Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Staying longer than to breakfast (3)


Mary McDiarmid lived at No. ½ Geddes Village, in what had been the schoolhouse until a larger school was built nearby in the 1900s. An aged lady called Jessie Ross lived in rank squalor at No. 2, which was the old schoolroom with a small lobby and office adjoining. Jessie was taken into care shortly after I moved into No. 3., leaving behind a remarkable collection of pink corsets. There was no No.1.

Mary was a neat and kindly single lady who had devoted her adult life to the service of successive Lairds and their families at the Big House. Her first language was Scots Gaelic. She never married, although she may have had a liaison with a First World War soldier, whose sepia photograph was pinned to the wall in her house. She would have been in her mid-70s when I first knew her. She lived without water, sanitation or electricity by her own choice, preferring to keep her domestic arrangements as she had always known them. She cooked meagre meals, mostly porridge (which she referred to as 'them') and mince-and-tatties, i.e. mashed potato with boiled mince, on a Calor gas cooker. In the evenings she lit paraffin lamps and read the papers, the Sunday Post, the Aberdeen Press and Journal and on Tuesdays The Nairnshire Telegraph, a paper so concentrated that it was - and still is - commonly known as the 'one minute silence'. Once a week Mary got out her sit-up-and-beg bicycle from her shed and rode it a mile or two to her brother's, where she had a bath.

Several years after I got married and the children arrived we got permission from the Laird to expand into No. 2, where Jessie had lived. The clearing out of Jessie's and the everlasting corset bonfire are tales for another day, but when work was finished the old schoolroom made a very pleasant family sitting room, and the office just beyond became my study. Until I started working late in there I hadn't realised that Mary's bedroom lay the other side of a pitch-pine partition through which sound carried easily.

At about 9.30 in the evening there would be extensive rumblings and scrapings, the sounds made by someone heaving heavy furniture about. This would be Mary securing herself for the night by manhandling a chest of drawers against the door. Then - at first to my deep embarrassment, which made me loath to use the study at night - came the unmistakeable sounds of her night soil bucket being used.

By the time we were thinking of moving away from Geddes Mary had become aged and fairly infirm. We looked after her general welfare, but it was clear that she would need someone to look after her once we had left. In winter she was beginning to suffer from chilblains, so badly was her house heated. She used to rub her fingers and toes with an ointment which smelt strongly of camphor and wintergreen. It was an udder-salve, something her farmer father had sworn by. Winters were hard in Geddes, and the snow lingered long into the spring. (In the photo below you can see Mary's shed on the left, our two kids, our house Cruachan with the dormer windows we put in and the snow-blanketed village stretching down to No. 6.)

When we left the Laird moved Mary out of No. ½ and into No. 5, further down the row of cottages, which was empty and where there was water, sanitation and electricity. It didn't suit her. She didn't last the winter. However, she lived long enough to be guest of honour at the Geddes Rural Women's Institute 40th birthday celebration. Inexplicably, her image in the press photograph of the event - I've copied it above - started to fade after her death. Although Mary is sitting in the middle, she has now all but disappeared.

However, it soon became clear that there were much starker reminders of her existence...

14 comments:

Spadoman said...

A marvelous story. Mary seemed to be quite independent. I knew a man like this, and similarly had to move to a nursing home in his later years, but not that he asked for it.
I am a bit confused. Did you live here full time, or just lived there when you visited? Do you still have access to the place? Or is is someplace that you no longer rent?
That snow looks wquite formidible, like our Wisconsin winter. Is that usual to get that much snow? What part of the country is it located?
You probably answered all these questions in the other two blog entries, I apologize if I passed them by.

Peace.

Dave said...

So, would you rather live there, or your life of ease in France?

Christopher said...

I agree, Spadoman, it's all a bit confusing. At first I lived a bachelor existence in that cottage in Geddes Village only during university and school holidays, while I was studying in London and subsequently teaching in Southampton. When I got married we left Southampton and lived there full-time. We left Geddes after 16 years of part- or full-time occupation when I took up an appointment some distance away. I have no connection with the place now, except for an occasional stroll down Memory Lane when we visit that part of North-east Scotland. If you want to find it on the map, Google Earth, for instance, it lies about halfway between Nairn and Cawdor. The nearest large town is Inverness. The official name of the place is Burnside of Geddes, but it was always known as Geddes Village. Yes, winters were severe, and the hill sheltering the village hid the sun from mid-November to the end of February.

Pax vobiscum, Spadoman.

Dave: Well, how do you feel about Dunstable? And what's this about a life of ease? It's very demanding, writing commentaries for Spadoman.

Sarah said...

I hope all this is going into a book Christopher, it's surely wasted on the likes of us.

Christopher said...

Sarah, there's no blog-family one I'd rather write it for, and that includes my new great-aunt Z.

Christopher said...

Sorry, an extra 'one' got in there. Momentarily distracted reaching for the F&N.

Rog said...

You can't have a lady laird!

The colour picture has a strange haunting quality about it though.

I, Like The View said...

. . .

*waiting in eager anticipation of the next episode*

ziGGi said...

ooooooo!

Is this a ghostly ghost story?

Or one with 'buried bodies ..?

**shivers**

(now doesn't that look like it should have 2 Vs?)


WV: partings!

Christopher said...

Rog: Lady Laird? The old Laird was called Charles, the younger James. 'Haunting' quality is just about right...

Jax: Coming up, probably on Friday. Hope you can wait that long.

Zigs: You might just be right. 'Shivers' with 2 vs? Why not, if 'ooooooo!' can have 7 os? But I'm sure you're known far and wide for your liberal and generous nature...


...speaking of which, Zigs and everyone who comes here, am I right in picking up from this distance a huge surge of popular opinion in favour of the Lib/Dems? Is the UK on the verge of a major political upset? It's about time...

Spadoman said...

Thank you for answering my questions. (you should be thanking me for having something to tell Dave in defense of your work ethic in France!).
Spurs thoughts of some of the haunts I have lived in. Have you ever taken a look at THIS?
I'd be writing for years just to tell about the tales of finding, moving into, and out of, each place, let alone the neighbors and our exploits while in residence.
Let's see, I've done where I've lived, where I've worked. Next, it'll be on to what I've driven.

Thanks again.

Peace.

Christopher said...

Yes indeed, thank you, Spadoman, for a weighty lead to swing in respect of Dave. People believe what they want to believe, of course, even Dave.

Just read Moving by the Numbers. Flabbergasted. Quite extraordinary. I've known people who made a living by buying up a place cheap, doing it up and selling it dear, but never such a compulsive mover before. I hope your feet aren't starting to itch again?

What you've driven - yes please!

Pax vobiscum

I, Like The View said...

it's Friday!

(-:

patroclus said...

Hi Dad, yes, Lib Dem surge may well result in a hung parliament, at which point the Lib Dems will insist on electoral reform as their price for helping to form a government. So we could see proportional representation brought in very soon. If the Lib Dems can hold on to their popularity for the next couple of weeks, that is.