Sunday, 11 September 2011

Mr Fennel and Mr Green

I used to clean 2 houses, an hour a week in each house, and I'd leave with £10 - easy money.
Mr Green was an unhappy soul, one who'd never get over his wife's death, never accept he could no longer do all the things he used to, and never accept my inferior cleaning skills.

Mr Fennel, a retired Sargent, lived happily in retro squalor. Cleaning the house was the least of my priorities when I got there  - "sit down girl, have tea and cake with me" I was a bit of company masquerading as a domestic help.

Mr Green would subject me to a 5 minute run-down of his latest health scare before instructing me to polish the myriad ornaments, trinkets and photographs (sporting achievements of offspring circa 1982).
I never seemed to fit in all the chores within an hour, he insisted I dust all 6 Venetian blinds by meticulously brushing each metal strip. I'd always leave there feeling I'd earned the £10.

On to Mr Fennel, 80 years old, widowed ("she was a good woman, very smart - but she liked to spend MY money all the time"). A very tall man, even at 80 Mr Fennel commanded a presence, I instantly respected him the day I met him.
Mr Fennel's cakes left everything to be desired, made with sour butter, rotten eggs and burned dried fruit, it took all my strength not to wretch (I have a VERY strong stomach). I started making my own, to "save him the trouble" but he always insisted I'd done everything wrong, before polishing off 3 slices.
I'd spend the final 20 minutes cleaning, but he always walked behind me saying "leave that girl, I already cleaned that" (when? just after decimalisation came in?).

One week, after Mr Green had decided I was OK after all, he told me his life story. It was mainly unremarkable, peppered with financial struggle, sacrifice and "lovely holidays in Majorca", where the majority of the 'lovely' trinkets originated. The story ended with advice - "don't ever smoke, my wife died of lung cancer, and all my problems are down to fags".
It seemed strange that he was so pre-occupied with the cleanliness of the blinds at first, but I realised his late wife was fastidious and liked the house to be gleaming - he wanted to keep this pride alive.

Mr Fennel liked to spend the hour bragging about who he knew, where he'd been, and what he'd done. I think he liked to imagine I was in awe of him, and once he said "If I was 20 years younger" (hmm, you'd be 60, still 3 times my age and very much on the back burner of potential suitors). 

I always felt a bit sad cleaning both houses, imagining that when they die, all the house contents being given away in one fell swoop. A lifetime of collections and memories, all creating a feeling of nostalgia - eras, decades, experiences frozen in time - a stagnant pool. The buzzing of a nebulizer replacing the buzz of family life, children running in and out.
The scratch of a cheap biro on paper, circles being scribbled 'til it bleeds ink - a crossword where they used to be the scratch of a record, a couple dance as they make up after cross words.

Mr Fennel sat like a caged lion, he still had fire in his belly, he looked strong, didn't seem to care much for the ever-decreasing circle of life which was all around him - in his mind he'd always be a handsome young man.

Mr Fennel's advice for me was unforgettable. Nothing to do with health, money, relationships or experiences:

"Always buy loose tea, Lucy, none of that tea-bag muck. Jesus, I'm glad I had my teeth in when I said that!"

I laughed uncontrollably - maybe he did still 'have it'.

I liked Mr Fennel.


  1. Mr Fennel and I share a predilection there. Loose tea IS the business if you have the patience for the extra couple of bits of kit to brew.

    I often wonder about an object's past lives when I'm in a charity shop/junk shop/antique store - whether they were loved or loathed, received as a gift or picked out carefully by the owner . . .

    Loved this post!!

    Jem xXx

  2. Interesting portraits Lucy, as well written, and funny, as always. I like the comment about decimalisation and the phrase 'potential suitors'. Hilarious, as was the ending.

    Sounds like you enjoyed working for Mr Fennel, he must have been a real character.

