The room turned out to be nicely cosy and warm, with a pleasant view over the bay and harbour. My trunk and valise were tidily parked in one corner. I had anticipated that I might do some walking on this trip, so suitable clothing and footwear were easily to hand. I decided to postpone unpacking the rest of my things until later. The only thing missing was a stout walking stick, so I took along my pocket knife, resolving to cut myself a stick should the opportunity arise. A small knapsack containing my notebook and binoculars, and a suitable hat completed my outfit, so it was within only a few minutes that I presented myself in the reception area again. Evelyn appeared with a canteen and a paper-wrapped parcel.
“Some drinking water and a packed lunch, just in case you don’t make it back in time for lunch,” she said lifting the flap of my knapsack and dropping the parcel inside. She then gestured for me to raise my arm so she could hang the canteen from my shoulder. “There you go, you’re all set.” She gave me a small sketched map and pointed out key features and, more to the point, where upon it I could find Elizabeth’s farm. She bade me have a good day and herded me out of the door and back towards the harbour. As I walked down the slight rise, I could see a few more figures on the jetty and a few more fishing rods being cast. Generally, the place seemed busier than it had been earlier. I could see a couple of small boats putting out to sea, fishermen by the look of them and there were more people opening up what might have been shop fronts, though to my eye, they looked more like the stalls you might see outside the dwelling of the amateur market gardener. There was a quiet busyness about the place, most unlike the frenetic hurrying of workers on their way to work back in London. Most people greeted me with a friendly smile, a good morning or similar. As I turned away up the harbour, following the road out of town, I saw more houses of varying designs, a blacksmiths and a few other workshops. No two were exactly alike, though one could see where ideas had been copied. It would be interesting to meet the architects.
Towards the edge of the town, the dwellings were more spread out, with various enclosures in between. A few ponies, some pigs, a number of goats, and some given over to produce – cabbages, potatoes, beans and such like. It seemed clear to me that this place would likely be very close to self-sufficient. After about twenty minutes of walking, I spied what could well be Elizabeth’s place. It was a well-enclosed area with row upon row of neat, rustic looking hen-houses. I let myself in through the gate and approached the house itself, which looked somewhat like a larger version of the hen-houses. The front door was one of those that splits in two, and the top half was open, so I knocked on the closed half.
“Hello, anybody at home?” I called out, “Evelyn sent me to come help with the chickens.” A warm melodic voice replied from the interior, bidding me to come in. I reached over and found the latch, then pointed myself in the direction the voice had come from. It led me to a brightly decorated room, draped here and there with printed fabrics. A woman of remarkable beauty sat in an arm-chair, with her left leg propped up on a small footstool. Her complexion was that which could only be described as an English rose, yet her eyes, and the colour of her hair made me think of the Indian sub-continent, which origin agreed with the style of the drapes. She smiled, although she looked a little surprised.
“You’re new,” she said, gesturing me towards another armchair. I nodded and took the indicated seat.
“Yes, I just arrived this morning. My name is Edmund, and I assume that you must be Elizabeth.” She smiled and laughed.
“You assume correctly,” she said. “Evelyn must be in a busy mood this morning, to send you out so early. Normally, she at least lets people get unpacked and settled in before sending them out to work.” I shrugged
“Does she do this a lot?” I asked.
“Not usually this early, but yes,” she said. “She tends to look after the tavern more than most people, so she is often the first point of contact. And she does so like to help get people involved. We all tend to muck in together.” I nodded.
“So I gathered,” I replied. “As to the unpacking, it can wait; which is probably more than can be said of your birds, I would imagine. That might be why she sent me so soon. So, what needs doing?” She explained where the feed bins were, how much of each was required and suggested I put the feed in the hoppers before releasing the birds to avoid getting mobbed. I laughed and told her I was used to this, my family having kept chickens when I was young. She also pointed me at the duck pond behind the house. I assured her that all would be well and took myself outside again. It was not long before the air was filled with clucks and quacks and hoots as the birds busied themselves at the feeding troughs, and around the enclosures.
Standing there, scattering some grain for them to scratch at, I realised that I was actually enjoying myself. More importantly, it was a sort of epiphany, in the sudden realisation that I had enjoyed some parts of my childhood and that I needn’t keep those memories buried along with all the others. This revelation left me momentarily breathless, and then puzzled why it had taken me so long to realise this. With a laugh at my own foolishness, I cast the grain in a wide arc, feeling as though I was casting aside some of my past pain as well. It was with a decidedly lighter heart that I went back to the house to ask Elizabeth if she would like me to collect the eggs for her as well.
“Well now, you look like you have been enjoying yourself,” she greeted me. I nodded.
“To my surprise,” I told her. “I have been. I think I have spent too much of recent years cooped up indoors with nothing but pens, paper and dead poets for company. This is an excellent change for me. Which, if I may, is why I wondered if you would like me to collect the eggs for you?” She smiled and seemed to relax some more.
