Tuesday 27 October 2020

Extract from 'Charlotte - The Lady in White' in tribute to Auntie Hazel.

Today, we said goodbye to Auntie Hazel. She was my great aunt - my dad’s auntie and the widow of my wonderful Uncle Ivan, to whom you can read a tribute here. She was a very kind person, with whom I absolutely loved to spend time. 

Being in Ireland and with Covid restrictions limiting numbers in attendance, I attended her funeral service remotely. To find myself in the Colchester chapel I remember so well from so many past funerals, while at the same time sitting in a kitchen 500 miles away was a very strange experience but I was grateful to be able to attend at all, given the circumstances. 

In the absence of the ability to share my memories with my family today, I thought it might be nice to pay tribute to her here.

I have many, many fond memories of spending time with Auntie Hazel, chatting, drinking tea and eating biscuits, surrounded by the warmth of the home she and Uncle Ivan had created and moulded over decades. I remember her fussing about the mess in his art room and the innumerable teddy bears and salt and pepper pot sets that adorned the home that could only have been theirs. 

One of my favourite memories of time spent with Auntie Hazel and Uncle Ivan was of an afternoon that took place in the summer of 2012. I was carrying out research for my novel ‘Charlotte - The Lady in White’ - a historical fiction novel set in Berechurch Hall in Colchester. When Uncle Ivan and Auntie Hazel found out about this, they told my parents that they had both spent time working on the estate of Berechurch Hall, because Auntie Hazel’s dad had worked there - I believe it was in the gardens. At the time, I was trying (and failing) to locate the remains of Charlotte’s Pool, which is one of the key scenes from my novel. Auntie Hazel recalled seeing it as a child and said that she’d try to help me find it. The extract below is an account of that afternoon, as it might have been seen by the ghost of Charlotte White - the protagonist in my novel. That afternoon spent with my great auntie and uncle in Berechurch demonstrates very well how much fun they both were, how fiercely independent they were and, I hope, how much I loved them both. 

Photo by Tom Archer Photography

Rest in peace together, dear Auntie Hazel and Uncle Ivan. I love you both and miss you terribly. 

Extract from ‘Charlotte - The Lady in White’ by Annie Bell.

For days, I thought of nothing but Jo and Lesley, trying to imagine how I might find a way to reach them again.

Strangely, I did not have to wait as long as I had feared. Four days had passed, when I heard voices on the far side of the army prison. The mention of my name drew my attention and I allowed myself to drift in that direction. The woods that bordered the army prison were dense and full of tangled brambles. It did not take long for me to recognise Jo attempting to trample her way through the undergrowth. She was looking around with a real sense of purpose. It was as if she was searching for something. I was about to move closer to her, when Jo shouted across the woods.

“Auntie Hazel?”

I stopped and looked around. To my great surprise, I soon learned that Jo was accompanied on her walk through the woods, by a petite lady in her late seventies or early eighties. She wore glasses and had short straight hair, which was dark and streaked with grey. She had a very kind countenance. As always, Jo's blue trousers repulsed me but I found it stranger to note that the older lady – Hazel – also wore trousers, like a man. I doubted I would ever grow accustomed to the way it was now considered normal for ladies to dress in this manner.

“I'm here, Jo,” Hazel responded. I'm sorry, I just can't find it now. These woods have changed in the last forty years.” I wondered what they were looking for. Jo sighed rather heavily as though she was anxious about something.

“Well, it's not a problem,” Jo said, craning her neck to look around the woods. Can you see Uncle Ivan?”

“He's buggered off somewhere,” Hazel replied with a big smile. I have to confess that I was shocked to hear such language being spoken by a lady – especially a lady of her age. I'm having so much fun!”

“Yeah,” said Jo. He grabbed that stick and he's been beating back the brambles like a twenty year old. Where's he got to?”

Just then, rain began to plummet from the sky and Jo and Hazel flinched as huge drops of rain landed on them. A panic stricken expression flashed across Jo's face. I imagined she must be concerned about her elderly relatives catching cold.

“Uncle Ivan!” Jo yelled. Auntie Hazel, please stay with me. If we get separated from one another, I'm worried we'll all get lost. Auntie Hazel!” She shouted as Hazel wandered off again and disappeared into the thicket. Fortunately, Hazel returned to Jo straight away. I had the impression Jo was relieved, judging by the deep sigh of relief that exploded from her lungs. Uncle Ivan!” So far, Jo's uncle remained elusive.

From somewhere deep in the woods, a delightful locally accented voice finally called back. Coming!”

