Growing old gracelessly

I really cannot remember whether in these episodes I've written much if anything about Winnie Boulter, nee Smalley, Delia's Mother. On the basis that I haven't, let me explain that I first met her not long after I met her daughter. She would then have been in her late sixties. Not many years before she had lost her husband, Bill, Delia's father, to a heart attack on board the Gosport - Portsmouth ferryboat. Of course a bitter blow for the family but not totally inappropriate - for an ex Royal Navy officer who had spent the greater part of his life at sea or latterly shorebound as Chief Instructor at Whale Island,  Portsmouth's famously tough Gunnery School.

As an ex wartime WREN Winnie was a really larger than life character, idiosynchratic in so many ways.  For me she was the epitome of that wonderful poem by Jenny Joseph ...

When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn't go, and doesn't suit me.
And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves
And satin sandals, and say we've no money for butter.
I shall sit down on the pavement when I'm tired
And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells
And run my stick along the public railings
And make up for the sobriety of my youth.
I shall go out in my slippers in the rain
And pick flowers in other people's gardens
And learn to spit.

You can wear terrible shirts and grow more fat
And eat three pounds of sausages at a go
Or only bread and pickle for a week
And hoard pens and pencils and beermats and things in boxes.

But now we must have clothes that keep us dry
And pay our rent and not swear in the street
And set a good example for the children.
We must have friends to dinner and read the papers.

But maybe I ought to practice a little now?
So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised
When suddenly I am old, and start to wear purple.

Well, Winnie Smalley would have been terribly disappointed were people who knew her never 'shocked and surprised'! And she surely did wear her favourite colour purple. Although from an ordinary enough background, by heart and soul she definitely felt herself to be of the elite, if you see what I mean! She told me with all seriousness that she, Winnie, would never re-marry unless to at least an Admiral of the R.N.! Well, one day in the eighties whilst I was still at a loss for how to earn a longer term living after Sweetheart International I decided that life as a painter (pictures not houses!) held considerable attraction and and least a glimmer of potential, and that to properly equip myself and Dee with the associated commercial skills we should go on an advertised country house weekend to learn the arts of picture framing. Winnie was also a painter of watercolour pictures so we invited her to join us. However when we went to pick her up, to our surprise she had with her a somewhat abashed, though fine looking looking elderly gentleman carrying both cases; his and hers! His name was Len Boulter, a 'friend and fellow watercolourist', as we were told. It turned out that Len had been an officer of H.M.Customs charged with the specially onerous duty of touring the Highlands and Islands of Scotland to certify the bonded facilities of the whisky distillers.

That first evening in the big house Dee and I were much intrigued by the sounds of merriment from the room next to ours - Winnie's room! Consumed with curiosity we knocked on the door. It opened to reveal the two of them in fine party mood. We had no idea they were sharing. Winnie did not drink alcohol but there she was, doubled up with laughter, champagne glass in hand! Just come and have a look at this, she demanded. In Len's case, opened on the bed, was a neat pile of silken cord. No, not what you are thinking - or Dee of I or Winnie for that matter. Len offered his indignant explanation; he had a phobia about hotel fires so always travelled with this rope ladder. The fact that we were on the ground floor and that most of his international travel provided him with rooms high up - much higher up than his 'ladder' could be effective in hotel tower blocks - that had nothing to do with it!

When, a few years later and in her eighties, Winnie's overactive conscience got the better of her she decided she could live in sin no longer. Even though her subsequent marriage to Len cost her and her two daughters two of her three wartime pensions, the splendidly-hatted deed was done in Winchester. Afterwards she took me on one side, explaining in all seriousness - I know he's not an Admiral but he does have an O.B.E. ('Order of the British Empire', as is awarded to most senior British civil servants upon their retirement.) Len in his eighties still possessed a healthy interest in the opposite sex. What with him and my father I was beginning to look forward to my own old age!

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