Sunday, May 10, 2015

ELITE ENCOUNTERS

I can’t claim to have spent a lifetime hobnobbing with the rich and famous, but I have run into a few celebrities along the way. The oddest thing about the first of these notables, the Nicholsons, was that though I spent some pleasant afternoons with them as a boy of ten, I never realized who and what they were. And, of course, I couldn’t possibly have known how public their lives would later become.

They lived in an elegant house called Sissinghurst Castle, which is now famous for having one of the most beautiful private gardens in the British Isles. I knew that, under the name of Vita Sackville-West, Mrs. Nicholson wrote the gardening column in the London Sunday Times, but had no idea what her husband did for a living. From their life-style it was certainly clear that, as their gardeners on the estate might have put it, they “weren’t wanting for a few quid.”

Mrs. Nicholson looked just what she was, a wealthy woman whose passion – well, it was the only one we knew of at the time – was evident in the flowers printed or embroidered on her expensive, voluminous dresses. Had we guessed, we might have supposed Mr. Nicholson to be an eminent surgeon, or maybe a judge.

The Nicholsons used to invite boys from our boarding school to join them and their house-guests for tea on Sunday afternoons. We thought these were sumptuous affairs. In the summer we’d gather on their flagstoned terrace, overhung with climbing roses and wisteria. In winter we’d sit in their cavernous drawing room behind drawn damask curtains, warmed by crackling apple and cherry wood logs in a baronial fireplace. Tea would begin with dainty anchovy paste or egg sandwiches, from which the crusts had been pared. Then there’d be tiered cake-stands loaded with rock buns and little sugared cakes in bright pastel colors, decorated on top with candied peel and angelica. Finally, while Mrs. Nicholson herself poured the tea from a big Chinese teapot, a maid in a lace cap and apron cut and served slices from cakes. There was seed cake, madeira cake, and fruit cake as heavy as lead with currants, sultanas and raisins. In a time of wartime shortages and strict rationing -- in 1941 -- this was a schoolboy’s dream.

It was some years afterward that Mr. Nicholson was dubbed Sir Harold Nicholson, for his services to literature, as an eminent biographer, and a member of the literary circle known as the Bloomsbury Group. Decades later came the public revelation of the fact that Vita was the long-time lover of Virginia Woolf, and that it was she who inspired Woolf’s book Orlando. Virginia wrote of the affair in her letters and diaries published in the 70s and 80s. Was Virginia among the guests at those long ago tea parties? For it was some time in that year that, after finishing her book Between the Acts, she drowned herself in the river Ouse in Sussex, our neighboring county. I suppose I’ll never know.



And then there was ‘Tom.’ I was in my late-twenties and newly married when my in-laws took me and my wife to a cocktail party a few minutes’ walk from their own posh Kensington flat. The host was the Keeper of The Privy Purse, who can best be described as the man who doles out the Queen’s pocket money. His drawing room was abuzz with distinguished people. There were members of Parliament and the House of Lords, who’d made the fairly short taxi-ride from Westminster for a few pink gins before sneaking back to vote on the day’s motions. Their wives and other women guests, freshly coiffed and manicured, looked as though they lived permanently in glass cases. Even their immaculate, diffident children seemed already convinced that it was better to be seen than heard.

At one point during the party, Bess, my mother-in-law, took me by the elbow, and steered me through the noisy throng. “You really must meet Tom,” she said. “You’ll find him fascinating.” Tom turned out to be a tallish man with straight black hair parted in the middle. He had what I, who couldn’t at that point have pointed accurately to a single U.S. city on a map, thought was the accent of a well-bred American such as, let’s say, the late, loved Alistair Cooke, who sounded to us in his BBC broadcasts a little more American than British.

I didn’t find ‘Tom’ fascinating. He looked like a senior civil servant, and spoke precisely in a quiet voice, but everyone around him seemed to be riveted, and craned to hear him above the babble in the room. I don’t remember the topic of conversation, but it was probably something un-enthralling, such as Britain’s new M1 motorway, or the latest pictures from Luna 3, showing the dark side of the moon -- none of the things that absorbed me at the time, books, music and poetry. He seemed lackluster, even boring, whoever he was.

