Let me admit it right at the start; the Road on which we live is not all that congenial. Stately, if you like, with big trees and some bigger houses; a Princess once resided halfway up the hill, and the Director of the National Bank lives up at the top. Every front drive sports at least one Proper Motor Car. But that is the Road’s trouble; everyone feels that he (or she) is rather better than the neighbours, to whom one may nod in passing but with whom one would hardly contemplate forming any closer acquaintance.
Take however the little lane where another limb of the family has settled. All the houses were put up by a chocolate factory for their workers ninety years ago; they nestle close together and the doors are always open. Children, cats and puppies run in and out and seem to belong everywhere, only going home when they feel like it to be washed or fed or put to bed. The men swap seeds and cuttings in the garden and find tools for each other’s cars, the womenfolk pop into one another’s kitchens to borrow salt or exchange recipes. A different world completely? I used to think so, and then I remembered the case of Wobbly Maud.
It was long ago, and I lived in the English Midlands, on a road that ambled in amiably from the countryside, and then, as it approached the town, acquired airs. It ran up a hillside next to a park, and then joined a town street, with the Star and Garter public house on the corner. It was around there that in Edwardian times, the Better Folk, as they considered themselves to be, had put up their mansions, with brick walls to shelter them from vulgar eyes and with monkey puzzle trees in the gardens and chauffeurs with leather boots to do the driving. So far, so good. But then a speculative builder had taken a piece of farmland adjoining the mansions and put a row of ramshackle cottages on it, a place where noisy careless wage-earning people lived and babies howled in open prams in the front yard. And hardly had these folk settled in when cheapskate contractors arrived with their trucks and put up one row of semi-detached houses after another, stretching out towards the countryside, all going for three hundred pounds (or fifteen shillings a week) and plain ordinary people moved into them.
At the bottom of the hill lived Maud, as everyone called her – fiftyish, greying, timid, thin and bespectacled. In those days the pubs in England were open at lunchtime only from noon until two thirty. So it was that every weekday, Maud would leave her house at ten minutes to twelve, potter up the hill, and disappear into the Star and Garter as soon as the doors were opened. What exactly went on inside, no-one appeared to know for certain; but when the doors were about to close again at two-thirty, Maud would emerge, helped to the exit by Mine Host and now distinctly wobbly. Down the steps from the bar she would venture, round the corner, and back down the hill, still wobbling. Sometimes she would be singing; “Tea for two” was a favourite. Where stability called for it she might lean against the park wall for a while, and then wobble further, zigzagging happily between the wall and the kerb. Further down, anything might happen. She was once observed sitting on the kerb, and when a passing constable stepped off his bicycle to pull her up she contrived to kiss him soundly on both cheeks and then drag him into a waltz in the middle of the road to the tune of “Daisy, Daisy”. Another day she wandered smilingly into the path of an approaching motor-bus, and the driver had to jam on his brakes, climb down and, with the help of a passenger, deposit her safely back on the pavement. Now and again a passer-by would save her from some misadventure as she passed the boating pool at the edge of the park. But as time went by Maud’s daily predicament became something of an institution. The Road began to take note of her and care just a little for her. At two-thirty a watch would be kept behind the lace curtains of various windows large and small, and if Maud needed support someone would be to hand right away. It might be a boiler-suited wage-earner from the cottages, or someone in a striped apron from the semi-detacheds; but there were also days when she was more or less carried home down the hill with a lady of the Better Folk supporting one arm and a uniformed chauffeur the other, while an old aunt from the cottages helped to search in Maud’s handbag for the key to unlatch her front door.
It was all years ago; I moved away and I never knew the end of the story. Perhaps, I say to myself hopefully, it never did end; the Road was waking up and learning to care for its own; people of any rank or none at all were talking to one another, acknowledging to each other that they existed.
So why should I tell this story? Simply because the Road on which we now live has, as I said at the start, not proved to be all that congenial. Not, at least until a little while ago. Then it was that my dear Elisabet, hurrying down the hill to the metro station, tripped over a stone and fell, breaking her hip bone. Within minutes there were people all around, appearing from nowhere. Some comforted her; someone called me from a mobile phone; someone else summoned an ambulance. No, Elisabet is no Wobbly Maud, and accidents mustn’t happen every day. But perhaps that was just the sort of thing that was needed if this Road, too, was to wake up, and people were to talk to each other, acknowledging to one another that they existed.