himself outside without his keys. The alley was sealed off by lockable gates. There was one at the far end of the alleyway, wide enough for a car to fit through and two smaller ones, leading off into the Lane, in-between the houses. George wasn’t going to go straight back in, anyway. He sulked, ‘What an idiot!’ He loved Ruth without a doubt. He knew her work was really important. How many times had she come home knackered after another late night meeting, too tired to eat, nevermind talk? Oh, he was bothered alright. ‘That bloody floor, we’ll never be able to fix it. How can we possibly afford someone? I’m riding to work on my bike, as it is.’

He brooded up and down. His job was insecure, he knew that. With another round of spending cuts, who knew what might happen next? ‘No need to take it out on Ruth, though.’ He was just turning at the end of the alley to go back when an elderly woman opened her back door and came out, holding a rubbish bag in both hands. George moved across, ‘Here, let me help you?’ ‘No, it’s quite alright, young man. Thank you, I can manage…now, if I can just pick this lid up.’ She tried to open the top of the wheelie bin and lift the bag but couldn’t quite manage it. George stepped over and held the lid open for her. The woman did the rest, with two hands, in it went. ‘Hello,’ he said, ‘my name’s George. George Seacole. From number 34, you know, next to the shop, P&I Sports, empty now. We’ve not long moved in. Pleased to meet you’. And he held out his hand.

She looked at him for what seemed like an age, before taking his hand. He felt hers, soft and hard, boney and veined, cool in his. ‘Pleased to meet you too, young man. My name’s Mrs Harris. Have you got time for a cup of tea and a biscuit?’

The alley separates the two rows of houses, like a stream. There are two narrow cuts at rightangles, linking the alley with the lane, sealed off by narrow gates. From above, it resembles a mortice key, laid on one side, its teeth directed towards the Lane. This side is made up  largely of 1920s terraced housing with a carwash at one end and a café bar, a newsagent’s and a small supermarket at the other. A row of flats stretched across the top. All of the residents and businesses are given a special key to open the gates. The houses on the Lane are mostly 3 bedroomed with a small backyard.

Over on the Avenue side, the houses were made up of slightly later, 1930s terraces, each with a small front garden and a larger back one. Onto the corner, jutting onto the supermarket and the row of flats was a GPO sorting office. Apart from this, the Avenue was residential, full of trees.

You see the occasional person passing through the alley but, by and large, it’s only used to keep the bins in, purple, blue and green. Dead space? You would be forgiven for thinking so. Sometimes, a few children play out in it. Occasionally, runners use it for exercising and sprints. There’s a man who lives in one of the flats above the supermarket who sets up the big bin line on a Monday night. Quite a line of purple it is too!

The Lane is mixed. There are small businesses, some with flats above – café bars, an estate agent’s, a betting shop, dress shop, a plumbing business, and lots of pigeons. Everything’s been tried, bar a sparrowhawk, to shift them but they must like it round here, so they stay. As do the people. It’s a popular place. Leafy trees line the Lane at regular intervals and it’s not far to nearby parks and the city centre. The area has grown noisier and busier with traffic over the years and parking can be an issue. So is licensing. After a late night pavement bar was granted an temporary licence, a group of residents successfully campaigned against it being extended.

The next day, Barry watched from his bedroom window, as rain poured down outside. It was already 10 o’clock but he’d only just got up. He knew Ange would be dropping Tilly off at any minute. Strange after all these years in the building trade to be spending his time looking after her. He couldn’t help smiling. He never knew he had it in him. Still, patience and doing a job well were always his reward, things he prided himself on doing and they were paying dividends with her. After breakfast, they were going to make puppets with moving parts from balsa wood and pins. They’d paint them and, then, he’d watch Tilly use them in her stories. That was the best bit. She had a crackin’ imagination.

Barry’s wife, Jane, had a part-time job, 4 days a week, in an office in town. It was good, really, and helped keep them going. Casual work had almost completely dried up. He reminded himself he’d go over later to fix Mrs Harris’ window. He’d take nothing off her. The cruellest blow had been losing the maintenance contract with Gypsum Housing Association. Since then, he’d applied for all sorts of jobs but no good. They were just about managing to keep their heads above water but, if nothing came up soon, he’d have to bite the bullet and sign on. He sighed at the thought of this…he’d only signed on once, just after leaving school and once was enough. He hated being treated like shit.

Fair play to people who have to, though. That’s what it’s there for. Barry had grown up with this. He’d listened to his grandparents’ stories of what it had been like back then before the NHS. Men in paddocks, hoping to be picked for a day’s work, having to spend much of it on buying beers for the foreman. Only sending for a doctor if you absolutely had to, knowing you had to pay for each visit. He knew what a struggle it had been to get the NHS. Some people had short memories or didn’t know what it had been like before. The welfare state was a safety net, there to keep people like him from being flung out onto the streets. That’s why he paid his taxes and bought into it, or so he thought. You heard so many scare stories these days. Everything seems to be changing – for the worst.

The door bell rang. ‘Ange and Tilly’, he thought. He threw on a jumper and picked up his comb, giving his hair a quick parting to the left, as he had done for years, before rushing downstairs to open the front door as the chime faded away.

‘Tilly!’, he cried, ‘…Hello, Angie, love.’ ‘Granddad!’ cried Tilly, all smiles. She grabbed his knees and squeezed between his legs, running off into the kitchen. ‘Sorry, dad, I can’t stay’, Ange explained. ‘I’ve got an interview in town. Wish me luck.’ She gave her dad a kiss and a hug and dropped a bag of clothes and toys on the floor. ‘I’ll pick her up fourish, ok?. I’ll see you later. And don’t let her have too many biscuits! You mustn’t be be soft with her.’ Next thing, she was off, banging the gate shut behind her before driving away in her car.

Barry shook his head and went into the kitchen. Tilly was already standing on a stool, trying to reach the biscuit barrel. It was made in the shape of a New York cop’s head, complete with blue hat and badge. She loved it because every time you opened the lid, a big voice cried out, ‘Move away from the cookie jar! I repeat, move away from…’ or else Tilly gets it.

The radio was on and he just caught the headlines. “Qatar makes most of its money – £10bn a year – from selling oil and gas.” ‘Then why on earth was it hosting climate change talks?’, he wondered before turning his attention to Tilly. ‘Come on, Tilly Mint, we have work to do. There’d be time enough for cookies later.’

He had prepared well, cutting the shapes out the night before. Tilly had asked for a donkey, two elephants, a man and a woman, a child, a polar bear and a whale. Oh, and a couple of penguins. He’d divided the body parts up for each one. A lick of paint. Tilly was the expert here, with just a little word from granddad and they waited for them to dry. All they had to do now was join them together with pins, pushed through the small holes and they moved. Stick a lolly ice stick on the back and, hey presto, they stood up. ‘I must have missed my vocation here’, Barry thought. As if by magic, Tilly now had her troupe of actors and animals and the real drama could begin.

They made a stage out of a big box, using photograhs from magazines to create the backdrops – a snow-topped mountain morning, a blisteringly hot desert day. Tilly’s enthusiasm knew no bounds. He wondered where she got it from? It tired him out just watching her but he tried hard not to show any signs of irritation. He loved Tilly. She lit up his life. But it was time for a cup of tea and a let’s see what’s on the tele moment. Ffetch that biscuit barrel.

‘Do you take sugar?’, Mrs Harris asked George. ‘No thanks, just milk, please.’ She took him through to the living room. ‘Sit down, I won’t be a minute.‘ He looked around him. Family photos adorned the mantelpiece and walls.  One showed a woman in a wedding dress, standing next to a handsome, clean-shaven man in uniform.  And photos of children and grandchildren. He wondered if there was still a ‘Mr Harris’? He could hear the kettle whistling and water pouring into the pot.

