My wife loved the city. Well, she was born and brought up in suburban London. Sheffield isn’t quite the same, by any means, but it’s a busy, friendly city. I liked the city too. After all, I moved there to, well, not escape exactly, but to get somewhere more lively than the Cambridgeshire Fens. City or not, we both liked the surrounding countryside, which is easy to access. We also went camping sometimes, but always returned, of course, to the city.
We got old. Helen, my wife, had osteoporosis among other problems, and I had asthma. I blamed atmospheric pollution for many of our problems, but that wasn’t the whole reason for Helen’s decline. She lost energy, so she couldn’t walk like we used to. I’ve always walked fast, but even as I slowed somewhat, it wasn’t enough that she could walk with me for any distance. The last ten years of her life, I had to do almost everything for her. Her death, when I was seventy, was at once a relief and a devastation. We had no family, other than some remote cousins I never kept in touch with, so I was alone. Oh we’d had friends, or rather, acquaintances, but the relationships had never been deep.
I decided I hated the traffic. I hated the pollution, which made my pipes clog with mucus. I hated the rat-race, the discourtesy, the disregard for law. The growing tide of violence, with kids carrying knives. I don’t know for sure if things were really worse than when I was a kid, but it certainly felt like it. And I hated the constriction of law on law on law to try to control every aspect of people’s lives, but which weren’t enforced on the folks who were causing the problems.
I cleared the house – our library, which covered every available square foot of wall, I donated to the parish church, Oxfam, and the local Christian bookshop. Much of the furniture went to charity. I sold the house, and it sold well. Of course, I needed somewhere to live, but a motor-caravan worked fine. It wasn’t big, but it had all the essentials and not much more. A solar-panel on the roof would, I hoped, be enough for the electronics which have become essential to life. A post-office box for an address.
I set off for East Anglia. I wanted to be somewhere where there was much less traffic, and near the sea, so I got some clean air.
I took my time. One thing I did do, was to consider how I was going to get around once I was established on a camp-site. I thought back. Once upon a time, back in the day, I’d been a ‘rocker’. Not really. I owned a succession of elderly motorbikes until I married Helen and we bought the house. She didn’t care for them, and they went, but I still had the licence to ride. There was no way I was going to buy one of the flashy foreign bikes, with terrifying performance. They needed far too much care and attention and I’d probably kill myself anyway. I didn’t want a small bike, either. I briefly considered a pedal cycle, which would probably have been good for me in the exercise way, but sharing those narrow East Anglian roads with modern drivers? I don’t think so.
The answer, though I disliked buying a bike built overseas, was a Royal Enfield Bullet. The Indian government, in the fifties, purchased the licence to build Royal Enfield motorcycles of 350 and 500 cc. capacity, for their police and military. Royal Enfield ceased production in Britain, sometime in the seventies, I think – I hadn’t noticed at the time – but the bikes continued to be made in India. Then some bright spark had the idea of importing them into Britain. They had some ‘retro’ appeal, I suppose. Not that they were actually ‘retro’ in a design sense, rather, they were an anachronism. Pressure on vehicle manufacturers to reduce emissions – too little, too late – meant the bikes had to have electronic ignition and fuel injection, as well as much better lights and brakes. Anyway, I found a dealer in the unlikely town of Clacton-on-Sea, and bought a B5 EFI, the most basic model. I settled on a campsite on the banks of the Blackwater Estuary, and saved myself a very tedious cross-country bus-ride by having ‘Oscar’ (the name for no real reason) delivered.
Oscar was perfect. He probably wouldn’t suit many bikers, but he was exactly what I needed. He took some running in. I didn’t feel really comfortable about his bedding in until there were five thousand miles on the clock, but that didn’t matter where I was; the narrow, winding rural roads didn’t lend themselves to speed. In the first few weeks, I made two trips back to Clacton for servicing. I wasn’t going to take any chances with a new motor.
I was all set. The caravan was comfortable for one. It’d probably be workable for a family of four, actually. I had a laptop, and the site offered a Wi-Fi which was hardly state-of-the-art, but adequate for me to download e-books. The nearest town, Maldon, has a good library, too. Unless the weather was foul, I was out on Oscar most days.
