‘Always remember, Susan: It’s a long lane that has no turning.’
Proverbial Lily once told me that. And now that I’ve reached an age when I sometimes do turn and look back, back beyond the books I’ve read and the books I’ve written, I can see that she was right. But then there’s nothing surprising about that. She usually was.
When I was at Parker Street Primary, Lily was our school crossing attendant - our lollipop lady - and although she and her lollipop are both long gone, I can never drive past the school gates without seeing her standing there, sign raised to stop the traffic. Right through the dusty years of Wide Range Readers and multiplication tables, Lily seemed always to have been around. I don't remember a single morning when she wasn't there to see me and the other kids safe across the road. In the afternoons, too, she'd be waiting for us as we exploded into freedom, oblivious to traffic, desperate to get home while there was still time and daylight to play in.
My first memory of her is still fresh, still vivid, even now. I was seven or eight. Crossing the road one morning, I tripped over my untied laces and ended up face-down. I lay there with grazed knees and a bumped head, still too shocked to cry, staring at a tiny patch of tarmac that kept going in and out of focus. Suddenly strong hands were picking me up and dusting me down, and someone was talking. I looked up and there was Lily.
If I close my eyes, I can still hear her voice, that bright Geordie accent so different from anything I'd come across before.
‘Now then, pet. You came a right cropper there, didn't you? Still, you know what they say. Misfortune is a good teacher. You'll remember to tie your laces a bit better in future, eh?'
She got one of the big kids to take me to the office. While the school secretary was cleaning up my dripping knees, I asked her who Miss Fortune was.
‘Miss Fortune. The lollipop lady said Miss Fortune is a good teacher. Is she better than Mrs Price?'
The secretary laughed and said that was just an old proverb. I wanted to know what a proverb was, but she couldn't explain - not so as I could understand, anyway.
At breaktime, Mrs Price was out on playground duty. I'd been in her class when I first came to Parker Street, and she was always my favourite teacher. As far as I was concerned she knew everything about everything, so I asked her about proverbs.
She stood there and calmly took a sip from her big mug of tea. Groups of boys playing football, and bands of girls twirling skipping ropes were shouting and swirling around us.
‘Well, proverbs are clever ways of saying things, Susan, things that people think are worth remembering.'
Like all good teachers, Mrs Price never missed a chance to slip you a bit of education when you weren't looking. She thought for a bit, searching for an example that would make her meaning clear, then she pointed at my blouse.
‘You see that little rip in your sleeve, Susan?'
I glanced down and nodded, covering the tear with my hand. I'd snagged it on a cloakroom hook when I was hanging up my coat, and I was a bit worried about the telling-off I was going to get when mum saw the damage.
‘Well, if you leave it, you'll keep catching it, and it'll get worse and worse until putting it right becomes a major job. But if your mum puts a stitch in as soon as you get home, it'll be right as rain!'
And then she taught me my first proverb: A stitch in time saves nine. She explained how it didn't just apply to sewing, but to fixing all kinds of little problems straight away, so they didn't get the chance to turn into bigger problems later on.
I listened carefully, remembering something.
‘We had a broken cupboard door, Miss. My dad wouldn't fix it, not for ages, even though mum asked him to loads of times. They had a big row when it fell off and smashed the teapot. Is it like that? A stitch in time saves nine?'
‘Er... yes,' said Mrs Price. She looked like she was trying not to smile. ‘Exactly like that!'
As for Miss Fortune being a good teacher - well, Mrs Price explained that too, and I saw how I'd got it wrong. I repeated both my new proverbs over and over again, polishing them in my memory. I thought they were just about the cleverest things I'd ever heard.
In the afternoon, after school had finished, I hung back while the other kids crossed the road, and when I could see that Lily wasn't busy, I went up to her and tugged at her white plastic mac. She turned around.
‘Hello, pet,' she said. ‘How're the knees?'
‘Better,' I said, and straight away told her about stitches in time.
She leaned on her lollipop and listened as I went through everything I'd learned, and when I'd finished, I saw she had a big grin on her face.
‘A stitch in time saves nine, eh?' she said. I nodded, and showed her my sleeve. ‘My mum's going to fix it.'
‘Aye, pet. And when she does, that'll be proof right enough of a grand old saying, if anybody needs it! There's a lot of sense in proverbs, you know.'
I remembered something else, something grandad had said when I kept falling off the bicycle he'd bought me for Christmas.
‘What about practice makes perfect? Is that a proverb, then?'
