The Last Cottage
by Gaynor Madoc Leonard
The bag was suddenly heavy. Gratefully, she sank onto the rough bench outside the cottage door and closed her eyes.
As she relaxed, her senses sharpened; there were the calls of seabirds, the scents of wild herbs and grasses, the salt air and the warmth of early spring sunshine on her face.
Opening her eyes, she smiled gently at the familiar view. A few doughty sheep grazed near the edge of the cliff, at ease with her presence and with the crashing waves far below, their lambs heedless of the danger as they pranced around each other. Revived a little, she rose slowly from the bench, picked up her bag and went into the cottage.
In the living room cum kitchen, threads of sunlight dappled the scrubbed table and cushioned chairs. A fire in the old hearth gave out a cheering welcome with its crackling warmth. Skirting the table, she carried her bag toward the rear of the cottage and through the low wooden door. It was as she remembered, the high metal-framed bed with the clean but threadbare counterpane. Intricately embroidered pillowcases and sheets, worked so many years before by old women for her grandmother’s bottom drawer. The old washstand still standing in the corner, marble-topped and scrupulously clean. Mrs Lewis was a stickler, her work-reddened hands had moved quickly but firmly over that marble; no fuss, no nonsense, that was Mrs Lewis, but a kinder heart had never been.
She put the bag onto a hard chair by the bed and opened it. There was little enough in it but then little would be needed. Taking out her India shawl, another relic of the old days, she went back to the kitchen and the fireplace, where she moved the already filled kettle onto the trivet above the flames. The teapot and caddy stood ready, all that was now required was milk which she knew would be in the tiled and slated pantry. She found it in a covered jug, next to a crock filled with fresh bread and an old meat safe containing some local cheese.
Soon the kettle was boiling and she made tea in the proper manner, the ritual being as important as the drinking. Her shawl wrapped around her, she poured herself a large mug of tea and returned to the bench outside.
The light was fading now, the horizon displaying a stunning array of colour ranging from ruby to tangerine, as though the sun was giving a crescendo finale to the symphony of the day. A flock of starlings added their showmanship by swirling through the sky and the scent of herbs intensified.
A tear trickled down her cheek as she sipped her tea, wrapping her hands tightly around the mug. But there must be no tears now, this was a gift. The cottage, an old friend offering protection; the sea, its constant movement and sound her comforter; the scents of nature filling her heart with memories. He had loved it there too. The years had passed but she could see him in her mind’s eye even now; striding confidently across the fields, swinging his backpack and helmet carelessly, his hair ruffled by the breeze and a broad grin on his face. The man from that faraway place called Iowa, where she had never been. In his short life he crossed an ocean, married a red-headed girl from a Welsh village and found his end in a field in Flanders. In that cottage, they had passed their brief time together, warming each other in the old metal-framed bed while he told her tales of freezing cold winters and short summers so many thousands of miles over the sea.
She had written to the family who she had imagined living on some vast plain amongst endless tracts of grain but there had been no reply so she grieved in solitude. As time went on, there had been offers but he had been the only one for her. She had tasted the sweetest the most fragrant of honeys, nothing and no one else would do.
She chuckled to herself as she remembered his first comment about their little home. “This feels like the last cottage in the world,” he’d said, gazing at the cliff edge and the horizon beyond. He’d been charmed by it and had, in turn, charmed the Lewises, whom he’d helped with chores around the farm nearby. In her bag were three photographs of him; one taken on their wedding day, he in his uniform and she in her Sunday best; another of him taken just before he went away to Flanders and the last was taken in the hay field at the Lewises’ farm, both he and she sitting with mugs of cider after a long day of haymaking. Laughing, happy.
She didn’t need the pictures in front of her to remember every single moment of their time together; his laughter as he attempted to pronounce simple Welsh words and to sing her national anthem.
She shivered. There was a chill in the air. Again she rose from the bench and went inside. Adding wood to the fire, she made herself a light supper of toasted bread and cheese and some hot milk heated in a pan over the flames. She filled an old stone hot water bottle from the kettle and went into the bedroom. Sleep came easily that night; the familiar sounds were as comforting as a lullaby and the night was dreamless.
Next morning, she rose early, refreshed, and made tea and toast. Leaving the cottage, she breathed in the fresh salt air and walked to the edge of the cliff, amongst the grazing sheep and dancing lambs, to look at the sea crashing into the rocks below. He’d once told her that he hadn’t seen the sea until he joined the army and left the USA and that it was the most extraordinary and frightening thing he’d experienced up until that time. But for her, the sea was a healer; it washed away sadness and melancholy and left her feeling fresh and new.
Reluctantly leaving the cliff’s edge, she squared her shoulders and walked purposefully toward the small church a mile away. Only once did she stop and, lifting her face to the sun, she spread out her arms and twirled around, breathing in the clean air before leaning down to pick some wild flowers. For a moment, she felt a little dizzy but it passed and she continued on her way.
