Ginny’s Neuk by Joan Cameron

The lit­tle cot­tage was quaint, but it was home, and it al­ways would be . . .

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THE wood­man re­moved his cap and rubbed his fore­head. “You’ve been over the moor to do what?” “To use the phone at the farm,” I re­peated.

He stared at me, open mouthed. I knew what he was think­ing.

“Phone? Why would you need a phone away up here?”

“I’ve been call­ing the mid­wife ev­ery week,” I replied in an­swer to his un­spo­ken ques­tion.

“Er . . . yes,” he said, avert­ing his eyes from my swollen stom­ach.

“It’s nec­es­sary when you’re nearly nine months preg­nant,” I added. He winced.

“I can see it may be nec­es­sary to link up with civil­i­sa­tion, in that case. I bid you good day, Ginny.” He hur­ried away, ea­ger to es­cape from this un­com­fort­able con­ver­sa­tion.

I smiled to my­self. It might be 1964, but up here in th­ese re­mote hills it might as well have been 1864 as far as progress was con­cerned.

The near­est phone was on a farm nearly a mile away on foot. As for preg­nancy, some peo­ple still thought you should hide your­self away, like it was some­thing to be ashamed of.

I picked my way care­fully over the springy turf to­wards the Hol­low, duck­ing be­neath over­hang­ing branches and fresh spring leaves.

The hud­dle of cot­tages was silent, all empty ex­cept ours. The only sound was the stream prat­tling by.

At the front door I paused to stare around. Be­fore me, the fields stretched down the hill to the red-tiled town of Abbey­town, over two miles away.

In the dis­tance, Harry Car­lin, the solemn plough­man, was guid­ing his plough team deftly.

He sent the glis­ten­ing mound over in a slow, easy wave to be added to the broad band that stretched be­hind him.

On the other side of a stone wall, a red trac­tor fussed away. There wasn’t so much to ad­mire in the trac­tor’s move­ments.

There were three cot­tages in the Hol­low. When I’d mar­ried Ted Net­tles two years ago we’d moved into num­ber one, my grandad’s old cot­tage.

“It’s just per­fect,” Ted had said, spin­ning me around.

“It will be when it’s clean.” I laughed. “Now, put me down and let’s get on with it.”

I rolled up my sleeves and yanked my hair into an un­tidy pony­tail.

There were two rooms. To­gether we brushed and scrubbed and pol­ished, bel­low­ing out Cliff Richard songs as we worked.

Be­cause I was tall, I was able to reach up into long-for­got­ten cor­ners. Ted was even taller and he didn’t need a lad­der to re­place a hole in the thatch.

Then I black­leaded the old grate, laid rag rugs on the now gleam­ing stone floors, and wound up the grand­fa­ther clock.

When evening came, we crashed, ex­hausted, on to the sofa.

“We’ll stay here for ever,” I said.

Ted nod­ded. “You’ve made it ours – it’s Ginny’s Neuk.” He squashed me in a hug.

I had never felt so con­tent, as I con­fided in my new neigh­bour, Linda. She was puz­zled. “You want to live here? I don’t un­der­stand how liv­ing some­where like this can make a per­son happy. I’m not happy.”

I didn’t care what she said. I was pleased with my hap­pi­ness.

That night we slept soundly in our bed, com­pletely sat­is­fied to make this cot­tage our home and join the bustling lit­tle com­mu­nity, all liv­ing in close kin­ship with the land.

Ted and his brother Stan­ley were the lo­cal thatch­ers. They were kept busy mak­ing and mend­ing roofs in all the towns nearby. But change was com­ing. Thatch­ing was threat­en­ing to be­come a lost art. Slate was king.

As the months passed it be­came in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult to find em­ploy­ment lo­cally.

Ted and Stan­ley’s work was still in de­mand due to their great skill, but they had to travel fur­ther afield.

Soon they were em­ployed all over Scot­land, and even as far as Eng­land. That was the prob­lem: Ted was of­ten away from home.

I re­mem­ber the night he first told me he was leav­ing. He tried to soften the blow.

It was a sum­mer evening and all the cot­tage win­dows were open and there was a pink light in the sky. The last notes of the curlew were trilling around us.

