Authors: Trisha Ashley
The wood-burning stove crackled quietly and nearby a door slammed, waking me from my reverie. The top of Harry’s felt hat appeared as he shuffled slowly down his garden, hidden by the dividing fence, to feed the hens.
There was an arched gateway between our two plots so we could both come and go freely, for though Harry was nominally
in charge of the hens, we shared our gardens and what grew in them. But these last few months, as Harry had grown increasingly infirm after a fall, it seemed I was doing the lion’s share of the work.
Ben used to do most of the heavy digging, but lately he’d either been shut up in the wooden studio at the end of the garden, built against the tall stone wall separating us from the grounds of Blessings, or he was in London.
Each time when he got home and enfolded me in a big, warm hug, swinging me off my feet and telling me he loved me, it
made up for his absence…but not quite.
I looked down at the laptop and sighed heavily, having totally lost the thread of what I was going to say to finish off.
The little wicket gate between the two gardens squeaked open and Harry came through, followed by his sheepdog, Mac. Harry carried a hoe in one hand and a stout walking stick with a ram’s-horn handle in the other, and I had to give him full marks for effort even if I expected to find him lying full length among the brassicas one of these days.
there was the problem of his failing eyesight, so that half the time he was nurturing seedling weeds and tossing the veggies onto the compost heap…Still, that wasn’t too much of a problem in mid-October, and he was heading for the pea and bean beds, which needed clearing anyway.
Behind him, stepping delicately, followed the pale, speckled shape of Aggie, the escapologist hen. The others were all fat, cosy, brown creatures, whom I couldn’t distinguish apart—and didn’t want to, since they were quite likely to end up on my plate. But Aggie, with her inquisitive nature and skill in escaping from enclosed places, was different, and Harry was forbidden from even
of culling her, whether she deigned to lay eggs or not.
Opening the door I called, ‘Tea in twenty minutes, Harry?’ and he made a thumbs-up sign.
I went back in, took another look at my notes, and then rattled
off the rest of my article, before changing all the names as usual. Even though I never tell anyone’s secrets, or gossip about local people, I wouldn’t feel half as free to write what I wanted if everyone knew it was me, and where I lived!
Then, with a click of a button, I sent it on its way to the magazine.
It was then I suddenly remembered that in the summer, after one of my cakes had featured in the coverage of a terribly smart local wedding,
Country at Heart
magazine had contacted me. They were interested in the way I combined my wedding cake business with the self-sufficiency too—but, of course, they didn’t know I was the author of ‘Cakes and Ale’ in
magazine, and I didn’t tell them!
They interviewed me by email and telephone, and then sent a photographer to take some pics, but I hadn’t heard anything since, so perhaps they’d thought better of it, or found someone more interesting to feature.
Our Sadie’s been after me to up sticks and go and live in New Zealand with them again,’ Harry said, selecting a ginger biscuit from the tin after careful inspection, and then dunking it in his mug of tea. A bit crumbled and fell, but was neatly snapped up before it hit the floor by Mac, who lunged silently shark-like from under the table and then retreated again. ‘She’s sent me a photograph of the extension they’re building onto the side of the house, like a little self-contained flat.’
‘Granny annexe, they call them. She’s obviously very keen for you to go, Harry,’ I said brightly, trying to sound encouraging, even though I would miss him dreadfully if he did go.
‘She says I should
to live near my only daughter and grandchildren, but it was her chose to go and live on the other side of the world in the first place, not me! There’s no reason why
should have to end my days somewhere foreign.’
‘Well, I suppose they’ve made their life there now and the
grandchildren are New Zealanders, and when Sadie sent you the plane tickets and you went out to visit, you had a great time.’
‘Liking the place for a holiday isn’t the same as wanting to live there, away from all my old friends.’
‘I suppose not,’ I agreed, though since Harry’s old friends were popping their clogs with monotonous regularity, a fact he pointed out with some relish from the obituary columns in the local paper, that wouldn’t be an argument he would be able to use for very much longer. The group of cronies he met in the Griffin for a pint of Mossbrown ale most evenings had reduced to three, one of whom had to be helped up the steps to the entrance.
