Her flattened vowels were pure Celia Johnson, and she would occasionally enliven her conversation with guttural bursts of Arabic
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
My friend Miss Swan died last week - the day after her 89th birthday. Although she had longed for the love of a man throughout her life, she died chaste. She belonged to the Lord, she said. Well, now she's with him.

So clear and unmistakable was God's call when it came, Miss Swan gave up a teaching career (and, more reluctantly, dancing and smoking) and enrolled in a missionary society. In 1944, after some theological training, she sailed for Casablanca on a naval convoy. And she spent the next 40 years in the High Atlas, as a missionary to the Berbers.

Her naturally rebellious spirit put her at loggerheads with her missionary society, which expelled her for wearing a red dress. The next one she joined expelled her for spending too much time alone among the unruly Berber men. In spite of these setbacks, she managed to stay among Berbers until 1984. She was directly responsible for just one convert, a Mr Hafadoui, who had collaborated with her in translating St John's Gospel into a local, hitherto unwritten language, but who died of stomach cancer at a tragically early age.

I met Miss Swan in church soon after her return to England. She had been away so long she was like a relic of a bygone age. Her flattened vowels were pure Celia Johnson, and she would occasionally enliven her conversation with passionate outbursts of guttural, colloquial Arabic. Like a swan, she was graceful to an exaggerated degree. She wrote religious poetry that she wasn't ashamed of. She was the only person I knew who could look at a night sky and identify the so-called constellations. When she died, she said, she hoped to become one of the Pleiades.

I was very attracted to her, and she fancied me like the clappers. Having dwelt among nomads for 40 years however, the price of Miss Swan's devotion was nothing less than a tacit willingness on my part to kill in defence of her honour, although she never held me to it.

Although she went to church she was contemptuous of the lily-livered hypocrisy she found there, especially among men. Her gravest disappointment on returning to post-war Britain was what she saw as the emasculation of the menfolk. Occasionally she would summon the pastor to her small dark house and give him a dressing-down on the subject. When the vicar refused to attend, the assistant pastor, who later suffered a terrible nervous breakdown, was summoned instead.

Miss Swan had a remarkable attitude towards money. She could have applied for a state pension but preferred to rely on God for the folding stuff. She wasn't precious about it, neither did she adopt the morally superior attitude to money that one often encounters amongst the pious. To Miss Swan, money was simply a ludicrous commodity that she always found herself with too much of. "Won't you take some of mine? I don't need it," she'd say, if the subject came up.

But as she got older, her arteries hardened and she became a bore. One of her particular hobby horses was that the events currently unfolding in the Middle East were the fulfilment of Biblical prophesy concerning the end of the world. She'd go on for hours about it if you'd let her. Not long before Miss Swan suffered her first major stroke, one of her elderly visitors actually died in the chair during one of these eschatological monologues. "If only she'd said she was feeling unwell, I'd have telephoned a doctor," said Miss Swan afterwards - though not without a hint of macabre relish. I stuck a few of these monologues, but they were so excruciating I called it a day and stopped going to see her. And then she had another stroke and went into a nursing home.

Last week I heard that she was poorly. Hoping she'd be too frail to talk much, I decided to risk a visit. I hadn't seen her for about a year. "She died two minutes ago," said the nurse when I arrived. I went up to her room and sat with her anyway. There were birthday cards on the window sill. Her head was nestled into the pillow like a peacefully sleeping child. And when I kissed her forehead it was still warm.

In his funeral oration, the pastor emphasised how Miss Swan had lived as the Berbers had lived, in spite of disapproval from the missionary societies. "And let it not be forgotten that Miss Swan slept not only with Berber women, but with lots of Berber men also," he thundered to an astonished congregation.