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The Donkey Sanctuary Tour

by Nick Le Mesurier 

Posted: 02 June 2006
Word Count: 3886
Summary: This is a sort of homage to Alan Bennett, done with respect

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The Donkey Sanctuary Tour. (3882 words)

Well, I hadn’t wanted to team up with anyone, but Miss Parker was so insistent. All I wanted was some information on the donkey sanctuary tour, and I wrote to her because she was secretary. But she sent me piles of this and that, and then she phoned me up out of the blue to ask if I wouldn’t mind her tagging along with me, as her friend wasn’t going and she was at a bit of a loose end. If I’d known then what I was letting myself in for! But of course you don’t. Anyway, I said all right, though I didn’t really want to be tied down too much. You go for the company, don’t you? I’m on my own here too much as it is, since Walter died. But that’s not to say you want to be stuck with someone, is it?
No sooner had we got to the coach station than I could see I was in for trouble. She was a small woman, but not as old as some, nor so disabled. She started complaining straightaway that the steps were too high, then it was too hot, then she couldn’t see. Mostly she complained to me; and I thought, well what am I supposed to do about it? So I said something, and she went off to have a word with a lady who was sitting up the front, asked if she could swap places. Naturally, this lady didn’t want to; she had a nice seat thank you very much. Well, that made her mood set in. She came back to me, all sullen, and she went on and on about this woman. There was nothing I could do to quiet her down. I’m sure she must have heard.
By the time we got to the hotel, she’d worn herself out. After all her fuss about not being able to see, she went to sleep, and hadn’t woken up until we got there. We had to share, two to a room. Of course, by then I could see what was coming, but there’s not much I could do about it. We booked together, and so I couldn’t really say no, not with her. So there, it was done. We got in our room and she started snuffling around like a little piglet, picking up the bedspread, opening drawers, switching the lights on and off, and all the time, grunting to herself. ‘I suppose it’ll do,’ she said, and then she started to tell me of all the fancy places she’s stayed in, foreign places, hot and cold. She was a teacher, she tells me, state school and private. Headmistress, once. I could see her standing up there, going on. Now she reckoned she was a magistrate and chair of half a dozen committees. I tried to doze off before tea time, but she wouldn’t stop. I had to take myself to the bathroom.
Fortunately, I managed to escape before dinner and got myself in with a nice couple from Coventry who was coming for the first time, and I took the trouble to make sure she saw me busy. I could see her, on the end of a table, all alone, ‘cos some had got wind of her by now and they weren’t too keen to get close. She looked quite forlorn for a minute, and I felt a little bit sorry for her and reckoned maybe she was lonely and that she’d not used to the company of ordinary folk. So after dinner I asked her to walk down to the promenade with me, just a short constitutional. But no, she said she wouldn’t walk, and I can see she’s still had the hump. Suit yourself, I thought, and turned to go back to my friends from Coventry, when she grabbed me by the sleeve, and asked me if I wanted to play cards. Well, I said, there’s no-one to play with, and maybe later on the tour when we would when we’d got to know some better. ‘Well, I’d have thought you’d have known some by now,’ she said, ‘seeing as you’ve been before’, and she stomped off to bed.
I stayed down for a while, talking to Coventry and another lady from Derby, then went on up about ten. I said a little prayer that she’d be asleep already and prepared to tip-toe in. As soon as I opened the door she turned on the light and I could see she was sitting bolt upright in bed, waiting for me. ‘I’ve been hearing bumps,’ she said. I said, ‘What do you mean, bumps?’ ‘Bumps,’ she said, and banged the bedside table, ‘Bumps. Like that. Only from the door.’ I said, ‘Which door?’ She said ‘The one opposite.’ I said which one opposite? And she gave one of her little piggy grunts and got up and opened the door and stood there in her nightie and pointed, ‘That door,’ she said.
Well, I didn’t know what to make of it, when suddenly; the occupant of the room came storming out. It was a woman and she was from Jamaica or some such place, though she’d lived in Ipswich for years. We’d said good morning when we stopped at the motorway service station and we’d queued for a cuppa, and she had said it was her fourth, and she hoped to bring her daughter next time. Well, she was not a woman to be trifled with, you could see that. She came out of that room like a bull at a gate, and I could see straight away from the way she was holding it above her head that a certain piece of paper had something to do with it.
