This was an unsuccessful entry into the annual Yeovil Literary Prize Short Story Competition.
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.
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?”
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
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
“Do you farm?” he asked
“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
“Will you take the bus back?”
“It depends if the bus suits
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
“I am”, she said and
stepped into the car. “That was good timing, sometimes I have to wait a
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
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
“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.
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
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”.
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
“What stock do you keep?”
“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”.
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.
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
“Which one is it to be
“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.
and pondered her absence, her disappearance into the warm May air. “Hmm”,
he thought, “that would explain £5 knives and speckled cows”.
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.