John Gray died this week. He was a couple of years younger than Jerry and I. My daughter told me via email. He and his wife, Reggie, have been my daughter’s next door neighbors for 25 years in a little English village of thatched roofs, walled gardens and climbing roses.
They were a modest, gentle couple who shared a deep love for all animals. Their large garden was a sanctuary for stray and unwanted cats, but in addition they had chickens (he used to bring us eggs when I visited because he knew I loved them) ducks and rabbits. At one time they had a pet fox, and some goats. And probably some species I missed. They supported their cattery by collecting unwanted articles from the villagers and selling them at “boot sales”. We often invited them over when I visited, which I did at least once every year for a few weeks at a time.
The cats patrolled the high wall between the Gray’s garden and my daughter’s. They would stroll nonchalantly along the top , taunting Fluffy, our toy poodle. For the most part Fluffy kept them out of our garden. Fluffy goes in and out of the house at will through a cat flap. One day when he and I were in the kitchen, a large, somewhat grizzled yellow cat slowly pushed half way through the flap. For a long moment the cat and Fluffy regarded each other in seeming disbelief. Then the cat backed out of the flap hole, and Fluffy shot through it like a bullet. Sounds of scrambling, hissing and yapping followed, and we were not visited again by that cat. I told Reggie about it when they came for dinner the next day and she said, “Oh yes, that is an old cat, and he has been a problem to his owners because he would go into people’s houses. So we took him on.”
John and Reggie have lived in the village, in a house that used to be the brewery, for much longer that my daughter’s 25 years, and whenever we saw them I learned something new about the history of the village. A lot of the past will have died with John. He was a man with a sense of humor. One day my daughter came home from work after dark, and the next morning John came to the door. When she opened it he said “Are you a very observant person?” Puzzled, she followed his gesture toward the garden wall. It lay in a heap of stony rubble on her flower garden. It had been weakened by ivy growing on it and had collapsed the day before. That part of the wall was replaced with a wooden fence, with complete harmony between the neighbors.
John and Reggie did not eat their own chickens, although they were not vegetarians. They accumulated roosters (cockerels) and my daughter and I disagreed about how many roosters there were. Crowing would begin around 1 in the morning and continue all night. Some nights when I couldn’t sleep I entertained myself calculating the approximate number of cockerels, from the relative distance of the sound and overlap of two or more crowings. Eventually I asked John how many there were and he said there had been 7, but they had taken 5 very old ones to the veterinarian to be euthanized, so that at the time I enquired they had only 2. There are a great many vegetarians in the UK, and once John told me, with a twinkle in his eye, “People say to me, you love animals so much, why do you eat them? I tell them, because they taste so good.”
John had been, I think, an engineer before he retired. I don’t know what their education was, but both he and Reggie were thinking, well informed, intelligent people. They were readers. After he retired, besides working on the antique car he loved, to supplement his income he took a job sweeping and cleaning up at the local petrol station. He told me that he enjoyed the job very much because it brought him in contact with so many people.
My daughter’s email said, “John Gray died last night. So sad. I wonder how Reggie will cope.” I can imagine that her grief is deep and terrible. They have a son. I have never met him, but if he is like his father he will be her comfort and protection.