Loud knocking on the back door took her from the living room, where she had been about to start work, into the kitchen. Doris Smart’s face was pressed close to the little pane of glass. Jean waved and unlocked the door. She stepped over the threshold, carrying a large shopping basket.
“I can let you have some eggs, I’ve got carrots and a cauli’, there are some nice baby sprouts. If you want a chicken, I can bring you one tomorrow. Didn’t want to bring it over just to ‘ave to take it back. There’s some spuds as well, nice they are.”
As she spoke Doris unloaded the bag, and piled the contents onto the draining board. Now she folded the basket over and placed it on the kitchen table. She turned to look at Jean. “I’m sorry Mrs Duncan. First, I’m sorry about your husband,” Jean smiled at her, acknowledgement of the courtesy, “And I’m sorry if you thought I was rude earlier. You weren’t to know, about the shop.”
“No, it’s such a shame. And the tea garden is closed as well?”
“Aye. It is. I couldn’t keep it going.” The bright eyes sparkled a moment but it was tears that lit them, not the laughter that had used to be so near the surface. “I’ll be honest Mrs Duncan, I’m struggling. It’s been a bad year. The B&B business finished. I had a few of them bad reviews on the internet, we were fighting back, answering the complaints that were all made up. Then somebody said they’d been bitten by fleas and bed bugs. Well, they weren’t, of course they weren’t, but what can you do. Mud sticks and the bookings dried up. A couple of my regulars still wanted to come but you can’t run a business with a couple of regulars. Then we lost some ewes. Out in the summer grazing, that just about broke my Ted. They’d been worried, dogs probably. It doesn’t matter how many signs you put up, how many notices in the shops and what have you, it still can happen. But this was bad, half a dozen several days on the run. Awful it was. Then we had the fire in the shop. We were out, at a wedding, just one night, but it meant nobody saw until it was too late. Destroyed all the stock, the fridges, everything. We were lucky that it didn’t burn down the whole farm, but the shop was finished. I tried to claim, but I’d got the insurance wrong. It had grown from a little stall you see, and I didn’t realise. A separate venture they called it. I suppose they were right but it meant I got nothing.
A fox got in the hen house one night. Leastways that’s what we think happened. It could have been vandals, but we don’t have much of that up here. Anyway, the chickens were dead, most of ‘em. Locked ‘em up night times to keep ‘em safe, and look where it got me. Oh, it was just one thing after another. Then…” The woman paused, struggling for control. Jean’s instinct was to throw her arms around the thin shoulders but when she felt Doris tense and pull away she stepped back to the table. Doris coughed and continued. “My Ted is gone, Mrs Duncan.”
“Oh, Doris I am so sorry. When? Was he ill? An accident?” Doris was shaking her head.
“No, not dead, just gone. The trouble was too much for him. We were eating into our savings, we couldn’t fight back. Not with everything coming at once like that and,” She shrugged her shoulders, “He went off one day and didn’t come back.” She was crying openly now and when Jean pulled a chair from beside the table the other woman lowered herself slowly onto the seat, dragged a tissue from her pocket to wipe her eyes. She looked up at Jean, seemed to make a decision and continued. “I never would have thought he could do a thing like that. For hours I walked about looking for him. The police looked for him, they put notices in the shops, in the paper, even the local radio. But he were just gone. He’d taken the Land Rover and there was no sign of it, so they said it must have been deliberate. I still don’t believe it. I still keep waiting for him to come walking in. I can’t hold on much longer. When it starts to freeze I’ll have to get the flock in. When the spring comes, I can’t manage the lambing on my own, and I can’t afford help. I’m going to have to sell up, all of it. We had already let the big field go but now it’s the whole farm. But, if I do, what will he do when he comes back?” Jean was lost for words and so she sat beside Doris at the table. She took the other woman’s hand in hers.
“I’m so sorry. I had no idea. Diana didn’t say anything.”
