We had been away from home for six months on what had been at best a loosely-organized overseas odyssey. In the beginning Ashley Close had felt like a new and foreign place. By now it was feeling like home. We were starting the new year by putting the first phase of our adventure behind us. It was time to create what came next.
What prompted that change in emphasis and direction was the state of Gil’s writing. For four months he had spent hours....sometimes long hours, sometimes not-so-long....sequestered in our tiny master bedroom creating the story that would become Forever Starts Now.
By the time Bob and Janet arrived to spend the holidays with us the story’s handwritten first draft, along with the beginnings of a typed manuscript, resided in a pair of spiral-bound notebooks, a sixty-seven thousand word trek into a slightly dark tale he never quite understood, but was proud to have completed.
And with the long-awaited “The End” came a kind of release. The need, the urge, or perhaps the excuse of having to write had been lifted. There was still the matter of finishing a typed manuscript, but that could be done a few hours at a time over the next month or two. In the meantime there was our constantly evolving day-to-day Winchester life to be lived.
As it turned out, for a time both Roma and Gil were in a typing mode, sharing our portable typewriter. While Gil was completing a finished copy of his story, typing a chapter at a time, Roma had been enlisted to do some typing of her own.
We were getting to know the Berrys, John and Eileen, better. What had begun as a casual acquaintance, the result of our sons becoming pals, had grown into a closer friendship. Since we had never been an overly-social couple their company was a nice change of pace....expanding our opportunities to experience Winchester as locals.
In the process Roma was getting better acquainted with Eileen Berry. The lady was unlike anyone we had ever known. She was largely unschooled, a genuine Cockney, with an “I don’t care what you think about me” bluster that put some people off. More than that, she was perhaps the most artistic and creative person we had ever met. She sculpted and painted, and most surprising of all, the lady wrote poetry....lots of poetry, much of which we never could understand.
In fact, it was Eileen’s poetry that brought her and Roma together, while providing Roma, who had once taught middle-school English, with a challenge unlike any she had ever faced.
It began the morning when Eileen phoned to ask Roma if she could come visiting. That was a first.... a bit unexpected, but welcome. With Gil locked away in the bedroom typing his story, a quiet conversation over a cup of tea sounded like a pleasant possibility.
Eileen, however, had something particular in mind. That became obvious when she set the folder of loose pages on the dining-room table....each sheet covered with scrawled, handwritten lines. It was a stack of poems, and what she needed was a proof reader and typist to create a finished copy of each one. Roma, ever the helpful and compliant one, listened to Eileen’s request and said “Yes.” She was willing to lend a hand. By then Eileen was grinning with relief.
Having offered her promise of help, Roma’s next step was to read one of the poems and be sure she understood what Eileen wanted. In a matter of seconds she realized that would not be as easy as she expected.
In truth, our Winchester poetess friend was a thinker and creator....but not a student. Her handwriting was largely illegible, which left Roma guessing what the next word might be. That supposedly simple task was further complicated by Eileen’s spelling skills, or lack thereof.
Sometimes she spelled a word phonetically. Occasionally she settled on what “looked right.” No matter what her approach, she was always creative. Contractions were sometimes missing altogether. Punctuation was simply absent. Whole poems might run from beginning to end without a period, comma, or question mark.
Over the next couple weeks the two of them visited several times to be sure things were going per plan. Finally Roma completed what she understood to be step one of her task....editing, rewriting, and adding punctuation to each poem, then creating a handwritten copy for Eileen's approval.....from which she would produce a typed version.
It seemed that everything was in order....until Eileen noted that she wanted all that confusing punctuation removed. In her eyes those periods and commas were impediments that interrupted the flow of ideas.
By the time Roma delivered the finished typewritten copies of Eileen's poems the two of them had become great friends. Her efforts would be rewarded a year later when Eileen sent us a copy of her first collection of poems, a small volume of which she was immensely proud. It would be the first of three that now grace our bookshelf.
Additionally, to show their appreciation, Eileen and John invited the two of us to share a special night out with them....a music hall sing-along at the White Horse pub on Romsey Road, which happened to be owned by John Berry’s father, Fred. It was a memorable night of great company and good music....with Eileen belting out old-time favorites in a really good voice.
We would visit our Winchester friends again in 1978, reliving those good times. On that occasion Peter and Allison Edmonds hosted our family, along with Gil’s parents and a pair of Adam and Marc’s friends, for a very enjoyable meal in their smallish home.
The next night the Berrys treated the two of us and Gil’s folks to an elegant and unforgettable French dinner at a swanky restaurant in the New Forest. To make the occasion even more special John Berry chauffeured us there in his “new” Rolls Royce.
For John, buying that somewhat-used Rolls Royce was the fulfillment of a life-long dream. Unfortunately, his prize was destined to cause more trouble than he expected.