He was half out of the chair to take the tray from her. ‘Do you like your milk in first or last?’ ‘Oh, last, definitely, ‘ said George, smiling at her. ‘Yes, me too,’ smiling back at him, ‘would you like to do the honours and pour? I’ve got a pain in my back.’ ‘Happy to.’ He gave the tea bags a good stir in the pot before pouring into the white china cups. He added the milk last for both of them and passed a cup and saucer to Mrs Harris. He took his and leaned back in the settee. There was silence between them. This would normally unsettle him but it didn’t this time for some reason. Mrs Harris spoke first, ‘That’s Bob, my husband’, nodding towards the man in uniform. We were married during the war. He was in the RAF. Dead now…had a bad chest. Lots did in those days. How about you…George, did you say?’

‘That’s right, I live with my girlfriend, Ruth, next to the old sports shop. We’ve only been here a few months…we quite like it here. It’s nice and quiet.’ ‘Oh, it’s still nice,’ said Mrs Harris, ‘but not the way it used to be.’ I used to know everyone here. Nearly 45 years I’ve lived here. But it’s all changed now. There’s not many of us left.’

George was starting to think, ‘Here we go. Everything was always better years ago. No help to him these days. And not sure the world war was anything that great to shout about. ‘It’s not all bad today!’, he started. ‘People still say hello, even if you don’t know them. She studied him. ‘And what do you do?’ ‘Me? I’m a personal fitness coach and trainer. I’m studying to become a life coach too at the moment.’ ‘A life coach!’, exclaimed Mrs Harris. ‘…and what’s a life coach?’ ‘Oh, you know, helping people make up their minds about important decisions…crossroad moments like whether to change jobs or move house, that sort of thing.’ ‘Is that so? Life coaches do that, do they? We used to call people like that friends, in my day. A cup of tea and a biscuit soon put the world to rights…even if it doesn’t always last. Still, the world’s changed since my day…you must like people? So many of them are horrible nowadays. You read about such terrible things in the paper. I used to get the evening paper but I don’t bother anymore…too scared to leave my own home with all the shootings and murders going on.’

‘But it’s never been safer to live here in the city’ started George. ‘Crime levels are lower than ever. It’s just people think something’s going to happen.’ ‘Ah, well, you’re ok. You’re young and strong. You would say that, wouldn’t you!’ There was a pause while they looked at each other and George shifted his gaze to the other photographs on the walls. ‘Are they your children?’, he asked. ‘Yes, a boy and a girl and grandchildren, four of them. They all live away now but come to visit me as often as they can. My son’s a good boy. He rings every Sunday evening, right after tea and we have a good chat. He knows he doesn’t have to. I’ve told him that. But he does, anyway.’

George felt guilty about his own mum. He must give her a ring. How long had it been..? Quite a while. She only lived ten miles down the road. He told himself, finishing his tea, he’d go see her this week. ‘Well, thank you, Mrs Harris. It’s been really nice talking with you but it’s time I was going.’ ‘You’re welcome, young man. It’s been nice meeting you too and, please, call me Gwen. I hope you’ll come again, now that we’ve broken the ice…it was very kind of you to help me with the rubbish.’ ’No problem at all, Mrs Harris, er, Gwen. And I will, I will, that’d be lovely’.

At that moment, there was a knock at the back door. ‘Oh, that’ll be Barry come to take a look at my rattling window. He said he’d call round. He says it only needs a bit of wadding. I like Barry. He’s a good man. ‘ She opened the back door. ‘Come in, Barry. Do you know George, our new neighbour. We’ve just been having a cup of tea and a natter. He’s just off.’ ‘Nice to meet you, Barry. Well, thanks again, Mrs Harris. I’ll leave you two to sort your window out.’

The two men shook hands. ‘I hardly ever shake hands’, George thought flittingly. ’Pleased to meet you too, George. Is Ruth your girlfriend?’ George looked surprised. ‘I met her earlier in the alley. She mentioned your backyard. Have you found someone to sort it out yet? No? Well, I can call round later, if you like, and have a look at it? No obligation, just a look.’ George’s spirits lifted and he felt like he’d won the Olympics. ‘That would be great, Barry, really great. Much appreciated. We’ll be in later. Just call round…come in the back way. It’ll be open…and you can see what the problem is…’

Jane called, ‘I’m home’, closing the front door behind her. ‘Town was heaving. I got this lovely curtain material, though. It was a real bargain, half price for our Ange’s living room. Put the kettle on, will you, love. Make us a cup of tea. I’m dying of thirst.’ She moved past the open door into the living room. ‘Wow, what have you two been up to? This looks amazing.’ ‘Nanna, me and granddad have been making our animals. We painted the giraffes and penguins and went on a journey to the south pole together. The penguins met the giraffes on the iceberg but it got melted by the sun. So, they had a nice cup of tea together and a biscuit – granddad let us – and then the giraffes called their friend, the whale, to come and take the penguins home. But now whale’s got toothache and has had to go to the dentist’s.’ ‘Really?’, said Jane. ‘Ah, poor whale. You two have been busy, haven’t you? Have you been acting this out, Barry?’ Barry blushed. ‘You’ve got hidden talents there, my man, for sure. Now, where’s that cup of tea? Have you made it yet?’ She took off her red cloak – the one she’d made herself out of kapok – and flung it over the bannister. ‘It’s Tilly’s World today’, throwing herself down on the couch. ‘Go on, Till, tell me what’s on Tilly’s world today?’

‘Welcome to Tilly’s World. Today, I am at the South Pole, talking to the polar bears and the penguins. Nice to meet you, Mr Polar Bear and Mrs Penguin. My name is Tilly and I’ve come to ask you what it’s like living here.’ ’It’s cold’, said the bear. ‘Not as cold as it usually is,’ piped the penguin.’ ‘Well, it seems pretty cold to me’, said Tilly. ‘I do like your warm coats…’

Barry brought a tray in with a teapot and two mugs. ‘It’s brewing’, he said. ‘A proper pot of tea takes time and creativity. It can’t be rushed. ‘Clever, isn’t she? Wherever does she get it from?’ ‘Don’t look at me. Your side’s the chatty lot. I come from a long line of doers and deep thinkers, my mum used to say.’ ‘Yeah, she also said it’d skipped a generation in your case!’ ‘You cheeky monkey! Come here.’ And Barry fell down on the couch next to her and gave her a cuddle. ‘Get off me, you big lummocks’, she said laughing. He gave her another squeeze for good luck and poured the tea. ‘One lump or two, your ladyship?’

They sat back holding their mugs, watching Tilly interviewing her animals. ‘I’m glad you’re back. I was running out of things to say. It’s not easy being a polar bear, you know. I kept wanting to eat the penguins but Tilly kept stopping me. ‘We must all get along nicely, granddad’, she said.

Jane’s smiled faded. ‘I’ve been thinking. I’m going to see if I can sell some of my cushion covers and kids’ clothes on eBay. See how it goes. What do you think? It could bring us a few bob. And it’s practice. I’m more worried about you.’ Barry shifted and tried to force a smile, ‘Well, you needn’t be. I’m fine. And I’ve had a great time with Tilly this morning. Maybe, I missed my vocation and should work with kids…’ ‘..and animals!’, cried Jane, ‘You could be a polar bear trainer.’

She looked at him. They’d been together nearly 30 years, childhood sweethearts almost. They’d met at the school disco. Barry had just won the 1978 Disco Dancing title for the first time. What a good dancer he was, she’d forgotten, and what a catch. Everyone thought so. All her mates wanted to go out with him but she had picked him. He’d really aged though in the past year. Lost so much of his zip and humour. It made her angry at times but she took it out on the cushions rather that let it show.

