My sister rings me most days, but yesterday she was on for about an hour, gabbing on about nothing, as usual. (My father used to say, “You’re no further forrard when she’s finished!”) I didn’t really expect her to ring today, but she did, but later than usual.
Her first words were “I forgot to tell you yesterday: Billy Tillburn has died”. “Oh!” I said. Not “Oh dear” or “What a shock!” or “Oh how sad”, or any of the other phrases we usually use when we hear of a death. The next utterance is usually “What age was he? and I did actually ask that. “He was 77”, she said and moved on immediately to other topics.
It was only a relatively short conversation (for her), but after she’d rung off and I’d made myself a cup of coffee, I started thinking about Billy.
Billy Tillburn was one of several oddball “characters” in our village. When we both lived there, my sister and I, he was, I suppose, a part of our lives. A small part, an irritating part, a faintly amusing part and often a part we wished we’d never had. It was probably the same for practically everyone in the village.
Billy was of somewhat striking appearance. He was about five foot eight tall (perhaps even five foot nine) and he was lean and wiry. (“Six pennuth ‘o nowt”) as the local saying went. His face was very distinctive, but perhaps not very distinguished. He had jet black hair, slicked back with Brylcreem and, when I first knew him, a jet-black moustache. He had the appearance of a gaucho – a Spanish or Portugese cattle rancher. He always looked, certainly when first encountered, but even after long acquaintance, intimidating and threatening.
In other circumstances, if perhaps the structure of the face itself had been more refined, he could have been a “matinee-idol”. With his sleek hair and a neater moustache, he could have been Lawrence Olivier in “Wuthering Heights”.
Our village was in a picturesque valley. One side of the valley was steep, climbing away to a distinctive ridge with jagged edges. The other side of the valley was shallow: the land climbed slowly, up and up and up, until one reached the same height as the jagged ridge on the other side. The village nestled on a low ledge on the shallow side of the valley. In the centre of the village there were a number of “folds”. These were small groups of cottages, clustered round a very small courtyard, known as a “fold”. The name was derived, I always assumed, from sheepfold.
Billy Tillburn and his mother lived in one of the cottages in Miry Fold. It was a tiny property, of the kind known as “one up and one down”. Whilst Billy and his Mother Elsie lived very close to the centre of the village (Market Place) in an eighteenth century cottage, we, that is my mother and father and my sister and I, lived out of the village half a mile up the slope.
As the village had grown in the nineteen thirties and forties, new and more spacious houses had been put up and we lived in one of those.
I first encountered Billy when I was five years old and he was about twenty I would think. Billy had a job as a labourer, a term used at that time to describe any unskilled work. The word seems to have passed out of use nowadays, when it seems that everyone has to have a job title. Billy had never learned to read and write, so it was unlikely that he would progress.
Even at that relatively young age, Billy had a reputation as a bit of a “jack-the-lad” and he began to get a reputation as an untrustworthy fellow who was light-fingered. He was suspected of minor thieving, although nothing could be proved. This went on for quite a long time, until it got to the point where the local Police Constable, Keith Wimpenny, would be round at Billy’s cottage as a first port of call whenever anything went missing.
Eventually, when he was about twenty-four, Billy’s luck ran out. The lanes around Miry Fold were very narrow and awkward and the cottages were higgledy-piggledy, so the local farmer who supplied the village’s milk, was unable to call with his horse and float as he did at our house. There was a sort of wooden hutch at the entrance to Miry Fold and the cottagers would put their jugs in there at night so that Mr Bower could fill them the next morning. The jugs began to go missing, or they were found to be empty when they should have been brimming.
Constable Wimpenny and his superior, Sergeant Thorpe solved the case and Billy was sent down for six months. It was no good fining him, because he didn’t have any money. So the petty larceny in and around the village ceased abruptly.
This was quite a startling event for a village such as ours and it was a bit of a “nine-days wonder” amongst the shoppers in the village Co-op. Much head-shaking and mutterings of “I allus knew ‘ee were a wrong—un” ensued.
My view of Billy (and, rather surprisingly, that of my Mother) was different. My own first encounter with Billy, when I was a five-year old, is rather hazy in recollection. My Mother was fond of brisk walks around the outskirts of the village and after I became the proud rider of a tricycle, I went with her. It may possibly have been my first such outing and we were walking up a bit of a hill. My mother had a rope attached to the handlebars of the trike, so that she could supplement my pedalling. Near the top of the hill, there were three roadmen with a wheelbarrow, clearing leaves and tidying up. As we got level with them Mother was having to pull hard on the rope and she said “Come on, work harder!” To which I am reported to have said “Well, I’ve got my brakes on as hard as I can!”
