I first heard the sad news at our monthly luncheon for retired members of the NUT. Invariably I sat with David Croft, my ex deputy head, who still lives near the school and has his finger on the pulse.
"Lollipop Lilly," he said. "Have you heard?"
"No! Dont tell me," I said. "Has she?"
"Mmm. Funerals next Wednesday. Two oclock at St. Marks. Didnt you see it in the Sentinel? Quite a spread."
"No, I dont read it. Ill go, of course. Will you be there?"
"I think we all will, dont you? Give the old lass a good send-off."
I bought the local paper on the way home and found the editor had excelled himself, alliteration and all. "Much-loved Lollipop Lady Dies." There was a picture of the school and of Lilly herself, taken in the nursing home on her eightieth birthday.
After reading the account, I sat and thought about Willow Lane and Lilly Marsden. Was it only twelve years since Id retired? It seemed a lifetime. And so much Id forgotten.
But no one could forget Lilly. She was one of the many good things I inherited when I took over the school in 1971, although I suppose our first meeting was not particularly auspicious.
Id inherited the school from a very popular headmaster and a well-established staff, and on that first day was feeling a little fraught. After school I went down to the staff room in search of a cup of tea and met Lilly. She was ensconced in an armchair with a cup of coffee and sharing what sounded like a very funny joke with some members of staff. She was still wearing her peaked cap and white coat, and her lollipop sign was leaning against a nearby wall.
The conversation stopped when I entered, and Lilly struggled to her feet. I dont know who felt more ill at ease.
My deputy, David, also obviously embarrassed, came across the room and introduced us. "Mrs. Marsdens our school-crossing lady. Shes been with us many years. Almost one of the family. I hope you dont mind her being here?"
I could feel myself being very po-faced, but Lilly, without embarrassment, eased the situation somewhat. After a very firm handshake, and "Nice to meet you, Headmaster," she looked at the clock, and went on, "Heavens! Look at the time. I must be off." She then picked up her stick and moved easily to the door, with an almost reassuring smile.
Later, David came to my office and we had the first of many chats about Lilly Marsden. "Im sorry about that, Mr. Wilson," he said. "Its my fault. I should have realised. It must have seemed a bit out of place to a newcomer. I can tell her to stop coming if you wish. Buthow can I say this? I think youd be wrong. When youve settled in Im convinced youll see what I mean. Shes a tremendous asset to the school, and Id hate to hurt her feelings."
He was right, of course. Over the next few months I realised the worth of our lollipop lady. Lilly was a very large person with an ample bosom and legs like tree trunks. She radiated a warm motherliness that was almost palpable. The children adored hershe knew the names of all three hundredand to see her at work was a joyous occasion. Her charges vied with each other to hold her hand as she escorted each group across the busy road, and there was always much laughter. Even the smallest children called her by her first name without the slightest suggestion of familiarity, and it all seemed so right. And of course, with a name like hers, she was known to all and sundry as Lollipop Lilly.
As I got to know Lilly I found that her knowledge of the children was profound. The school was in a deprived area and there were many social problems, but the children trusted her implicitly and had no hesitation in confiding to her their fears and hopes.
Lilly continued to take her afternoon tea in the staff room, and I soon discovered how much my staff relied upon her insight to ease the lot of the children in their charge. It was almost like having a permanent social worker on the staff.
I was able to rely upon Lilly for some years before she finally left us. She had always suffered from what she called "very course veins," and all her standing had taken its toll. Her retirement party was memorable; the school was invaded by ex-pupils, some of them with their own children at school. Everyone wanted to say goodbye and wish her luck.
Strangely, I never knew much about Lillys private life except that she was a widow, but the newspaper article now told me that she was originally from Nelson, where she had a younger sister.
Id kept in touch for some years and knew that eventually Lilly had sold her cottage and moved into a residential home on the prom. Even when she found shed got cancer she still remained cheerful, but it was only a matter of time, and the news of her death came as no surprise.
The funeral was held at St. Marks, the old church on the headland, not far from the school. I fully expected the church to be full, but I was amazed. Not only the church but also the churchyard was crammed with people, many of whom I recognised as ex-pupils. It seemed that the whole village had turned out to say farewell.
The service itself was not a morbid affair. "All things bright and beautiful" was sung, along with a hymn that I hadnt heard for years: "Jesus bids me shine."
After the committal, I made myself known and met Lillys sister for the first time. To my surprise she seemed to know quite a bit about me. "Our Lilly had a soft spot for you, you know," she said "Thought you were a bit too strict at times, mind you. "
And then she smiled. "Look. You must come back with us. Lilly would like that. The receptions at The Pines. Just a few friends."
As we moved to our cars, she looked around at the dispersing crowd and shook her head in amazement. "Theyve done her proud," she murmured.
And so it was that later in the afternoon I found myself in conversation with Lillys sister, and she referred again to the large crowd at the church.
"Im not much of a believer" she said, "but I hope our Lil was looking down today. It would perhaps have finally eased her guilt."
Seeing my puzzled look, she hesitated. Then she said quietly, "Mr. Wilson. Ive not told this to many people. There was no reason to. But I dont think our Lilly ever got over it. Even moving away didnt help. You see, she ran over a little girl. Outside a school. Killed the little lass. Mind you, it wasnt Lillys fault. The kid ran right into the road. But she never forgave herself. Almost turned her brain. Thats what I meant about today. If there was anything to forgive, now surely its forgiven."
Ron is 80 years old and served with the British Army in India (and Ceylon) during World War II. He retired from the teaching profession in 1985 and, following his wife's death shortly afterwards, took up creative writing as a hobby. Since then he has had short stories and poetry published and broadcast. The North West Network of the B.B.C has broadcast seventeen of his stories.