Come with me for another visit to my little corner of the world.This story is about the sweetest lady that was miles away on the day I called. She was like a school child leaning on the desk staring out the window, daydreaming.
“It will be another stormy day out at sea,” Bella announced in a statement-like fashion as I was leaning over her Singer 514. She was gazing out towards the coast with a lost look on her face. “Wouldn’t like to be a sailor today,” she added under her breath, shaking her head slightly, “No not today.”
I had the distinct impression that she would be talking even if I was not in the room. The way she was stroking her fat tabby-cat, snugly clasped under her arm like a set of Scottish bagpipes, it made me wonder if the conversation was even directed towards me.
I stood up and stretched my poor old aching back. Nearly a quarter of a century of bending over sewing machines had taken its toll on my spine and, at the slightest opportunity, it gave me payback. As I rubbed my stiff knotted muscles, I walked over to her with my cup of tea. It had been getting cold on her cluttered sideboard near the window. I looked out of the pretty cottage, through the leaded glass, out to the wild world that the walls of the cottage had kept at bay for three-and-a-half centuries.
“Yes it is a nasty day today for sure,” I said as I came up to her. The cat lifted its head for a stroke. I stopped rubbing my back and tickled the cat under his chin, he purred away in satisfaction. I seemed to break her trance and we watched together, for a while
Outside the bare branches of the high trees danced in a wild, rhythmical motion. Slaves to the whim of the wailing wind that raged.
Far in the distance, as the hillside dropped away, the sea looked cruel and furious. The wind had grown in strength for several days churning up the tempestuous deep, bringing in the big rollers that the fearless surfers love to ride. White horses raced over the dark ridges of the enormous waves, skipping from peek to peek in a stampede of untamed abandon.
Huge waves, whose temper had grown in the far Atlantic, taunted by a cutting wind, rolled up the English Channel unopposed, only to vent their rage upon the white cliffs that protect our fortress island. Like a glass thrown against a stone they exploded in sudden violence then fell away, all anger spent.
There was something very warm and comforting about being in the small cottage with the elements raging outside. We watched while the raindrops chased each other down the glass and the wild wind shook the garden plants. With my height I had to stoop a little to see clearly out of the small windows. Cottages like this one were built when the average height rarely exceeded five feet. Poor diet and unreliable seasons were not conducive to lots of growth. It is a modern phenomenon, indeed, that the average height of a human in areas of the world where food is now abundant has risen by as much as 12 inches.
“See that old tree over there?” she said pointing to a large bare tree dancing in the corner of a far field. “The walnut tree. My great grandfather planted it over a century ago. Many times, as a child, I climbed up her branches with my brothers and sisters to pick walnuts for pickling. It was my dad’s favourite after dinner snack. He would sit in front of that old fireplace there,” she said waving towards the cottage wall. “Kick off his shoes, slide on his old slippers, pour himself a tot of rum and open up a jar of mum’s walnuts to nibble on. Then he would stare into the fire for hours, watching the fire fairies dance, never a word spoken – never a word.”
“Happy memories,” I added looking at the cold, dark, fireplace that just itched to be alight once again.
“Oh yes, happy memories indeed! I remember my old dad saying to me, come the time we had to break the branches of the walnut tree; A woman, a dog and a walnut tree, the more they’re beat the better they’ll be.” We both smiled at the old saying that would soon be forgotten in our modern world. The middle of winter is such a desolate time for so many of us. It is amazing to think that our ancestors lived outside, amongst the wild winds and howling beasts.
Long before Christianity came to our shores, old rituals would take place in the darkest time of the year. It was a simple task to place a few sticks into the ground and see where the sun rose each morning and to know when our giant star had decided to change its winter decent back towards the warmer summer months. Pagan man knew these times well and later religions such as the Druids, improved upon these methods, and erected stone monuments, which were carefully placed to measure the sun’s movements throughout its yearly cycle.
Imagine a scene from midwinter that would have been performed around the shortest day of the year, when all seemed dead outside. When the world, as they knew it, had perished in the cold months of deep winter. Village folk would bring in some of the few living plants that were still left alive, like the deep green branches of the holly tree. They would clear away the animals from the centre of the floor and place the holly down upon the cold hard earth. A roaring fire would be blazing away as the head of the family started a ritual dance around the holly. As one of the family members beat on a dry skin, stretched over a twig frame, the rest would stamp the earth beneath their feet and dance around the holly. They stamped hard to awaken their sleeping mother, mother earth, and remind her to return to them. To once more, bring warmth for their crops to grow. Then, as the dancing reached a crescendo, the head of the family would throw the holly onto the fire. They would all pray as they watched it crackle and burn.
Of course this ritual always worked. For, shortly after the midwinter dance, the days would start to get longer and the sun held the promise of the warmth that it would soon bring to the frozen lands.
To this day ancient boundaries in England are still marked by holly trees.
I left Bella, with her tabby cat under her arm, still standing by the window. Entranced by the spectacle of nature at its wildest in the bleak midwinter.
As I pulled the door closed I glanced back at Bella and smiled. I quietly dropped the latch and walked to my car. I could not help but wonder how long it would be before she realised that I had called to fix her machine and left?
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