Five-minute memoir: Alice Oswald recalls an eccentric neighbour


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Once, when I was 10, I was walking up the road and I heard a woman shouting. She was standing at the church door flinging flowers around with horrible energy: a vivid woman like a hedgehog on hind legs; very bulky around the middle but with delicate hands and feet. She must have been almost 70 but her hair was still black, and it was rolled strangely into a neat tight rim around her face.

I said, "I'm sorry", and she started talking, and her story was very bulky and shapeless, like her figure, but at certain points it tapered into cleverness. She wanted to explain about the vicar having no understanding of altar cloths, which really ought to vary their colours with the seasons. She called him "Old Fly-Blow" and promised to stick her secateurs where it hurts, and when she laughed she looked unstitched about the mouth.

Her name was Miss Waters, she was the daughter of an undertaker, she was a trained florist and she lived in a grey stone cottage between the school and the church. She wore brown but her garden was bright, and sometimes at break we would line up along the fence and watch her weeding – but as soon as she looked up you had to run. A ball kicked over there was gone forever; in fact, a boy once climbed in and it wasn't clear what happened next. But after that conversation she became my acquaintance. It wasn't possible to dislike her any more, even though she obviously thought I was a fool, and I was often almost bored to stone, but there was something no bigger than a side-glance that suggested we had something in common; anyway, I couldn't help admiring her intensity.

Sometimes when I turned up she'd be wearing lipstick, still in her old nylon clothes but with the look of someone who might one day be off to the cinema. At other times her joints were swollen and she would keep up a kind of dry weeping, stroking her hands for a full hour while I stood there wishing she wouldn't keep rolling up her trousers to show me her knees. It was round about then that my mother went shopping and came home with a cow and a goose who had bonded at birth and they stood together in the field like sisters baffled by each other but loyal, which became for me the template for our friendship.

After a few years she began to come and call for me, floating her face against the kitchen window shouting, "I'm not disturbing you!". Yes you are, I'd think, but still I'd walk her home and stand for an hour or so at the gate while she grumbled on and on like a pianist practising scales and then suddenly mid-sentence she'd fold in half and start speaking to the flowers, teasing and congratulating them and rubbing their heads and snaffling a handful of seeds with quick fingers. These would be laid out in her porch in rows among other withered things, shrunken heads of last year's apples, etc. I tried not to look at the washing on the line – grey banners of underwear – and I tried not to ask the questions that made her angry, anything about her brother, for example.

It seemed to me that her way of talking was really a way of keeping silent, a way of not entering the violent expression at her centre. "Are you coming in?" she'd say, and once or twice I said yes even though it was hard to breathe in the house. She'd burnt the other ground-floor room so now she lived in one room with stacks of Reader's Digest and bowls of soaking washing, electric fire always on, tipped over on its back with a kettle balanced on the bars and she'd sit on her bed crocheting, talking generously, energetically, never needing any answers, going on and on without punctuation just because her mind was alive like the cat that jumped from ledge to ledge all round her. She had a blue Morris Minor which she drove very fast to the local nursery and it smelt of suffocation, like her house and was full of string, but I don't think she'd ever been further than the nearest town.

I remember standing at her door one summer evening and she suddenly stopped talking: "Did you hear that?" she said. "Don't you love it when a bee changes its sound when it goes into a foxglove?" She died about 20 years ago and I keep that remark with me always like a miniature replica of her character, and from time to time it reminds to travel great distances simply by staying put.

Alice Oswald is a poet. Her latest work is 'Memorial', published by Faber