When I left the Island of the Great White Owl to go to the Ancestors my fingers were tired from sending messages so I decided to call upon the Ferry Women, who came very promptly and had kindly set up a long bench with a soft mattress in order that I could stretch out and dangle my fingers into the cool water of the river. The mountains of history rose on either side as we drifted toward the jetty.
I farewelled the good women and carefully started off by foot down the cobbled pathway, my cane seemed to pause and tremble now and then as though the very stones had messages. Tall hedges hid the buildings. The path was steep but as my footsteps grew lighter and quicker I rounded the first hill and found myself gazing over a series of meadows. The fields marked by hedges, the cottages surrounded by gardens, great trees seem to have been preserved as the tracks of the farm machinery circled around them.
My narrow pathway lead me at last to a tiny village, one street, one pub, an old stone church, a school, houses with doorways stepped down to the roadway. Thirsty but fearful I stepped into the pub and asked for a drink.
“You are a stranger here, what brings you to the village?”
“ I came to rest, to read, to find hope after storm, to seek the distant cousins I knew long ago.”
I told him. “Ah! that one” he laughed, “I’m not sure I should tell you, Miss, for he was my school master, gave me five good ones once across the backside……I’d not done any homework for six weeks, and stolen Jennie’s pen to catch up. Old boy’ had eyes in the back of his ‘ead,’ he said.”
O Dear, was I going to find my grandfather so severe. I had to ask.
“ You should find him up to the school house, he’ll talk to you, that’s for certain, talked to everyone who’d listen: politics with the old Earl, religion with the Bishop,
the sins of the kiddies with the parents, housing with the tenants_ old bird was talking himself out the day before he came here.”
I ordered a double whisky, drank it down and proceeded through the village to the big stone cottage.
Sitting on the wide veranda, two people, the white-haired school master trim in a well-cut suit, the lady wife in a long black skirt, white shirt and a wide deep hat “Good morning, dear, we’ve been waiting for you, your cousins have all been coming through, Virginia in her actress costume, Joyce in her dancing slippers, Dolly as round as always with a great basket of flowers, John in uniform, Ted was wearing a stetson, so many of you, we’ve not seen Pitt, and you, we know are only visiting. Welcome, my dear, what can we show you here?
I told them that all I wanted this visit was a time to learn why they had come to the village all those years ago.
My grandmother’s tiny frame shook with laughter. “We were very young, young teachers with two tiny boys. Your grandfather wanted to save the world so he started in a village school. We came up from London on the train. He left that night to fetch our things. The big storm came. The wind howled, the boys cried, I cried, the branches swayed across those windows. All the night wrapped in some blankets too afraid to find the upstairs rooms. But with the morning all was fresh and bright, the village women brought me fresh baking and two young girls offered to serve as maids. They stayed ten years.
“You were busy enough, the grandfather’s eyes sparkled, four more sons and a daughter born in that room, busy enough but still found time to ride that tall bicycle of yours all round the village and to teach the kiddie classes.” He caught her hand.
And you, Grandfather, did you save the world? “ Ah, no my dear, but look behind you we did change the place a bit. There are good solid houses, our students to senior school and some to the university. The workmen get a decent wage, the village has electricity and running water. They said I spent my family time on politics, perhaps I did. I’ve been sorry that I could not know my boys better before they left. Still they’ve been forgiving as they passed this way, Will was a bit late seems just the other day he came, telling stories as usual, some fibs, of course, didn’t mention two wives at once to us.”
“Now John,” she intervened, “ don’t be too hard on Will, he spent his last years well. I wanted so much to say goodbye to him, to Ted, to Ernest, and my darling, Harry but they were all so far away when I left. Our Dorothy came here so early . She met us at the jetty when we reached the Isle. Why don’t we all gather in the Hall of Ancestors tonight and party for our visitor. She won’t be allowed to be with us for long. She has a job to finish on the other shore.”
The evening came, and all the clan gathered under the canopy of the storied sky, all in this sacred isle, each choosing the age that he loved best: My father with his children in his arms, his tiny wife nearby; the wild uncle with ship’s company, both wives laughing; Ted in his gardening clothes, spade in one hand and one of the kids with a bucket of raspberries trailing behind; Charlie, Ethel and their five; Dorothy always young, for she did not grow old; my dear Aunt Jessie singing the songs of the music halls, the naughty ones she sang for me, and lastly my own dear Peter, listening.
I rested in an upstairs room for two whole days, and read the books, the diaries, Grandfather’s day book, and the records in his family Bible. When the call came I was almost unwilling to leave. My cane touched the sacred stones , tapped down the hill to the waiting ferry. I left the Isle knowing that they would all be there waiting to greet me when I came again.