Douglas West



There it was, a long low-slung grey stone building, spread along a rising contour of ground that encircled the small village of Douglas West. The rough stone of the old farmhouse was bulky, ancient in appearance, and on dull rainy days looked absolutely desolate when approached from the rear path. But this gloomy aspect really gave visitors a false impression.

I walked round to the front of the farm, opened the heavy weather beaten gate and went in. The front presented a more cheerful view. A large thriving truck-patch curved down a slope to a small burn. Some geraniums and snapdragons prettied up the top edge of the garden near the burn, softening the severe lines of the building.

As I approached the dairy barn the lowing of milk cows greeted my ears. I saw Jenny, the milk maid, performing her usual morning chores; she was milking the cows. All the mingled earthy odours of the barn assailed my nostrils...Echoes in the barn magnified every movement of the cows; even the milk squirts were noisy. Jenny's head was low against the brown fat side of a jersey cow, framing and outlining her doubled, bent over figure. In the dim light of the barn, the whole scene was reminiscent of a giant rustic painting, done by a nineteenth century master.

"Hello Jenny" I called, holding my own smaller milk pail to signal the reason I had come. The milk maid turned her head and flashed a smile of recognition. Jenny's smile lit up her face, giving it a lovely roundness and softened her cornflower blue eyes. Her thick blonde naturally wavy hair was the colour of ripe hay. It fell in soft tendrils on her smooth brow. It was combed back and held loosely by a gleaming gold clasp, and gushed down her slender back in a heavy glossy fall, out of the way of her work. I noticed the strong muscles of her forearms ripple smoothly under taut skin as she dutifully squirted milk into the waiting pail. "I am almost finished Jean" she called, and rose from her milking stool to grasp another pail of milk. As she walked toward me, her young strong body moved easily as she balanced milk pails in each hand. I followed her into the farm house. She crossed the threshold and went in. I waited outside as usual. "Be with you soon Jean" she called back. Along the length of the passageway I saw her go into the back kitchen to empty the pails into a large metal tub. Minutes later, her ample, full breasted figure appeared at the doorway. How trim and fresh she looked, how clear her skin and how shapely her figure...she was really beautiful. Jenny was a familiar figure around the farm, darting in and out of the farm house to the barn and back again. Her younger brother and sister helped her work the small farm that supplied milk and eggs to the villagers of Douglas West.

That farm was at least 200 years old. Its structure spoke of another time. A rich vein of coal, discovered in 1914 supplied the work for 200 miners who lived in the village. Before the discovery, the farm had the surrounding fields entirely for itself. Jenny's returning footsteps interrupted my thoughts. She smiled and reached for my empty container. "The usual, Jean?" she inquired pleasantly. I nodded and gave her my empty bucket. She returned and handed me my pail full of rich creamy warm-from-the-cow milk, and accepted the two pence I gave her in payment. "I'll see you tomorrow, Jenny, thank you," I said, and left.

Morning sounds multiplied as I walked home with the morning milk. The cock had done its crowing the quite peaceful village of Douglas West was coming awake. Lights were turned on in many kitchens, and muffled voices of busy families, getting ready for the day, broke in on my awareness. Mr Platt's horse-drawn bakers cart crunched along the rough gravel. Making the morning rounds, exuding the yeasty smell of freshly baked rolls.

Other villagers, going for fresh milk, gave me a friendly "Good Morning!" I swung my milk pail around and around my head. And as always, I was amazed that not one single drop of milk spilled out of it. Needless to say I never volunteered this most interesting discovery to my Mother.

Jenny had only a few chickens; therefore she had only a few eggs to sell. "Do you have any eggs this morning, Jenny?" I would enquire. Suddenly, her face would become serious and gloomy, forecasting the words to come, "Oh, Jean, I can gae yae only three this morning." she would answer. "That's alright Jenny" I answered, and gave her my basket. I never recall ever being able to buy a whole dozen.

As I waited for Jenny to get the eggs, I looked around the farm building. How strong and invincible it looked, like an old fortress. This farm had been built to last a long, long time. Its deep set windows were small, each one composed of nine small panes of glass, softened by a plain white lace curtain. Pots of pink and blue Canterbury bells sat in the sills. The sloping roof of dark slate shingles, added a modern touch. I was standing on a thick slab of dark grey stone, bevelled in the centre from two centuries of to-and-fro footsteps. Jenny returned to the door and handed me the eggs very carefully. "Here you are, Jean" she smiled. I paid her a penny and a half from the change Mum had given me, thanked her, and left. A few clucking chickens, half flew, half ran, jerking in all directions as I passed what once had been a huge towering haystack. The pointed pyramid top was half gone, as was half the winter. Fat mischievous mice darted, from the bottom edges of the dwindling haystack. A tiger coloured cat and a jet black one, well fed and glossy sleek, pounced on them immediately and ran off with their prey dangling from their mouths.

During the winter months my friends and I would play in the wee burn at the bottom of the hill, below Jenny's farm house. A primitive wooden bridge spanned the burn, over which the cows passed on their way in and out of the barn, mornings and evenings. Often, the beasts cut down to the burn to drink the cold spring water, We Kids drank it, too. On warm days we would wade in the spring fed burn under the bridge, that skirted Jenny's abundant garden, filled with varied vegetables and berry producing canes. Plump deep red raspberries, hanging heavy with juice, rambled along the edge of that burn. It was impossible not to desire some. How tempting and tantalising! When I would reach for just one of the brilliant red berries, Jenny's voice would unerringly, come booming down the hill. "Git oot o'there!" I would jump guiltily, Pull back my arm in puzzlement and awe, as if an unseen God himself had spoken. How did she ever see me? She must have eyes like a hawk I concluded.

I never really knew if Jenny was aware that I, her customer, was one of the raspberry thieving culprits. She never mentioned those incidents on mornings I came for my daily pail of milk. Jenny would smile her usual smile and I would feel guilty, harbouring my secret. In all the twelve childhood years I spent in Douglas West, I do not think I even ate a dozen of Jenny's lovely red raspberries, although I was frequently tempted.

After an absence of 40 years, I visited Douglas West in the summer of 1972. Jenny Laidlaw's farm was still there...unchanged. I wondered what happened to Jenny in the years that had passed. Memories came crowding back. I do not know why I did not go to the kitchen door to inquire about her. She would have been over ninety years old. Somehow,I had the feeling she had died. I simply stared at the farm once again, Jenny, the milkmaid, was in the barn milking her cows, while I was a young lass holding my pail, waiting for the morning milk. Her milkmaid's beauty caused me to smile a happy memory. I heard once again, "Oh Jean, ah can gae yae only three eggs," and I remembered her sombre look when she said it, and those delicious red raspberries, I could hear her familiar resonant voice booming down the hill again, "Git oot o' there!"

The little burn was still flowing under the bridge and the cow's hooves were imprinted in the mud. I could see Jenny's lovely long hay coloured hair, and her full bright patterned skirts flying in the wind as she strode to the barn. My eyes misted. Jenny and her small farm were very dear to me, and is a priceless jewel among memories of my childhood.

Jean C Schmidt

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Original story© Jean C Schmidt 2004
Layout, editing and additional material © Dave Sloan 2005, 2012, 2016
'tachras' and 'Winding Yarn' © Dave Sloan 2005, 2012, 2016

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