I wish I had a small white house
With a willow tree down by a stream,
Where I Could stoop among moss covered rocks
And scoop my hands and dip them in.
I wish I had a small square field,
Behind the house, beyond the stream,
A milking goat, a flock of hens.
a hawthorn hedge to keep them in.
I wish I had a small garden,
In front of the house, beside the lane.
Peas and beans and hollyhocks
and sweet roses climbing.
I wish there was a small boreen,
With a worn down path of speckled sand
Leading to the waters edge,
coloured shell on the empty strand.
I wish I wish I wish in vain
But still no sign, no inkling
of house or field or goat or hen
And how the time is passing.
(a worn down path of speckled sand)
James sits on his hospital bed, legs crossed, belying his ninety years, hands resting on his wrinkled knees, breathing slowly in and out.
He is meditating.
He believes that meditation and positive thinking are the answers to life’s struggles and he is proof of it.
He is in hospital for a hernia repair after attempting to lift his dog into its basket on the back of his bicycle
‘She was too old to make the leap’ He explains.
He is full of stories and his faded blue eye’s light up whenever I have time to settle myself the end of his bed for a chat.
It was during one of these chats that I confided in him my dream of owning a small white cottage in the west.
‘Well that’s not a problem’ He threw back his head and laughed, showing a full set of slightly battered and blunted teeth ‘all you have to do is to hold out your hands and wish for it and it will come to you’.
Coming from a professor of physics, I thought at first he was teasing me. but he shook his head and held his hand to his heart and assured me that many good things had come to his life by this means.
I took his advice and wished and wished and held out my hands till they nearly fell off.
But that small white cottage with its willow tree and stream and its sandy lane running down to the sea eluded me and James went home a few days later to his wife and his dog, mended and well and still able to sit with his legs crossed in the full lotus.
Things were not so fortunate for another James I once knew and whom I also confided in about my small house.
The only degree he had was of the country lanes and hills and the care of sheep and cows and the cutting of turf.
All of which he was a master at.
At ninety he began to have some falls, his muscles and his brain sometimes not listening to each other,
His first fall was into the ditch he tried to jump across when chasing a rebellious sheep.
He lay there stunned throughout the night, Beauty his old sheepdog curled up beside him, keeping him warm.
His second fall was climbing over the gate to check the cattle. Again he lay for a few hours , the cattle coming over to nose him while Beauty grew exhausted trying to hunt them away until finally he managed to scramble to his feet.
But the third fall was more serious.
He was cycling to the well on his old black raleigh with his a metal bucket hanging on the handlebar when Beauty ran in front of him and over he went went.
He sustained a deep gash across his forehead (which he later informed the doctor, he could have stitched himself).
The clatter of his metal bucket brought a neighbour running out of her house, a neighbour who had a phone as well as running water and electricity and who called an ambulance.
The ambulance men had great difficulty getting to James.
First of all they couldn’t find the lane. Then they had trouble reversing down it and finally they had difficulty dealing with a very cross Beauty who did her best to keep them away from her Master.
But it was in the hospital that real misfortune fell on him.
After innocently telling of his previous falls, the social workers decided he was at too much risk living alone in his small white house with no running water, telephone or electricity and that he would benefit from a longer hospital stay.
At first he found it pleasant. The warm bed with clean sheets. Taps with running water and regular meals served to him.
He grew fatter but he missed the freedom. The fresh air. The sea. His animals and especially his old dog Beauty.
Don’t worry the kindly nurses told him. Your nephews are taking care of everything!
Nephews? He had forgotten he had nephews, in fact he realised since his last fall had forgotten a lot of things.
One thing he had not forgotten though was his small white house.
He wanted to go home to it.
But they shook their heads. ‘Who will look take care of you’? they asked.
Everyday he got dressed and put on his coat and hat and wellingtons and sat at the main door hoping someone would come and take him home. But no one did.
He became more and more confused,
Then one day I was walking up the corridor in my white uniform and he jumped out from behind a door and tried to shoo me into a corner.
‘James’ I said holding out my hands to him .’ Its alright! its only me!’
