Family: Vignette – The Colonel and His Wife (Catterick, North Yorkshire)

Photo by Fanch The System (copied from Flickr)
Photo by Fanch The System (copied from Flickr)

The Colonel pottered about the kitchen, dressed in his Singaporean housecoat (which was not yet threadbare at the elbows). He wore his headphones-radio set. The Colonel was five-foot-three with his slippers on; the telescopic antenna of his head-gear added another four or five inches. He scuffed and stepped about the room – quick, short, staccato movements – an uncooked egg in each unsteady hand. The headphones-radio was him being considerate: he wore it so that the sounds of today’s Today show would not wake his wife. Had he used a regular radio, it is likely that the walls between the kitchen and the marital bedroom would have reduced the radio chatter to a soft white noise: not enough to disturb sleep, but enough to muffle the clatter of trays, teacups, sauce pans (for the oiled beggs, a pet spoonerism that would become something of a family heirloom), and other breakfast paraphernalia, which were moved percussively about by the Colonel’s quivering hands and quickstepping feet. As it was, his attempt at hush served only to amplify.

At some point, his routine will lead him from the kitchen into the narrow, L-shaped corridor, The Forge’s connective artery. He will hang a right, almost immediately, into the large, open-plan family room. This is the original smithy; wrapping it on two sides are the kitchen, bedrooms, and garage (in which a linked series of four-gang strip plugs allows one twin electrical point to be the power source of no less than eight devices, among them a chest freezer). These three rooms are the result of a cost-effective, flat-roofed extension, put up some time in the seventies. The Colonel will enter the family room, the bright orange thrift-shop-painted walls of which seem always to glare. He will set himself at his Yamaha Clavinova, which he bought a decade, perhaps more, ago; which – due to its relative compactness, guarantee of maintained perfect pitch, and range of pre-programmed rhythms – almost immediately superseded the old upright piano, now long gone; and which has a line out running to the amplifier of the matt black Sony stereo system. The stereo will be turned on, the output dial turned to AUX 1. The Colonel will select “Bosa Nova 1” (or perhaps “2”), and, after something in the region of a four-bar lead-in, he will begin hammering out “Strangers In The Night.”

This, not the cacophonous preparation of oiled beggs, will draw the Colonel’s wife from their room. The Colonel’s renditions of “Strangers” and other pop classics of yesteryear, bolstered by the light tripping of a metronomically perfect bosa, have over the years become The Forge’s Reveille. Mrs. ____, the Colonel’s wife, will ricochet up the long stem of the corridor’s L. She will use the narrow width of the hallway to her advantage, bouncing wall-to-wall as she nears the source of the music. Something more than twenty years ago, a riding accident left her with two fractured vertebrae, and a prognosis of being wheelchair-bound within the decade. (A few years hence, she will have these vertebrae fused; and will, on returning home from the hospital, mark her relative relief from pain by getting drunk on white-wine spritzers with her sixty-something-years-old daughter.) She still walks, however precariously, using as she goes whatever is ready to hand as momentary support. An old hand at the controlled bounce and rebound, Mrs. ____ has the spatial awareness required of a gymnast or free-runner. She is a proud woman; her carriage says as much. Never mind that her torso pitches forwards at forty-five degrees from true, or that, in addition to her injured spine, her ankles offer her increasingly less support: her back still describes a perfectly straight line. With age, many of her friends have begun to curl and curve and tuck and involute. Not so Mrs. ____. She is hinged at the hips; legs and torso are two perfect planes, converging at a vertex.

If all this happens more or less as predicted, it will be no more than the familiar run of things. But today something is different. At the turn in the corridor is the door to the guestroom: in it, twin beds, unwanted cots salvaged from the nearby Garrison; the mattresses are as old, if not older, than the cots on which they sit, and boast the consistency and lumbar support of rice pudding. Currently, a grandson and his wife occupy the cots and, thereby, the guestroom. They have had open invitation to visit only since their wedding, which was about a year ago. The soon-to-be-oiled beggs are for the Colonel and his grandson (whom the Colonel long ago identified as a good trencherman); Mrs. ____ will likely have a meagre bowl of cereal. The granddaughter-by-marriage will trade breakfast for a few more minutes in bed, a decision that will to be impressed upon the Colonel.

The Colonel accepted the refusal of breakfast easily enough as a form of words – she will probably just wait for lunch, Grandpa – but had trouble acting on it. Perhaps he understood the information as merely a postponement of the day’s first repast; a postponement which, sensibly, could be one of only a few minutes, given that the party were soon to leave for a driving tour of the Butter Tubs. The tour would occupy them all for two-or-so hours, after which they would take lunch at a local pub, favoured for its competitive prices and its serving of traditional roast dinners in oversized Yorkshire puddings. From here, there was one more scheduled stop en route back to The Forge: a hotel pub run by a man named Alan, whose pints of Black Sheep were, to the Colonel’s knowledge, the cheapest in Catterick. The Colonel had already counted out the exact change required for three pints of the ale and a white-wine spritzer, and had left it loose in his coat pocket (left-hand side). He looked forward to stacking the modest collection of coins – a graphic illustration of the superb value offered by the North generally and Alan’s pub particularly – on the bar and sliding them towards Alan in exchange for the drinks. With Part One Orders (as the Colonel’s jobs and activities rosters had become known in the family) so clearly posted, and with all that they entailed, breakfast had best be eaten soon if it were to be eaten at all.

The Colonel’s grandson, insisting that it was not unusual for his wife to forego breakfast in favour of sleep, twice succeeded in stopping his grandfather from personally checking and double-checking whether or not a third oiled begg would be needed. The two men sat down to their eggs and tea; they chatted for a while. The grandson gave assurances that shortly he would look in on his wife and encourage her to prepare for the morning’s tour. The Colonel nodded approval of this plan, insisting all the while that we’re very relaxed, here, and that it mattered little whether they were to leave in twenty, twenty-one, or twenty-two minutes’ time. He also gently reminded his grandson that, should he or his wife require a shower before leaving, The Forge was on a water metre rather than a flat rate.

Flatware and cutlery were cleared away, and the two men took leave of one another, for the next twenty or twenty-two minutes. The grandson went to the guestroom. The Colonel headed for the Clavinova.

When a shrill cry punctuated the low rhythmic thud of Mrs. ____’s progress along the corridor, it is possible that the grandson thought his granny had fallen. That she had fallen was plausible, given her age, her back, her ankles. In fact, she had remained upright. Her cry was not one of surprise, betokening an accident; rather, it was one of mild and humorous annoyance at the familiar. “Strangers” was, by now, filling the bungalow, marshalling all to readiness (though the Colonel himself was still in his housecoat). At the conspicuous sounding of a bum note – the same bum note, it should be said, as was sounded always; a learnt error now firmly a part of the repertoire – the Colonel’s wife had answered with a sharp falsetto rebuke. On rushing out into the corridor to check on his grandmother, the grandson would be informed that such polyphony was not unusual in the a.m. in The Forge.

The Colonel finished his tune, with the aid of one of the Clavinova’s programmed codas, and went to dress himself. Mrs. ____, the grandson and his wife: all three waited in the family room, the original smithy, for the Colonel. In a few minutes, he would return, dressed neatly in burgundy corduroy, wool, and polycotton. He would shrug on the coat with the loose change in the left-hand pocket, and he would fix in place his flat cap. The weather would be pleasant during the drive; the Yorkshire Dales would fill the tourists with the sense of beauty; the Yorkshire puddings would more than fill a hole. At Alan’s, the Colonel would discover that the price of Black Sheep had risen by tuppence a pint, and therefore that his left pocket was light – by sixpence.