brown brick building surrounded by plants

A Sign of Change at Riverside Cottage

I am very happy with the sign. The yellow E at the end is a bit squashed in, but not to worry. You can still read it. Peter would have been very proud of what I’d made, if not a little surprised. Anything to do with paints and woodwork was always his domain.

My older sister Sylvia paid one of her rare visits to Riverside Cottage as soon as she heard the devastating news about my husband. As always, she held strong opinions about how future life should be run. Sylvia told me I had to sell up and move “nearer real civilisation”.

“Alison,” she said, “you can’t live out here by yourself. There’s no neighbours, no shops. And no hospital. What if something happens to you? What if someone tries to break in and you’re so isolated?”

I listened to her views and reflected on them. Ironically, when she said that I couldn’t live a life in complete isolation, I actually made my mind up.

“Isolated,” I repeated. “That’s why I’m definitely staying put. I don’t need anyone else.”

As I heard my own words, I could feel a shadow of doubt.

“I love the garden. It’s going to be my new focus. There’s the river and footpath at the bottom. And there’s always people walking past, doing that Cleveland Way thing.”

I gave her a gentle hug and whispered, “I’m not leaving. I can’t.”

As the weeks passed by, I settled into new routines and kept myself busy; mainly in the garden.

I fixed the low, wooden fence at the far end and managed to secure a new lock on the gate. Now that I was alone, I needed to be more careful. It probably didn’t need a new lock, as the catch was so rusted over it would take a professional safe-cracker to get through.

For a few days, the smell of newly applied creosote permeated the air. Funnily, I quite liked the sensation. It reminded me of the past.

One morning, when I was snaking the long, green hose towards the tubs of spruces, a young couple called over and asked me for the directions to the Blacksmith’s Arms. We faced each other across the fence and got talking. Initially they moaned about the muddy track and heavy boots. Then they spoke about the 108 mile route they were doing, complained about the shortage of coffee stops, their huge backpacks and, of course, the unpredictable English weather.

“Yes, we’ve been lucky so far. The rain jackets have made their way down to the bottom of the rucksacks,” laughed the lady. “But they’re never too far away.”

“Forecast is fine for the next few days,” the man added cheerfully.

“The only downside of that is I need to water my flowers,” I said with a smile.

They both chuckled and went on their way. Hopefully in the direction of the pub.

Walking back to my cottage, I realised that the young couple were the first people I had spoken to in three days. And, for a moment, I wondered if Sylvia had been right about this place being far too isolated. I was definitely missing conversations.

Peter and I used to chat away about everything and nothing. We didn’t need a crowd or a large family to entertain us. We had no call for community events or nights out with friends. We had each other to talk to and each other to listen to. Our two voices were more than enough. Now he’s gone, I miss that personal interaction. Talking to birds in the garden is not quite the same.

The van driver was happy that he had finally made it to my cottage. He twice ended up on dead end lanes, before he’d eventually got here.

“I thought the satnav was taking me to the back of beyond,” he joked.

“Ah, no. You’re at the right place. I’ve been waiting for all this, thank you. Mind you, the boxes are a lot bigger than I expected,” I said, holding the front door wide open for him.

With a struggle and a shuffle, we managed to get everything inside, without scratching the wallpaper or ruining our backs.

“You take care unpacking this lot,” he said kindly.

“I will, don’t worry. I’m in no hurry.”

“Let’s see if I can find that road again.” And with that, he was making his way back to the van.

With a tinge of sadness, I closed the door and locked it. It would have been nice to talk a little longer, but he was clearly a busy man. I walked to the front room to give him a wave.

He’d already driven off.

I followed his advice and was very careful unpacking everything.

It took me three days to get it all securely assembled and set-up in the back garden. Three days of hard labour. I became quite handy with a hex key and a screw driver. Peter would have been very pleased for me. With my new garden furniture, I was now able to sit outside all day, continue to listen (and talk to) the birds and wave at the passing walkers. But before that, I had one more job: Tackle that garden gate again.

The rusty hinges proved to be far more of a challenge, than I had expected. The skin on my palm was sore and turned pink. Thank goodness for the hammer. A few well aimed blows soon separated the wood from the disintegrating metal. Screwing the new hinges into the soft timber turned out to be far easier. With a few drops of oil and just a little more hammering, the gate swung open with the slightest push, just like a new cat flap.

I had created an escape route for myself. A direct link to the world beyond my back garden. Even, dare I suggest, a track to the Blacksmith’s Arms? It felt as if a jailer had given me the freedom to leave my own property.

The new lock was back in its box, ready to be returned.

