The Cottage On The Hill by Joyce Begg

Susie loved the lit­tle house in the coun­try – and so did I . . .

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ILIKE to think of my­self as a coun­try girl. I was brought up in a vil­lage, and when I mar­ried the owner of the garage, my life car­ried on in much the same coun­try fash­ion.

My chil­dren went to the vil­lage school, and sub­se­quently got the bus to the high school five miles away. We thought of our­selves as mid­dling ru­ral.

It’s dif­fer­ent now, though. My son lives in Lon­don, and my daugh­ter – the most coun­tri­fied of all of us – mar­ried Dar­ren, who is an in­vet­er­ate townie. They live in the city and Jane has con­verted.

I don’t mind the city now and then. Some­times, on my day off from the café, I take the bus to town, see Jane dur­ing her lunch break and spend the af­ter­noon shop­ping, but I’m al­ways glad to get home.

The great thing about the bus is that you get a much bet­ter view of your sur­round­ings than you do from the car. You can look into peo­ple’s gar­dens, or en­joy vis­tas of sheep and cows against a back­drop of dis­tant hills.

That was how I first no­ticed the lit­tle house. It sat at the top of a field on its own, prob­a­bly a farm labourer’s cottage, stoneb­uilt with blue painted trim, neat as a new pin.

There was a cen­tral front door and a win­dow on each side. In sum­mer, hon­ey­suckle and ram­bling roses grew up the walls, and in win­ter a lamp shone in the win­dow, a spot of cheer in a dark­en­ing af­ter­noon land­scape.

I started to spec­u­late about who lived there, pic­tur­ing a lit­tle fam­ily with a farm-worker fa­ther, a mother who helped out in the farm­house when she wasn’t baking in her kitchen, and per­haps a cou­ple of chil­dren alight­ing from the school bus and be­ing drawn home by the light in the win­dow.

I thought of them as the folk who lived on the hill, but I never met them. I never knew who they were. I just watched the lit­tle house through all the sea­sons on my spo­radic jour­neys to town.

I wasn’t the only one to no­tice it. Susie, the ju­nior wait­ress in the café, saw it on her trips to gigs and movies in the city.

“I love that house,” she said once, lean­ing dream­ily on the counter while the cof­fee ma­chine heated up. “It’s al­most idyl­lic.”

I smiled.

“Are you a closet coun­try girl, then, Susie?”

“No closet about it,” she said stoutly. “I’ve al­ways loved the coun­try. Even when it’s muddy. I think it’s the air. It’s al­ways clean and fresh, un­less they’re muck-spread­ing.”

Mar­garet, the boss, as­sem­bled a plate of scones and cakes and pushed it to­wards Susie.

“Ta­ble three,” she said, “and just be grate­ful we’ve got cus­tomers. The coun­try can be deadly quiet; not the eas­i­est place to make a liv­ing.” She swung away again as the cof­fee ma­chine started spit­ting.

“I still like that cottage,” Susie said un­der her breath. “When I’ve got the money, I’ll buy some­where like that.”

I didn’t point out that, while Mar­garet paid rea­son­able rates, it would take a se­ri­ously long time to build up that kind of nest egg. I was just glad Susie had dreams that didn’t take her from the land. The vil­lage needed the Susies of this world.

Then came the day in early sum­mer when there was no light in the cottage, and no-one looked af­ter the gar­den.

I hadn’t been on the bus for three months or so, but I was sur­prised and sad­dened to see how quickly the lit­tle

house started to look ne­glected.

It took longer for it to start fall­ing to bits.

Susie had gone to col­lege and got her diploma in cater­ing be­fore the cottage roof started to lose its tiles, prepara­tory to cav­ing in.

I was quite un­rea­son­ably up­set.

“It’s just so sad,” I said to Jane as she gave me my glass of white wine to go with our lunch of hot chicken salad.

Jane was sym­pa­thetic, but keen to keep things in per­spec­tive.

“Never mind, Mum. Maybe some­one will buy it. Maybe one of these telly pro­grammes will take it on and re­store it.” She pat­ted my hand. “It’s only bricks and mor­tar.”

“But they’re nice bricks!” I said. “Ac­tu­ally, it’s stone-built. Solid as a rock. We should have bought it.”

Jane was jus­ti­fi­ably sur­prised.

****

I re­peated my idea when I got home.

“We should have bought it,” I said to Gor­don, who looked at me over the tops of his glasses. “What?”

I ex­plained about the house, and he stared in non-com­pre­hen­sion.

“We could have bought it as a project,” I went on, sound­ing a lit­tle wild even to my own ears. There were real tears spik­ing my lashes. “An in­vest­ment. Maybe we still could. It’s ba­si­cally a sound build­ing, or at least it was. And I re­ally like it.”

Gor­don stared some more and straight­ened his glasses.

“Two things,” he said. “Firstly, I don’t re­mem­ber you men­tion­ing any cottage, and se­condly, we don’t have that kind of money.”

I knew that, re­ally. So I said noth­ing more. But the hopes of my ro­man­tic soul were dashed.

Then came the day when I saw the builder’s van parked out­side what re­mained of the cottage.

I was on my way to take Jane her birth­day present: a shirt in a kind of hy­acinth blue colour.

