Off the dual carriageway that hurtles towards the climbing shops of Keswick, down the single track lane for a mile and a half, over the river, until the road becomes a track across fields and just where open fell rises behind the last dry stone wall, you’ll find the farm. Inside the farmhouse, which has stood on this spot since 1549 at least, through the squat doorway set into the three foot thick wall is the kitchen and, under the table, on her hands and knees, is the woman.
‘You can’t come in. I’m washing the floor,’ her voice is sharp with strain. She appears to address nobody. But the door swings open anyway, just enough for the ginger tom cat to slip through. ‘And get that bloody cat out of here – now!’
The kitchen table is laden with unwashed pots and empty packets. A cheesecake, spread with tinned cherries, unnaturally vermillion, drips next to unidentified items from the freezer, the melt water pooling around several untouched cups of tea, now pale and cold, and an open bottle of gin. The woman is a slattern, there’s no getting away from it.
She is preparing, in her chaotic manner, for the arrival of her paying guests. Dinner, bed and breakfast from £55. The whole idea – her idea – is appalling and executed extremely badly. The food is predictably average, the sheets are nylon. The guests are fools, almost without exception, and spend their week in the Lake District eating her huge meals and buying hideous things made of slate that nobody needs. They have no appreciation for the splendour of the fells and lakes, the history all around them, let alone the sheer difficulty of surviving in this harsh environment.
Of course, despite every discouragement, the woman sticks to this endeavour with a determination quite remarkable in one so slipshod.
Meanwhile, I notice that the cat is plotting something. He at least has ambition. His route is for the larder, a slightly forbidding whitewashed room off the kitchen, part storeroom, part abattoir. Meat hooks jut from the ceiling, eggs hang suspended in jars of water glass and onions lie pickling and forgotten in open bowls. Whatever the temperature of the rest of the house, the larder is always icy. But the cat and I know there is a newly roasted joint of ham in there, cooling under a tin foil shroud.
‘God, where’s that cold draught coming from?’ The woman emerges from beneath the table and looks accusingly over the net curtains at the greying sky. Don’t ask me why, in a house a good half mile from the nearest neighbours, she’s put up net curtains obscuring the lower half of every window. Perhaps it’s to stop the sheep looking in.
‘And they’re coming all the way from Holland,’ she continues to herself, for there is no one else there. ‘I’d better light the dining room fire.’
Holland is hardly tropical, but she fears a guest being cold more than anything else in the world. If they feel chilly she has, apparently, failed utterly in her duty as a landlady. Of course, other members of the household being frozen is fine. I’ve been cold for years. We have to put on an old coat or sit with one of the terriers on our knee.
In the dining room, the fire has already been laid by the husband, and all she needs to do is light a match. The flames quickly catch, leaping from newspaper to kindling to the dry logs and up the chimney back. That particular chimney has always drawn well. In fact this room used to be the kitchen with an old fashioned range where all the cooking was done right up to Queen Victoria’s day.
The woman admires the roaring fire for a few moments, then stands in front of it with her back to the flames. Now she gathers up the folds of her skirt, hoisting it up with both hands so the heat reaches the back of her stockinged legs. She closes her eyes, such is her pleasure. As I say, she’s a slattern.
But her rapture is short-lived. There is a low rumbling sound from the direction of the kitchen. It grows in volume like a roll of distant thunder until there is a muffled thud. Then there is silence.
‘That bloody cat,’ she cries, abandoning the fire and rushing back to the kitchen.
I must say, it really is galling that she routinely blames the pet cat for occurrences that are clearly caused by a very different power indeed but, on this occasion, the kitchen proves to be unharmed and the cat is nowhere to be seen. She stands about turning this way and that in her stupidity until there is another tumultuous crash from the larder. The woman opens the door to reveal the room engulfed in a grey white dust and, where the ceiling should be, there are dark beams draped in two hundred years of cobwebs. The flagged floor is ankle deep with laths of wood. Broken chunks of plaster, as white as royal icing, bristle with tufts of animal hair.
‘Oh God! My pickled onions!’ she wails, rushing to their aid without a thought for her own safety.
In an hour most of the fallen ceiling is bagged up and removed to the barn. She strains fragments of plaster from her beloved onions, putting them carefully into fresh vinegar. The joint of ham is miraculously unharmed. Now she has to wash the larder floor which she rarely does as no one except the family ever see it, and rewash the kitchen floor, where the dust and dirt has been walked through.
She is filling the kettle at the kitchen sink, no doubt for another cup of tea that she’ll forget to drink, when a man’s face appears, inches from hers, just above the line of the kitchen nets. He is unshaved, gaunt and ageless. He gestures upwards towards the roof of the house.
Although she knows it’s Dennis, the farmhand, the woman screams anyway and drops the kettle into the washing-up. Her type always fuss.