A minute or so later, Bess appeared beside me, and even she seemed in awe of this dreary man.

“Who is he?” I whispered.

“Oh,” she said, “didn’t I tell you? It’s T.S. Eliot.”



Somewhere between that brief encounter with Eliot and the much earlier meetings with the Nicholsons, I was freshly commissioned into the South Staffordshire Regiment in Northern Ireland when the colonel summoned me to his office.

“John,” he said, “I’ve got an interesting job for you. As you know, the Duke of Gloucester’s coming to present us with regimental colors (ceremonial flags) in a couple of weeks, and I want you to be his supernumerary ADC.”

I thanked my CO with a mix of awe and delight for what he clearly thought to be an honor. ADC’s are aides-de-camp who, for a year or two, act as secretary cum general factotum or gofer for a high-ranking royal or military figure. No special qualifications are necessary for this impressive-sounding job, which is most often to do with making sure that their man’s staff car arrives and departs at exactly the right time, or dashing out to a store because the field-marshal or general has forgotten to buy his wife a birthday present. Sometimes one of the duties might be looking after his dog, or horses, or both.

For me this was a short-term post while the Duke was visiting Belfast, which was just as well, because it turned out to be a dull, even stultifying assignment. His Royal Highness was a heavy, Teutonic man, as was most every monarch and prince in the House of Hanover back to King George I. He revealed little sense of humor, and rarely spoke to anybody, even to the Duchess, his charming, graceful wife.

For most of the time the Duke looked out the window, read newspapers and drank alarming amounts of single malt Scotch whiskey, and my most critical function was making sure there was always a bottle of Glenmorangie near at hand.

But the actual parade and ceremony were an experience of a lifetime for any young officer. The colors were two finely embroidered silken banners on gold staffs, one with the Union Jack, and the other with the names of battles and victories in which our regiment had fought. They replaced standards that have since hung for more than sixty years over the nave of Lichfield Cathedral in Staffordshire, beside their faded predecessors, which date back to 1760, when the regiment was founded.

One night, after dinner, one of the Duke’s entourage asked me to take a staff car to the railroad station in Belfast to meet the Countess of Antrim, who was coming by train to attend the ceremony. Standing on the platform that night I conjured up an image of the countess in my mind’s eye. Maybe she’d be like Marlene Dietrich, or even Ava Gardner, in an alluring costume, with a poodle on a long leash, smoking a cigarette in a long ivory holder. But the countess turned out to be more like my Auntie Kate. She was a little stout, and dressed in powder blue from her fussy hat to her flat sensible shoes that looked for all the world like bedroom slippers. And she was crying as she shuffled along the platform.

The old lady was inconsolable. It turned out that, while waiting at Antrim station for the train to Belfast, she’d been chatting with her chauffeur, and had boarded the train leaving ‘some very important things’ in a paper shopping bag under the bench on the platform. And she was desperate to get them back.

Nobody answered my hasty telephone call to the station in Antrim. The last train had left, and the stationmaster had gone home to bed. There was nothing for it but to drive there. We sat together in the back of the staff car and, as we careered through a moonlit landscape of peat bogs and stony villages, the countess, encouraged by the expectation of recovering her important things, became quite animated and cheerful. She told me that her castle was soon to have electricity installed, and that tomorrow, before the parade, she planned a shopping spree to buy lamps in a Belfast department store.

The station was, indeed, closed for the night, but I managed to scramble over the iron fence, and there, in the moonlight under a bench, was the paper shopping bag on which were printed the words ‘Finnnigan’s Fine Fish.’

Waiting in the car, the Countess of Antrim chuckled with pleasure as I passed the bag through the open car window. As we drove home she happily assembled the bag’s contents on her lap. In it were jewels such as I’ve never seen outside the Tower of London, including a sapphire and diamond tiara, a pearl necklace and the biggest brooch I ever saw, twinkling with gems. “You’re a dear boy,” she said, “A dear, dear boy.” And she gave my knee a motherly pat.

