Alex I Askaroff
Let me set the scene, this is one of my special days working around the East Sussex countryside, meeting customers and learning a few secrets along the way. Come with me on a journey to meet some Sussex Folk.
The Emerald Ring
‘Good morning Mrs Cornford,’ I called out as she opened the gate to Highland Farm and I drove in.
‘Thought you were the vet,’ she answered, ‘we have a sick ram in the paddock needing some expert help, he has torn a bit of his underbelly on some barbed wire’.
‘Well nothing I can do about that I am afraid, is it serious?’
‘Oh no, Billy has had much worse than that over the years. Ah! Here he is now.’ The vet, in a new four-wheel drive Daihatsu, followed me in; he got out in a lovely clean tweed jacket and pulled on some sparkling Hunter wellies.
‘Looks like a new boy on the job,’ I whispered to Sally Cornford as she closed the gate.
‘Well, we shall see what he’s made of in a moment,’ she replied as she waved the vet over.
I started work on her tatty old Singer 447 in the barn as she and the vet walked down to the paddock where Billy was waiting. I could see through the barn door that Billy was not a happy ram. He was jumping up and down against the metal bars, where they had him penned in and was making a nasty, squeally-neighing noise, like a cross between a sheep and a pig.
Rather him than me I thought as I got down to work on the mucky old machine. The Singer had been used to make everything from horse blankets to tea towels and had had a hard life. Still, no sooner than it was cleaned and oiled, and a few minor parts replaced, she was up and purring like a newborn kitten.
I looked out of the barn as I was cleaning up and saw the Cornford’s all circled around the new vet in the pen. I walked down the farm, passing the old shed with chickens scratching the farmyard floor for a few grains of corn thrown out earlier by Sally, passed the sheep dogs that gave me a lazy glance and down to the pen. At the pen the vet was in a right state, he had taken off his lovely tweed jacket and placed it over the top rail of the pen, rolled up his sleeves and got down to business. The jacket was the only clean piece of clothing that was left, the rest of him looked as if he had been in a mud bath. His lovely pristine Hunter wellies had more mud and muck inside them than out. His spotless check shirt was splattered and smeared with the same stuff that was lying prolifically over the floor; the vet himself was bright red and losing the fight with the boisterous patient.
‘I can see the problem’, I said to Sally with a knowing nod, pointing to a terrible swelling between the ram’s legs.
‘Silly bugger, that’s his assets, the gash is further up his belly, without them jewels he's no use’.
‘Oh, now you know why I am not a vet’, I replied gazing in embarrassed astonishment at the ram’s huge assets that were swinging freely between his legs. Sally saw my expression, which showed quite clearly that I had never seen a breeding ram in his prime.
‘Billy will service my whole flock in less than three days when I need him. He is at his peek at the moment, lucky lad’.
‘I can see’, I replied slightly embarrassed with a touch of pink in my cheeks.
It was amazing how mesmerizing it was watching a vet at his work. We all leant on the pen in various positions and watched the poor young vet eventually get the better of Billy, mind you that was only after he administered something that made the ram pass out. He carried on regardless of his muddy condition making sure the ram was clean and safe. The gash, which was about two inches long, was cleaned, shaved and stitched in a neat little row.
‘Bet your sewing machine could have done that’ Sally’s husband called across the pen.
Before long the ram was brought round. He was let out of the pen and raced out of the yard into the field, not a happy animal by the look of it. He stopped in the field some twenty yards away and shook his head; suddenly, he turned and raced back toward the vet. The poor young vet leapt out of the pen, knocking his clean jacket into the muck. He need not have bothered for at the last second, Billy darted off sideways and ran back out to the pasture.
The vet cleaned up as best as he could with the hose that was attached to the end of the barn. He scraped as much muck as he was able, off his lovely jacket and put all his equipment back in the Daihatsu before making a quick escape out of the farm.
‘Well that’s a lesson he has learnt today’, Sally said watching the car disappear, ‘Fancy him turning up here, tuckered up like a lord at a party to work in our farmyard. He won’t be doing that again in a hurry, he has been watchin’ too much telly, it ain’t all like it seems on the box, he will be shaking muck out of his boots for a week and if he thinks we are paying for his dry cleaning when he sends his bill, he’s got another thing coming, a good slap from me’.
