Brian had been ten years old the last time he saw the cottage what was then his grandparent’s spick and span cottage was now his derelict hovel.
Was that 35 years ago? What had happened to his life? What had gone wrong? Sure there had been good times but recently it had all gone down hill fast. The redundancy quickly followed by the divorce from his immensely successful wife. Her career was heading for the stratosphere while his life and career were in tatters. Gone was the Mercedes replaced by a second hand pick up truck bought from a builder friend.
Brian had money. After all Elaine had bought his half of the house and furniture for cash, the Merc had been his and raised more and then there had been the generous severance package, the veritable golden parachute. A mental tote up had reached damn near five hundred grand before he got fed up and confused and abandoned the unfinished calculation. And he had the cottage and bit of land his grandpa had left him.
What Brian didn’t have was a single, solitary clue about his future existence. Life, he thought, was a word far too optimistic. He sat in the rain in the pickup trying to equate the rain soaked ruin with the happy, idyllic cottage of his youth.
Brian had left school at sixteen and started work as a apprentice brickie with a large building company who specialised in building row after row, street after street of little houses that were destined to fulfill the dreams of some and be the prison of others.
In his spare time he had taken on small private jobs, PJs as they called them, usually on older property, a bit of bricklaying here, plastering there, re-hanging a door, replacing a window frame; anything and everything he could and would turn his hand to learning as he went.
It was when Brian was twenty-five that things had begun to change. He had met, fell for, bedded and married Elaine in that order. Elaine who he had thought to be unattainable, Elaine the so intelligent sophisticate, Elaine the Company’s’ chief accountant.
She had groomed him, taught him to speak “nicely” and helped him to apply for and get a job as a Company Salesman. By his thirtieth birthday Brian had been the Company Sales Manager and was the Company Sales Director; all achieved by hard work and his own ability.
Elaine had left to follow her career as the Finance Director of a much larger company.
Brian remembered wondering if life got any better, the expensive holidays, the good life, the high life even, executive fast cars, anything they wanted they could buy, they had it all.
And so the next fourteen years were just that, life in the fast lane, ever increasing salaries, ever increasing bonuses. – – – – – – And then the bombshell. Who would have thought he, Brian, a director of the Company would be made redundant, but there had been a take-over and that was just his fate.
Elaine had at first been totally supportive, confident his next “executive” position was just around the corner, but as the months passed and economies mentioned the arguments had started. She was still working, she was still earning good money, extremely good money, why should she economise. After all Brian was the one out on his ear he should be the one to economise.
Truth to tell there had been no need to economise at that time, he had been given an extremely generous severance package plus six months salary in lieu of notice. But Brian had had this sense of foreboding, this need to conserve capital, this lack of confidence in himself, this lack of confidence in the future and this feeling he might never work again certainly not in the sort of position Elaine would deem acceptable.
After two months of this Elaine told him about her string of affairs, that he was a failure in bed as well as out of it. He had quietly packed his bags and left, numb from the shock of her revelations. Not caring where he went as long as it was away from there. So much for the shallow pleasures of the high life. Brian’s life had been a sham built on sand.
A cheap bedsit and more alcohol than was good for him saw him through the next six weeks. It was when the letter from Elaine’s solicitor arrived making, what seemed to him, to be a very generous offer to buy him out of her life. He replied suggesting another twenty-five thousand and when this was accepted half wished he’d asked for more.
It was then that Brian decided to take stock of his life. He decided the more he reached for the stars the more he was at risk. The higher he climbed the further there was to fall. His Grandpa had always been happy and contented with his life in spite of, or maybe it was because of, having little spare money and few of the things he and Elaine had come to regard as essential. His Grandpa used to laughingly say I enjoy the main pleasures in life living indoors in the warm and eating regularly. What else do your Gran and I need?
Brian had, he knew, the skills to do up the cottage, even make it larger if needs be. He could restore the large garden to provide himself with fruit and vegetables aplenty, maybe keep a few chickens for their eggs and for the pot. He had seen a large pile of bricks, lintels and the like where the old barn had been pulled down when it had become unsafe. Who knows what he could accomplish? He would work out how much he would need for the renovation, how much he could make on investing the remaining funds safely and how much he would need to make from building jobs, he smiled and thought back to the PJs. For the first time for months his future seemed better.