Until she died quite a few years later, wherever the regiment was in the world, she sent me a card at Christmas, care of my regimental depot.

I’ll bet Ava Gardner wouldn’t have done that.

ooOoo






Saturday, April 4, 2015

. . . NOT FOR SISSIES

     You may have read this piece before, but bear with me. I published it a few years ago but, I’m 84th this month, and somehow that makes it even more poignant.        

I’m an average-looking old guy of medium height, with all my own hair and pretty well all my teeth. You wouldn’t look at me twice at me in the street, and if you needed to ask a passer-by for directions, you surely wouldn’t pick me. No, you’d pick someone who looked more approachable and genial, or more user-friendly, as they say these days.
     It’s not that I look menacing or anything. It’s just that, with my face in repose, advancing age – okay, let’s be honest, advanced age -- has given me a decidedly stern and somber look. In fact, you might take me for a curmudgeon. My mouth turns down and, with the lines on my face, you might reasonably suppose me to be bad-tempered and humorless, even sour.
     Of course, the exact opposite is true, I’m kind to babies and small children, I brake for squirrels, and feel guilty when I have to kill even a moth or an ant. I certainly wouldn’t harm a mouse or a muskrat, so you might well say I’m a have-a-heart kind of person. And when it comes to humor I can be almost funny on occasions. Well, at least amusing.
     They say that growing old’s not for sissies. They’re right. This gruff exterior makes me sad and wistful. I know you only have my word for it but once, as a soldier, a bridegroom, a soccer dad, and even on the first rungs up the corporate ladder (something by which we foolishly tend to measure success and failure) I was – I blush to say this – pretty good looking. What happened to that dashing young captain who sits in a silver photo-frame on my wife’s writing desk?
     Time happened, that’s what. Okay, we all change with age, but in varying degrees. A lot of friends who are older than I (yes, there are still some) have nice, open faces and pleasant smiles. So why don’t I?
     My wonderful wife, Lynn, normally a paragon of kindness, jokes about my glum appearance. She laughs aloud at the pictures in my passport and driver’s license.
     “Why didn’t you smile?” she says. “I was smiling,” I tell her.
     I really was. Inside me, I could feel that cheery upturned mouth and the warm twinkle in the eye but, somehow, when the pictures came out, all that was missing was a prison uniform, or a string of numbers hanging on a board around my neck.
My late mother-in-law, a lovely old lady with a Giaconda smile and handsome dark eyes, was a fountain of wise saws and sayings. One of these was that the living’s on the inside. By that she meant that many plain pug-ugly or unprepossessing people, and inanimate things, too, are often beautiful on the inside. She applied this especially to homes in mean, run-down streets, and to homely people, but the message was clear: never take anything at face value; instead, search for the beauty within.
     She was right, wasn’t she? All the same, we still go on making judgments based on external appearances. More than in most countries, we Americans put an impossibly high premium on good looks. Not so elsewhere. In my native Britain, and elsewhere in Europe, many relatively plain men and women have made it right to the top on stage and screen. They wouldn’t even have landed a walk-on part on Broadway, or in Hollywood.
Don’t laugh, but behind my fossil-like façade I still believe that, physically and mentally, I’m that young man in the silver picture frame. My wife and I  published a novel a few years ago, a thriller set in exotic South East Asia. Mark Gregson, the hero (they call heroes protagonists these days), is a young ex-Army officer. In my head and heart I’m still thirty-two year old Gregson, chasing heroin traffickers through the jungle; racing up three hundred steps in pursuit of thugs; saving his lovely girlfriend from drowning and, in the nick of time, disarming a booby trap under the hood of his hired car. The flesh may well be a little weaker, but the spirit’s still willing and, yes, the living really is on the inside.
     King Duncan, in Shakespeare’s Macbeth knew just what he was on about when he said: “There’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face.”
So if you’re in your thirties, or even much older than that, kindly remember this when you pass some old geezer in the street.
Go on, smile at him, it might be me.

oo0oo






Saturday, March 14, 2015

BANANA SPLIT

There was something almost ritual and ceremonial about it all, and even though there were fewer than two hundred of us, it seemed like some kind of re-enactment of the biblical Feeding of the Five Thousand.