So, there I was, for the first time, under a bright red umbrella, sitting on one of my newly purchased chairs, waiting for my paint job to dry. Splashes of yellow freckled my hands: I should have worn Peter’s old work gloves. I got up, walked into the kitchen and gave my hands a gentle rub. I switched on the kettle and went back outside.

The sign was touch-dry. It was ready to be fastened onto the little ledge I had nailed to the ash tree. I looked around, admired the garden and watched a small group of goldfinches attack the nut feeder. The grass was cut, most of the weeds had been removed and a few of the hydrangeas were in full bloom. It all looked beautiful, really beautiful. In the future, when I return from my walks along the riverside, the garden will greet me back like a close friend.

I placed my newly painted WELCOME HOME sign next to the unlocked gate and headed back to the kitchen, to make that cup of tea. I planned my first adventure out, that afternoon.

A couple of days later, as I’m making myself a ham sandwich, I look out into the garden and see two strangers sitting at my table. They’ve spread a map out over their knees and are running their fingers over it. I put the bread down, hold onto the knife and cautiously step outside. Hesitantly, I approach them.

“Morning,” the younger man says, with a warm and friendly smile.

I feel myself relax a little and drop the knife into my apron pocket.

“Hello” I reply.

“Can we have a couple of flat whites, please?” he enquires.

I’m not quite sure what he means.

“Sorry?” I say.

“Can we order coffee? Flat whites, if you do them. Thank you.”

In my confusion, I simply nod and turn towards the kitchen door.

“I can make a pot of tea,” I offer, as I retreat to the cottage.

The men glance at each other.

“That’s just great. Thank you very much,” the older gentleman says.

Unsteadily, I carry three cups of tea and a few ham sandwiches piled on a large wooden tray. I walk cautiously down the garden path. The men clumsily fold away their map and help me unload the drinks.

“I thought you might like a small bite to eat. You must have come a long way.”

Pulling up one of my brand new chairs, I sit down with them.

After a short pause, the young one tells me they have done eight miles so far today.

“That’s a lot of steps,” I say.

“I could tell you exactly how many, if you really want to know.” He touches his phone and holds the screen out in front of me. I’m not sure what I’m supposed to be looking at, but raise my eyebrows approvingly.

“Which way are you going?” I ask.

The young one laughs. “Hopefully, towards Saltburn.”

I point over my right shoulder, but I’m sure they know that.

“The beach there is lovely. My Peter and I used to go regularly. Used to take a picnic on warm days.”

“Hope the sea is not too cold,” says the young man. “We’re going for a paddle when we get there. Need to take photos. Our wives think we’re mad. When they see us with our rolled up trousers they’ll know they’re right.” We all laugh.

“There’s a couple of nice hotels on the seafront. Are you staying in Saltburn?”

“Yes, it’s all pre-booked. Just one night though. Hopefully, our luggage will be there waiting for us,” the younger one says.

They tell me all about the route they’ve covered so far, what drove them to take on this hiking challenge and how they plan to celebrate at the end. I share my stories of the coast to coast walk, which I’d completed twenty years ago. I even mention Peter’s bad toe that developed on day two. It seems a lot funnier now than it did back then.

They are good listeners.

“Okay,” the young one says. “Time to hit the trail again. How much do we owe you?”

For a few seconds I am stunned into silence.

Then it dawns on me.

They think I am running a café!

“Oh my goodness,” I say. I pause, then add, “You have more than paid for everything.”

They both give me a slightly confused look.

I smile, start to gather the crockery, and explain.

“Words are the currency here. Your conversation is of real value. This is just my little garden. I’m delighted you stepped in. And, if you decide to walk the return leg, make sure you pop in again. The gate will be open. Don’t forget; kind words cost nothing.”

It’s probably the longest thing I have said for months. And the most meaningful.

The older man stands up, leans over and gives me a sweet cuddle. We’re all laughing again.

“Now, both of you, on your way. Enjoy the rest of the day. And thank you.”

I watch them go through the gate and turn the wrong way. Two steps on, they dramatically spin round, laughing at their little joke.

“Very funny,” I shout. With a beaming smile, I give them a slow, double-handed wave.

After I have washed the cups and plates, I go back to the shed and get the paints and brushes out again. I’ve got one more thing to do.

I take down my new WELCOME HOME sign and place it on the floor. With thick, dark blue, matt paint I cover part of the wood. When I’m finished, I push myself up, gather the equipment and take it into the kitchen for cleaning.

In a couple of hours, the improved sign will be dry enough to rehang by the gate.

This time, it will only have one word displayed on it: WELCOME.

Published: People’s Friend Special