A moment or two later, a cheerful, older gentleman emerged from the woods. He wore a bright red jacket and brown slacks, and his strength and upright posture belied his eighty plus years. Tufts of white hair stuck out from beneath his flat cap. What struck me more than anything else was his radiant countenance. I had never beheld such a joyful person in all my years. I was instantly energised by his presence. I watched as he beat down the brambles with a stick to clear a path for himself. I wondered how he could be so fit and well.

“I can't remember how to get back to the car,” Jo explained. I think we're lost.”

“Let's go this way,” said Ivan, walking off without once looking back, thrashing the undergrowth aside with his stick as he went.

For several minutes, I watched Jo and her elderly relatives as they wandered about, trying to find the way out of the woods. Ivan kept becoming separated from the group as he marched off seeking the path. Jo would call him back and his muffled voice would call out from somewhere in the trees. By the time she located him each time, Hazel would then wander off as well. Jo's face glowed red as frustration painted her cheeks.

“It's like herding sodding cats,” Jo muttered under her breath. Although her language displeased me, the image was amusing and to my mind, apt for her situation.

Eventually, it was Ivan who found a fence which bordered a meadow and he followed that back to the main path, where the wretched horseless carriage awaited them.

“That pool is so hard to find,” said Jo.

“I do remember seeing it,” said Hazel.

“Me too,” Ivan concurred. I remember the dome and the bricks, and especially the seashells.” Had they been searching for my grotto? They were a long way off from it, searching where they were. I was pleased that, no matter what happened, my grotto remained as well concealed as it always had been.

“I just can't find it,” Jo said. I really want to see it as well.”

After they scrambled back into the horseless carriage, they didn't head for home. Instead, the horseless carriage veered off along the Berechurch Hall Road and then turned into the entrance for St Michael's. I watched, quite astounded as Jo, and her aunt and uncle visited the Audley Chapel. They examined my memorial and darted about the churchyard.

“I just can't think where they buried the dogs,” said Ivan. Eventually, standing by the fence that divided St Michael's from the apartments that had once been Berechurch Hall, he beckoned and called Jo to join him. Jo and Hazel hurried to his side. 

“Are you alright, Uncle Ivan?” Jo asked. Ivan pointed over the fence at the ground beneath the trees. 

“Oh yes,” smiled Hazel. That's it.” Just beyond the boundary were many little gravestones, bearing the names of dogs that had resided at Berechurch over the years. I had quite forgotten about it. 

Next they drove into Berechurch Hall but they did not remain there for long – there was so little to see. 

“D'you know, Jo,” Ivan beamed, I always liked the stable block the best. The kitchen garden was behind it – all walled off. We used to work there, didn't we, Hazel?”

“Oh yes,” she smiled, nudging him with her elbow. 

“Well, I did see a little road that said 'Stable House',” Jo observed. Just down the road. It's a private road though, so I don't think we can go down there.”

“Whyever not?” Ivan beamed, with a mischievous glint in his eye. If they get cross, we can always tell them we got lost.” Hazel giggled in the back of the horseless carriage and I could not help but laugh. And we can tell them we worked here, back in the day, and we just wanted to look around. We're old. They'll believe us!”

“D'you know, this is the best day out I've had in ages,” Hazel beamed. I had to agree with her.

Jo turned the horseless carriage into what had once been the main driveway to the house. It was narrow, gravelled and surrounded by mature trees. It did not take long, before a high wall and wrought iron gates came into view. 

“That's it!” cried Ivan, as he beheld the beautiful stables. Within a few seconds, a well-groomed and slim lady in the usual modern attire of chemise and trousers appeared at the gate. Her auburn hair was tied neatly back, in what they called a pony tail.

“Are you lost?” She asked. 

“No,” said Ivan, his cheeky smile lighting up his countenance. We used to work here, my wife and I, during the war and we wondered whether we mightn't have a look.”

“Of course!” smiled the lady. I could scarcely believe it. I chuckled to myself when Ivan nudged Jo and giggled like a naughty little boy.

The kind lady soon showed our party the delightful house that had been made from the stables. To the rear, the garden had been landscaped to hold many beds filled with glorious flowers. It was a far cry from the more clinical garden I had known, which had grown food and flowers for the table. Most spectacular of all were the high brick walls, which surrounded the garden. They remained in excellent condition and were covered with beautiful climbing roses and clematis, which were at the peak of their blooming season.

