Julia was the first visitor I had at the cottage. She brought coffee and coffee cake to welcome me. I appreciated it although if I am honest I found it a tad presumptuous at the time, it was lucky I was a coffee fan. She was not the most outgoing of people. It intrigued me that Julia had gone to the effort of going into town to buy decent coffee then bake me a cake, even chopped walnuts for the top of the icing, for a stranger, to then just sit gazing at the wallpaper with very little to say. At first I mused if she was purely the scuttle bug express for the others in the hamlet, gleaning any data about me that she could; although I could see her house from mine and knew that she wasn’t the receiver of many visitors since I’d arrived, if any at all. I had been taken aback when she arrived at the door with the cake within a tin labelled Scottish Shortbread and a can of Millicano. Julia said, I’m your neighbour from number four, nodding at the only house I could see from my doorstep. I glanced at the yellow door and unkempt plot outside the cottage that had made me presume it was derelict.
Julia had insisted on making the coffee herself, the granules irritated her by settling too dense at the bottom of the cup. She hadn’t seemed to trust me to do the job suitably. Julia had combed my cupboards for plates. I only have these, I said undoing a box with small saucers the previous owner, Mrs. Fox, had left when she passed away. Julia had liked the saucers, quaint, she said as though everything in her life wasn’t already. They were Mrs. Fox’s, I told her. She pouted, looking doubtful. Surely she knew Mrs. Fox, I thought.
Julia used the same teaspoon she had stirred her coffee with to scoop up crumbs left on her dish. She was forty-six, she told me then. It seemed shoehorned in and irrelevant to the conversation that had consisted mainly about the weather until that point. She looked much older. Julia was a heavy set woman with a globe of titanium hair. She was quite a formidable looking character by all accounts, she wore a trouser suit with pin stripes that looked out of place in Mrs. Fox’s ruched, floral living room, but then I suppose I did too.
I endeavoured to visualize Julia on the streets of Bristol; I couldn’t see her there either. The rain loped down the window and seated in amber droplets lit by the only street light sprouted between our cottages. When Julia said, it’s a pleasure to meet you, I questioned if it was the end of our conversation or the beginning of one, yet she sat on in silence. I couldn’t pretend that I had anywhere to go when I knew that she would have seen my every move. Besides I had nowhere to be. I wished I had something to ease the mood but I had no wine to offer.
Do you like amateur dramatics, she asked. It came out of nowhere.
I shrugged. It felt like I was acting already. Acting interested, acting as though I wasn’t stunned at her onset. Everything about Julia was so different to what I had anticipated, yet exactly what I hankered for in some way. Why else would I have moved to the highlands if not for something dissimilar?
It always rains here, Julia moved the subject on. I didn’t get to find out whether she liked amateur dramatics. I wondered if she had been about to ask me to join a group, it may have been what I needed. My lack of interest had put her off, but not entirely.
Do you mind the rain?
No. It rained in Bristol sometimes too, I said smiling. My attempt to be amusing went unnoticed.
I sometimes think that rain is the only weather there should be. It helps the lawn grow, Julia said. I had to bite my tongue to stop me saying that her garden had matured enough, it was time it stopped or she would be attracting burglars who thought that the house was vacant, as I had done until that evening.
Julia looked at the furniture, taking in every stick as she had done with me at the door. Her eyes had downed me as though she were shocked by my existence despite it being me who should have been more surprised by hers. I thought about a few days before when I couldn’t get a mobile phone reception and had stood in her garden managing to get two wavering bars there. I had a gander in her living room window. I reddened at the memory. She must have seen me.
Come to me for dinner tomorrow, Julia said. It felt like an order, this time I didn’t shrug.
It would be an honour, I said.
Oh, Julia said. I got the feeling she was unused to kindness.
The next day I got up and had a desire to go climbing though the sky still emptied. I drove to the bottom of Ben Nevis and pulled up in the car-park alongside busloads of tourists. When I got to the top hours later the sky had cleared. I sat eating a sandwich I had bought in a shop in Fort William watching the jagged tongues of mountains lick the heavens; clouds were not far out of grasp. I was inspired by the calmness and the snow endowed summit curving back toward my descent. It was otherworldly.
People passed on their way up, celebrating, wrapped in flags of charities. I took some photos with my phone etching into my memory the view for miles. I caught a glimpse of the time on my phone and saw that it was three o’clock. Thinking of Julia’s dinner invitation I began to rush finding my decline much more arduous. I twisted my knee and was swiftly reminded of an old hockey injury. Eventually I made it to Julia’s at seven o’clock. I rapped the cottage door and waited to be let in. There was no response so I ambled around the house cracking on the windows.
