Magazine article The Spectator

Wild Life: Aidan Hartley

Magazine article The Spectator

Wild Life: Aidan Hartley

Article excerpt

We had my parents-in-law Gerry and Jean to stay with us on the farm over Christmas and being in a remote place in Africa, things often go wrong. A few days into the festivities the solar-powered electricity broke down and so did the solar water-heater. As we sat in darkness, after cold showers, Gerry said, 'It reminds me of Ronnie and Doreen.' In 1968, Gerry said, he was working for Kellogg's, selling cornflakes all over the British Isles, Jean was raising two children and they lived in a semi in Billingshurst. Ronnie next door used to fiddle the electric meter. He offered, 'Shall I do yours, Gerry?' 'No thank you, Ronnie,' said Gerry, who has played a straight bat all his life.

In the early summer of that torrid year Gerry was struggling with his hand-pushed lawnmower in front of his house when Ronnie peered out of his window next door and said, 'I know just the thing you need, Gerry.' The next day he turned up with two walk-behind motorised mowers. 'One for me and one for you.' After that Gerry mowed his lawn in a trice. Ronnie's mower lay abandoned in the tall grass. Another day Jean saw Ronnie building a low wall between their gardens. He laid the bricks beautifully. 'Where did you learn how to do that, Ronnie?' 'On holiday -- you know, in the Scrubs.'

At work Gerry was given a bottle of Chivas Regal. He and Jean hardly drink so they invited their neighbours around and Doreen polished off most of it. The two men had to carry Doreen home, but she was so heavy they couldn't get her up the stairs so they deposited her on a landing halfway up to the bedroom where she passed out. The next morning my father-in-law saw Ronnie and asked, 'How is Doreen?' 'Dunno, mate. She's still on the landing.' The neighbours always had all their lights on, plus the radio, and they never locked their front door. When they went off to watch a boxing match in London once, Doreen asked if she could put her full-length sable coat in Jean's wardrobe for safekeeping and Ronnie deposited a black suitcase with them. On their return Ronnie asked, 'Did you have a look in the bag, Jean?' 'Certainly not!' said my mother-in-law, who is almost painfully correct in her very English behaviour. Ronnie opened the bag's zipper to reveal that it was stuffed with £5 notes. …

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