I left the Cornford’s laughing at their poor new boy in his Hunter wellies, I could not help feeling for him; he had done a good job with little help. He was not going to get an easy ride from the Sussex farmers who spend their lives scraping a living from the soil; still we all have to learn. He will find that they will give him respect once he has earn't it. I could just see the Cornford’s down at their local pub all having a good laugh, performing the tale of their new vet leaping over the pen and knocking his last bit of clean clothing, his tweed jacket, into the muck.
The soft morning had left patches of mist in the valleys as I drove to my next call at The Brown Bread Pony Sanctuary in Brown Bread Lane, Ashburnham. The countryside looked like a faint watercolour painting that should be hung on an art gallery wall with hedgerows and trees lifting out of the mist like forgotten forests.
The villages looked as if they were set in some lost landscaped from a 1950’s musical. Shafts of light were dropping down onto the road through the trees like the inside of a dark church on a bright day. The lanes down to the sanctuary, where the sunlight was catching them were steaming like a Turkish bath; even this late in the autumn there was some good heat in the sun. I had made my way down Bodle Street and Windmill Hill along Tilly Lane to the sanctuary. Views of the landscapes hidden by the dense growth of the hedgerows suddenly opened out. Green fields with sheep grazing in the mist with the warm sun on their backs looked magical, it lifted my heart and filled me full of vigour for the day ahead.
The leather machine at the sanctuary had been ‘repaired’ by a friend and returned to them in a non-functioning condition. All I had to do now was get it working. I had heard that story many a time; the friends are just being helpful but soon get out of their depth and drop the machine off worse than when they found it. I am then left trying to sort out what they had done and get the machine working properly.
The sanctuary was full of ponies and horses in various conditions, some of them had been left and unloved, some had just become too much for their owners to look after; all of them had found a new home at the sanctuary where they would find happiness. Horses, besides dogs are probably the closest animals to man on this planet. There is an attachment that people make with horses that is stronger than blood ties. Many times a horse has been listed in divorce proceedings as being shown more love than the husband, quite often rightly so.
They also have brilliant memories. I remember once when I was a kid; my dad was picking up some eggs from a farmer out near Cowbeech. At the back of the farm was a large paddock where two horses lived. One Sunday morning while dad was busy putting the world to rights with the farmer, I decided to go for a ride. The horse had no idea what I had planned, he was not even aware that I was racing down the field as fast as my little legs could carry me; his first notion that I existed was when my hands slapped his rump as I leap-frogged onto his back. I made a perfect jump and landed like John Wayne, smack in the middle of the horse.
I grabbed his mane and hung on. The horse had other ideas; he was not carrying passengers today. He leapt and bucked and in an instant threw me straight over his head, somersaulting onto the ground. I landed dazed and looked round, to my dismay the horse had decided that I needed a lesson in manners. Far from the grass chewing, pretty horse he had been only seconds before, it had transformed and charged at me like a crazed monster. I leapt to my feet and ran for my life with the snarling beast close on my tail. Of course my brothers, who were watching on the safe side of the fence found all this most amusing, shouting encouragement to the horse. I almost cleared the fence in a single bound as the horse slid to a halt, neighing with all the strength he could muster. He stood on the other side of the fence, hoofing the soil and snorting at me, his eyes rolled back and wild.
In all the years that we visited the farm the horse never forgave me. If it caught a glimpse of me he would throw a tantrum, running at the fence then rearing up and scraping the air with his hoofs; and that’s how I know horses have a good memory.
It was an easy job getting the machine at the sanctuary working, the needle bar timing was out and soon it was ploughing through the backlog of horse blankets and rugs that were so desperately needed with winter fast approaching.
I was soon at Mrs Patford’s in Ninfield to repair her Great Aunt’s machine that had not worked for over half a century. She had dragged it out of the attic to repair some net curtains that had frayed at the edges.
‘I am not saying a word Mr Ashkerof, I have just bought your book and I do not want to be featured in your next one’.
‘Ah but you might like being in it’, I laughed back. ‘I could describe you as a beautiful princess or a rich countess’.
‘No thank you I have said too much already, I am now going to get you a cup of coffee, white with two sugars I believe’.