He stared at me for a long moment, then laughed embarrassedly ‘I’m sorry!’ he said ‘I thought you were a sheep’
His brain scan at this stage showed signs of significant deterioration. He became even more confused.
I sat with him and we reminisced about country life. He would look out the window longingly, his chances of going home fading.
To distract him I told him about my dream of a country cottage.
I knew he would understand my vision.
And he did.
Together we discussed the layout of the garden.
Would there be enough sun to the side of the house? Wouldn’t the garden be better to the front where it would be easy to hop out through the door if you forgot to pull an onion for the stew.
We discussed the stream and where it would come from, and the softness of the moss covered rocks where you would kneel and dip your bucket in and sure if you had a stream there was the possibility of keeping a few ducks and his eyes gleamed as he spoke about the most delicious sponge cakes made from duck eggs and I asked him if he had ever made a cake and he explained in detail how he often made one in the pot over the fire and how he would put hot sods of turf on the lid to complete the cooking of it.
He then went on to talk about the other things he made. Boxty* for example .
With his gnarled hands he demonstrated how you would take an old tin and with a hammer and nail punch hole all around the tin to make your grater.
‘What would you do if you couldn’t make a grater?’ I asked. He thought for a minute then smiled ‘ you’d have to eat the spuds plain’
We turned then to the willow tree.
James was less romantic than I and pointed out that a willow tree wouldn’t grow so well that near the sea, could it be a hawthorn tree instead or if not, could the house be a mile or so away from the sea and I explained how I really wanted the house to be beside the sea. I wanted to catch a glimpse of blue water, I wanted to go swimming and James confided in me that he went swimming when the day was warm, well more like paddling as he couldn’t swim and I promised I would teach him when he was home and he looked me in the eye and I had to lower mine as we both knew that wasn’t going to happen.
We eventually agreed to a willow tree that was windswept by the prevailing winds.
The hens came next.
Not bantams! James insisted. Bantams hid their eggs and spent too much time clocking. An old fashioned breed of quiet hen would be best. Maybe one of them Dutch barnevelders or some Sussex whites and watch that fox.
Then the milking goat.
James favoured a small jersey cow instead of a goat.
A goat, he said, Would be hard to contain and after chewing its way through the hawthorn hedge it would surely make a beeline for my rows of peas and beans and even my climbing rose. and would I consider a hive of bees. He knew someone who kept them and it wasn’t that difficult to move a hive. You just had to wait for a cloudy day and sure wouldn’t there be enough of those in the west and then you had to move the hive more than three miles or the bees would find their way home and it was a good idea to block the entrance for two days and that some would say if you spun the hive around a few times it would confuse the bee’s and that his friend could transport them in a wheelbarrow as he had done that before successfully.
When he paused for a breath I reminded him of the goat.
He became very animated, The wretched goat! it would certainly eat the bark off the willow and sure didn’t the poor tree have enough to contend with that vicious north west wind that could whip the sea into white horses and I said how I loved to stand on a rock on such a day and feel the wind whipping my hair wildly and he said the only place on a day like that was at the warmth of a fire in the pub with a pint of stout.
‘But you could you could tether the goat’ he said and I explained that I wanted to see it free and he looked sadly out the window and said that freedom from constraint was the most important thing and there was no harm in dreaming either for didn’t it make you forget your woes.
James died not long after that day and needless to say I never got my cottage by the sea with its willow tree leaning into the stream bent by the prevailing wind.
But I have my freedom from constraint and I continue to dream.
I’m writing this in my daughters house where I am ‘house sitting’.
For ten days I have a white house in the country.
My yellow bicycle leans against its wall.
There is no willow tree but the copper beech is stunning and here and there small flowers are appearing.
There is no stream either but I found some frogs in the cool grasses so there must be water nearby.
My daughter and her Husband talk of keeping some hens and who knows maybe I can talk them into getting a beehive too. I think I’ll leave out the mention of a goat.
These are not the real names of the character’s but other than that this story is mainly true,
*Boxty is a traditional potato bread made from grated raw potatoes mixed with flour and fried on the griddle pan.In the old days a farmers wife might not own such a sophisticated implement as a grater and her husband would make her one from an old tin can by punching holes in the metal with a hammer and a nail.