“Miranda’s got a new thing”
Niles’ voice down the phone is resigned. And that’s never a good sign. As feature editor for one of the magazines I freelance for, he is the conduit through which the Powers on High, namely Miranda the Editor-in-chief, issues her commands.
“She’s got it in to her head that people in the country live longer than those in the city”
“And do they?” I ask.
“I wouldn’t have thought so” he says, “Too many natural hazards. You might be gored to death by a run-away bull for example or be suffocated by a collapsing hayrick. Is that the right word? Hayrick?”
“I believe so. But you forget I’m new to the countryside and so I’ve never actually got close to one”
“Well you’re about to. Miranda wants 1500 words by Monday. There’s a small holding that she’s heard about where the couple that run it are in their nineties. Go get their tips on longevity. And not just the usual boring stuff… don’t drink… blah… go to bed with the sun… blah… milk a cow a day to keep herpes at bay…”
Where he’s getting this stuff about the benefits of pumping your own semi-skimmed I can’t imagine, because Niles is a Soho/Shoreditch metrosexual who has probably never even seen a cow. But then I have been out with him and his friends on a couple of wild Friday nights and so I’m guessing he probably has seen the inside of a STD clinic.
“Niles, I don’t think herpes is cured by…”
“Whatever. Just make sure it’s something fresh. Something new.”
Blimey, I think, how am I supposed to do that but he rings off before I can ask him.
I find the hamlet of Groaning with some difficulty. There aren’t any signposts and when I do eventually stumble upon it, I can fully understand why. No one in their right mind would want to come here. I doubt it’s the picturesque village that Miranda was planning for the photoshoot that would accompany my article. It’s a dump. The only directions needed are ones telling you how to get the hell out of the place.
A handful of forlorn looking chickens and a pair of quarrelsome geese peck disconsolately through well-trodden straw in the smallholding’s yard. A lone cow gazes vacantly at me over a stable door as does an ancient grey-whiskered collie from within its delipidated kennel. Neither respond to my greeting. Things do not look promising. No country idyll this. There’s not a trug basket in sight. Not even an upturned chimney-pot used as a plant holder.
I knock on the door and after some delay a very old woman in double denim and carpet slippers answers.
“Hi, I’m Sally Forth” I say, “From the magazine. I made an appointment. You’re Mrs Blight I take it?”
Her black button eyes assess me.
“Yes, but you’ll have to wait because he’s out with “The Major” She says at last.
“Your husband? Fine” I say, “Maybe I could come in and we could chat until he returns?”
Grudgingly she opens the door and ushers me in to a cheerless back room. She doesn’t offer me tea for which I’m grateful. The two grimy plates on the coffee table don’t bode well. Perhaps it’s the building up of one’s immune system against germs that prolongs life? But this isn’t the ideal opener for our conversation.
“So, Mrs Blight, you and your husband are over ninety years of age and yet still running your small holding and taking care of this…”
My eyes flick unbidden to the dust lying across every surface “… this charming house. What’s your secret?”
“There isn’t one”
“But there must be?” I persist “Here you are looking very… spry. What is it about country life that…”
“It won’t be me that goes first. It’ll be him” She folds her thin arms across her chest “He doesn’t like it but there it is”
“I’m sorry?” Clearly, I’m missing something.
“He won’t outlive me” Her voice takes on a defiant note “I’m holding on right to the bitter end, I am”
Bitter is right, I think.
“So what you’re saying is that you are determined to outlast your husband… to what?… Spite him?”
“That’s right. Same for him”
As simple as that then. Bloody mindedness is the key to a long life. I think I might be on to something with this. 1500 words won’t be enough.
There’s a commotion at the door and an elderly man with a face like a camel enters and then behind him… a goat.
“How many times do I have to tell you?” Mrs Blight exclaims resentfully “Not to bring “The Major” in here”
The Major? And here I was expecting some game old military chum of Mr Blight’s.
“He’s all right where he is” is the querulous reply.
The camel shuffles into an armchair and the goat lies peaceably down at his feet.
As I take my leave I look across at the cow in the stable and sparing a thought for Niles, I ask Mrs Blight
“Does milking a cow prevent herpes?”
The door slams shut in my face.
TO BE CONTINUED