Doris shook her head. “No, she hasn’t been up for a long time and I didn’t tell her. I didn’t want to risk losing this job. I need it. It’s only a bit but it’s regular.”
“Oh, I’m sure she wouldn’t have done that.”
“It’s hard to know what people will do, and I just couldn’t take the chance.
We thought we were okay, we didn’t need much. We didn’t have a mortgage but there were some loans, huh, show me a farmer without loans. Without the tourist trade we went down so quickly.” She flapped a hand in front of her. “Oh look, what am I bothering you with all this for. It’s not your business and you here on holiday. Ignore me. Do you want the chicken?”
The unexpected outpouring had left Jean struggling for how to respond. “Yes please. Is there anything I can do for you, Doris.?”
“No, there’s nothing anyone can do. I’m just trying to get by, day by day, you know? But, it can’t last much longer and then I’ll have to go and I’ll have let him down, Ted.”
“And you’ve no idea where he might have gone?” Though it was obvious all these questions had already been asked Jean felt compelled to go through the routine. It seemed the only way to show sympathy in the face of such a disaster. “I knew that it was hard for hill farmers but I am so sorry about all this.”
“Aye, well. I have to accept it and if I sell now, I’ll perhaps be able to buy a little place and then maybe, I’ll get work. I can’t think about it, I can’t see a way ahead, not properly. But we have to keep going don’t we. You lost your Jim, you have an understanding.”
“Yes, I did but it wasn’t like this. It was hard, yes it was horrible, but then my way ahead was relatively uncomplicated, there was insurance, well you know, all that stuff.”
“Yes, I can’t believe I could say this to you, Mrs Duncan, but there’s a bit of me that envies you that. Forgive me, I know that’s an awful thing to say but this… this is torment, and I don’t see any end to it. I can’t believe he would have done this to me without something terrible happening. I think he had a breakdown, lost his memory. I think he’s out there somewhere lost and on his own. It breaks my heart, and it’ll stay broken till he comes home. Well, now you know, and don’t you upset yourself. There’s nothing you can do, there nothing anyone can do. But please don’t tell Mrs Turnbull. I’ll not let her down, and when I go, I’ll make sure there’ll be someone to take over, but please don’t tell her.”
“Of course, I won’t, and please, Doris, if there is anything I can do, ever, just let me know. Here.” Jean pulled a sheet of paper from the shopping list pad on the wall and scribbled her contact details. “If ever I can help you in some way, call me.”
Doris took the piece of paper and dredged up a smile from the depths of her misery. “You’re a good woman, Mrs Duncan, thank you. I’ll bring a chicken tomorrow, you can pay me then. Cash if you would. Is your sister coming and that lovely boy?”
“Carl? I hope so, he’s at college now, so it will depend on his classes and suchlike.”
“College, good heavens. I remember when he was nothing but a little thing. Do you want giblets for the cat?” it was obvious now that the woman was trying to restore some equilibrium, was possibly embarrassed by the outpouring of grief. Jean respected and acknowledged the strength it took. She had been through similar situations herself when the emotion had ambushed her, suddenly and embarrassingly. She let go of the woman’s hand. Gave her back her dignity.
“No, thanks Doris. I left Slumpy at home, a neighbour is feeding him.”
“Aye well, it’s a precious thing that – having nice neighbours.” Doris shook her head gathered up her bag and, without another word, she stepped through the door and off down the path.
Jean turned to stare at the pile of vegetables beside the sink. What a dreadfully, sad conversation.,
Jean’s mind began to turn, scenarios started to play out in her head. She went through to the living room, opened her laptop, and began to type. Listing the facts, making short notes of ideas and inventing explanations. Lesley thought it ghoulish using real life events for her books, but they all started somewhere and often it was somewhere sad and tragic. She was always very careful that none of the characters were identifiable.
A sheep farmer walking away from his farm and his flock though, it was intriguing.