Tea with the dinosaurs!

For a man of 93 who’d worked on the land since the age of 13 and had only been out of Lincolnshire a hand full of times, Tom knew an awful lot about Dinosaurs. He was an avid collector of Dinosaurriana – if there is such a word, children’s books, posters, cigarette cards, in fact, anything remotely connected with Dinosaurs. When Kellogg’s introduced a free plastic Dinosaur with each packet of cereal he thought he’d won the pools! His mantle piece and window sills were festooned with them, and as far as I am aware, they never felt the flick of a duster. He rarely missed an opportunity to talk about them and his statistical knowledge on the subject was quite staggering.

 There was however, a fundamental problem. With Tom’s broad Lincolnshire accent and regular mispronunciation, his detailed explanation regarding the dining habits of the Tyrannosaurus Rex could soon begin to resemble a conversation with Stanley Unwin a few minutes prior to closing time.

I’d known Tom all my life, even as a child in the 1950’s I remember him – already a middle-aged man – riding through the village astride a blue Fordson Major tractor. On seeing the children he would often zigzag, or stand on his seat with one leg in the air like a trick motorcyclist. The more outlandish his tricks, the more we cheered and waved. He seemed a much larger man then, I’ve often wondered , did he become smaller over the years? Or was it just that tractors got bigger?

Tom’s appearance was by no means that of the archetypical burley Lincolnshire farm worker, he was a small slim man, with a fresh complexion and a full head of ‘wiry’ grey hair. His attire rarely varied – at work or home – a dark blue boiler suit, with a wide brown belt around the middle. His footwear usually consisted of brown boots in the summer and Wellingtons during the winter. He was never without his oil stained cap, which when wet, would on occasion, catch the sunlight, making the curve of the peak shine like a mini rainbow. His pipe – often unlit – hung from the corner of his mouth, his smile revealing a deeply worn groove in his dentures, into which the stem of his pipe conveniently fitted, as if by design.

Apart from dinosaurs and his garden, Tom had few other hobbies, although, he did enjoy a spot of fishing, a pastime which despite his best efforts to spark my interest as a teenager, never caught my imagination. I did however spend many happy hours with him on the banks of the river Till, between Scampton and Sturton – by -Stow, “drowning maggots”, as he put it when failing to make a catch.

I was quite content to read, or just lie in the sun listening to Tom’s tales of year’s gone by, working with horses and threshing with steam, of good times and bad. How when threshing during the war, the men on top of the stack, on finding a nest of mice, would do their best to drop ‘the little pink un’s’ down the necks of the land army girls working below, causing screams from them, and howls of delight from the men above as they watched the girls ‘rip off’ their overalls and blouses, with little thought given to modesty.

How his friend, when feeding the sheaves into the Threshing Drum, slipped and stepped into it loosing a leg, leaving the firemen the grisly job of removing it the following day.   He spoke in a hushed voice of his regrets at not being involved in the war due to his agricultural exemption; but, as he said, with a rye smile,  “I ad a rate ode time with them land army lass’s”.

Tom had a self deprecating sense of humour and could be very amusing without being aware of it, a trait together with his sense of honesty and fair play, gave me a lifelong feeling of endearment and respect towards him.

When fishing, he had an annoying habit of forgetting to pack his reading glasses and as a consequence, struggled to thread his hook, a task which would invariably fall to me.

On one particular occasion I decided to sit on the opposite bank to face the sun. It was a warm day towards the end of June, not a breath of wind or a cloud in sight, utter silence, apart from the occasional vehicle on Tillbridge lane. As I lay, eyes closed and lost in thought, I became aware of Tom muttering obscenities under his breath. I looked up to see him – hands held high – squinting against the sky as he attempted to thread his hook. Deliberately ignoring him I returned unnoticed to my day dreaming, “I’ll tell ya wot’, he echoed across the water’,“I’d give two hardly used B******s for one good eye”.

Tom had never married, owned a car or a television, a fact of which he seemed very proud, for as he put it, “The fost un’s two’s too dang expensive, and the last un’s nor good ta man na’ beast”.

I was aware he occasionally listened to classical music on the radio, and once asked him what he thought of Opera, ‘Not much’, he replied.” “It’ud mec’ more sense if they sang the bugger in English”.

The coming of the 1970’s saw me married with two children and like most thirty-something men, my time was taken up with work and family. And Tom? He worked until well turned 80. I still saw him most days if only to wave to, backside in the air tending the garden at the side of his house, still dressed exactly the same, with the exception of his pipe, now constantly alight enveloping him in a seemingly permanent ‘Blue haze’ of ‘Old Holborn’, or was it ‘Red Breast’?

