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A Shout From The Attic: The Visitor

...I often wished my family could see me swallowed up by one of the sumptuous leather easy chairs, taking tea with her and Vaikai from delicate bone china cups with matching saucers...

The teenage Ronnie Bray becomes the friend of an American boy whose wealthy mother owned a textile mill.

Read more of Ronnie's engaging life story by clicking on A Shout From The Attic in the menu on this page. Read also his exuberant weekly column Letter From America.

When I was thirteen or fourteen, I gained an unusual friend, at whose house I was welcomed and received and treated as an honoured guest. A young man started to attend Spring Grove School. I do not recall that he was in my class. He was probably a year or so younger. His name was Vaikai Kaye-Brown. He was the son of a Doctor Brown, a black American and Mrs Kaye-Brown, a well-known Huddersfield mill owner. She had inherited Kings Mill from her family, married Doctor Brown, and had two children of whom Vaikai was the eldest, and he had a sister whom he irreverently called ‘Hitler.’

Mrs Kaye-Brown was a lady in every sense of the word. Strikingly beautiful, immaculately groomed, her greying hair swept into a bun, and with a poise and elegance that was at once regal and remote, yet intuitive and warm, she was a woman to admire, even for a scruffy, ill-kempt, and insecure working-class lad.

Because I was friendly towards the handsome American boy, I was regularly invited to visit their palatial home in New North Road, opposite the end of Vernon Avenue, where immense detached houses stood as monuments of Victorian wealth, confidence, and ostentation – so very different from my own home in my Nanny's Fitzwilliam Street lodging house. I had never seen such luxury. However, for all the wealth and refinement of her home, in contrast to my social awkwardness and frequent fauxes pas, I was treated with profound and touching respect.

I often wished my family could see me swallowed up by one of the sumptuous leather easy chairs, taking tea with her and Vaikai from delicate bone china cups with matching saucers!

A girl who worked in the mill office used to take Vaikai and I to the pictures, especially if the film was located in Africa – Sanders of the River, for example. Mrs Kaye-Brown was very sensitive to her son’s feelings, and black people were not then known in Huddersfield. She had the girl go with us to protect him from the sort of unkindness or hostility that had been directed towards the family when they lived in America’s Cotton Belt.

We relaxed in the elegant sitting room of her house, playing card games with conch shells for cash. I remember saying on one occasion as Mrs Kaye-Brown demurred as I settled my debt in shells at the end of a game; “Debts of honour must be paid.” Many years later I learned that Socrates spoke these words as he arranged for a friend to settle his debt with Asclepius shortly before he drank the cup of hemlock. I have no idea where I heard them, but I am sure that I had not read Plato at that time.

As far as I was aware, I was the only friend Vaikai had during his stay in his mother’s ancestral home.

I often wondered as I ate pretty sandwiches and drank tea from precious cups, what a scruffy, rough boy was doing there. Eventually, it dawned on me, and it was quite simple: I was kind to her son. Nothing hard about that, for he was likeable, and I only treated him as I wished others would treat me. I can still recall the gorgeous aroma of the soap he used, so unlike the tangy carbolic soap then in vogue for the poor.

He was a very happy, animated boy, unusually handsome, with a generous smile, a ready laugh, and eyes that sparkled as he spoke, and, although he was possessed of a sharp wit and a well-developed sense of humour, his humour was gentle and he was kind. He was always good company, although we were the unlikeliest companions.

After about a year, Vaikai and his mother returned to the United States, and my visits to the lady in her castle ended as abruptly as they had begun.

It was back to the lodging house where I took my unfiltered tea in a white-glazed pint pot, sat on a heavy wooden kitchen chair at the scrubbed wooden dining table in the basement, and ate from a thick hotel plate with a well-worn iron knife and fork, pondering what I had briefly enjoyed. Now there was no elegance, no gentleness of manners, no prescriptive courtesy, no kindness, and no condescending deference to one whose sudden and impromptu elevation to the status of one recognised and valued had been just as swiftly withdrawn.

Like the Old Woman Who Lived in a Vinegar Bottle, I was back where I started. But whereas her demotion was due to her being never satisfied, my relegation was due to the departure of my benefactress and her beloved son.

As Job had exercised patience and trust in God during the most bitter of his experiences, I learned that good things come and good things go, but life goes on, and dreaming of past splendour is the pastime of idlers and dreamers. Truly, the LORD giveth and the LORD taketh away. Blessed be the name of the LORD.

In my mature years, I have used Mrs Kaye-Brown as an example of how to treat those who need a helping hand. I have seen frogs turned into princes, and grimy Cinderellas transformed into princesses by small acts of recognition, kind words, and honest praise for things attempted. The transforming power of kindness and love can not be overestimated whatever motivates us to extend it in the first place.

Riddle of destiny, who can show
What thy short visit meant, or know
What thy errand here below? -
Charles Lamb


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