‘Did you put this under my door?’ this woman screamed. And she held it under Miss Parker’s nose like it was something dirty. Miss Parker had recoiled a little at first, what with this woman’s temper. But she was made of stern stuff, I’ll give her that. ‘I did’, Miss Parker said, standing as tall as she could and all righteous. ‘What do you mean, accusing me of banging?’ the woman said. ‘I’ve not been banging.’
‘Excuse me,’ said Miss Parker, but you have. At a quarter past nine, and again at twenty minutes to and at five to ten, you were slamming your door. I’ve made a note.’ And she pointed at the piece of paper.
Well, that really did it. She said why couldn’t she just knock on her door if she had a problem? Then she denied it, and Miss Parker went on and on about this note she’d written. Then she came up to Miss Parker, quite close, and said, ‘Are you calling me a liar?’ and Miss Parker said ‘Yes!’, and turned ever so calmly and walked back into the room. By then, there were quite a few people in the corridor, some were in their dressing gowns, and others were on their way upstairs to bed. I didn’t know what to say. You can imagine how I felt, having to go after her. I felt I had been labelled the same, a sort of trouble maker, too. I said, I’m sorry, and one or two people said it wasn’t my fault and what was the matter with her? I had to say I didn’t know, I had only just met her, she sent me some material that was all. You could see some of them didn’t believe me, the woman from Ipswich among them. She said it was no way to get along, and she’d been three times before and nothing like this had ever happened before. I just said I’m sorry again and I hoped it wouldn’t spoil it for her, and she sniffed loudly in a meaningful sort of way. I turned around and went inside. Just as I did, do you know; I heard her door bang. I felt it. I don’t know if it was deliberate, but there was no need to make it worse.
Well, when I got in the room Miss Parker was sitting up in bed, and I could see she’d been crying. As soon as she saw me, she wiped her eyes and put on that expression I was beginning to know. ‘You heard it,’ she said. ‘She thinks she can get the better of me, but I’ve handled bigger than her.’ ‘You didn’t have to go posting a note under her door like that,’ I said. ‘You could have said something face to face.’ ‘I find,’ she replied, ‘that a written communication often makes the point more effectively. Especially with that sort!’ I said, ‘With what sort?’ She sniffed, ‘You know what I mean’. I said, ‘I don’t.’ She said, ‘Argumentative. They have to have the last word. It’s the way some people have been brought up.’ I said: ‘I expect you’ve seen a few, being on the bench.’ She looked at me funny for a moment, like she didn’t know what I was on about. Then she said, ‘I have,’ and turned out her light, leaving me to fumble in the dark.
After all that, you know, I couldn’t get to sleep. It was a twin room, beds on either side of a chest of drawers. I wanted to read, but I couldn’t on account of the light. I asked her if she minded, but she said she was a light sleeper and the shuffling of the pages disturbed her. I didn’t want another argument, so I just lay there for a while, hoping to get off to sleep. I couldn’t. She may have been a light sleeper, but she was a loud snorer. Oh dear, I thought, this will never do. Just then she cried out, ‘I’m coming John. I’m coming, quick’ like she was frightened. This went on for a while. I didn’t really get what she was saying; just that it involved this John. It made me feel quite strange, like there was another person in the room.
Anyway, next day we went to this place near Salcombe, to the first sanctuary. It was lovely to see the donkeys. You do all that work, standing around on street corners, rain and shine, rattling your tin. Some of them were in a terrible state, you now, they’d just come in from wherever. You wouldn’t think people would be so cruel, would you? But they turn out lovely, after a while, though the lady who took us round said they don’t save them all, some of them are too far gone. Miss Parker even offered to take my picture next to one of them, lovely little thing. She’d calmed down a bit; though I was watching her. She’d kept to herself mostly, hadn’t bothered Mrs Johnson, though she hadn’t make amends either. The two of them kept as far apart as it was possible to be. Miss Parker made a bee line for the front seat on the bus, though she made a point of saving a seat for me, which was a mixed blessing, I suppose. Oh the lanes of Devon are pretty! Especially at this time of the year, in the Spring.
