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.