The Ballad of Sadie Bramwell | Cassandra Voices

The Ballad of Sadie Bramwell

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This was back in the days when boys were still called Osmond or Norris, and girls were called Eunice or Mabel. It was a time of Bronco toilet rolls and King Crimson albums. A time when Jack Russell terriers still snapped at the coalman’s feet and your mother bought the weekly grocery shop from the Co-Op on tick.

Every now and then, if you were lucky, you could find someone who kept an open house, someplace to visit on those damp and dreary October afternoons in the 1970s when the cafes were shutting up for the day and when the pubs hadn’t yet opened their doors. When the suffocating bleakness of our provincial backwater became overwhelming, you could always head out to Sadie’s place.

Sadie Bramwell was known locally as a kind of bohemian. She had acted in a couple of horror films when she was young, and counted Patrick Campbell and Vincent Price as friends. Her house was a rambling Edwardian redbrick set in four acres of neglected grounds. It was situated on the edge of a shallow valley that eventually led down to the spread of the Marsh. Her husband, an American, was some kind of professor who taught at Harvard. He was a remote and distant man, and rarely around. When he was at home he would hide in his study upstairs, appearing only occasionally in the kitchen always wearing the same tweed jacket with worn leather patches on the elbows. He would show Sadie a passage from the book he was reading or an article that he was working on before shuffling off back to his study. And there were the two teenaged sons who were mostly away at boarding school. Like their father, the boys were withdrawn and odd, and seemed to spend all of their time in their bedrooms when home from school.

Sadie would hold court in the large kitchen cluttered with books, newspapers and magazines. You could call round any time in the day and help yourself to whatever was on offer, which was mostly tea, or if you were lucky baked beans on toast. And in the colder months there was the Aga to warm your backside against. There would be two or three of us there, and Sadie always seemed pleased to see us. I think she was bored and a little lonely. I could sense there was a kind of resilience at work in her, and that perhaps somewhere in her past there had been great difficulties. Another thing that struck me was that she didn’t seem to like female visitors, and could at times be frosty and imperious with them. My friends Evelyn and Yolanda eventually stopped going there. ‘That witch gives me the heebie-jeebies’, Evelyn would say. I would try to convince the girls that Sadie was all right but they would have none of it.

We would gather around the long table in the kitchen and listen to Sadie gossip about the famous people she once knew. How so-and-so, a faded matinee idol, was in fact gay, and that a certain successful novelist didn’t write his own books. She told us about the time she attended a private reading by Allen Ginsberg when he visited London in 1965. She said the poet sat on the floor surrounded by his ‘catamites’ and that he was picking at his bare feet and how it made her feel quite ill. But the great thing about Sadie was that she was also interested in what you had to say. The conversations were never one-sided.

Sadie didn’t drink alcohol or take drugs, although she did admit to once taking a puff on a joint with Peter Sellers, but she had no time for the courts that locked up the hippies and pop musicians for smoking flowers. ‘These are the very same judges’, she would say, ‘who are cruising around Piccadilly picking up teenage boys to molest in their Mayfair homes.’

But no one took advantage of Sadie’s hospitality by smoking dope inside her house. You could always go out the back and light up in the overgrown garden. There was a marble sundial fashioned like a seraph hidden amongst the high grass that we would cluster around. You could then look out for Oscar, the giant peacock. This huge bird’s iridescent plumage would sometimes fan out and peer through the tangled wilderness of ragged shrubs and couch grass, shimmering like a magnificent thousand-eyed alien. Sadie had inherited Oscar from the previous owner of the house, and she claimed that he was once a female but had changed gender and transmogrified into this splendid haughty male specimen.

During this time I decided I needed to move out of town for a while. I knew some people living out at Mr. P’s farm, so I rented one of the static caravans he kept in the yard. There were always four or five such dwellings there, and people would come and go. The rent was nominal. Mr. P was an eccentric old farmer who lived with his sister who had taken to the bed many years back and was never seen out and about. Mr. P seemed somewhat lonely and liked the company of the various dropouts, oddballs and hippie types that would appear looking for a place to live.