Which was how he came to be sitting here in the pickup, in the rain remembering the past imagining the future.
The rain drummed on the roof of the pickup truck but still he felt, for the first time for a long while, that there was a glimmer of light at the end of his personal tunnel. He looked out over the wet bedraggled jungle of bramble and nettles and tried to visualise his Grandpa’s garden as it was in his youth.
Of course it had all looked so much bigger then but gradually he pieced together the map in his head. The various trees, greengage, damson, bullace, plum and cherry. Over there next to the pile of rubble that had once been the old barn still stood the legendary Howgate Wonder apple tree that produced gigantic juicy cookers. The fruit of such a size that one apple would make a fair sized pie. He must find if any of the other trees had survived and, if so, try to save them. He found he could place the several vegetable plots, the chicken run and the flower borders. He searched for and retrieved a large envelope and whilst he remembered drew a sketch. The light was fading fast and the rain still fell relentlessly. He would return with waterproofs and wellington boots and, he thought, a hard hat would not come amiss.
With the knowledge that a plan of campaign needed to be drawn up Brian started the engine. What were those charts called? He had been trying to remember all day. Yes that was it Gant Charts. He slipped the truck into gear and pulled out on to the road.
The next few weeks could be summed up in two words it rained. He spent his time in his bedsit thinking, planning. He unpacked his laptop a parting “gift” from his former Company in as much as they hadn’t asked for it back. He rang a former colleague not sure of the reception he would get. In the event he had been pleasantly surprised when Mike had seemed genuinely pleased to hear from him. Mike worked in IT and Brian quickly outlined the programme he was looking for. A user-friendly CAD package that he could put his existing cottage and garden on to and then renovate and redesign. Mike recommended a package that he could “lay his hands on” free and he even offered Brian his help if help were needed.
A few days later Mike rang again to say he just heard about a landscape gardener friend who was chucking it in and moving to France. Thing was he explained the guy was getting shot of all his tools and things. If Brian moved sharpish he could probably drop on to the lot quite cheap. Brian took the phone number Mike offered and a few days later he was the proud owner of rotavators, powered lawn mowers, rotary and cylinder, an Allen scythe, other assorted tools and finally a cement mixer all for a very reasonable price.
It took Brian four trips in the pickup to ferry his new toys to his cottage. But still it rained and now he begun to champ at the bit, he wanted to get a started. He had entered up the plans on his laptop and started to draw up the improvements he wanted to make and the restoration work that was needed.
Upstairs the cottage had three bedrooms and these were to have built in wardrobes before being redecoration The bathroom needed to be completely refurbished and tiled. Downstairs he intended to make completely open plan.
Outside forming a generously sized three sided courtyard was a large outside brick and tiled store to one side and facing the back of the cottage the coal house, the laundry room complete with old stone copper and, of course the redundant “thunder box”. The fourth side facing south was open to the rest of the garden. All work to do, all needed to be done now but still it damn well rained. Brian reckoned if he could get the services on and one room weatherproofed he could say good bye to the dreary cheap bedsit and live on site.
Then miraculously the day after the children went back to school, summer holidays over, the sun shone. What is more it continued fine and dry for the next two months. The cottage from ground to roof was made weather and waterproof, Brian had done most of the work himself save for the roof where he had called in a favour from a small specialist roofing contractor. He had also managed to convert the coalhouse, laundry room and redundant “thunder box” into one long workshop quite big enough for his needs. The large outside brick and tiled store he intended to keep as a store, he had remembered how successfully his grandpa had kept fruit and vegetables in that cool dry store. Just got to get it dry again he had thought.
By the last week of October he was ready for the gas and electricity to be connected. He was indeed fortunate because this was one of the few small villages to be connected to the gas supply, thanks mainly to the large gas fired maltings situated in the village. By the end of the month he was able to move in to his weather proof and ever so slightly warm cottage. He planned to install central heating during the run up to Christmas. Not that Christmas would be much of an event for him this year. The days of lavish parties with rich friends on expense accounts were well and truly over for him. Funny how quickly they had all disappeared after Elaine had got shot of him. He doubted that he was even on their Christmas card lists.
