Tuesday, February 2, 2010


Hugh walked heavily up the five steps into his house, filled a bucket with water from a standpipe under his most valuable painting, went into the drawing room, swung his shoulders back as far as they would go and, as forcefully as he could, threw cold water across the ancient carpet.

Sheep droppings bobbed along on the flood and slewshed with a rush against the pile of damp straw he’d raked into the hearth earlier that morning.

Across the room, beyond the sofas and chairs, a small flock of sheep clustered beneath a standard lamp. Hugh eased himself straight and nodded a greeting but they trotted over to the windows and watched him anxiously from the corners of their eyes.

Calmly, trying to look reassuring, he went for more water; more and more water - until the last of the debris was flushed into the hearth. Then he forked the whole dripping mess into a wheelbarrow, bumped it out down the steps, across the yard and into the kitchen garden - ran it up a plank and tipped it onto a heap of mouldering straw and manure. After that, he leant the barrow against a wall and stretched.

It was a cold November day - but he was happy. His back hurt, his arms ached and he was weary; desperately weary. But he was used to that - and happy.

Everything, in fact was as usual. The fields were waterlogged and most of the tracks impassable. The few animals he hadn’t brought indoors were muddy and listless and nearly as tired as he was and even the air inside the house was damp and cold. But it was winter - and the kitchen was warm.


The kettle was simmering and Camellia’s scones were warm on the Aga. There was bread on the table, newly baked, and his favourite cat was sitting contentedly next to it.

A scene from thirty winters.




But when he reached to take a mug from the dresser, his fingers gave way. The mug dropped, a plate shattered and the cat scrambled over the bread and went to settle more comfortably in an armchair on the other side of the room.

Camellia, startled by the noise, came in from the scullery.

“Just a mug and a plate,” said Hugh, flexing his fingers. “I expect it’s the cold.” He held them for her to see; red and swollen. “They gave way.”

Camellia wiped her hands on her apron and kissed him. Then she shoved the pieces of plate to the back of the dresser.

“We’re getting old,” she said, pouring the coffee. “We need a day off.”

“A week!” said Hugh rubbing the dirt from his hands. “A month. A year!"

Then he sat at the table.

Camellia smiled.

“More than a day and you’d pine!”

She brought scones but his spine jerked and pains flickered down his arm when he reached for one.

A holiday?

Too many animals.

Too much work.

“Maybe one day,” he said, judging his moment and grabbing at a scone between spasms.

But he hardly meant it.