It was in one of the breaks in the rain that i settled in the cafe. Built into the old Town Hall, it sat in the market square of a typical medieval rural English town. Large windows in the formerly open arches looked out over the dappled cobbles to the row of shops: a bookshop, opticians, traditional butchers. In the cafe there were just a few of us sat around, reading, talking, thinking and listening. And Eve.
In the corner, alert and talkative, sat Eve, ninety eight years old and bright as a button. The Town Hall had been built in 1540, whilst Eve had arrived in 1914, just at the start of the First World War. In fact, she had been born barely thirty feet from where she now sat, in a house that still stood alongside the market square. Eve talked and everyone else listened. Why? Because her stories were captivating, relevant, alive and told like they had happened yesterday.
The house that stands today, with it’s satellite dish and pretty curtains used to be divided in two. It was divided in two in 1940 when, at the age of 26, the Second World War came to town. Bombers returning to the coast who had failed to find their targets would jettison their bombs over Eve. The first time the windows were blown out at the back, her mother just swept up the glass and didn’t complain. The second time she fretted and at the third she had the window bricked up. It was only supposed to stay that way till the end of the war, although it’s still closed up now and, i suspect, would require extensive planning permission to re open.
Fortunately, Eve slept on the other side of the house, although that didn’t save her when she woke up one morning to find the whole rear wall of the bedroom had gone.
And as we sat in the sun, watching the last traces of rain drip from the trees, Eve told the story of the row of houses at the top of the Market square. ‘What houses’, asked one of the waitresses, indicating the empty space. In 1941 when the bombs had dropped there, all six houses had disappeared, although thankfully only one was occupied. A granny, her daughter and a young boy, who she described as having played in the village. The tragedy that the whole family had moved down from London to be safe from the bombs.
She described how everyone had cried, how the town had come together in sorrow at the loss of one little boys life. It was with real compassion that she described the rationing, the fear, the noises, expressing how terrible it had been and the hatred and fear of the Germans. But then going on to say how we were doing the same things to them, how scared they must have been. “If only they could have got together”, she said, “think how many lives could have been saved”.
Reflection and the passage of time taking us away from the sounds of bombs and tears shed for a small boy, to a place where the stories became something to remember, but to wish that people had had more wisdom, maybe a hope that we had learnt from it all.
As her stories travelled through the decades, gathering moss like the building we sat in, she talked about her own journey, the things she had learnt, through to the present day, describing how she came out every weekend to sit in the cafe, seeing some old friends, talking to different people. “You have to make a life for yourself” were her parting words.
I felt a great sense of continuity sat there for probably forty five minutes, just listening. Her friend opposite, the elderly man with his teenage grand daughter, the waitresses, different people from the town as well as visitors. Everyone caught up in the stories, fielding questions, listening to the story told as we sat on the very stage where it took place.
Against the pace of change that whips around us, against the frenetic activity to adopt new things, the move, to expand, to break down our horizons, it was a curiously miniature drama, but one told with great clarity and compassion. Captivating and relevant to the place it was told. What i learnt from it? The power of stories, the congruence of place and tale, the need to make a life for yourself, to take ownership and not expect it to drop into your lap. And the sense of calm, of community and of sunshine on the cobbles and the brightness of the stones that had stood there for five hundred years.