by Cath Barton
Muriel called me from the bottom of the garden. “Your Great Auntie Ethel’s on the phone,” she yelled. “Sydney’s had a stroke.” Ruddy Sydney. He was always causing mayhem, especially with the way he talked, swearing all the time and upsetting people. Uncharitably, I thought maybe him having a stroke was a good thing.
I was halfway through pruning the bushes, my glasses all steamed up and sweat running into my eyes. I was not best pleased to be disturbed and I did not want to talk to Great Auntie Ethel, who was going to be feeling upset. “Okay, okay. Tell her I’m coming,” I shouted back.
Ethel says she’s so worried and will we come up? Sydney’s able to stand, but “he’s all at an angle and a twist”, that was how she put it. Like your church spire, I thought, but I didn’t say, because she was in such a state she wouldn’t have appreciated the analogy. Ethel lives in Chesterfield, the place with the crooked church spire. I don’t know anything else about it because when we go to visit it takes four hours to get there and we have to run around getting her lunch and money from the Post Office and seeing to Sydney, so there’s no time to go sightseeing. Muriel and I have promised ourselves that one day we will. But there’ll probably have to be a funeral before that happens, and we shouldn’t be morbid.
Muriel said it was ridiculous, to go all that way just because of Sydney. “I know,” I said, “you’re right, but that’s not the way Ethel sees it. She’s the last of that generation and she’s always been good to me.” Muriel went off, muttering about what she’d like to do to Sydney, and I went back to my pruning till tea-time, when we had a calm little talk and decided we’d go.
So we went. Off bright and early, and it was a lovely sunny day for a ride which was a mercy, given the distance. I could see Ethel peeking round her net curtains as we pulled up. She must have put on a turn of speed to get to the door, because normally she took ages. But there she was, flinging it open before we’d even got out of the car. “He’s worse today,” she announced, without so much as a hello. “Look at him.” Sydney was a pathetic sight. As Ethel had said, he was off balance and uncharacteristically quiet. “I don’t think he’ll last the day,” she proclaimed. “Oh, don’t be pessimistic,” I said. “Your Sydney’s a survivor.”
We made lunch, and did the Post Office run and all the other stuff we normally do for Ethel, and when we left Sydney was looking a tiny bit perkier, though he still wasn’t saying anything.
Back home four hours later we rang Ethel. She was weeping. Turned out Sydney had dropped dead just after we left. Ruddy budgie.
Cath Barton lives in South Wales. She’s not sure she’s ever visited Chesterfield, but she has seen the crooked church spire from a train.