This was an unsuccessful entry into the annual Yeovil Literary Prize Short Story Competition.
The garden gate of the cottage opened directly onto a road where someone unaware of the hazards of country roads might legally drive at sixty miles an hour. Sitting among a cluster of farm buildings at the crest of a hill, and at a bend in the road, it would have been be easy to drive the road without even noticing the cottage was there. Driving at speed, there would not have been opportunity to take in details of the small low building set a dozen or so feet back from its roadside gateway. Closer examination revealed that the cottage had about it an air of neglect. Grey, slate-roofed, it showed signs of needing a lot of maintenance, broken gutters, a cracked window, peeling paint.
The discovery that the cottage was occupied came by chance one summer’s day as he drove northward. In the gateway stood a woman whose age would have been hard to guess. The woman waved as if for him to stop and he thought there must be some emergency for her to be standing at the roadside. Drawing to a stop and lowering the nearside window of the car, he leant across to inquire if all was well.
The woman looked confused at the question. “I’m fine. Could I get a lift into the town?”
He rarely carried passengers and the passenger seat had disappeared beneath miscellaneous newspapers, sandwich wrappers and letters that should have received an answer. He gathered the accumulation together and threw it onto the back seat. As the woman stepped into the car, he was aware that traffic from behind was braking hard and swerving sharply to avoid him. It was not a safe place to be parked. “We are causing an obstruction here”, he said, “we had better move”.
The woman looked at him as if he were speaking in a foreign language. He felt compelled to try to explain to her what he had meant. “The gateway there is not really a safe place to stop; there’s no place to pull off the road and the traffic on this road sometimes goes very quickly”.
The woman seemed unimpressed by what he was saying. He felt that what he had told her had been received as an infringement of her property rights, as if the drivers of the passing cars should be told of her habit of waving down cars. “That’s my gate”, she asserted.
As he resumed the journey, he asked the woman, “Do you ever take the bus into town?” It seemed a silly question; no bus driver would risk stopping at such a spot.
The woman was dismissive of the idea, anyway. “The bus? The bus never goes at a time when I want to go to town. I stand at the gate until someone stops – as you did.”
No-one could argue with such logic. Anyone who saw someone standing in at the cottage gateway and waving would have assumed that the person was in need of help. They would have assumed, as he did, that some emergency had occurred, and would have stopped.
The woman sat in silence as the journey continued.
“Do you farm?” he asked her.
“I did, but I have the land let, now. I keep a few acres and a few cattle to have something to do”.
There was another silence. The woman was presumably used to many hours spent in her own company and was at ease with quietness. They approached the speed limit signs.
“Where do you want to go in the town?” he asked.
“Either of the supermarkets will do. Sure let me out just before them; I go into both of them – to see what they have”.
“Will you take the bus back?”
“It depends if the bus suits me”.
Presumably, the woman stood at the edge of the town with a hand raised in appeal to passing motorists; perhaps she was well-known to local drivers.
Perhaps a month passed before he saw the woman again. Seeing her standing at the gate as he approached the bend, he looked into the rear view mirror and, seeing a clear road, slowed to a halt outside the cottage and leant across and opened the passenger door. “Going to town?”
“I am”, she said and stepped into the car. “That was good timing, sometimes I have to wait a while”.
The following Saturday, as he walked down a street in the town, he saw the woman. The woman was carrying two shopping bags; her morning must have been busy. He wondered what might have caught her eye in the shops. Feeling that it was important that he should acknowledge the woman as they passed on the pavement, he asked, “How are you?”
“I’m well”, smiled the woman, and hurried on up the street with her shopping, showing no inclination to stop to join in any further conversation.
“Who were you talking to?” asked his companion as they continued their walk to a cafe. It seemed an odd question, wasn’t it obvious?
“She is a farmer to whom I have given a lift a couple of times. She lives in a cottage a couple of miles out. It’s easy to miss, it’s where there is a bend on a crest of the hill, you’ll have passed it.”
No further comment passed between them, even the encounter slipped from the mind until it became a point to ponder.
