Julia Storer

CLAIRE HAMILTON — CREATIVE WRITINGThe pen is mightier than the sword

Egg Collecting
by Julia Storrar

September was kindly that year, and a kind September is surely the loveliest of all months. With the August heat softened and harsh summer light mellowed to gold, only the merest hint of winter was discernible in the morning air. The woman stepped out of her cottage door and stood still for a moment. She wondered, yet again, at how - even as a little girl, something deep within her had always responded to the faint, sweet melancholy of early autumn. Now, though her hair was silver and her back quite stiff, the feelings were still there. Perhaps even a little stronger now that she was living her own autumn.
     She made her way carefully along the narrow path which skirted her small house until she came to a gate in the stone wall. Her gnarled old fingers struggled slightly with the latch. It eventually gave and the gate swung open into a little patch of rough ground, in one corner of which stood, slightly elevated, a sun-bleached hen house. The old lady bent, wincing slightly, to lift the little door, and immediately out they tumbled, chattering and chiding the woman; they had been awake for hours. They clucked around her as she threw corn from a nearby bin, promising them 'All roight m'lovers, you shall 'ave some noice tater peelins later on.'
     Wiping her hands on her apron, the woman looked about at her little empire; the cottage of grey-green Forest stone with its lean-to conservatory, cobbled together from what remained of the old wash-house. Surrounding the cottage was a small but neat garden tended, not lovingly, but conscientiously by the old woman and, before her, her father.
     She knew she was unusual, rare in fact; a woman of her age still occupying the home in which she had been born almost eighty years before. Her daughter worried about her lonely situation and was always bringing up the subject of selling the old place and moving into the village. 'Stuck up here on the edge of the forest . What if you have another fall, mum? With work and Kayleigh and James I can't be up here all the time. And you being out there morning and night seeing to those hens. They'll be the death of you.'
     But the old woman was going nowhere. She liked it up here with the sighing of the wind in the trees and the lonely cry of the buzzards for company. She was not troubled by the occasional visit to her garden by an adder in search of a sunny spot in which to bask. Anyway, here she was surrounded by her memories and they seemed more real to her these days than the present: her mother's never-ending battle with the pit grime on her father's clothes; him, walking with her through the rustling, fallen beech leaves on his Sundays off. Lifting her up to his shoulders when little legs grew tired. 'Come on me ol’ butty, less be getting’ thee wum.'
     It all might have been yesterday.
     The woman looked into the egg box, saw with satisfaction four creamy white eggs nestling in yellow straw. Soon, as the days shortened, the eggs would appear less regularly, then disappear altogether until after Christmas. She knew these rhythms so well, they were a part of her, comforting and familiar.
     Ooh, there it was again. That strange, slightly dizzy feeling that had assailed her a dozen or more times recently. She supposed she’d better get Christine to run her down to the doctor’s one of these days, though she had little faith that whatever potions he prescribed would make much difference; there was only one cure for old age. As the feeling welled up again, only stronger this time, the golden morning went dark, darker still until the old woman could see nothing at all and she began to feel afraid that she would fall.
     Then, clearly but faintly, as though from down in the wooded valley below her cottage, she was sure she heard a much-loved voice. The darkness was lifting to reveal an autumn morning even brighter than before and striding through that brilliant morning was someone she had longed to see for many years.
     'Dad' she cried, joyful but not surprised, 'Dad, you’ve come at last. We were waiting for you, me and mam, but you didn’t come, we waited and waited….' And her voice was so different, high and clear like that of a little girl. 'I tried, my lover, I tried to get back to you an’ yer mam, but it was so dark down there an’ the air full of dust. An’ them rocks was so ‘eavy on me chest, I just couldn’t budge ‘em an inch. I struggled an’ I fought but in the end I ‘ad to give in and go where I was called.'
     'Oh Dad …' she began, her eyes filling with tears for his pain but he simply smiled down at her and took her little hand in his. She realised that she was no longer tired or stiff and she skipped along side him as he set off towards the woods. 'That was all a long time ago, my ol’ butty,' he said, swinging her up on to his shoulders, 'Now, less be getting’ thee wum.'

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