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Planning Retirement Online



Relationships - January 2019

A Christmas Tale

Maggi Stamp is a highly qualified relationship counsellor and trainer who writes each month about emotional and practical concerns and challenges that many of us meet in later life. For 20 years, as well as running a private practise, Maggi worked with the organisation Relate to help married and single people, cohabiting couples, same sex couples, families, young and old people and the bereaved to develop, foster and enjoy healthy and fulfilling relationships. No less important, as she is herself a wife, mother and grandmother, she brings a lifetime of varied and eventful experience to enhance her empathy and understanding.  

Many of her examples are based on concerns that clients, family and friends have presented over the years. In the monthly articles where she responds to issues raised by readers, she strictly respects confidentiality and never identifies those who write to her. But the individual worries they raise are invariably felt by others, so her responses can help many.

You can write to Maggi at 
for her to respond in the column.

A Christmas Tale

Each week I pass a building half hidden in the woods on the road towards Bristol and Bath. Enclosed by a high wire fence and padlocked gates, there are often one or two cars or a pick-up truck parked on a muddy track, alongside piles of rubbish, stacks of scrap metal and car cadavers, several sheds and a half ruined, mould-blackened, 1930s house. Throughout summer all is shadowed by a heavy canopy of leaves, adding further to the air of mystery. Although the cars change I have never seen a soul there.

Who lives there? Anyone?

As I drive past I never have more than a glimpse into that netherworld, but it always sets me wondering, and remembering an incident in my childhood home village in West Berkshire (before it became a chic dormitory for commuters and city escapees).

As a girl in a small village, I had firm parental instructions on the polite way to address adults. My brothers and I were never allowed to use anything but the adults surname prefixed by Mr, Mrs or Miss. Even now, if I return to the village I find it hard to think of those long gone neighbours except in that way.

On the road up to the village there was a pair of semi-detached cottages with fine long most working country dwellers needed to be self-sufficient in vegetables, fruit and eggs.

In one of those cottages lived an ancient least to me they appeared so...
Mr and Mrs Pizzey spent their whole lives in or around the village and were related to several families there, but had no children as far as I know. Mr Pizzey had worked until retirement as a gardener at 'The Court' - as we referred to the estate owner's great house. They were a private couple, and spoke to few, except to past the time of day as they walked to and from the village shops, slowly cycled hither or thither, or took a Sunday afternoon stroll.

Whatever the weather, their appearance never changed. He wore a black jacket and hob-nailed boots; she a black coat over her ankle-length black skirt plus, always, a round hat fixed with a hat pin, covering her hair.

Mum always made a point of greeting them. She asked after their health or commented on the weather and they would respond accordingly, always polite and friendly. So, as a family, we each received kind acknowledgment of our greetings. We knew that many avoided the couple when they could because, besides looking poor, they were not exactly spotless, let alone fragrant to stand next to in the little village shop. This angered my mother, always ready to stand up for those who were unfairly judged by the over-pious members of the community. So she made an obvious effort to be friendly, as did my father, taking surplus eggs or veg. to them, careful to leave them in a bag in the porch, as the Pizzeys would never answer their door.
As far as I can remember they had done no harm or been in any way interfering, but their reclusive life was seen as anti-social.

When we were small girls my friend and I would weave stories around them based on gossip overheard as her garrulous mother chatted with others. "Mrs Pizzey is a witch. That's why your mum says you've got to be polite!", my friend would say...

Sometime in the 1960s the Pizzey's house caught fire - a disaster for the poor couple. Although the fire was stopped from spreading to the adjoining cottage, theirs was badly burned. The fire crew found it hard not only to gain access to rescue the old people but to go from room to room to douse the flames. The old couple survived and were rushed off to hospital. I suspect this was the first time they had ever been separated.

