At this time of year there are many reasons why…
Back in the 60’s and 70’s, Plymouth, there lived a lady of such eccentricity that if she featured in a work of fiction you might think the author’s imagination had carried him away. When I knew her she was no spring chicken but I think in her heyday she was attractive, otherwise why would her husband, a very wealthy man, have married her, for she gave him a barrel of trouble. Her passion was rescuing stray dogs. She had immense energy and spent days and nights scouring the streets and often rescued dogs before they were lost, so to speak and would often demand that I took in one of her strays at one in the morning. Yet no disreputable bag lady was she, but attended fashionable events where she would bend everyone’s ear to her cause. It was said that more than once, after such an outing she would return to her mansion on The Hoe to find that her husband had locked her out, when she would just bed down on her doorstep for the rest of the night.
I can testify that one day my wife and I were in town for some shopping. We were about to cross the road when this lady grabbed my arm and demanded to discuss stray dogs. I politely pointed out that it was my day off but she would have non of it. So we crossed the road, my wife pulling one arm while my nemesis hung on to the other. Any male observing this must have thought, ‘‘What’s he got that I haven’t?’’.
In the Stoke area of Plymouth the wife of a medical consultant ruled her household with a rod of iron. Her forceful nature was matched by her perversity as she controlled her menagerie of people and even more animals. She ruled from the large basement of a four story Victorian house which she left only for a foray to the nearby shops. Perversity should have been for, although we had a good working relationship, whatever I suggested she took the opposite view. For example, if I opined that a dog should have an operation she would invariably challenge me and oppose my view. I soon learnt how to deal with her. I would decide my favourite procedure then suggest the opposite. A kind-hearted woman, always dressed in severe black, she will remain forever in my memory.
I first met the Lewis-Browns in Plymouth in the 60’s. I must call them that because nothing but a double-barrel name would suit their faded gentility. He was the son of a vicar and she was a devoted wife, a devotion also shared by their four spaniels and many cats. He was a door-to-door insurance salesman in those early days but I doubt he sold much insurance because he was too honest. So it proved because he was soon looking for work, always dressed in his three piece suit, the same one I believe which he wore all the time I knew him. Yet, as their fortunes waned, and they down sized from house to house they never stinted on their pets’ care or in paying my bill. He was a man of such probity that when, in view of his financial circumstances, I suggested I waive my fee he was affronted. ‘No Mr. Watson, you must earn your living and I must earn mine’.
I remember visiting a greengrocer’s business which was so incompetently run, such a shambles, that it would have been laughable if not so tragic. Once I visited them in a garret, literally under the eaves, where conversation was accompanied by the plop of water in bowls placed judiciously under the leaking roof, and when I asked for water to wash he triumphantly produced a half full bowl of roof water.
They faced this steady fall in their fortunes with equanimity and their only vice. They both chain smoked, to the extent that their fingers, their lips, and even the ceilings were yellow. Of course all their pets died of lung cancer of obvious casuality. Yet the penny did not drop with them despite my repeated suggestions they give up the habit. Then one day I arrived to a solemn reception. ‘‘Sit down Mr Watson,’’ said Mrs Lewis-Brown, ‘‘We must discuss why our pets keep dying’’. I looked at them aghast. I did not know what to say. ‘‘Why it’s your smoking of course,’’ I blurted out. The reaction exceeded anything I could have ever imagined. They obviously never realised. It was painful to see these honest people beat their breasts in self-reproach and I believe it shortened their lives. They both died before my retirement. You will never guess the cause.