Chapter 6 Miss Pipe
At the Welcome Party we met an assortment of other teachers and their families, from Australia and New Zealand. Some of them planned to buy vans to do their sight-seeing. I seemed to be the only one who had already bought a vehicle.
"My you're well organized. We're still house-hunting."
"I was lucky, my exchangee found a house for me. It's a long way from school, and with petrol the price it is, and the van being a bit thirsty, I would like to get something closer, but I don't think there's much hope. I had to get a van in a hurry to get the twelve miles to and from school."
"Where did you buy it? Does your husband know about cars?"
"I'm on my own... just me and the kids, and I'm not very mechanical. It was advertised in Canterbury. I didn't tell the seller that I was on my own and pretty ignorant. I said I would not be interested unless it was a good vehicle, so when he brought it all the way to Maidstone, I presumed he must have believed it was good."
"You're rather game, aren't you?"
"I didn't have much choice."
There were a number of English teachers who had previously been on exchange. One of these was Ruth Pipe, short straight hair, sensible tweed skirt, now near retiring age, a warm enthusiastic person. She invited us to visit her in a fortnight, I was glad to accept, hoping to get used to British driving and camping conditions before attempting longer trips. However she wrote to me during the week and said that she had decided we were to sleep in her tiny house, as she could not bear the thought of us sleeping in the van in winter. We would have to excuse her Victorian washing arrangements, and take care on her worn narrow stairs, We were glad to. She was so generous and went to so much trouble.
"You really shouldn't have," I told her, enjoying the savoury promising smell of a casserole which I had not had to prepare.
"Of course I should," she insisted. "Only sorry that I'm so slow and keep you waiting so long for your dinner. You can see that I'm no good at this, but I'm so pleased to have you all. Such lovely children." She ended each sentence with a little laugh.
Everything she took from the cupboard had to be rewashed in case it was dusty. The table was set with all the trimmings, although there were five of us to be seated at a table big enough for two.
"We must do it properly you know. Don't have many occasions to have Australians to dinner," she said, bringing in the casserole. "Must give you something to remember."
The children would certainly remember her generosity. She gave them all sorts of treats the next day when we went to look around Hertfordshire. She took us to dinner at the 'Copper Kettle', then to see a miniature village with miniature trains (unfortunately not running, the 'season' had not begun).
"Oh, I'm so disappointed, I wanted to show the trains to the boys. They would have loved them. They tell me they have a train set at home. Next time." She gave a little laugh.
"Now I'm showing you Berkhamstead. It's a ruin of course, but so interesting. William was received there as Conqueror of England. This is the sort of thing which really interests me."
I was not surprised to learn that she had done some serious archaeology. I could imagine her, in her flat shoes and sensible clothes, enthusing over ancient relics.
"Have you been to many places?"
"Yes, quite a few, mainly Greece when I was younger. I'm not so agile now. When I retire I might have more time and energy. At present I find school exhausting, and always have a lot of work to catch up in the holidays. The children get me down a bit."
She was such a lovely person, but I could imagine that High School students might make life difficult for her, because of her mannerisms, her energetic but shuffling gait, and her habitual laugh. My children loved her, and she listened to their confidences with real interest.
"That was a little house Miss Pipe lived in," said Peter on our way home. "Why is it so small? And that funny toilet?"
"Well it is quite an old house. She told me she has to leave soon because all those houses are getting pulled down for new offices. It isn't worth spending money on modern plumbing. But sometimes it's a shame to pull down the old places. It suits a person like Miss Pipe."
"Where will she go?"
"She hopes it won't be before she retires in a couple of years. She is going back to Australia for a visit, and then she wants to settle somewhere quiet, in a house with a nice garden."
"They always say 'garden' here. We call it a yard... at the back anyway. Here it isn't big enough to play cricket or anything."
"It's just that we are used to so much more space. When I was a girl we had a really big yard, and only two of us to play in it. We had a big house with verandahs and big rooms, but no hot water or fridge, or washing machine. And the toilet was outside. Modern plumbing hadn't been invented when my Dad built it, and we were quite used to it... boiling a kettle to wash up in a tin dish on the kitchen table, lighting a fuel copper to do the washing. We did have a bath and a chip-heater to have a bath on Saturday night."
"Miss Pipe doesn't even have a bathroom."
"Look, mummy there's the bridge in the pictures," cried Jacqueline. We had left after an early tea, got lost in London, and finally found ourselves driving over London Bridge quite by accident. Downstream, Tower Bridge could be seen quite clearly, even at night, so we had to find it and drive over it. Of course we became entangled in one-way streets. Peter was my navigator while travelling and he usually managed well, but there were times in London when I felt at my wit's end, caught up in a stream of traffic, not knowing which lane I should be in, and frequently making long unintentional detours. Eventually we found and crossed the elusive bridge, only to find ourselves once again in a labyrinth. Another half-hour and we had escaped from the maze, and headed for Maidstone. Peter stayed awake to keep me company and make sure I didn't get lost any more, while the other two settled down in their sleeping bags in the back of the van.
"Teddy is tired," said a squeaky voice in the rear.
"Did you have a good time at Miss Pipe's?" asked Puppy.
"Yes it was very nice. I liked the miniature village best."
"You didn't even see it. You were in the van all the time."
"I was not. I'm a magic Teddy. I was invisible and I went in David's pocket."
"And I went in Jacqueline's," replied Puppy, very sleepily.