As my first year at Winchester University drew to a close I felt the panic building. I was relieved to have made it through; proud in fact as it had been a tough year as a mature student with two children, living off campus and going through a relationship breakdown mid-semester. Relaxing on the beach, while working through the new reading lists was the main aim for the summer. The structure of University life had temporarily fallen away – no essays, no deadlines, no frantic reading to be done, no travelling back and forth – this sudden lack and potential stagnancy terrified me so I dove into next year’s modules in an attempt to banish the panic.
Then, unexpectedly, on a bright and cloudless Friday morning came just what I needed. I had dropped the kids at school then headed straight for the beach armed with the intention of basking on the rocks and reading. Before heading down I sat at the café on the cliff top drinking coffee and picking at a sausage sandwich. My attention shifted erratically from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, to protecting my sandwich from the circling mob of seagulls until a soft and well-spoken voice called out to me. I looked up to see an elderly lady smiling widely, waving her hand gracefully; beckoning me to her and requesting my help to raise her parasol. Of course I obliged and successfully raised the overly complicated parasol without embarrassment or injury to myself, or my new friend who had, by then, confidently introduced herself. Her energy struck me instantly. Her manner immediately put me at ease as if I had known her all my life. Her voice; so elegant, articulate and dignified, and her eyes seemed to sparkle with mischief and in those short moments, after she had thanked me and squeezed my hand, she had captured my full attention in a mix of intrigue and admiration.
I returned to my table (now minus a sandwich thanks to the seagulls!) and before I knew it I was up again and heading back over to the ninety-nine year old woman now joined by her two friends and comfortable in the shade. Before I could even rationalise, impulse had entirely seized me. I was simply overtaken by the sudden realisation that right there was a vibrant subject, and right there, inside her memory, was a story that I was certain deserved to be told. If I had deliberated I’m certain that a thousand doubts would have jumped straight in to aggressively wrestle my idea to the ground but instead I just acted with confidence. I embraced the moment and the potential opportunity that it held.
I introduced myself as a student of the University of Winchester, as having just completed my first year of study, as a mother, and as an aspiring writer in search of a summer project. She was entirely thrilled with my pitch. She grabbed my hands, pulled me close and spoke excitedly: ‘I cannot believe it! I have come for coffee with my friends and now I have made a new friend! I will tell you everything you want to know dear, absolutely everything!’
I wished the ladies a good day, thanked them for allowing me to sit with them then made my way to the tip of the groyne; as close to the ocean as I could get. The events that had just transpired left me feeling daunted: all that filled my mind was the gravity of this opportunity. I considered the point I was at in my own life and considered how everything passes, how everything has to pass eventually, how everything phases out naturally in the cycles of life – lives, loves, good and bad times. Mrs Dunn must have experienced periods of joy, contentment, pain, loss and heartache in abundance yet there she sat in the winter of her life, I suspect bolder and wiser than ever, full of a love of life that I, in the summer of my life, could only marvel at.
As well as tapping into her personal experiences and the emotions that stem from them I am interested in the changes she has seen, her opinions of those changes and how they have impacted upon her life. The extent of social, political, and technological change she has witnessed is obviously vast. She has lived through a wealth of history; been present amidst the excitement of some of the most inventive, progressive, and also disturbing and tragic occurrences of the 20th and 21st centuries. Despite periods of poor health, loss and adversity Mrs Dunn has achieved and thrived in all areas of her life. She exhibits a sense of humour, playfulness and vivacity that seems defiant in the face of her age.
My intentions with Doreen are three-fold. My aim is to document her life so that others may benefit from it and feel inspired by it, either as a work of fiction based on her reality and fuelled by her emotion or perhaps as a straight and factual biography – this is undecided for now. Secondly, I intend to learn and absorb all that I can on a personal level from one so rich with life experience. Thirdly, I am hopeful that our meetings and my subsequent work will also enrich her life at some level, if only to present her with the opportunity to transport her mind back through the archives of her past so that she may summon, relive, express and revel in the richness that has been her life.
In addition to the above intentions I would like to invite the readers of Splendid Fred to follow me on this intimate journey. I aim to present a series of articles as an experimenting writer forging her path with this excellent opportunity, as one woman inspired by another, and as both; who has the privilege of gaining admittance into the heart, soul, and history of Mrs Doreen Dunn as she approaches a century of life.