Thursday, 15 November 2018


When I was eighteen, I spent a while living and working with some monks in Devon.

There a Spanish priest who spoke no English taught me to milk a cow, and I learned to fill out a Post Office remittance sheet — fiendishly difficult; maths was never my strong suit.

Brother Jonathan was in charge of the enterprise, a big, heavy-built man with a luxuriant beard. He lived in an apartment above the Post Office, and the stone shed built into the back of it had been transformed into a small whitewashed chapel, furnished with low benches, sisal mats and sunshine. It opened into a little triangle of garden, where cabbages grew and my dwelling — a caravan — stood. Up the road in two cottages the various volunteers lived, and then a track led past the orchard (home to our goat) to the farm where the pigs, cows and donkey resided.

On the way to the farm, the track passed an old Methodist chapel. Brother Jonathan, not the easiest of men, had enjoyed a less than happy relationship with the local Methodists, so he said, and as the congregation dwindled the chapel steward had averred, through gritted teeth, "Over my dead body will that monk get his hands on our chapel."

You should be careful what you say about the servants of the Lord. He did die, and Jonathan did get the chapel, adding it to the straggle of buildings contributing to his vision of providing holidays for children from the inner city. In that particular building, nothing happened downstairs and we used the upper floor for amassing donations for our jumble sales, and for our stall. On Mondays we went to Bideford market to sell anything we could lay our hands on we thought might raise money.  

My job was basically to do anything that needed doing — digging a vegetable clamp to store the root veggies through the winter, making pots of paté from a carrier-bag-full of chicken livers Jonathan had got hold of from somewhere, cooking supper for whoever was living there at the time, milking the cow, and helping in the Post Office and stores. That could be something of a nightmare. I well remember the day Jonathan left me in charge of the shop, when I discovered that not only had the mice nibbled all the bars of chocolate on sale, but when I opened the till to give the old people of the village their pensions it had nothing in it but I.O.U.s from Jonathan.

On Wednesdays I spent the afternoons filling out the remittance sheet with him, sitting by the Aga in his little sitting room behind the shop.

I remember him sashaying down the 1970s open ladder stairs to fill out the form with me, singing Hey Fattie Bum Bum and wanting to know why we never sang anything like that in church. A fair question.

And as we sat by the stove chatting, Jonathan remarked that he woke much earlier in the morning that he used to do as a young man. At the time I was all of eighteen and he was forty-three, but I listened with interest as he mused on the discovery that nowadays he needed less sleep but more rest. The thought intrigued me, and I tucked it away in my mental filing cabinet. There's all kinds of stuff in that.

And it's true for most people. As you get older, you need less sleep but more rest. You get tired, your reserves run low, you cannot be bothered, you have less stamina and less resilience. On the one hand. But on the other hand, you wake by four or five in the morning, and if something troubles you then you lie awake all night, just turning it over in your mind. Well, I do anyway.

I remember when I moved to York as a nineteen-year-old, getting up at 5am so I had time to walk through the city to join the Poor Clares for early Mass in Lawrence Street, it felt almost unbelievably heroic — I had to go back to bed the minute I got home. Five o'clock!!  Ha! Nowadays I'm awake by five every day of the week.

More rest, and less sleep.

And just as your appetite for sleep diminishes, so does your appetite for food. Thirty years ago I used to look at the dinky plate of cake and sandwiches our old ladies nibbled on at chapel teas and wonder if they had a secret stash to fill up on at home. I used to get so hungry. I could polish off a big roast dinner followed by pie and ice-cream and come back for seconds. But gradually, as time has gone on, I find I want less and less. For breakfast I have some home-made carrot and apple juice and a bowl of oatmeal incorporating the fibre left from making the juice. For lunch I have a dessert plateful of something cooked, then a piece of fruit. For supper I have maybe a kale shake, or a small bowl of nuts, or some steamed greens. I'd have been ravenous if you'd fed me like that as a young woman, and lost weight like water running out of a sink when you pull the plug. My spare tyre still sits comfortably round my waist these days, though. And if I try to eat any more — like if we go out to eat at a restaurant, for example — it just makes me feel spectacularly ill.

This even applies to cups of tea. The amount of liquid in one of the big mugs from which I used to drink tea, I'd find overwhelming now. A small mug or a teacup is better. And then of course, there's the tea itself; it has to be herb tea now — I can no longer cope with regular tea, not even Earl Grey.

Less sleep, then, and less food. 

And what about sex?

Heheh. My previous marriage, short and sweet, was to Bernard. He and I got together when he was seventy-one, and he died when he was seventy-three. We had a very full and happy sexual relationship — but it was not the same as for younger people. I would say my general experience of sex in older people is that it is, in general, sweeter and more pleasurable than sex in younger life, perhaps in part because its rhythms are slower and more mellow. It is not without intensity, but physical energy does not always keep up with sexual desire, and one has to make corresponding adjustments.

Other than that, I find my appetite for excitement is now sub-zero — I can no longer watch tense stories laden with threat on the telly; I even find driving a car quite difficult! But I never tire of the ordinary; I like my spotted hanky, the smell of woodsmoke, sunlight slanting through trees silhouetting against the wall, someone playing the harp downstairs in the evening . . . But outings are almost a thing of the past. I very occasionally go to the cinema, but I think I'd find a full-on day in London with a restaurant meal, and then on to the theatre for Shakespeare or the ballet, all a bit more than I could cope with now. A 40-minute lunchtime concert in a local venue is more like my mark.

I don't miss these things, though. I like lying awake in the early morning and pottering about while the household is asleep. I'm happy with less to eat, and I don't miss days out or holidays. I think the only thing I have given up that causes me sadness is Earl Grey tea and cake. Yes, I do miss those.


Suzan said...

How I wish my appetite would decrease. It has been very interesting to read about your early life and the work you did.

Pen Wilcock said...

I think your appetite is likely to decrease, Suzan. These things are hormonally led, I believe. My grandmother, who at 5'7" weighed about 7 stones most of her adult life, went up to around 13 stones at the menopause. Then as she began to grow old, the weight gradually diminished. At some point, she remarked to my mother (who had been horrified by her weight gain) "I won't put on any weight now."

I'm noticing something of the same trajectory. I was slim as a girl and young woman, put on stones in my childbearing and breastfeeding years, got distinctly stout around menopause — and now it's just slowly wandering off.

BLD in MT said...

This was a lovely meander through phases of your life, Pen. What an interesting and transformational experience it must have been with the monks in Devon! And how equally interesting the way we ebb and flow with the waves of life--in so many facets.

I already find it hard to endure tense dramas or driving, but cannot get enough sleep or stout black tea. :) I eagerly await my own transitions. Ah, life, what a fabulous, ever-changing adventure.

Pen Wilcock said...

I love the idea of seeing it all as your transitions — that has a graceful and positive feel to it. x