One of the nicest parts of central Oxford is the Covered Market. It's by no means the cheapest emporium in town, but it is full of interesting things, like butchers' shops, which in the killing season are festooned with the hanging corpses of game, and the only fishmonger in town (there used to be two) and Cardew's the tea and coffee shop (twice the size it was when I first came here in 1985), and a greasy spoon caff, some smarter eateries, and twee little shops for the tourists, and I could go on. One of my favourites is a tiny little shop that sells things made from wood.
I've bought a few things there - a walking stick with a cobra's head handle, a little holding cross for a Christening present to a child from a family so low church he wasn't actually being Christened, a fruitbowl with a handle carved out of one piece of (sustainable, of course) teak, and a clever little mystery box with sliding panels and a hidden key (because HL didn't like the rather more rustic fruitbowl). And there was much else to be tempted by. But one thing I couldn't understand was the hares. I'd only seen a wild hare once, before last year, many years ago shortly after we moved to Sussex - I could take you to the precise spot, on Angmering Park Farm Estate which belongs to Lady Herries, the daughter of the 16th duke of Norfolk, the heiress who could inherit a couple of ancient baronies, but not the dukedom and Arundel Castle. Here in this little shop, hares abounded - recumbent, howling at the moon, a trio dancing round a mirror, and in all sorts of sizes. What sort of person buys a wooden hare? I wondered.
That was last Spring (2013), and at the end of May my mother and I and her friend Sylvia went on a great expedition to the wilds of Lincolnshire. This is not something most people would choose to do, but both my mother and Sylvia had ancient parents in the county, and it made sense to kill two old birds with one stone, as it were. It was a drizzly, miserable sort of day, the sort I love to go out walking in, rather than being cooped up in even the most comfortable car, and it was something of a trepidatious undertaking, too. My mother had not seen Pop for well over a year, since my father had fallen ill and died. I had not seen him for even longer - maybe twelve years. He had only returned from Australia in 2006, after 43 years in Perth, and chose to settle in Lincolnshire where he has a niece, with his daughter and son-in-law. Lincolnshire is not easy to get to from Oxford, and no invitation was ever forthcoming. This didn't bother me unduly, as for the whole of my childhood - and my mother's - Pop had been a stranger to us. He left my grandmother before my mother was even born, their wartime marriage (Friday the 13th of February 1942, not that Christian people believe in omens) unable to sustain the pressure of peace. Grandparents are an acquired taste, one best acquired in childhood, when one is at one's most forgiving. I knew my other three grandparents well, and loved them, but I don't know that I would have selected them to be my friends in adult life, if I'd not known them as a child. Pop excused himself from that duty, and what may perhaps also have been a pleasure, just as he denied himself the responsible and joys of fatherhood until he met his second wife, who arrived with one daughter from her first marriage, and then they had a child of their own, my half-aunt. But I don't know that children ever particularly interested him. He liked cars, dogs, and the war.
This was a duty call. We had been told by my aunt who was provided round-the-clock care for her father, that he was failing. Curiously, apart from "vascular dementia", there was nothing actually wrong with him, but somehow he qualified for palliative care nurses to give her a tiny bit of rest from time to time. He was coming up to his 93rd birthday, and until the last couple of years, had been in entirely good health, and mentally as agile as he'd ever been. So this was to be the last time we would see him. I went to support my mother, and a little out of curiosity. My sister has no time for men who neglect their children. My now-dead father was of like mind. I am more tolerant of the past and its complexities, and certainly I'd regard actually being married to either of my maternal grandparents as a living hell. They chose badly, back in 1942, but over seventy years later that was not to be held against a dying man.
Despite the rain, and the inevitable traffic rain causes, the journey had its compensations, one of which was a stop-off in Ely. Mother and Sylvia wanted tea. I wanted to drop in to the cathedral, to see if I could take a photograph of the wonderful memorial tablet which speaks of the departed having "exchanged time for eternity". And somehow I drifted into a bookshop, and found a slim volume on East Anglian genealogy, which as I have roots in Cambridgeshire and Norfolk, and had a book token in my wallet, was just the thing.
