At Conker Time

img_7954As 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.

img_7961And 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.

img_7958Mary 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.

img_7964Mary 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.

img_7967Mary 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.


24 thoughts on “At Conker Time

  1. Gail

    This is such a lovely piece, thank you. It’s a reminder (as with all your writing) that people – and nature – touch us in complex and sometimes mysterious ways and can give us some of our most life-affirming experiences.

    1. Bug Woman

      Thank you, Gail! I hadn’t thought of Auntie Mary for years, and then the conkers brought it all back. It’s interesting how nature can unlock us sometimes…

  2. Sarah Finch

    I would say a grandmother’s sister is a great-aunt and therefore a proper aunt. What a lovely tribute to a sweet person.

    I too saw my first shiny conker today, and felt a thrill of delight. But also a twinge of concern at how far ahead of other trees the horse chestnuts are in dropping their leaves the past few years. I’ve seen lots of crinkled brown ones already and am aware that there is a disease causing the trees to drop their leaves and seeds early. Joy in nature is so often tempered by concern at the threats to it these days.

    1. Bug Woman

      Hi Sarah, thank you! And yes, there’s a leaf-mining moth which is causing the leaves to fall early -I wrote a blog post about it a few years ago. Apparently it weakens the trees, but hasn’t yet been implicated in killing them. The one hopeful sign is that blue and great tits are starting to peck at the leaves to get at the tiny grubs – if this takes off as a habit, maybe it will at least reduce the extent of the damage.

    1. Bug Woman

      Thank you, Andrea….it is interesting how the natural world unlocks the memory. I think that the things we experience as children are burned into the brain in a way that later events can’t match. I hadn’t thought about Auntie Mary for a long, long time. I’m thankful to the horse chestnut for reminding me about her…

  3. Brian

    I loved reading this ……. I’m ‘getting on’, and have those kinds of memories about the relationship between things and the past, and also love the sense, in opening a conker, of discovering treasure! Like lots of people in pre-safety-conscious times, I was often twirled round as a child and, as a parent and a grandparent have twirled children in turn. I have never dropped or been dropped but, after your story, I’m not going to do it again, for Mary’s sake. Children, however, love it , and always say ‘again’. I taught children with disabilities like these, for a short time – they had personalities, like everyone else, good and bad.

    1. Bug Woman

      Thank you, Brian! I should say that the twirling round story was always the explanation given for Auntie Mary’s ‘backwardness’, but it might have been that she would always have been this way – it was just simpler for everyone if it was linked to an event. And I loved being twirled round as well. In fact, I volunteered at a project in Cameroon that worked with orphaned baby chimpanzees, and they couldn’t get enough ‘twirling’ either, so I think it’s something hard-wired into the young primate brain.

      And, like you, I love that everybody, and every animal, has their own distinct personality. What richness it brings to the world!

  4. Ann Wright

    I found your tale of your Great Aunt Mary very moving.
    I love to see a fresh conker, the colour is so beautiful. And autumn has always been my favourite season.

  5. Graham Moss

    You are wrong when you say that sh never created a great work of art. She did it here, with a simple Horse Chestnut tree, and we can all see it everyday, just for the looking.

    Thank you.

  6. Toffeeapple

    Like you, I also think of Autumn as a beginning; so much more than January’s winter.

    Your story of Auntie Mary is so heartwarming, if only more of us had the same attitude as she had, the world might be a brighter place.

    I have just come back from France where the Sweet Chestnuts were falling – their cases are far pricklier than Horse Chestnuts.

  7. Toffeeapple

    Indeed they are, they are also roasted on the fire and eaten hot just as we do here (or, perhaps, used to do here.)

    1. Graham Moss

      NO no no! Horse chestnuts are not Chestnuts, as any child in Britain will tell you, and are NOT for eating under any circumstances!

      1. Toffeeapple

        Graham, I think you must have misread my comment, I was takling about Sweet Chestnuts, not Horse Chestnuts.

      2. Graham Moss

        Thank goodness for that! We were well warned off eating conkers as children, and were told not even horses would eat them! That served to stick it in my mind, and I don’t suppose I was alone in that!
        Now yes, chestnuts is another matter entirely. I remember seeing street traders in Paris about 20 years ago who had ‘re-purposed’ shopping trolleys to carry an oil-drum brazier to roast and sell chestnuts on the streets. Could almost live on the smell of them!

        Thank you!

      3. Bug Woman

        Hi Graham, yep, we were discussing sweet chestnuts in France, not horse chestnuts, though I can see how it all gets a bit confusing. I tell you what was eating horse chestnuts in the cemetery last week though, which rather surprised me – a flock of ring-necked parakeets were systematically pulling the ‘nuts’ off the branches, taking a bite and then dropping them in disgust.

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