I had just found out I was preg­nant, and I was knit­ting a mati­nee jacket. Ted had just fin­ished mak­ing me a rock­ing-chair. I couldn’t wait to try it.

“Oh, Ted, you are clever,” I said, rock­ing back and forth. “It’s per­fect for nurs­ing the baby.”

For some rea­son, he didn’t seem to share my en­thu­si­asm. His head was low and his hair flopped over his eyes. He raised his head and swept it back.

Not for the first time that evening he was gaz­ing at me. Now he looked me straight in the eye, and put down his chisel.

“Ginny, can you stop a minute? I need a word.”

Ted was a man of few words. I tried to make a joke of it.

“How many words would you like?”

He smiled, but that quickly faded.

“What is it?” I said, sens­ing his re­luc­tance.

For a mo­ment he didn’t an­swer.

“It’s the thatch­ing. There’s not enough here. I can’t make a liv­ing.”

I nes­tled closer to him and touched his cheek. I wanted to re­mind him how good he was.

“Re­mem­ber Drew Lauder’s house? He praised your work so highly.”

That brought an­other smile.

“He said it was the best work he’d ever seen.”

“And what about that cot­tage in Abbey­ton High Street? It’s a his­toric build­ing. There’s talk it will come un­der public preser­va­tion or­der. Thatch needs re­new­ing . . .” “No.” He cut in. “No?” I stopped bab­bling, puz­zled.

“I can’t wait for that to hap­pen.” He sighed.

My stom­ach lurched. He seemed so down. I put my arms round him.

“What will you do?” I asked.

“There’s work in the High­lands. There’s work down in the Borders.” His voice was strange.

It took a minute to sink in.

“I see. When will you go?”

“Soon.” The pain in my heart was re­flected in his eyes. “I should have told you be­fore.”

I was try­ing to be brave, but I couldn’t bear for him not to be here.

My voice trem­bled. “That’s that, then,” was all I could man­age.

“I know what you’re think­ing, love. We were go­ing to stay here in Ginny’s Neuk, and just fade into old age to­gether.” I twisted my hair. “Ted, that will still hap­pen. You’ll come home and we’ll still be to­gether.” “Sure?”

“Sure. We’ll get through this. You’ll do the right thing. You al­ways do.”

He grabbed my hands tightly.

“You’re my rock, Ginny. What would I do with­out you? We’ll make things work. We will sit here. Me in the ham­mock and you in the rock­ing-chair.”

I gazed out into the gar­den to where the ham­mock his fa­ther had made for us hung be­tween two trees, re­call­ing the evenings we’d snug­gled up to­gether in it.

By the next week he was gone and things just weren’t like they used to be.

Ted did make de­cent money, at least. He sent back enough for us to buy a car­a­van to hol­i­day in. But I knew he missed me, and I tried not to be lonely.

We had good neigh­bours. Back in the early Six­ties, the other two cot­tages in the Hol­low were oc­cu­pied.

There was my friend Linda and her hus­band Harry, the whistling plough­man, at num­ber three.

Linda was not yet twen­ty­five but she had four chil­dren. She chat­tered nine­teen to the dozen, chain smoked, wore tight black clothes and had black hair back-combed a mile high.

Her fam­ily con­sisted of two hula-hoop­ing girls and two mar­ble-shoot­ing boys.

At num­ber two was Aun­tie Morag – not my real aunt – and Old Ge­ordie the game­keeper. They were in their late sev­en­ties and looked af­ter a dozen chick­ens and two badtem­pered sheep who rounded up Aun­tie Morag and Ge­ordie ev­ery night.

Linda didn’t get on with Morag – or Moan­ing Morag, as she named her.

“She bleats more than those sheep,” she com­plained.

Aun­tie Morag ob­served the com­ings and go­ings from a huge chair be­side her win­dow, ea­gerly hop­ing for some­thing to dis­ap­prove of, Linda said. She wore Ge­ordie’s huge game­keeper’s coat with a strange odour seep­ing from the pock­ets.

The cou­ple had lived, loved and raised a fam­ily on very lit­tle money. Three strap­ping boys, all grown up and gone now. Morag sat smok­ing, and sewing a patch­work bag, made from their clothes, with fam­ily mem­o­ries wo­ven into ev­ery thread.

