The thing is, Laura was full of love

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The Independent Online
IT WAS cold and windy the day they buried Laura Roper in the graveyard at the Suffolk village of Little Waldingfield. The airy church is a perfect specimen of the county's famous type, though not grand: it is not a Blythburgh, for instance, nor a Melford, nor a Lavenham. Not many people would make a special journey to it, and yet it lifts the spirits because it looks as though Joseph Paxton might have learnt something about making his gigantic greenhouses there. It is also properly solemn.

The organist was well wrapped up for the funeral service; she must have been glad of her gaudy sports socks and her feet did not move far from the fan heater. She led a full church through 'Love divine, all loves excelling' in fine order. The vicar said it was Laura's favourite.

As they put Laura in the ground, there was rain in the air. No one would have been surprised if it had turned to hail. A bit away, looking terribly gaunt, stood the ruins of trees, presumably elm though quite possibly something else, but definitely lightning-struck. Nearer, mature living trees, leafless of course, barged their way into one's consciousness, standing so massive against the big Suffolk sky. You are very grateful for them in these flatlands.

One could not say that it was an especially sad day. Laura Roper was 91 and died peacefully after an old age that was about as untroubled by infirmity as anyone could reasonably hope for. She was buried where she wanted: on top of her mother. A yard or so away, her beloved husband Barney has lain for several years in another double grave. He is with their only child, Connie, who died in her early twenties in an accident more than 30 years ago.

I met the couple 20 years ago when I went to live in the village. I was married to a rich woman then and we occupied the third or fourth biggest house in a place inordinately blessed with decent houses.

Barney, who still did some farm work, had been a cowman before the county became so enthusiastically arable. He used to do our garden and taught me to look after chickens. Laura would put on a maid's outfit and serve at our dinner parties. They were bringing up their grand-daughter and were staunch socialists.

From Laura's kitchen in their council house there poured sponge cakes for any worthy cause that was not obviously a Conservative one. She was not particularly clever and I do not remember that she was full of opinions, either. But if a local girl could not take her boyfriend home, they could meet at the Ropers' and find a sympathetic ear. Laura had not, so far as I know, seen much of life. She had her own tremendous grief, the sort that never leaves a person; but she never seemed other than cheerful.

The thing is, I think she was full of love.

Barney, now, was a little different. He could be quite sharp, and had needed to be tough in his younger days when overt socialism was liable to blight a farm worker's career. When the nearest thing we had to a squire was out hunting one day, it was with Barney's interested support - until the hunt tried to dig out a fox. Barney put his foot on the offending spade and said the first shovelful would put them in the Suffolk Free Press. When his last boss left the village with a straight quarter of a million in his pocket, it was Barney, on his pension, who organised a collection for a silver plate.

I think he was an atheist, really, and he did not suffer fools gladly. He could not drive, and must have been among the last of his trade who had never worked a tractor. He would have been unemployable now. I remember watching him, in his seventies, go out to make a stack, heaving bales until his forearms bled from the straw.

He used to worry that Laura might not look after herself properly after he had gone. She was, actually, fairly eccentric in a way. I remember she told someone - it may have been me - about the time of Barney's funeral, that her daughter had appeared to her in a vision. But then everyone who is worth tuppence is wired to the moon half the time.

Of course, Barney knew perfectly well that their grand-daughter, Gwen, would look after the woman who had looked after her. Daughter and grand-daughter of farming stock, Gwen had married a rather remarkable man.

The nearest market town to Waldingfield is Sudbury which, in the Sixties, expanded quickly as one of the London overspill settlements. Among a tribe of Cockneys from Dagenham who came there was this chap Norman, a factory foreman. He married Gwen and took to the rustic life with a will. It now worries the locals how quickly his beans become monsters, but above all he knew the value of the Ropers from the start, and cherished them.

In the garden of Norman and Gwen's bungalow, the day they buried Laura, I noticed a heap of rotten wood on the vegetable plot: the remains of the chicken ark I bought, on Barney's say-so, in the pursuit of turning kitchen scraps and the layers' mash into eggs. The day they delivered it, he and I had had a heart-to-heart, drinking quite a bit of Scotch while we sheltered from the gaze of the women indoors.

Remembering how racy he had been that day, I thought how much he would have appreciated the army of Norman's tribe that had come up from Essex to join Gwen's side of the family in sending Laura off. They were in tremendous spirits. There was a good deal of ribaldry and it was not all from the Essex types; Suffolk kept its end up. The point is, there was much affection about, and that kept the cold at bay for a while. Certainly it was clear that Barney need not have worried about Laura being lonely in the remainder of her life that she had to manage without him.

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