‘Give us a cuddle’, Barry said. ‘That’ll make it alright.’ ‘Come here, Barry Porter, you big softie!’ They hugged till Tilly said, ‘Nanna, is granddad ok?’ ‘Of course, he is, Tilly, why d’you ask?’ ‘Because you keep giving him lots of hugs. Can I give him a hug too?’ ‘Of course, you can, Till, come here.’ And she climbed up over them and they all had a great, big hug.

‘Right, that’ll do’, said Barry. ‘I promised I’d have a look at Mrs Harris’ window. It won’t take a minute. You ok with Tilly?’ ‘Of course, we are, aren’t we, love? We can do some sewing together. I know, I’ll show you how to do a running stitch.’ ‘But I want to go with granddad. I want to fix windows too.’ ‘Not this time,Till. Granddad can’t work and watch you at the same time. Mrs Harris isn’t used to small kids running around. Best not to, not this time, anyway. Granddad will take you another time, won’t you, Barry, and show you what he’s done. He’s very clever with his hands is your granddad.’ He nodded, checked everything he needed was in the tool box. ‘See you later.’

When George got back to the flat, he could hear Ruth typing on the computer. He went up to see her. She was working in the small bedroom they shared as a study. He coughed and went up behind her, folding her in his arms. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘I didn’t mean to shout. I just felt ..I just…stupid. I don’t know, Stupid, frustrated… That floor…I wish…’ ‘I know, come here, I didn’t mean to upset you either. She chuckled, ‘Look, I’m just getting to the bit about your favourite subject, the surface albedo.’ He hugged her more tightly and rubbed his stubbly chin against her soft cheek. ‘I’m suddenly interested. What is the surface albedo, anyway?’ She started to explain, ‘Surface albedo occurs when…’

‘Do you know what? I never knew surface albedo could be so interesting.’ They were lying in bed and Ruth started laughing, ‘You can tell me all about El Nino, if you want’, and he poked a tongue down her exposed ear. Her ginger hair lay messed on the pillow. ’Stop it, you!’, Ruth digged him in the ribs. There came a tapping sound from downstairs. ‘What was that?’ Someone’s outside. ‘Flippin’ heck, it’s Barry. I told him to come round to look at the drains. I meant to tell you’. He leapt out of bed, hopping on one leg, trying to get into his boxies. ‘I met him at Mrs Harris’. He’s a builder. He said he’d have a look at our yard and let us have a quote. Mrs Harris thinks he’s wonderful.’

Tee-shirt on and trackie bots, no time for socks. ‘Slippers?’ ‘Under the bed’ and he banged his head. ‘Why on earth did you tell him to call round now…? And who’s Mrs Harris?’, Ruth began…George was already half way down the stairs. ‘Hi, Barry, yes, sorry, I was just, er, just about to have a quick shower…’ She could hear them outside in the yard. ‘If it’s not a good time…’ Barry started, ‘No, no, it’s fine, it really is. Fine. Thanks for coming. I, er, I mean, we really appreciate it. Now, the problem with the drains is when it rains…’

That must be our Ange’, Jane thought, hearing the front doorbell ring. She opened the door with Tilly Mint standing behind her. ‘Hello there, young lady. Have you had a nice day with gran and granddad?’ Tilly nodded. ‘Come in, love, have you got time for a quick cup of tea? Yea? Great, I’ll put the kettle on. Won’t take a minute.’ They went into the kitchen. ‘Any luck with the job?’ ‘They said they’ve got some more people to interview over the next couple of days and they’d let me know by Wednesday, if I was one of the lucky ones.  They’ve had over 500 applications for two jobs.’ There was a new fashion store opening in town and she’d been for an interview as a merchandiser. ‘How did it go?’ ‘I thought it went alright but you can’t tell.’ ‘Well, I hope you get it, if that’s what you want.’ They both looked at their tea, brown-edged, reflecting light. ‘How’s Dave? I’ve not seen him for a while. Where’s he hiding?’ ‘Oh, he’s ok, mum, his usual self, you know. He’s fine, really.’

Ange had met Dave ten years earlier. He was a creative writing tutor and she’d been one of his students. They’d stayed in touch after the course. She’d emailed him the odd piece of writing now and again to see what he thought. They’d started meeting for a drink once in a while and it had gone on from there. Sometimes, his work was well paid but there were spells when nothing came in. The teaching helped but they were never going to be rich, they knew that, not from writing. ‘Well, give him my love and tell him to call in. It’d be nice to see him. What’s he doing with himself these days?’ ‘You know Dave, mum. He’s working on his ‘opus maximus’ or whatever you call it!’ ‘You two are in your own opus maxifissus, me dears. Drink your tea before it goes cold’. ‘Thanks, mum’ and the two women went and sat down in the living room.

Mrs Harris had just sat down in front of the tele with her dinner on a tray on her lap. A grilled lamb chop she’d got from the butcher’s up the road with spuds, veg and gravy. The six o’clock news was on. “Seven reasons why you should be bothered about climate change talks.” ‘Oh, I can’t be bothered with all that. I’m too old. It’s all baloney, anyway’ and turned over the station to a quiz programme.

She looked at Bob’s photo on the mantelpiece. He’d been gone over 20 years now but she missed him more than ever. They’d been married for 40 years. She thought of George and his girlfriend starting out now. How hard had it been for her and Bob at the beginning? Sharing a house with the in-laws hadn’t been easy. There just weren’t enough houses to go round after the war. They’d met while they were serving in the RAF. She was a WAAF, working as a secretary in the office at the base. He’d had arrived for a three-day secondment and, having got ‘misplaced’, as they called it, stayed for three months. By the time they remembered him, they’d started going to the pictures and become engaged. He proposed to her after a visit to the swimming baths. She looked particularly fetching in a swim suit.

She shivered and sighed. She was wondering what to do about Meeting for Worship the next day. ‘I’ll go If the weather’s ok,’ she thought. She’d only recently had an operation on her leg after a fall but she wasn’t going to let that keep her house bound. ‘You have to get out and do your bit, don’t you? No point in sitting at home all day, doing nothing, if you can help it.’

She looked at the knitting in the basket. Roger from meeting had asked her if she would teach him how to darn a pair of socks? What a funny question! People don’t darn socks any more…or do they? You can’t even buy darning wool, nowadays. ‘Why not throw them away and buy a new pair?’, she’d said. ‘They’re good socks, good walking socks. Only once a week or even once a month, whatever she could manage..?’, he’d said. Sewing lessons, umm…could she teach? She remembered showing her daughter, Elizabeth, how to knit socks. How quickly she’d ended up losing her temper. Very unusual for her. Elizabeth had been shocked but they’d managed it in the end. She made a pair of woolly socks, albeit small ones, and was chuffed to bits, even if it did take the whole weekend. ‘What about leading a small group?’, Roger had asked her. She wasn’t sure. At her age, things were more difficult.They take longer but…on the other hand, it would be company. He’d said it wasn’t all about the sewing. It’s just as much about spending time together too. She’d offered to think about it and they left it at that.

She took her tray back out to the kitchen and did the washing up. There were a few dishes left over from tea time. She looked round her. She had a choice between the socks she was knitting for Sophie, her granddaughter or her book, ‘The Girl with the DragonTattoo’. She picked up the book and drew closer to the fire.

Ruth was just finishing off the last slide. ‘There is hope but let’s not wait for governments to do something. It will be definitely be too late by then. We need to start now, all of us, right where we are and see where it takes us.’ She saved the file to her pen drive. All her young life, she’d cared about people and animals and the whole tiny planet we live on. The photos from space are breathtakingly beautiful, aren’t they? Life on earth is just too important to leave to others! Yet, she often felt she was banging her head against a wall of blank faces. ‘Don’t lose heart’, she told herself. There are plenty of people out there doing stuff, really valuable stuff. And it wasn’t as if she was idle herself. She gave talks most weeks, like the one coming up. ‘What does the climate change science tell us?’. People thought, well, it won’t happen here, so why worry? And what can I do about it anyway? I’m just me. But it will happen here, is already happening here. She caught her reflection in the mirror. Still girlish. Were those bags under her eyes? And lines too? She rubbed her forehead. We’ll not escape and not only from changing weather patterns either. People will lose their homes under water or sewage or both or watch it fall off a coastal path or under an incoming tide. We need to take better care but if we only look after ourselves, then what are we?

