Fiction Friendship

Mrs Enid Galbraith, born in the reign of Victoria, and more than a decade before the old queen’s death, was, much like her hens at this time of year, no spring chicken herself, but if they could withstand the frost, she was ‘bloody shair’ she could. Her legs, though swollen, hadn’t failed her yet, and her back, though bent, still had strength, and if her arms could bear ‘the weight o’ twae tin pails, yin filled wi’ sand, yin wi’ witter’, and she could make it down to the coop past those rickety steps with ‘twae pund o’ feed in her apron powket’, then ‘nae metter whit her daughter sayed’ she ‘weren’t fer the knacker’s yerd yet.’

Up at first light, she put on her soft-but-sturdy moleskin boots and took her time, scattering sand mixed with salt as she went, and having seen the hens cleaned out and fed, she replaced the frozen water, clucking away alongside them.

Chook, chook, ma beauties, whae needs chestnuts roastin’ and mincemeat an’ tinsel, eh, when ye’ve got yer very ain corn an’ manger?

She closed the coop behind her, and with the empty buckets ‘a-creaking and a-swinging’, stamped her way back to the farmhouse, but before she thought about stepping inside, and as was her habit, she cast her small shrewd eyes down the length of the lane where Mr Jenkins had just left his house and was driving off in his pick-up, and where a ‘For Sale’ sign had newly appeared on Mrs McIntyre’s drive. So, it was right what Jean Jenkins had told her, Butcher Dawson’s fancy piece was selling up? Hardly surprising in light of all the scandal. It had been all good and well giving that Rosie a chance, letting her do ‘a bit o’ charrin’, but to allow her free reign like she had, and to the extent that she’d allowed her to take off in Dawson’s car and mow down her own father, that was sheer irresponsibility on her part. The girl hadn’t been right, and everyone knew it. She’d seen that for herself the day she’d come to the farm with that mongrel dog of hers off the leash, distressing her hens. Called her a bitch, she had, then had the nerve to ask for a job. Jean had said she’d done the right thing giving the girl short shrift. She’d have sent her away with a flea in her ear as well, and Jean was the most sympathetic and charitable person she knew.

Weel, speak o’ the divil, though she’s fer frae that…! Yoo-hoo!

Enid set down the pails and waved to Jean who was heading her way carrying a bulging shopping bag, and more noticeably pregnant now than she had been even a day or two since. December 23rd? She was due in twae days, what wis the wuman playin’ at? Traipsing aboot in freezing temperatures, risking her neck an’ the life o’ her bairn, and her a martyr tae her nerves. And what wis aw that she wis bringing her? Pleased as she was to have Jean’s company, she was going to have to ‘hae wirds’.      

Mrs Galbraith! Whatever are you doing there, outside without a coat on a day like this? You’ll catch your death!

Watching her footing, although she had good, sure-soled boots on herself, Jean eased her way up the hillside path.

Aye, yer yin tae talk, ma lass. Thought the doctor sayed ye ought tae be restin’? And whitever hae ye got in there? I hope it’s no fer me, noo. I telt ye I did’nae need onythin’ buyin’.

But it’s almost Christmas, Mrs Galbraith, the Lord’s Day, and if that isn’t reason to celebrate…

Jean’s smile was broad as she approached the stairs, and at that Enid chuckled, the whole of her deeply-lined, weather-beaten face, from the creases around her eyes right down to her chin and jowl, quivering with mirth. The woman looked more aglow that the Virgin Mary herself (by, that wis grand tae see!) and wouldn’t it be wonderful for her, if she did give birth on Christmas Day? She could just hear the Hallelujahs now, the talk of heavenly miracles, for Jean and Tim had been trying for years. She had her doubts herself, her belief in God, the kind, forgiving God that Jean believed in at least, had been blasted from her for once and for all during the war and buried long since, but aye, it would be nice. For her.

…And don’t worry about me, Jean continued, I’m fine. You know, I don’t think I’ve felt this excited since before Tim and I got married – and I seem to have so much energy too - so the last thing I want to do is sit around the house all day being bored. In fact… She paused as Enid led her over the step into the farmhouse where Jean gave out a little giggle… I’ve even started thinking funny little things and coming out with them too, like the other day when Tim said we shouldn’t really buy each other presents this year when we’re having to tighten our belts, and just like that I told him… again, Jean paused to laugh… that he could tighten his if he wanted but he couldn’t really expect me to, now could he?

Aye, ye’ve got a point there, lass.