But I'm getting ahead of myself, so let's start at the beginning. The year was 1942, and Britain was in the third year of World War II. The place was Cranbrook School in Southeast England, and I was eleven years old.


The most frequent topic of conversation at the school during those dark days -- and especially during our dull school meals -- was food. We were, well , consumed by it! Later on, of course, the subject changed to girls, but we hadn’t discovered them yet in our non-co-ed school. We talked wistfully about food because it was severely rationed. Nazi U-boats and battleships were attacking and sinking our merchant ships bringing food from countries in the British Empire. They destroyed an incredible 3000 cargo ships during the war. Besides this, during the enemy occupation of Europe, we were deprived of food or anything else from other countries.


What we missed most were commonplace things that we'd blithely taken for granted before the War, but were now in short supply, such as cheese, sugar, eggs and chocolate. Then there were all the fruits that don’t grow in Britain’s sun-deprived climate: oranges, lemons, tangerines, pineapples, dates, figs and, missed most of all, bananas. We hadn't seen or tasted a banana for nearly three years. We yearned for banana fritters, sherry trifle with bananas on top, bananas and cream, banana sandwiches in the carefree days when you could simply pick up a banana, peel it and chomp on it.


Then, out of nowhere, a boy called Lou Taylor came into our lives and, just once during the six years of the War, enabled us to savor the taste of bananas – and in the oddest circumstances.


Lou Taylor was a shy, gangling, floppy-haired beanpole of a kid in my class, the son of an American diplomat. We took to him at once, but mimicked him mercilessly, and nicknamed him Long Island Lou. Unlike the rest of us, he often received parcels from his grandparents, aunts and uncles in America, and I have to admit that he owed a part of his popularity to the fact that he always shared these goodies with us. For the first time we discovered such trans-Atlantic wonders as Twinkies, Hershey bars, Oreos, bubble gum, Pepsi and Coke.


One morning, a Studebaker with Diplomatic Corps insignia drew up outside the headmaster's elegant Queen Anne house, into which a chauffeur carried a big cardboard box. Lunch was nearly over a few hours later in the big dining-hall, when two kitchen maids brought in an armful of bananas, and set them on the table in front of Dr. C. Russell Scott, the headmaster and his wife. Immediately, Mrs.Scott – known to us all because of her bird-like appearance as The Crow – began to peel them and heap them around a chopping board that was by now on the table in front of her husband.


What was going on here? Scott rose to his feet and, grasping his coat lapels with both hands (a habit that had always made him easy to imitate) announced that the bananas had been sent by Lou Taylor's parents, who’d suggested they be shared with all the boys in Lou’s house. However, the headmaster told us, Lou had generously suggested that this rare, unobtainable fruit be divided not only among the sixty or so boys in his house, but with all of the school's nearly two hundred boarders.


While everyone watched, intrigued, Scott and The Crow began slicing up the bananas into pieces about one inch thick and, in a few minutes, bowls of these were passed around the tables. The headmaster, his wife and the staff at the top table seemed to have made a generous and selfless gesture, because none of them partook of this divine dessert.


It's surprising how long you can take to eat a one-inch slice of banana when you put your mind to it. Some of the boys sliced each little portion into four or five smaller slivers, while others chopped off tiny pieces with a teaspoon. A few less impressionable boys gobbled down their share in a single mouthful.


When we'd all finished, the headmaster led a round of applause for Lou, who shrank, blushing in his seat.


Anyone hearing this story about 70 years later must think it weird that so many people of any age would share so small a collection of bananas in such an earnest and solemn way, as though receiving some sacrament. But in wartime even the most everyday thing becomes a luxury. We’d all grown a little obsessive and fixated about our long lost pleasures.