All was well, until lunchtime. I’d not been able to get away much from Miss Parker, as she would insist on trailing after me, like a shadow, but at a distance. I don’t know if she felt sorry for her behaviour, or guilty, or whether she thought that woman would have a go at her. Maybe she just thought no-one else would want to talk to her, which would be about right. You could see people edge away from her if she came close. The trouble was; this rubbed off on me. I found that if I went anywhere and she was following me, people would back away from me. Well, I didn’t want that. I’d worked hard for this holiday, and I didn’t want to be made a leper. So come lunch time, I made a point of sitting with a lady from Norfolk who it turned out had come for the first time on her own after her husband had died. Miss Parker had gone to the Ladies, while we were going in to the restaurant, and I nipped in beside her quick.
You could see as soon as she came back that I was in trouble. She came over to me and, bold as you like, said, ‘I don’t think we should be sitting here Agnes. Let’s move over by the window.’ I said, ‘Excuse me, Miss Parker, but I have just started talking to this lady. You are welcome to join us if you like.’ I thought I’d better not shut her out completely, though this lady from Norfolk looked worried. I’m not the vindictive type. For a moment she just hovered, then she looked like she was going to have another of her outbursts like she did before; but you could see she couldn’t think of anything to say, and she sat down all quiet like and said, ‘I will.’
We ordered tea and we started talking. The lady from Norfolk was a Mrs Spile. Her husband had been something in fish before they moved on his retirement. They had bought a nice little bungalow near Cromer for the air. They’d not been there a year when he goes and dies of a heart attack. On a Tuesday, out with the dog. They were their seconds; her first had run off with a younger model. His had died. They’d only been married five years. She’d had three children, he had one. One of hers had died; one was in Australia and one had lived not far away. His likewise had been close by, before they moved. None of their kiddies would speak to them. She had grandchildren she never saw. It seems the family didn’t like her marrying again, or something. Probably money, though they never said. They came to his funeral, she said, but she couldn’t make them welcome. ‘They stood around the grave, all of them,’ she said, ‘quite dry eyed, every one. I’ve never felt so alone.’ She said she was thinking of moving back to Sutton Coldfield, where they’d come from, but she reckoned it would have all changed. Her best friend Mary had just died, too, and she felt guilty. ‘I was the one she turned too, she said, ‘and then I goes and makes us leave for the coast. It’s all my fault,’ she said. ‘Neither of them lasted long.’
Well, this was more than I’d planned for. I didn’t know what to say. Miss Parker did, though. She just cut across and started talking about her time as a teacher in Palestine, or some such place. She said she’d been a volunteer with the United Nations, back in the fifties. I don’t know if it was true or not, just that she’d effectively kicked poor Mrs Spile out of the picture. I was getting to see that Miss Parker couldn’t stand people doing anything that didn’t involve her. Well, I couldn’t say much at the time; I didn’t want to make a fuss in front of Mrs Spile, but I was so embarrassed. I waited till we got back to the hotel, and then I gave her what for. I said she had no right speaking to people like she did. Do you know what she did? She just giggled. Never said a word, just smiled to herself and started to laugh. Then she said she was sorry. I thought: you’ve got a problem, lady, and no mistake. I almost felt sorry for her and was about to ask her what was the matter, but something held me back. Well, you don’t know what might come out, do you?
Something must have struck home, though, because for the rest of the week, right up until the last day, she was as good as gold. Which is to say, she hardly said a word to anyone. Had I known better I might have taken this as a warning. But you don’t, do you? She just sort of hid in the background, keeping herself to herself, so no-one would be looking at her. Then, on the last night, we were due to have a bit of a party, celebrate the end of the tour. We’d all had a good time, the weather had been lovely, it had been nice to see the donkeys, and some of us had got to know each other a bit, you could see. Lots of people were talking who hadn’t met before, and I even wondered if there might be something special happening between a gentleman from Crawley and a Mrs Stanley from Guildford, a widow. These things do happen, you know, we’re not all past it! Anyway, things had smoothed out between Miss Parker and the rest of us, mainly as I say, because she didn’t speak to anyone. The last afternoon of the tour we had to ourselves, and some of us went into town to do a bit of shopping, to buy some souvenirs. I bought a clock. I’d teamed up again with the couple from Coventry; turns out he is a vicar taken early retirement on the grounds of health. We’d been evacuated to the same town in the war. We even asked Miss Parker if she wanted to come along, but she said no thank you, she’d got plans of her own. Fair enough, we thought, and didn’t push it.