Lily nodded, and I laughed. Another one to add to my collection! A few kids came out of the school gate, and she saw them safe across the road, then came back to me.
‘You're a canny little thing,' she said. ‘Bright as a sack of buttons, or my name's not Lily Fenwick! What's yours?'
I told her.
‘And would you like to learn a few more proverbs, Susan?'
I nodded again. ‘Yes! Yes, I would! Do you know some?'
‘I know lots, bonnie lass!' Lily said, laughing. ‘Hundreds and hundreds! Here's another one for you to stick in your snap tin. Look before you leap. Aye, and that's a good ‘un for you, too, especially after this morning!'
‘What does it mean?'
‘Ah, well, if I tell you what it means straight away it's no fun, is it? You think about it, pet. No cheating, mind! Don't you go asking anyone else. And I'll be right here waiting for you to give me your answer in the morning.'
I thought about it all night, and next day I couldn't wait to see Lily to find out if I'd got it right. I had.
‘Well done, pet!' she said. ‘And you didn't cheat?' I shook my head vigorously, and she gave me a sweet.
‘But don't you go tellin' the others,' she whispered, ‘or I won't have any of me wages left come week's end!'
And that was it. From that point on, Lily had me hooked on proverbs. Collecting them became almost an obsession, and thinking about their meanings taught me just as much as all those long, dry hours spent locked in the classroom. What's more, it soon became clear, even to me, that Lily had missed her vocation - she was a born teacher. As good as Mrs Price. Perhaps even better.
Almost every afternoon, as she saw me across the road at the end of the school day, she'd give me a new proverb to think about. I'd chew it over that night, and the following morning I'd tell her what I'd decided it meant. Lily only ever gave me a sweet if I was spot on and could convince her that I'd wrung out every last bit of meaning - but over the weeks, months and years that followed, I did manage to earn quite a few.
Soon, we'd used up all the really well-known sayings, and with Lily as my guide I began to wander further afield, exploring the proverbial foothills. By my tenth birthday, I'd left too many cooks spoiling the broth far below me, and the fact that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush was old news to me. Lily taught me not to pursue two hares, because if you do, both will get away from you. I begged her for an entire week to explain ‘youth and white paper take any impression’, but she made me thrash it out for myself, and when the truth of it finally came to me, so did a story that got me top marks in English.
In fact, I was doing really well at school by this time. So well that I began to get a bit too big for my boots. One memorable afternoon Lily put me back in my place, in no uncertain terms. I remember crying myself to sleep that night, but I'd learned a valuable lesson, and also discovered yet another maxim: A friend's frown is better than a fool's smile.
Gradually, we climbed higher and higher into the proverbial mountains. My proverbs proved useful in all sorts of unexpected situations. When Stevie Newit, a boy I'd never been very keen on, caught me behind the bike sheds one Friday afternoon and pleaded for a kiss, insisting that he'd loved me ever since we were in the second year, I was able to cool his ardour by telling him that ‘a kiss of the mouth often touches not the heart.' And while he was considering that one, I finished him off with the observation that ‘love makes time pass away, Stevie, and time makes love pass away, too.'
‘Oh,' he said, and went off without his kiss, muttering and scratching his head.
‘That Susan Roberts is weird!' I heard him telling his mates the following day.
Time rolls his ceaseless course. Even at that age I was beginning to see how true that is, and he was rolling it faster and faster, and rolling the eleven plus examination right along in front of him.
‘Good luck, pet,' said Lily.
‘Oh, Lily - I'm so nervous!'
She gave me a smile, a sweet, and a proverb to take in with me: He who knows little is confident in everything.
I passed, and that September I finally left Parker Street Primary, and moved on to Fairfield High.
To get to my new school, I had to walk right by my old one, so I still spoke to Lily just about every day. Over the next few years, our proverb games continued, with the difference that, as I got older, I started coming up with obscure ones that even she hadn't heard of.
My life up to now had been pretty much trouble-free, but one Monday morning, a few weeks before I was due to sit my ‘O' levels, I suddenly got my first real glimpse of its darker side. I came around the corner to find Lily standing at her crossing as usual, but looking like something truly awful had happened. It had.
‘Lily?' I said.
She jumped at the sound of my voice, and the expression on her face almost stopped my heart.
‘Hello, pet,' she said. And then, shockingly, without warning, she was sobbing in my arms. I didn't know what to do. A passing mum said she'd see the children across, so I took Lily into Mrs Price's classroom, and over a cup of strong tea she told us that her husband was dead.
‘Friday night, it was,' she said. ‘Heart attack. He was helping me do the washing up, and he just sort of keeled over. By the time the ambulance arrived, he was already gone.'
