Here's a short version of a piece I wrote years ago about an outing I took with my grandmother over twenty years ago. I performed it last October at the Portsmouth (NH) Literary Festival in this version.
I absolutely loved this story. I could actually hear the accent as I read. I am very sensitive about stories that contain the elderly. I don't think we take nearly as good of care of them as we should. And I so hope before my own father dies I can write his story as a narrative. He is 87 now so I better get moving.
Thanks so much for sharing that, you've given me a little more nerve to post something :)
Thanks so much for your response. I'm very glad you liked the story. I am a pretty tentative and bashful writer myself, despite receiving lots of encouragement from friends whenever I do write something and share it in public. In fact, I haven't really thought of myself as a writer - that's one of the things that this site of Barry's challenges in me. To stop being the reluctant writer! I'm changing my self-image. Your words help. I hope you'll do the same.
I agree that we don't take good enough care of the elderly. We pretty much put them on the shelf out of sight. In England, the elderly are much more a part of everyday life and I miss that about living here. (Of course, I could do something about it and actually make an effort.) I think we would benefit greatly if we lived in a more heterogenous society - in New Hampshire where I live there are few African Americans or people from other cultures, for instance - where we rubbed shoulders with lots of different people. I definitely count the elderly in that. Our elders have a lot to teach us.
Back in the summer of 1987, my grandmother asked me if I'd go on an excursion with her.
I love that word "excursion," don’t you? It’s not a word you often hear these days, is it? But when I was growing up, British Rail used to call their special train trips excursions: "Day excursion to the Isle of Wight, £2.50 return!" It conjured up the prospect of outings to faraway places at bargain prices. Who could resist, eh?
My Nan, as we called her, was 80 at the time and lived in elderly housing. The Warden of the house – I know, it makes it sound like a prison, doesn’t it? - had arranged a trip on the Watercress Line, a little piece of railway history, an old steam train that runs the 10 miles of track between the towns of Alresford and Alton in Hampshire, which is where I'm from in England. On the way back the bus would stop for a cream tea at the Queen's Hotel in the idyllic village of Selborne, once the residence of the 18th century naturalist Gilbert White, the author of The Natural History of Selborne . You’ve probably never heard of it, but it’s reputed to be the fourth most published book in the English language, running to well over a hundred editions.
Not many people know that, you know?
Well, anyway, I owed Nan. I mean, for years she’d been slipping me these envelopes with a few hundred pounds stuffed inside to help defray the cost of my flights home. I figured it was the least I could do. In any case, I’d never been on the Watercress Line.
So there I am sitting on the bus with Nan and 43 other elderly passengers, the majority of them women. And the Warden, she's there, Mavis Ullah her name is. Mavis Ullah? I ask Nan. “Yes, she’s from ‘up north,’ married to a coloured man. That's why she's got that funny name.”
Anyway, there she is, Mavis, at the front of the bus, her hands full herding the passengers on board, making sure everyone's present and accounted for. “Nooo, we’ve never had a bad day yet, touch wood. When I book the trip, I book the weather as well, oooh yes.” “Coom on, Maisie, step on it or we’ll never get started, will we? Alright, Edith? Are you looking forward to your little outing today?”
The passengers are fussing over this and that, worrying about where Mrs. Woolston is. “Have you seen her this morning? She is coming, isn't she?” “Yes, I think she is.” “Well, she better get a move on, then, ain't she?” “Has Elsie brought her Old Age Pensioner's card, 'cos she'll need it at the railway station, won't she? Yes, she will.”
Some of them are having trouble getting seated on account of the narrowness of the space between the seats. "Ooh, I've got too much on me now to fit into these seats, haven't I, dear?” "These old bones don’t bend like they used to.” “Just old folks now, in't we, eh? No use for us." I wonder if I’m the cause for this public avowal of infirmity. After all, I’m an unknown quantity, someone who probably makes them feel self-conscious. I can feel myself sinking into a familiar gloominess.
I stare out the window. We haven't even left the parking lot yet and I'm already clenching my teeth and straining inside. Jesus, how am I going to put up with a whole bloody afternoon of this?!
I remember the bus trips I used to take with my Nan on summer Sunday evenings when I was a teenager. "It's a mystery tour, Rol!"
Ah, those mystery tours! "Ooh, you don't know where you're going, it's a secret! It's very nice. You go for a little jaunt in the country, have a bit of a gander at the fields on the way, and then a sandwich and a shandy when you get there. Come on!"
I don't know why I always said yes. I mean, it wasn't much of a secret. If you left town on the A272 it was Winchester, if on the A3 it was Petworth. No mystery at all. But maybe I thought this time would be different – there’d be a little bit of excitement, something out of the ordinary, maybe a young girl on the bus I could chat up. Never happened, mind. I always ended up feeling lonely and out of place, the only young person on a coach full of wrinklies.
