Lancashire Times
Weekend Edition
Kaye McGann
Features Writer
3:59 PM 1st May 2021

Strange, How Things Work Out

Queensland farming. Image by G John from Pixabay
Queensland farming. Image by G John from Pixabay
(This is a ‘piggy-back- story. To read its inspiration, turn to the Book of Ruth in the Old Testament of the Bible.)

I’ve been very fortunate. Everything could have turned out differently, and I could well have been facing a lonely old age. Instead, I have warmth, affection, and a comfortable life.

I suppose I should explain to you how my good fortune came about, and how unexpected it has all been.

I had led an ordinary life, growing up in a small market town in the south of England. My parents had a draper’s shop in the centre of town, where Woolpack Street divided in two, and became Sheep Street and Drovers Street, and we were quite comfortably off. My younger sister Marlene and I attended the local Girls’ High School, and I was all set to train to be a nurse, and Marlene wanted to be a teacher, when the accident happened. My mother and Marlene were crossing the street by our shop when a lorry went out of control and hit them, killing my sister outright, and leaving my mother crippled.

“Noreen,” my father said to me at the hospital, as we waited for news of my mother’s chances, “you’ll have to give up all thought of being a hospital nurse now. Your place is at home, nursing your mother, and looking after me.”

Thus my fate seemed to be decided.

Although my mother was not able to walk again, nevertheless she recovered sufficiently to get around the house in a wheelchair, but she mourned Marlene so much, and often appeared to find my presence irritating – or so it seemed to me, as though the wrong daughter had been killed. My own grief I kept to myself. More often than not I was despatched to the shop to help my father with the bales of cloth, and, increasingly the haberdashery side of things.

It was there I met Ian.

He had come to buy some buttons for his tweed jacket. We didn’t get many male customers, but Ian was a bachelor, a local farmer. He ran sheep up the other side of the Common, and had a large old farmhouse of mellow brick, just waiting to be properly looked after. Although he was twelve years older than me, this was no drawback. Farmers tended to marry late, when they were established. Ian was quite shy really, but somehow managed to invite me to the St. Bartholomew Fair, and after that to a dance at the Corn Exchange, and also to the pictures. It was only a matter of time before he asked my father for my hand in marriage.

“That’s all very well, young man, but what about Noreen’s mother and me?” was what my father said.

Ian had it all worked out.

“As I see it, you have three choices,” he said. “You can sell up, and have one of my farm cottages, near enough for Noreen to keep an eye on her mother. Or you can pay to have someone do what Noreen does now. My first offer will still stand when you chose to retire. I’ll not see you in need.

“The third option is that I marry Noreen without your blessing. Whatever you decide, I AM going to marry her !”

What could my father say? He took the second alternative, and Ian and I were married at St. Barnabas’s Church, and had our reception at the Unicorn Hotel. We settled down nicely in our farmhouse, and my father employed a woman to help in the shop, and another to do the housework at home.

My mother didn’t live that long, and it really was a merciful release when she went. She had been in a lot of pain since the accident, and she never got over Marlene’s death. Still, she did live long enough to see her grandchildren, our beautiful twin boys, Charles and Marlon. You may wonder why I called one of them Marlon. It certainly wasn’t anything to do with that young film-star! It was to please my mother, as it was the nearest we could get to Marlene.

After my mother died, my father continued with the shop. I was too busy with the boys, and looking after Ian and the house, not to mention my poultry, to see what was happening under my nose, so it was a great surprise to me when my father upped and married Sylvia the shop assistant, who was nearer my age than his – and even more than a shock when he died suddenly five months later, leaving her the shop, the house, and all his money, but for £50 to each of my boys.

Well, we were no worse off, so I put it behind me. There are things more important than money, and I had Ian and my lovely boys to think about. We were quite comfortable, and I wanted for nothing.

In time, Charles and Marlon passed the 11+, and went to the Grammar School, where they did all right. We fully expected them to follow their father onto the farm, after they’d done their National Service, and they did both love the farming life. It was in their blood.

The three years – well, two and a half really – they were away with the army seemed an eternity to me. I missed them so much. The worst bit was when they were stationed abroad, near Bielefeld in Germany. Still, they wrote regularly, and I sent them parcels of good things from home – cakes baked using eggs from our own hens, and such like. And the time passed.

