I was going to create a web page to put some of my writing on,and my poems but it’s proving more complicated than I thought. So while I am fiddling around with it, I’ll put a piece I entered for a magazine comp. on here.
HOUSES I HAVE KNOWN
The wind howled around the farm, sending empty feed tubs scuttling across the yard. Sheets flapped on the line making snapping noises like sails billowing across a green turf sea.
The rain moved in a great cloud hovering above the Cheviot Hills, threatening to arrive before I could reclaim the washing.
The farm house had been rented to us by a family who seemed to own a large amount of Northumberland, we were students with little money and four children. Our landlady had heard about us from the village G.P, and offered us a four bed stone farmhouse for next to nothing.
On arrival at the property the reasons soon became clear, the former tenant, an elderly lady had lived in the dining room, possibly with chickens and sheep. I scraped 1955 Farmers Weekly’s from the floor with a spade, the same year that I had been born and I was now 37, while my husband damproofed and repainted walls and woodwork. We exposed beams and stained them back to their original colour, plugged holes around the skirting boards, from which, in the far bedroom, we could view the adjoining barn. Local people donated furniture, including, the most upright sofa we had ever seen from the vicar’s wife’s sewing room, which became known as the “park bench”.
Within six weeks we had a home that was habitable. My father put work tops in the kitchen which only had a Belfast sink, made cupboards and plumbed in appliances. The floor sloped dramatically towards the back door but with a few wooden blocks strategically placed we felt on an even keel. A smelly, deteriorating building now seemed to have regained a soul and become a home.
Our only heating came from two open fires, one with a back boiler for hot water, and the other on the far side of the house in the sitting room. The coal was kept in a shed across the yard, and the previous occupant, unable to stand upright in the winds had attached a piece of rope from the back door to the shed. This she clung to as if on a ship in a storm to replenish the scuttle. Not understanding the strength of the wind we removed the rope before we experienced winter.
On the first occasion that the gales hit, I stepped outside the backdoor just in time to see my baby daughter take off across the farmyard in her pushchair. It was impossible even for an adult to stand against it. One afternoon whilst hanging sheets on the line, one sheet encircled me and twisted around me holding me captive against the line, whilst the others took off towards the next village. Thanks to the timely arrival of the postman, I was released and he helped me retrieve the wayward linen.
Winter was hard, and caused us to grow hardier. The children were sent to bed in layers of clothing topped with a hat. Our second daughter, who was still having chemotherapy treatment for Leukaemia, seemed to cope quite well. For the worst of the treatment we had lived in a flat near the children’s hospital in Edinburgh. Here on the farm she seemed to thrive.
On some mornings there was ice on the inside of the windows and milk that had been left out was frozen, but once the coal fire was blazing the dining room was warm and welcoming. The house seemed to hold us in an embrace that gave us comfort and security.
There were no street lights anywhere near, so the skies were lit with sparkling diamond stars, the nearby farm houses snuggled into the surrounding landscape, showed welcoming lights that twinkled in the black shadowy hills.
The wind whistled around the walls banging the climbing roses on the windows, rattling window panes and doors. But the house loved us and we loved it.
On summer nights, the barn owl would bring her babies to perch on the front porch roof, under my bedroom window, they “sang” all night like creaky bedsprings. Around 5 a.m the sheep in the field next door would make dawn raids over the stone wall, and eat all my flower roots ,causing devastation in the garden. When being moved during the day, if I had neglected to shut the back door, I was never surprised to find one in the larder at the back of the kitchen.
One night after the shepherd had gone home; I went out to the coal shed with a head torch and the bin. The door would never stay open, and as both hands were engaged in the task, a light attached to my forehead was the only way to see what I was doing. On this occasion, I bent forward to get a shovel full of coal when something or someone nudged me on the leg, I could see nothing, but it was obvious that I was not alone. I picked up the shovel as a weapon, and began to feel that cold sweat breaking out, as you do, when fear grips your stomach. I yelled and turned round to find a pair of brown eyes staring at me. Oh, the relief to find that the shepherds old collie dog had got left behind. She was getting too old to run with the others and had missed her lift on the “gator”. A quick phone call and she was collected, and roared off home next to her master.