To ev­ery­one else, Aun­tie Morag was a nippy sweetie, but I re­mem­bered her kind­ness and wise words af­ter my mum had died five years back when I was only twenty.

Of course, when time wore on and stiff joints meant she wasn’t so mo­bile, I was there for her.

“You’re a lovely lass,” Aun­tie Morag would tell me when I brought her favourite mag­a­zine up the hill from Abbey­town.

“Just glad to help,” I said, leav­ing her to read more of the tragic tales she rel­ished.

And, of course, our house was num­ber one. Ev­ery time Ted came home we all had a get-to­gether to cel­e­brate.

Novem­ber 22, 1963, was one of the best. On that raw win­ter’s night, we knew noth­ing of the mo­men­tous events un­fold­ing in Dal­las, Texas. I just re­mem­bered Ted wel­com­ing the neigh­bours.

“Bring that brown ale right over here.” He grinned, ush­er­ing Ge­ordie through the door, bear­ing a crate shoul­der high.

I turned from the range, where I was el­bow deep in stovies.

“I reckon that will just about keep you go­ing!”

The Car­lins cas­caded in next.

“Look at th­ese!” Linda bran­dished four small bot­tles of Baby­cham.

“They’re fab. You must have splashed out!”

Aun­tie Morag trun­dled in last, laden with bowls of her sherry tri­fle, and laid them be­side my stovies. I bus­tled about, pour­ing drinks and pass­ing round the cheese and pineap­ple on cock­tail sticks.

“Ev­ery­thing looks great,” Ted as­sured me.

Linda also brought her tran­sis­tor ra­dio.

“It’s not a party with­out mu­sic. You need to get with it,” she in­formed a dis­ap­prov­ing Morag.

She leaped up and was soon gy­rat­ing in her tight black miniskirt.

The Car­lin girls loved a party. They gig­gled and hula hooped and sang along to “She Loves You”. I watched them en­vi­ously. “That looks easy. Let me have a go,” I said, spin­ning the hula hoop round my widen­ing waist.

They gig­gled when the hoop kept get­ting stuck.

“Ginny, you’re hope­less!” they cried.

“Come on, Aun­tie Morag,” Ted said, try­ing to dis­lodge her from her chair. “Let’s twist.”

But she was re­luc­tant to join in.

“Too mod­ern,” she protested.

Even­tu­ally we prised her up, but she wouldn’t take off the game­keeper’s coat with lots of pock­ets. The more she got the hang of the dance, the more she twisted, and the more pun­gent the odour that wafted from the pock­ets.

Lately, Old Ge­ordie had passed away and

Aun­tie Morag had de­cided to move to a flat in Perth to be nearer one of her sons.

Be­fore she left, she rum­maged in the patch­work bag and pro­duced a beau­ti­ful gold locket with a ruby stone.

“Here, Ginny. For you.” “Oh, no, Aun­tie Morag. I couldn’t . . .”

“Take it. It’s your birth­stone. You’ve been like a daugh­ter to me th­ese past years,” she said, press­ing it into my hand.

“Thank you,” I said with tears in my eyes.

Linda moved in Fe­bru­ary 1964. That was so sad. We had be­come close friends, and al­ways made time for a chat.

She kept me up­dated on the lat­est hap­pen­ings in Abbey­town, but this time it was me who had over­heard some gos­sip.

I faced her across the fire­place and took a deep breath, de­ter­mined for once not to let her do all the talk­ing. But be­fore I could speak, Linda had news that couldn’t wait. She lit a cig­a­rette and leaned over. “Can you keep a se­cret?” That was go­ing to be my line. I nod­ded war­ily, won­der­ing what was com­ing.

She started in her usual way.

“I’m not a happy per­son, Ginny. Look at this dump – it’s so old fash­ioned!” She waved her arms around.

I looked. It just seemed cosy to me, with the fire ra­di­at­ing warmth.

“I want Formica; I want Pyrex. I need a Teas­made!”

I’d heard it all be­fore and I was only half lis­ten­ing. But when she added, “I can’t live here any longer,” I was all ears.

“What do you mean?” “I’m off. Go­ing to Lon­don.” She lit an­other cig­a­rette and be­gan pac­ing around. “That’s where it’s hap­pen­ing. The Bea­tles, the Rolling Stones, Mary Quant, Carn­aby Street. There’s a world out there! It’s all pass­ing us by up here. I want some ac­tion.”

