The Value of Things & The Story of The Ball

The streets that I grew up in were fashioned from blackened Yorkshire stone and each of these solid streets nourished hundreds of dwellings and lives just like mine. Life spilled out of every brick and crack and yard. There were dogs and cats, and rats, and rag and bone men on trailers with horses, and men delivering milk and fish on floats and factories all around that smoked. Women wore hair in curlers and smoked like troopers, and men in flares and fly away collars swaggered about and got in to fights on the corners.
Waste land was taken over by hordes of kids and made in to race tracks and everything seemed to co-exist in a perfect harmony. Like an image from a Lowry painting.

That’s how I remember it, and how it felt safe.
Everyone knew each other back then. Everyone knew you, and everyone knew your business, and that was fine, because you knew theirs in return.
I had hundreds of Auntys and hundreds of Uncles. We weren’t related. It was just something you were taught to call someone because they lived on the street.
Apart from the old lady that lived on the corner. She was different, and wanted to be left to herself.
She lived behind net curtains that covered dirty windows, where lights never came on.
We all called her the angry old woman. Us kids.
She was the oldest person that I had ever seen back then with deep lines in her face. Skinny and dishevelled, with hair that had turned yellow with age. The story was that she was a witch, and we all believed it.
Our gang would go play football or catch outside her house. It was cobbled that spot, but it was a nice open bit, and the cars weren’t allowed on, so we’d be drawn to playing there.
She didn’t like this, and had been out a few times in the past to tell us off for the noise. We’d been scared and run off.
When I told my mum, she’d said (in cross flamboyant Punjabi), that if she’d “told me once, then she’d told me a hundred times not to go bothering that old lady with our noise”. Some phrases don’t translate that well, but this one does.
The problem was, that my mother was a grown up.
The thing with grown-ups was that they couldn’t appreciate what it was like to be a child.
And so it was, one beautiful sunny day, filled with the blissfulness of youth, I took my ball out and chose to ignore what my Mother had told me, a hundred times already.
The gang gathered outside the angry old ladies house. It was great playing there.
We threw the ball this way, and then that, kicked it here, and then there, and then played some tag, and before I knew it carelessness ensued.
A kick saw it flying high up in to the sky, and sure enough, as one might predict (when one is an adult and has experience on their side), the ball ended up in the angry old ladies garden.
Now, my parents were poor. And a ball was a ball.
Balls didn’t come easy.
They certainly didn’t grow on trees.
I wouldn’t be getting another one any time soon, that was for sure.
What was to be done? Apart from go fetch it. Volunteers suddenly became scarce. We dibbed for it, but no one felt up to the task.
The unanimous verdict was that I should be the one to go and retrieve it, as it was my ball, and anyways everyone suddenly decided that I was the bravest of the bunch.
The reality was that I was far from brave.
I’d heard stories of kids that had gone in to this garden looking for their ball and they’d never been seen or heard of again. Some said, or so the story went, that she’d caught them and eaten them, and buried their bones in her garden. That’s why nothing nice grew because it was full of old bones.
And it was true, nothing nice did grow, it was dead even in the middle of Summer.
So, there I stood at the garden gate, with my fingers on the latch, and pushed gently. It groaned in its hinges and I hoped she hadn’t heard. I could see the ball as clear as day, and if I was fast I was sure I could get it. So, I made a run for it, across overgrown paths that covered all of the dead things that were hidden underneath.
It was just as I bent to pick it up, that I heard the tapping on the glass. She was watching me from the window with beady spectacled eyes, her long crooked fingers beckoning me to the door. My friends were nowhere to be seen, and as I stood at the door, I suddenly felt very very small.
‘What are you doing?’ she said sharply. She wasn’t dressed like a witch.
‘Please miss I was just getting my ball’ I managed to squeak out.
‘Give it to me’, she said. Then reaching down she took it off me, and before I could say anything else, she’d closed the door quietly, and firmly in my face. What else was there to do but go home without my ball, on the one hand devastated, and the other jolly well pleased I had made it out alive.
Sam was our elderly neighbour, and very wise. I decided to ask him about the angry old woman and why it was that she was so mean.
He said that “losing people did funny things to their heads and that she’d pretty much gone and lost her’s years ago after that tragedy”.
Well this made no sense. The loss of people. Perhaps it felt the same as losing my ball
I told my friends what I knew, but they couldn’t understand it. Not like me.
Loss was something you had to feel to understand and not everyone had lost a ball like I had.
Then, quite oddly, some days later, the ball reappeared, Sam was out in his yard pruning back his roses as he always was, and he said “she’d probably thought better of it and brought it back for me” and that I ought to “count my lucky stars”.
It was Autumn and windy, and the leaves were whipped up swirling around me like a cloak. I ran up and down the street shouting as loudly as I could flapping my arms, excited by this force of nature, trying to mimic it as young children do.
I could fly. One moment I was an eagle swooping and gliding, another a propeller on a jet plane, soaring. I came to rest as a leaf would outside her garden gate and found her elegantly dancing in her bare feet.
It was cold, her white dress was thin, and the wind played with her long yellowing hair which hung about her face and being a child I thought she’d become an angel. I know it sounds silly now as a grown up.
I told all my friends about her,but no one believes kids. Not even other kids and for a while I looked out for her whenever I walked past hoping to prove to others what I thought I’d seen, but she never reappeared again after that. Funny how I forgot all about her for forty years or more.
It was my last day at work, and twenty years worth of days had passed in that place.
As I left the building for the last time, she suddenly came to mind. It was the leaves chasing each other down the road perhaps that did it.
I wondered what had become of her, had she remained stuck forever, or had she taken courage and moved onwards. I wonder what she’d have gone on to do, become a ballroom dancer maybe, or better still, the oldest female footballer in the world teaching kids fancy tricks, the sort my boys go and learn now.
Perhaps she wrote her memoirs in books that became bestsellers and moved somewhere warm and bright by the sea, swapping her dark rooms for the sun. I don’t really know.
We all get stuck at some point in our life, and it can feel hard leaving familiarity and routine even when there’s the prospect of an adventure ahead of you, and this is so true for me right now.
I guess that must be why I shed a few tears the day I left.