She studied the photograph of George and herself on the desk. The two of them were smiling. That was a surfing holiday in Cornwall. How long ago was that? Last summer, the one before, no, surely not? ‘When was it we last went on holiday together? Both of us have been doing so much lately…what’s happening…?

She left the thought there, suspended, looking at it from all sides, like one of her scientific models. ‘I’m not sure but it feels hopeful just to be looking.’ Time passed when, suddenly, she said to herself, ‘Right, I fancy eating out tonight for a change. George, George’, she called downstairs. ‘…George, do you fancy going out tonight to eat? I fancy a pie and a pint? What do you say?’ She noticed the headline as her computer was closing down, ‘Large CO2 rise sounds climate change alarm’.

George was at the sink, doing the washing up, listening to Sonic Youth on 6 Radio. ‘A life without music is no life at all’, he thought, as he scrubbed the pans left over from breakfast and the night before. Have you ever tried getting porridge off a pan? Yuck but he stuck at it. Something to do, his mind wouldn’t settle. He’d go for a run after this. Let off some steam, some energy. Anger, anger? What was it? Why was he angry? It certainly looked like it the way he was tackling the pans. Better go easy on the glasses.

He looked out the window at the yard. ‘That was a stroke of luck meeting Barry.’ He was going to give them an estimate for the work, which shouldn’t be too bad, he hoped, seeing as he was going to help him do the job. They’d agreed to work evenings and the weekend. ‘That ought to do it. Should be good fun too, if it ever stops raining. A knowledgeable chap, that Barry is. Very impressed by him. He’s had some bad luck too, by the sound of it. And Mrs Harris? She seems like a nice lady. 90 years old, that is some age. When was she born?’ George did a quick calculation and let out a long sigh. She’s lived through some times.

He started to think about tea, getting hungry and looked in the cupboard. There were lots of sardines. On toast, in tomato sauce. ‘Something’s got to change’, he found himself saying. ‘Something’s got to change’, almost like a little prayer but it was less a prayer, more a wish or a hope. He saw his reflection in the window. That frown, was that him these days? When had it started? He needed to keep smiling. ‘Sod the sardines. Let’s go out.’ Just at that moment, he heard Ruth calling him from upstairs, ‘George, George…’

Jane was sitting at her sewing machine, making up new curtains for Ange. She’d been made up with the material. As the machine hummed and whirred, she skilfully wove the material and thread in and out. She loved the touch of the material and the process of creating something beautiful. The best bit was seeing the look on people’s faces when she showed them the finished product.

Wasn’t this what she wanted to do? She could keep the office job on while she set out on her own? Maybe, she could look and see if there were any courses. She’d get some publicity done – cards, that sort of thing. ‘Fancy that, Jane Porter, pattern maker to the stars.’ I’ll start first thing tomorrow. She smiled to herself at her own dreaming. It wouldn’t be so easy. She’d be lucky to sell a pair of curtains these days. She knew that. But it wasn’t just about the money. ‘It’s about me. Let’s give it a go. I’m already doing it. Just need to crack on, get a bit more organised and, well, business-like, like Barry. He can help me. I’ve helped him enough. She sighed, ‘Dreams, if only…’ and smiling, went back to her running stitches.

Barry was stretched out on the couch, watching an old episode of Morse. He’d seen it before but somehow could never remember the ending. ‘Oh, that’s who did it.’ His mind whirred over what he needed for George’s yard tomorrow. He still had his account at TPK and George was giving him 50% upfront, 50% on completion. ‘Trust’, he said. He’d never overcharged anyone, always gave a good day’s work for a fair return and look where it had got him. He knew some cowboys he wouldn’t let change a washer. Yet they seemed to be doing alright. He grimaced. He wouldn’t change, couldn’t. That was the way he was made. He watched as Morse banged his knee on the edge of the desk, upsetting a pile of papers. He stooped to pick them up, stopping to read one in particular. ’That’s it, of course. How could I have been so…Lewis, Lewis! Come on, get your coat on, we’re going…’

Tilly was in her bed. Dave was sitting on the floor, telling her a bedtime story. Cuddlies were scattered all around but she held penguin, bear and dolphin close. Dave was telling her the story of two islands, joined by a rainbow. It was one of her favourites. He watched her out the corner of his eye. Were her lids drooping? Dave’s certainly were. He started to ease himself up. Maybe, he could just catch the end of Morse..? ‘Keep talking’, mumbled Tilly. He looked at her. She’d barely moved. He carried on…‘The Laphaa people catch fish and make nets and paint cockle shells. They make music together and like dancing. The Kentish people on the other island live in houses made of brick. They have cars and TVs and go to work, come home, sleep, go to work..’ Tilly felt enchanted, passing between the two islands over the rainbow, scooped up in a shell, filled with whispers. Her breathing grew deeper and Dave rose as quietly as he could, watching Tilly, checking she was really asleep. He made his way out the room as best he could, trying not to step on any of her toys, scattered all over the floor. Back out on the landing, he let out a sigh, leaving Tilly’s door just ajar enough for the light to get in. ‘Sleep well, princess, see you in the morning.’ As he went downstairs, he heard his bones.

, like hanging hellebores at Swarthmoor Hall

HelleboreDblOO8 o’clock in the morning, the alarm went off and I got a text. I fumbled for the mobile on the desk, pressed a button to stop the beeping and found the text. It was from Ginny, my tutor  to say she had come down with flu and couldn’t meet me for a tutorial after all. As a fellow workmate often says at times like these, ‘Dung in a bucket and poo!’ But flu was flu and no getting round it. With fingertips pressing my breastbone, I thought of my own chest infection, well over 100 days now. Illness can do strange things to a man.

Setting out

I decided to stick with my original plan and get up there early. It was Hardshaw and Mann Area Meeting’s (AM) Annual Gathering, held at Swarthmoor Hall in Ulverston. ‘Ulverston return, please, coming back Sunday.’ ‘Do you spell that with an ‘H?’, asked the ticket seller. ‘No, Ulverston. U, U’, I sounded out. ‘That’s in the Lakes, isn’t it?’ I nodded and smiled at him. I was off for the weekend. As the tickets came out of the machine, we joked about the weather. It had just started snowing.

I stood waiting for my train by the white wicker fence at the end of platform one. ‘Do not go beyond!’, warned a sign. And I didn’t but I do enjoy standing there,watching the grasses and wild flowers, dormant now but soon to burst into life. You wonder, looking at them, how they do it. One morning, while waiting there, I had felt enveloped in a deep sense of peace, as if at meeting for worship. Very strange.

I was on my way towards Warrington. The guard annoyed me by asking me where I was going. Why? Did he think I was stupid or a scally, trying to avoid a fare? Only later did it occur to me he was just checking I was on the right train. ‘Off at Central, walk to Bank Quay?’ and that I was on the right train. I nodded. A young woman got off the train with me, pulling her case with squeechy wheels. I heard her, passing the Golden Palisades shopping centre and then again at the station. In the waiting room, there seemed a million and one women, each with a suitcase. ‘Where is everybody?’, one woman said to her two friends, coming out the lift on to platform 3. ‘Look in the waiting room’, I told them, ‘there’s a million and one…’

There was a problem at Wigan. Somebody had taken ill and we had to wait for an ambulance. I hoped they’d be alright and thought of Pam Lunn’s words, ‘Practice, we must think of it as practice’. Waiting when something is delayed or runs out or is in short supply is like practising for the future. It meant I’d miss the connection at Lancaster and have to wait for the next one to Ulverston. ‘How long? An hour and a half?!’ I could not believe it. ‘Sorry’, the man said, ‘we couldn’t hold it for that long, so it had to go. The town is only 5 minutes away…’ I looked up and saw where I was going. ‘It’s ok.’ I thanked him and headed off to Lancaster Meeting House.