At last the day came when they were due home permanently. They said they didn’t know which train they’d be on, and we weren’t to meet them, they’d make their own way from the station. It was, after all, only three miles.

I remember the day quite clearly. The sun stood high in a cloudless blue sky. Two of the cats were lying in the yard, stretched out, warming their bodies. My red geraniums bloomed in tubs near the door, and there was an appetising smell of newly-baked bread. Ian was in his green cord trousers and checked shirt. I wore a floral print frock, and my best red sandals.

The taxi drew up in the yard, but though the dogs barked, the cats never stirred. Charles leapt out and paid the driver, and Marlon got out in a more leisurely way. And then two young women got out.

“Mum! Dad!” Marlon said, standing still, not coming to meet us, to kiss me. “I’d like you to meet our wives, Ingrid and Rosa.”

I felt a wideness in my senses, as though I was a long distance from everything; and there was no sound. I turned my head with difficulty, and looked at Ian. He was just standing there, gaping. I noticed a piece of paper, a very small piece, stuck to his neck. There was a red spot on it.

“You’ve cut yourself shaving,” I said.

Sound rushed back in. Movement began. We all started to talk at once. I composed my face into what I hoped was a welcoming smile. I could hardly bear to look at the usurpers.

Somehow, we got into the house. Somehow, I made a pot of tea, and offered cups and sandwiches and scones. Somehow, I smiled and smiled, and managed to ask questions.

It seemed they were German girls. I ask you! My precious boys had met them at a dance, had courted them, and had married them. Ingrid was Charles’s wife, Rosa was Marlon’s. It had happened quite recently. They had not been able to bear leaving these flibbertigibbets, and so had rushed into marriage so as to bring them to England when they came home.

Ian nodded and smiled during this recital, but I could tell he was as sickened by it as I was. He had a white stricken look that I didn’t like. I bustled around, making conversation, occupying myself; anything to fill the void I felt, and knew Ian was feeling. The worst thing was making up the bedrooms. Charles and Marlon had always shared a room, and it was ready for them now, its windows wide open to the sun; and just outside the martins were wheeling into their nests under the eaves. A vase of flowers stood by each bed. One bed now would be occupied by a strange foreign girl – at least for part of the night. And my other son would be sharing a room – and a bed – with the other one. I tried not to think about it as I made up the large bed in the spare room. I tried desperately not to think of what this double bed implied.

Marriage had been a revelation to me, and Ian and I still enjoyed a full and varied life together. For some reason I had not thought of my sons, my children, my dear little boys, as men, doing the things Ian and I did. My mind shied away from it.

That night was the worst. I cried myself to sleep in Ian’s arms, too upset myself to offer him the comfort he also needed.

We settled down into a routine, though. Charles and Marlon resumed working on the farm, going off every few months or so with the Territorials to indulge in the sort of games they had come to enjoy in the regular army. We provided each of them with a farm cottage, and there they lived with their respective wives, and seemed very happy. Ingrid, Charles’s wife, turned out to be a qualified nurse, as I had wanted to be, but because she didn’t have an English qualification she had to enrol at the hospital for further training. Rosa helped me around the house, and with the poultry, and as time passed, my initial hostility gave way to a grudging respect, and then, eventually, to affection. They were both very nice girls, very nice girls indeed. My only regret was that there was no sign of any grandchildren.

I am coming now to the most painful bit of my story, and I shall find it very hard to write. Please bear with me.

It was a wet March weekend, the one before Easter. Ian had been up all night lambing, and was having forty winks in his favourite old armchair. Rosa and Ingrid had gone into town, to shop for clothes, and I was sewing on some buttons. Ian was always losing them. Charles and Marlon were in Wiltshire, on some ‘manoeuvres’, as they called them. The light was just beginning to be a problem, and as I got up to switch on a lamp I heard the dogs set up a barking. I went to the door, passing the cupboard where Ian kept his twelve-bore shotgun in case of intruders, or gypsies trying to camp on our land on their way to the Horse Fair. This time it wasn’t anything like that. A police car was just stopping in the yard, and I watched as a policewoman got out, followed by the driver, a man. They came towards me.