‘Oh Lily,' said Mrs Price. ‘What on earth are you doing at work?'
She looked at the two of us, dabbed at her eyes, and shrugged.
‘There didn't seem to be much point sitting on my own in an empty house,' she said. ‘And besides, someone has to see the children across, don't they?'
I felt numb. ‘The only cure for grief is action,’ I thought. It wasn't until Lily smiled at me and reached for my hand that I realised I'd actually spoken the words out loud.
‘Aye, pet,' she said, looking into my face with a sad smile. ‘That's a true one, and no mistake.'
I did well in my ‘O' levels, and even better in my ‘A' levels a couple of years later.
‘University, is it?' said Lily.
‘Yes. Oxford! I can hardly wait!'
She gave me one of her looks, and handed me a sweet. ‘Learning is a sceptre to some, a bauble to others. Don't you let it be just a bauble, my girl!'
‘I won't, Lily. I promise!'
A few weeks later, just before my first term was due to start, a box of chocolates and a bunch of flowers arrived. There was a card with the flowers: To Susan - All my love, and all the luck in the world - Lily.
* * *
Undergraduate life was everything I'd hoped for, and much, much more. There was work to do - plenty of it - but there were also friends, and parties, and late-night conversations. I was bright and I was popular, and bit by bit Lily sort of faded from my thoughts. I'd remember her now and again, especially when something happened that brought an appropriate proverb to mind, but I hadn't actually seen her for over six months when I got the telephone call from my mother.
‘Susan? It's Lily, love. There's been an accident. She's in a pretty bad way, I'm afraid. Can you come home?'
When I saw my old friend lying in her hospital bed, looking so unlike the Lily I was used to, so broken, so frail, I just went to pieces. I put my arms around her and wept into her pillow.
‘Oh, Lily!' I sobbed. ‘I'm sorry, Lily. I'm so sorry!'
‘There, there, pet,' she said, patting my back and comforting me when it should have been the other way around. ‘Tears in mortal miseries are vain, you know. C'mon - dry your eyes, eh?'
I could have quoted something equally true right back at her: Tears are sometimes as weighty as words. But I didn't need to. We both already knew that one all too well.
My mother told me what happened, and I soon got to read about it in the local newspaper, too. ‘Lily The Lollipop Heroine,' they were calling her. Some business man who'd had too much liquid with his lunch had come close to mowing down half a dozen kids as Lily helped them across the road. One little girl had tripped - I thought back to my long-ago tangled shoelaces, and shuddered - and would have gone under the wheels if Lily hadn't grabbed her by the coat and thrown her clear. Lily herself was hit full on, and the impact had broken her back. The doctors all agreed that she'd never walk again.
‘Aye, well. Never is a long, long time, isn't it, pet?' said Lily - and the blaze of determination in her eyes was wonderful to see.
It took her three years to get back on her feet. Three years of pain and effort and sheer bloody-minded willpower. But the day she marched out into the middle of Parker Street, lollipop in hand, and stopped the morning traffic once again was the proudest day of my life! There was a TV crew there, filming the Lollipop Heroine's return for the local evening news, so that night everyone got to see the people getting out of their cars and giving her a standing ovation. That was the second time I'd seen her cry, and when she lifted her lollipop and the crowd cheered, I found I needed a tissue or two myself.
I left Oxford behind and began to write. I dedicated my first book - ‘A Sociological History of the English Proverb’ - to Lily, and a few years later, when the twins were born, I asked her if she'd be their godmother.
She squeezed my hand and nodded.
‘And would it be OK if I named my daughter Lily?’
‘Lily Roberts?' whispered Lily, planting a kiss on her namesake's head, then giving one to her brother in case he felt left out.
‘Aye, bonnie lass. I reckon I can live with that.'
And she did, too, for a good many more years. If you'd driven down Parker Street as the kids were arriving for school, you'd often have seen Big Lily, Little Lily and Benjamin chatting away as they walked across the road together.
And if, like me, you could have overheard the twins talking at night, you'd have had a pretty good idea of what the three of them had been discussing during the day. Climbing into her pyjamas, Little Lily might stick her tongue out at her boasting brother and tell him, ‘don’t sell the bearskin until you’ve killed the bear,’ and he’d come back with ‘people in glass houses shouldn't throw stones.’ I’d end up laughing and telling both of them what Proverbial Lily would have said if she’d been there to say it:
‘Sweep before your own front door, and always remember, it’s a long lane that has no turning.’