“I see dead people.”
I know what you’re thinking. It’s a good line from a good film. You’d be right. But the exact same words were said to me by an elderly lady by the name of Doreen Lucas.
Perhaps I’d better start at the beginning.
I’m a reporter on a local paper. The Rushbridge Gazette. Maybe “reporter” is a bit of a grand title.
Basically, people phone in or write to us about a local matter that they think worthy of our attention. I go round, find out more information, decide whether it’s true or not, then write a few hundred words for the paper. It’s easy work. Usually it’s about singing cats, talking dogs or maybe someone’s grown a potato that looks like Prince Philip.
But a few weeks ago I got a call from a woman who said that her elderly neighbour had learnt Russian at the ripe old age of eighty six.
Seemed like a great local story so I set off to investigate. The only information I had was that the woman’s name was Doreen Lucas and she lived at 58 Woodbridge Gardens.
The neighbourhood was classy. Big old Victorian houses, three storeys high and each with a large basement. Most had been converted into flats, but not number 58. This was still original. It would need a fair amount of TLC to restore it to its former glory but it was still a handsome house. The door knocker was a big bulls head with a large brass ring through its nose. I knocked and waited.
An old silver haired lady, no more than five feet tall and not much more than seven stone stood in front of me wearing a smile as big as the house itself.
“Yes dear. What can I do for you? Have you come to read the meter?”
There was something about her eyes. Although she was looking straight at me, I couldn’t help but think she was struggling to focus. Cataracts perhaps?
“No, Mrs Lucas. I’m from the Gazette. I wonder if you could spare me a few minutes to have a chat about you learning Russian recently.”
She started to laugh.
“I bet it was that stupid woman next door who told you. Just because she heard me talking in the garden the other day. Come on in. I’ll put the kettle on.”
She turned and walked along the hallway leaving me standing on the doorstep. I wiped my feet and followed her into the kitchen at the end of the hall. There was a large wooden table and four chairs in the middle of the room. She patted one of the chairs as she walked by. I took that to mean I was to sit down. So I did.
“Tea? Milk and sugar?”
Before I could answer she quickly spoke again.
“Oh you take coffee. Black. I’ve got some in the cupboard somewhere.”
She was right. I hate tea. Haven’t had a cup in over twenty years. How would she know that?
“Yes please. If it isn’t too much trouble Mrs Lucas.”
She had her back to me and I could see her moving things about in a large walk in pantry.
“Can you help me? My eyes aren’t what they were. I know I’ve got a jar in here somewhere but can’t seem to find it. Don’t want to give you a cup of gravy by mistake.”
Once again she laughed. It was infectious. I started to laugh as well.
I walked over and found the coffee behind two cans of peaches and a tin of Ye Old Oak Ham.
“Here you go Mrs Lucas. Do you want me to make it?”
She took the coffee from my hand and unscrewed the lid.
“Don’t be silly. You’re a guest here. Go and sit down and I’ll bring it over. And another thing. Stop calling me Mrs Lucas. It’s Doreen.”
I did as I was told and sat back down at the table. A few moments later she put a mug of hot coffee in front of me.
“There we go. Now what did you want to talk about? Oh yes. The Russian.”
I took out a notebook and pen eager to take notes. I was now in interview mode.
“So you DO speak Russian then?”
“Well I wouldn’t say I was fluent but I can hold a conversation.”
“How did you learn it? Was it from your husband?”
Again she laughed.
“Reg? Oh no dear. Poor Reg was from Derby. Never left the country. Farthest he ever travelled was here to Rushbridge when we bought the house back in the fifties. He’s been gone twenty years now.”
“So how did you learn it? Books, tapes, classes?”
“Menya uchili russkiy yazyk menya khoroshiy drug Ivan.”
I was impressed. The words were clear and precise. I had no idea if it was Russian or not but it sounded authentic.
“Was that Russian? What did you say?”
“I said I was taught Russian by my friend Ivan.”
“Who’s Ivan? A neighbour?”
“No dear. Ivan is a man who used to live in this house many years ago. He pops by from time to time for a chat. He taught me Russian so that we could talk together.”
“That’s nice of him. Does he still live close by?”
“No. He’s long gone now.”
“Did you and Reg buy the house from him?”
“No Ivan lived here a long time before that.”
I was intrigued. What she was saying didn’t seem to make any sense.
“So WHEN did Ivan live here?”
She sat back in her chair. Her head turned slightly away from me. I thought she was thinking. But she seemed to be whispering into thin air. Then she spoke.
Now I was really confused.
“But Doreen you said YOU’VE lived here since the 1950’s. Was Ivan a lodger?”
She laughed that lovely laugh of hers then said the words that stunned me.
“No not 1984…1884!”
My first thoughts were simple. The woman was a nutter. But it didn’t change the fact that she COULD speak Russian. Then she said something else that absolutely floored me.
“Your Aunty Dot says you’ve always been a nosey so and so.”
She laughed as she said it.
This time I didn’t laugh. My Aunt Dot had been dead for six years. She was my Mums sister and brought me up after Mum died. I loved her from the very marrow of my bones. When I was a kid growing up I wanted to be Clark Kent, Superman by night and a Newspaper reporter by day. She used to tease me and say. “You’ll never be Superman but you’ll make a good reporter you will, because you’re a nosey little bastard.”
I just sat there in shock. Doreen was smiling at me. The she said something else.
“Of course I’m being polite. She used other words.”
I couldn’t help it. I just blurted out.
“What words? What words did she use?”
Doreen stood up and put her hand on my shoulder.
“She said you were always a nosey little bastard.”
She picked up the cups and walked away.