“Thank you so much,” Ivan smiled at the lady, who had been joined by her smartly dressed husband and their little boy and girl. By the way,” he added, my niece here – Jo – is writing a story about Berechurch Hall and one of the families that lived here – the Smyths. Go on, Jo.” He nudged her. Tell them all about it.”

Jo regaled them with the entire tale, leaving out the ghost story aspect. I could understand this, with young children present. She asked if they had any idea where my grotto might be.

“Well I'm sorry,” said the husband. I don't really know much about it. Your best bet, really, is to go next door to the Dovecote House. Mrs Bowen-Colthurst, who lives there, is about ninety and she's lived here her entire life. If anyone can help you, it's her.”

“Thank you so much,” said Jo and her sentiments were quickly echoed by Ivan and Hazel. After a few more minutes of chatting, my party took our leave of the kind couple and returned to the horseless carriage for the short journey. 

“Wasn't that good!” Ivan smiled, his excitement increasing with every minute that passed. 

I was rather impressed to discover that the Dovecote House was somewhat larger than the original building had been. An entire house had been built, incorporating the dovecote into its architecture. I found it strangely beautiful – an L-shaped design with a gravel entrance and a small turning circle. To the right lay a lawn with many pots containing pink geraniums.

Jo held back a little, when Ivan knocked at the door in the crease of the L. I perceived that she was rather grateful for Ivan and Hazel's boldness. 

The door creaked open and a rather stern, elderly lady peered at Jo, Ivan and Hazel. She was tall and thin, with very short white hair. 

“Yes?” Her well spoken voice pealed out.

“Hello,” said Ivan. He introduced everyone and told Mrs Bowen-Colthurst the same story he had told the people in the Stable House, about his and Hazel's shared history at Berechurch Hall. Did you know Mrs Candice?” he asked. 

“Well yes, I remember a Mrs Candice,” nodded Mrs Bowen-Colthurst, Rather vaguely I remember her. Anyway, what can I do for you?”

“Well, Jo here is writing a story about Charlotte's Pool. We've been trying to find it. I don't s'pose you know where it is, do you?” Ivan asked.

“Charlotte's Pool? Well yes,” she confessed, I've been there several times, so I know exactly where it is. I even have a book about it. You'd better come in, I suppose.”

Ivan turned and nudged Jo again, grinning with excitement. A book!” he whispered. Jo, too, was smiling. 

Mrs Bowen-Colthurst stepped back from the front door and led the group into her kitchen, where they all sat around a small oak dining table. She left the room for a moment and returned with a slender brown volume. She took a seat next to Ivan and thumbed through the book, mumbling as she did so.

“There you are,” she said, thrusting the book under Jo's nose. It was open on a page that showed two pictures: one in black and white, which revealed my grotto as it was, albeit in need of some maintenance. The other picture was more colourful but what it revealed was a muddy hollow, similar to the one Mr Stimson had shown Jo all those years earlier. 

I must confess I was confused. I had seen my grotto that very day and neither picture seemed to represent what I saw. I assumed the pictures were of another grotto and that Mrs Bowen-Colthurst had made a mistake. 

“Would you like to borrow the book?” Mrs Bowen-Colthurst asked. Just while you're writing your story?”

“Thanks, that'd be amazing,” Jo smiled. 

“I will give you Reg's number,” she added. He might be able to help you as well.”

“Reg?” Jo muttered. 

“He wrote the book,” our host explained, scribbling on a scrap of paper. He's done a lot of research into all this.” She tucked the sheet of paper into the book and handed it over to Jo. I was most impressed. It was the first time I had seen a finished copy of Reg's book.

“Thank you so much,” Jo said.

“As for the pool,” Mrs Bowen-Colthurst added, I'll s
how you exactly where it is.” With that, she retrieved from the dresser a flat, glowing box, rather like the one Hollie and Jo had used in the woods but much larger. She tapped it a few times and as if by magic, it revealed a map, upon which she pointed to the exact location of my grotto.
This iPad was a ninetieth birthday present to myself,” she announced. Jo's countenance revealed impressed surprise. 

Shortly after that, Jo, Ivan and Hazel excused themselves and left their companion in peace. Jo clutched the book Reg had written, as if it were the greatest prize. 

“Well that was good, wasn't it, Jo!” Ivan chuckled. 

“Wasn't she nice,” added Hazel.

“Thank you so much,” Jo grinned. 

“It's been the most fun we've had in ages,” smiled Hazel. Thank you.” 

They climbed into the horseless carriage and I left them to make their journey. There was much for me to ponder. 

Copyright: Annie Bell 2014

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