Harry seemed to realise this himself, for he added morosely, ‘Not that they aren’t dropping like flies anyway. But
die here, in my own place—and when I’ve gone, you make sure and give that tin box of papers and medals to Sadie, when she comes over for the funeral.’
‘Of course I will—but I hope not for a long time yet, because whatever would I do without you?’
‘Time catches us all in the end, lass. You’ll find my will in the box too. Sadie’ll get most of what I’ve got to leave, of course. Blood’s thicker than water, and you can’t get away from that, even if
been more of a daughter to me than
‘No, of course not. I’m only distantly related to you through marriage,’ I agreed, because Granny and Harry’s wife, Rosa, hadn’t even been first cousins, so I hadn’t been expecting him to do anything else. It was true that I’d been spending more and more time looking after him, but then that was only fair, seeing how much help he gave me and Ben when we moved back here after Granny died. Anyway, I loved him, and he and Granny had been such good friends, widow and widower, understanding each other.
Harry was still wearing his battered felt hat, which I rarely saw him without, though in times when he was pondering some
weighty matter he would run his earth-stained finger around the inside of the band, as now.
‘I saw a piece in a magazine at the doctor’s last week,’ he said. ‘It said how I could claim a medal for the six months of minesweeping I did right after the war. There was an address to send to—I ripped it out. The receptionist said I could.’
He produced a much-folded piece of thin paper from his pocket and handed it to me. ‘What do you think of that?’
I read it carefully. ‘Yes, why not? You’re entitled to it, aren’t you? It did seem so unfair to me, that after being in the navy in the Far East and fighting on for longer than lots of other people, they made you go and do something even more dangerous for six months before they let you demob!’
It was only in the last couple of years that Harry had started to talk about his war service in the navy. A quiet, sensitive man, what he had seen and experienced had harrowed him and driven him into himself, especially after he lost his wife.
‘There was never anything fair about the armed forces, Josie. You did what you were told, or else! But having to go minesweeping when I wanted to get home to Rosa—well, that was a bit of a blow. And it was dangerous work. You never knew when a mine was going to go up and take you with it, and in those little wooden boats we wouldn’t have had a chance, we all knew that.’
‘It sounds dreadful, and you’ve certainly earned your medal!’
‘So you really think I should apply for it, then?’
‘Definitely—another one for the grandchildren. Do you want me to write the letter for you?’
‘No, that’s all right, I’ll do that, but you could take it to the post office later.’ He began the painful task of hauling himself to his feet, but I knew better than to offer him any help.
‘I’ve left you the hens and the piano,’ he said abruptly, once he was upright. ‘The piano was my mother’s and Sadie won’t want to ship it out there.’
‘Thank you—how lovely,’ I said, touched but not at all sure how I would fit the piano into my small house, or the hens and their coop and run into the vegetable garden. The thought of Harry gone and a stranger one day living next door was very disturbing…
‘Well, there’s no need to cry over it, you daft lump,’ he said bracingly. ‘You’re too soft for your own good, you are. Cry if a hen dies, cry over a dead hedgehog, cry every blessed time that Ben of yours goes off to London!’
A peacock distantly wailed from the grounds of Blessings, as if in agreement, even though I thought it was a bit of an exaggeration. I’m not that soft.
I dabbed my eyes with the edge of my sweatshirt. ‘Of course I’m not crying, it’s wood smoke. That last lot I put in the stove must have been damp. And there’s no reason for me to get upset, because you’ve got lots of good years left in you, Harry,’ I said, more positively than I felt, because look what happened to Granny, who was several years younger. And now I had only Harry and Ben—and my friend Libby, of course. But not only did she live far away, she was also rather like a cat in that, though fond of me, she had her own agenda and came and went as she pleased.
‘I’ve got thick vegetable soup on the stove—I’ll bring you some and fresh bread rolls later, when I take Mac out for a walk,’ I said. Harry is fiercely independent, but I fill his little freezer with single portions of soup, casseroles and all kinds of things, with the heating instructions written on the lids. And I make sure he has fresh bread and biscuits—whatever I’ve been cooking.
