The rain stretched time, confining us to the sitting room where paperback Westerns, Louis L’Amour, J T Edson, the adventures of Dusty Fogg in a dry and dusty climate, lined the shelves, spines creased. Jigsaw puzzle pieces were spread over the round table, The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, Zeus enthroned, dwarfing his worshippers. Proceed from the outside in and never succumb to frustration.
In the hallway, the bannister provided a groove just wide enough to send a Corgi die-cast metal car careering down to smash against the wall (or latterly a hamster could clamber up or down for exercise depending on which direction he was faced in). The entertainment value of the constant banging was lost on the adults, who shouted at us to play Old Maid or patience, but were reluctant to chase us outdoors, knowing that our wellies would quickly acquire thick crusts of mud, which would inevitably end up on the hallway carpet. We would never take shelter in the barn for fear of the rats. When the jets came thundering down the valley on their low altitude practice runs we would watch the rodents leap across the gap separating their customary abode amongst the pile of hay from the abandoned cottage, sent into panic by the din.
The next obstacle on the way down to the shore was the byre with its corrugated iron roof where the Old Bull lived out his retirement. His enormous black head and nose ring intimidated us, though curiosity rather than malice prompted him to snort at us as we hurried by, hardly daring to look at him, the fence separating us too rickety for comfort. Even now, so many years after he has passed into the realm of childhood memory, vivid emotionally, yet blurred like an ancient Polaroid snapped by an unsteady hand, his presence lingers on, in spite of the stable being converted to a boat shed. All the cows have likewise departed, along with the clover patches by the front doorstep I scanned for four-leafed specimens to press between the pages of my dictionary.
The kitchen was the heart of the cottage, where we ate round a table (at home the imperatives of our respective timetables precluded such coordination, my brother and I devouring our mince and tatties in front of the telly, wooden trays resting on our laps). My Mother and Auntie Cathy kept the kettle boiling for mugs of tea on demand, with water from the spring. The stain left behind testifying to the strength of the brew. A drop of milk only, no sugar for my Mother, my Father adding three tiny Hermesetas to the two heaped teaspoons of marginally less artificial sweetener.
The approach of teatime (our cousins, brought up in their refined Edinburgh milieu might have eaten lunch, but our meals were known as breakfast, dinner, tea and supper) was signalled by the spreading of a dishcloth over the draining board upon which to deposit the freshly peeled potatoes before transferring them to the chip pan. Spry Crisp ‘n Dry, sheets of kitchen roll on a large plate to soak up any oil in excess of what the slogan claimed. The radio with its impressive array of dials and exotic names of foreign broadcasters, our sole link to the world beyond the stone walls and boundary fences, was switched on by Uncle Ronnie who filled the room with the sickly fragrance of tobacco from his pipe as he listened to the news in the armchair beside the range, wader-swathed legs stretched out to assert his dominance through occupation of the maximum amount of space.
I would drift off to sleep in the bed at the top of the landing once the stars had become visible through the skylight to the sound of big band music and the laughter of competitive team whist punctuated by Ronnie’s clamouring for yet another dram.
My Mother’s alcohol consumption was restricted to a couple of glasses of sherry at Hogmanay. I would half-wake before turning back to the wall as she made her way downstairs to wash any dishes left from the evening before. These were the few precious moments to herself with no one to interrupt her thoughts (even the locked toilet door did not act as a deterrent to our persistent demands and impatient knocking). She would smoke an Embassy Regal and stare out of the window in the groggy morning light that staggered through the pane but could not muster the strength to banish the shadows. The steam from the spout of the kettle could not dispel the chill, the crumpled newspapers and kindling in the range stove nestled beneath lumps of coal awaiting combustion. She felt a prickling at the back of her neck and turned round to see a stranger ensconced in Ronnie’s chair. The old man said nothing and she turned back to the sink, pouring boiling water into the teapot for the unexpected guest. When the leaves had infused to her satisfaction, she placed the silver strainer over the cup, picking up the jug to allow him to determine for himself how much milk he wanted, but he was gone.
The swifts darted in and out of their mud nests in the barn’s rafters on the brighter mornings, but she would never be startled again by the botach as he shared her respite, always dressed the same, ready for a day’s work on the croft, a bonnet for warmth and sturdy boots. In anticipation of his arrival, she would leave a cup out for him, and he would always have vanished prior to the creaking of the stairs that heralded imminent interruption.
During one of our last stays in the cottage, we were awakened by a scream of undiluted terror. Ronnie had been stirred from his slumber by the ache of a full bladder and slipped out of bed to head for the bathroom, accessed through the kitchen. In the light of the embers, he had spotted an intruder, impossible given that he had locked the front door himself. Once we children had been persuaded that the commotion was nothing to worry about, my Mother admitted to her knowledge of the apparition, that he was quite harmless.
Today the cottage has been gutted, refurbished beyond recognition to a luxury holiday rental, the range reduced from functionality to the status of decorative feature, the mirror from the sitting room fixed to the wall above it. The olive-green carpet with its layers of accumulated dirt long since ousted by a soulless yet easily mopped laminate, upon which even the merest toast crumb would offend the eye, the sharp glare of halogen lights casting out the encroaching gloom of twilight. Bar stools replace the leather armchair with its tartan blanket, offering nowhere for an old man to settle and reminisce. Only sometimes, when the house has fallen silent and all the lights but for the one on the bedside table have been extinguished, might you be disturbed by a sudden draught from the kitchen as you turn to climb the stairs.
The ink has run dry, the Muse departed.