I put mother’s cottage on the market immediately after her funeral. The elderly couple that bought it were enchanted from the moment they stepped through the creaky old front door. ‘Perfect, absolutely perfect,’ they both muttered absently. They seemed oblivious to the size of the rooms, the draughts whipping under the door and the lack of most amenities. How mother ever managed with only one electrical socket in the kitchen confounds me. I resisted all temptation to alert them to the deficiencies and the sale was agreed. Mother was the fourth generation of her family to occupy the cottage. It only lasted a few weeks in the hands of the fifth. I was glad to be rid of the burden.
So why is it, some five years later, my mind keeps dredging up memories of the place? I remember now the open fire with nostalgic affection. The dancing light and sharp heat that pricked my cheeks. Mother and father sitting either side of the hearth, their armchairs so close in the tiny room they could have reached out and held hands. They never needed to.
In the alcove to one side of the chimney was the shelf containing the yellowed volumes of Dickens, Hardy, Austen, Conan Doyle and Wordsworth. Buried within each was the archaeology of my ancestors. Old bookmarks in antiquated print, turned corners of pages where tiredness or time drew reading to a close, biscuit crumbs and greasy finger prints.
But their treasure was the old family bible.
I can still picture mother and father each evening engrossed in their books. The room silent except for the wearily ticking clock, occasional turning of a page or spitting of the coals. Conversation was rare and brief.
‘Yes. Thought it might snow.’
They spoke without looking up, then continued with their reading. Sometimes mother would stop reading and stare in contemplation at the flames.
‘You’d better bring extra coal in tomorrow.’
At some invisible, silent signal both would stop their reading. Father would reach up to the shelf for the family bible and, turning slowly to the page he was seeking, read a chapter aloud. Mother, with eyes closed, listened intently, consuming every verse as if father’s deep, gentle tones were revealing God’s word for the very first time. A brief prayer of thanksgiving for the day followed by mother’s barely audible ‘Amen’ drew the curtain on another day.
Such simple living. No television. No computer. Not even a telephone. Heating did not come at the touch of a switch nor hot water at the turn of a tap. A life with so few material rewards and fewer expectations. Yet strangely fulfilled. I feel sure now, in hindsight, they had some secret of peace and contentment. I’m also sure they were completely unaware of it.
So here I sit in my lounge trying to create my own serene space. The dinner things are in the dishwasher and I have snuggled into the least uncomfortable designer chair with my book. The TV is off and the reading lamp throws unmoving shadows across the room, hiding the neglected dusting and tidying from my vision - but not from my mind. In one bedroom above me I can hear the loud rumbles of World War Two being fought again. Virtual lives being extinguished at the flick of a hand controller. In another a victim of assault by drill or chain saw shrieks in terror from the screen. Entertainment.
The shrill tone of the telephone makes me jump. I hear the voice of a salesman rambling on to the answering machine about how extra life insurance would give us peace of mind. I throw my book at the machine.
Stephen bursts in. ‘My teacher says the hole in the ozone layer is getting bigger and we should be really worried about it.’ I thought, ‘It’s the hole in our tranquillity layer I’m more concerned about.’ I look in to his agitated eyes and fell saddened and guilty at my failure to create the secure haven the children deserve. I pat the seat, imploring him to sit with me, and reach for the old family bible. He smiles at me as I start to read. ‘Do not let you hearts be troubled......’
(John chapter 14. NIV)
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