As I got used to the country round about, I became aware of a cottage a mile or so closer to the town. It was easy to miss, with an overgrown hedge at the front, and covered with some sort of creeper. For some reason, it fascinated me. I’d been considering investing in some sort of annuity, or insurance, against the time I was no longer able to live independently, but property is usually a good investment anyway. I tracked down the owner. Actually, the son of the (deceased) owner. After a couple of months of negotiations, I ended up paying a ridiculously small amount for a third of an acre of overgrown land and a semi-derelict cottage which I’d never been inside. My idea was to park the van in the garden and work on the house when I felt like it. It gave me a proper address, which the bank, at least, liked.
My first forays inside raised some questions. There had never been an electricity supply; that was clear. Heating and lighting had been bottled gas or paraffin, or an open fire. The water, surprisingly, had never been cut off. Sanitation was a septic tank. More to the point, there was evidence someone had been living there. The interior was much cleaner and tidier than might have been expected. There was a plate, mug and cutlery on the draining-board, a mattress on the floor of the living room, with a sleeping-bag laid on it, open to air. Candles, and a couple of paraffin lamps stood on shelves. They were obviously very necessary, because little light filtered through the vine covering the windows.
Well, well. I had a squatter.
I didn’t disturb anything, and left on Oscar.
It took a day or two to tidy things up with the campsite, so it was a Saturday when I finally parked the van next to the little house, then walked the two miles back to the campsite to pick up Oscar.
It may be stereotyping, but I was pretty sure my squatter was female. Few men and fewer boys would bother to keep the place as clean and tidy as it was. So, that evening, I waited to see who turned up.
I didn’t know what to expect, but what happened was a knock on the door of the van. I opened up to see a tallish – five foot nine, or so – young woman.
“Who are you, and what are you doing here?” Was her opening sally.
“I think I ought to be asking you that question,” I responded. “My name is Robert Pearson, and I bought the cottage a few days ago.”
Her shoulders slumped. “I suppose you’ll want me out?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know, yet. May I have a name?”
“Rachel. Rachel Holmes.”
“Tell you what, Rachel, why don’t you come in, have a cuppa, and tell this old man why you’re squatting in an old cottage in the middle of nowhere.”
Her hesitation was obvious, but she looked me up and down and decided she could handle me if I bothered her, so she stepped in. “Grab a seat,” I said, waving at the end of the van, and lighting the gas under the kettle. She removed her jacket, revealing a brown overall, and sat at the table.
“I have Indian, Ceylon and Assam tea, Earl Grey, and a selection of herbals,” I told her as the kettle heated up.
“Um. Earl Grey would be lovely,” she said. “If you’ve got any lemon, that’d be great, but otherwise, just black.”
“Would you like a crumpet? Toasted teacake? Toasted muffin?”
“Wow. Really? A muffin would be great.”
I put a plate of scones (home made), butter and jam on the table, split a couple of muffins and slid them under the grill. The kettle came to the boil, and I brewed tea. Leaf tea, of course, in a proper tea-pot. I rummaged in the cupboard and produced the tea-strainer, before turning the muffins just in time.
When I sat down I saw (as anticipated) that she was wearing a Costa Coffee tunic. Her face was somewhat familiar, but her hair was down. In the cafe, it was up under a cap.
I poured tea, and she buttered her muffin. We ate in silence until I told her, “Help yourself to scones, butter and jam.”
Between us, we cleared the edibles I’d put out, and I poured more tea.
“So,” I said. “You think I’m going to turf you out.”
“I haven’t made up my mind yet. Right now, you’re no problem. I didn’t intend to move straight in to the cottage. There’s a lot to do before I do. Suppose you tell me why you’re squatting in a derelict cottage without electricity, three miles from the town where you work. Do you use the bus? I didn’t think it ran that often.”
“It’s not bad, unless I work late and miss the last one at about five-thirty. But actually, I walk from choice. It costs nothing but shoe-leather. Mister Pearson...”
“Robert. Or Rob. Or Bob. Your choice.”