It must have been a terrible shock for them both in every way. Mr Pizzey had extensive lung damage from smoke inhalation and died soon afterwards. Mrs Pizzey seemed to have escaped relatively unharmed and, after the hospital checked her general health, was transferred to home for elderly, mentally impaired people. There, incredibly, she began to strengthen physically and might even have enjoyed her final few years. We learned that the carers would argue over their turns to bathe the old lady and wash her hair. This was because, having lived in such a basic way, her hair had not been cut or washed for what could have been years or perhaps decades. On arrival at the home, her hair was very dark and dull. After her first bath it was surprisingly lighter. Following her next shampoo it showed shockingly and gorgeously white, and as silky and shiny as a kitten's fur. It fell to below the waist and the carers loved grooming it, twisting it into a bun or plaiting it to wrap several times around her head.

Meanwhile my father, as one of the estate workers, was seconded to clear the remaining contents of the house so that it could be renovated.

Sooty-faced he would come home with some amazing tales. Apparently, the old couple had lived in an ever-shrinking space as each room filled with newspapers and canned food. They had gone down to living in just the kitchen. Dad lost count of the number of rat nests they cleared in among the stacks of newspapers.

Scattered throughout were unopened wage packets. Hundreds of pounds were lying unheeded in piles and hidden in among the paper stacks, blocking corridor and stairs. Coins lay on the floor as though no longer any use. Empty tobacco tins, baked bean, corned beef, peach tins too. Unopened tins were stacked high in various places. Dad brought home a 'baccy' tin containing old, worn, smoke-blackened pennies. My mother told him he was wrong to do this but excused it by saying "At least we can remember them".

He kept the tin of pennies the rest of his life. I have it now.

Dad said the only visible means of heating was a paraffin stove. Mr Pizzey was often seen walking to or from the garage or the village stores carrying his paraffin can. Everyone had several such 'Valor' oil stoves because no cottage had central heating - electric fires were for people with money. An open fire in the living room, of logs collected and sawn by the occupants, and a stove to warm other rooms when needed were the norm, but there was no longer any access to the fireplace for the old couple. Dad spoke to the grocer and the butcher. In their last few years, Mr Pizzey was the one who shopped. He would collect his pension - in cash - from the post office then buy corned beef, luncheon meat, canned fruit, bread, margarine, jam, cheese and baked beans (all eaten cold - no used pans in evidence) and occasionally his paraffin. Little else. The butcher confirmed that Mr P had not bought meat for a few years. Earlier sausages and bacon were the norm for them.

It took some weeks to clear and dispose of all the detritus. For some time it seemed there was a constant bonfire at the bottom of the garden. What little furniture remained had to be burnt too. The neighbours were suddenly plagued by rats 'seeking accommodation' and apparently coming in from the breached loft space, the fattest, biggest, fastest spiders ever! They even spooked my dad and my elder brother, neither known for any fear of such creatures.

As with the scrapyard on the road to Bristol, I am fascinated by how lives are lived in such buildings.

What had happened to Mr and Mrs Pizzey to lead them to such a solitary life? They were surely in their nineties. Thus, they were true Victorians. What schooling, if any, had they received? - it would have been minimal. Most country children would have been in full-time employment by the age of 12. Did Mr Pizzey fight in WW1? Had they had babies or lost them? I wonder if trauma drove them to hide?

Equally, rejection by the community due to their being different could have driven them into solitude. Village life was hard on those who seemed different. Even now, in the 21st century, a country community can be suspicious of the new or non-conforming.

Maybe they were just a very simple and uneducated couple left behind by the rapid changes of the 20th century growing more isolated by old age and physical or mental infirmity.

Now I am sad. The Pizzeys were gossiped about and ostracised by part of their community, even though they were a threat to no-one. Rumour is cruel. Social Services weren't very active deep in the countryside, especially for the elderly. How different their lives could have been. Were they content I wonder? Did they know they had enough money to use their electric lights, or to buy and cook meat?

This situation might sound like history, but think again. Loneliness is still one of the biggest threats to the well-being of the elderly. Unless we stop to look, or listen, or ask, we'll pass by on the other side and a Mr or Mrs Pizzey might be struggling, yards away from your own front door.

You can write to Maggi at for her to respond in the column.

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