Then it was back to the big smart car - Sylvia very gamely drove all the way, despite not long since having had a hip operation - and off along smaller roads through Norfolk. "Very flat, Norfolk" people are fond of quoting from Noel Coward, as if that's a criticism. I rather like it. Also the rich soil, which produces vegetables rather than cereal crops, and which only gets better as you turn the corner into Lincolnshire. And then, through the drizzle, sitting on the back seat, looking across a field of cauliflowers, I saw it - a hare. It was a slow windy road, so we weren't going fast, but even so, it was the most fleeting glimpse, just a few seconds, but long and close enough to know for sure from its size, its ears, and its gait, that it wasn't a rabbit. For some reason that utterly delighted me, and I started to have a good feeling about this trip.
Arriving much later than we hoped, Sylvia dropped us off at the inn nearest to our cousin's village, and went off to see her mother at her nursing home, where there were rooms for family to stay overnight. We visited Cousin Barbara, whom I'd met only once before, in London, with Pop and my aunt, and met her husband for the first time - a man who'd lived all his life in that little village (Pop's family all came from Lancashire). Pop was not well enough to be visited, so we postponed that ordeal to the next afternoon, after lunch in Boston, with Sylvia, and her mother, Margaret, and Barbara. I'd never been to Boston before, nor seen it's famous "Stump", which isn't a stump at all, but an implausibly tall tower on an already enormous church. It was drizzling like anything yet again, so after lunch, I left the grown-ups to it, and went exploring. I was using a postcard of the Stump as a bookmark last night. I rather liked Boston, its church, its market, and Margaret, who, although nearly 95 and deaf as a post, had taken the course of always smiling, so although you couldn't have a proper conversation, you felt that if you could, you'd have liked one another. Shrewd move on her part - or perhaps merely the end result of an always-sunny disposition.
And so to see Pop. We were greeted warmly by Lynda and Mal, with tea and excellent home-made carrot cake. Clearly they were both worn out by the ordeal of looking after the old man for so long. My step-grandmother, Jean, had died suddenly in 1999 (of lung cancer - she was one of the ones who'd never smoked and die of it anyway to spite the statistics), and so it fell to Lynda to look after her father. Thinking about it later, he'd been looked after all his life - by his mother, by the army, by my grandmother, by his mother again, by Jean, and now Lynda. It wouldn't have occurred to him that it could be any other way. He was not blessed with immense powers of imagination.
Mother went first, and then invited me upstairs to see him. There had been a faint recognition of her. Bear in mind, there would be relatively few long-term memories for him to draw on - he never knew her as a child, nor me, so I didn't have great expectations. I have to say he looked good, I've never seen a dying man look better, with his familiar mop of wavy white hair, and his rosy cheeks. He'd evidently lost weight, and clearly had deteriorated since my mother's last visit, but I had been prepared for a shock I didn't get. Mother introduced me - "Do you remember Richard, your grandson?" "Not really". Well, that was a pretty lucid reply! And then he drifted off to sleep for a little while, as I stood by the window, looking at the lengthening shadows of the few tall trees edging the adjacent potato field in the afternoon sunshine. Then he perked up from his drowse, and looked right at me, and said "Richard". How's that for short-term memory? Despite my low expectations, I was chuffed, and the more so because it pleased my mother, who, like most mothers, has always cared infinitely more for her children than herself. We had done our duty, and Pop had risen to the occasion.
On the journey home - they dropped me off in Cambridge, so I could take the cross-country coach back to Oxford, rather than fiddle through London, or back from Sussex - I kept thinking of that hare I had seen in North Norfolk. I had a feeling, which I was fighting both with my faith and my logic to resist, that it had been a good omen, because what could have been a solemn and dark journey of resentful duty was redeemed. Pop died three weeks later to the day.
When I got home to Oxford, the next time I had an appointment in town I went to the Covered Market and to the little shop of wooden things, and bought myself a hare. We were in the throes of moving to a new flat, and much in need of a bit of luck. Now I knew what kind of people buy wooden hares, and rather surprisingly I turned out to be one of them. We have been very happy in the new flat, and a week or so after we moved in, on a walk into the countryside, I saw a couple of hares in a meadow.