Look at it this way – what little daily luxuries do you enjoy most? Coffee, perhaps, or cognac, chocolate chip cookies, champagne, caviar or Camembert? Now, whatever it is, imagine you’ve been deprived of it for three whole years, and have absolutely no idea when or whether you’ll ever see it again. Then you’ll begin to fathom what that nostalgic ritual was all about.






ooo0ooo


Wednesday, February 4, 2015

LAZY SAINT

Lazy Saint

1860 was a vintage year. Abraham Lincoln was elected president, and Annie Oakley was born. In Europe the year marked the birth of Chekhov and Mahler, and Britain’s launch of HMS Warrior, the first iron battleship. A far less celebrated person was also born that year in England. She was Mabel Harris, my grandmother who, though she may not have made it up there among those notables, would rate a few pages in anyone’s family history.
Besides being a devoted mother, Mabel – everyone called her May -- was a painter, author, musician and a bit of a mystic. She was deeply religious, with a devotion to which only converts to Catholicism can aspire. Many people said she was a saint but, when I was about eight, I looked her up in Volume I of Butler’s Lives of the Saints, and was disappointed not to find her there.
As a young woman, May was a startling beauty -- part Wagnerian diva and part Pre-Raphaelite artist’s model -- tall, with wavy, braided brown hair and an hourglass waist. So it wasn’t surprising that John Harris, a mustachioed realtor, fell deeply in love with her and, in her 30s -- late in life for those days – married her and presented her with seven children in just over ten years: Margaret, John, Eleanor, Isabel, Katherine, Andrew, and my mother, Peace.
But the marriage wasn’t to last for long. John Harris, who had a lifelong passion for port wine and pretty women, vanished one night around 1905, leaving May the house they lived in, but no money and no income. Shortly after her husband’s disappearance, Andrew, who had been born stone deaf, was killed in the street by a runaway horse. A year later, Eleanor was crippled by polio.
May was distraught with concern for her family. To feed them and pay the doctor’s bills, she sold the large house in a prosperous section of the beautiful city of Winchester, and the family moved to a smaller, less expensive one near the North Foreland lighthouse outside Broadstairs, a little seaside town overlooking the English Channel. This move realized enough money to cover the necessities of life, but there were seven children to feed and educate. May’s father-in-law, who was fond of her and the children, came to the rescue. Ashamed of what his son had done, he not only provided financial security for May for the rest of her long life, but also put his many grandchildren through private schools.
There’s an intriguing legend about May’s conversion to Catholicism. Late one winter afternoon, she was playing the organ, alone, at Minster Abbey, a remote, marshy place on the Thames Estuary, where a monastery was founded in the 7th Century. She looked up and saw a monk in a shadowy gallery overlooking the choir stalls. He was beckoning to her, but though she searched for a door or staircase, there seemed no way up to the gallery. A few days later she met Minster’s Abbot, and told him the story.  He shook his head. There was no way up to that gallery, he said, because it had been closed-up for more than three hundred years.
The result of this phantom summons was that May, an Anglican, very soon became a Catholic. Perhaps buoyed by her new faith, and by the unexpected generosity of her father-in-law, she experienced an upsurge of creativity in her middle age. She took up painting, producing pious Renaissance-style pictures, and sometimes huge flower-pieces as much as six feet wide. One of these, I remember had a none-too-well-disguised patch in one corner after her son, John, had poked some sharp-edged object through the canvas in a fit of temper.
In the 1920s, in her early sixties, May wrote and self-published a novella, First Line of Defence, a 17,000 word story about a woman widowed during World War I. The little book, dedicated to her parish priest, has vivid scenes of air raids by Zeppelins over the town of Broadstairs. Her scenes in the communal air raid shelters deep in the town’s chalk cliffs, are grippingly realistic and evocative, though the story is almost painfully devout.
May was 71 when I was born. I never remember her wearing anything other than black. A call on her was not so much a visit as an audience. When we met, she was nearly always propped up on pillows, dressed in her day clothes on her big bed upstairs. She spent a great deal of time there, and it would have to be said that, if she were indeed a saint, she was a somewhat lazy one. Outside, through the windows, lay the cliffs and, beyond them, the sea, and the room seemed to me like some holy reliquary. There was a large black crucifix over the bed, and statues were everywhere: the Blessed Virgin, Saint Francis of Assisi, Saint Anthony, Saint Theresa, and others. Rosaries dangled from both bedposts on hand for instant use.
Sometimes she’d descend and entertain us on the piano in her elegant Victorian drawing room. Her favorites were the Three B’s – Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, though sometimes she’d tackle short virtuoso pieces by Chopin and Lizst.
I never heard my grandmother raise her voice. My aunts told me that, when they were teenagers, and the Zeppelins came over the Channel in the First World War, they’d all run to her for comfort as the bombs fell and the shrapnel clattered on the roof of the house. Unflappable, and exuding calm, she’d smile and say soothingly “It’ll pass, dears. It’ll pass.”
The only occasion on which anyone recalled May losing her temper was when her children found hefty crates of Belgian chocolate washed onto the beach from a torpedoed tramp steamer. They arrived at her door, grinning with chocolate-smeared faces, proudly presenting their loads of foil-wrapped chocolate bars. But their mother, who feared the chocolate might have been deliberately poisoned and floated ashore by the Germans, flew into a rage and chided them for their lack of caution.  
May Harris died in her sleep in the spring of 1946. She was 86. Peace Birch -- née Harris -- my long-widowed widowed mother, died in Broadstairs forty years later at much the same age. I’ve never returned to the town, where Charles Dickens wrote David Copperfield, and where the mansion that inspired Bleak House broods on the cliff tops. Nor have I ever seen a ghost, but it would neither surprise nor frighten me if, along the narrow path near her house, I were to meet that lazy saint, rosary in hand, on her way to Mass.

