It was there, wedged deep in her imagination, as monumental a dwelling as any other she could remember; not monumental in the true sense, but remarkable in its importance. She could visualize the latticed casement-windows; the crooked chimney with its four pots issuing smoke even in summer; the old-fashioned roses around the low, warped door, its thorny offshoots stealing towards the brass horseshoe, displayed with a kind of imperious pride ... if domiciles were capable of possessing such sentiments. The image was as true as any photograph; only, however detailed a photograph it could not immortalise the smells of the place: the aroma of Weetabix, warm milk and honey that greeted each day, and the farmyard odour ever present beyond the cottage door. Ascending into the endlessly azure sky were two granolithic gate pillars, tops like pyramids and girths as wide, it seemed, as the chicken house. It was where she would climb to watch the cows come by for milking.
She allowed her mind to wander the surrounding sunlit lanes, hopscotching shadows the way she used to, frequently interrupting the game to perform handstands against crumbling walls, or select the longest grasses to tickle her father's neck. And then, prompted by thoughts of her father and his favourite pastime, she recalled those restful periods when, surrounded by angling paraphernalia, she quietly watched the salmon leap in the Herefordshire river. Yes, it was there, immutably lodged in her imagination, and that's what she wanted to find; it was what she'd been searching for this past hour.
Vida Maitland reversed the Renault onto a bumpy dirt path and switched off the engine, thinking in her frustration that if anyone told her to move she'd probably explode. She had been driving from one coterie of cottages to the next, coasting unnamed narrow lanes, none of which had passing places, and had even enquired in isolated shops, but no-one knew the location of the place she sought. Despondently, she unscrewed a beaker of orange juice and took a sip, seriously wondering if the journey had been a waste of time. Balancing the beaker on her knee, one finger curled round it's base, she leaned back and closed her eyes, willing the picture to return. Her mind's eye travelled the lanes, giving way at crossroads, unnecessarily since hers was the only car. It was then, during one of the mandatory pauses, that she saw where she had gone wrong. The signpost in the foreground was askew; it pointed straight ahead instead of sending her to the left: to Verdun Cottage.
Forgetting the beaker, she shot up and swiftly started the engine, unaware of the orange juice seeping through her tights. She drove recklessly in her eagerness, bidden by memories to visit the cottage she remembered so well; to see the sheep and the goats, and the arbor with the overhead brush of honeysuckle, and the wilderness garden to the side of the farm, all set in the heart of pasture-land and encouragingly near the river.
A second signpost told her to turn right. This she did and as she rounded the corner, lo and behold, she saw it: Verdun Cottage, as beautiful as it ever was, but significantly smaller. She stopped the car and wrenched the brake, staring disbelievingly at the scene. The granolithic gate supports, the crooked chimney, and the door with the strong-smelling roses, were, after the enlargement in her mind, almost fairylike in size. The chicken house which she was sure had been at the side, by the back door which opened onto the farm, was now by the stone wall which ran along the lane.
Slowly, she climbed out of the immaculate red Renault, and walked towards the restyled structure, looking for evidence of a busy farm. But all she could see were the relics of bygone days: a delapidated tractor parked alongside a gang of rusted milk churns, a disused pig trough, and a roll of chicken wire with a duration's grass growing through.
'Not thinking of buying it, are you, m'dear?' The full-toned voice belonged to a wizened old man with a twinkling eye and a straw in his mouth.
Vida gulped and incoherently gabbled something about visiting a childhood haunt. 'For holidays,' she whispered, unable to take her eyes off the bobbing straw; and, without another word being spoken, she knew she'd been right to come. Her memory had played tricks over the cottage, nothing was as she remembered, but the ageing farmer, with his white hair and unshorn chin, wearing the same impish grin and bearing the same, familiar, rustic scents, made the excursion wonderfully worthwhile. The crooked chimney might be crumbling, the roses might be holding the woodwork intact, and the monstrous gate pillars might be too big for such a bantam property, but this was where she wanted to be.
Impulsively, she reached out to touch the farmer's skinny arm. 'If you're thinking of selling,' she said, 'I'm definitely buying.'