I’ve been here quite often for work. We used to hold meetings there and I was on a course at Lancaster Uni a couple of years ago, which enabled me to drop in for a quiet moment. The sign said ,’Please close the gate behind you’. There didn’t appear to be anybody about. A notice on the whiteboard said the U3A scrabble group had been cancelled that morning. I chose a  seat into the meeting room, facing the windows. It was lovely and warm inside. I sat down and chopped my fruit and broke up my oatcakes.  A woman came in to collect her bag. We nodded. I felt awkward. I started to explain what I was doing there and then stopped. She smiled at me, collected her bag and left. Time passed. The lights in the foyer snapped on and off in short bursts, as if triggered by someone moving but there was no-one there. After some time, a woman looked in the room. I’d moved across to sit under the natural light to read my book, ‘Reflections of a Long Marriage’ by Roger and Susan Sawtell. ‘Oh, is that your bag?’ I nodded and she left.

I wrote a note in the visitor’s book saying how warm and peaceful the building was. On the way out, I noticed someone had divided the notice board into vertical strips, each with a heading –  Charney Manor/Swarthmoor, Woodbrooke, EFM, Local Events, Area Events. ‘I’ll have to tell Lisa about that’, I thought.

It really was exciting riding on the train to Ulverston. I felt like a big kid, looking out of the windows, right and left. There was so much to see. The sea! Sand…buzzards or kites, what is it? There was too much to take in. Look at those mountains in the sunlight! Is that snow? So, I stayed with one side. ‘I’ll sit on the other, coming back’, I said.

Arrivals

‘I wonder if Barrow is named after John Barrow?’ I shook my head, couldn’t be. I was looking at a map of the attractions in Ulverston. Luckily for me, turning right into Springfield Road, I lifted my head up and, almost immediately, there was a public footpath sign for . Swarthmoor Hall. Half a mile, it said. ‘That’ll do me’, I chuckled and passed through the gate. What was that deafening noise? The raucous shouting and screaming were coming out of the mouths of primary school children at play. They looked to be enjoying themselves, not a teacher in sight.

The path brought me in no time to the gate at Swarthmoor Hall. This was my first time and I was going in the backway, or so I thought. I entered the yard and stared at the Hall. ‘It’s a council house.’, I marvelled. ‘George Fox lived in a council house!’ The whole house had been covered in a blue-grey wash, making it look to me like a maisonette. I thought of the Room Tax and the Community Charge and the Poll Taxes. ‘Rise up, Englishmen and women, rise up, peaceably, of course, in protest.’ I actually felt quite pleased that George Fox had lived in a ‘council house’. It wasn’t like that inside, of course, not at all.

Nichola showed me to my room, passing two workmen, tiling away in the bathroom. My room was in Unit 3, room 16 at the top of the house. I pushed open the door. ‘What a lovely bedspread!’, I thought. It looked hand stitched with alternate dark and light squares. And mullioned windows. The view is nice, off towards the mountains. ‘This will do me’, I thought. ‘But I was expecting an old hall’, I said to Nicola. ‘There is one but it’s all alarmed. Wait a minute, let me go back and see. If we’re not too busy, I’ll ask if I can open it for an hour or two.’ She was back in a jiffey. ‘The Hall’s open’, she said and led me downstairs and into the Friends’ room. ‘Through there’, she pointed. I pulled back the blue painted door in the corner to reveal a much darker, wooden one  on the other side. ‘Two doors?’, I thought. ‘That’s interesting…wonder what’s on the other side?’ I turned the handle  and flinched, so unexpected was the scene before me. I stood between two worlds – with one foot by a 21st century bookshelf and comfy chairs and the other pointing to a great stone floor. There were wooden chests, oak beams and whitewashed walls. It was startling. ‘All yours’, said Nicola, going back to her office. ‘Thanks…’ and I was on my own.

I moved straight nto the Hall first. I remember the fireplace and the stone flags, the raised dais at the end, lit up by the sunshine. What was that on the table? A flask? Was it made of crock or, no, leather…possibly leather, could it be, no? It was a light room. I went through another door into a smaller, darker one behind. This was Judge Fell’s study. Was this the actual room where Judge Fell listened to meeting for worship with the door left open?  I was stood here, on my own, tingling, looking at an original copy of George Fox’s Journal. And there was a King James bible from the time of Charles II. It was huge. My hand started to reach towards the pages of the journal but drew back. I couldn’t touch it. What if the paper turned to dust in my fingers?

I started to go round the upstairs rooms. What was this thing rising up between the stairs? I’d never seen anything like it. Artistic? A pulley system? It was beautiful but just seemed to stop on the second landing. The floors are beautifully uneven. The beds are so small, apart from George Fox’s Travelling Bed, which is massive and made of lignum vitae. This is the same wood they made the Liverpool docks out of, the strongest in the world. And there was a wooden, leather bound chest with the initials GF metalstudded in the lid. He’d brought this back with him after being locked up in Worcester Gaol.

There may have been a staircase outside leading up to Judge Fell’s bedroom. He is said to have received many visitors there on business, while sitting up in bed. It must have been freezing, despite the fireplace. Among the many sketches and paintings of the Hall over the years, one caught my eye. It was of a man, leaning casually over a wall, possibly smoking a pipe. He was talking to a lady in a fine dress on the other side. Could they be the Judge and Margaret or Margaret and George Fox? Probably not but it conjured up a pleasing image, one I’d not thought of before about them.

I returned downstairs and suddenly thought, gosh, I could have had my tutorial here in Judge Fell’s study, if only my tutor had not got a bit of a runny nose. I immediately felt bad about this and texted a suitably supportive message to her, lade low by the rhume. Actually, it was far too cold to stay there for any length of time, so we probably would have met in the Friends’ room or gone for a walk around the grounds. I still had unexpected free time and one thing I’d decided to do was call on one of my old colleagues who had left to take over one of the local post offices a few years before. I could tell from my map that she lived quite near. Knibbsy, here I come!

It’s not all in the planning. I’d tried ringing our office in Workington. No-one answered. Well, it was half-term. I rang our office. ‘Do we have Jane’s phone number still on the system?’, I asked Jean, our office manager. The number she gave me turned out to be another colleagues.. I rang Jean again and told her. ‘Do we have an address?’ ‘Don’t you think I haven’t got anything better to do?’ but she looked up the address for me.

I came outside. There were friends busying themselves in the Barn conference room. I went in to say hello. Tim, Allan and Bernie were setting up, hauling large squares of cardboard, turning them into display boards. Wires and cables trippling over the floor. I called into the office to let Nicola know I’d left the hall and she gave me a local map, showing how to get to Croftlands Park Post Office. The route takes you past the old meeting house. 1677 was it? I should have made a note but it had just had a new slate roof put on and there were very impressive, large solar panels in the garden next door.

Here was the post office. I’d visited once before, in my first year after joining the WEA. I’d come to meet Jane and learn about how she worked as a community organiser. Jane is a determined and formidable woman and I remember hoping I wouldn’t appear a complete fool, next to her. I needn’t have worried. She showed me some clippings of WEA events and courses in her patch. The size of her programme was bigger than the local FE college. She’d taken me on a quick tour of the ‘Barra’, a small peninsula where she ran courses. I was quite convinced by the end of the day that she ‘ran Barrow’. I now realise there is something of Margaret Fell in her. She is also one of the  kindest people you could meet and an Evertonian. So, we had that bond. It was quite a risk taking on the post office, which was losing money at the time. I was curious to know how she’d got on.

