I’ve never found out how he came to be called Olly for his real name is Alfred. When I first met him he was about sixty years old, short and thin with a face like an old walnut and eyes as wicked as a ferret’s. There’s an old country rhyme which goes:
I can drive a plough an’ I can milk a cow,
I can reap and sow an’ thatch an’ mow,
I’m fresh as the daisy as lives on the ‘ill
An’ they calls Oi Buttercup Joe.
This was Olly. He could do all this and more. It was a known fact in the village that if there was a job to be done that nobody would not or could not tackle, the cry was ‘Give Olly an oller’ and, in his own sweet time he would appear and ‘set to’. He would never be seen to hurry, yet the task was always completed in good time. No doubt every village has a character of Olly’s kind tucked somewhere beneath its roofs and also no doubt, many boring people like myself who are only too eager to interrupt his work and spend a pleasant half hour gossiping over a pipe of herbal. He grew his own tobacco, a variety of herbs which was as smooth as silk and with a nose as sweet as fresh made hay, and it was for this reason that one could smell Olly approaching long before you could see him.
Depending upon the topic of conversation his accent would be either amusing or confusing, for it was a long slow drawl peculiar to north Essex. I remember once while passing the time of day with him, he asked if I was going anywhere near the post office. I replied that I was.
“Well then, I wonder if yewd take some kines down for me. Tell Mrs. Sharman they’re from me an’ she’ll give yew some noots”.
Although I hadn’t a clue as to what he was talking about, I agreed to his request and he disappeared into his cottage. A minute later he was back holding a little blue bag knotted tightly at the top with a piece of binder twine. Not wishing to appear inquisitive or ignorant I accepted the mysterious bundle without comment and bade him good morning. At the post office, Mrs. Sharman recognised the little blue bag even before I spoke. She untied the neck and emptied onto the counter a pile of threepenny pieces. The ‘kines’ then were coins and the ‘noots’ were the three one pound notes given to me in exchange.
Olly was a man of few words and rarely spoke unless spoken to first, even his greeting was more often than not a nod of the head. To a stranger, I suppose he would appear unsociable, but to those who knew him he could be both amusing and interesting, and one who would always give a hand when help was needed. Tuesday evenings at the Crown was our regular shove ha’penny meet. There was Joyce, a middle aged soul of forceful character who kept pigs, Phil, a delightful lady who worked for the Milk Marketing Board, and of course, Olly and myself. It was the custom that losers paid for a round of drinks and as we all drank bitter, this did not make for a costly evening. On one particular occasion both Olly and I and our opponents needed one peg apiece to win.
“Better set they drinks up now,” said Olly to Joyce as he crossed to the board.
A sneer of mock contempt appeared on her face.
“Don’t be bloody ridiculous,” she snapped, “you want one in the top bed and I only want one in the bottom.”
Olly polished the halfpenny on his corduroys and, eyeing the tip of his highly polished boot replied,
“I dersay that could be arranged.”
It is a regular pleasure of mine to close my eyes to the garden and the various household chores which inevitably accumulate in a writer’s home, and wend my way on a Sunday morning slowly across the home meadows to the woods below. When I wander thus, I am constantly picking pieces of the countryside and chewing them. Sometimes it will be a handful of wheat, sometimes haw leaves or berries, plantain, blackberries or just plain grass – according to season or mood. On one such occasion I had teamed up with Olly and was thoughtlessly plucking nettle tips and chewing them. Mistaking his look of pity for one of alarm, I reassured him that the tips of the leaves contained no stings and were quite harmless.
“Ar that’s as maybe,” he said in a knowing voice, “but you’ll jump when it comes out the other end and stings yer arse.”
Nobody could ever do a job as well as Olly. Mind you, he would never say so in as many words, but after talking with him for ten minutes one would come away with such an impression. In most cases of course this was true. If a job was worth doing at all, Olly would do it and do it well, but if for example, my chrysanthemums were five feet tall, his would be six, or if I had bought a bargain for five pounds he would be able to buy the same thing for fifty shillings. I had recently finished erecting a new fence between my garden and Joyce’s pigs. The posts were upright, the wire taught as a fiddle string and the strainers set firm. In fact the whole job had cost me two blistered hands, a strained back, a gallon of sweat and almost as much beer. I stood back admiring my handiwork and asked Olly, who had ambled across the hoppit with his little spotted dog, what he thought of it. He stood for a while sucking at his pipe, then, poking the corner post with his stick he conceded:
“Be alright if the wind don’t get up.”
Speaking of the wind reminds me of the time when Olly was taken to hospital. It was one mid-summer’s weekend when I realised that I hadn’t seen Olly all week. My inquiries revealed that he had been ‘took in’ for a hernia operation. When I eventually found time to visit him he was laying in bed swathed in bandages, his eyes brighter and his weather beaten arms darker than ever against the white linen. Apart from a little discomfort he was enjoying himself immensely. The ward was comfortable, the food good, and the nurses ‘marvlus’. He has but one complaint and this came to light when a young nurse arrived at the bedside with a strip of tablets.
“Gawdamighty not more,” he exclaimed and, turning to me he said:
“Y’know, they’ve loaded me with so many pills that if anyone ‘appens to pass when oi farts oi shall kill ‘em.”
The nurse, dodging a backhander from him as she passed, said simply:
He was eventually discharged from hospital and was laying a hedge the very next day. “Can’t abide sittin’ about all day doin’ nothin’. And so he progressed from strength to strength to this very day, when he ‘put in’ more hours than people care to think about.
It seems impossible that characters like this should ever pass into oblivion, in fact I’m convinced that some day in the dim, distant future, he will be teaching my great, great grandchildren the art of shove ha’penny in the middle bar of the Crown.
read the collected work as it is published: here
eyes wormhole: Lapping Reflections [Deep Within Waters] by Mark L. Redford – moment
hedge wormhole: The Boats of Vallisneria by Michael J. Redford – A Precious Moment
money wormhole: listen willya
morning & smell & work wormhole: The Boats of Vallisneria by Michael J. Redford – On Doing Nothing
Ramsdn Heath wormhole: the coming of ‘The Boats of Vallisneria’ by Michael J. Redford
speech wormhole: what life went on
Sunday wormhole: Life on Mars? – poewieview #31
time wormhole: ‘hope for things to come’
words wormhole: substance
writing wormhole: Lapping Reflections [Deep Within Waters] by Mark L. Redford – from arm to nature, doing nothing