The older he became, the more his pipe seemed to dictate the order of his life. Early one autumn morning I looked out of my bedroom window to see him surveying his garden, prior to digging it over for the winter and was witness to just what an indispensable piece of gardening equipment a pipe can be.

After carefully measuring and pegging out a line, he lit his pipe and commenced digging without removing it or stopping until he reached the other side, upon which he stood up, stretched his back, knocked out the loose ash on the fork handle, re-lit it – carefully replacing the dead match back in the other end of the ‘Swan-vester’ box – and started another width of digging.

When I looked again in the evening, the job was complete. For a man well in his eighties it was astounding and would have broken the back – and heart – of a man half his age, myself included.

Eventually, ‘old age’ seemed to finally catch up with Tom. Over the space of just two or three years his once ‘line-free’ face suddenly became thin and gaunt, the familiar ‘boiler suit’ cast aside for a pair of baggy tweed trousers, into which, he appeared to sink deeper each time I saw him, until they were almost under his armpits. His brown belt replaced by a pair of braces, so short, they resembled the straps on a pair of children’s dungarees.

I became quite concerned at Tom’s increasing reclusivness. Often several days would pass without my seeing him and as he had no living relatives and few callers, I felt a certain moral responsibility for his welfare and in some measure, for the time he spent with me in my youth. Consequently, whenever time permitted I would knock on his door and ask if He’d, ‘got the kettle on’.

A cup of tea at Tom’s was not for the hygienically fastidious, most of his mugs – he had no cups – were chipped and stained to the point of resembling brown earthenware, the once red roses on the tea stained oilcloth table covering were now just visible as pink smudges, the four corners worn into holes revealing the pine table beneath.

Although I detest tea without sugar, I suffered in silence over a number of years, unable to contemplate Tom’s open topped sugar jar with its multicoloured coagulated contents.

Above his kitchen table hung a 60 watt un-shaded light bulb suspended on a long brown ‘braided’ flex, which brought it almost down to face level, its already poor lighting capabilities reduced even further, by years of staining from tobacco smoke and fly droppings.

The kitchen’s only natural light was provided by a narrow window, at which, hung a pair of net curtains I suspect hadn’t seen water since Kennedy was shot.

The kitchen decorations – once perhaps magnolia – were now of an indeterminate colour, with tiny globules of brown fat hanging from the ceiling like mini stalactites, no doubt the result of countless ‘fry-up’s’, which appeared to be Tom’s staple diet.

The Belfast china kitchen sink was mounted on a pair of brick piers a couple of feet apart, between which, Tom stored his cleaning equipment, consisting of a bottle of washing up liquid, a pile of old dishcloths and a scrubbing brush. This little cubby-hole being the last place I ever remember seeing a container of ‘Vim’ scouring powder, used by Tom – among other things – to clean his dentures.

The sensitive issue of having a reasonably clean mug for my own use was resolved by me taking one from home with my name on it and telling Tom the children had bought it especially for me to use at his house. Despite being ‘hygienically challenged’ Tom rarely appeared to suffer any Illness, nor did I –  my wife swore blind it was due to my regular supply of antibodies from Tom’s kitchen!

Over the years I’d made several attempts to persuade Tom to buy a television to provide him with a bit of company, but to no avail, his usual excuse being ‘A dow’nt want one a them there ‘Ariel’ things on me chimney’.

In his 93rd year he partial relented following my enthusiastic report of a forthcoming programme on Dinosaurs – seemingly his one remaining interest. Although he still flatly refused to buy one, he did however agree – with some reluctance – to the borrowing of our transportable, but only for the one programme. I had strict instructions to set it up immediately prior to the start of the programme and remove it first thing the following morning. I was also advised in no uncertain terms to,

 ‘Tec that damn push button thing with y’, it scars me ta’ de’ad , a’l switch it off at the wall’.

When I called the following morning Tom was standing – arms folded – leaning on the gate.

‘Morning Tom, are you ok?’

‘Aye, a sink so’.

‘What did you think to it then?’

 ‘Not much,’ he replied.

 ‘Dinosaurs! The bloody things can’t iver av’e existed’.

‘How do you work that out Tom’?

‘Al tells ya owe’, he said in an irritated voice.

‘They said last night, Dinosaurs was wiped out 60 million years before man iver set foot on the earth, if that’s rate, owe cum we know als’t tha names?’

 I half smiled, was this a flash of the ‘old Tom’ and his rye sense of humour?

He stood head bowed staring at the pavement, the brim of his cap obscuring his face. ‘Yes Tom but what you must understand is’ —

Quite uncahrictalisticly he turned away without looking at me or saying another word. He walked into the house and closed the door.

I stood for a moment undecided whether to follow him in and try to explain, or leave it for another day. I chose the latter, I never saw Tom again.

Mike Spencer, Brattleby. 2008

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