Ginny’s Neuk by Joan Cameron
The little cottage was quaint, but it was home, and it always would be . . .
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.”
“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