Ultimately I hobbled home disenchanted not to be on the receiving end of a cooked meal. I had envisaged Julia strapping my knee in an act of nurturing instinct; although we were nearly the same age she looked motherly. I had conjured some imagining that she would be enthralled by my climb and gaze at me as though I was some city big shot, somehow heroic. That was before I passed two ladies on the mountain, undoubtedly in their seventh decades at least, walking their dogs as though going for a Sunday stroll. I thought about the men who had sprinted past, slim and sinewy in comparison to the cuddly pensioners and wondered if Ben Nevis was a weekly fait accompli for the locals; if Julia would just sniff at its mention.
I poured a cup of Millicano into one of Mrs. Fox’s fine china cups and sat alone peering at the canary yellow door and the windows that remained stark in the dusk. The wind screeched around the cottage as I watched the rain pelting under the street light. I waited for my warm bath to run.
The next day I sat outside the cottage, the rain had unexpectedly ceased. I looked at Julia’s garden and decided that one good turn deserved another. I rummaged through the shed to see if Mrs. Fox had left a lawn mower and found I was in luck. I unearthed the old Black and Decker and plugged it into an extension lead that fell just short of the far corner of Julia’s front garden. I used shearers to begin with, to cut down the growth, then to tidy up what the mower couldn’t clutch. Afterwards I stood in my kitchen and scoured the green off my fingers with a nail brush that I pictured Mrs. Fox using with some sort of carbolic soap.
On numerous accounts I used the pretence of returning Julia’s shortbread tin to call at her cottage; the curtains at either side of her windows neither opened nor closed fully to show me any signal of life, or otherwise. In the middle of a game of solitaire one month after we first met, she appeared.
Would you do me a favour, Julia said breathless.
She came in and slipped her rain jacket off and suspended it on the coat stand. She marched into the kitchen where she began delving through the cupboards.
Do you have any of that coffee?
I have coffee, just not the one you brought me.
Didn’t you like it?
Yes, I did, hence why there is none left, I smiled.
She looked upset.
They don’t sell that in the garage.
I stood watching her; Julia was wearing her trouser suit. A water-proof scarf swathed her head like women twice her age wear. She freed it to drip over the Formica counter and kitchen floor. Her hair looked as impeccable as before yet almost an inch longer, face thinner.
What can I help you with? I asked her. She didn’t mention the transformation of her garden.
She poured herself a glass of milk in her overly familiar way and walked into the living room.
Can you keep an eye on me if you see me wandering?
I looked at her, all prim and business-like before me twice, like a vision.
Yes of course, I said.
She sat and drank her milk watching outside.
Do you mind the rain? she asked.
Hmm, not really.
It’s the only type of weather there should be, she said setting the clouded glass on the table.
Julia noticed Mrs. Fox’s photos I had yet to pack away, and do what with? Who would want photos of a woman they didn’t know?
I know that woman from somewhere, she said.
I looked at her, her eyes were laced with wrinkles and she had deep set lines around her mouth although she didn’t smell to me like a smoker.
What age are you Julia? I asked.
She stared at the photos then her face broke into a painful, mournful expression that hauled at my heart. Its ok, I said sorry to have brought it up. Some women didn’t like to talk about their age but the tears that ensued and her insistence to tell me previously clashed with one another.
I can’t remember, she admitted.
I knelt on the floor and held her hand in mine noting a few liver spots that told me that she was much older than forty-six but I couldn’t tell how much older. She let her tears run onto the lined trousers that where greatly muddied at the ends. I wondered if she had changed them since we had last met.
Where have you been? I asked Julia.
Everywhere, she said. Her eyes were probing, for a moment I thought I saw the little girl she once was. I wondered about her hair, always perfection.
I go for a wash and blow dry every Friday, Julia said suddenly lucid, somehow I never forget to go.
You are staying for dinner, I ordered and she didn’t disagree.
We’re going for a drive to get a couple of things, I said.
We drove to the town where I let her fill the basket with food. I handed her a jar of her beloved coffee and saw her smile for the first time. Then we drove back to the cottage where Julia took Mrs. Fox’s old bedroom, it was more suited to her once we fetched her flowery dressing gown from number four and a few of her other bits and bobs.
I wondered during the night if Julia would disappear again but she never did.
About the Author: Kelly Creighton is Belfast born, 1979. Kelly’s poetry and prose is currently, and forthcoming, in A New Ulster, Electric Windmill Press, Inkspill Magazine, The Galway Review, Poethead, Through the Looking Glass and translated into French for Recours au Poeme. She is editing her historical fiction novel, has one poetry collection and a short story collection. Visit her at http://kellycreighton.webs.
Story Song: "Bubbles" by Biffy Clyro