Sunday, 20 December 2009

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to.........

Tavistock in this case. This is the prompt for our next month's Writers' Group, so I am trying it out on my blog. There are, of course, two distinct meanings to "funny" - funny ha-ha and funny peculiar. I can't imagine why the same word is used for both as there is no similarity that I can see. However - I digress - a very strange thing happened on the way to Tavistock about twenty years ago:

We were holidaying in the glorious Devon countryside, meandering through the pretty little towns, staying in old picturesque pubs overnight and moving on next day. One day, sitting over breakfast looking at the road map and wondering where to go next my husband (who died in 1991) spotted Tavistock and remembered that his ancestors came from there

His ancestry was French and the first one to settle in this country was one, Jean, a soldier in the Napoleonic campaigns who was taken prisoner and put into jail in Exeter. He had been a gardener in the Tuileries in Paris but after the war he decided to become a gardener in England instead of returning to his native land and he got aj ob in Tavistock. While there he met and married a girl called Mary, they raised a family - and the rest as they say - is family history.

My husband remembered that in the research he had done the couple had been married in a small Roman Catholic Church in Tavistock - I think it was called St.Mary's but after all these years I can't be sure. After the wedding they had been befriended by the priest who had, over the years, become a great personal friend.

"Wouldn't it be good to find that church?" I agreed and we set out on our quest. The church was not difficult to find. It was very small and no longer in use as far as we could see. The graveyard at the side of the church was thick with brambles and obviously had gone totally wild.
We decided to take a look, reasoning that the priest may well be buried there, even if Jean and Mary were not.

It was a warm, sunny morning; the air was fresh and full of the smell of the sea as we pushed through the creaky gate and began our search in the undergrowth. After a couple of minutes we found we were being watched by an elderly man who came up and enquired what we were doing. Upon hearing our story he insisted that we go round the back of the church where the priest's house was and where he and his wife now lived.

Like the churchyard, their garden had been allowed to run riot and the house was almost hidden by all kinds of climbing things - roses, clematis, convolvulus - a riot of colour in the Devon summer. The lady came to the door and welcomed us in. She was a tiny, elfin lady as I remember and had such an air of feyness that it was hard to believe that she was real.

The house was old and rather tumbled-down but it was full to bursting with books - they covered every shelf, every flat surface, every chair, every floor - and amongst them well-fed cats slept here and there. We were made so welcome, given tea and cakes and the couple listened eagerly to our story of the family history. They explained that the man (I think the couple were called Mr and Mrs Johns, but it is all a long time ago) had been a master-thatcher and that now, in his sixties, his health was poor and he was waiting for a heart transplant. Mrs Johns seemed older than that but so sprightly, dashing here and there, full of life and such an interesting lady.

When we mentioned that we were looking for the priest's grave they took us to it immediately. It was clear of brambles, well-kept and obviously cared for. Well it would be said Mrs Johns because he was her dearest friend.

Back in the house drinking even more china tea from beautiful porcelain cups she told us that he still lived in the house and that she encountered him on the stairs most evenings, where they had the most wonderful chats. She told us that she confided her worries to him and that he was so helpful in sorting out her problems. Seeing as how he had been dead for a couple of hundred years we were not sure how to respond to this, but she took us up the winding narrow stair to show exactly where they sat and chatted - a small landing with two chairs placed by the window.

We left after a couple of hours although they were such lovely people we could have stayed all day. Only a few weeks later we saw in The Times one day that Mr. Johns had died before he could have his heart transplant. I wrote to his widow and received a charming reply which added that her friend, the Roman Catholic Priest, send his love too. She was apparently getting great comfort from him. We never heard from her again.

She will have been long dead now but I can still see her face as she stood at the door on that lovely Summer day and waved us goodbye. Did I really see a face at the landing window watching us - or was it a trick of the light?

22 comments:

Coastcard said...

How curious: I have a lot of ancestors from Tavistock - we love the area with its natural beauty and family associations.

Dave King said...

Yes, of course you saw the face - the really interesting question is: was there a face there to see? But even that is not as interesting as your story. You should try to get it published. Really, I'm serious. It is stunningly good.

Heather said...

What a delightful story Weaver and thankyou so much for trying it out on us. My parents lived in Tavistock for some years about 40 years ago, when we lived in Roborough just north of Plymouth. The first winter we were there, Dartmoor ponies came into our garden but I forgave them as our house had been built on there winter grazing ground. Every post you write evokes memories of my past.

steven said...

weaver - a superb story, i could've kept on reading for hours! you're such a talented writer!!!! have a lovely day in the dale. steven

Golden West said...

I wanted the story to go on and on, Weaver. I can just see filtered light coming into the room with books about and you sitting forward in your chair, bringing a porcelain teacup to your lips - enchanting!

Derrick said...

An intriguing memory, Weaver. Strange how such episodes materialise in our lives. I'm sure the writing group will enjoy it.

PurestGreen said...

Wow - what a wonderful story, and what a unique character Mrs. Johns was. I wonder I wonder...

Leenie said...

I agree with Dave King.
"Stunngingly good" and worthy of publication. Thank you.

Totalfeckineejit said...

Spookylicious!

C Hummel Kornell a/k/a C Hummel Wilson said...

Beautiful, uplifting story. You writing is lovely.

Cathy said...

I loved your story!

Dominic Rivron said...

Interesting to read an interesting story about my own distant past. If you'd told me all this, I'd forgotten it!

Angie Muresan said...

What a charming story this is! I, too would have loved to just keep on reading. Have a lovely Christmas!

jinksy said...

You can't beat a good yarn, with a twist in the tale...

dinesh chandra said...

Great area I will visit if possible, Because I M Indian the money is matter for me , but the great story, you are literaly a great prose writer too.

I meet you whenever god bless me to visit UK. I visit with my wife and two sons.
Mary Christmas.


Regards

Dinesh Chandra

6p00d83451947569e2 said...

A delightful account, haunting and moving.

ArtPropelled said...

I really enjoyed story time at Wensleydale Farm. My mom's family all come from Ashburton. Is that quite close to Tavistock?

The Weaver of Grass said...

Thanks for the comments - I shall now go ahead and read it to my writers' group! I was rather hoping that someone from Tavistock would read it and throw some light on the interesting couple, but of course it is such a long time ago now. Glad you enjoyed the story.

Golden West said...

I just read your comment over on my blog about the "models" being stuffed - no wonder they were so compliant! How macabre! (And how naive of me...) Thanks for letting me know!

Cindee said...

Loved the story and the way you told it. Seems you are a weaver of words as well. I visited Tavistock 3 years ago on a lovely trip to England with my brother and sister. Can't wait to visit again.
PS. I'm sure the face was in the window.

Rachel Fox said...

Yes, a great story well told.
x

BT said...

What a marvellous story Weaver and you tell it so well. How sad that the gentleman died before he was able to have a heart transplant and what a strange story about the priest. It makes you wonder....