As I walked through St Pancras and Islington Cemetery earlier this week, I came across the shed leaves of a horse chestnut tree, and a windfall of conkers. Some were new and mahogany-coated. Others had been crushed by cars, revealing their white, mealy interior. Some were still partly wrapped in their spiky green coats, and looked like half-open eyes. And as I photographed them, I suddenly remembered Auntie Mary.
Auntie Mary wasn’t a ‘real’ auntie at all: she was my maternal grandmother’s sister, whatever title that bestows. And yet we knew her better than we knew some of our official aunties. I can easily bring to mind her toothless grin, her thin dark hair held back by a hairgrip, her National Health glasses, the way she shambled around, shoulders hunched.
It was said that when she was a child, a boy had picked Mary up and swung her around while she screamed with delight, until suddenly his grip slipped and everything fell silent. Mary struck her head on the kerb, and was never the same again. These days, we would say that she had Learning Disabilities. When she was growing up, it was whispered that she was Simple.
And simple she was, in many ways. Mary never learned to count or to read or write. Her chief role was as wheelchair-pusher for my great-grandmother, who was crippled with polio. And yet, it would be a mistake to say that Mary didn’t understand what was going on. When she was sent out to the corner shop to buy cigarettes, she remembered exactly what coins she had handed over, and what she got back. There was many an occasion when Mary was cheated, and my nan marched her back to the shop to say exactly what had happened. Faced with such evidence, most shopkeepers confessed to a mistake and returned the money. It was a trick that they didn’t try twice.
Mary was a generous soul with the little that she had. She loved the tiny chocolate-covered toffees that you could buy at the newsagents. Unfortunately, so did our mongrel dog, Sally. Sally would sit beside Mary and gaze up at her. Mary would resist for a few minutes, but then relent.
‘Alright!’ she would say, ‘But just one’.
And she would take out the paper bag that she had folded and folded until it was tight shut, and unfold it, and take out a single toffee the size of a bean, and give it to Sally, who would chomp it down in a tenth of a second. Mary would screw up the bag again and put it back in her pocket, but the dog was unrelenting. Mary would heave a huge sigh and take out the bag again.
‘This is the Last One’ she would say. But it never was.
Mum maintains that the dog had more of the sweets than Mary ever did.
Mary lived with Great Gran and Nan and Mum for years, but there came a point where it was all too much. Nan couldn’t look after a huge woman in a wheelchair and her own disabled sister any more. Great Gran went into one home, and Mary into another.
As was Mary’s way, she just got on with it. The home was in a mansion in Chigwell with rolling lawns and huge horse chestnut trees. We would go to visit, and play Banker with Mary. This easiest of card games involves breaking the pack into piles and betting on which pile will have the highest card. It’s pure luck, and Mary loved it, as did my brother and I – I was eight, and my brother was six, and so we were all pretty much at the same level. Mary’s glee when she won was infectious, and somehow she always won, probably because she wouldn’t let us stop until she had.
Mary was never loud or badly behaved, but the same could not be said of the other inhabitants, who were sometimes in the last stages of dementia. The screaming and the erratic behaviour of some of the ladies frightened my brother and I, and when it all got too much Dad would take us outside. In my memory it was always a damp autumn afternoon, and we would rustle about under the horse chestnut looking for conkers. The glint of the polished nuts shining amongst the fallen leaves, the faint smell of bonfires, our shrieks of excitement as we found yet another conker – these are the things that I associate with those last days, with the white mansion behind us and the lawn falling away. We would collect a whole shopping bag full of conkers and bear them away. Strangely, I can’t recall playing conkers more than once or twice – it always seemed like a violent and dangerous game, in spite of Dad’s enthusiasm. I do remember sticking pins into the chestnuts and turning them into little temporary animals, before they were all tidied away in time for Christmas.
Mary went into hospital for a cataract operation one day. Something went wrong, and she died, never coming round from the anaesthetic. Apparently there was something wrong with Mary’s heart that had never been diagnosed. The staff at the hospital, and at the care home, were griefstricken.
What is a life worth, I wonder? It seems to me that the hole that is left in the web when someone dies is a bigger indicator of someone’s value than any money accrued or status acquired. Mary’s simple soul had drawn people and animals towards her like a magnet. She never created a great work of art or became a person of power and prestige, but she lived her life with joy, and never knowingly did harm to a living soul. The world would be a better place if we all lived so gently.