As the bus passed within sight of the house, I found my­self turn­ing in my seat. Per­haps some­one was go­ing to buy it. Per­haps they al­ready had.

My mind sprang to thoughts of Susie, then sprang away again just as quickly. Susie was not quite twenty-one. No way would she have been able to amass any­thing like a down pay­ment.

I felt a lit­tle de­jected on her be­half. Susie would have liked it. Then I re­mem­bered her fa­ther, a lo­cal lawyer with all sorts of con­nec­tions. The cottage would make a splen­did twenty-first birth­day present.

My mind went into over­drive, un­til I re­alised I was get­ting car­ried away in a ma­jor key.

“Don’t be ridicu­lous!” I said to the alarm of the old man in the seat across the aisle.

“Sorry,” I said with a self-con­scious smile. “I was be­ing truly stupid.”

He gave a slow smile. “Glad it’s not just me,” he said in an an­cient, grav­elly voice.

****

Jane re­ally liked her shirt, and over a lunch of prawn and avo­cado wraps, I found my­self telling her about the builder’s van.

“Isn’t it mar­vel­lous!” I ex­claimed. “It looks as though some­one might have res­cued that lit­tle house. Just like those pro­grammes on telly that you were talk­ing about.”

That gave rise to all sorts of spec­u­la­tion. Was the builder do­ing it as a project, in­tend­ing to sell it on, or was some­one else em­ploy­ing the builder, in­tend­ing to live there him­self?

Happy thoughts of an­other lit­tle fam­ily oc­cu­pied my mind for the rest of the af­ter­noon. By the time I got the bus home, the builder’s van had gone, but my spir­its stayed high.

It was Susie who en­light­ened me as to what was hap­pen­ing.

Now gain­fully em­ployed with a small cater­ing com­pany, she no longer worked in the café, but she had popped in for an Americano and a muf­fin and brought me up to date.

I had been partly right. The house had been bought by a de­vel­oper, and it would be on the mar­ket within months.

“It’s to have state-of-theart fit­tings, ap­par­ently,” Susie said, “and it’ll be twice the size it used to be. Wings to ei­ther side and an ex­ten­sion at the back.”

“Blimey,” I said, in some dis­may.

“But it’s to be very sym­pa­thet­i­cally done. I looked it up on­line. The draw­ings are lovely, I have to say.”

I looked at her spec­u­la­tively.

“Still want to live there?” I asked.

She smiled.

“Sure. In my dreams.” Now that the house’s fu­ture was as­sured and it wouldn’t be left to de­scend into rub­ble, I stopped wor­ry­ing about it.

When pass­ing in the bus, I looked out for it and ad­mired its progress, not­ing the im­prove­ments. I didn’t see it when it was finally fin­ished and went on the mar­ket, but Susie told me she was pretty sure it would sell eas­ily.

“It looks as if they’ve made a good job of it,” she said with a quick nod. “It’s still a cottage, just a bit big­ger. Ap­par­ently it’s got a dou­ble garage and a wood-burn­ing stove. Great for a mod­ern fam­ily.” I wasn’t so sure.

“Not ev­ery­one wants to live at the top of a field with no neigh­bours. But if it does sell, it will be to some­one who falls in love with it.”

I didn’t have long to wait to find out who that was. It was just a cou­ple of days later that Jane phoned with the news.

“We’re mov­ing out of town,” she said. “Dar­ren says he’s had enough of city life, and he can com­mute.” I was as­ton­ished. “Re­ally? Dar­ren said that? So where are you go­ing?”

I could hear the smile in her voice.

“We’re go­ing to be that fam­ily that you talked about. The folk who live on the hill. That’s us.”

I was stunned into si­lence.

Jane’s voice car­ried on. “We didn’t want to say any­thing un­til we were sure we had the house. I thought you’d be pleased.”

“I am! I can’t be­lieve it!” “You and Dad must come and see it. It’s re­ally lovely, Mum.”

Jane hes­i­tated for a moment.

“There’s a nice spare room. I know you’re not that far away, but you could stay over some nights in­stead of driv­ing home. In fact –”

“Yes?”

“We may well need you to stay over in the fu­ture. Just oc­ca­sion­ally. Just if Dar­ren and I both have to go out in the even­ing.”

It took me sev­eral min­utes to work out what she was say­ing. Then I had to sit down.

“Are you telling me what I think you are?” I whis­pered. “Is this to be a day of to­tal sur­prises? Am I about to be a granny?”

Jane laughed.

“I was work­ing up to it, telling you things in chrono­log­i­cal or­der. First the house, then the baby. What do you think, Mum?”

What did I think? Words could not ex­press what I thought.

I sig­nalled for Gor­don to come to the phone and hear it for him­self, just in case I had dreamed the whole con­ver­sa­tion.

I hadn’t. Gor­don was pleased as Punch.

“A grandpa,” he said. “Me, a grandpa! Who’d have thought it?”

It took me a long time to get to sleep that night. To­tal de­light was keep­ing me awake.

To think that the lit­tle fam­ily in that house was go­ing to be mine, af­ter all that angst!

Susie would be pleased, too. If she couldn’t have the cottage her­self, Jane and Dar­ren would be a fine sub­sti­tute. She might even of­fer to babysit. ■

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