I always loved coming here as a kid, when the gardens alone offered hours of adventures with my brother. I’m almost 40 and now the cottage signifies getting older and loneliness.
I don’t visit anywhere near as much as I should, this also adds guilt on to the list of overwhelmingly negative feelings I have attached to this place. It’s a ball ache to get to, but it’s worth it. Like something straight out of a wartime drama, the cottage sits in more than 10 acres of National Trust land, the nearest neighbour is a good thirty-minute walk away, and that’s exactly how Nanna likes it.
On bank holiday weekends the roads to the cottage are packed with day-trippers, same for Christmas and throughout the summer holidays. That’s bought me a fair bit of leeway over the years.
Apparently, because I don’t have a family of my own to care for, I’ve no real excuse for not stopping by more frequently than once every six months. God forbid my busy work schedule, socialising and pouring over the Sunday papers should get in the way of tea, cake, and a lambasting of my continued singledom.
Yep, Nanna doesn’t mince her words. I’m personally responsible for letting her down on the great-grandchild front, despite the fact my brother has twin girls. I literally can’t win. Yet I know I wouldn’t forgive myself if I didn’t make the trip at least a couple of times a year to check-in on the old bird.
I pull up at the main gate and press the buzzer, “Hi Nanna, it’s me.” I call into the grey box. “Well, it’s about time” comes the curt reply, and the gate slowly swings open. Sheesh, maybe I should’ve left if another month or two. Rolling my eyes in the safety of my own car, I make the short journey up to the cottage.
The gardens are stunning. She may be pushing 85, but she’s damn sprightly with a lawnmower and pruning shears! I remember the rose buses like those from Alice in Wonderland, one plant red, the next one white. My brother chasing me through the knee-high hedgerows like the Mad Hatter. Nanna was carefree then. She was never angry or bad-tempered. She’d often clip a rose especially for me, and slide it through my ponytail. Now, she’s more akin to the Queen of Hearts if I so much as admire a petal.
I park the car, switch my phone over onto silent, she can’t abide any kind of beeping noises, and taking a phone call would be considered terrible rude. Leaning over to the rear seats, I pick up a parcel and the fresh pastries and brace myself.
“Nanna, it’s lovely to see you, you look well.” I greet her. She’s stood in the kitchen doorway, surrounded by dozens of potted herbs and spring wildflowers. “What on earth are you wearing?” she bats back. And so it begins.
Sat at the patio table, I notice she looks old. I mean, she is, but it seems like life is taking its toll. When I saw her back in October, she was preparing for harvest, pumped up that her crop would be her best yet and she’d have enough to share with the groundsmen and their families. With Spring, Nanna looked tired and drawn. Like she’d not slept.
The light around the side of the cottage is the most beautiful. Dappled by the trees, the sun streams through onto the patio until late evening, making it the perfect spot to enjoy the peace and quiet. Today, the Spring sunshine only illuminated my brother’s fears, Nanna was beginning to struggle. He’d asked if I would bring my visit forward, and now I knew why.
“Have you managed to bag yourself a handsome chap yet then Maureen? I’m not getting any younger you know. This place should be full of life and laughter again, I want to be here long enough to see your little ones running about on the lawns.” That was the second time she’d called me by my mum’s name. I didn’t correct her, I played along.
“Ahh Nanna, I’m so busy with work that I don’t have time to date a man. And besides, you’ve done too good a job proving we don’t really need men to be happy. Just look at this place, it’s blooming more than ever, all thanks to you.” I leaned forward, smiling.
“Now you listen to me. I always did my fair share when Pop was alive. We were a team, I could never replace him. You’ve got to get yourself a team Maureen, you’ll be much happier.”
Peering over her glasses with a stern look, she continued: “All this work and no family, it isn’t good for you. What if you end up going doo-lally-tap, you’ll be all alone, like me.
“You deserve better Beth, don’t end up on your own, you hear. Make that a priority on your busy schedule.” She took a sip of tea and busied herself buttering a scone.
She knew. She knew her memory was slipping, her coordination slower than before. Even since before Christmas, there was a noticeable change.
“We’re going to have to make all the arrangements soon. I think it’s time you took over the cottage. I’ve spoken to the solicitors….” She was still talking but I was too stunned to hear the words.
“Nanna, why would…. Nanna where are you going?” I looked at her, panicked. Nanna was born here. 6th September 1914. The old tin bath used as a water butt at the bottom of the garden was the one she was dunked in twice a week as a child, in front of the fire by her mother.
As a toddler she had ‘brothers and sisters’ from the cities as evacuation brought scores of children from inner cities to the peace and tranquility of the countryside. Her parents were kind, hard-working people. Her father worked the land for the local country house and her mother a cook, before the children came. The cottage was lined with more than 100 years of family history, births, marriages, and deaths. Nanna had lived alone since Pop succumbed to cancer almost 15 years ago.
“Listen, don’t try and play me for a fool. I know I’m not as able as before. I’m getting clumsy. It’s harder to get up in the mornings. I know when I’m beat, and it’s time I moved on.” She said matter of factly.
“Nanna, don’t be daft. This is your home. Where are you going exactly.” I almost laughed, but knew better of it.
“I’m going to die, probably within the next month or two. I don’t want this place to slip. I’ll expect you’ll have to give notice on your fancy apartment, so we’ll call today 4 weeks notice.” She nodded.