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Feather's Miscellany: Paul Oxenhead’s Miracle

"Alderman Joe Oxenhead and his younger brother Paul were as different as cheese and chalk,'' begins John Waddington-Feather in this tale of a miraculous conversion.

Alderman Joe Oxenhead and his younger brother Paul were as different as cheese and chalk. Joe was a blunt, broad-spoken, Yorkshire businessman through and through; hard-headed and canny like his father and a grandfather before him who’d established their woollen mill in Keighworth a century before.

Joe’s entire focus in life was making money, and that meant over-seeing his mill and workers to make sure he got his money’s worth out of them. And once he’d made his money, he kept it close; unlike his mouth which he never closed. If ever there was a man who liked the sound of his own voice, that man was Joe Oxenhead. He made every meeting he attended tedious affairs, for when he got up to speak he went on and on. Like the time he was guest speaker at a civic dinner and went on speaking till it seemed he’d never stop. However, Ira Fotheringill, the auctioneer, shut him up pretty smartly though. He passed him a note under the table which Joe glanced at then hurriedly brought his speech to a close and sat down double-quick clearly embarrassed. Ira had written that Joe’s flies were undone and he was showing the crown jewels. Joe never forgave him.

Paul was just the opposite: quiet, pensive and bookish. He was many years Joe’s junior; twelve in fact. In Keighworth he was what was known as an ‘after-thought’, born when his parents were well into middle-age as a final farewell to the sap-rise of youth. By that time old Oxenhead had made his money and decided the family needed status, so he sent Paul to a posh school down south. There, Paul received a good education and mixed with the right sort to become a gentleman. Joe had had to make do with the local grammar school but he was no academic and it didn’t change him. I doubt if any school could. He spoke and acted like his work-force; the big difference being he had wealth and they didn’t.

As a result the polished and well-spoken Paul returned home quite unprepared for the money-focussed life his dad had prepared for him. He should have gone to university but wasn’t allowed. He was put into the mill office with an ancient clerk to teach him how to run the mill and make money. In time Paul became completely out of kilter with his family and fellow workers – with most of Keighworth, in fact. He was a dreamer, always with his head in a book; more at home in the theatre, concert hall or art gallery than in a mill making money.

As time went on, he spent more of his working day outside the office than in it; drifting round the town and reading in the splendid Carnegie Library, where he went every day to read the papers and reviews. No matter how often he was told off by Joe, he went his own way till he was rarely in the office at all and his clerk did all his work. He’d have been sacked had he not been one of the family, but family pride and loyalty came before anything else; and when old man Oxenhead and his wife died, Paul took over the family house, living quietly there for he never married.

Joe sensed a radical change in his brother when one day he didn’t appear at all at work. He asked where he was and the elderly clerk informed him that Paul was down the graveyard at the Parish Church, where the down-and-outs and addicts kipped under the table gravestones or in the porch. “He’s got religion - badly,” added the clerk with a knowing look.

Joe was floored. His vision didn’t extend beyond this world and he couldn’t handle it. He attended church only for marriages and funerals and the odd civic service. And on those occasions, when he knelt to pray his mind wandered to facts and figures at the mill and the business of the day.

“That’s what comes of your fancy education!” he grumbled to the clerk. “Our Paul lives in a world of day-dreams.”

He later discovered that Paul had been liaising with the rector for some time to establish a night-shelter for the homeless, so that they’d somewhere to go in bad weather and winter. And when the night-shelter was bought, Paul sold the family home to pay for it and moved into the night-shelter as warden for some years, until he grew too frail and was then put in a care-home by Joe.

Yet it was caring for his brother which wrought a great change in Joe, a kind of miracle. He monitored Paul till he died suddenly, some years before himself, and after his brother’s death he set up the Oxenhead Charity Homes for indigent elderly people. And it was that one act of charity that future generations remembered him for and not his money grubbing or garrulous waffle.

John Waddington-Feather ©

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