OLD JOE

by Bruce Parkin


The earliest recollection of my friend Joe was that he was old. I don't mean old, like Mum and Dad, but really OLD. Positively ancient. Calculations done in later life put him around sixty when I started to take notice of him. His eyes were a deep brown, with flecks of gold in them, watery with age, but kind and perceptive. What little hair he had left was grey and hung over his ears. Most of the time his face sported at least a day's growth of beard and he had a paunch, despite the fact that he would ride around on a decrepit and rickety bicycle.

He lived just a few miles away in the next village. To my mother's horror, he smoked a pipe, although he never did so indoors whilst we were there. I always recall that his house had a wonderful sweet aromatic scent derived from years of smoking fragrant tobacco. How he achieved this heady perfume I do not know, but I do know that he grew his own tobacco. He did a lot of things for himself that you or I would not think of doing. He tried, as far as he could, to be self sufficient. He had made a solar panel from an old central heating radiator to supplement his hot water. He had a small orchard at the bottom of his large garden with apples pears, plums, peaches and blackberries. He grew all his own vegetables, kept chickens, so had a constant supply of fresh eggs. He baked his own bread, grew his own grapes and brewed his own wine from them and made his own ice cream, of which he gave me huge amounts.

He was a fount of wisdom, general knowledge, jokes and fantastic tales.

His wife had died some years before I got to know him. He had an old brown and white dog which, when I saw him out on his bike, would run alongside him as he trundled along the narrow lanes. When I was tiny and we all three went for walks, he made me a wooden jointed dog on wheels that I used to pull behind me. Later in life he made me a treacle tin steam turbine, candle and cotton reel tanks and elderberry branch peashooters.

Mum used to tell me not to bother him so much, but he always seemed to have time for me. As I used to go past his house on the way to and from school, I used to call in to see him after school and she would pick me up from there. He would give me some of his home made cake or biscuits and, when the weather was hot, some of his home made lemonade. He always used to tell me that it was his wife who had taught him how to make that delicious drink.

In the Winter time, he would have a large black saucepan bubbling gently on his large solid wood range emitting wonderful odours as incredible tasting soups simmered on the hob. A bowl of that along with a couple of thick slices of bread and butter and I was set up for the hardships of winter. When I was about ten, we had a very hard winter with lots of snow so he made me a sledge. He swore to me that the first one he had made was a "Blue Peter" design and he still had it in his shed. He took me sledging and we had the most wonderful time. Since then, the winters have never produced enough snow, but his sledge still hangs in our garage.

In the Spring, he would take me for walks in the woods with the dog, and, even though I was not all that interested at the time, he would show me all sorts of things; the rabbit warren, the fox's den, the badger sett, dozens of different flowers, which he either knew by name or could find from a little book he carried with him. When I got bored with that, we would play hide and seek and similar games. We would build dams in the stream and make small boats from conker shells and sail them down small waterfalls to see who's could go furthest without capsizing. I would tell him about school and what I had done since I had last seen him and he would suck on his empty pipe and gently ask all sorts of questions about my lessons. Sometimes he would ask me to teach him about something I'd done in class and I would go through it with him. I know now that he knew more about it than I did and was just helping me to learn. Sometimes, when Mum and Dad got on my nerves and upset me, I would go to him to tell him all my troubles and he would always listen carefully to my highly distorted point of view and then, without malice or criticism, he would straighten out the story and then offer different ways for me to sort out my problem.

In the Summer, he would take me fishing in the local ponds and, when I was older, the river. I would return home with frog spawn, tadpoles and small fish all in jars, much to Mum's disgust. She would make me take them back and release them. When we were fishing, he would light up his pipe to keep away the midges and we would sit on the bank in the sunshine. We both wore hats against the sun as I have fair hair and he had none. Whilst we waited for the fish to bite, he would tell me stories about the past, when he was little and about his father and grandfather. He had a vast wealth of knowledge about his family history and he had that enviable knack of being able to make the past come alive. I got many an extra mark on my history essays by recalling and writing his recollections and anecdotes.

In the Autumn, we would go bike rides together and he would show me woods off the beaten track where the turning leaves produced fantastic displays of colour. We would also collect sweet chestnuts and mushrooms, take them home and have a wonderful feast. We also picked wild berries and I would help him make various wines while he explained how yeast worked.

I did pretty well at school. Mum and Dad encouraged me and always turned up for school football and cricket matches. Joe would not miss a home game. Come rain or shine, he would be on the touchline waving a large wooden rattle, (I told you he was really old), or I would hear him shout "Well hit lad" as I cut a good length ball to the boundary. He hadn't got a car, so he couldn't come to away games, but he never failed to ask me how the game went. He never forgot my birthday nor Christmas either. There was always a card and a small present. The old chap wasn't very well off, so most of the time, the presents were home made things. I can still hear his voice as he said to me once. "I ain't poor, I just don't have any money."

Boy, could that man tell stories. On Halloween, he used to come out with the scariest ghost stories that had the hairs on the back of my neck standing straight up and my fingers tingling with delicious terror. Mum used to give me things to take to him. It was mostly food and clothes and the odd book.

As I grew older, I spent less time with him. Sport, computers, friends, girls all took up more and more of my time. Joe never seemed to mind my scarcity but always made me welcome when I deigned to go and see him. When I went away to University, I am ashamed to say that I only wrote him a couple of letters during my time there, but he was always around when I came home to take me for the odd pint and chat about what I had been up to whilst on campus. As girls became more important in my life, they would form quite large parts of my conversations with him. I eventually brought the girl that I would marry home to see Mum and Dad. Naturally, she had to meet Joe as well. The old chap, he must have been over seventy five by then, was wonderful with her. Of course he was invited to the wedding and gave us the most magnificent wall clock. Not one of these battery driven things but a beautiful timepiece that chimed the quarter and struck the hour. The gentle ticking and mellow tones gave our rooms a wonderful peaceful atmosphere.

It nearly broke my heart when we had to tell him that we had decided to emigrate to Australia. Mum and Dad were sanguine, but I was unsure how the old fellow would take it. When I told him, he paused for a very long time and then said. "Aye, well, my brother emigrated there before your Mum was born and made a good life for himself out there. I'll give you the names and addresses of his children so you'll have someone to visit when you get lonely." "Of course, you can always write can't you?"

When the big day arrived, Mum and Dad brought him to the airport to say "Goodbye". Like the gentleman he was, he stood in the background whilst my wife and I said goodbye to our parents. It was a long, tearful and emotional experience, but saying farewell to him was a lot worse. You see Mum and Dad were in their late forties by then and reasonably well off. Old Joe was over seventy, with little or no money to spare. Knowing that I would probably never see him again, with tears in my eyes, I walked up to him, my very best friend, shook him by the hand and embracing him with a warm hug, I whispered in his ear.

"Goodbye Granddad. God Bless. Thanks for all your help and take care of yourself."


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Old Joe, 4 November 1996