- I -
"Gie us a minute woman!"
Behind him an old dog stood on the threshold, with its head cocked ever so slightly to the left. It was a subtle signal that Elizabeth Bamford recognised well.
"Alright. In then ye devil!"
Trembling almost imperceptibly, his coat rain-matted and with chin lowered to the flagstone floor, Old Shep crept towards the smoking peat fire.
Outside, a bitter gale crashed like mighty ocean waves against walls that were as sturdy as those timeless millstone outcrops up at Back Tor. How old the old house was neither Elizabeth nor Samuel knew. He had been born there late one summer when heather bloomed violet pink on the moorland but by then his grandfather was already in Ashopton graveyard, buried with his library of memories.
Samuel put his oilskin cape on the nail behind the door and rubbing his ruddy hands for warmth, joined his old dog by the fire. A black pot hung from the iron spyder and both were dusted with peat ash like snowflakes on gorse.
"Famished I am. What's in pot?"
"I telled ye this morning Sam. Yon rabbit ye trapped last Thorsday. About as much meat on it as a crow."
They ate from their bowls in silence. There were hunks of dry bread to mop up the gravy. Elizabeth threw half of hers on the floor for the dog to devour. It looked up hopefully for more but there were only bones.
"Owt new in valley?" Elizabeth asked. She had not left the old place for weeks which is how it often was in the wintertime.
"Aye. There's more talk of a dam. Them fellows from London were back last week."
"Why can't they build their bloody dam in London and leave us be?"
The chimney spat a gob of rainwater upon their smoking fire where it sizzled and steamed for a moment or two. Outside the gusting gale increased its strength even as the last pale vestiges of daylight dissolved into the dark moors above Alport, leaving a cloak of inky blackness behind.
"Has Hannah's lass ad her babby yet?"
"Aye. I saw Mary Gunston. Er from Hope. She said it were a little girl. Lived for three days she said."
"Dead? Oh dear, poor little mite. She'll be with angels now. Hannah'll be reet upset. Is the lass alright. Young Sarah?"
"Aye. I believe so."
Samuel grabbed two more clods of dried turf from the box and as he placed them carefully upon the glowing fire, Old Shep's ears pricked up. In the bottom field, the blackfaces could be faintly heard from the lee of the west wall, their plaintive bleating carried like flotsam upon the howling wind.
Elizabeth lit another tallow candle. She had made a cache of them in the summertime from mutton fat. It flickered because of a draught that was leaking in from under the door. She watched her husband's shadow shifting about on the far stone wall as if dancing to the marauding gale's irregular rhythm.
She thought upon the baby girl and remembered her own lost children. Of course none of them would be there to support her or Samuel in old age and though she was only fifty one, her aching bones had made her increasingly conscious of her mortal vulnerability.
Samuel was unlacing his boots. Soon it would be time for bed. How slowly those night-time hours passed when winter winds were blowing as hard as that wolf in "The Three Little Pigs" - a story she remembered happily from her grandmother's knee - when she lived down in the village. After all these years, it was still very difficult to sleep on nights like these. There on the side of their valley where hardly anyone ever passed by.
She looked at Sam and he reciprocated, candlelight twinkling in the jelly of their eyes. The ghost of a smile appeared amidst the stubble of his weatherbeaten face. They said nothing but turned to watch those fresh turf clods in the fireplace glowing brighter like fragments of summer.