The weather still held, cold but dry and Brian decided to make clearing the worst of the weeds and rubble in the garden his next priority. The motorised scythe would make the job less difficult but still not easy. On the second day of his endeavours he had a visitor from one of the local farmers. “You don’t remember me but I knew you when you were a little scrap of a thing, I was a pal of your Grandfather”. Brian thought he’s right I don’t remember him but he passed the time of day with him as if they were old mates. “Thing is I reckon you’ve got a big job clearing that lot and I’ve got a couple of my men with time on their hands and some farm machinery that would make short work of all that clearing. I don’t want paying, I pay my men anyway so they might as well be working. Brian thanked him and breathed a sigh of relief and asked him if he could recommend anyone to prune Grandpa’s old fruit trees. “I’d rather like to save them if I can”, he added. “One of the men I’m sending over Old Wally he’s a dab hand at pruning and that like. If anyone can save them trees it’ll be him.” And with that he bid Brian good bye and carried on up the lane in the direction of The Barley Mow.
Brian thought about the morning’s events. I’m back among real people who have got time for each other. They meet and stop for a chat and they don’t bloody well call it networking. They seem to help each other willingly without entering the favours in a columned account book labeled “Favours Given” and “Favours Received.” Real people in a real world living a real life. Suddenly he knew for sure that he was home. The past was partly a dream, partly a nightmare. The past was a different country.
Sure there was a lot to do but his journey had started. Days of honest but enjoyable toil to be followed by the sleep of the contented countryman. He was where he wanted to be now all he had to do was live the life he wanted. What had they called people like him in the past? Smallholders? No that wasn’t it. Yeoman that’s the word I’m looking for, yeoman.
By the end of November the garden had been cleared and a thick layer of well rotted stable manure worked in. Fifteen of Grandpa’s old fruit trees had been saved and five that had been beyond redemption had been dug up and now formed part of the growing pile of logs ready to feed the wood burning stove that he was seeking. to buy.
The saved trees, now expertly pruned with the dead wood chopped out along with the weaker branches looked good for another fifty years.
“You should have a good crop next year and an even better one the year after,” Wally had told him before he had added, “don’t you go a meddling now I’ll come back and give them the once over and a winter wash when the time is right. And another thing I‘ve planted a few bits and bobs best you leave them alone too, at least for now anyhow.” Wally refused any recompense for his work “You’ll be a begging me to take some fruit off of your hands come next autumn, that’ll be payment a plenty.”
December started off, as he had feared with not a hint of the festive season to come. He had however managed to install the central heating system and settled on a large fire basket instead of the wood burning stove. He had bought it at a local auction and the item, which would have fetched a considerable sum if the townie second home owners had been there, was his for a pittance. He reflected how soon he had become disparaging about the people he had not so long ago been one of. The fire basket had needed a couple of small repairs and a decent coat of black lead but now gleamed from it’s home in the huge ingle nooked fireplace. The alcove at the side of the fireplace Brian had filled with logs. Warm and snug inside, bitingly cold and bright outside this is how winters should be he thought.
Suddenly a week or so before Christmas things finally started to happen . First an unexpected gift from Elaine in the shape of a very large and lavish hamper. “Fortnum and Mason”, he mused thinking it must have cost her a bob or two until he realised it was an “executive” gift almost certainly charged to her expense account. Cards arrived from people in the village and even one or two old friends including Mike the IT man who enclosed a chatty letter and suggested he came down on a tour of inspection “Because I’m a nosey bugger.” he had added as his justification.
There then occurred the magical two days. Over these two days he had been given a large free range chicken, A brace of pheasants and a half a dozen pigeons. The gifts had been from the village folk who a few short months ago he had not even met. He longed for the time when he would be able to repay their kindnesses.
Finally to top it all a visit from the landlord of “The Barley Mow” inviting him to join them at the pub for Christmas lunch. “We do this every year for the loose end live aloners .” He explained, “doesn’t seem right they should be alone at this time of the year, always the same a big, fat goose and traditional Christmas fare followed by a kip in front of the fire in the main bar. They’ll be about a dozen of us including me and the missus.” He was delighted to accept the kind invitation and vowed to visit the Barley Mow more frequently in the coming year.
