"The Paintings thatched cottages at Cordeville"
Vincent van Gogh
I had some sad news today. My old friend, Rachel, has died. She had a good innings, as we say over here, so my feelings are not so much mourning as just plain missing. But miss her I shall.
I first met Rachel by command. Her command, of course, for she was used to being in charge.
We had just waved the removal van up the lane from our old stone-built cottage deep in Western Wales.
It had been a dramatic move. We'd fallen in love with Lletty at first sight, snug in its tiny valley, dreaming under the little snooze of smoke floating from its chimney.
But moving from a large Derbyshire farmhouse to a three-room Welsh cottage brings problems. One room was stacked wall to wall, floor to ceiling with boxes of books, records, pictures. The other two were packed so tight with our furniture that passage from one to the other was like taking a dangerous assault course. The kitchen cupboards were filled, and every surface cluttered with overflow. The garage accommodated surplus beds and bedroom furniture. And the front garden was littered with piles of no-home-to-go-to garden equipment.
We stood there, aghast. So this was to be retirement? What kind of fools jump so thoughtless into an alien place?
This moment of feeling sorry for ourselves had no time to mature, for at that moment a stuttering pick-placker-pick preceded a little grey car up the lane. It stopped, casually blocking whatever traffic might come along, and out clambered a rosy, flower-dressed old woman. Rachel had come on a welcome call to introduce herself and to bring us, on a blackened enamel plate wrapped in a plastic supermarket bag, a "little pie".
As she proved on many a subsequent command descent, she had a talent for arriving at moments of chaos. She walked into the kitchen, found a chair, and sat down to talk, looking meaningfully at the kettle. That was fine. We knew our manners. A visit, any visit, no matter what time of day nor what drama may be in progress, must be acknowledged immediately by putting the kettle on the fire.
We chatted, and she sat there, appreciating her tea, bright dark eyes taking inventory of us and our possessions. I started to build a polite dislike of her. But this was swept aside by the appearance of Milly Molly Mandy -- my little old lady tortoise-shell cat. She pittered into the room, stopped, peered at Rachel, walked over, sniffed, and sat down, gazing adoringly at her. Milly Molly Mandy was probably the best judge of people I've ever known. If she approved of Rachel then there was more to the lady than appeared on the surface. I'd already dubbed her privately as the Wicked Witch of the West, but it was apparent that this was the kind of wickedness you can revel in and enjoy.
That visit was cut short, like many another, by Dewi y Bara (the baker's roundsman) who had come up the lane, stopped, rolled and smoked a cigarette and then, politely, for he feared Rachel greatly, tooted to let us know he was there. Rachel grunted, put her cup aside, heaved out of her chair, and, not in any hurry at all, took her leave. She got to the car and vented a Welsh bark in too local a dialect for me to follow, and Dewi got down meekly from his van, started her car, reversed it neatly into our hard-standing, and held the door open for Rachel to enter. Rachel did not reverse her car. Everyone knew that Rachel did not reverse her car. Dire consequences attended on those who had the temerity to suggest that Rachel should reverse her car.
"You will bring the plate when you have eaten the pie," she commanded me, and drove away down the lane again.
That evening, rustling a quick meal together, we looked suspiciously at the pie. It didn't look attractive, any more than did its creator. But I cut into it and was rewarded by the sweet aroma of rhubarb rising through a crust so light you didn't need teeth to chew it. We tasted, goggled, and polished off the lot in one blissful, contented sitting.
Month on month, year on year, as Lletty responded to loving care and hard, sweated labour and became a picture book cottage inside as well as out, Rachel and I exchanged many visits. She would bring a pie, cast an increasingly approving eye over the "improvements" and drive off. I would scrub the plate until it gleamed and return it, to sit for an hour in her dark, dreary kitchen and hoot uproariously with her as we fumbled between my bad Welsh and her very much second language English to seek out what was most amusing in the comings and goings along our lane.
Rachel had a hard but humour lightened life. She had come to live in her farm as a scullery maid, married the farmer, saw him turn his face to the wall, and inherited the lot, "earning it on her back", as the locals would have it. She ruled her farm with a yell of hard Welsh steel, standing in her yard and bellowing at the motley collection of men she employed. They were mortal afraid of her. So should I have been if I were among their number.
I collected lots of stories from and about Rachel during the years we lived there, and built a fierce admiration and a tender love for her.
It was a sad day when I returned the final plate and took my leave. The period at Lletty had come to an end and I had to move back to England. My last sight of her was as she stood at her door, plate in hand, peering closely at it to make sure I'd cleaned it properly.
We exchanged Christmas cards with the shortest of greetings, and the thought of her and her wonderful pies and her wicked command of her world in the West warmed me. It warms me still.
I shall visit in October and stand for a while by the grave in the little chapel garden high on a hill overlooking the Towy valley to the Prescellis beyond. Not mourning. Just missing.
John Bailey started writing in the fifties,
responding to Thoreau: "I have frequently seen a poet withdraw, having
enjoyed the most valuable part of a farm, while the crusty farmer supposed
that he had got a few wild apples only." He says he's been stealing
wild apples ever since. Apart from a brief foray into the London pub poetry
scene in the sixties, he's kept all his work in a box labelled: "Emily."
He has recently discovered a newer kind of farm - the Internet - and now
prowls its web, enjoying and appropriating its most valuable parts.
He can be reached at email@example.com in Somerset, England.
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