‘I like that minestrone best,’ he said ungratefully, pausing with Mac on the threshold and letting gusts of October air, redolent with autumnal garden bonfires, into the room. ‘Got a bit of news, I nearly forgot to tell you. Mr Rowland-Knowles has put Blessings on the market.’
I stared at him. ‘But he’s only just moved back in!’
‘Yes, but he found that stepmother of his had run the place into the ground. She only used the modern wing and let the rest go hang, and you need to keep on top of these Elizabethan houses or they quickly start to go downhill.’ He shook his head at the waste of it all. ‘He came round yesterday afternoon and asked me to look over some rotting woodwork and tell him what I thought.’
Harry, who’d been an expert carpenter in his time, had done work in most of the old houses in the area, so that made sense.
‘It was in a right state—windows blown in and the rain’s made a mess of the floor in one bedchamber, not to mention the woodworm taking hold and the roof needing repairing. The poor man’s desperate not to part with it, but he can’t afford to put it to rights.’
‘That’s such a shame!’
‘Vindictive. His stepmother had the right to live there unless she remarried, but now she finally has, it’s a mixed Blessing!’ He grinned, happy with his little joke.
‘But what will happen to Dorrie’s home if Blessings is sold?’ I asked, for Miss Doreen Spottiswode was Tim’s aunt, his mother’s eldest sister, who now lived in a dilapidated cottage in the grounds and, together with an ancient gardener, did her best to stop the place running completely wild.
‘I don’t think they can get her out. She’ll be like a sitting tenant, I suppose,’ he said. ‘Mrs Rowland-Knowles never managed it, try though she might, for Miss Dorrie had just as much right to see out her days there as
had to live in Blessings. But Miss Dorrie’s looked after that garden since she came here to live with her sister, just after she married. She loves it, and it will hit her hard if strangers take it over.’ He shook his head sadly.
‘I suppose Tim Rowland-Knowles thought about all that before he came to his decision, and there mustn’t have been any option, Harry.’ I didn’t know Tim well, because he hadn’t been near
Neatslake since his father died, and not often before that, since he and his stepmother hadn’t got on.
But I suddenly remembered the summer when we were fifteen and Libby’s game plan (which involved acquiring the skills she thought would be necessary in order to become a rich man’s wife) had led her to wangle invites for us to tennis parties at the vicarage. Tim was often there, because the vicar’s drippy seventeen-year-old daughter, Miriam, had a crush on him. He’s tall and thin, with a shock of untidy white-blond hair and vague blue eyes, and you couldn’t imagine him being terribly successful as a solicitor.
At the time Libby was convinced she resembled Debbie Harry, which she didn’t, and her efforts to make her cheekbones stand out meant she constantly appeared to be sucking a lemon. As for me, all I wanted was to look just like one of the black-clad female guitarists in the Robert Palmer ‘Addicted to Love’ video. We were both totally deluded and neither look really went well with tennis clothes, so it says much for Tim’s good nature that he directed the occasional kind smile in our direction.
When Harry had hobbled back into the garden I emailed Libby, though I had no idea whether she was in her pretty London mews house or in Pisa, where she had a rather palatial flat complete with a roof terrace covered with lemon and olive trees in huge terracotta pots. Ben and I had been out there a couple of times, for holidays—she’s always been terribly generous and her second husband, Joe Cazzini, who died last year, had been a lovely man.
‘You remember when we were at school and were taken round Blessings in the fifth year?’ I wrote. ‘You said you wanted to live there, and one day you’d have a house just like it. Well, here’s your chance, because Tim Rowland-Knowles (do you remember we used to play tennis with him at the vicarage?) has had to put it up for sale…’
Of course, I didn’t
think she’d want to buy it! Libby’s
plans had always involved shaking the dust of Neatslake off her dainty feet for ever, and her visits here since her first marriage had been mere flying ones, in and out, to catch up with me. No, I was just using the news as something exciting that might break the monotony of my emails to her, because she’s not that interested in making jam and mixed pickles.
Her emails were always much livelier than mine and I always enjoyed reading them, though I wasn’t jealous of her lifestyle at all. I much preferred my rooted and settled existence to her butterfly one.