The roadmen laughed out loud at this and one of them called out “You’ve got a right one there, missus!” I looked at him and saw the black hair and the black moustache and the threatening face and I pedalled like mad to get away. It was Billy, who had somehow managed to get a job as a road sweeper.
My second encounter with Billy had more significance. By the time I was ten I had discarded the tricycle and graduated to a bike. At first I used to ride up and down Moor Lane, the quiet road where we lived, but then I moved, without seeking permission of course, to neighbouring roads or lanes. (There were no streets in our village).
One day during the School Holidays I was out riding and Mother was in the kitchen, baking. There was a knock on the front door, Mother went to open it and there stood Billy. He was supporting a chastened ten-year old with a nasty graze on his forehead and a right knee with a piece of grubby rag tied round it. I had skidded on some loose chippings and fallen off the bike on Back Lane, about five hundred yards away.
Billy had been sweeping up lower down the road and had seen me come off. He dashed up, picked me up, wiped my knee which was bleeding heavily and tied a rag tightly round it. He then picked me up and carried me all the way home. Mother was very flustered and probably didn’t thank Billy properly as she put me on a stool in front of the fire and got a bowl of hot water and the bottle of Dettol. She patched me up as I tried hard to be a “brave soldier”.
I am sure that Mother was most worried about the bit of rag that Billy had used, so I had to endure a great deal of stinging, but eventually she was satisfied that there was no more road under my skin. Then she put Zam-Buk on it, bound it round with a bandage and fastened that with a safety-pin.
She had just finished when there was a knock on the front door again. Once more Billy stood there, this time with the bicycle! He had wheeled it all the way and he demonstrated that, though scratched, it was perfectly rideable.
After the spell in Armley Gaol, Billy continued his career of being in and out of work and in and out of the courts. When the neighbours tut-tutted about Billy, Mother told them that his heart was in the right place and he was not to be maligned.
Gradually though, as Billy grew older, he stopped being a bit of a public nuisance, pulled himself together and settled down. He had a succession of labouring jobs, including several stints as a roadsweeper, till eventually he found a job at the local gas-works. Our village had been one of the first in the district to establish its own small gas works and it was one of the last in the country to close down as Town Gas was replaced by Natural Gas.
Billy was in his element, shovelling the coke and looking after the yard. He had never learned to read or write and he was never given any responsibility, but he was a good and conscientious worker. Eventually, the small Gas Works had to close: probably in about 1965 I think, although I had left the village by then.
Apparently Billy then started helping a local farmer, and he took to it. He spent the last twenty years up to his retirement in 1985 working on local farms and smallholdings, even learning to drive I believe. He was a familiar sight as he walked around the village. His mother had died by that time, and I rather think that he didn’t like being alone in the little cottage: so he spent a lot of time out of doors.
Billy was still a village “character”, but his hair and moustache were grey and not quite as intimidating as they had been in his youth. By the time he retired he was almost a respected member of the community.
Then came the news, relayed to me over the phone by my sister, that Billy had been elected to the Parish Council. Apparently there was a vacancy (a long standing member had retired to Scarborough) and the Chairman, Arthur Boothroyd, chose a replacement in a rather unusual way. Parish council members often gathered in the Foresters Arms for a drink of an evening and one evening Arthur pointed at the door and announced, “T’next feller to lift yon sneck: we’ll ‘ave him on t council!”
And as luck would have it, within a minute, Billy had walked in. A couple of months later, he was elected unopposed a a Parish Councillor. His career on the Parish Council was uneventful: he did as he was told and followed Arthur Boothroyd’s bidding. But he was responsible for one major addition to the facilities in his village.
Billy had always walked everywhere, and in retirement he had begun to walk longer distances. He often walked from his cottage in the middle of the village to its outskirts, and then to the fields and lanes beyond the last house. Then he would sit on a low wall or lean against a field-gate for a rest, before walking back to his lonely cottage.
One day Billy surprised the Parish Council Chairman by asking if the Council could put a public seat at each of the six places that had become his habitual “turning back” points. Arthur thought that this was a really good idea and in due course Billy’s idea became a reality. One of the Council Members was Mr Donkersley, who had a joinery business in the village and he was enthusiastic about the idea and readily agreed to make the seats. So, after a life of some notoriety and little distinction, Billy at last had his legacy.
Next time I go to see my sister (an event which I often put off), I shall go gladly. I will take my walking boots and, as a tribute to Billy Tillburn, walk round all six of the Billy Seats.