That night as he sat in front of his roaring log fire he thought about the last few months and there were tears in his eyes.
In the event Christmas passed by in a blur. Christmas Eve he was in the Barley Mow. Brian signed up for the following years Barley Mow Christmas Savings Club not because he needed help with saving, he was quite capable of living well within his means. His motive was quite simply he wanted to be part of this village, this community. He had a need, an urge to join in as many facets of village life as he could. He had chatted to the secretary of the village Horticultural Society and promised to go along to their next meeting as a guest. He had volunteered to be a roller pusher for the cricket team and he had been persuaded to take part in the pub quiz nights for a team rejoicing in the name of The Residue.
Christmas lunch again at the Barley Mow had been a great success. He had wondered what to take to a meal at a pub. Somehow the custom bringing a bottle had not seemed appropriate but then he had had a brainwave. The fireplace in the main bar was immense and Brian had this very large log. Well it was, in truth, half a tree trunk that he hadn’t got round to chopping. A veritable Yule log which had been accepted with genuine pleasure by the landlord and his “missus” and had reputedly burnt all
Christmas Day and well into Boxing day.
The dog days of the New Year’s winter were damp and drear, no redeeming picturesque snow just damp, drear and windy. The wind the local people called a lazy wind because it didn’t go round you it went straight through you. Brian set about rebuilding Grandpa’s pride and joy, the greenhouse, a large, long and splendid affair in its prime now reduced to a brick base that needed repair and re-pointing topped by a wooden frame which had to be replaced. He had donned sweaters, mittens and an old donkey jacket and set to. He had repaired the brick base and managed to find enough frost free days to complete the re-pointing although he suspected he had been too impatient and might have to do it again.
The size of the needed timber frame had been carefully measured and transferred to his CAD programme. He had spent the coldest, bitterest days lovingly designing his greenhouse and the cold frames he was going to front it with. His next chore was to obtain the wood he needed for the framework. He intended to use the worst of the winter to pre-fabricate the framework in his workshop. It crossed his mind that in the future this would be a good time for a holiday. Would he be able to afford a holiday? He didn’t know. Did he want to go on holiday? He didn’t know. He was where he wanted to be did he need to waste time and money going from the place he had fallen in love with? But that was in the future it was the here and now that needed his attention.
Gradually the weather improved as spring won its annual battle with winter. The greenhouse was finished and with help from one of his recently found friends its erection was completed. Just the brick cold frames remaining to be made.
With the promise of self sufficiency in fruit and vegetables just a few months away Brian split his time between fine days working on and planting the garden and wet days working on the cottage. It had been warm and cosy for Christmastime but now he was putting in steel beams and rescued lintels prior to knocking down walls to complete his open plan downstairs’ design.
Steadily he worked through the spring and early summer and the cottage begun to take shape. Taking stock in July he realised just how much he had achieved the garden was a picture, he felt his Grandpa would have been well pleased with it. More importantly it had for several weeks fed him and, indeed, fed him well.
The cottage now boasted an almost completed farmhouse kitchen within a freshly painted open plan design which, strangely, now looked so much larger. Upstairs little had been done but there again apart from repairs and painting his plans for the bedrooms only involved building fitted wardrobes.
The bathroom had been refurbished with a new suite and tiled. This had been as a result of a deal with a plumber he had met in his now regular evening trips to the Barley Mow. The deal had been that Brian would do the brickwork for a block consisting of a garage and large workshop for the plumber in exchange for a completely refurbished and tiled bathroom.
It was at this time that Brian had felt he needed to share what he had achieved with someone from his former life if only to finally lay the ghosts to rest. So it was that Mike the IT man was invited down for a long week-end to as he said “give his nose a treat.”
Mike was truly impressed with what Brian had achieved and envious of his informal lifestyle working, as he did, with the seasons, the daylight and the weather. As Brian explained days of the week meant nothing to him and neither did set programmes and meal times. “When I’m hungry I eat”, he explained.
