My in-laws were generous and kind, and any member of their extended family in trouble was welcome. So it was when Ned came to stay, permanently. Ned was both a character and a knowing old devil. In his late eighties when I first met him, tall, stooped, severely rheumatic, lame and rheumy of eye, he was very amenable. His gratitude to his daughter and son-in-law, were expressed almost daily. The most frequent story of his life I heard referred to the days just before he set out on his travels round the world on a sailing ship. He was a joiner and ship’s carpenter in the shipyard in his home-town shipyard at Carrickfergus where he had also learned to drive a ‘Donkey Engine’. This type of Donkey Engine would be called a steam driven winch or capstan today. A ship, with square rigged sails, had been launched and the skipper was looking for a carpenter cum donkey man, and Ned rushed home to tell his mother that he was applying. Back at the yard his boss recommended Ned and, in short, off he went to sea to sail in a sailing ship round the Horn, with all that implied in hardship in those days.
He was an old rascal,. He would sit in his corner and think up statements designed to shock and there were none he liked to shock more than maiden lady visitors. On one occasion it was the spinster daughter of a Presbyterian minister who was visiting, and you can’t get much more unworldly than that, and as a gesture of kindness she went out to the breakfast room to have a word with the ‘old gentleman’ – what a mistake! The family always had someone on duty in these circumstances – they knew him of old. In this instance he was heard to say, ‘I’m not as young as I used to be daughter,’ which he pronounced more as do’gh’ter, ‘Come, steady me on the Po.’ after which he chuckled at the expression on the lady’s face with a sort of Billy Bunter glee-noise, an aspirated’ he-he’ which seemed to come from deep within his chest, and would go on for what seemed ages. There was another instance when a lady of similar background went to talk to him about his travels round the world and he admitted having visited quite a few places in the Southern Hemisphere, ‘Like that sharp place,’ he said. ‘You know, wallop you’re arse with a razor.’ He was referring to Valporaiso, and we were sure he knew the name as well as his own, he was just out to stir the pot, it was all the fun he had left.
Old Ned and Laura. Laura is my elder daughter and at that time she was not yet two years old. He and Laura often had running battles, and sometimes he behaved like a child himself. Laura would sit on the floor and play with her wooden bricks, building them higher and higher, as carefully and meticulously as she does all things, with the result they reached considerable heights when one considers her age and dexterity. Ned was lame and walked with a stick. He dozed a lot, but when he was awake he would reverse his stick and hook the handle round Laura’s tower and topple it, at which time he would cackle with laughter and she would get cross. She, however, was resourceful, and on one occasion waited until he was asleep with his head supported on a hand, itself supported on an elbow, on the arm of the chair; then she attacked. She drew back the door behind which he sat and then hit his hand with it as hard as she could. The shock to the poor old boy must have been devastating, he complained to everyone as they entered the house and as the bruising on his hand developed as it does with old people, he complained even more. I have a feeling the toppling stopped after that encounter.
NED AND THE HAIRCUT Because he was so lame the time came when he could walk very little; so we employed a hairdresser to cut his hair at the house. It seems the visits were too far apart to suit Ned and one Sunday, when the rest of the family were out for a walk, Ned insisted that I cut his hair in spite of my protestations that I was unqualified and the result would be a disaster. Nothing would deter him and still complaining, I put a towel round his neck and proceeded to operate in the best way I could with the cutting-out scissors. When I had finished, or rather, when I dared to cut no further, we went through the ritual with the two mirrors, as in a reputable hairdressers. Ned was delighted, I was relieved. He kept eulogising my many talents, as a barber supremo – his eyesight was not of the best. Then the rest of the family returned and he immediately showed off his tonsorial transformation, explaining who had done it. I tried to intervene and explain that I had been press-ganged against my will, but the hoots and roars of laughter at the remnants of the poor old man’s white locks drowned me out. I have never seen such a transformation, it was lightning, it was quick-silver, it was instantaneous and it was virulent. Now I was cast in the roll of the villain who had taken advantage of a poor old pensioner and made a mess of his hair. Fortunately his memory span was as poor as his eyesight and next day all was sweetness and light once more.