A year or more must have passed until a bright May afternoon when he was driving toward the town. A familiar figure stood at the cottage gate. He braked and drew up where she stood. His car was much more untidy than usual and he gathered a pile of papers and put them on the back seat of the car, among the chaos that would spill onto the floor at a sharp bend or sudden stop.
“I haven’t seen you for a long time”, said the woman, as she opened the passenger door and got into the car.
“No”, he replied, “it must be at least a year. How are things on the farm?”
“Oh, they are fine. I have had some unpleasant callers. There was a man trying to sell me a knife for £5 . . . I had to tell him where to go . . . I won’t tell you what I said”. The woman seemed anxious at recalling the incident.
It seemed an odd story; perhaps the woman was a little muddled. Why would someone call trying to sell a knife for £5? Even if the knife had cost the salesman nothing, there would have been little income earned during in a day spent trying to sell such knives to women who chased you from their door.
He felt that it was better to stick to safe and familiar stuff; stick to the farming and not ask further about something that had obviously caused the woman a good deal of upset. He looked across the farmland that lay on both sides of the road. The spring was past and there were routine questions that might be asked, without there being any risk of upset or offence.
“How did calving go?” He asked her.
“Oh, I don’t worry about calving, now. I’m past the age of being able to look after cows that are calving. I buy stock in and fatten it before selling in the autumn. I bought ten animals a couple of weeks ago”.
He thought about asking from where she had bought the cattle, but she might think it was an intrusive question. Certainly, she would think it intrusive if he asked if the cattle had come at a good price, not that he had any idea what a good price might be. When it came to money, the buying and selling of cattle was a delicate business.
“What stock do you keep?” he asked.
“Oh, I have four black and white ones, four black ones, and one speckled one.”
Four, four and one didn’t make ten; he refrained from doing the mental arithmetic aloud, lest she thought he was suggesting that she was not truthful. What was more surprising than the arithmetic was a farmer who seemed not to know the breed of her cattle. “Are the black ones Aberdeen Angus?”
“Oh, yes, I think so”, said the woman. “I don’t know what the others are”.
He didn’t venture further suggestions of what the breeds might be. Perhaps the white ones were Charolais, perhaps not. The speckled one, who knew? Did farmers really talk about cattle as “speckled”? Wasn’t it a word from children’s stories? Perhaps he should go to a cattle market sometime and find out what words were used. If the woman did not know the breeds of her cattle, how would she know if she was being offered a fair price for them? Even he knew that one breed of animal might command a considerably higher price than another. Perhaps the woman was not too worried, perhaps the cattle were just a hobby. He wouldn’t like to think she was not getting a fair deal, some dealers could be unscrupulous.
They approached the point in the town to which he had driven the woman on previous occasions. “Do you want to be dropped off near the supermarkets?”
“Yes, please”, the woman replied.
“Which one is it to be today?”
“Either will do, you could let me out up here on the left”.
The street was wide, the traffic was light, and it was easy to pull up without causing delay.
“Thank you very much,” said the woman and opened the door of the car and stepped out on to the pavement.
Going to the supermarket on the left-hand side of the street would have meant the woman just walking along the pavement to the shop doorway just a few paces further up the street. Going to the other supermarket on the other side of the street would have meant her crossing the road behind the car. Sitting in the car, there was no sign of the woman walking up the street to the supermarket on the left. Looking into the car mirror, there was no sign of her crossing the road to go to the supermarket on the right. Turning around and looking to the left and to the right, there was no sign of her anywhere. She seemed just to have disappeared.
He paused and pondered her absence, her disappearance into the warm May air. “Hmm”, he thought, “that would explain £5 knives and speckled cows”.
Doubting what he had not seen, in the months that followed he watched for her each time he passed the cottage. Once, he thought he saw her crossing the road that passed her gateway, a white bucket in her right hand, a collie dog at her heel, but there were no cattle of any colour in the field, neither nine nor ten. Vendors of £5 knives would find little custom. Not that he believed in ghosts.