    In my family, I'm normally the one who talks to all the old great-aunts and uncles etc. Other people roll their eyes, but I sit there and listen to their stories. I can't help myself. When Becky's Grandfather, Ernie, was alive, we would talk for hours about all sorts of things. Admittedly it was mostly me listening (I could hardly get a word in) and I would invariably start twitching when he would sometimes tell me the same story he'd told me three times before, but I could never bring myself to butt in and stop him.

    On his deathbed, he told the priest he had flown in Bomber Command. He'd done no such thing, but the priest mentioned it all the same in the funeral. I nearly broke down laughing at that one.

    I used to take him and Superfudge on the Train to Doncaster Station (it's a busy hub station) and we would just sit there and watch the world go by and he would talk about being a Bevan boy and steam trains. I miss him a great deal.

    Not in work today - We went to the park again at the weekend (Daisy tagged along after all) and my son fractured his arm after a fall off a climbing frame. If it was going to happen to anyone, it would be him! So we've just got back from the hospital where he had his temporary 'pot' removed and a proper one put on. Can't say he seems to bothered, me and his mum felt it more, I think! He's currently engrossed in Deadly 60 on Iplayer.

    I should try Leaf tea. Not had it in donkeys.

  3. Oh Lucy, I do love reading the stuff you write...I've got a picture in my head of Misters Fennel and Green...wonder if they looked anything like I imagine them to...
    I like Mr Fennel's advice on tea and admire his flirtatious nature.

  4. I had heard that ladies are more insightful and perceptive than men and today through this post of yours i find my belief vindicated. U were able decipher what was going on in the mind of Mr.Fennel despite being so young n inexperienced in life. I also see that the way u share ur experience of being a domestic help proves that u respect work in all forms.

  5. Jem - I reserve the tea strainer, twacosy, warmed pot and best china for my tea connoisseur friends (all 2 of them). If you ever came, it'd be loose tea all the way!

    Kylie - Mr Green had 'salt and pepper' hair, was slight and covered in age spots and was hunched over. Mr Fennel had white hair, was broad shouldered and his face was very much like 'Mrs Doubtfire'!

    Ben - poor boy! He'll love having a story to tell hos friends about his fall and the ensuing bravery he demonstrated. I bet you and Becky had a right scare.
    My mother always cared for the elderly when I was young, sometimes I went with her. The common theme was they all liked to talk while we listened. I didn't have grandparents to look up to so this was the next best thing. So many lived in conditions we would consider inhabitable - no central heating, washing machine etc. The men always took better to being 'looked after' than the women too.
    Raman - thank-you for stopping by and commenting, it seems you're quite perceptive too. I'm happy to do any work for money (within reason, of course!) and find manual labour quite satisfying. I'm very heavy handed so I'd be more suited to scrubbing moss off the patio than dusting delicate ornaments!

  6. The cleaner/home help being a bit of company is fairly universal I think .We have a relative now who has a cleaner but every time we go the state of the place leave s a lot to be desired. Still, she’s happy with having someone to talk to. I bet both those gentlemen really looked forward to your visits, and I wonder what their reaction would be if they’d known you’d be writing about them years later and sharing it with the world!

  7. Oh i love the advise from Mr Fennel - my dad was the same, only drunk loose tea, my
    mum used to hate the mess but i always liked doing the whole tea straining bit even though i never got to liking the taste of tea. Scarlett x

  8. I like a man with good taste in tea! He sounds like quite a character (:

  9. That made me smile. We meet some great characters in our lives - some we'd rather forget; others we want to bottle and keep. Great last line by the way.

