So my sister and I go out to Kirkhill cemetery in Penicuik to lay a wreath at mum’s grave. There’s something about cemeteries in Scotland – they all seem to be on the top of hills or in exposed places where the wind blows and the snow falls. Sometimes we drive right up to the grave and hurl the flowers/wreath out onto the ground without getting out the car, it is so cold. This Christmas we were a bit braver and got out and tethered the wreath to the concrete flower-pot lest it be whisked away up the Pentland hills at the first gale.
The road into Penicuik had been really busy so we decided to go home by another road. Carol tells me that there are plans to demolish granny’s old mill cottage so we decided to go and have a look at it before that happens. And there it is.
For all the years of our childhood my sister and I spent most of our holidays here with granny in this cottage. It is at the foot of Kirkhill in Penicuik and used to be a tied cottage for the paper mill over the road. There are garages on either side which looked after the carts for the horses, then lorries, then cars, and now derelict I think. To us now it looked so small. The room to the left of the front door was the ‘front room’ – the room which was always cold and always tidy. It was the room the minister or any visitors were taken into. There was a piano where I learned to pick out tunes by ear (and yes, I used my fingers too!). The room at the right of the door was the ‘front bedroom’ where Carol and I slept in a huge, high double bed with a bolster pillow. It was a very scary bedroom with a large cupboard which had no door but a curtain in front of it. That’s where the ghosts lived. We knew this for a fact because the curtain moved sometimes and scared the heebeegeebies out of us.
When my mother was a child aged about 7 she contracted TB of the stomach from drinking unpasteurised milk. This would be during the war and she couldn’t be taken to the City Hospital in Edinburgh where infectious cases were sent, because it was being used for soldiers. Instead she was put into the front bedroom and they transformed it into a kind of sanatorium by removing the window completely and letting the fresh air in all day and night. How this cures a child of TB I’m not quite sure but that was how it happened. For months. And months. During the day men from the mill would come to the window and chat to her while she did her jigsaws on the huge counterpane or reading her books.
So as Carol and I peered through the windows, we remembered the stories. The gates at either side of the house were long gone so we decided to go and look round the back. Would grandad’s aviary still be standing? The place where the hens scratched? The stick house? The swing? The dyke covered in snow-in-summer where the huge wasps’ nest was?
Round the side and back it was all overgrown with plants and weeds and trees. No sign of the outhouses or the swing – just a broken greenhouse. And it was so small. The yard at the back door where we played every day was tiny! The dyke was only up to my shoulder but when I was little it had seemed so high. There were the steps where we had our photo taken with the leprechauns which mum brought back from a holiday in Ireland. The garden sloped upwards to open fields where we disappeared for hours on end during those long hot summers. Pictures of a brown catsuit with yellow jumper came into my mind’s eye. (And you wonder why I wear nothing but black and purple today?)
But where was the hut? The hut had been built by grandad for his own two daughters: my mum and aunt. He must have built it in the late 1930s at the top of the garden. It was really a play-house, not a hut, but that was what we called it. When I was a child it contained an old comfy chair where I’d sit for hours reading anything and everything. There was an old gramophone just like the one on the HMV logo with a large trumpet which we wound up and listened to ‘I tot I saw a Puddy Tat;’ I’m a Pink Toothbrush, You’re a Blue Toothbrush’; Joan Sutherland singing ‘The Maid of the Mountains’ and other such delights.
There was no sign of the hut. But of course, it would be over 80 years old and unlikely to be still standing. “What’s that blue thing over there?” Carol asked. But we both agreed the hut hadn’t been that far away. Or had it? Could it be the hut? The hut where I read and we played and cousins came for tea? The hut where my mother had played? The hut which sheltered us from summer showers? But we fought our way through the undergrowth and manoeuvred our way up the slippery and mossy steps, being whipped by branches and wet leaves, before we stood before the hut. It was still there!
Our hut! Still standing but smaller than we remembered. OK everything was smaller than we remembered. We were so pleased to find it. So pleased to find a place with so many happy memories of long, hot summers and making jam, and learning to sew, and sticking a needle in Auntie Jean’s nose (serves her right for standing over me when sewing), and adventures up the Targets (yes, I think people shot guns there!), and taking Sooty for walks; and plucking chickens, and gathering eggs, and lying in the grass trying to whistle with it.
In fact I surprised myself with how happy those times seem considering they were practically in the countryside. Readers will know that these days I twitch dreadfully the further I get from concrete. But they were fun. It will be sad when the old cottage is demolished. But you can’t take away the memories. They last forever. Well, until I get dementia!