Mike also came with news concerning Elaine. Apparently a very large American company called Enron had been involved in a financial scandal and the ripples from this had affected many other companies including the one where Elaine was the Finance Director. As a result of the rumblings and rumours Elaine had had to resign and had been pursued by the media to the point when she had fled the country. “They say that she got away with a few million quid”, Mike had revealed, “I don’t know if that’s true or not and even if it is true the way that girl can spend money I wouldn’t like to guess how long it will last”. “None of my concern”, Brian had conceded, “but it does look as if I am well out of it”.
The last night of Mike’s stay they had gone to the Barley Mow for a quiet drink and a bar meal. As they sat chatting Mike had said “Look I have been debating whether to ask you this or not but here goes. I have started to do some design work, you know the sort of thing trendy cottages for the Chelsea crowd and the Kensington set. Well the thing is would you like to do the restoration work?” Brian thought for a few moments before saying. “In an emergency to get you out of a spot of bother I would consider it but in all honesty I’d rather not work for townies in the country. It goes against the grain. Mind you if you get work for country people on their own homes I would be more than willing to help”. “You see,” he explained, “I don’t like the idea of prettifying cottages. I don’t mind altering them to suit modern life and make them more comfortable but they should remain honest. The countryside is a living working place, it’s not a bloody chocolate box lid”.
Brian had not realised just how much he had raised his voice until he heard the ripple of applause and looked round to see the applauding supportive villages and the red and somewhat angry faces of the week-enders. “We’ll have to get you on the Parish Council young Brian,” said one farmer friend.
Mike was grinning broadly “Councillor Brian, got a sort of ring to it in a toy town sort of way.”
Mike had departed the following morning having made Brian promise him an Autumn return. Brian felt Mike’s visit had done them both a power of good and was already looking forward to his return.
Unlike the previous wet and soggy summer this year was hot, sometimes Brian felt, too hot His garden was catering for his needs and would continue to do so as long as he provided it with copious amounts of water. As Wally had predicted he had been glad to give much away. Consequently Wally’s wife had made a deal with Brian A deal, that is, without Brian knowing. She had helped herself to the surplus crops and bottled, salted, frozen, made jams, chutneys and soups and returned most of them to Brian “Bet you thought I’d pinched ’em,” she had said with a girlish giggle that seemed out of place in someone of her years. Brian had been glad that his outside storehouse had an electricity supply. A trip to a local auction had produced a much needed large commercial chest freezer and the small indulgence of a bench and table set of the type beloved by beer gardens all over the land.
The south facing three sided courtyard had been dressed with homemade wooden planters and were now full of herbs. The fragrance of Rosemary, Thyme and lavender made this a delightful place to rest. Here the bench was placed ready for al fresco breakfasts and the even more enjoyable glasses of wine in the cooling late evening when the sounds of the countryside were at there most evocative. The hoot of the owl, the bark of the dog fox, the cackle of disturbed geese.
It was on just such a late evening that Brian realised he had been in his cottage for exactly a year. A year in which his life had changed and taken him into a direction he had had no plans to go but one he now rejoiced in with every fibre of his being.
In the late autumn Brian had prowled round the half acre of land that was hidden behind the old barn and had had one or two interesting and rather satisfying finds. The first was a young chestnut tree only just tall enough to peep over the top of the twenty foot tall hedge but nevertheless with a worthwhile crop of nuts. Similarly further along the hedge was a gnarled old walnut tree also sporting a reasonable crop. Brian had then decided to systematically walked the length of the hedge and had found bullace and sloe trees and what had first looked like a blackberry bramble patch had revealed it had loganberries intertwined within it.
He had been at a loss to know how to deal with this further increase to his crops. Wally was invited to inspect his finds “Thus a good ’edge is that” Wally had volunteered, “and you missed the two greengage trees further along and that tree full of hazelnuts.” “Tell you what we’ll do I’ll get the missus to collect wos worth collecting and deal with it. Mind you some should have been collected afore now but we’ll still get suffin worthwhile off it. Then in the spring I’ll give it a tidy up and the missus next year can harvest at the right times and we’ll git some real bucket fulls off of it.” Weeks later Brian had bullace jam, two bottles of sloe gin, pickled walnuts, pureed chestnuts and half a dozen jars of bramble jelly to add to his already well stocked store cupboard.
