“In all their time as such close neighbors they never exchanged a word.”

Bring up the topic of neighbor, and one story comes to my mind.

Grannies in the Wainscot, as short story—an essay of remembrance—is included in the sublime collection Cider With Rosie, by Laurie Lee. If it seems strange to have written a memoir of one’s life at age 23, as did Lee, his tender recall of the story of two enemy grannies is even stranger.

The setting could not be more romantic, with or without Laurie Lee’s lush prose. An old seventeenth century Cotswold manor house, had, by the late nineteenth century become a sagging but picturesque relic, and subdivided into three living quarters for poorer, less exalted folk. In the pre-war years of his childhood, young Lee and his family inhabited one section, while the other two parts of the home were each dominated by an old crone.

‘Granny Trill and Granny Wallon were rival ancients and lived on each other’s nerves and their perpetual enmity was like mice in the walls and absorbed much of my early days. With their sickle bent bodies, pale pink eyes, and wild wisps of hedgerow hair, they looked to me the very images of witches and they were also much alike.’

There is nothing lovable in this description of the two old ladies, and yet, with Lee’s gift for nostalgic writing, you feel you recognize this pair, and a curious warble of affection begins to play.

Laurie Lee, poet

‘They communicated to each other by means of boots and brooms—jumping on floors and knocking on ceilings. They referred to each other as ‘Er-Down-Under’ and ‘Er-Up-Atop, the Varmint’.

Yes, a stranger pair of neighbors you never did ‘hear the like of’ as my grandmother would have said. And speaking of my grandma Josie, she knew how to wield a broom with a fair bit of precision. I can also remember her little ‘war’ going on for years with the old neighbor lady in the back of the property.

So perhaps such stories of neighbors resonates a bit with all our memories. Lee’s recounting of the old beech tree I found particularly beautiful.

‘“Me dad planted that tree,” [Granny Trill] said absently, pointing out through the old cracked window.

‘The great beech filled at least half the sky and shook shadows all over the house. Its roots clutched the slope like a giant hand, holding the hill in place. Its trunk writhed with power, threw off veils of green dust, rose towering into the air, branched into a thousand shaded alleys, became a city for owls and squirrels. I had thought such trees to be as old as the earth; I never dreamed that a man could make them. Yet it was Granny Trill’s dad who had planted this tree, who had thrust in the seed with his finger. How old must he have been to leave such a mark? Think of Granny’s age, and add his on top, and you were back at the beginning of the world.’

The poignant part of Lee’s recounting, comes, of course, at the end.

One day Granny Trill stumbled and broke her hip.

illustration by John Ward

“She went to bed then forever.”

Granny Wallon came a’crowing… “her’s going you mark my words.”

But Granny Trill’s death knell was Granny Wallon’s, too. In the oddest, most neighborly act between the two rival crones in the decades they had lived next to each other without speaking, Granny Wallon soon went, too.

‘Granny Wallon had triumphed, she had buried her rival, and now there was no more to do. From then on she faded and diminished daily, kept to her house and would not be seen. The wine fires sank and died in the kitchen, as did the sweet fires of obsession….there was nothing, in fact, to keep her alive. No cause, no bite, no fury. Er-Down-Under had joined Er-Up-Atop, having lived closer than anyone knew.’

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