“I didn’t like to ask,” she said, “but, by all means, please do. There are baskets hanging on the wall in the shed with the green door, and the eggs go in the crates in there too. You really are most kind to a stranger.” I smiled.
“A stranger not for long, I hope,” I said. “And it seems only fair. Everybody has been kind to me so far. I think I may like it here.” She laughed.
“I hope so too. Perhaps you can join me in a cup of tea when you are done.” I went out and found the shed with the green door easily enough. As she said, there were baskets hanging on the wall, as well as a sack of straw, some of which I scattered in the baskets to protect the eggs. There was a small toolbox on the floor, which I took with me, as I had noticed a loose hinge on the door of one of the hen-houses. An hour later, the hinge was fixed, I had a good selection eggs collected, sorted into sizes and safely stored in the appropriate crates. I washed my hands under a tap in the yard and headed back to the house. There I found Elizabeth in the kitchen, supporting herself with a walking stick, busying herself at the stove. She turned with a little difficulty and smiled.
“Ah, there you are. I was just making something to drink. It’s almost ready, but I need a little help with the last bit.” She gestured at a tray, on which there were two teacups, a small plate of biscuits and a jug. She then asked if I would pour the contents of the saucepan into the jug, through a small strainer. The liquid smelled of milk and warm spices. I fancied I could smell cloves, cardamom and ginger among others. I finished pouring, replaced the saucepan and picked up the tray, following Elizabeth back into her sitting room. She pointed at a small table and bade me to sit down again. “It’s called chai, or, more properly, masala chai. It’s basically spiced tea. We had it all the time when I was growing up.” I sat down and inhaled the steam. The smell conjured up more exotic climes than I would associate with tea-houses back in London. The taste was pleasing, spicy, yet sweet, and put me a little in mind of Christmas. I looked at her over the top of the cup as I took another mouthful.
“Delicious,” I said. “You must show me how to make it some time.”
“It would be a pleasure,” she replied. “So, what did you mean by dead poets? Are you a poet?” I shook my head, hesitating a moment because this was the first time anybody had made reference to my past. I willed myself to not let the ghosts pursue me and spoil the conversation.
“Sadly, not. For all that I spent many years teaching poetry and literature, my efforts in that direction were dry and derivative at best. I can recite reams of the stuff, teach students how to write a critical essay on the stuff, but write it? No.” I took another sip of the chai and helped myself to a biscuit. “So, as you can see, feeding chickens is a pleasant change.” She laughed and too a biscuit herself.
“Chickens being a long way removed from poetry?” She asked.
“For the most part, yes,” I replied. “You would think that they weren’t the most poetic of subjects, but I can think of a couple. There is only one that I can remember in full though, for the moment, a short one by Rossetti.”
“The painter?” She asked. I laughed and shook my head.
“Not quite,” I told her, “but close. His sister, Christina Georgina Rossetti.” She leaned forward expectantly.
“Do tell,” she said. I paused a moment, seeing the page in my head. I began to recite:
“A white hen sitting
On white eggs three :
Next, three speckled chickens
As plump as plump can be.
An owl, and a hawk,
And a bat come to see:
But chicks beneath their mother’s wing
Squat safe as safe can be”
Elizabeth laughed, putting down her cup so she could applaud. “It’s a very short one she wrote for a book of nursery rhymes.” I told her. “Maybe next time I come around, I’ll have remembered something longer.” She looked at me with a teasing expression.
“So you think they’ll be a next time?” She asked, slyly. I nodded.
“Well, if you continue to make chai and serve these biscuits, I shan’t be able to stay away.” I said, smiling back at her. “Besides, I am no physician, but I am fairly sure you won’t be up and about properly for a few days, and somebody will have to put the birds away this evening…”
“That is true,” she said, affected a mock pout, “but I would hope that my company came into the equation too.” I nodded gravely.
“But of course. That’s the best bit.” She laughed at my pretended seriousness, and then looked up at the clock.
“Were you heading back down to the tavern?” she asked. I shook my head.
“Eventually,” I said, pulling the map out of my pocket. “But Evelyn had suggested that I take this path,” I pointed it out on the map, “up to the headland, and then take this one back down through the woods. Why do you ask?” She finished her drink and put the cup down.
“Oh, nothing really,” she said. “I was going to get you to take some eggs down to the tavern for tomorrow’s breakfast.” I looked at the map and traced my proposed route.
“Well, I could take this path on my way back and pick them up then. Would that be ok?” She nodded.
“Excellent,” she said. “Now you get on your way and enjoy your walk. And thanks for dealing with the birds.” I smiled and told her it was my pleasure, also that I looked forward to seeing her later.
Soon, the farm was at my back and I was heading up the path to the headland, greatly cheered by the encounter. I had not been so at ease in the company of a woman for many a year, and if I was not very much mistaken, she had been flirting slightly. Now that was something I had thought long behind me. Such thoughts occupied me such that I almost missed the path out of the woodland leading up to the headland. Before long, though, I was back in the sunshine, feeling the wind in my hair as I strode towards the cliffs and the headland beyond.