Mike had returned in the autumn for a couple of days and ended up being put to work and staying a fortnight. Vegetable beds had been dug over, early morning mushrooms collected usually to the refrain of Mike running on about the season of mellow fruitfulness. Herbs had been collected and dried. “Bloody hell”, Mike had exclaimed at one point, “you really are the luckiest bugger I know. How do you do it?”
Brian thought and replied “As I said before, I take things as they come and anytime I begin to feel greedy or jealous I remember my old grandpa and how happy he was. He used to say to me as long as I’ve got good grub in my belly and I can live indoors in the warm anything else is a bonus.”
Christmas was so like the previous year that Brian had a distinct feeling of deja vu. The only real change was the discovery that Wally’s missus had donated a lot of his surplus harvest to the village trust responsible for distributing Christmas parcels to the poor and needy. Once again he had tears in his eyes as he thought of these real, far from affluent, people and their caring one for another. “Hope you didn’t mind” Wally’s missus had said to Brian, “but there was more than you needed and more than we needed so I just added you bits left over to ours and handed ’em over. Who knows we might be on the other end some day and be glad of a bit of help ourselves”.
January was a bitingly cold month with frequent and heavy snow showers. The countryside round the village got flatter and at the same time more rounded as ditches and dips were fill with snow. One evening he had sat in front of his wood fire supping sloe gin half awake half asleep. The wind rushed through the trees and whistled down his chimney. I hope the roof stays on he thought as a particularly violent gust rattled the letter box and windows. The gust had roused him from his reverie, I should be planning out what is going where in my vegetable plots he mused. He considered the plan for awhile and then exclaimed I don’t need to I begin to know instinctively what to plant where and when. I’m starting to think like a good old country boy. I don’t need plans on paper in fact the work doesn’t take anywhere as long as it did. I have time to enjoy the countryside more. I begin to know which of the old folk lore is worth following and which is a load of nonsense. What was it grandpa used to say “red sky at night, shepherds’ delight, red sky as dawning shepherds’ warning “ What was grandpa’s version ah that was it “red sky at night means the cowshed’s alight.” and what was it Grandpa used to say about a silly person oh yes “he be sorft as dickies loights he be.” Brian chuckled to himself and slowly lost his battle with his drooping eyelids.
January gave way to February and passed over it’s white mantle to the new month.
Brian had busied himself with the remaining indoor jobs a repair here a lick of paint there. He was thankful he had decided not to keep any form of livestock and vowed not to do so in the future. It was now a fortnight since he had ventured any further than the wood stack and the treasure trove that was his store room.
He slutted his way round the cottage tracksuits bottoms, pyjama tops and Wellington socks and was rather disconcerted when he heard a tractor making it’s way up the lane. Old Phil from the farm a couple of miles down the lane rapped at the door. “Just checking your OK, sorry if I startled you but the tractor is the only thing I can get through in.” Brian assured him he was fine but Phil insisted on leaving a few pints of milk and a crate of ale. “We had to get special dispensation to distribute the milk ’cos it hasn’t been tested at the depot, mind you we do test it ourselves but those bloody suits think we’re like them and know nothing. All a load of bloody squit my family were a milking cows afore Pontius got his flying licence .”
Brian and Phil sat in front of the replenished and spluttering wood fire supping ale. “I’ll be all right not likely to be a copper around anyhow can you imagine a copper on a tractor chasing me on a tractor to charge me with being drunk in charge of a tractor. Poor little chaps they have these days they probably don’t let them out in this weather in case they get lost or catch their death of cold.” Brian and Phil chuckled at the imagined picture.
“I‘ve got a question for you now we‘ve got the time, Phil said suddenly, “its like this I‘ve got these three cottages used to be for me dad‘s farm workers but now it’s just me, the wife and the contract milker what does it all. Well if I could do them cottages up reasonable like for the right money I’d like to rent them out fairly cheap for local couples. Lets face it thanks to them damned second homers they can’t afford to buy and it’s a shame that families that have lived here for generations are having to move away whether they want to or not.” .