There were three people serving, two at the till and one behind the post office counter. The two at the till were busy, so I looked through the glass and bars and asked, ‘er, does Jane Knibbs have anything to do with this post office still?’ ‘Jane? Oh, yes, she comes in now and again and does a few hours.’ ‘Oh, dear’, I thought, ‘that doesn’t sound very hopeful.’ ‘Does she still live opposite, d’you know?’ ‘Oh, yes. And that’s her daughter.’ She pointed towards a young woman serving a customer. I edged across the counter, busy with big schoolkids and asked, ‘Excuse me, are you Jane Knibbs’ daughter? I used to work with your mum.’ ‘I don’t usually admit to that,’ she laughed. ‘What’s your name? Bernie? Oh, yes, she’s mentioned you.’ ‘Does she still live in..’ ‘Oh, yes, she’ll be in now. Go and knock on the door. She’ll be pleased to see you.’

I thanked her and next thing I’m walking through the gate, looking at Nick, her husband,  through the windows and ringing the bell. I had my line all ready. ‘Can I interest you in a new WEA course that’s starting next week…or fancy volunteering for the WEA..?’ Didn’t get to say any of it. ‘Bernie, is that you? Come in, come in, mind the dogs. They won’t bite you. Well, that one won’t. Down, Petal, down. She does bite sometimes but you’ll be alright. Come in.’ Against a background of two jumping, excited dogs. I gingerly yet confidently walked in, keeping Nick between me and Petal. ‘Well, you’re a sight for sore eyes. What brings you up here? Really? I never knew you were a Quaker.’

Time passed. We caught up with each other’s lives. I told her about the changes for the better within the WEA over the last couple of years as well as the collective grievance, my first as a workplace rep, when enough was enough. She told me how she now employed eight people at the post office, which was the reason why she only turned out for a few hours each week. She didn’t have to. She had turned the business round and it was prospering. We swopped contact details, agreed to exchange facebook addresses and meet up for lunch next time she comes to Liverpoo, if we canl. Petal even allowed me to stroke his head. On the way out, Jane showed me her pride of place, a massive jacuzzi/hot tub under an awning in the back garden. ‘Roll on summer’, she said. I left by way of the back door, alongside the park. Kids running about or playing on swings, and I, facing the rolling hills, walking back past the old meeting house, was still smiling.

Fellowship and Food

I arrived back at the Hall in time for fellowship and food. Over the next couple of days, we would discuss various subjects over meals, including our experience of corporal punishment in schools and whether or not it ought to be introduced into HE, the first civil partnership in a religious building in Britain (the Unitarian on Ullet Road), conducted by a lay minister, Angela, who has purple hair; whether or not our guest speaker, Jenny, deliberately avoided sitting in Margaret Fell’s or George Fox’s chair (clearly, it was George Fox’s, while I listened on appreciatively, if unwittingly, sitting in Margaret’s) and I was branded an ‘alpha male’ for offering to ‘go outside’ to look for coffee. It was turning into one of those weekends. What I do remember of that first evening meal is a stunning vegetarian lasagna with the heat rising off it and plenty of salad. I purred to Pauline, ‘if only we have crumble now for pudding…heaven, crumble heaven.’ She nodded. She knew what I meant. It turned out to be fruit salad and cream – pretty good. We filled in our slips for our packed lunches for the next day. Jane, the manager, told us we could tick all six fillings between bread, includng houmous, if we were so minded.

It was down to the first evening session, led by Allan and Tim. They asked us to pick two postcards – one which showed how we felt at that moment and the other to show how we hoped to feel come Sunday afternoon. I picked a card, showing off a big yellow Superlambanana, as my first one. ‘To me, I told the circle, ‘this makes me feel excited, colourful, expectant and looking forward to the weekend.’ The second one had also jumped out at me. It was a picture of two elephants, trunk-to-trunk, with a glittering bouquet of flowers between them. ‘It’s the same as the front cover of the Sawtell Swarthmoor lecture, Reflections from a Long Marriage (2009)’, I said, which I just happened to be reading. But the copy was in my bag upstairs. Did it really have a bouquet of flowers on or  not?  Probably not, I thought. For me, it represented a sense of family and community. It reflected my concerns for our AM with only two of our Local Meetings (LMs) present, Liverpool and Wigan (though Southport was coming tomorrow, we hoped). St Helens was sort of present in that one friend lives there and so does a second who came for the Saturday with her carer. We think of our absent friends on the Isle of Man. Each of us revealed what our cards meant to us and Tim said we could keep them over the weekend but be sure to bring them back for the last session on Sunday.

Before we finished, I offered to lead a QiGong session on the lawn the following morning at 7am, if anyone was interested. Allan said he was, with one or two other possibles. ‘Why on earth did I say that?’ I asked myself. I’d learned a set of exercises from Diana Lampen over the space of two Britain Yearly Meetings in 2009 and 2011 and two fortuitous occasions at Woodbrooke when we were both there. After 2011, I had finally got a complete set of handouts to know what I was doing. I’ve been practising them ever since. But I never dreamt I would offer to teach them to anyone.

After pleasant company, sipping from a big, green Quaker mug of hot chocolate in the friends’ room, warmed by a log fire,  I did a bit of washing up (a spiritual practice) before going to bed. I left the curtains open. With the lights out, I noticed how bright were the security lights outside.They threw a dark shadow looking like a creeping spider’s web across the ceiling and facing wall. I was tempted to close the curtains. Under the duvet and counterpane, it was stiflingly hot, which, with sleeping in a new bed for the first night and excitable thoughts racing round, meant I had a fitful sleep. I was glad when my alarm went off at 6.30am. Time to get up and do my QiGong on the lawn. It wasn’t raining outside, though it was cold. Would Allan be there?

Just after sunrise

The air was quiet. I saw a figure approach from behind the Quilt garden, Allan.  We started to practise the discipline of gentle QiGong stretching and breathing exercises, leading to Earth Breath One. We parted the clouds, put the sun up in the sky and turned the world upside down. We grew like cranes and tigers, observed by a raven, high up in the tree’s branches. We were standing on the lawn in front of the Hall, within earshot of the flowing stream. The surrounding trees and early morning clouds parting upheld us. After nearly an hour, we came back in to the centre and rested. Chilled. We agreed to meet again the following morning at the same time. Allan went off for breakfast and I set off on the short walk to the post office and back for my Saturday Guardian (sports section), as promised, with my name in it.

I looked over the sports section while having a top breakfast, including cereal, toast and scrambled egg, juice and lots and lots of coffee. The first session of the morning started off with an introduction to the life and times of Margaret Fell, by Jenny Paul, a local historian from Lancaster meeting. She gave us a quick tour of the religious, economic and political landscape of the mid-late 17th century, showing us how Quakers were part of the rapidly changing scene. Jenny was also going to take us on a guided tour of the Hall. She warned us of the cold inside but I thought I could handle it in my jumper. My coat was upstairs after all.

We all sat down in the Great Hall. ‘Anywhere you like’, Jenny said. I chose an old wooden one with comfy cushions to the left of the big fire place, not too close to Jenny. I soon found out I was in Margaret Fell’s chair. So glad I hadn’t sat closer to her, or it could have been George Fox’s, the one chair she couldn’t bring herself for some reason to sit in. We were getting a picture of Margaret Fell of a well-to-do, young, married women who had a lot of responsibility, running two estates while Judge Fell was away. Margaret married beneath her, it seems, but the Judge, although 20 or so years older, was a rising star. In the early years of the civil war, he supported Cromwell, served as MP in the Long Parliament and became Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. As time went on, he distanced himself from Cromwell and national affairs, spending more time travelling around the north and North Wales as a circuit judge.Jenny described him and Margaret as ‘Seekers after the Truth’. Margaret’s grandmother had been burnt at the stake for her beliefs. What an impression that must have made on the family, the Askews of Dalton.