Dennis is said to be ‘slow’ because he has never been to school and doesn’t say much. But he knows more than he lets on. He knows all about me for a start.
‘Bloody hell, Dennis!’ the woman shouts at the window, as foulmouthed as ever. ‘What is it? We’ve got bed and breakfasters arriving any minute.’
There follows an elaborate mime involving her pointing at her wrist where there is no watch and shading her eyes with her hand as if she is looking out to sea. In his turn Dennis gestures skyward again, but neither of them is any the wiser. This could go on for hours, but a sudden gust of wind forces the back door open and, as the woman runs to close it, she catches sight of the smoke and sparks that Dennis has been trying to alert her to, pouring from the farmhouse chimney. She yells at him to do something and rushes back inside, nearly tripping over the bucket of soapy water she’s about to use on the floors. She grabs it and, slopping suds everywhere, hauls it with her into the dining room.
I should explain that the fireplace in this room is what is described as an ‘inglenook’ which means you can stand on the hearth and look straight up the chimney to the sky, such is its breadth. This is all very picturesque and beloved of her precious bed and breakfasters, but when the years of tar built up on the inside of the flue inexplicably catch light, the result is a truly spectacular chimney fire. The heat and noise is tremendous. If any of the sparks catch the hearth rug or the log basket, the whole house could go up. I begin to worry that this is perhaps more than the woman can deal with.
At first she stands transfixed, as if she’s never seen fire before. Then she remembers the bucket and tries to angle it, now only two thirds full, at the wall of flame on the hearth, but she rushes the run-up, then hesitates the moment before the contents are released, so that most of the water falls short, soaking the carpet. I fear the house is now in real danger of burning to the ground.
And then she does the first sensible thing I think I’ve ever seen her do. After looking round, she removes her garishly loud tweed skirt (which I know she only wears when she’s expecting guests who need to be convinced of her country credentials) and plunges it into the bucket, prodding it down with the poker until it absorbs the remaining water. Then, standing before the furnace in her blouse and slip, she holds the dripping garment in both hands and, with a lunge, tosses it, like a fisherman casting his net, into the heart of the fire.
The effect is instant. A hissing cloud of steam rises from the hearth. The roaring is quietened and, though the fire is not completely out, the battle has turned in the woman’s favour.
She returns to the kitchen to refill the bucket and finds Dennis standing at the back door holding a coiled hose pipe. He refuses to come into the house, which she thinks is old-fashioned deference. I know it’s old-fashioned superstition. Nevertheless, the hose is affixed to the kitchen tap and is just long enough to reach across the passage to the dining room fireplace. She kneels amongst the wet, steaming logs, and squirts jets of water up the wide flue until each independent spurt of flame is out.
Afterwards, she sits down in one of the green leather armchairs and sobs quietly for a while. I hate it when women cry. I know the place is in a bit of a mess, but I’m sure she’s overdoing it. Finally, she pulls herself together and only just in time because there is the sound of a car in the yard.
The woman hears it too. She seems almost too weary to get up but she does at last, slowly and deliberately, as if she has suddenly grown old. The guests are already waiting outside the back door with their luggage.
‘Hello, I’m Anne Walker,’ she says. She is wet, her face blackened with soot and still skirt-less. The guests, a comfortable, middle aged couple, stare at their dishevelled landlady wondering if they have stumbled on another quaint English tradition that their guidebook failed to mention. ‘I’ve had a bit of an issue this afternoon. Well, two issues really. Well probably more than …’
At that moment, the woman looks down and notices she isn’t wearing a skirt. The effect isn’t seductive or even tarty. She just looks grubby and bewildered, like the survivor of an earthquake. I wonder if she is going to cry again.
‘Issues, Mrs Valker?’ asks the Dutchman gently.
‘The fact is… well I’ve got a problem with, well, it sounds a bit stupid really, but with another guest. He refuses to leave.’
She does her usual trick of looking around her as if she’s never seen the fells or the farm before, as if she is searching for something or someone to make sense of it all. And I suddenly wonder if she’s searching for me.
‘Who is this person?’
‘He’s a Mr Mounsey.’
So she knows my name! All this time when I thought she knew nothing and cared less, she’d actually bothered to find out who I am. Well there’s nothing like a bit of recognition, even if it’s a long time coming. I have to say there’s more to Anne than I ever thought possible.
‘When was this gentleman meant to check out?’ asks the man, with scrupulous politeness.
‘About three hundred years ago.’
The couple exchange a significant glance. I know Anne is waiting for them to make their excuses and drive away. I wait with her. After all, it’s the least I can do.
‘This is fascinating.’ The guests nod enthusiastically. ‘Back in Holland we are well known for being interested in such things.’
And, picking up their luggage, they follow Anne into the house.
Sarah Griffiths’ first short story appeared in Redline Magazine in 2014 and since then her work has been published by Writers’ Forum, Scribble Magazine, The Fiction Pool and Eunoia Review.
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