The Cottage On The Hill by Joyce Begg
Susie loved the little house in the country – and so did I . . .
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.”
“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.
“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 –”
“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?”
“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. ■