Character is everything.
In the bewildering years I spent growing up in this leafy hamlet, there was a man I used to pass, virtually every day, walking down the road.
Early evening, as the light grew dim and the shadows yawned across the fluttering spikes of ornamental grasses, I would pass this stretched and slender figure, with lank, ash-blonde hair.
He would be walking back from the shop, with cigarettes and wine. I was walking to the shop, for cigarettes and coffee. We acknowledged one another with a glance, but never nodded, never spoke. We couldn’t you see, he was busy.
Every evening, without fail, I’d watch him swing his plastic bag, and silently scream.
He pouted for effect, but it was the silent screaming that stands out in my memory. The unknown man made loose-lipped and dramatic embouchure shapes, and gesticulated wildly with his willowy arms. It seemed to me that he was semi-dancing and soundlessly shouting just for himself. My appearance was incidental, and made no difference to him.
I had no idea what he was doing but I became fascinated by this strange performance. Every day I would walk up the hill at the same time, hoping to catch a glimpse of him, praying I would understand this compelling but alien behaviour.
He remained lost in translation for many years.
Frustrated by my own inability to translate his dancing vowel-mouth, I admit, for the most part, I gave up my hypothesising. It wasn’t until ten years later, we passed in the street, and I had just learnt enough lip-reading to make out, “Go on now go!”.
And just like that, I knew: he was miming Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive.
For ten years.
Soon after this realisation, I discovered he was a bona fide genius who had collapsed under the weight of his own intellect, and become a cabaret performer. If anybody had told me that in my head-scratching years, it’s doubtful I would have believed them.
To my mind, he is a character. He gives the village an oft-needed shot of colour.
We had a friend who used to come to the Club quite often. He came down to Devon to care for his mother “temporarily”. I suspect at the time she would have been in her late eighties.
Clearly, she was blessed with superhuman genes, because she lived quite a way past her one-hundredth birthday.
A little way north of middle-age, he was a little chap with the most extraordinary taste in t-shirts I have ever seen in an older man. He carried a pocket watch, and wrote to the local newspaper on a weekly basis.
Particularly when the member of staff has appeared to start the shift, rather than get straight to work checking the gases and glasses, and getting the room into a workable state, we often switch on the radio. The building is not old enough to have a date painted on an outside wall, but it has enough years to it now that it makes noises. It creaks. It yawns. To avoid the sudden shudder of identifying the creak, we put on some music. Usually, something rather to the point starts up, and it was usually at that moment, Tony would arrive. In his seventies and a Stones t-shirt, he came dancing through the door to Let’s Talk About Sex more than once.
He often said that his greatest accomplishment was passing the cycling proficiency test in 1952. When he discovered that Aimée’s birthday fell on Valentine’s Day, he sent her a card and signed it with a question mark. She adored him, as did I.
The Saturday nighters have known each other for years. Like a married couple who can complete each other’s sentences, this group can finish each other’s jokes. Sometimes, they sing. The Theme From The Godfather is a particular favourite.
Most famous among the Saturday night crowd is a very handsome goat farmer. Having sustained a head injury some years ago, he speaks quite slowly, almost as if he’s on a time delay, but he has a heart of gold and a surprisingly good memory for jokes.
Spending his days surrounded by goats, he has a very specific personal perfume. It’s pretty strong.
Perhaps because the Saturday Nighters have been friends for so long, they speak their minds quite freely. A couple of them have told the goat farmer they can smell him from outside the building. I don’t think they realise: he has three jackets. One on, one in the wash, and one that hangs in the goat pen. Knowing how much the smell bothers them, on Saturdays, he wears the one from the goat pen.
There was a lady up the road from me who was an utter delight. She called everybody ‘darling’; as such, she got away with insulting all and sundry. Somehow, it doesn’t really register when a little old lady says, “Darling, you’re an idiot.”
She used to have her shopping delivered. As a small convenience store, we didn’t have vans or drivers, and we didn’t do delivery.
We delivered to Sylvia. Every week, she would put in her order, which would include a couple of packs of chicken thighs and about eight bags of porridge. Some of the porridge may have been for her own consumption, but the chicken thighs were a conundrum. She was vegetarian. With a shrug, we determined that it wasn’t for us to reason out why she wanted the chicken that appeared on her order with such regularity.
One day when I made the delivery, she told me. She cooked both chicken and porridge and put it out for the badgers.
There’s an older gentleman in the village, all tweeds and handlebar moustache. He used to have a little wife who would trot along six feet behind him when they walked.
Approaching eighty, they broke up. Now, he has a German shepherd, that walks six feet behind him.