...And the livin' is easy

We made the fairly dilapidated Peace Cottage into a very much loved home between 2002 and 2006.. What furnishings we had not brought up with us I mostly made, starting with my work bench and our extensive bookcases. Downstairs was our living room / dining room, a front room (that became Dee's mother Wynne's bed sitter, see later), a minute kitchen for several months with no cooker so we had to rely on our microwave and a shower room / toilet.

The Beaton brothers, crofters both living one to either side of us filled us in on the history of the cottage. Fascinating it was. Peace Cottage had until recently been the Beaton family home since way back. You have to remember that in the days before and after the Great War this whole area was to a large extent gaelic speaking and needed to be largely self supporting. Everything you wanted or needed repairing you either did for yourself or got a more skilled neighbour to do for you. Bartering was the way to live. Labour saving domestic appliances were mostly in the future even 'down south' never mind up here, where electricity was yet to come. These were, and I think still are people of considerable strength, resilience, resourcefulness and bravery. It is to me no coincidence that the male Highlander had supplied half the armies of Europe with kilted merceneries throughout the middle ages.

A stream - or 'burn' as they say up here - ran in its deep, timeworn channel to the sea within five metres of our front door. Ian Beaton, a man I would guess twenty five years younger than me, pointed out the flat rock in the bed of that stream on which their mother had beaten / washed the family laundry. And Harold Beaton told us how, when the boys were little there had been no appendage to the rear of the cottage, therefore no bathroom or kitchen as such. He and his brother had assisted their father in adding such niceties to the building by bringing rocks up from the beach for the construction of walls. The trouble was that for some years afterwards the family needed to go outside and round to access the new facilities because at that early stage there was no access from inside. Of course nobody needed or wanted planning permissions, therefore nobody had drawn up plans either for their self-built houses or their property at large. The Crofting Laws in the mid eighteen hundreds went some way to establishing an English style land registration but to this day land boundaries are sometimes a source of much irritable - and unnecessary dispute.

Within a couple of years I had generated enough of an income from my painting, greetings cards etc to necessitate a return acquaintance with Her Majesty's Customs and Excise! What is it they say about that pair of unpleasant unavoidables -  death and taxes? By then I had finished my digital wildlife series, painted a couple of dozen pastel landscapes and also a miscellany of oils on canvas. This, below, is a self-portrait (which a friend down south very kindly advised me to burn!)

At that point arose a problem in the shape of Dee's mum. Wynne Boulter, nee Smalley had always been very close to her daughter, Delia. Although Dee often flew south to pay her visits there it became very clear that the old lady's missed her daughter very much. Also she was suffering those scourges of modern old age - leg ulcers and incipient dementia. Like my father she could no longer live in safety by herself in her Alverstok home of some fifty years. Dee and her elder sister, Gloria, eventually found her a Care Home in place of the hospital bed to which she had in the end been consigned. Unfortunately she hated it and said how desperately she wanted to come live with us in Peace Cottage. Like her daughter until recently, she had never been any further north than her Birmingham birthplace unless to Belfast at a wartime WREN. 

So we rented a motorhome from a company with the unlikely name of 'Robin's Reliable Wrecks', mistakenly thinking the name a bit of a clever irony - until the rear door fell off our ancient vehicle halfway up the hill coming south out of Inverness! Never mind, that vehicle served to bring Wynne the seven hundred miles north in relative comfort. (On the way south we stopped overnight in Chesterfield where I was presented with a national an award; my very first, for my short story, Speaking of Champions.) Wynne settled down remarkably quickly at first, especially as a trio of district nurses did more for her leg ulcers in a couple of months that the entire NHS had achieved in a couple of years. My abiding memories of 'Winnie' are legion, for she was what used to be called a real character. I so well recall her often propelling her wheelchair down the driveway to park alongside the little lochside road, where she (an ex wartime WREN as she never lost time in telling people) would sit gazing over the sea in the forlorn hope of seeing 'at least a small warship', its crew lined up on deck as per the tradition on entering Portsmouth Harbour. A couple of times a week I would take her to the Isle View Care Home where she could consort with her peers in the main hall. But she was a very strong willed old lady, was Wynne. She requisitioned a special chair and woebetide any other od the old folks who parked themselves in it before we arrived. One day I sensed there would be trouble ahead when a lady of one hundred and four summers was found to be in 'her' chair. Wynne was only ninety two but I could hardly believe my eyes on seeing her lifting the centenarian by the armpits from her chair on to another!. 

After six months, out of the blue Wynne came out with the immortal pronouncement I want to go home. If I never see another mountain or another sheep I shall be happy. Not everyone, you see, is easily transplanted! We found her a lovely place in Fareham. It was expensively called the Merry Hall Nursing Home and it was to cost her daughters all of their mother's three hundred thousand pounds of savings. That was another irony although I suppose it was as Merry as any such resting place could possibly be. I recall the dozens of fluffy toy animals crowding her daytime bed and, long before Merry Hall, the motor car in which she invested almost human qualities. I can still see the electric buggy in which she travelled with purple cape a'flying down Gosport High Street with such an imperious lack of concern for the following traffic. She point blank refused to use the pavement. I can see that immaculate, flower-filled garden at 26 Madden Close and I can see her beach hut on Stokes Bay outside of which she would sit in the summer sunshine talking with any and every passer-by, often blue of hair and dressed - well … let’s say ‘strikingly’.

When we visited Merry Hall, often with Gloria and her husband Peter, we used to light some spark, where there really was no fire left, by breaking into some of the old wartime songs - White Cliffs of Dover, We'll Meet Again etc.At such times she would talk about Dee's father, Bill, and her Lancaster bomber pilot brother, shot down and eventually killed over Munich in the latter days of the war. At such times she would talk about the great ocean liner she had been watching as it traversed the urban landscape outside her window - five miles from the nearest sea.

‘When I am an old woman I shall wear purple,’ wrote the poetess Jennie Joseph … . ‘And I’ll gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells and run my stick along the public railings’. Maybe not quite in those ways but with similar intent, that was very much my mother-in law, the unforgettable Mrs Wynne Boulter.

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