It was one day in October 1972 that Charlie Hardy pulled into Mr. P’s farmyard in a battered old Morris Minor. I was surprised because I had no idea that Charlie could drive, he just wasn’t a driving type of guy. I’d been friends with him for several years and had never once seen him behind the wheel. I didn’t drive at that time and was terrified of being driven around, especially by fast drivers. But somehow Charlie persuaded me to go for a spin. And so we spluttered out of the yard in stops and starts.

‘I didn’t know you had a driver’s licence Charlie.’

‘I don’t’, said Charlie, gripping the steering wheel tightly as he tentatively maneuvered the Morris through the farmyard gate and out on to the road.

‘Are you sure about this Charlie?’ I should have known that the niceties of driving licences, insurance and motor tax were wasted on him.

‘Yeah, we’ll be fine. I got the hang of it yesterday.’ He turned to me and grinned. He was always slightly unkempt and disheveled, but for some strange reason I can clearly recall that exact moment when he turned to face me. I found myself inexplicably staring at the few wispy strands of hair on his chin. For the briefest of moments Charlie looked exactly like that Shaggy character from the Scooby Doo cartoons.

And so we spluttered on for some fifteen miles through the back roads and winding lanes, past a few scattered hamlets, until we eventually pulled up at Sadie’s. The house always gave the impression that no one lived there. At this time of the year it could seem gloomy and forbidding, but I was relieved we had arrived in one piece. And Charlie seemed very pleased with himself. It was as if he had managed, at long last, to accomplish something in life.

I hadn’t visited Sadie for over a year and as always she was welcoming. But there was less of a welcome from the stranger sitting at the kitchen table opposite her. I could immediately sense the waves of suspicion and resentment darting out from his eyes. Sadie would never introduce anyone, so we just ignored this fellow and made ourselves some tea. I tried to get some kind of measure of him out of the corner of my eye, and I could tell he was a rustic type, in working clothes with his neck loose in a worn brown flannel shirt. After a bit of chat with Sadie, Charlie and I went out the back for a smoke. We were glad to escape the brooding presence of this unwelcome intruder.

‘What the hell is he doing here?’ said Charlie.

‘God knows. Did you see the cut of him?’

‘I know him’, said Charlie. ‘It’s Bradshaw. Triangle Head Bradshaw.’

‘Triangle Head!’ I spluttered.

‘Did you not see the head on him?’ Now of course I did. This strange man had a head shaped like an inverted triangle, topped with a flat thatch of tight red curls.

It transpired that Charlie knew Triangle Head Bradshaw from when he was at school. Charlie came from a small town far down on the Marsh, and this lad went to the same school as him. Charlie said that Bradshaw was the son of a cantankerous old farmer known as Ragwort Bradshaw. The Bradshaws were some kind of non-conformist ‘chapel folk’ and had a tumbledown smallholding on the edge of the Marsh where they kept sheep and chickens. Ragwort Bradshaw had the reputation for being a disagreeable old devil, and was often up before the magistrates on matters to do with illegally extending the boundaries of his property. There were three sons. Triangle Head was the youngest.

We heard the sound of a car leaving so we went back into the house.

‘So what’s the story with Triangle Head, Sadie?’

‘Triangle Head?’ Sadie laughed. ‘Oh why are you boys always so cruel?’ Evidently Bradshaw had been calling round to see Sadie for the past year or so. She said she felt sorry for him and that he was harmless. Charlie told her that the Bradshaws were unsocialised hillbillies and that they got on everyone’s nerves down on the part of the Marsh where they lived.

I didn’t see Bradshaw again at Sadie’s house. I wasn’t going round there as often anyway as we were all beginning to drift away. But I did once ask Sadie if he was still visiting her. She brushed the question aside so I left it at that. It was years later that I learned from an old friend of Sadie’s that Triangle Head Bradshaw had begun to make her feel uneasy. It seems he became a bit of nuisance, and that her sons didn’t like him skulking about the place when they were home from school. It was a classic case of unrequited love. Bradshaw was enraptured by Sadie and eventually plucked up the courage to declare his exalted feelings for her. Of course that was it. Sadie had to get rid of him. Nobody knows what was said, but he never came back. But there is a coda to the story of Triangle Head. After Sadie had sent him packing he went directly home to his farm on the Marsh and wrung the necks of all his two hundred and fifty egg-laying hens.

Illustration: Burcu Dundar Venner

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