She gave me a penetrating stare. “Robert. Dad divorced mum when I was ten, and disappeared. America, I think. We never got a penny from him. Mum, well, muddled along. Did her best, but had one boyfriend after another. Then she got leukaemia. I helped her up until she went into Saint Elizabeth’s. Died three days before my eighteenth birthday.”
She shrugged. “Don’t think He had much to do with any of it. If He exists at all.” Her head was down and I saw her swallow. Then she went on. “I wanted to go to College. I was pretty good in school, though my grades suffered over the last couple of years. But I got four mediocre ‘A’ levels. Anyway. The landlord was a pig. Turfed me out when I wouldn’t have sex with him. There wasn’t anything of real value in the flat, and I had nowhere to keep anything anyway. I had friends, and stayed with them a few days each. Got the job I have now...” she indicated the logo on her tunic. “The last place I stayed, the father wanted to charge me for staying, which I suppose wasn’t unreasonable, but if I paid what he wanted I’d have been trapped. Besides, he was making suggestions...”
I took a deep breath. “No excuse for that, but I suppose it’s understandable.”
“My friend could see, and she didn’t like the strain on her parents’ marriage. I needed to move out and we found this place. I couldn’t live rough and keep my job, but this wasn’t bad. When it was really cold, I burnt bits of fallen branch, and sometimes scraps from the boatyards. So I’ve been here ever since last summer, trying to save money.”
“Okay. Let me say what I see. A young woman. Quite intelligent. Resourceful. Determined. Moral. Rather pretty.” She opened her mouth and I lifted a hand to stop her speaking. “You’ve been camping out in an old cottage, which must have been in a poor state when you got here, but you’ve got it quite habitable. That’s a surprise, that you were able to do that and hold down a job. I’m impressed. My intention was to live in this van while I make the cottage fit to live in. That involves an electricity supply and a phone line. Preferably fibre, but I’m not holding out much hope. But there’s the creeper to remove, and I need to be sure that the place is structurally sound and weatherproof before the end of this summer.” I frowned. “I have no objection to your staying on at present, especially if you’re willing to help me with the work. Once I’m satisfied with the house, I’m not sure. Would you want to stay here with an old man? I haven’t even been upstairs. There’s supposed to be a bathroom and a box-room as well as the main bedroom.”
“There is. I use the toilet, and the sink works. When I first got here there was still some gas in the cylinder, and I could get some hot water. If I was still here in the winter, I was going to get a new cylinder of gas. There is a box-room. I could get a bed in there, but not much more, if I can stay.”
“Do you want to stay? You trust this old man?”
“You know, I think I do. Besides, I can look for somewhere else if there’s a problem. can’t I?” She sighed. “I need to sleep. I start at seven in the morning.”
“Well, Rachel, if you knock on the door at six, I’ll give you breakfast and drive you into town. I can’t do that often, because this old van is a bit expensive to run, but I will tomorrow. Would you ride a motorbike? If I bought you a helmet?”
“If ... that’d be ... great. If you don’t mind. And I don’t know about the bike. I’d try. But aren’t helmets expensive?”
“Fifty pounds or so for a basic one. And you’d need an oversuit to protect you from the weather. Anyway, go and sleep, and I’ll see you in the morning.”
She slid out from the table and stood. “Um ... Thanks. Robert.” And left.
As for me, I took a walk round outside of the house, and found the propane cylinder, which was one of those tall ones, about five feet tall. I knew there was no way I would be carrying that.
I woke up, as I often do, at five o’clock. It was June, so it’s hardly surprising that the light got me up. I got dressed and began sorting out breakfast. When she knocked on the door a few minutes before six, I was all ready with coffee made and eggs ready to be scrambled. I let her in, popped bread under the grill, and poured the egg mixture into the hot pan. “Tea, or coffee? Good morning, by the way.”
“Um, thanks, Robert. Tea, please.”
The kettle was boiling, so I poured hot water over tea in my smaller tea-pot. Multi-tasking, if not very well. Soon enough, I placed scrambled eggs on toast in front of her, then the tea-pot. Suspecting she wasn’t accustomed to leaf-tea, I poured for her. “This is Assam,” I told her. “Would you like milk with that?”
So I added milk, and sat down with my own breakfast and coffee.
I got her to work in good time. “If you come to the library after work, I’ll take you home, too.”