“What does Harry think about it?”

She didn’t look me in the eye. “Harry doesn’t know.” “You’re not go­ing to tell him?” I was shocked. “But where will you stay? What will you live on?”

“I’ve been putting money by for ages. I’ll get a job in one of those big depart­ment stores. I’ll find a place to stay for me and the kids. I’ll find . . .” She left the sen­tence hang­ing in mid-air.

I was hor­ri­fied.

“But Harry’s a lovely man. How could you do this to him?”

I was just about to tear a strip off her, when she put her fin­gers to her lips.

“You can’t stop me. I’ve made up my mind.”

She was right. There was no rea­son­ing with her.

The next week she was gone, tak­ing all four chil­dren. The Hol­low was quiet, then.

Poor Harry was dif­fer­ent af­ter that. He didn’t whis­tle any more. He moved down to Abbey­town soon af­ter.

Their build­ing is roof­less now. Last month’s storms saw to that.

I peeped in. Like our house, there were two rooms. In the big room, the fire­place re­minded me of our friend­ship. You could see the old sand­stone jamb and the rest for the swee where the ket­tle bur­bled and hummed for our daily chats.

Even though I was still mad at her, I missed those daily chats. I’d had one let­ter from her. From Lon­don, she said, although it was post­marked Ed­in­burgh. Full of news. She said she’d met the Bea­tles.

So, although it would be a party for only two this time, Ted would none­the­less be ex­pect­ing a wel­come home. He so loved to come home.

Five weeks he had been away, and he was trav­el­ling up from Jed­burgh.

I bus­ied my­self in prepa­ra­tion for his re­turn. I didn’t scrub the place like I usu­ally did, be­cause I was so big now, but I man­aged to give the car­a­van a lick of lilac paint and gath­ered a big bunch of lilacs to stand on the win­dow-sill.

As I stepped back to ad­mire my work, I won­dered how long our chim­ney was go­ing to send its wisp of smoke from the knowe.

Then and there, I made up my mind. Ginny’s Neuk wasn’t go­ing to add to the ru­ins which marked th­ese de­serted farm­lands.

I be­gan to plan.

By the time I heard the un­mis­tak­able rum­ble of Ted’s van bounc­ing up the track, I knew what I had to do. I couldn’t wait, so de­spite my size I hur­ried out to greet him, my heart do­ing that lit­tle flip­ping thing at the sight of his blue eyes.

I took a deep breath. “Ted, lis­ten. We don’t have to be apart. We’ll come with you, me and the baby. We’ll live in the car­a­van, and when the time comes for our child to go to school, I’ll come back here and he can go to school in Abbey­town.” I looked up into his face ex­pec­tantly.

For a minute, I could tell he thought I was be­ing silly.

“Give me time to think. Let’s see if we can make things work.”

Af­ter our spe­cial meal he spent most of the evening out in the ham­mock, prob­a­bly rub­bing his chin a lot. Si­lence. The dark­ness was com­ing. All I could hear was the tick­ing of the clock.

“Have you made up your mind?” I said, join­ing him at quar­ter past seven.

“The car­a­van’s a good idea, love,” he said slowly. “I think it would make you and me and the baby happy. We’ll give it a go.”

I dis­ap­peared in­side his hug. At once, I felt con­tent­ment wash over me. I was pleased to be happy again. The baby felt it, too.

I was sure it was a boy. Our lit­tle home would be com­plete when he ar­rived.

“I know what we’ll call it.”

“The baby?”

“The car­a­van.”

“You want to name the car­a­van?”

“Of course. It has to be Ginny’s Neuk.”

I will take a deep breath and take a last look be­fore I close the door.

I know it will be hard on that fair sum­mer day, with the haunt­ing notes of the curlew echo­ing around, to leave the fra­grance and peace of our lit­tle cot­tage where the gar­den blos­soms and the lit­tle fields yield their au­tumn har­vest.

But we will re­turn. Ted will still sit out in the ham­mock that’s as old as our mar­riage. I’ll still be on the rock­ing-chair that is as old as our child. And wher­ever we are, we will be in Ginny’s Neuk. n

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