Another ending, another beginning. Words and pictures by Malcolm Anderson
Five months ago I sat here on this old lichen stained bench with my brother. The night was warm and still, the only sound was the faint breathing of the nighttime world and the noisy bubbles emanating from the cold beers in our hands. Above our heads the stars spread across a royal velvet sky, reaching down and touching an unseen horizon lost in the darkness over Cranbourne Chase. The spread of the Milky Way was so intense and vibrant that we both just sat there tired from having moved house all day, taking in the wild celestial celebration above our heads. I could feel the timelessness of the place washing over me, easing me into my new life at Drove Cottage. Turmoil was behind me and the future was feeling so bright I was pretty confident that I’d need my shades.
Five months have passed, five really good months.
Yet as the succession of Atlantic storms of December 2013 dropped their payload of millions of tiny atom bombs of combined hydrogen and oxygen, the aquifers under Cranbourne Chase steadily filled up. They filled up to the point where springs appeared where once there were none and the normally well behaved river Ebble down the lane passed it’s historic level on the EA website. The fields above me now resemble a broad gentle waterfall with water flowing between hedges, washing the scant topsoil off freshly ploughed arable fields and in the few areas where the hills are still left for grazing the water leaves confused soggy sheep stranded on small islands of tufted rough grass.
Drove Cottage has weathered many storms in the past, and will in all likelihood do so in the future, but for me it seems that my time here has come to an abrupt unwelcome end.
I was halfway up Arthurs Seat in the middle of Edinburgh and nursing a Hogmany-worthy head when the call came. The winds were doing their best to blow me off, gusting towards a force seven and howling like a dog with it’s tail stuck in the car door. I was feeling alive in the face of the elements, rejoicing in being outside. Then that one tiny phone call which changed everything. It and the ones that followed were ultimately to deliver a whole new set of emotions far removed from elation and joy: turmoil, sadness, pain and loss but also determination and bloody-mindedness.
It started off with a call letting me know that the living room carpet had a couple of damp spots. Nothing too serious. A few plastic bags down, a call to the landlord, jobs a good’un. I Keep climbing without much concern.
Then later on, another call. “Malc, this carpet is really really wet now.”
Arrangements were made to move the valuable stuff up off the floor, or to put them in the dining room, which was dry. Still I’m not too concerned , it’s an old cottage, carpets can be replaced easily. I went off to bed and slept the sleep of the cider induced dead, but then the next day.
“Malc. Uhmmm. Are you sat down? I’ve just stuck my head into the cottage and, uhmmm, well, the first thing I saw was your shoes floating about the kitchen. The living room is under about eight inches of water. The place has had it.”
Seven hours in the car then followed. Seven hours of dread, lethargy and what-ifs. Seven hours of conversation where I imagine I drove my patient driving company mad with my never-ending circle of thoughts and fears.
I knew that I was heading home to a mess. But arriving back at Drove Cottage just as the sun was bowing out on a miserable grey January sky nothing could have prepared me for the sight that faced me when I donned the wellies and head torch and hesitantly opened the front door.
In the hastening gloom I could see reflections in places that there should have been carpet and my nostrils were assaulted by a musty smell. The sound of lapping waves echoed from the living room to my right and the carpet in the hall squelched unpleasantly as I stepped in. I waded through the devastation, thanking Luke over and over again in my head for having kept such a good eye on the place and for moving the stuff he could. Without his actions I could well have been returning to much worse. The sofa and armchair are dead, as is the fridge, washing machine and cooker. Bookshelves are ruined but more importantly, books are safe. My running shoes are soaked in sewage-laden water and the rug on the dining room floor is doing a convincing impression of a dead sheep stuck in a river.
Anyone that has suffered a flood will understand my feelings of numbness and nod sagely when I use words like ‘ransacked’ and ‘devastation’. For those that haven’t, I can honestly say that it has affected me far more than I ever thought it could. Drove Cottage had become such a big part of my world that it physically hurts to see it in this way – a polluted once pristine stream, a post car crash friend in A&E, a familiar woodland haunt bulldozed and turned into a Tesco’s carpark.
The following days are a bit of a blur. My mind recalls snatches of conversations with reticent landlords, stingy insurance companies and family and friends. My back hurts from boxing up books and carrying them up into the drier rooms upstairs. Most significantly though, my heart will forever be etched by the memory of telling Joe that his home was gone, holding him as he sobbed as only a ten year old can, his entire world ripped out from under him again. To a ten year old, life is often focused the present, the future an abstract concept in some ways. Knowing that something will be better ‘soon’ just isn’t enough, it has to be better now, or at least to not have suddenly become worse.
In hindsight I suppose that Drove Cottage has worked its magic on me although I wasn’t ready to let go just yet, I desperately wanted a summer out here in this landscape. It’s healed me of a broken heart, introduced me to amazing people and given over a part of my being to this soaring chalk landscape. Perhaps my time was up or I’ve angered the ghosts of shepherds past. Either way, Drove Cottage has unceremoniously deposited me here a January later in an entirely different world, heartbroken again, but this time just over a pile of bricks and mortar.
So I sit outside as the sewage seeps up the legs of my old bench, alone next to a yawning front door, Drove Cottage my stony dark cold shadow. Joe’s staying in the warm at his mum’s house while I try to sort out this new mess, the friends who’ve carried and boxed for me all day have gone and the house is deathly silent behind me as I wait for the insurance loss adjustor. Gone are the warm comforting sighs of ancient timber and the nurturing ghosts of previous centuries, in their place is the permeating smell of moist decay and faint the now-wet memories of five months well lived as they echo on the still flowing tide in the bathroom. Despite the ending being so unlooked for and unwelcome I sit here and remember that first night with my brother. I remember the startling silence and the wide starry sky and I can’t help smiling, even as my unashamed tears drip down, adding a dash of salt to the floodwaters at my feet.
I’m down but I’m not out. I know that I’ll pick myself up, move onwards and make each day better than the last, Mum & Dad taught us well.
I’ll find that better place; I’ll build it for myself if I have to. Better yet, I’ll build it together with someone else.
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