‘Blimey, you really have read the book, yes please’, I answered with a big smile on my face. That was a draw back I had never thought of, no one will talk to me in case they end up in one of my stories. Perhaps I should use a non de plume, or whatever they call it, yes, my next book could be something like, Tales from the East by Raphael Doublepoint, or Mutterings from Afar by Mustnot Talkalot, how about, Fruity Stories by Victoria Plum.
I was well amused by the time the lady of the house returned and it showed on my face.
‘And why are you so pleased with yourself, may I ask’? She said handing me the coffee.
‘Ah, that’s because I know something that you don’t’, I replied.
‘And what may that be’?
‘That you are going to be in my next book’
‘Because of this’, I said handing the lady something that made her stop dead in her tracks.
In the machine, near the needle bar I had found a superb and precious diamond and emerald 18-carat gold ring.
‘I have pulled many an object out of a sewing machine before but never something quite so valuable’, I said to her as she slumped dumbstruck down into a chair. I could see tears welling up in her eyes and put my coffee down.
‘What is it’ I asked, gently.
‘This ring was my great aunt’s. As a child I had always loved this ring and played with it when we visited her in her old mansion down by Bexhill seafront. Now it all makes sense, of course it does, after all these years, I simply cannot believe it’. She stared at the ring holding it up to the light and watching the diamonds sparkle and the emeralds gleam with their green lustre.
‘You will have to tell me now’. I pleaded. ‘You can’t leave me hanging on like this, what are you talking about, please, please tell me, I have to know. By now she had composed herself a little and started her story.
‘When I was still just a small girl, my parents and I used to visit my Great Aunt at the end of every month. We would meet with some of the other family, other aunts and uncles, that sort of thing. She had an old butler, Wilfred was his name; he would bring afternoon tea for us. Strange old man, Wilfred, always looked like he was about to fall over, sort of stooped and bent, he used to scare me. He wore a coat with long black tails like an overgrown swallow’s tail. If it was sunny we would sit out on the veranda overlooking the seashore, it was wonderful’.
‘While we were all having tea, my great aunt would usually send for me. I would be taken to her bedroom, it was very posh and Victorian; I can remember it as if I was there yesterday. She was so grand and well, almost spiritual. She always dressed in black and had beautiful soft white hair tied above her head, like a great round loaf of bread. On her left hand she always wore this beautiful diamond and emerald ring’, she said holding it up towards me.
‘It was the only ring she wore besides her wedding ring. One afternoon she told me that she was going to leave me a strange gift and that although I would not appreciate it now, one day I would understand, I had no idea what she was talking about, I could have been no more than 9 or 10. Anyway I soon forgot all about it and chatted away with her, sometimes we would talk all afternoon, forgetting all about the other relatives in the drawing room. I would tell her all about what I did at school and what the family were doing.
While we talked, or more like, I talked, she would always brush my hair in front of this huge dressing table mirror, with a lovely silver hairbrush. I used to sit on a stool with her behind me; she would let me play with her ring, this ring, while she delicately brushed my hair. I used to let my hair grow really long so that it would take longer to brush. I used to love the way she would take such care over it, I felt like a little princess. On this occasion, when it was time to go, she told me to make sure that I always kept what she was going to leave me and never sell it. I promised, kissed her and skipped back to my parents who were happily idling away the afternoon with Wilfred standing in the corner of the room, hovering like an old bat’.
‘I left her that day still not understanding what she meant; she died three weeks later. I cried for days; my mother told me that I cried enough to fill a village pond. At her funeral I was really surprised how many people came and how many relatives she suddenly had, they were never around when she was alive. At the get-together afterwards, all I could hear people talking about was how much money did they think she had, and who was going to get it; I had to go in another room and cry, no one seemed sorry that she was gone except me. I so longed for her to be there and brush my hair for me, just to be with her one more time to tell her I loved her. I had my hair cut short after she died and never grew it long again’.
Sometime later, I can’t remember how long after Aunt Aggie died, my mother brought me this sewing machine, the one you see here, and told me that my great aunt had left it to me, she had no idea why and nor did I, until today. It was Aunt Aggie’s way of giving me this beautiful ring that I had always loved, without the rest of her family pinching it, God bless her soul’.
At this point she started to cry again but they were tears of joy, tears of a lost childhood being found, of a distant memory, a light being rekindled in the darkness.
Well, if that is not a most beautiful story I don’t know what is, I won’t put it in my new book if you do not want me to’, I said to her as she wiped her face with her hanky. I had thought about offering her my handkerchief, but it was a paper one that had been in my pocket for days and not quite suitable.