Mrs. Noreen Williams ?”

I nodded my agreement, my heart thudding loudly. I was so frightened I couldn’t speak.

“Is your husband at home?”

I nodded again.

“Do you think we could have a word with him?”

I seemed to have lost the power of speech.

I turned, and they followed me back into the house.

Somehow, I shook Ian awake, and stood by him, my hand on his shoulder, whilst the police broke the news that Charles and Marlon had been killed on Salisbury Plain when the tank they were in had overturned, toppled down a bank, and had exploded in a freak accident. Two other men had also died. I scarcely heard the rest of the details.

The policewoman pressed a mug of tea into my hands, and guided me to a chair. Ian had gone out of the room. The police were still talking.

“They’d have known nothing about it. It all happened in a flash,” one of them said.

I started to laugh, wildly, hysterically. All over in a flash! I couldn’t stop. Tears rolled down my cheeks. Then I was crying in earnest. My boys! My dear lovely boys.

Somewhere there was a commotion, and the policeman ran from the room, but the next thing I remember was being in bed, with Dr. Richards bending over me, and Ingrid and Rosa hovering in the background. I felt the needle go in, and then nothing. It was not until two days later that the news was broken to me that Ian had gone straight from the room where we’d heard about our boys, had collected his shotgun, and, going no further that the outside porch, had blown his brains out.

Ingrid and Rosa were wonderful. Somehow, they conquered their own shock and grief, and tended to me, and somehow they arranged the funerals and all the formalities before and after the inquests. I went through everything in a daze.

I have nothing but praise for everyone who helped us the – the doctor, the vicar, the police, the undertaker – even the coroner. Everyone in the district knew what had happened, and we were inundated with sympathy and offers of help. Neighbouring farmers sent people to help with our lambing, and their wives came round to sit with me. Throughout it all, Ingrid and Rosa were towers of strength. They, too, had lost their husbands, and they were, after all, far from their own homes and families, but all their concern seemed to be for me. And I, who had always been so strong, seemed to have gone to pieces, with no inner resources left.

More was to come. Our solicitor broke the news to us that the farm and the land were entailed. Had Charles or Marlon had a son, it would all have passed to him. As it was, it went to Ian’s cousin Brian in Australia. The girls and I were devastated. On top of everything else, we were to lose our home as well.

Then the unexpected happened.

I had a letter from Brian. Although he intended to remain in Australia, he was sending his nephew and family to take over our farm. He himself would like me to go out to Australia as his housekeeper. He was arranging to have my passage money sent, and I’d receive a good salary, paid in advance. It seemed the answer to everything. Much as I loved my home, I hated having to pass the spot where Ian had killed himself. I had nightmares of Charles and Marlon entombed in a burning tank. I avoided the part of town near the police station as I did not wish to be reminded of things – though how could I forget? A complete change would be the best thing, and I could always come back to England if it didn’t work out. I was quite comfortably off.

I naturally assumed that Ingrid and Rosa would go back to Bielefeld, which was where their families were.

With great sadness, they began their preparations. Who would have thought my feelings for them would have undergone such a transformation? It was yet another loss for me to overcome.

The night before their departure, I was just sitting, gazing into space, when Rosa came and sat down by me.

“Please don’t make me leave you,” she said. You are my family now, the one I care about most. Please let me go with you to Australia, to make my home with you. I want to be part of your family for my whole life.”

I cannot tell you how moved I was. This dear, dear girl. I felt a lightening of my spirits. Why not? I thought. I could pay for her passage, and I didn’t see how Brian could object.

Ingrid was sad to be leaving, and sad that Rosa was not going with her; but I could tell that though she would miss us, she was looking forward to being home again, back among her own people.

I shall pass quickly over the arrival of Brian’s nephew and his wife, and her taking over my kitchen, and their noisy children over-running the house and sleeping in what had been my boys’ bedroom. I was glad to leave.

Our voyage to Australia was interesting but fairly uneventful. I was glad to have Rosa there with me. And as the distance between us and England increased, I began to feel better, as though I did have some future, something to look forward to after all.