When we got back there was no sign of Miss Parker. I thought that was strange because she had always been punctual up till now. But never mind, I thought, I suppose she’s found something to do. I was pleased, frankly, because I could see she hadn’t really enjoyed the holiday much. Since that business with Mrs Spile, when I told her off, she’d not said much, even to me. She hadn’t slept either, because most nights I’d had to get up a couple of times and I could tell she was lying there awake. I said once, are you all right, and she’d just turned over without saying anything. I thought, very well; I’m not your keeper. I reckoned she could see she’d started off all wrong and she didn’t know how to put it right. Some people are too proud for their own good.
Well, we’d agreed to meet up in the lobby, me and the vicar and his wife, Davis they were called, before going in for dinner. There she was! I could tell instantly what was wrong. I’d seen it before; every time my Walter used to walk in from the pub. I thought I’d left all that behind. I could see it in her too. She tried to use the revolving door but couldn’t get it right. She had a stupid grin on her face, and she sort of stumbled. God knows where she’d been. She was all dressed up. Lipstick, eye shadow, the works. Only she’d gone at it a bit heavy, and she looked like she’d put it on with a brush. She’d sort of back combed her hair, too, which was normally flat, so it stood out. She looked a sight. She didn’t see us at first, and I wanted to get out of it quick. But the others just stood there, amazed. Then she came over. I could tell from her face what was coming. ‘You left me,’ she slurred ‘You bloody left me.’ My heart sank, and I remembered Walter, night after night, just come back from the pub, standing there, trying to pick a fight. I knew there was no sense reasoning, but the vicar, he couldn’t see it. He goes to take her by the arm and lead her away, but she tries to fight him off. Her language was ripe, I can tell you. She could outdo my Walter any day. Then she tries to go into the dining room, but the Maitre D’ bars the way. She swears. She cusses. But she backs away. Then I see it. That look, when someone’s about to go over the edge. It’s like the Devil’s inside them, coming out. They can’t help it. There, in the middle of the lobby, with everyone looking, full attention, she bends over and she’s sick on the carpet. You could hear them all in the background, going ‘ooh’ and ‘ah’, and ‘how dreadful’. And though there was nothing to look at between Miss Parker and my late husband I could see the resemblance. It wasn’t the mess, of course, it was that sense that they’re not quite there, there’s something missing. They’re gone. It’s just a body, and this is the truth, underneath it all.
Well, the vicar was very good. He and his wife took Miss Parker by the arms and led her away upstairs. I just turned and went outside. I’d lost my appetite, and it wasn’t the sick. I took a little walk along the prom’, trying to compose myself. The place was still buzzing. The weather was warm. There were stalls and shops still going strong. Crowds of people, milling about; mostly youngsters. Some of them had been drinking I could see. They looked happy, but I didn’t envy them. Though they were laughing and shouting, all I could think of was what lay before them, and that was pretty bleak. A part of me wanted to tell them to look out, but I knew it would sound ridiculous. An old woman like me.
When I got back to the hotel I asked if they could give me another room. To be frank, I couldn’t care less at the time if Miss Parker died in the night. I’d seen enough of her. I said I’d pay extra, and they consented. In fact they found me a lovely double room, with a view; so there was a silver lining after all. Of course, I had to get my things, but I got it over with, quick. Somebody had put Miss Parker to bed, the vicar and his wife I suppose, and she was out for the count. Thank goodness, I thought. I just stuffed my things anyhow in the case and fled.
Next morning there was no sign of Miss Parker, and I’ve no idea how she got home, because the coach didn’t wait. No-one was sorry. I sat next to a Mrs Andrews, from Edinburgh originally, who told me all about her daughter, who drove a lorry for a living. People are full of surprises.
I heard no more from Miss Parker for a while, until one day, about a month later I had a letter. She was in a hospital somewhere. She must have kept my address. I must say I wasn’t surprised. I thought, quite frankly, that’s the best place for you, lady. It didn’t make much sense, what she said, sort of rambled on about this and that. It went on and on, going round and round, repeating itself. She ended by wishing I’d come and visit her. I thought; should I be charitable? But I decided not. I knew all too well what I’d be getting into.

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