‘Oh do put the story in, I would love to read it and remember my dear aunt one more time’.
‘You’ve got it’, I said, ‘Oh, and of course without the ring jamming the machine, your Singer is making a perfect stitch, so now every time you use it you can remember her’.
I left my customer playing with her machine, staring at her gold ring and stroking her hair all at the same time, she did not know what to do first. That was one happy lady. Strange how we humans can cry with laughter, happiness mixed with sadness all at the same time.
At my next call I put my foot in it with my usual delicacy. I was talking to the lady of the house and she kept interrupting me. That is not unusual and I am more than happy for it to happen. Now, the husband was in the other room listening to his wife interrupt me all the time. He suddenly piped up ‘let the man finish will you’.
‘He always butts in, my old man, just ignore him’, she whispered.
‘Well’, I said. ‘Little piggy's have big ears’.
She looked at me and burst out laughing. ‘Not that funny’, I thought, until she pointed to the photos on the wall of her husband all dressed up in his police uniform. Oh God, I had done it again, dropped myself straight in the mire, completely self-inflicted, as usual.
‘Oop’s’ I am so sorry’, I said quietly.
‘Oh, don’t be, it’s the best laugh I have had all day’. At this point her husband, all six foot six of him entered the room to see what all the fuss was about. I put my head down and carried on working, looking very serious at the internal workings of her Brother machine.
‘What’s all the noise about then’? He asked quizzically.
‘Oh nothing dear just something I heard on the Jimmy Young Show, on the radio, that made me laugh’. I kept my head down but felt the full force of his stare bore through me. I knew if I looked up I would see him staring straight at me, so I kept my head down.
I was glad to get out of the house before the wife let it slip what I had said. Calling a policeman a pig even by mistake is not too smart even by my standard. I had visions of a size 12 boot up my backside, helping me out of the house.
I made my way down to Cooden for one last call before lunch then headed along the old coast road to Pevensey Bay. On the little beach huts that lay along the first part of the beach as you leave Cooden, starlings were gathering on the rooftops in their hundreds. Above them swallows lined the telephone wires and in the fields on the other side of the railway lines, groups of goldfinch were lifting then dropping into the bushes, like washing blowing on a line. They were all on their last stop on British soil, waiting for a favourable wind before shooting the sixty miles across the Channel. The little huts the starlings had perched on were no more than six feet by eight and where many a happy childhood was spent on the beach. Miles of open sand at low tide and fresh air are what summer holidays by the sea are all about.
This part of the coastline is one of the last unspoilt parts of our area, how long before the developers come-a-calling is anybodies guess. Miles of open pasture and farmland with panoramic views must be so tempting for developers. For now, it is still a blissful part of old England, unchanged for decades.
I stopped at the Normans Bay railway crossing, the last manually operated crossing in the country and waited for the Bexhill train. Before long the gentle hissing of the rails announced the 12.30 to Bexhill. It raced passed with a loud hoot, a shaking and a buffeting wind; the lineman appeared from his small hut and opened the gate, waving me through, I waved as I passed and he touched his cap. He is like the last lighthouse keeper, a dying breed. It won’t be long before he is replaced by an automated system of blinking lights and clicking solenoids. It is sad, but as inevitable as one breath follows the next.
I made my way along the old road to the back of Pevensey Bay, passed my old home where I spent many a happy hour at number 266 Coast Road. My dad had a bungalow right on the seafront and our back garden was the sea. I spent two happy years there, fishing and walking along the miles of open sand with him. At night I would let the sound of the waves rock me into blissful sleep and the fresh, salty smell of heaven would greet me each new day. To this day, I have never slept so well as I did by the sea.
It had been a busy morning, what with mistaking a ram’s impressive ‘assets’, for a swollen wound, then dropping myself in it with a huge policeman. However, the real joy of the day, was the expression on the face of a lady when she saw something that had been lost to her for over 50 years; that gold, emerald and diamond ring had whisked her away on a journey through time, to visit a long forgotten aunt and her strange butler in their seaside home, to feel once more like a little princess.
So what did you think? These are all true stories of my working travels over the years, do let me know: firstname.lastname@example.org
If you would like to read more stories they are in my Random Threads trilogy.
Alex Askaroff book Reviews