The one thing of note I shall tell you about the voyage was that Rosa confided in me something I could not have imagined. I would never have had grandchildren, even if Charles and Marlon had lived. Both couples had been for tests when there was no sign of having babies, and they had found that both Charles and Marlon were completely sterile.

Let me tell you now about our new home in Australia.

Brian had a sheep station in Queensland, about five hundred miles from Brisbane. It was very hot there, and the main house was a long, low bungalow with a veranda.

Rosa and I had a smaller bungalow in the grounds, not far from the main house, and I quickly set to work to get a herb garden growing, and also to transform the neglect of years in the main house.

Brian had never married, though rumour had it he occasionally visited the brothel on his visits to town. He was a big, kindly bear of a man, shy as Ian had been, yet strong-minded. He was quite a bit younger than Ian, and a good ten years younger than me in fact. He treated both Rosa and me with kindness and consideration, and my respect for him increased by the day.

We were kept busy, looking after the house, and also providing meals for the men who worked on the station – all tough-looking, weather-beaten, sun-dried. Every day they travelled vast distances, some on horseback, but most in Jeep-type vehicles, keeping an eye on the sheep. Sometimes the doctor would fly in, say if someone had been bitten by a snake, and once when one of the younger men had appendicitis. We talked to ‘neighbours’ on the radio. They were vast distances away, and we were considered ‘townies’, as we had a small town only thirty miles from us. Occasionally, we’d go there to do some shopping. Mostly, we relied on our own resources.

Some of the men had wives, and lived in bungalows on the land, so Rosa and I did have other women to gossip with. Everyone talked about the shearing, and the ‘rouseabouts’ arriving to help, and everyone given as much light beer as they could drink, and how there was a wild party at the end of each shearing, before the rouseabouts moved on to help at another ranch. I learned as much as I could about what happened at these end-of-shearing parties. You see, I had a plan.

I had seen Brian looking at Rosa in his shy way. I reckoned it was so long since he’d had anything to do with respectable young women that he didn’t know how to go about things, and needed a push in the right direction. Rosa herself was a very modest young woman, quite nice-looking, but always with an aura of sadness. And being so young a widow, and in such tragic circumstances, set her apart somehow. She was even quieter than usual when we had a letter from Ingrid to tell us she was getting married again.

Anyway, I bided my time, and hatched my plans.

As the weather got even hotter, we looked out for the shearers, and sure enough they arrived – big, rough, taciturn men, who stared at the women on the ranch as though we were a race apart. It could feel quite menacing.

They worked right through the day, and had their food taken out to them in the shearing sheds.

“Keep near to the other women,” I said to Rosa, “and take Brian’s food personally.”

Rosa never queried what I said, and every day she took Brian’s food, and little treats for him, too, little cakes she’d baked specially for him, and the like.

When we got our wages, Rosa found a bonus in the envelope. She was embarrassed, and wanted to give it back, but I wouldn’t let her. She found some wild flowers in her room, too, and then a coral necklace. Everything was going as I’d hoped.

All too soon the shearing was done, and the drinking and wild drunken dancing started. I knew it wouldn’t go on for very long, because the shearers would be up and away to the next ranch before dawn. Still, I made sure Rosa kept away from them, and near to Brian. When one adventurous rouseabout came ambling over to try to get her to dance with him, I soon put him in his place.

Brian got absolutely blind drunk.

“Don’t worry. I’ll see to him,” I told one of the hands.

Together, Rosa and I staggered back to our bungalow, with him a dead-weight between us. We laid him on Rosa’s bed, and she lay on the floor with just a sheet over her.

Brian was an honourable man. He didn’t like to say he couldn’t remember how he had got into Rosa’s room, nor what, if anything, had happened there. He had fallen in love with Rosa, and had needed to be pushed into the situation where he felt he must propose marriage to her. So I pushed him. I pushed them both. I know from my own experiences how short and fleeting life can be. I make no apologies. I see them together now, three years on, happily married, delighting in each other, and in their son Oliver. Oliver, the light of my life. Oliver, the hope of my old age. Oliver, who calls me Grandma.

And as I hold Oliver to my breast, I think how very, very fortunate I’ve been.

‘And Ruth said, “Entreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following thee: for whither thou goest, l will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God:
Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried. The Lord do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me.” ‘