By Jacqui Mount
My maternal grandfather owned a small meadow on the outskirts of a Kent village. It was his hay field that he harvested and then stored in a lean-to alongside the stable in his yard. A dark brown Welsh cob called Mona enjoyed the summer-scented mixture from this scythed plot all winter long. Her nose-bag held the aroma all year round and each time I visited her I breathed it in with sheer pleasure as it hung on a nail just inside the stable door.
One day in the early 1930s at high summer, Grandfather took my youngest brother and me to his meadow. The time had come to cut the verdant pasture. We hadn’t been before and didn’t ever go again; war soon overtook our lives and things were never to be the same for any of us.
We were awake early that morning, yet Granny had already packed our lunch in a big red Oxo tin. Cheese sandwiches, wedges of her spicy bread pudding and sweet wrinkled red apples from the stable loft where they were laid out on brown paper after last year’s autumn cropping. Our drink was tap water in two lemonade bottles. We were warned to make it last all day as the water in the horse trough at the field was unfit to drink.
Grandfather’s old khaki haversack held the top of a cottage loaf, a Spanish onion, a piece of strong red cheese and a huge apple pasty, his favourite pudding. The whole meal was wrapped up in a snow white, blue-edged linen teacloth. His beverage was in two dark brown quart beer bottles filled with cold, sweet, strong tea. Scything was thirsty work, said Granny.
We left the yard just as the sun was rising. It promised to be a perfect summer’s day, hardly a breath of wind, not a cloud in the sky and the taste of adventure in our mouths. Mona bowled along smoothly pulling the cart, her brasses jingling and ears pricked forward. Grandfather sat high on the front bench, reins loose in his work-hardened hands that were so gentle with horses and small children. We sat low in the cart, sitting on hairy ginger sacks that smelled of hops, tucked up safe and sound against the back of Grandfather’s seat.
From our position we looked back at the way we had come and were amazed at how fast we were travelling as Mona carried us through the quiet back lanes towards our magical destination. Grandfather looked round at us now and again and winked or grinned at our exclamations of delight at the things we saw. He was a man of few words but we knew his every mood and habit for we loved him as only very young children can: completely, unreservedly, wholeheartedly, and with absolute trust.
We arrived at the meadow through a shady, tree-lined avenue with branches meeting above our heads and swung into a sunlit clearing where an old oak gate hung lop-sided on it hinges bringing Mona to a gentle halt before it. Grandfather climbed down from the cart and standing at the gate whistled sharply through his fingers and waited. We stood up in the back and waited to see what happened. Suddenly a furiously barking whirl of black and white fur came tearing through the grasses and leapt over the gate top straight into Grandfather’s arms.
It was Nell, the faithful collie cross who normally ran behind the cart wherever it went. She had been left overnight to guard the field and maybe kill a few rats as well. Her joy was shared as she wriggled towards us, showing her lovely red tongue smile and rolling over on her back pleading to be tummy-tickled. Then she had to welcome Mona with a kiss. They shared the stable back at the yard and were firm friends. However, she became a demon if anyone came to the yard without permission.
Grandfather unlocked the old gate and hauled it back against the thicket alongside. Mona stepped through knowing exactly where to take the cart and waited to be released. We were lifted down and then he busied himself with Mona, hobbling her under the trees, near the horse trough, unpacked his double-handed scythe and wet-stone, found a cool spot for our food and drinks and them motioned us to him. We listened solemnly to his warnings about not wandering beyond the gate, or bothering Mona, and to keep well away from where he was scything. We needed no second bidding to go off and enjoy ourselves. He patted our heads before we tore off with Nell to explore this world of delights.
Grandfather set his cap firmly over his brow, honed his blade to a fine shining edge and started on the long job of cutting his harvest of hay for winter storage. From a safe distance, we watched him swing the scythe to a rhythm that was in his very being, smooth and easy (so we thought), it was a joy to see. Young as we were, we knew he was a master craftsman even though we would not have known those words to describe him. His ancient mole-coloured corduroy trousers were held around the knees by pieces of binder twine. His strong, black leather ankle boots that he cleaned and polished with dubbin every night before bed had a dusting of white and yellow pollen from the masses of meadow flowers that fell in long sweeping rows as his scythe swept through them.
It was a day never to be forgotten, our food tasted like ambrosia in the sweet open air. The flowers we gathered eagerly to take home for granny wilted long before then, such was the intensity of the afternoon heat. Even Nell, who won every race we challenged her to run, had given up and collapsed in Mora’s shade, sides heaving, breath gasping and tongue drooling wet after a long splashy drink from the trough. Steadfastly, grandfather continued to work, stopping only to eat his meal and take long draughts from his cold tea bottles. It was almost sunset when the last swathes fell in the farthest corner of the meadow and he soaked his red kerchief in the water trough for the last time and wrapped it back around his strong, brown neck. The field looked so different then. The swathes of grass and flowers drying already to a paler shade would be turned in a day or two by grandfather’s long wooden rake, then yet again before being gathered up ready to be stored away.
He viewed it all with quiet satisfaction, stretching his arms up above his head, then strode down to where we were stretched out waiting for him to pack away his tools and give us the nod to prepare to go home. We’d dozed for a while in the shade and were now longing to curl up in the back of the cart and go home to granny and out smooth cool beds. The magic had gone for us. Fractious and itchy from the seeds that had worked their way into out clothes, stings from nettles and prickles from thistles on our hands and legs, the hairy hop sacks looked quite inviting as we waited to be lifted back into the cart.
Grandfather shared the last dregs of his bottles between us. He’d stripped off his striped, collarless shirt and had a good splash in the horse trough, shaking the dust and seeds from this heavy peaked cap. Then, dressed again, his kerchief knotted in place once more, we were lifted into the cart. Nell silently begged to be allowed in with us and gave a bark of joy as she was given permission by some silent signal from him. At last we were on the move, sleepily aware of the clip-clop of Mona’s shoes ringing on the roads homeward bound. Our faces had caught the sun and felt tight as we yawned. No chatter now, silence reigned.
It had been a lovely day out with grandfather. None of us knew then what lay a few years ahead. Grandfather’s world would no longer exist, but I shall always remember him with grateful love and affection.