That’s the cottage, over there,’ the farmer said, pointing over a green expanse of mountain to a grey speck on the distance. ‘At least its watertight.’
I took it, a chance for a home for the three of us, as George and I had planned on his rare leaves.
I had been living with my sister in the town, since he was killed in 1917, but she hadn’t enough room for her own family, when the war ended, never mind the three of us.
We followed the furniture cart over the springy turf to our new home, May bounding ahead. I took Ruby’s hand to help her along.
On the Monday morning I took them to school, two miles away, then hurried back to the chores – water to carry from the spring; coaxing the reluctant fire to dispel the chill of the walls; lamps to trim and fill.
To begin with, I relished the solitude, the ability to get things done, but I felt increasingly lonely in the endless green of the mountain. One day a letter came from my sister.
Dear Edith, Don’t plan to come and see us – there’s Spanish flu everywhere. Lots of people have died, and many are very ill…
So all hope of that longed for trip had gone.
The wind screamed round the house, blowing sooty smoke down the chimney. I threw out the breadcrumbs. Two robins hopped down. I picked up an old notebook and soon covered the page with robins, singing and arguing, pecking the crumbs. The fire was low. Guiltily, I jumped up and built it up to a good blaze.
Next day, filling the buckets at the spring, I saw a tiny sprig of ferns in a rocky crevice. I hurried home and drew them – how they struggled towards the light, their vivid green against the granite.
That’s how it started. For me the dull green mountain was dull no more. It was ever changing, grey in the mist, emerald after rain – the purple shadows as clouds chased overhead. Ravens flew heavily from their craggy homes.
At first the small grey sheep kept their distance, but after a while ignored me. They went into my notebook.
I hurried through my chores so that I could get out in the fresh bubbling air, finding a myriad plants in the network of grasses; primroses gleamed palely near the spring. I found an eggshell, pale blue and speckled brown – a thrush?
One evening, after supper, lamps lit and fire glowing, we turned out the last of the boxes we had brought with us. There were May’s embroidery threads and linen, and Ruby’s scrapbooks, only waiting for flour and water paste; for me, my old watercolour box and brushes.
All this changed our evenings. Supper eaten and washing up done, we settled to our pastimes.
I didn’t know the names of many plants. May plucked up courage to ask the schoolmaster if I could borrow his Flowers and Plants book. He lent it every weekend, saying; ‘Let me know when she finds the round leaved sundew’.
I find ivy-leaved toadflax creeping along the garden walls – nothing else there, except a wind torn elder which suddenly gives us masses of foaming cream flowers. I am rather pleased with the watercolour I did of it. In September I’ll cook the ebony berries with sugar, for winter coughs.
Crossing a patch of moorland, at last I find the sundew, a rosette of pinkish hairy leaves to trap the insects that are its food. May takes my drawing of it to school and her teacher says, ‘Well done.’
I find eyebright, heartsease, heathers, heath sedge and patches of clover. The girls bring home blue vetch from the lane, white trumpets of convolvulus, dog roses. They are learning to love the mountain, watching the sheepdogs bringing the sheep down to the river to wash, spilling like liquid clay from the rocky slopes.
I stick at painting – to a degree it eases my constant ache for George. May has times of sadness too, but Ruby can’t remember him.
As the weather warms I see walkers coming. They often stop at our gate.
‘We’ve come to breathe some fresh air,’ one couple explains, ‘away from this awful flu.’
I’m painting feverfew that has sprung up near the door. (Did someone have headaches?) I’m trying to depict the fragility of these little white daisies.
‘May we look?’ she asks. They examine the painting for a long time.
‘You’ve caught the flowers exactly,’ he says.
Now they often stop to chat when they walk this way, always glad to be out on the mountain.
Today though, a woman in heeled town shoes hobbles up and stops by the wall.
‘How can you live here? It must be very lonely.’
I see her look at the leather boots that I wear now.
‘Those boots will ruin your feet,’ she goes on.
I look at her feet. Say nothing.
She glances dismissively at my painting of the harebells I picked this morning, delicate bells of airy blue on the slenderest of stems.
‘I suppose you imagine you live the life of a peasant artist? You’ll be back in town when the winter sets in.’
‘I very much doubt it,’ I reply.
She turns and limps away.
How can anyone be so insufferably rude? But she’s unsettled me. Then I think of our lives here – so right for our family. Drawbacks yes – half a mile for water every day, lamps and candles, the earth closet. But I think I’ve got the measure of the old cloam oven now. Today’s loaves were just right.
The truth is I thrive living here on our mountain, and importantly, so do the girls. It has healed us. Here they come now, ambling up the track, their hands cupped and purple blackberry stains around their mouths.