Once again, Enid smiled but this time her eyes showed a trace of sadness. It was a such long time ago now, but not so long ago that she couldn’t remember how happy she’d been when expecting her first – that is until all the laughter and excitement had been knocked right out of her. They never did catch the man who attacked her when she was six months gone, and her husband, such a cheerful chap before - and this in spite of his having fought so young in the first world war - had never been the same again. There had been no need for him to go to war a second time. As a farmer - and well past the age that men were expected to - he’d been exempt, but along with their two eldest sons, he’d stubbornly enlisted, and not one of them had made it home alive. She still had the other boy, of course, Harold, the little one then, named after his father, and her daughter, Maggie and her brood – all grown up now – but apart from Maggie who, whenever she came to visit, kept blethering on about her being ‘better off in a home’ and how she was making her ‘fair lose her rag with all her darn pig-headedness’, where were they, eh? Where were her family? Jean had shown her more kindness in the few short years she’d lived down the road than the lot of them put together had in their entire adult lives, except, of course, when they faked concern for an hour or so whenever they came looking for handouts, or in Maggie’s case, just plain interfering and speaking down to her like she would a child. ‘A bitter old woman’ that’s how Harold (who insisted on being called Harry now) had described her before he took off, Lord knows where, with the money she’d loaned him to set up his non-existent restaurant. Well, she’d show them all just how bitter and pig-headed she could be. For ‘yin thing wis fer shair’ before she drew her last breath, she was going to see Jean Jenkins alright.

Jean watched as Mrs Galbraith turned her back for a moment to bring in the empty pails, after which, having stooped to retrieve a number of rags from another bucket, she wiped the dirt from her boots and wrapped the remaining cloths around them, ends pulled from under the sole to be tied on the upper in a complex series of knots. This familiar routine, her elderly friend had long since explained, served a dual purpose; not only did it prevent her from slipping on the hardwood floors of the house (and Jean did harbour doubts regarding the wisdom of this) but being a shuffler, ‘but by nae means a totterer’, she could polish them as she went. Not that the bare stone floor at the entrance was in any need of that, a brush and a mop certainly, although woe betide Jean if she dared suggest she help her out in this way, or with any other such domestic task. I’m no haein ony expectant wuman daein’ ma chores! Ye think I canny keep ma hoose clean? At first Jean had been taken aback, and yet she’d soon realised that although her friend spoke with a razor tongue, her cuts where those of a surgeon with her patient’s interests at heart.

With the front door closed behind them, and the inside door too, the absence of light in this part of the house felt repressive, the small square in which they stood made darker and more claustrophobic than it ought to have been with its one tiny window, set high to the right of the door, thickly frozen over. To Jean’s right, an overladen coat-rail was fixed above all the buckets and pails, and to her left stood a scratched old Welsh dresser full of mismatched crockery and kitchen utensils untidily interspersed with a soil-occluded array of the kind of item more usually found in a greenhouse or shed. But worst of all was that the dingy yellowing paper which only covered those parts of the wall from which it had not yet peeled had become copiously stippled with mould.

There noo! Wiping her hands on her apron, and taking the empty feed pouch from her pocket to add to the junk on the already cluttered dresser, Enid struggled back into semi-upright position. She let out a sigh which sounded more like a wheeze and, not for the first time, Jean felt a rising sense of alarm. There was no denying the farmhouse was colder than it should have been, colder than she remembered it being in all the years she’d been coming here, and she could see that Mrs Galbraith wasn’t half the woman she had been, even at this same time last year. She’d lost so much of her strength in recent months – and her feistiness too, for Jean could no longer imagine her chasing those ‘bleedin’ long-haired layabouts offa her land’ in the way she had done just the summer before last when they’d had ‘the cheek tae take off at some rate o’ knots, fair whizzing up the lane in their queer floral-painted contraption, making a mockery o’ Churchill with their twae-fingered V Fer Victory signs’. In fact, providing they didn’t go rooting in her vegetable patch or make off with, or otherwise disturb, her hens, she’d probably just shrug and ignore them now. Jean had even heard her say it. The land beyond, behind and to the side of the farmhouse and its dry-stone wall enclosure, hadn’t been hers for a long time anyway, so why should she worry if they trampled all over it or set up their hippy camps? Let the council, or ‘whaeever them bleedin’ ken-it-aw, sae-cawed developers were’, move them on in whatever way they saw fit. Not her concern. She was tired; tired of a life spent fighting and labouring.

Cuppa tea, hen?

Jean stepped aside to let Mrs Galbraith lead the way through the inside door, past the foot of the stairs on the left and the two doors on the right, those of other unseen, and she imagined, largely unutilised areas, into the lighter, brighter, sitting-room-come-kitchen but without a sink which was ‘jist oot back on the other side of yon wall’ so, thankfully, nowhere near as far away as the outhouse. Here, at least, the thick, cream wallpaper wasn’t peeling, and the plain white-netted multi-paned window with its burgundy rose-patterned drapes of polyester satin which hung just past the sill, was only thinly layered with ice. Although the temperature in the room was far from ideal, Jean could tell that the paraffin heater (lately supplied by Tim after Jean had spotted the old woman lugging sacks of coal) had been recently lit, and the pinks and reds of the softer furnishings did help give the place a cosy feel. Enid’s reddish-brown upholstered armchair with its crocheted patchwork blanket, which normally stood in the far righthand corner just back from the window, had been moved slightly forward towards where the heater stood, as had the cream and deep maroon semi-circular hand-woven rug where she’d place her feet when sitting. Also on the right, but towards the nearside wall, the two hardback mahogany chairs with their cushioned seats (which almost matched the curtains and had been fashioned from much the same material) remained in place at either end of a small teak table which boasted a centrepiece sugar bowl missing its lid and around half the cups and saucers and side plates belonging to two different (and mostly chipped) bone-china tea services. And while a white-glossed, grease-splattered larder and small matching unit, with steely gas stove between, took up the entire left-hand wall, and a hideous, none-too-clean looking porcelain commode which was neither antique nor, Jean imagined, fit for purpose given the length of its deeper-than-hairline cracks, had been placed in a less than discreet position directly in front of her, in as much as she always felt she should avert her gaze whilst Enid stood at this side of the room below the three large black-framed sepia prints of husband and sons in army uniform on the facing wall, once the tea had brewed and the old lady had settled, she’d always felt comfortable enough. Eyes to the right! Jean winced. What was it about being ‘with child’ that made her think the silliest things?

