It’s World War Two. Eileen and Tom Danby can find some time together in Cambridge- he’s stationed with the RAF nearby- a Tail-end Charlie on Lancasters. She’s testing explosives next door to the Cavendish Labs, (where, she reminded us as children, the atom was first split).
They’re freshly married and have left the pit village of Langley Moor in County Durham where they’d been sweethearts since childhood. Our father was living mostly in the company of men and had learned to smoke a pipe and drink beer and try not to think about who might not come back from the night’s flight over Germany. Our mother had a gay man friend who introduced her to classical music and art.
The couple tried to get into King’s College Chapel to hear the Christmas Eve service of readings and carols- but like The Inn it was full and they couldn’t get in.
So, they put their ears to the doors and listened the best they could.
Much later, Tom was asked if he could “sing a little quieter” in Lincoln Cathedral!
Half a tale. ( I heard the reading from John’s Gospel the other night in Alston. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God…” I’d read it at a schools’ service in Skegness, the Big Town closest to our village, Wainfleet All Saints- and the backs of my knees stiffened as they had that day- maybe sixty-four years ago.)
At Primary School- "Old Tom's"!
Tale Two. Eileen had been in The Pilgrim Hospital, Boston, gradually starting to lose the world thanks to vascular dementia. We’d driven down to collect her for Christmas at her Wainfleet home. She sat next to me in the front and my brother Tim and partner Sue sat in the back. We took a devious route home, by North Sea Camp, (famous for The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and having been the home of Jeffery Archer).
I was driving gently for Mam’s sake and turned on the radio for the King’s College carol service- late afternoon sunlight passed through overhanging trees. And- she started to sing along with Silent Night- a tiny reedy voice- no doubt remembering all the school assemblies she played the piano at.
I think Tim and Sue held hands.
I still weep to recall all this.
Tale Three. Eileen’s in the care home built on the site of the old Junior School- some locals still call it “Old Tom’s School’" others, “Danby’s School”. She’s lost language and we’re sitting at a double seat in the corridor. I’d just arrived from Alston- she’d never been aware enough to know that Sue had died. The previous day a children’s choir had visited and left behind their carol sheets.
It’s impossible to know how much is “going in” to a demented mind but she was a determined soul and when she started to point at the sheet, repeatedly, there was only one remedy. I sang every carol bar one unfamiliar one, VERY loudly because she’s thrown one hearing aid in the toilet and refused to wear the other!
The staff kept walking by, grins getting bigger and warmer, (some of them had been taught by her in the reception class- some were the children of her ex-pupils).
That was the last time I felt I’d got across to her.
I have no religion but warm to those who do.