At home, Margaret ran the household. Her belief in equality can be seen in the fact the family, visitors and servants all ate together round the large table in the Hall. It is unlikely Margaret did the washing up. This would have been extraordinary at this time. Still is today. It reminded me of the way staff at Woodbrooke have their meals and breaks in the same place as the visitors. She painted a picture of a busy house, receiving guests, filled with servants. Stacks of oatcakes were kept in a larger dresser for sudden arrivals. As Jenny led us upstairs, I dashed back through the threshold into the Friends’ room and upstairs for my coat.

Jenny pointed to tapers in boxes on the walls to prevent mice gnawing at them.Tapers or candles were hugely expensive compared to tallow. Burning what is, basically, pig’s fat left the rooms stinking, which is why there were garlands of lavender here and there. People slept in an upright postion, propped up by pillows, which was why the beds were so short. The canopy over the four tester bed prevented small, eight-legged creatures dropping down into your open mouth while you were asleep to wriggle inside you and get into your brain before coming out of your eyes, it is said. Margaret bore nine children, of whom eight survived into adulthood. There were wooden cradles in two of the bedrooms

We learned that the roof had originally been supported by the column rising up between the stairs. Called a ‘nuall’, it was built to hold the roof up and was one of the best examples left in the world. The current roof had been added later and was supported by beams. Over a hundred and fifty year period, the house passed out of the family’s hands and fell into disrepair. It is thought an entire wing of the hall was lost till, in the early 1900s, it was brought back into the family possession by Emma Clark Abraham, a direct descendent of Margaret Fell. She borrowed approximately £5,000 from Quaker families for this, including, possibly, some from Liverpool. Emma was born here. So was her son, Edward Mitford Abraham, born in Grassendale. He later lived and worked in Prenton on the Wirral as a chemical engineer. It’s possible they could be mentioned in the minute books of Liverpool meeting. The problem is, where can you find an antiquarian archivist when you need one to look?

Taking a packed lunch out with us

Could you believe it? It was snowing. I mean, proper snowing. We had set off on foot along the road, bridle and footpaths, not quite sure where we were heading but knowing where we wanted to go, Sunrick, the burial place of Margaret Fell. Nearby was also a stone circle and we wpoud be right on the tip of the sea. On this occasion, we didn’t have enough time to complete the walk but we did see the sea past a dip in the hills. We had snow, sunshine and more snow in the space of not much more than an hour. I enjoyed the walking and talking and also the opportunity to walk silently for a while. It was great. We got back to Swarthmoor right on time for Jenny’s lecture on Margaret Fell in the barn. As we passed, Allan pointed out the opening winter flowering pansies in the Quilt garden, which had been closed that morning.

Jenny’s talk

It took a few moments to settle us down. We were like a group of excited schoolchildren, ready to learn. She showed us a hand-drawn map of the 1650s, like no map, she told us, we’d ever seen before, drawn by her very own hand. The map revealed the key influences on friends. As she talked, Margaret Fell became a real figure in her own right. While Fox was the charismatic preacher, she was the organiser. She it was who ran the estates and household for Judge Fell. She developed a legalistic mind, a familiarity with the legal terms and processes of the law which she used to serve of friends. She writes letters, lots of them on behalf of friends arrested and/or imprisoned. Charles II avoided her. James I ran away and hid in her presence. In a way, she did for early Friends what Paul did for early Christians, it seemed to me, in supporting, encouraging , exhorting, enabling friends to go on. Jenny impressed on us that Margaret Fell had written her own peace testimony before Hubberthorne and Fox’s. It is not widely known, as it was written as part of a letter to the king. It was a fantastic lecture which allowed us to see life as it was lived back in the mid-17th century.

At break, I wandered out into the winding garden and meadow with Alan and Penny, both knowledgeable gardeners. Three differently coloured hellebores, including one which was a shade of deep purple. There is a wonderful photograph of hellebores hanging on the wall in the friends’ room. We found snowdrops everywhere. The celandines were coming into flower.

Tim led us in a quick ‘where are we now’, a gathering to see how we were feeling. Then, we looked at and added to the ‘Tree of Life’. What would we offer, if we could give one thing to hang like a leaf on the tree. Mine was ‘Tis a gift to be simple…’ on my post-it note. Next, Allan gave us an extract from the peace testimony and asked us to consider in pairs what small steps would we take to practise using our gifts to help us achieve it.

Penny read from Quaker Faith and Practice (10.20) at the start of the second session:

One of the unepected things I have learnt in my life as a Quaker is that religion is basically about relationships between people. This was an unexpected discovery, because I had been brought up to believe that religion was essentially about our relationship with God.’ George Gorman, 1982

Tim gave us a sheet of 5 questions to think about in pairs, asking what impact coming to meeting has on us. We had 20 minutes each before we reported back. He emphasised the importance of listening without interrupting or commenting to the speaker. We could stay where we were or…I partnered up with Chris, my buddy, and we headed out towards the meadow before it got too cold. We walked and talked, listening, around this lovely meadow, resting on the bridge over the stream, retreating into the warmth of the small friends’ room on the first floor. I sooke of some of my experiences this past year while on Equipping for Ministry (EfM).. I recalled a conversation I had with a new tutor at Woodbrooke on Overseers’ training, which led to me becoming a friend. ‘So, what are you telling me, Bernie…’, she asked, ‘..that you’re human.’ I wrote my letter to AM clerk the following week, asking to become a member . It’s stayed with me ever since and is a good reminder of doing the best you can but not taking on more than you can hold. I have often had this kind of rich experience on courses at Woodbrooke but it’s rarer for me in my own AM. I just had time for a quick wee and wash before we met back together in a circle in the barn for the start of session 2.

Allan introduced three postcards, each one displayed on its own board, made out of cardboard. One was of a country scene, the middle one showed the ‘Green Man’ and the third was a picture of two young, smiling children. We were asked to write a statement which would be a small step towards helping us live out the peace testimony. As Tim reminded us, it might only be a conversation but some of the greatest changes in our lives start with a simple conversation. We also had to decide next to which postcard would we place it. I wrote ‘To bear witness in the local, regional, national and international…’ and placed it next to the small children. We gathered round the post-it notes on the boards to read what each of us had put.The process had made me dig deep and come up with stuff I didn’t know was there. More was going on here than I realised. Usually at events like these, my energy level drops for a time but, up to now,  it had stayed constant all the way through.

Food and fellowship

After another main filling of quorn mince pie, potatoes, veg and gravy, Pauline said to me, ‘You’re a lucky fellow. I’ve just seen the menu and your dream is about to come true.’ ‘Crumble for tea?’, I grew very excited in a quiet way inside, scarcely believing my luck. And so it turned out. Beautiful homemade apple crumble with lots of custard, masses of custard, jugs and jugs and jugs of thick, creamy luxurious custard. The custard kept coming. And the crumble…

What had seemed a smallish group, meeting together for the first time, on Friday evening had been swelled by the arrival of Denise from Southport and Sue and another Denise from St Helens. Due to time constraints, Allan asked me if I’d mind postponing my reading from QF&P till morning. We needed to crack on. I realised a few moments later that this would now take place during meeting for worship in the Great Hall…

We regathered in the Friends’ room in front of a blazing log fire for the evening’s entertainment. Alan started with a long poem by a retired Dean of Chester Cathedral and sometime attender at meeting for worship. Allan then read aloud one of Jonathon’s poems..about a spider, I think, a recurrent theme. Rachel next gave a short extract from another poem…I’m hoping friends will help me out here by filling in the gaps…I read part of Burnt Norton, the first of the Four Quartets by T S Elliot which told of ‘the Dance’. I also told a story, called ‘The Footwashing at Marlborough’, found in Sandra Cronk’s pamphlet, Gospel Order. Ed remarked on thepowerful image of the ‘heart of light’ and how it had new meaning for him. Allan offered his haiku, telling of a wedding occasion, which he descibed as a ‘blossoming’. Then, ‘the other’ Bernie launched us into a couple of ballads, John Ball and Sarah’s Song. His fingers blurred over the four-string, baritone ukelele. We were only warming up. Many more logs were laid on the fire as Alan and Penny led us on a carousing singsong from the Quaker songbook. My favourite was ‘Dona nobis pacem’, which reminded me of Julia and music group. The group gave everything up with gusto and relish to bellow out George Fox’s song in ‘leather breaches and his shaggy, shaggy locks.’ I couldn’t help wondering if there had been similar scenes of homespun entertainment in the Great Hall in front of the fire, just the other side of the doorway there? Festiviities and jovialities…simple things together give so much pleasure. May I offer you my own haiku..?

