The Crystal Palace, Doctor Death and Miss Norris

My friend, Mollie, says she is going to start a ‘Death Cafe’.  You eat cake, talk about death, and drink pleasant beverages, but no alcohol.  Apparently they are spreading like wildfire, and Mollie seems a good person to be in charge, since she has had many a brush with Dr Death in her life, and seems to have less fear of him than most of us.  Having just been sun-bathing on a grave in my graveyard, I know my own attitude to be more ambivalent: on the one hand I feel death to be the end (I have always felt that the people in my Welsh graves would have been so exhausted from a life of toil on the farm that blot-out would be a relief) whilst on the other, I often sense the presence of dead people in my life – in dreams, thoughts and funny feelings while at certain places.  Before I bought the chapel I felt sure that the people in the graveyard wanted me to have it.  When a friend announced that her boyfriend was interested in buying it, I retorted: ‘oh no, they want a woman!’

Anyway, as I drift towards old age myself, I think about death a lot more, and today I was remembering an old lady I used to visit in my youth.  Her name was ‘Miss Norris’ – in those days 17 years olds would not have addressed 80-somethings by their first names.  My school had a project whereby sixth-formers could volunteer to befriend a lonely old person.  Miss N and I liked each other.  She lived near the Crystal Palace in South London, or rather near where it had once stood.  This impressed me from the start, since I already had a romantic feeling about the place.  She told me she had been to school there, had even played the violin in an orchestra there.  But, although she watched it burn down, in great dismay, on that terrible day in 1936, she was not actually in it.  The smoke hung around for days after, she said. Furthermore, she had been an independent woman from the start, flying around the countryside in the sidecar of her brother’s motor-bike and not bothering to get married.  She had a career too of course, though now I cannot remember what.

Now in her eighties, her eyesight was failing and she would make me very strong tea in grubby cups.  I drank the tea of course, and ate the cakes, but made myself a mental note to clean my cups properly when I got old.  However nowadays, when my glasses are not to be found, I fail to notice the cobwebs and dirty windows in my own house, so am obviously going the same way as Miss N already.

The last time I saw her I was about to go off to university.  She confided in me that ‘they’ (the doctor maybe, since she appeared to have no family) wanted her to go into a home, since her poor eyesight was making life dangerous for her.  ‘Do you think I should?’ she asked. ‘Oh no!’ I instantly replied, appalled at the thought of my heroine being constrained and controlled in such a place.  When I came home after my first term, ‘they’ told me that she had walked out into the road without seeing a bus coming and fallen under its wheels. She died soon after in hospital.  With all the conceit of an 18 year old, my sorrow was shot through with guilt:  was I to blame?  Of course I was not – she only wanted me to confirm her own instinct.   I often think of her, and what she taught me about being old.

And the Crystal Palace?  Later in life, it gained a mystical, even metaphysical importance for me – you can read about that in Becoming the Enchanter if you want – but I am not going there now since this post is in honour of Miss Norris, her inspiring life and her intelligently engineered death.