THE BOOT BOY WHO WOULD NOT RELENT
My grandfather was a legendarily hard old man who died in 1969 aged 86. His first job round about 1894 had been as a boot boy in a mansion at a hamlet called Baggrow near Aspatria, West Cumbria. He pronounced it ‘Baggra’ which sounds like the received pronunciation of ‘buggery’, a noun I’m sure he’d never heard of, though of course he’d heard the word ‘bugger’. After that he was briefly an auxiliary policeman, a collier, and finally a railway worker until he retired in 1948. He was a fund of curious and sometimes appalling stories, most of them going back to the 1920s and earlier, and the telling of tales was very much his raison d’etre. He briefly acquired a TV around 1961, but quickly loathed it as his eyesight was so bad, and he had to guess who was who, and who was doing what. He liked precisely one programme called Yorkie, and that was only because it starred the jovial and homely Wilfred Pickles (1904-1978), who could have been talking about existentialism for all he cared, not because he could follow the storyline. He got rid of the telly without notice and without consulting my grandmother, for he never consulted her about anything, and would have found himself wholly contemptible if he had. They returned to the valve radio and the Home Service, and there again it was only the agricultural drama, The Archers, which is still going strong 54 years later, that they listened to, or rather what he would permit. Walter Gabriel the garrulous and comic Ambridge farmhand, made him laugh, and as I once wrote in a short story, I am 100% confident both he and my grandmother believed they were all real people on that show, who magically were always doing interesting things at 6.45pm just as my grandparents chose to eavesdrop on them. As a matter of note, once the one permitted programme was finished, he would cover both the odious telly and the tolerable wireless with a large cloth, as if they were both cagebirds he was encouraging to fall asleep.
He came of a large family and all but 2 of his siblings were dead by 1961. One still living was his kindly, saintly older sister Agnes who lived a mile away with her daughter, and who he saw once every blue moon, and whom he did not disdain, but neither did he show any signs of loving her. Agnes was so old her facial skin was heaped in loose folds, but she also had the tenderest smile known to man. My grandfather would say she talked too much and was far too sugary arsy-arsy, or more accurately she talked stuff of no consequence, by which he probably meant she had no fund of pungent stories, for he himself orated endlessly, as if it was his tenured job. One of his madder tales I put in my novel John Dory, namely that of a WW1 Cumbrian railway signalman who kept his beloved pet fleas taped under one of his armpits, in a cosy little matchbox kennel. In my novel I made the man commit suicide once his adored pets accidentally escaped, though that was my own gratuitous invention. But the original tale of a man with a little box full of fleas under his arm, can that possibly be true? Just and so… and especially, leaving West Cumbria for a while, in East European film, and the fiction such as that of the incomparable Bohumil Hrabal. And in any case if it was sheer invention, where on earth did my always down to earth and mostly sullen granddad find such extraordinary powers of imagination?
His other surviving sibling and younger brother, had one of those surname Christian names, meaning his grandmother’s maiden name became his first name. Pearson as he was called, was a mere baby of 80 when they had their final meeting in 1968, just as my grandfather had turned 85, and Agnes had been dead all of 5 years. It might have been their final meeting, but also it was their only encounter since 1945, when they had bumped into each other in Workington on the day the War ended, and the port and iron and steel town were all a-riot. The point is they lived 5 miles apart, were the last 2 surviving of their family, and hadn’t seen each other for 23 years. None of these harrowing statistics moved my grandfather one iota, and he thought about Pearson who was a retired publican, still helping out now and again in the pub run by his daughter, about as much as he did about Beethoven or hermeneutics. Pearson like Agnes was a gentle and tender soul, and I met him in his pub where my brother took me drinking when I was just 16. He always wore his flat cap inside the pub, just as my grandfather did inside his house, and indeed as do I most of the time, half a century later in Kythnos cafes. Pearson’s eyes were full of naive kindness and he looked the double of my granddad whose eyes were not kind, but more tense and taut with some sort of long forgotten apprehension or unmentionable trauma. Pearson’s daughter Millie came across to me and my brother, and said she and her sister Belle had decided to bring their Dad over to see our granddad now that they were both so old, and hadn’t met since the end of the bloody War! Pearson smiled amiably and warmly at the proposition, and right enough about a fortnight later Millie and Belle drove him to our village where by now my grandparents were living in the small cottage adjacent.
The two daughters in their 60s led Pearson round by our back lawn, and my grandmother after 5 minutes hungry conversation with her gentle long-lost brother-in-law, nothing like her stony, loveless husband, came round to our house to allow the pair of them to chew over the last 2 decades. Meanwhile my mother and she gossiped with Millie and Belle, about everyone they knew in both their villages since about 1890, and the deaths, births, and above all the meaty and sometimes unbelievable scandals that had occurred there since. They left the 2 brothers to themselves for about an hour, and then Millie went round on her own to bring Pearson back to us. Pearson looked truly animated and indicated they had had a good old crack and caught up on the post-war years with no pauses or hiccups in either of their memories. After another hour, the three of them departed in Millie’s car, my grandmother returned to her lord and master, and my mother waited an hour or two before going round to see how it had all gone.
Surprisingly she did not bother to report her father’s account of the meeting of the brothers to me, just possibly for good reason. The following evening I went round to see my grandfather, and found him in a steely mood in his rocking chair, with his worn old cap on in the gloaming, virtually in the pitch dark. There were about three coals glowing parsimoniously in the grate, and as he hadn’t permitted the electric light to go on, and she was unable to read her People’s Friend in the pitch dark, my grandmother had nodded off. I asked him eventually how it had gone with Pearson, and before I give his answer I need to give some singular explanation. My grandfather once being a collier, was in the habit of giving abbreviated Christian names and surnames to male acquaintances, just as all Cumbrian colliers did, by way of jovial recognition of their shared and very hard profession. Thus for example a miner called Anthony would become ‘Tant’, which was easier to say than ‘Ant’, and far more comic and pungent and no doubt manly. The surname Hodgson likewise became ‘Od-gin’ and Atkinson became ‘Atchin’, and Watson, ‘Watty’.
With Pearson’s name there was the problem of the decorous long vowel at the start, which in broad dialect turns into the original Scandinavian/Viking ‘yoo’, pronounced exactly as in ‘youth’. My grandfather did not pronounce his baby brother’s name as Pearson, nor as notional collier abbreviation ‘Peart’, but as Pyoort, enunciated approximately as the outlandish Pea-yoort. The very sound of it was farcical and contemptuous, and nobody but he ever called his younger brother that.
This is what he had to say about his gentle and harmless baby brother whom he hadn’t seen since WW2.
“Ah care nowt for that feller Pyoort…”
A few seconds passed as he stared bleakly at the dying coals, and as my grandmother awoke with a fearful start.
“Oh?” I said not knowing whether to reprove him or to laugh outright at seeing this impossible old man breaking all accepted rules of clan loyalty and of old age and mortality, and so-called humanity.
He added gravely, “He’s aw yap yap yap, and ah care nowt at all for him. Nor if I ever see him ever agyan.”
I’m sure you can work out ‘agyan’ pronounced, ‘agg-yann’, means ‘again’. What else could it mean, after all?