At the crackling of the hearth,                                                                                                    sleeps into my heart,                                                                                                                 faces smiling, held with love

I quickly did some washing up, a spiritual practice. Lights out at half-eleven, unthinkable! The alarm was set for 6.30am for more QiGong with the possibilty two more people…we’ll see, I said to myself, drifting off to sleep.

A robin on a wall, a raven up a tree

I slept soundly, waking up in need of a wee. I crept downstairs as quietly as I could. I knew Miriam was next door, so to flush or not to flush. Sorry, Miriam. Allan was downstairs in the Friends’ room, dressed for an arctic journey. We went outside onto the lawn at the front of the Hall. This time, we worked more quickly through the routines with fewer words needed. I noted again how strange it felt to hear the very words Diane used to show us coming out of my mouth, forming my voice. I even heard me say ‘tummy’.

A robin came to look at us with curiosity, perched on a stone wall. The raven was still up in the branches. And it was still very, very cold. We’d finished when I said, ‘let’s do Earth Breath One again but this time without any words.’ So, we repeated Earth Breath One silently, thoroughly. An ending is also a beginning. We smiled, shook hands and exchanged a manhug at the end. He went off for a shower before breakfast. I stayed awhile and did my tree thing, something I’d learned at Canterbury and finished with a silly but wonderful ‘standing like a tree’ song. Funny the things you can find yourself doing when you’re a Quaker…and then I set off again to the Post Office for the Sunday paper.

Everton had lost 2-1, away at Norwich, conceding two late goals, including a last minute winner, virtually ending any prospect of European football next season, according to the paper. But we’ll see, keep going till the end. You never know. And, anyway, I’ve learned that there’s always the next game. At breakfast, there was some discussion about the right holding of worship sharing. The conversation centred on whether to comment or have a conversation or not during it. QF&P and my own experience of doing it well and badly are quite clear on this. It’s not to comment. If we do, it ceases to be worship sharing. It may be something valuable but it doesn’t leave room for the spirit to work in and around us. It’s something else.

Into the Great Hall, we went to settle down for meeting for worship. I sat in another old wooden, carved seat with cushions, close to the convector heaters, facing the big table and fireplace. I noticed at the start of meeting that Margaret Fell’s chair was empty. Chris had sat down straight away in Fox’s chair. I counted my breathing. I was feeling a little nervous, finding centring down difficult. I was thinking of the reading I’d chosen the day before, actually many days ago without realising I would read it here. ‘Gather yourself, man’, I told myself and started to read…

(QF&P 19.12)   There is a spirit which I feel that delights to do no evil, nor to avenge any wrong, but delights to endure all things, in hope to enjoy its own in the end…If it be betrayed, it bears it, for its ground and spring is the mercies and forgiveness of God…James Naylor, 1659

He dictated these words on his deathbed. To me, it is a wonderful and troubling quote. Would Margaret and George have appreciated it? I think so.

Something caught my eye during meeting. The door leading to Judge Fell’s room was closed. I tried to ignore the urge to go and open it but was unable to second time round. ‘The door is closed shut, open it’, a quiet voice said. ‘It’s just a door and the room’s draughty’, I said. ‘Open it.’ So, I did, lifting the latch and leaving it ajar, so that Judge Fell and anyone else might join with us in worship.

I experienced a profound sense of security and warmth. We slipped into worship sharing after hearing the notices. At the end, I noticed Rachel had moved into Margaret Fell’s chair, saying it was much more comfortable  to sit in. I lingered as if to explore the Hall for myself one last time but found all the other rooms locked, of course.

When I got back to the Barn, Allan was giving us the answers to the Quaker quizzes about meeting houses and people. He presented the winning prize, a book about 1652 Country, to the other Alan. I’m usually hopeless at quizzes, so hadn’t entered. I was in good company. Only three of us had! But I don’t think any of us went away without a ‘prize’. I hope not anyway. There was a game in the Friends’ room, 1652 country. I had spent some time on the first evening trying to work out the rules until I realised there weren’t any for the simple reason that this is a game where there aren’t any winners or losers, just enquirers. And we’re all enquirers.

We ended with a sharing of our two postcards, chosen on the first night. I said I was a proud scouser, proud of my meeting. My energy levels had held up right the way through and I’d not fallen out with a single person, as far as I knew, which was unusual, even in my own head. Was that because of EFM and the changes it is working in me? Or could it be the peaceful atmosphere at Swarthmoor? I looked at my Superlambanana, a citizen of the world, a lamb of the World, and thought of the Lamb’s War, of bearing witness again. We don’t get beaten up for our faith anymore but it’s hard to share it, to let people know you’re a Quaker and talk about what it means to you. To bear witness could mean simply having a conversation on a train.

Pauline said something which moved me in our small group. She said that she felt she had been truly listened to over the weekend. That somehow felt deeply nurturing and important.

And what of the elephants? They were still connected, still ‘married’, a good sign. I felt a bond with everyone in the circle, a strengthening of the threads which hold us together in our AM. Ideas were flowing. Why not call a ‘flash gathering’ of friends at Wigan? What about holding a meeting on a theme where friends from other AMs come together? Actually, this does still happen but, removed from Quaker structures, General Meeting has become optional, left to meetings to arrange. I have been to a couple at Wilmslow in the past few years and it’s not that long ago that we held one in Liverpool, using recyclable rubbish to create works of art. Get out there! Visit one another. Travel. If all you ever see is your own LM, as wonderful as it may be, you are missing out on so much more.

Lunch was served, buffet style but I went and apologised to the staff. I simply could not eat another meal. The food is amazing but there is masses of it and it just keeps coming over the weekend. Jacket potatoes, quorn chilly and a strawberry fool for pudding. Ouch! This last one hurt but I had to pass. I felt I was physically swelling up from all the eating. I usually have chopped fruit on a Sunday lunchtime, a mindful, spiritual practice. Afterwards, I dashed off for the train back along the footpath but I’d gotten the train times wrong. I found I had a good hour and ten to wait. Practice. This became an opportunity to go into Ulverston to look around. I thought I might even try and find the church where Margaret and Judge Fell went to and where George Fox preached for the first time. I couldn’t find it. On the otherhand, it seemed to me that I had walked intoTobermory. So many of the houses were painted in bright colours.

From the far side of town, half way up the hill, I could see a steeple. This turned out to be almost next door to the station. From the look of it and the dates of the remaining headstones in the graveyard, it appeared early nineteenth century to me, too late to be the church I was looking for, althugh it could have been built on the same site. It would have to wait a further sleuthing visit. There wouldn’t be any church services here any longer. The church in front of me boasted a big sign outside, ‘Luxury 1/2 bedroomed apartments for sale.’ What would Fox say about that?

We jammed onto the train from Ulverston. At least I got a seat but it was next to the toilet. So, I wouldn’t see anything on the return journey on my right. Was this another spiritual practice? ‘Oh, well’, I thought, ‘I’ll just have to come here again’ and smiled.