Brian answered without even considering the implications “yes I’ll do it and I’ll try not to hurt you with the price. I can’t say more ’til I’ve seen them.” “Good man,” replied Phil, “we’ll have a look and see what’s needed when this bloody weather breaks. Oh I nearly forget you better take these.” he added as he struggled to put on his old duffel coat over his body warmer. It only a dozen eggs, he said taking two boxes from the pockets can’t spare anymore little buggers must be townies they don’t produce much in this weather. There was a swirl of snow as Brian opened the door and Phil was gone.
Over the next few months the work on the cottages had been identified, evaluated and, with more help than he had expected from the village men, completed. The hard bit was determining who was the most deserving but even this thorny problem had been resolved. Phil had proudly shown off his renovated cottages and badgered other local farmers to look and see if they had property to put into the scheme. This had produced a collection of farm buildings. two cottages and a block of stables all with planning permission. In total this would produce another eight homes.
It was in mid March whilst working in his garden that Brian heard a car door slam. He carried on preparing the seed bed he was working on until he heard
“Hey you there.”
He turned round “Are you addressing me?”
“Well you are the only person here aren’t you? Are you the renovation chapee?”
“What do you want?”
“You haven’t answered my question”.
“I’ll ask one more time what do you want?”
“Well if you are the chapee we want we want to buy a cottage.”
“Oh I see and what will you contribute to the village?”
“What’s that to you?”
“Everything so answer the question”.
“Well it’s not about that. We live a stressful life in the city and we want somewhere to relax.”
“So that entitles you to deprive a young local couple of a first home so you can have a second home in the country does it?”
“May I suggest the social consequences are nothing to do with you.”
“You can suggest what you like the truth is I renovate local property for the benefit of local couples who live here, work here and make a contribution to local life here. Now please get back in your car and go before you do any serious damage to my blood pressure.”
And with much huffing and puffing and loud meant to be overheard whispers about country bumpkins and yokels they departed.
But this confrontation worried Brian, he would have to be careful about the renovations he was doing and equally careful about who he was doing them for.
Spring came late that year but when it arrived it did so in a rush from bitterly cold to summer days in the space of a single week.
It was a balmy summer’s morning Brian was repairing a length of guttering over his workshop. When, from the top of his ladder, he heard noises coming from the lane. It sounded rather like someone in distress. Brian looked round to see the source of this distraction. It was a young lady who was limping along the road and making this strange noise. He could see she was pretty with long dark tresses framing her elfinesque face. . He rushed over. “Are you OK? Have you hurt yourself? Where was the accident?” The girl looked at him in amazement. “You certainly know how to compliment a girl on her singing. Have I hurt myself? Not recently. Have I had an accident?” Her low throaty chuckle had Brian blushing furiously. “Yes I’ve had an accident but your a bit late to be my knight in shining armour. I had a pony roll on my legs at a gymkhana fifteen years ago .”
Brian stuttered an apology as the girl played up his embarrassment for all she was worth. Finally she said. “Shall we start again I know who you are. I’ve got a pet name for you I call you Brian the renovator.” Once again Brian turned beetroot red, “My name’s Jane I live in one of my Uncle Phil’s cottages, nothing as grand as the ones you did up though. They chatted for awhile and when she left Brian watched her way of walking. With one leg permanently bent she had to dip and swivel her hips as she took a pace forward and then swing the other leg in a half circle sometimes just clear of the path sometimes scuffing the side of her shoe along it.
As the weeks passed stopping by became a regular occurrence. Jane took to picking up a hoe or a rake and helping as they chatted. Her visits got longer and longer and little routines, taking turns to prepare lunch and so one were established.
To Brian the sky seemed bluer, the birds sung more sweetly and the flowers and herbs scented the air more intensely. He spent his late evenings sitting in the courtyard supping and daydreaming about the future. A future in which Jane figured prominently.
