Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Sealing Wax

Tad hated wearing his seatbelt. Its purpose never seemed to sink in for more than a few seconds. The people who ran the minibus had stuck four A4 sheets near his seat (the one on its own, at the back), all of them saying, in large Arial, "SEATBELTS MUST BE WORN AT ALL TIMES!". These were completely ineffectual, and he'd unbuckle himself as soon as he thought nobody was looking; if hindered in this, he might get slightly aggressive, and start jabbing at things with his stick. You were never sure whether he was genuinely forgetting, or was selectively doing so becuase he did, after all, forget everything else, and thought it might go unnoticed. He was ninety-eight, and these trips on the minibus were really the only occasions in any given week on which he left his house, despite his energy and general good health. He could probably have outrun you only a year or two ago, you thought. Certainly his dexterity with a safety buckle was extraordinary.

Ivy, who sat in the seat across, was less well; she was over ten years Tad's junior, but looked like a drawing of Silas Marner, giving "the same sort of impression as a handle or a crooked tube". She was tiny, hunched. Her favourite phrase was "bugger, bugger, bugger!", a catch-all expression of good-humoured but deeply-felt annoyance, usually at her body's inability to move at the speed of her mind.

Occasionally, with Tad, there would be a brief moment of clarity. You vividly remember, once, noticing him staring at Julie, who brought the Kenco and the PG Tips, for an oddly long time, and not at all vacantly. He had suddenly turned to you, saying, "she's a kindly soul, she is. Such an unmagnificent lady, but I don't altogether think it will matter."

On one occasion, the first morning you met him, he developed a sudden sprightliness of manner — oddly, posturing himself deliberately more decrepit-looking; more compact, stooped — and, twinkling, he leaned conspiratorially over, and said: The time has come, the Walrus said, to talk of many things...

Then he tailed off. He would, always, tail off. You realised, or were told, that this was something he did every day, often more than once. There would be a pause, and he would tell you where he first heard the poem. He was about ten — "no, nine", he'd say, "and ten months", slightly irritated — and his father had taken him and his family up to Landacre Bridge, on Exmoor, for a picnic. He told you the course of the river Barle, and described in detail the stonework around the five arches of this bridge. They had crossed the river and walked to Cow Castle, a large Iron Age fort on a steep hill. They'd clambered down the other side and swum in a pool; a stiller, wider part of the Barle — you can't remember its name now — and then had sat on the side. You later recalled, though you weren't quite sure why, Nell, struggling to remenisce about a springtime rowing trip to Lake Como, in Samuel Beckett's Endgame: "It was deep, deep. And you could see down to the bottom. So white. So clean."

Tad and his family had walked back over Cow's Castle, back to Landacre Bridge; and they had scraped the insides from reeds and rolled them into small off-white balls, or wrapped them round the thumb-tip and pulled them tightly, so that the seedheads flew off. They'd eaten sandwiches. And Tad's uncle, scouring the riverside for good skimmers, had looked up at him, saying: The time has come, the Walrus said, to talk of many things...

And then, Tad's whole face, from the chin to the scalp, and beyond, into his ears, would break into a bright, glowing smile, and he marked each weighted syllable with a bouncing index finger in the air, as he recited: ... of cabbages— and kings! ...

"No," after a pause, he'd say. "No, thats's not right. There's another bit. Something comes in between."

The first time you met him was the first time you'd heard the poem, so you couldn't help. But he could never remember what it was that came in between, however many times he told the story. Once people caught on, it became a great game, particularly for Ivy. He'd lean over and tap her on the shoulder. "What is it, Ivy?"

"Ooh, I don't know, Tad. It's all a bit higgledy-piggledy in here, now." And she tapped herself on the forehead, giving a knowing grin to somebody nearby. She could recite more than this line; you later discovered she had the entire poem committed to memory. "Is it clogs, is it? Something to do with dancing, or— or walking? Like a walking stick, or a pair of shoes."

Tad would clap his hands together, and keep them together, tilting his head toward her: "Shoes! To talk of many things. Of shoes... of shoes, and..."

Sometimes, he would remember ships on his own; sometimes it would take a further twenty minutes of steering and easing from Ivy. Twenty minutes, at the lower end, deliberately so. Ivy dragged it out as long as possible; she'd figured out that remembering this line, the one thing he could never do, was just about his favourite thing to try to do, even while he weakly feigned grumpiness about it. Sometimes he would be skirting near the word ships (or shoes, or sealing wax, depending on the day's progress); and sometimes, he would even suggest it and then discount it: it was somehow a blind spot, like the signs about the seatbelts, something he simply wouldn't or couldn't see.

You felt he was right about Julie having no magnificence to her. The fourth time you met him, he was telling the story again, this time to an old lady from Alcombe called Jean. You saw Julie roll her eyes, entirely affectionately, and without a hint of any real exasperation (this was reserved for the seatbelts; Julie had, as she often said, "done health and safety"); and when Tad reached the inevitable stumbling block in the story, she bumbled over. "Oh, come on love. You always remember in the end! You've told it so many times I know it myself now!". She plucked a piece of paper from her pocket, and wrote in biro, in block capitals:


"There. You keep that," she smiled.

Tad had thanked her, full of genuine delight as ever to have recalled the line, and she taped it up on the back of the seat in front of him, moving a notice slightly to the right to do so. Whether or not he'd have taken it in or not, or even noticed it at all, didn't really matter: within a few minutes he'd forgotten all about his story and was gambolling out of the bus; it had arrived at a layby near Dunkery Beacon, highest point on Exmoor, and it was time for morning tea or coffee. Tad had mumbled something about custard creams.

Ivy mumbled something to the contrary, also about custard creams. She frowned, pursed her lips, took down Julie's note as delicately as she could, and put it, screwed up, into her pocket.

1. Landacre Bridge, photograph by Catherine W. Barnes, in
Snell, F. J., The Blackmore Country (London: Adam and Charles Black, 1911);
2. Cow Castle, photograph by Keith Stuart;
3. North Hill, Minehead beach, and Blue Anchor Bay, seen from near Dunkery Beacon