By the 1970s English class warfare was normally a subtle, largely-unseen thing, mainly because the classes....upper crust and lower crust....seldom mixed. But when a lower-crust bloke like John, who lived in a lower-crust neighborhood like ours, was thought to be putting on airs by driving a Rolls Royce, some of his neighbors were apparently offended.
By the time we had returned, a few months after he bought the car, he had endured several instances of rocks being thrown at the car as he drove through his own part of town. Yet, no matter how his neighbors reacted, he was proud as punch of his new wheels. When we drove us to the New Forest for dinner he insisted that the six of us go in his Rolls.
Two of us would have been comfortable in the back seat. Three would have been snug, but doable. With the four of us scrunched together, the twenty mile drive was something of an ordeal. Yet the restaurant, the meal, and the good company made it all worthwhile.
The way they kept us in stitches, John and Eileen could have been a comedy team. It’s hard to remember another time when we laughed so hard.... loud and long enough to have neighboring diners turning to see what was so funny.
By the time we returned to Winchester in 1998 our back-fence neighbors, the Morgans, had long-since immigrated to Canada. We did, however, have visits with the Edmonds, Berrys and Browns.
Sadly, in 2005 John Berry passed away, leaving Eileen on her own. By then she had represented the Harestock area on the Winchester City Council for several years, a role that continues to this day. The lady was not upper crust by any means. But she was a fighter, who was willing to stand up for her constituents, so they kept returning her to office.
And then, forty years after we first met her, came the most remarkable and surprising piece of our Eileen Berry connection. We had known her in her early-thirties. For decades we exchanged Christmas cards, prompting an annual challenge to see if we could decipher her message. We visited her and John on two occasions during that time, and always enjoyed our time with them.
What we could not have known then was that in 2014 Eileen’s long tenure as a member of the Winchester City Council would earn her the honor of serving a year-long term as Lord Mayor of Winchester, an ancient and honorable office with a history extending back to the 1200s. Clearly our Cockney friend had won the respect and affection of her constituents. During her term our son Adam, and his family, visited Eileen in her ceremonial chambers. Their photograph with Her Honor seemed to complete a most unlikely circle.
Meanwhile, back at Ashley Close, it was February, 1973 and the Stewart clan was reaching for new heights of sociability. Amy and Rachel Edmonds were exchanging luncheon visits nearly every week, trading off between the Edmonds home and ours. At some point Rachel's mother, Allison, had come up with the idea of scheduling the two best friends for a professional photography session to create portraits of them, along with Terry.
The session took place in our living room and before it was done we were not at all sure the poor guy was going to pull it off. He was a dour fellow, short on personality, who was having a hard time coaxing the “looks” he wanted from the youngsters. Only when Gil starting throwing Terry into the air did the girls loosen up enough to produce the desired result.
On the sporting front Gil, Adam, and Marc took in a football (“soccer” to us Yanks) match between the Winchester town team and another local side. The crowd was small and the level of play not too impressive, but they could say we had been there. A few weeks later the three of them spent a Saturday night watching amateur boxing matches at the Winchester Guild Hall. Again, the participants were not top notch, but seriously enthusiastic. Many of the young men had local followings, making for a loud raucous crowd.
And of course there was Gil’s great winemaking experiment. The kit we had bought at Boot’s Pharmacy the previous autumn had promised to create a gallon of “fine wine.” Somewhere in the fine print must have been the usual disclaimer.... "Just follow the simple instructions.”
Though Gil could not imagine where he had gone so wrong, the proof was in the jug....a gallon of bitter, foul-tasting vinegar. So much for the little old winemaker.
Then, on a bright February Sunday, the whole family piled into the Ford and set out for what felt to us like a journey into the rarified air of high society....at least relative to Ashley Close.
Alcoa Aluminum Company was a major supplier to the family business in Salem. Our Alcoa Sales Rep, Ralph West, who Gil knew well, had arranged for us to meet a friend of his, Ed Arnes, who had been assigned to Alcoa’s British subsidiary.
When we first heard about a possible meeting with Ed we were not sure what that meant. We soon found that it involved an invitation to Sunday dinner at the Aren’s home at Great Missenden, which we learned was an upscale London suburb, where nothing looked like Ashley Close. We arrived that afternoon to find a classy home, set in the midst of classy, park-like grounds, in a very classy neighborhood. Fact was, we were totally outclassed.
Our hosts were pleasant as could be. The dinner was delicious and their company cordial. Still, though Ed and Gil had a few things they could talk about, none of us could get beyond an awkward uneasiness.
We shared experiences about the life of a Yank family in England. But truth be told, the family of a highly-paid Alcoa executive was living a very different life than the Stewarts of Ashley Close. We drove home that afternoon knowing we had seen how the other half lived.