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U3A Writing: Portrait Of Dolly

Beryl Roper tells of a retired teacher, who, on he eve of her 80th birthday, is guarding a very special secret.

Dolly Parsons woke to see beams of sunshine falling across the polished surface of the mahogany chest of drawers and shining onto the silver framed photographs. She reached for her little clock and saw that it was 6.30 a.m. These days she always woke early and since the death of her father there was no rush to get up. She loved this time of the day and this month of the year - her birthday month, May. Tomorrow she would be eighty.

When she was a young girl eighty had seemed an impossibility. She had wondered how anyone of that age could enjoy anything, had thought that she wouldn’t ever want to be as old as that. But here she was and still enjoying her life enormously. She was very lucky, she thought. She still enjoyed reasonable health, took a walk every day around the small market town where she had lived all her life, and could quite often complete the Times crossword. She enjoyed her nightly tot of whisky, and on Saturdays always treated herself to a box of chocolates. Small pleasures, but infinitely enjoyable.

Thinking of such pleasures she went downstairs to the kitchen to make herself a cup of tea. While the water was boiling she drew back the curtains and looked out. It was going to be a lovely day. Small white fluffy clouds in a blue sky, and in the hedge, white-laced with hawthorn, clumps of primroses, cowslips and late daffodils nodded in the light breeze.

She took her tea and her library book back to the bedroom. Through the window she could see the church tower and the hills in the distance. Sipping her tea she fell to musing on her nearly eighty years. She had been born in this house and, she supposed, would die here. As an only child she had been expected to look after her parents when they had become ill, and she had done so until first her mother and then her father had died. They had lived to a good age and she was 65 when, for the first time in her life, she had only herself to consider. These last fifteen years had been some of the best ones of her life. The house was hers and she had enough income to indulge her modest desires.

Her gaze fell on a photograph - a group of fellow students taken on a holiday in the Lake District. That was the first time she had been away from home, to train as a teacher. What wonderful times they had had, walking, dancing, endlessly talking . . . and Richard - always Richard. They had fallen in love and planned to marry; but this was 1936 and Richard had been killed at Dunkirk in 1940. She had never known such agony, such blackness of the soul. She had thought that she would never again be happy, had not wanted to live; but because it was wartime she had no choice but to carry on with her teaching. Slowly, very slowly, the pain diminished and, although life would never be the same, it took on meaning again as she poured all the pent up emotion into her work with children. She had gone back to University in order to train for teaching the slow learners, and the children who couldn’t cope because of mental or physical disadvantages.

She had been a good teacher, she knew that, and rejoiced when she saw some of her former pupils, who had come to her as failures, grow up to become happy, confident members of society. One or two children she remembered in particular. The small boy of nine rejected by his naval officer father because he was supposedly ‘no good at anything’, and who had let down the family by being in an ESN class. The same small boy was now a world authority on environmental issues, and was doubtless boasted about by the same father. He had thrived in the relaxed atmosphere of the slower children’s class, and still sent Dolly pictures from all over the world, visiting her whenever he was in England. The small girl who couldn’t do sums or pass exams, but had a wonderful ear for music, and was now a singer of international repute. She sent Dolly all her latest recordings and gave her tickets for concerts.

And then there was Paul. He had come into her class from the local children’s home towards the end of her career. He just wasn’t interested in anything except getting into trouble. Dolly had despaired until, quite by accident, one day she discovered where his talents lay, and had encouraged him, given him special lessons at home, and helped him through college. Thinking of that time and of tomorrow she threw back the bedclothes, washed, dressed and went downstairs.

After breakfast she tidied the room and, putting on her hat and coat, went on her usual walk to the High Street. She liked to shop daily and stopped several times to chat to friends. She went into the library and was intent on choosing her books when she overheard a conversation being carried on in the next aisle. She still had exceptionally good hearing. After a few minutes she realised with a shock that she was the subject of the discussion. She heard “ . . . taught me and my daughter; feel so sorry for her; poor old thing, lives all on her own; never married or had a family. Wonder what on earth she does with herself?”

At first Dolly was furious. How dare they! And then honesty forced her to admit that at their age she would have said exactly the same. She saw them as they emerged and they gave her a bright fulsome smile. “Hello, Miss Parsons. All right, are you?”

H’m - Gladys Day and Angela Brown - always gossiping at school. Haven’t changed much. Then she mentally took herself to task for being petty and, having chosen her books, walked home.

As she went up her path the florist’s van stopped and Betty Jordan called out to her, “I’m just coming to deliver these.” And she gave Dolly an enormous bouquet of her favourite flowers, roses, carnations and freesias. “Somebody loves you a lot,” said Betty. “Is it your birthday?”

“Thank you, Betty. Yes, tomorrow.”

“Well, have a lovely day.”

“Oh, I certainly will,” said Dolly and went indoors, taking the flowers into the kitchen. She read the attached card: All my love. Am sending a car for you tomorrow, so get out your glad rags.

Dolly smiled. So typical! Well, she didn’t have to wait until tomorrow to see him. She glanced at her watch. Just time to arrange the flowers and make a cup of coffee.

Half an hour later she switched on the television and heard the announcer saying, “And now another delightful hour with the man voted to be this year’s TV personality, Paul Jefferson.” And there he was, handsome, smiling, and immaculate in his uniform of white apron and tall hat: acclaimed chef and recipient of many awards. Dolly remembered the small boy making pastry in her kitchen. Tomorrow she would celebrate her birthday in style as honoured guest in his famous restaurant.

I wonder what Gladys Day and Angela Brown will be doing with themselves tomorrow, she thought to herself, as she poured a little brandy into her coffee and reached for her box of chocolates.


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