It has been very cold these last few weeks here in the city. One night, when the house seemed to have given up on keeping us warm and we were as close to the gas-fire as we could get and wrapped in several layers of wool, I remembered. I remembered that kind of relentless cold that seeps into bones and stays there–and yet it was only seven below zero outside. I have become soft.
Time was–when I lived up in the hills and wild in an old single-story stone farmhouse–I had to leave my bed every morning for frozen clothes and go out into real, shocking cold to chop kindling for the stove in the kitchen. The horses would be leaning across the gate by the stable snorting steaming breath and asking loudly for their warm bran-mash, but first job was to warm the kitchen. The stove was an old black cast-iron range, not original to the house but installed by us in one of our many moments of madness and romanticism for the old ways. It smoked when the wind came from the east. We burned peat and wood. It had been designed for coal, but coal smoke would have killed us all. Its appetite was voracious, but I loved it and kept it polished and gleaming with black lead–probably toxic as coal-smoke.
Then to feed the horses, huge Clydesdales and small stocky Shetlands. Ridiculous visually. (It accidentally resulted in a cross Clydesdale/Shetland foal–beautiful creature, a perfectly proportioned miniature cart-horse). Mixing up buckets-ful of warm bran on an icy morning was a contented pleasure. Getting the children up in time to catch the school-bus was not. Their reluctance was so understandable that I felt bad yelling at them, which often meant getting in the car, bumping down the track and chasing the bus half-way to the High School, fifteen miles away. I’m sure the driver took delight in watching us in his rear-view mirror, our headlights flashing, arms waving out of windows. He took longer and longer to stop for us as the winter went on.
The pipes would be frozen despite all attempts at lagging. Only the well at the end of the house would still be filling with water from deep down in the rocks. Perfect water. Going to the well in the dark was something I had to draw myself up for. One moonless night my partner hid in the doorway nearest the well and said boo in the smallest of voices as I returned with a bucket in each hand. My squawk and the flying buckets made him happy for days.
The kitchen floor was made of bricks from the inside of a steel kiln. They were as hard and cold as could be but we had chosen them for their colour–a pale pink. They had to be scrubbed well and often as they were absorbent and all footprints, dogprints and general mud and life stuck to them. And the big wooden table; I refused to varnish its beautiful old worn surface and so it had to be scrubbed too. I was tempted to leave it and let the marks all blend into one another but I could not wait the years it would have taken.
I made bread. Every day. We always had a houseful of wanderers passing through, also friends and friends of children, all needing to be fed. They got a lot of bread.
We had a workshop in one of the farm buildings making furniture out of recycled wood, and customers would brave the mile-long rutted track to buy the beautiful things we had laid out in the big restored barn. They would come into the kitchen for a cup of tea and I learned a lot about people through this time, heard a lot of stories.
I am often asked if I miss the life in the wilds. No I don’t. Not really. Well I do miss the warmth of making bread and I suppose I miss the stories. And maybe the horses–the big dumb Clydesdales and the wickedly wise Shetlands. I probably miss the fireside and the odd summer’s day when the weather was perfect. They were few though, where we lived seemed to have its own personal raincloud. I don’t miss the shivering muddy dogs, the horses putting their backs to the howling wind, the next door farmer’s slaughter of the lambs and the separating of the calves from their mothers and the cries all night, I don’t miss the foxes being poison-gassed in their lairs nor our dogs being shot. Nor the floodwater coming down the hill and through the back door so that we had to open the front door to let it out. And now, even after living back in the city for 17 years, many times a day I am thankful. I think a person can go a certain kind of crazy in the isolation of rural living even though we had visitors a-plenty. There is something about being surrounded by humanity in these streets that warms me through and through.
Vashti Bunyan 2010.