I had a most satisfactory day. In Witham, I found a bike shop which sold me a helmet and light oversuit without breaking the bank. Back in Maldon, I stocked up with extra food, and ended up at the library, where I used their Wi-Fi to chase down getting electricity supplied to the property, and to arrange a refill of the propane. A garden centre provided an assortment of tools I would need to begin to clear the overgrown garden and tackle the creeper, as well as getting me a light lunch in their cafe.
Rachel was waiting in the library when I got back there. “Sorry, I hope I haven’t kept you waiting long?”
She smiled, and her face lit up. “Not long. I was going to look for a book to read, but you got here first.”
“There’s no rush if you want to take a look.”
“Thanks, but no thanks. Another time, perhaps.”
Back in the van, she asked, conversationally, “You take holidays in this?”
“Not exactly,” I told her. “When my wife died, I thought I’d be better getting out of the city where we lived. I disposed of everything I didn’t want, sold the house, and bought this van. I was just going to live in it until I wasn’t able to live by myself. But I saw the house, and managed to buy it cheaply, so I can afford to fix it up. Maybe if I don’t spend too much on the house, I’ll be able to afford to travel around in this a bit, but that wasn’t the idea.”
“I’m sorry. I mean, that your wife died.”
“Yeah. I miss her, but it wasn’t much of a life for her for the last few years.”
“Thanks, I mean, for breakfast, and the ride.”
“Not at all. I got a lot done in town. I’ve got a date for an electricity supply, though it’s not until September. But that’s enough time to get an electrician to do a bit of work. I’ve got propane coming, and I’ve sorted out the water supply. They’re going to install a water meter, though. I don’t think they realised the supply was still on. A machine is coming to empty the septic tank. It doesn’t need doing as often as a cess pit, but I have no idea when it was last emptied. What else? Oh, a date for an electrician and a plumber. Not a lot of point calling on a builder until we know what needs doing.”
“Can I cook your supper? I mean, cook supper for both of us?”
Why not? “Why not...” I bit my tongue before I ended, ‘Sweetie’. “Rachel. If you’ll do something for both of us, I’ll make a start on cutting the stems of the vine. We need to get that all off to see what sort of a state the house is in underneath.”
“Okay. Y’know, I was kinda pleased with that plant. It kept me secret.”
“That’s a point. You’ll need a curtain on the living room, or a blind. But the plant won’t die straight away.”
She gave me a penetrating look, but said, “Thanks.”
So I spent an hour or so, clipping away at the bottom of the vine, then cutting through the stem every time I found one that was rooted. Some of the stems were a couple of inches thick. They took a fair bit of hacking.
I don’t know what she’d have had to eat for herself, not having any way of heating food, but having told her to go through my (tiny) refrigerator and the bags I’d brought back from town, she produced sausages in onion gravy, mashed potatoes, and broccoli.
“What are your plans for tomorrow?” she asked, cheerfully.
“Depends on your shift,” I replied.
“Day off tomorrow. I was thinking maybe I could help with something.”
“You can definitely do that, but haven’t you anything you’d rather be doing?”
“Like what? Walking into town to window shop?” She was scowling.
“Sorry, Rachel. I wasn’t thinking. I was intending to tackle the jungle tomorrow. Thanks for supper, by the way.”
“Any time. I mean that. It’s great having heat to cook on. It’s really nice having a hot meal at the end of the day. And ... it’s nice having company.”
“Yes, it is. I’d not realised it, but I was lonely.”
We sat with cups of tea, and I checked the weather forecast for the morrow – dry and sunny – and was about to open up my Kindle app, when I realised how rude that’d be.
“Um, Rachel, I was just going to read, but I don’t want you to feel left out.”
“‘S okay,” she said, “unless you’d like to play chess, or draughts, or something.”
“I have a chess set, but I haven’t played for years, and I was never much good. Want to give it a try?”
I was being modest, but I was also accurate. Rachel was good. I’d say very good, but honestly, my own skills were both limited and rusty. The first game ended with fool’s mate at the first opportunity. I lasted longer in the second and third, but the result was Rachel two, me, nothing. The last game ended with a stalemate. She was looking worried.