So, anyway, there I am on the bus, feeling this all come back, dreading the afternoon, when Nan turns to me and says, for what may be the umpteenth time, “It’s a pity Ralph didn’t come with us, innit?” Ralph. My youngest brother. “He’d have liked this, wouldn’t he?” Actually, I think to myself, no, he wouldn’t, Nan, he’d have bloody hated it. It’s so square, so bloody…English.
But then I catch myself. Well, yes, but that’s just it, isn’t it? That’s exactly the point. It’s so…English. You’ve been out of the country living in America for over ten years now, away from home, and you crave this contact, don’t you? You know you do.
On the Watercress Line Nan is sitting next to me. Opposite us are Mrs. Woolston – yes, she made it, after all - and Mrs. Castle, and then across the aisle there's Jim and Ida Marsh, who I mistake for my godparents, who I haven’t spoken to since I was a child, but later I find out it’s not Jim and Ida, but Jack and Ivy Marsh who are my godparents. Well, crikey, who knew, eh? Jim and Ida, Jack and Ivy?? Make it difficult, why don’t you? Across from them are Mrs. Kimball, and Dixie, who provides us with the running commentary.
She tells us she had a friend who worked on the railway for 38 years, 38 years, mind. She tells me she's American herself, born in Indianapolis, Indiana, but ooh, that was years ago now, she's been in England since the Second World War. She has no trace of an accent. Her daughter keeps telling her she should go visit the States again, "but ooh no, I can't do that, can I? Wherever would I get the money?" We pass another train on a siding. "That's classy, that is," she says. "You gotta be a millionaire to be on that one, ent you, eh, a millionaire?" She tells us how her grandson told her how you get twins: "Buy one, get one free, Nan." "Oooh, you never know what he's going to come out with next. Aren't kids clever these days, eh?"
We chug slowly through Ropley and Four Marks stations, near Chawton and Jane Austen’s house. Past hedgerows and lush green meadows where sheep graze in the distance, black smoke billowing past the windows. There’s a lone church in a field of yellow rape. It's quiet, peaceful English countryside, the England I love.
When we get to Alton station there's been a bit of a mix-up. The bus that's waiting to pick us up is on the other side of the tracks. This entails negotiating a steep narrow bridge to get across to the other platform. There's some hubbub, but eventually we manage it. I bring up the rear as we walk slowly across the bridge and I hear Dixie saying, "Well, we never bargained for those stairs, did we?"
On the way home we stop off, as planned, at the Queen's Hotel in Selborne for that cream tea.
Once off the bus, they pile into the dining room, fussing again over who's going to sit with whom at which of the tables. They’re like animated children, the only difference being that they are more docile and impotent. Tea and cakes arrive and everyone sets about consuming them, applying themselves to the task with great seriousness. These are people for whom tea is an institution, it’s the lubricant of their days, the salve for all ills.
Yet it turns out it’s not the be-all and end-all, apparently, because there’s still a palpable sense of anticipation in the air, even a bit of anxiety, and I notice little signs of impatience. When the first strawberries and clotted cream are brought out I get the picture and I gasp “Ah, there’s still strawberries and cream to come, Nan!” “I should hope so,” she says, “I’ve paid for it!”
The place erupts with the sound of excited voices and they become just as noisy and single-minded as schoolchildren. And then I realize – of course, this is what they've come for; this, not the train ride, is the high point of their day. The cream tea!
They're in their element, lapping up the cream and scoffing down the strawberries, totally absorbed in their eating. It’s too much for me. It's obvious we're going to be here for a while, so I decide to go for a walk up the village. After a while, Nan comes out and together we buy a few things in the village shop and then we walk back slowly to the bus.
On the ride home, Mavis Ullah is up front, chatting to Tony, the driver, still chirpy and full of energy. Across the aisle, there's Dixie, nodding off after the cream tea and all the excitement. Mrs. Woolston - who made it, after all - and Mrs. Kimball are both happily dozing, after their big day out.
Next to me Nan is sitting quietly, content. Me, too, I think.
Hah! And here I was thinking I was giving something back to Nan, when all the while she was giving me something instead: a mystery tour.
Loved your story! I, too, would go back for visits and see my granny. My mom has often talked about the old time mystery tours the bus and rail (?) system had.
My mother immigrated from Scotland. Once here, she found several other Scottish friends. One of our favorite stories as kids was the one where her friend, Jessie, was going into labor with her first child. As the nurses wheeled her away after pain meds, they could see Jessie on the gourney, waving, and hear her voice, "Wheeeeee...I'm going on a mystery tour!"
I felt like I was traveling along with you! You have a gift for injecting humor in the right places- the only young person on a coach full of wrinklies - while your thoughtful word choice (specifically the English words) put me in this moment with you. What a great tribute to your grandmother. You are a writer!!!
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