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The Value of Things : And a Story about the Unlikeliest and Unexpected of Friendships

I first met Sam and Mary when I was born.

They lived next door to us, and for the first few years of my crazy, funny little life, they were a wonderful part of it.

We lived in a row of back to back terraces – and we were at the back, facing away from the noise and bustle of the street, and if you walked down the short gloomy cobbled alleyway to find us, you’d come out in to the light and a place where it was always Summer.Here the breeze was always warm, and there was a quiet hush, with only the sound of bees, and birdsong, and distant music from somewhere beyond.

Sam and Mary had met at a tea dance. It was during the war she said, and they’d “fallen madly in love”. I didn’t know what that meant, “madly in love”, but it sounded just grand the way she explained it.

She’d gone to the dance with her friend, her popular friend, and they’d both noticed Sam. He was the most handsome man in the room and when he walked over to them, she’d never in a month of Sunday have expected that he would ask her to dance, as no one ever did. But that night it was her turn.

She hated her glasses, because they magnified her eyes in to huge saucers. She’d put them away and hide them, but she was as blind as a bat without them, and she’d soon have to put them back on again. Sam had not noticed her glasses, instead he’d whirled her around the dance floor, till she was dizzy, and for once she’d felt like she was the prettiest girl in the room.

After the war, they’d gone and got themselves married, and had some children that never visited because they were all grown up. So I guess adopting us came easy.

She was a real life character from the old films I was so fond of,


and I was mesmerized by her.


On wash day, I would sit on her kitchen table, with my legs swinging over the edge, and I would listen to her many wonderful stories, whilst she set about starching his shirts in huge steaming pans, pulling them out with giant tongs and feeding them through the mangle.

Her favourite fragrance was ‘lily of the valley’ eau de cologne, which came out of a cut crystal glass bottle that was kept safely tucked away in a beautiful purple box, and every night Sam would say how nice she smelt, and then he’d ask her if she would do the honour of dancing with him. I would watch in delight, and Sam became my hero.


