In 2012 Ken Watson’s wife Beryl died. She was 86 years old and they had been married since time began. He wasn’t sure how to be without her: the solitude, the long days alone in his house in Barry, a seaside town in the Vale of Glamorgan, a few kilometres outside Cardiff. He spent days and days on end without speaking to another person, moving from room to room like a shadow, looking for DIY chores to do around the house, occasionally cheering himself up by singing German drinking songs and accompanying himself on his accordion. Ken wasn’t German or necessarily a big drinker, but when you play the accordion you don’t have much choice of repertoire.
Ken had been a commercial deep-sea diver in the Severn estuary. Before that he was a cook in the RAF, and a baker in his family business. He had been a somewhat timid man when he was younger, shy around strangers, afraid of going into the world, but Beryl had encouraged him to try new things. When he first had the crackpot idea about becoming a commercial diver she said, “Just try it. You’ll regret it if you don’t.”
Beryl had always wanted Ken to live life to the fullest, but what would she say if she could see him now? Ken looked at himself through her eyes and felt ashamed. He decided to get out there, and cure his loneliness by doing things. At the age of 85 he took up skydiving. He jumped three times from the clouds over Cardiff. “The second time was the best,” he said later. “I thought, ‘Gosh, I’m an eagle!’”
He became a keen metal detectorist, and joined an opera appreciation society. He offered his services as an accordion-player to the local symphony orchestra, although he wasn’t too surprised when they politely declined. He was active on chat groups for fans of Great British Bake-Off. He wanted to take up wingwalking, but discovered there’s an age-limit of 63. He persisted and submitted a doctor’s certificate. The certificate noted that he was suffering from arthritis in his knees and hips, so he didn’t submit that page, and at the age of 85, Ken walked on the wings of a Boeing Stearman biplane, high in the skies over the Carnavon Valley. Beryl would be very proud.
Owen Williams moved into his new house three years ago with a new wife and a small dog named Wookie. The move was tiring as all moves are, and they just wanted to flop down on the newly moved sofa and draw the newly moved drapes and sleep. But Owen believes in the importance of neighbourliness, of getting to know the people around you. He believes that the point of living is other people, that all any of us is doing is walking each other home, and the more people walking with you, the happier the journey.
He went around the neighbourhood with Wookie at his side, introducing himself to the people next door and across the street and the people behind. When he reached the house on the other side he saw an octogenarian man on a stepladder, repairing the roof tiles. In the pockets of his overalls were a flask of tea and a packet of chocolate digestive biscuits. When he needed to move the stepladder, he would hold onto the sides and hop up and down as though on a pogo stick, and bounce the ladder a little to the left.
Owen introduced himself and Ken Watson climbed down the stepladder and welcomed him to the street and gave Wookie a chocolate biscuit. Ken and Wookie became fast friends. Whenever Wookie saw him he would howl with pleasure. A year later when Owen’s daughter Cadi was born, Ken doted on her. They would bring her around to visit him and he would sing her Welsh lullabies. He offered to play her a song on his accordion, but everyone hastily agreed that perhaps she was still too young to fully appreciate it. Ken told Owen that he was planning to live to 100 so that he could see Cadi on her 16th birthday. He was looking forward to that.
That was three years ago and Ken died earlier this year. He was 86. His daughter came to the house and started clearing up his effects, the diving gear, the accordion, the cardigan and the lace-up brogues he wore when he went walking in the sky.
About a week before Christmas his daughter knocked on Owen’s front door. She was carrying a carton of carefully wrapped gifts. There were fourteen of them, one for every Christmas until Cadi turns 16. He had been shopping and had selected them all and had wrapped them himself, slowly and with difficulty because of the arthritis in his hands, late at night, listening to his favourite operas.
Each year for the next fourteen years when Cadi sits under the tree on Christmas morning, as well as the gifts from Santa and from her family, there will be a gift from Ken, a man she won’t remember meeting, but in whose life she mattered and who loved her very much. This year she opened her present and it was a small white stuffed fluffy goat. No love is ever wasted.
Times, 3 January 2019