                                 oo0oo






Saturday, January 3, 2015

Mr. SPARKS

In England in 1942, when I was eleven and my brother David was almost fifteen, we lived in a house on a hill in the county of Kent. The hill, Stockers Hill was a steep, woody,  curving road that led out of a valley of apple orchards and vegetable fields to Rodmersham, with its neatly mowed village green, its towering, white clapper-boarded windmill, and a circle of trim cottages with diamond-paned windows that seemed to peer out myopically from under thatched eaves.
Half way up the hill,  just before its steepest point, and across the road from our garden gate, there was an oak park bench in an alcove scooped out of a chalky bank, where pedestrians trudging up to the village could sit and recover their breath before laboring to the top.
A high hawthorn hedge, maybe seven or eight feet high, hid the bench from our house, so that any occupants could only be spied from one place, David’s bedroom window. They must have thought themselves invisible, for it was from that window, through slightly parted curtains, that my brother and I once stood speechless while we witnessed the true facts of life, athletically demonstrated on a hot August afternoon by a uniformed American airman and a local girl.
But there was another, more frequent occupant of that bench, an old man whose ancient hairy face is engraved even more vividly in my memory than those of passing lovers. We heard him before we ever saw him, and for a day of two knew him only by his high-pitched, phlegmy cough. My parents listened, sitting in deck-chairs on the lawn, and my mother, looking up from her book, murmured, “There’s a heavy smoker for you!”  But my father, who’d fought and been wounded in the trenches in World War I, said, “No, that’s a war gas victim if ever I heard one.”
On those first few days we listened to the stranger’s cough as he rose from the bench and struggled on up the hill, the sound fading into the trees as he rounded the bend. Then, one day, we heard him through the hawthorn hedge and, slipping upstairs, David and I stared out through the open bedroom window. Lounging on the bench, with his long legs stretched out, and his feet on the curb, a very old man in patched, ragged clothes leaned back with his bearded face turned up to the sun.
And then we saw my mother open the garden gate. What was she going to say to this old man? She walked across the road to where the stranger lolled in the sunshine. His eyes were shut; he might even have been asleep.
“Would you like a cup of tea?” my mother asked.
Evidently, he wasn’t asleep. His face lit up, and he eased himself painfully into an upright position.
“That’d be ever so nice, Mum,” he said. “Thank you kindly.”
It’s not unusual for British people to offer boiling hot tea on a summer’s day, even one as sweltering as that August afternoon. In, fact, there’s a widely held belief that it actually cools you down.  Back in the house, Mother put the kettle on the hob, and rummaged in the back of a closet to find a large, one-of-a-kind china teacup and saucer. On a plate that didn’t even closely match the cup she put several raisin cookies, a small jug of milk, and a few cubes of sugar.
My mother carried a tray to the old man on his bench who, rising, walked a pace or two to meet us.
“That’s proper kind of ya’, Mum,” he wheezed and, taking the tray, he put it on the ground in front of him.
She stood looking at him, which seemed not to disturb him at all.
“Where do you live?” my mother asked.
He didn’t answer her for a while, but leaned down to the tray at his feet with some difficulty, poured some milk into the tea, and stirred in four lumps of sugar. Then he leaned back on his bench, raised the cup to us as though making a silent toast, and took a sip.