By the autumn they were in modern parlance an item. It was then that Jane had dropped a bombshell. “What are we going to do now that winter’s coming? I can’t be doing with traipsing backwards and forwards when it’s freezing cold. Tell you what I can always sleep in one of the spare bedrooms if you object to sleeping with a cripple,” she had added quite matter of factly. Brian who by then was quite besotted by his little elf was appalled and explained about his wife and their former life. “And you see,” he concluded, “She bought me out of her life but we never got round to an actual divorce. I can’t marry you not until this is sorted out and that won’t be for awhile. I don’t even know which country she is in”, he lamented. “As to wanting you the answer is yes, yes, yes.” “Well “ Jane replied, “I’ve nothing to go back to the cottage for and it’s getting late. So if you play your cards right you could have me tonight.”
Over the next few days and to no-one surprise Jane moved in and another cottage was freed up for a pair of local newly weds.
That year some of Brian’s plans were shelved. He had planned to bring the half acre behind the old barn into cultivation and maybe even start rebuilding the old barn itself. In the event the only improvement had been Wally tidying up the bountiful hedge. Wally’s missus had taken Jane under her wing and started teaching her country wife skills as she called them. Plucking this, skinning that and making the food stuff to fill the store.
Brian hadn’t been wasting his time though he had brought several old farm buildings back into use as homes for local youngsters who’s adult lives were just starting. He was pleased when a count up told him he had managed to provide twelve new homes, thirteen if you counted Jane’s old cottage.
There had been a change to at Christmas with Jane and Brian joining Phil and his family in their large farmhouse for Christmas lunch. Brian had still insisted on sending a large Yule log to the pub for their singles guests Christmas lunch. “Got to keep traditions going how ever new they are,” he had explained to Jane with a grin.
New Year’s Eve saw Brian and Jane in the Barley Mow with just about all the village folk gathered there. No second homers though. There was a trendy little wine bar come bistro opened in the next village which suited them better and truth to tell their absence also suited the villagers.
During the evening Brian found himself button holed and backed into a corner. He had kept clear of committees and the like. OK he pulled his weight and belonged to most of the village societies and joined in all the village activities. In fact he had laughed and said he only needed to buy a wig and dress and join the W.I. and Mother’s Union and he’d have a full set. But this time the arguments had been more compelling. Phil and others of the village hierarchy wanted him to become a trustee of the housing trust that had been formed to look after the newly renovated rental houses and furthermore they insisted he stand for the council. As Phil had said “they both need a practical sort of bloke and you’d fill the bill perfectly. It was with reluctance and some pride he accepted.
Mike and Brian stood together both in a sombre mood and watched as the pall bearers brought in the coffin. Brian felt guilty he knew he should feel something but if he was honest with himself he only felt relief .The last remnants of his old life could now be buried with Elaine’s corpse. Now, after three years with Jane, they could plan to wed.
His next visit to a church would be under far happier circumstances.
Elaine’s emaciated body had been discovered under a pile of filthy rags in a disused warehouse nearly a fortnight previously. This Mike had told him and later the details about the discovery of the body and it’s subsequent identification had emerged. Apparently she had served a two year prison sentence for fraud. This, they had been told, would have been much longer had the majority of the proceeds not been recovered. The last nine months since her release she had spent going from squat to squat scavenging a living as a bag lady. She had been known to those she had squatted with as Ellie. All this Mike had told him before suggesting they should attend her funeral and Brian had reluctantly agreed. They had been the only two mourners. Their wreaths the only flowers on the coffin.
As they waited for the funeral to start Mike had said “You do know Elaine never did have any of those affairs.” He paused before adding. “She was quite ruthless back then, she told anyone and everyone who’d listen that you were a loser and there was no room in her life for baggage like that. Her claimed affairs were the quickest way to dump you once and for all.
Brian was stunned to be told this after all the pain he’d been through as a result of her cruel tongue. “Well I’m happy, ecstatic even, with the way my life has developed. She probably got what she deserved. Oh I know you shouldn’t speak ill of the dead and all that but what is it they say about the harder they fall and if ever anyone was riding for a fall it was that one. I’ve been lucky I’ve got Jane in a different way she rode for a fall in her teens but she wasn’t greedy or self pitying she just got up and rebuilt her life.”
At the end of the service they left the gloomy church. As the door slammed behind them Brian felt that it had slammed on the last remaining unfinished business of his past life. He strode out into the sunlight of his future.
It was at the beginning of May that Mike got his invitation. Jane was to be a June bride.