So of course, I had to adopt them in return, as my own grandparents lived far away in exotic climes.

Sam was as deaf as a post and wore a trilby to distract the observer from his hearing aids. There was always a waistcoat, and a smart shirt, and his shoes were always shiny because “you should always look your best as you never knew who you might bump in to’, and he was right, as you never did.


So, as blind as a bat, and as deaf as a post, and still as madly in love as the day they first met.

Sam was a gardener, and he grew roses. With little pathways that criss crossed through them. We’d work our way down the paths and he’d explain all the varieties he grew, and turn over the leaves, and show me the dew that collected and sparkled like diamonds, and how you should dead head a rose, and he’d pull the flower heads down so I could catch the scent.

We’d sit and watch the butterflies that came to his garden, all of the colours of the rainbow, the swallow tail or the admiral and peacock, and he could name them all and sometimes we’d collect lady birds and make homes for them in glass jars, and release them all at the end of the day.

To me his garden was a magical forest of towering prickly thorns with statuesque blooms that touched the sky as they waved so high above my head that I could barely see them. And through a child’s eyes and my multicolour imagination I dreamt of all manner of wild things that lived in that forest. There were peacocks and dragons that flew, noble knights on chargers roamed through it searching for deeds that called on their chivalry,  and deer lived in the dark corners with many other wild creatures that were un named and were guardians of it.

We’d be looking for hours and then Mary would shout us in, and there’d be delicious cake with coconut in it and glace cherries on top.

Sometimes I got stabbed by the thorns, and Sam would say “roses caught you off guard, so you had to be careful around them” , and I would nod vigorously as everything Sam said was always true.

One morning, I went to visit, and Sam explained that something awful had happened in the night.
There’d been an attack. There were intruders in the garden, and if I wanted to help save it, then I had to come help.
We walked through the magical rose forest but for the first time I was afraid of it, and this unseen threat and held his hand.

He gingerly pulled up some of the leaves and showed me the underneath, a mass of green bulbous bodies, crawling over each other, with big googly eyes and antenna and wings. I was horrified. He said it was greenfly.

He took the leaf between his fingers, and pressed down hard. In my mind the bodies popped under the pressure, and their green blood stained his fingers, “if you don’t do that then the flowers wont come back ” he said, as he held out a different leaf which was meant for me this time.

I took a deep breath, and held the leaf. But found I couldn’t squeeze  no matter how hard I tried.

He laughed and patted my head, then walked on purposefully down the path. Slaying them all single handedly as he went. All of them.

Over the next few days there was no time to walk through the forest any more to look for the wild things,  because the forest had become a place of death and destruction.

His fingers were stained green permanently now, even after he’d scrubbed them clean, and he said that if I wanted to “grow up to be a gardener”, like him, then I had to get green fingers too.

One day, and not much later, we moved away, it was out of the blue.
I remember being excited about it as I’d heard there was hot water that came out of taps, and a toilet in a bath room and you didn’t have to go outside in the night ever.

So, my childish goodbye was not what it ought to have been, given how important they were and staying in touch was impossible, as no one had phones, and what with my new distractions they were soon forgotten.

Several years later, we paid them a visit. They’d moved in to a flat because it didn’t have stairs. The flat didn’t come with a garden.
Sam said he missed it, but “by heck” it was nice to see us.

The next time we visited, Sam had passed away, and Mary was not herself any more.

When the warm winds of Spring arrive, so do my memories of them, and then I am back there again, reliving those happy times.

I have my own garden now,

and teach the boys if they will listen to me, and like Mary, I’m fond of baking cakes, and like Sam have the stories to tell if anyone wants to listen to them.

I never got the green fingers he hoped I would, but the tree I killed by accident last year, came back to life over Easter, so perhaps I did good after all.


The most valuable thing in life, is the people. When we touch the lives of others and choose to leave a positive impression by doing a good deed, we live on and make a difference, bigger than you might ever realise. Just like Sam and Mary have to me, and  it pleases me that you know about them too now.

I wish they lived next door again, and that the boys could meet them, the sweetest, kindest of hearts. What a truly wonderful thing that would be for all of us.


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