The old man beamed. “Now that’s what I call a nice cup of tea.”
He put the cup down on the bench beside him. “I haven’t got no home, really, Mum,” he said. “I’m what they call ‘on the road,’ see? But in the summer time I ‘ave a place I go on the other side of Rodmersham.”
Later, we pondered on where he might take shelter in the winter time, when icy North Easters from Scandinavia swept over the flat, bare counties of Suffolk and Essex and across the wide River Medway a mile or two away. Nor did we know where he went down the hill every morning. And it was a while before we discovered where his ‘place’ was on the other side of the village.
One day soon after we met him, I asked the old man his name.
“Sparks, sonny,” he said, “Why don’t you just call me Mr. Sparks.”
“And how old are you, Mr. Sparks?” my brother asked, unaware that it was impolite to ask this of a perfect stranger.
The old man’s pale blue eyes twinkled. “Now that, young man,” he said with a little chuckle, “would be tellin’.”  
Mr. Sparks became a regular part of our lives. Every day, before he continued up the hill, he carried his tea tray back across the road and laid it on the ground by the garden gate, and we always heard his loud coughing through the hedge when he came back the next afternoon. My father, normally the kindest man, even wondered aloud one day whether some of Mr. Sparks’s coughing wasn’t a subtle way of saying, “Listen, here I am, ready for my cup of tea.”
August passed, and we slipped into a long Indian summer, with cool September mornings and sultry afternoons that lasted into early October. Every afternoon, Mr. Sparks passed by for his cup of tea, and we grew to know him a little better. David and I would sit on either side of him on his bench, listening to the old man’s adventures. We heard tales, in his high, piping voice, of the Zulus and pigmies in South Africa, and the giant Hausa warriors on the river Niger in West Africa. There were horrible accounts of maggots in sea biscuits aboard the troop ships to India, and the agonies of frost bite at the Battle of Balaklava, during the Crimean War. Once we asked him whether he had ever married, or had children, but about this he was vague and evasive.
The first frosts came in October and then, one chilly November afternoon, Mr. Sparks’s bench was empty. A week passed, and another, but still he didn’t come. Should we notify someone and, if so, whom? After all, he’d admitted he was ‘on the road,’ which was a kinder, more friendly way of saying he was a tramp, or vagrant.  Mother suggested he’d moved south to the Sussex or Hampshire coast, where the winters are a little milder.
It was nearly Christmas when we learned more about him. There was early snow in the garden outside, and my father was reading the local paper. At the bottom of a page there was an item that ran for no more than one inch,  telling how Ronald Sparks, aged about 80 years, a former corporal in the Royal Fusiliers, had been found dead after sleeping in the warmth of a lime kiln outside the village of Rodmersham. He was, the coroner said, asphyxiated by carbon dioxide gas that hung over the kilns on cold nights. The cause of death, the report said, was ‘not uncommon.’
Lately, now in the 80s myself, I’ve been thinking about Mr. Sparks and his stories about army life. Could he really have fought in the Crimean War? It took no time with an encyclopedia, many decades before Google,  to find that the war ended in 1856. Even if he’d been a drummer boy at that time, he’d have been more than a hundred years old on that cold December night in 1942. 
So it wasn’t true. It saddens me that I doubted that grand old soldier.
I wish I’d never looked it up.