Jean laid her bag on the table as Enid told her to wait – she had the pan in her hand but ‘nae witter’.

Hold on a minute… Jean caught Enid’s attention by lightly touching her arm… I’ve got something here that’ll save you having to use the stove. And from inside the bag, she pulled out an unboxed stainless steel kettle complete with wire and three-prong plug.

Nay, lass, ye should’nae. Ye ken I’m no yin fer ‘lectrical appliances ‘cept me wireless an’ bulb efter derk.

You’ll save it being scrapped… There was a glint in Jean’s eye.

Eh? An’ ye say it’s working?

It’s an old one. Tim had it lying around the yard, and the men didn’t want it, so he would just have had it crushed if it hadn’t been for you and your boiling water in pans.

Nowt wrong wi’ that…! Enid harrumphed as Jean laughed… Still, if yer shair. Can’t be daein’ wi’ folks chucking things oot fer nae guid reason… She picked up the kettle, lifted the lid and suspiciously eyed the insides, then, certain that everything was as it should be, and therefore safe to proceed, she stuck in her nose and gave it a sniff… Hmm, looks an’ smells clean enough. Ye’ll hae tae show me how tae work it though.

As if she didn’t know, thought Jean, laughing to herself once again, but more from relief that Mrs Galbraith, in all her feigned ignorance, was at least in some ways, still very much herself. And as Jean busied herself for a while, transferring jars of piccalilli, mincemeat, beetroot and fine-cut marmalade from bag to table, along with a hunk of Dawson’s best ham, half a pound of roasting chestnuts (which she hoped Enid’s Maggie would see fit to serve up on Christmas Day) and a small, carved-from-limewood, stand-up nativity scene which she’d decorated herself with a little paint and silver tinsel, those Christmas treats which, in spite of her claims to the contrary, she knew the old woman loved, and which yesterday - and even though she’d been feeling those annoying twinges in her hips - she’d gone into town and bought especially, Jean knew she’d also done this partly because Mrs Galbraith’s ‘no needin’ sic frivolous trifles, and no being yin fer givin’ gifts herself’ and all the scolding she was about to receive because of it, had, by now, become just as much of a Christmas tradition to her as watching Her Majesty’s message to the nation or singing carols in church. 

Feeling yet another pain, and this one stronger than the last, Jean sat down, and very calmly, if a little giddily, sent up a silent prayer. Thank you, God, for this child, and for my husband, Tim, and for Mrs Galbraith – please look after her and keep her safe - and thank you too, dear Lord, for her having, just last week, got the telephone in.

June 02, 2024 13:23

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Beverly Goldberg
23:11 Jun 12, 2024

It's a lovely, touching story, but on first reading I was slowed down by the colloquialisms. But I went back to read it again because something called me back, and now comfortable with the language, it hit me as a powerful look at some of the realities of life--aging, new life, expectations for the future. It does need the voice of Edna, so changing that won't work. A conundrum. But oh, such a good read.


Carol Stewart
12:29 Jun 13, 2024

Thank you so much, and in particular for persisting. Actually, although I've lived in the Scottish Borders all my life, I wasn't raised to speak the lingo, and I find reading it challenging as well, Easier to write as I can hear the characters in my head.


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Rabab Zaidi
03:52 Jun 09, 2024

Interesting. However, the language makes understanding difficult.


Carol Stewart
06:04 Jun 12, 2024

I figured that would be the case for a number of readers. It was a tough call whether just to stick to straight English and lose the authenticity or keep it and take the risk. Thank you for reading.


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Marty B
01:17 Jun 04, 2024

Great detail and descriptions- thanks!


Carol Stewart
03:19 Jun 04, 2024

Thank you!


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Alexis Araneta
17:50 Jun 02, 2024

Such a sweet story. At least, Jean and Enid have each other. Beautiful use of detail, by the way.


Carol Stewart
20:00 Jun 02, 2024

Thanks, Alexis. Following feedback outside of Reedsy, I wanted to write something a little less dark for a change, although it did inevitably creep in just a bit. Pleased you liked the story, not often my writing's described as sweet, so yay, seems I can do it when I try, lol.


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