Wednesday, June 21, 2023

Cousin Doreen

Dave did not write the following for the blog, or for public consumption, but I thought it was such a nice piece I asked if I could share it with you and he said yes.

Cousin Doreen

In 1971 we were living in Beeston in an insalubrious flat behind and above a Christian bookshop, and opposite A R Elliott’s Quality Butchers who had a very jolly pig in the window. The flat was unheated and had two baths, neither of them connected, an outside toilet at the bottom of the garden, and no hot water. The rent of £2 and 5 shillings a week seemed like a steal.

It was an eventful year. My father’s father died in January, and my mother had cancer and a mastectomy in the same month. Zoë was born in March, and my father died in April. I was in the middle of a post-grad teaching course at Nottingham university, trying to bridge the gap between the fantasy land of university and the reality of needing to earn a living. Sue was coping with our daughter in an inadequate and utterly unsuitable flat, and something seemed to have gone badly wrong with the universe generally.

The oddest thing, looking back, is that these events were unremarked upon. As a new family we were clearly under huge pressure, but there was little option but to just get on with it. At Christmas, our friend Het was going away and bequeathed us her only-very-slightly-motheaten Christmas tree, which we, having no money to speak of, decorated with painted eggshells and glitter. It was not the worst Christmas by a long shot.

As part of my course, I had a lengthy teaching practice in Derby. Two other students were placed at the same school, and one of them had a car so getting there involved a daily hike up to the A52 to pick up a lift and travel across to Derby in the rush hour. On the first morning, we were in a small accident on a roundabout, and late for our first day, but after that things became less exciting and we developed a rhythm of sorts.

The other two students were scientists, and I was teaching Classics. The school was a traditional boys’ grammar school where the masters still wore gowns. The staff were welcoming enough, and the main staff occupation at every break and in free periods was to play shove ha’penny in the staff room. The board was in constant use and it is amazing that the mahogany was not worn as thin as paper. The staff were keen players, and we were soon included. It seems incredible looking back that things seemed so relaxed and that nobody felt that they had anything more pressing to do.

It was during teaching practice that I was invited to lunch with Cousin Doreen. This arrangement was finagled by my mother-in-law who herself was an early version of the internet and an inveterate networker. Cousin Doreen had a flat on Friar Gate in Derby, and it was there I went once a week for lunch.

Cousin Doreen – that was how she was always referred to – was an elderly Quaker aged around 70 at the time. Her name was distinctively pronounced. D’reen, with a heavy emphasis on the second syllable. She was Irish, and had never married. Instead, she had worked all over as a nurse and midwife, spending time in Africa, and, I assumed at the time (wrongly?), India.

D'reen was smiley, grey, welcoming, and had a twinkle in her speech as well as in her eye. She had a great sense of humour. She cooked lunch, which was always curry – hence my assumption about India. D’reen’s curries were always hot, which was how she liked them. I had never come across food of such ferocity previously. A few lunches in, there was a particularly fierce dish. It was so hot that D’reen took off her wig to eat it. This was quite a surprise to me. D’reen’s wig was left like a hairy side-plate, or a small abandoned pet sleeping quietly while we consumed the feast. Up to this moment, I had never suspected that D’reen’s hair was optional, and I had to work hard to focus on the curry and not to stare at the wig, or her head. D’reen insisted that if a curry did not make you sweat, it was not worth eating.

I always walked back up to afternoon school with my lips on fire.

D’reen was born in Cork, where her father was a grocer. She qualified as a nurse, and later as a midwife. She travelled around a lot, I think working before the days of the NHS as a private midwife. She spent time n Mozambique, and what was then Northern Rhodesia. She was often back in the UK, and worked in maternity hospitals after the birth of the NHS.

D’reen was from a family with a long history of Quakerism, and she was a member of Derby Meeting when I met her.

D’reen did not know me at all before inviting me for lunch, and her kind generosity, HOT hospitality, and openness of spirit made a big impression. She seemed to me then to be very comfortable in her own skin, and completely unflappable. Always quietly spoken and with a laugh never far away, she was good company. In a difficult and stressful time, she was a greater haven than she or I knew.


Anonymous said...

Such an entertaining read & what a remarkable woman D'reen sounds. It makes me want to know more about that life in Derby. How was it for you Sue, in that flat with a new baby? Seems that there are two fine writers in your family! Sally x

Chrissie said...

What a lovely story.

marmee said...

That story really moved me..

Sue Hepworth said...

The story moved me, too, Marmee, which is why I wanted to post it.

Sally, we managed in the flat and it was quite fun at times, as Dave is a great homemaker and helpful round the house. Plus we were incredibly young! Only 20.
I used to go to my parents’ house once a week for a bath. My sister took me in her car.

Sue Hepworth said...

I’ve spotted something slightly disturbing in the text, namely that D’reen is described as “elderly” and yet she was roughly the same age as I am now. 🙁

Anonymous said...

Well done Dave, a lovely read. Thank you both for sharing. Jenetta

Chris said...

That was a great read. I wanted to read more. Don’t leave us hanging Dave …

Sue Hepworth said...

I’ll keep a look out for other gems, Chris.