Copyright G G Brooks 1993 – Chrishall 4 – Lil and Tubal Flack
The old cottage next to the former orchard plot on which the three new houses were built was semi-detached. On one side of it had lived old Mrs Ives: she who had welcomed ‘they greengages turning into neighbours to visit me’ when she was poorly. On the other side lived Lil and Tubal Moses. They had lived there all their married life – over 50 years – and they loved it in spite of its cramped accommodation and its poor state of repair. It was long, low and thatched, with one tiny bedroom and a bed for their grandson on the landing, which was made more awkward by the rafter which ran across it at about 2 ft high. To get into the only bedroom you had to climb over this rafter.
Lil was known in the village as Aunt Lil and it was not long before she became that to us. She was in her seventies: a slim straight woman, who always wore a hat. Aunt Lil’s hats were all of the same style – soft material like felt, with a crown and a brim – like an elegant type of trilby. She wore a hat indoors and out, and most people had never seen her without one. I saw her once, and my impression is of her silver hair flattened down to the shape of her head, as though moulded by the hat. Aunt Lil still worked on the land at the traditional seasonal jobs like potato setting and picking. In between times she was as busy as any countrywoman born in the last century and living in a cottage with no mod cons apart from electric light. She often wore wellington boots and always took the long strides associated with walking across fields. Lily was aptly named. With her hat, her head held high, and her straight, narrow figure, she had the grace of a primitive queen as she walked along the road. It was not a question of regalia: it was the poise, the dignified bearing and the long, smooth, stride.
Tubal Moses provided a contrast in build. He was the typical stocky, broad shouldered, round faced East Anglian farm worker. He had a deep voice and his bass boomed out in the hymns on those occasions when he came to chapel. He could cite passages from the Bible from memory – one of his favourites being the story of the Prodigal Son. The richness of his voice and accent, together with the beautiful prose of the King James Bible and a sense of the dogmatic produced a performance which held his listeners spellbound. “And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat: and no man gave unto him”. I can still hear him clearly in my mind, and the little laugh of embarrassment he gave when he finished a performance.
Tubal too, still worked well into his seventies and indeed into his eighties. He looked after pigs for a local farmer. The piggery was about a mile away down the hill towards Chrishall Grange and Tubal cycled to it, walking some of the way back. He often biked a mile in the other direction too, to do some work at the farm and he did it in all weathers. Lil and Tubal had the easy familiarity with each other that comes from many years together and Lil was not averse to teasing Tubal. One foul day of rain and raging gale force winds, Tubal got back up the hill from feeding the pigs and said to Lil: ‘I didn’t think I was going to get back Nan; that wind blew all the breath out o’ my body. ‘You soft old fizzil’ said Lil, ‘if it ‘ad blown all the breath out o’ your body you’d a’ been dead now, but ‘ere you are back ‘ome.
The old cottage was a tied cottage, belonging to another local farmer for whom Tubal had worked when younger. They stayed in it after retirement at a very low rent which provided no income to fund repairs. The thatch was in a very bad state and had been patched so many times that it was no longer fully waterproof. One day Tubal took me upstairs, climbing over the rafter in the tiny landing and avoiding the grandson’s bed, to the low cramped bedroom with the ceiling sloping oppressively down to floor level. He pointed out the wet patches where the rain came through. There was a workman’s cap at the side of the bed, which I remarked on. ‘That’s my bed ‘at’ said Tubal ‘I always wear it in bed when it rains to keep my head dry!’. Still they loved the old place which had so many memories for them. And they told us with awe in their voices of the time not long before they went there when ‘five children lay dead in bed in this house all at the same time’. That was a story often told by the older folk, looking back with some dread at the time when diptheria was such a scourge of young families.
We had two children when we arrived in Chrishall, but it was not long before Phyl became pregnant for our third. We used to walk past Aunt Lil’s cottage on our way to chapel on Sunday mornings, and if she was outside she would wave. About two months before the baby was due, Phyl became unwell and missed chapel one Sunday morning. The next Sunday, she missed again. After lunch there came a knock on the side door and Phyl went to answer it. It was Aunt Lil, ‘you ain’t been to chapel for two Sundays ‘she said, ‘and I can see that you ain’t well. Now you’d better give me your washing to do for you’.
Phyl was very grateful for this offer. She thanked Aunt Lil and said ‘you must let me pay you’. But Lil would have none of this and her logic was a wonderful demonstration of the old fashioned Christian ethics that ran through her life. She said: ‘ If you was well and you asked me to do your washing, then you could pay me. But if you ain’t well, and I’ve said I’ll do your washing, then you ain’t paying me. And that was the end of the negotiation. I sorted out the Monday wash and took it round to Aunt Lil, who did it freely until after Pam was born. When Phyl was again able to do it, but welcomed the help, then Aunt Lil continued to do the washing and permitted Phyl to pay her.
In due course, Pam was born at home with some drama. We sent for the midwife early one morning, but it proved to be a false alarm, the midwife gave Phyl an injection that was supposed to keep her quiet and went home (about 8 miles away) for her breakfast. But Pam decided that she was ready.
We managed to get the midwife on the phone and she buzzed back in her mini, but I was standing by to deliver the baby if she did not arrive in time. She got back in the nick of time. Pam was born with the cord around her neck and I dread to think what would have happened if I had been midwife.
After Pam was born, Aunt Lil became Nannie, or Nan. This was what her own grandchildren called her. From the very beginning she had a rapport with Pam and they became very close to each other. Every day Nannie took Pam out in the pram. She became the doting Granny that every child loves, giving that continuous attention that is getting to be a rare thing in these days of families dispersed all over the country. Nannie had five grandchildren of her own, the youngest a late teenager; but Pam stood equal with them in her affection and perhaps more than equal in the amount of attention she got. They took this all in their stride and Nan’s new baby became a friend of theirs as well.
As Pam became a toddler and learned to walk and talk, the two of them, the very old and the very young, created a little world of their own. Nan was somewhat deaf, but she could always hear Pam’s voice and understand her when she could not hear an adult’s. Her family used to say with some amusement that this was a matter of Nan’s choosing! Tubal, too, adored this little girl in his shy way. No one was surprised, for Pam was in the words of Nannie ‘A dear little gel’! And they gave so much to each other for the next 10 years until, sadly, we moved away. This move not only broke the everyday relationship between these two close-bonded people, but it proved to be a tremendous blow to Nanny, for it took much of the zest out of her life.
Postscript: when Geoff, Phyllis and family moved away Nan insisted on making the journey to Yorkshire for a few days because she couldn’t rest until she had satisfied herself they were all settled in their new home. It was probably the furthest Nan had ever been from Chrishall. Read Pam’s own account of Nanny here.