The churchyard, damp and cool in the shade of the trees, was full of shadows. She stood at the lychgate and hesitated for a moment. Taking a deep breath, she pulled the shawl around her shoulders and went in. Almost all the gravestones were old, covered in moss and so worn away that the names could scarcely be read. But there was one that was clean and clear. She knelt beside it and placed the little spring flowers in the small vase in front of the headstone. Softly, she sang an old Welsh lullaby, her hand stroking the gravestone gently. There their child slept, forever. Fate, dismissive of human feeling, had taken their little daughter in the influenza epidemic. One thing she’d never known was whether he’d seen the picture of his child which she’d sent to Flanders in the last letter. She liked to believe he had and that he’d had something to smile about before the end. Yes, she was sure of it.
She pushed herself up and stood quietly, looking at the tiny grave, and turned to go into the church. Inside sunbeams played on the wood and stone. Most of the windows were plain glass and the church was simplicity itself. Had she really retained any faith? It was hard to say with the traditions so ingrained in her. She gazed at the plain altar; this building had been there for over a thousand years, and probably there’d been an even simpler building before it, perhaps even dedicated to an older god. What did her beliefs matter after all that time? Nonetheless, she had been let down by this all-powerful and loving god. What had he done for her? Taken the only man she’d ever loved, along with all the other young men who had been loved, and taken their only child, the flower of that love. She sighed wearily. She had thought over it time and time again but what did it matter? The world had been there for millions of years and would carry on without them.
Leaving the church and graveyard, she walked back to the cottage slowly. Her spirits lifted a little as a blackbird watched her warily, his little brown wife searching for titbits while he offered protection. Soon, their children would be born and would learn to fly above the fields where she walked, and so it would go on until the end of time.
At the cottage door, there was a basket filled with a slice of ham, new bread and freshly-churned butter, cream and a pot of jam, a stone bottle of ginger beer. Here were the riches of the world, simple and good food given with affection. She fetched a plate and cutlery and a beaker for the ginger beer. Sitting outside on the bench, she ate and drank with pleasure. He had never drunk ginger beer before he arrived in Wales but he’d loved it, as he had loved her and the country where she was born. The green grass, the rain and the sea had entranced him as much as her long red hair and pale skin.
Today the hair was faded and she had long ago cut it to shoulder length. Her face showed suffering, not just from bereavement but from a deep inner physical pain. The walk had tired her and her body ached.
The next few days followed a similar path; she rose, broke her fast on the bench outside the cottage, did what little cleaning and washing were needed and then spent her time on the cliff. Her mind was filled with snippets of poems he and she had shared in their time together. He, of Scottish ancestry, had recited old verses learned at his father’s knee.
On the Sunday, she awoke to pain and struggled to rise. Determined, she dressed and walked slowly back to the church for the morning service, conscious of her ambivalent feelings toward this god to whom she was to sing praise.
After the service ended, the old familiar hymns still ringing in her ears, she walked with Mrs Lewis through the churchyard, hesitating at the child’s grave. The older woman could see her pain and put a helping hand under her arm. The old couple took her back to the cottage and made a comforting pot of tea. They left her by the fireside, distressed at their inability to help. When they had gone, she went outside again.
All afternoon, she sat on the bench, breathing in the sight and sounds of the land of her birth. Once again, the sun offered a joyous and colourful end to the day although this time it was adagio rather than fortissimo. It left her heart full and without regret. What was that verse he had quoted to her? Something about “I have lived and loved, and closed the door.” Yes, that was it; indeed she had lived and loved and now she would close the door. She went back into the cottage calmly and with acceptance. In the bedroom she undressed and folded her clothing neatly, putting it in a drawer. Taking out a new, clean nightgown, she put it on and lay down on the bed, closing her eyes. As the last of the evening light died away, the lines of grief and pain faded from her face. Her eyelids fluttered for a time and then were still.
Spring turned to summer and the grass on the cliff top was sprinkled lavishly with small flowers. The lambs were now grown and rabbits chased each other under a cloudless sky.
A sudden gust blew a path along the cliff top, directly to the cottage. The door was blown open and the wind sighed through the tiny house on the cliff. The curtains fluttered in the kitchen, where the fireplace was cold and cleared of ash; the door to the bedroom creaked open, revealing a bare mattress on the metal bed frame. The front door closed again quite gently and the wind gusted toward the churchyard, picking up tiny wild flowers as it went, until it reached the resting place of a small child with a newer grave by its side where it scattered the precious blooms on both mother and daughter.
Gaynor Madoc Leonard, 2011
updated by @gaynor-madoc-leonard: 02/19/16 06:05:14PM