Letter from Roger Tarbuck, June 2016

The Story of Evvie Bean

Evvie Bean was old. He’d always been old. He worked on my uncle and auntie’s farm in Wales and lived with his wife in a tied cottage nearby. He would walk to our house, have breakfast with us, noisily scraping round the old mustard tin in which he carried his sugar ration for his tea. This was wartime, you see, and we were all on rationing then.

He came whatever the weather and I never remember him being sick, though he must have been in all those years. At least, he must have had a cold sometimes, but nobody bothered much about colds in those days.

Come rain or shine, he arrived to have his breakfast at the house, then, after a humble “Thank you kindly, Missus,” he was away up the fields, with his breath moving with him on icy winter air, or, on a rainy morning, wearing a Hessian sack, pushed in on one corner and pulled over his head like a pointy hat, with the sack draped over his shoulders. There were sunny days, too, happy days for my brother and me, but Evvie Bean always seemed happy.

We called him Evvie Bean – not to his face, of course – because he liked beans. We had to address him directly as Mr. Evans, because he was in his sixties. No Christian name for him from young things like us. Our uncle and auntie called him Evan. Evan Evans – that was his proper name.

But Evvie Bean was getting even older, and this became noticeable; he might stop what he was doing and stare into the distance for long periods. I heard my uncle and auntie talking about it one day and, soon after, I was playing behind the big elm tree in the yard, when I heard my uncle stop Evvie Bean on the other side of the tree. They had an interesting, hard, and mainly one-way conversation. It filled me with my first feelings of pity.

“You’re not getting these jobs done,” my uncle was saying, “you mess about before you get going and you spend half the day staring at the hills”. And Evvie Bean said, “I do like you say, Boss.”

“And you haven’t finished that hurdle yet, and there’s the side field to be cleared of stones and the pit to be dug by the shed.” Evvie said, “I do like you say, Boss.” My uncle went on: “It took you all day to kill that sick sheep (with his pocket knife!) and bury it.”

And Evvie Bean said, “I do like you say, Boss.” Whatever my uncle said, all Evvie could answer was: “I do like you say, Boss.” Poor old man, I thought. And he did have to do an awful lot of things.

When winter came, we were cold in the house in those days. One evening, my brother and I were sitting by the kitchen fire. Our auntie was there, too; Uncle was out for some reason. At the table, Evvie Bean had finished his dinner and was scraping round his sugar tin for his last cup of tea, when Auntie said, “What’s that noise in the chimney?”

Many years ago, the people who built the house stupidly decided to put the huge foot-square beam that supported the kitchen ceiling right through the chimney, not very far above the kitchen fire, where it had ignited and was blazing with a roar.

My auntie threw a bowl of water on the fire, which exploded with steam. Evvie Bean bent and shoved his head into the steam as far up the chimney as he could and said he could see the beam burning in the draught up from the kitchen. Now we were all afraid.

Fortunately, our uncle was air raid warden for the village and had been issued with a stirrup pump, which we quickly found. My brother carried in a bucket of water and set up the pump. He pumped as hard as he could and Evvie Bean directed the thin rubber hose at the fire. It didn’t reach the flames because it had no nozzle, so he had to squeeze the end of the tube hard to get a jet to reach the beam.

He not only had to reach the beam but also soak all sides of it. Even a spark might have spread in the night. It was hard work, made worse by lots of sooty water and sparks falling on his face and hands, but it worked, thank God. Without the stirrup pump or Evvie Bean – well, I leave it to your imagination. From then on, nobody talked about him staring into the distance.

I learnt a lot from Evvie Bean: loyalty, hard work, patience, good humour and always making an effort to please. Here I am, seventy years later, inspired by this humble yet noble man. How heartening it is to think that, no matter how ordinary we may be, someone somewhere may remember us for qualities that we never knew we had.