  10. Avoiding fags and decent tea, excellent advice both. I miss being young enough to generate unsolicited 'life' advice from the olds x

  11. Mr Green sounds alarmingly like my dad.
    I do think the elderly enjoy visits from non-family members far more than their own family who sadly grow a little bored with the same old conversations and memories. It's quite refreshing when my father is visited by the mental health team, I've learnt more about him by eaves dropping than I ever have in 44 years of being a dutiful daughter.
    Loose leaf tea is the best, especially the Co-Op's Indian Prince. Mr Fennel gave excellent advice. x

  12. Great stuff, I like your style. (You might like my story dated 21.2.2009.)

  13. Nell - Mr Fennel would be delighted, I'd imagine. Mr Green would probably say "bloody computers - waste of time".

    Scarlett - you don't like tea? But I have an image of you taking high tea at the Dorchester, pouring Darjeeling into a delicate cup with your lace-gloved hand!

    Cliodhna - Rob didn't drink tea when I met him. It was a condition of him moving in though, must drink tea or its OFF!

    Mark - the characters we meet and love, make putting up with the rotten ones all the more tolerable

    Max - I didn't like being called 'girl' by Mr F, now though, I'd be delighted to be referred to as such!

    Vix - you're spot on there. It's amazing what some people do once they're no longer co-dependent too. Some people's lives really begin once they're widowed, others fall apart.My friend's father, in his seventies, will only talk to me out of all the people she knows and all the neighbours. It amazes her. That tea is on my shopping list as we speak...

    Grumpy Old Ken - Hi! I followed you following a recommendation from Genius Loci - so glad I did. I'm sure you're a laugh a minute - not grumpy at all! The story of Mr White, Mr Black and Mr Green was excellent, thanks. Look forward to more tales.

  14. i have an early memory of the tea man's van coming up the valley from cardiff and stopping in meadow street treforest, where my grandmother and her friends would assemble, in their permanent pinafores and hats, waiting to buy enormous quantities of dark rich loose tea, the necessary lubricant for conversation, which my grandfather foolishly dismissed as mere gossip

  15. Tristan - I have very early memories of living in Treforest. I only live a stones throw from there now (albeit a weighty stone in a state of the art sling).
    Of course, its full of students now. They have a habit of displaying their alcohol consumption prowess in the window. They're so clever. Nothing looks more impressive than 12 empty bottles of Tesco value vodka in show.

  16. In ways being young forever in your mind is the thing I like most about Mr Fennel. And I don't mean mutton dressed as lamb, I mean being interested and passionate about life and open to new ideas and determined to make every day count. I loved this post, especially as I think about the legacy that my Dad will leave xx

  17. Your stories make me think of my neighbour. She's 86, feisty as hell but with failing health and utterly dependent on us for her shopping, posting letters, looking after her car (she refuses to sell it even though she cannot drive anymore so still taxes, insures and MOT's it - well we do it)..anyway old people with character are great. Even if they can't keep things clean, and even if they gripe a lot. They have reason to, I guess. Loved your tales.

  18. Really enjoyed your post and the characters you write about. Your post also reminded me of my nan and grandad who are no longer with us. I remember my grandad's stubborness, the nodding dog on the chest of drawers that always fascinated me and his false teeth in the glass cup. And of course, there was always the loose tea and the tea cosy that would fit over the silver teapot. I used to love the loose tea but particularly the dainty tea strainer that would clip over the proper teacup. They never did mugs, always tea cups and saucers. Thankyou for your lovely post and for helping me to remember my grandparents. Deb xx

    PS have given you a Versatile Blogger award on my blog, if you havent already got one.

  19. A fascinating account, Lucy. Particularly fascinating for me as I did a lot of cleaning in my 20s. Mainly for very rich folk living in Knightsbridge, Chelsea and Belgravia and occasionally for the odd "famous" bod (Derek Nimmo (before your time I expect), Katharine Whitehorn & Dirty Den).

    The oddest bod I worked for was a bed ridden old lady, Miss Devine, who lived in a dilapidated flat in Bayswater. I used to cook for her (badly), shop for her, sort out her bedpan and brush her hair (the latter to her cries of "harder" and "the nape, the nape"). She would then dismiss me with "Pass me my Royality magazine would you?". Blimey, such charming memories.....

  20. Wonderful writing. And I will savour my own age and existence a little more tonight. Thank you.


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