“Sorry,” she began.
“Oh, no. Rachel, never apologise to me for doing your best. I do not want you to let me win at anything. I don’t mind losing at chess. But you might give me tips if we play some more in the future, okay?”
“Well, okay. If you really don’t mind.” She hesitated, but went on, “If we’re going to work tomorrow, perhaps I ought to go to bed?” I nodded, and she stood, took a couple of steps, bent down and kissed my cheek. “Thank you, Robert. Thank you for being a friend.” And she left.
The next day, we worked like Trojans. Rachel appeared in faded jeans and a t-shirt, which appeared to be covering a pretty pair of smallish breasts, sans bra. I ‘strimmed’ the grass, which was horribly lumpy and dry. When I finished, the area looked pretty dreadful, but I knew it would improve. Rachel went round and carefully uprooted thistles, willowherb and teasels (I said to leave some of the teasels for the goldfinches). We broke briefly for tea and sandwiches at lunch time. Finally, we went round deciding on shrubs which I wanted to keep, and self-sown saplings, most of which would have to go.
We were dirty and sweaty and sticky. “I need to go get cleaned up,” Rachel said.
“If you get some clean clothes, you can use my shower,” I told her. “I’ll start preparing veggies for a stir-fry.”
She hesitated, and I realised why. “Sorry, Rachel. There’s not much privacy, is there? In fact, there’s about none. I’ll go for a walk. How long will you need?”
“No. I’m just being silly. I’ll go behind that curtain and wrap a towel round.”
“The water heater is on demand,” I told her. “You don’t need to worry about there being enough water for both of us.”
“Great. But I won’t waste it.”
And she didn’t. It might have been ten minutes she was in there, including washing her hair. I know she did that, because it was slicked down when she emerged. She had nice legs showing under the towel.
We swapped roles and I cleaned off the sweat and grime. I’ve always felt that sort of shower is almost the best pleasure of all, but that depends, of course. By the time I was finished and dressed again, Rachel had the stir-fry ready to eat.
“I start at ten tomorrow,” she said over supper. “I can walk in, no problem.”
“Hm. Actually, we got so much done today, if the weather’s okay I want to take the day off. I want to visit Stowe Maries.”
“What’s Stowe Maries?”
“It’s actually a village, but it’s also the name of a First World War airfield nearby, which apparently is almost untouched since 1919. Derelict, of course, but volunteers are gradually restoring it. So I’ll drop you in Maldon and go for a ride. You’ll get a taste of Oscar, and decide if you like it. You can call me and say if you don’t want me to pick you up at closing time.”
“Even if I hate it, I think I wouldn’t turn down a ride at the end of a day on my feet!”
We made use of the kitchen sink in the cottage to wash out our grubby clothes. Not ideal, but at least it got the sweat and some of the dust out. By the time it was hung out to dry, we were both ready to sleep. Separately, of course.
In Maldon, the grin on her face was enough. She took the helmet in with her, and I went on a mission. In Tesco’s I found a low-end smart-phone, actually almost identical to my own, and locked myself into a £7 a month subscription. There may be other deals around, but I hadn’t seen a better one. I detoured back to the cottage and put the phone on charge before setting off to find my objective.
It was fascinating, but I’d have to say very difficult to find. Access was by about a mile of single-track, military, concrete road, which itself was a turning off a minor road. But I had the tour, bought the guide-book and had my lunch there. (If you’re interested, Google ‘Stowe Maries Great War Aerodrome’).
I collected Rachel and we picked up Chinese take-away on the way home. By the time we’d eaten it, and Rachel told me she was on a seven a.m. start, we decided to make an early night of it. I didn’t mention the phone, which was charging from the van battery.
In the morning, I checked the phone and set it up with my number in while the bacon was cooking. I was happy about taking her in early because I was expecting the man with a fresh gas cylinder for the cottage. When I presented her with the phone she was actually speechless for several seconds.
“Robert...” pause. “You ... you’re doing too much for me.”
“If I am, I’m glad to do it. Just take it easy with the data allowance. It’s only five hundred Meg a month, okay? No streaming videos or sending pictures to your friends.”
“As if. I’ve hardly spoken to any of my classmates in months.”