During the summer, the farmer decided to house some pigs in a building next to the coal store. It wasn’t exactly suitable, and soon became a stinking mire in which the animals became hock deep in filth. When the sun shone and the wind blew, the porcine ouder pervaded the kitchen. Our cat was fascinated by the pigs, although I often wondered if there were rats in the sty as well, as our milkman had had to protect the milk bottles from them, as they ripped open the tops.
On sunny days “cat” would sit on the wall above the pigs and sunbathe. However, one day, as she was balancing along the top of the wall, she slipped and landed in the muck, which was deep enough to cover her back. It must have taken her sometime to get out as by the time she got back into the yard the muck had dried on to her forming a stiff kind of “plaster cast”. She walked, or rather staggered back to the house looking extremely indignant. The smell which hit my senses, as I bathed her outside the kitchen door made me gag. The poor cat was more traumatised by being made wet than smelling of pig “poo” and went into hiding for several days.
As the festive season approached, we knew that we couldn’t afford a tree from the market and as none grew on the farm ,the children and I found a small interestingly shaped branch, and as I had seen my grandmother do in “tough times” I covered in it cotton wool snow and foil decorations ,adding our own baubles ,saved over the years. These included a small glass bird, hemp angels and a clown made out of pipe cleaners and miniature coloured balls. Then we added the contributions that the children had made at school and we had an impressive display.
My husband was convalescing after a heart problem and wasn’t permitted to drive; I had never passed a test, so my 8 year old son and I got out the bicycles. The local butcher had some ham and a turkey on order, and we had a few small gifts to distribute in the local village. We attached a large cardboard box to the rear of my cycle and went to collect our Christmas fare.
On distributing our gifts we also received several items including a pheasant, a tin of biscuits and gifts wrapped for stockings. These we piled into the box for the journey home. The return trip was no mean feat as it meant cycling up the Castle Bank, as the hill out of the village was aptly named. The road wound out of the houses and around the now ruined castle up a 1 in 4 hill for about a mile. For this we got off and pushed.
During our daughters’ illness and with my husband ill too, I could not work, so money was tight. We had been sent to college by our church in Surrey, with a potential posting in Nepal. They supported us generously, despite their investment in a “missionary” family going somewhat awry, and for much longer than they had anticipated,but we knew that Christmas presents for four children were not really in our budget and my eyes welled up when looking at the prices of toys in the local Woolworths store. I had no idea what Santa would bring this year.
We arrived home late on a dark evening, having been to the local garden centre, we had taken the children to see the grotto. As the car, bursting at the seams with small bodies, trundled up the farm track ,the headlights caught on some cardboard boxes and bags on the backdoor step. On inspection we found two bags of festive food from the Salvation Army, a box of beautifully wrapped presents from the local Masons “Lodge” and more Christmas treats in a box marked “from Santa”. We believed “Santa” to be our children’s teacher. Our heart felt gratitude could be described as a gross understatement.
After Christmas, the pheasants that had been fattened all year, along the banks of the disused railway below the adjoining field, were ready for the table, and men in “Tweed ” with shot guns, who paid excessively for the privilege, arrived in a muddy trailer pulled by a battered Land rover, to shoot them. It amused me that wealthy men would pay so much to travel in such a fashion.
Sometimes, we too, had a pair of birds to cook with apples and cream, one of the tenancy “perks”. Another being a salmon caught in the River Tweed. Any caught on our Landlady’s property had to be offered to her first. In a glut we got some too.
When the time came to leave the house,after a four year tenancy, I wandered from room to room. It was like leaving an old friend, it knew so many secrets, and had seen so many things. The gables at the front, that looked like a row of eyebrows, the landing window that wasn’t far off the ground at the rear as the house was on a slope, the undulating floorboards and smell of damp straw from the attached farm buildings, mice, rats ,pigs ,sheep and owls. Despite it all, I knew that I’d miss this place.