I had a friend who lost most of her sight in her seventies. She was an eminent member of the Church of England and the Mothers’ Union. She was High Church and a traditionalist. She was a ferocious observer of upper class customs. She always said ‘luncheon’, never ‘lunch’. At the same time she was hugely unconventional and many a lost soul and sometimes a lonely homosexual man found safety under her roof. Many of her contemporaries ended their careers with high civil honours. Not my friend. It think it sometimes irked her. But she stuck to her guns. Perhaps I should say pistols. I described her in a family obituary once as always shooting from the hip, verbally. So she did. She was fun.
When her sight went I used to go and read to her once a week: ‘TheTimes’ and – when they arrived every quarter – the interminable proceedings and minutes of the General Synod of the Church of England. She seemed always to be in a state of conflict with that body – always with the crisp diction of the old Tory party at prayer. She always presented me with a packet of 20 of her Rothman’s cigarettes to help the reading along.
She had met her husband as a teenager during the first world war and he died not long before I began my reading sessions with her. She often spoke of him. On a shelf by her kitchen door there were several empty two ounce Three Nuns tobacco tins. I had often passed the time of day with him as he smoked his pipe and surveyed the day in his front garden. When he died people said of him that he had truly walked with God.
She treasured memories of him and sometimes would share them with me, right back to her teenage years while the 1914-18 war raged, when he was a young officer.
She once said to me that she thought she had not achieved much in her life. The paper record proves otherwise. What went on in her heart and in the life of her family, and in her marriage was, I believe, a treasure which for a moment in her old age and blindness escaped her. But only briefly, I trust.
I mention this because I saw her in my mind today as a young girl during the first world war. Her memories were as alive to her as her life approached its end as are mine as I look back nearly sixty years. Our experience is not linear. What was real and what was true then remain so now.