On a beautiful day in June, accompanied by my husband James, I was driving through the beautiful Hertfordshire countryside in search of Strawberry Fields. This was to supplement my hobby of wine making.
I stopped the car next to the lone figure of a small man, who was briskly walking along the road, to ask him for directions. His blue eyes pierced into mine, and his impressive handlebar moustache was twitching. He had no knowledge of any strawberry fields in the vicinity, but he did have raspberries in his garden. I would be welcome to pick these, “so that your journey will not be fruitless”, he laughed.
I glanced at James, who shrugged his shoulders, still nursing a severe stiff neck and not in the best of moods, and I decided to accept the man’s offer. He slipped into the back seat, asking us to call at a shop on the way, before he would direct us to his home.
Having stopped outside the shop, the man jumped out, leaving the door wide open, as if afraid that I would drive off without him. I could hear his raised voice in the shop and from a side door a woman, presumably the shopkeeper, emerged, staring at us in the car whilst groping for a crate. Shortly afterwards the man returned with four bottles of beer, flopped into the back seat and banged the door.
“First on the left”, he said, after I had been driving for some distance on the main road. Having turned left I could see a narrow, bumpy track, no sign of any houses, only a meadow and tall trees. I suddenly had second thoughts about my decision and quickly looked at James for guidance. He was just grinning at me! This could mean `get on with it` or ` I’m just the passenger. ` So I slowly drove along the bumpy track until a white cottage came into view, partly hidden by those tall trees. The man asked me to stop and invited us inside. I walked gingerly up the path, making sure that James was following right behind me. The doorway was occupied by two enormous black cats, which lifted their large heads as we carefully stepped over them. I stared in utter surprise at the clean and tidy interior of the room. Polished brass window knobs, pretty curtains, small tables with covers and vases with flowers spelled out a welcome and made me feel at ease. I commented on the cosiness of the cottage and admired one of the crochet covers nearest to me.
The man quickly poured out three glasses of beer and invited us to sit down. He raised his glass, “Call me Uncle George. Here’s to life! Cheers!”
I am not a beer drinker, but on this occasion simply felt in need of a small drink to relieve the sudden dryness in my throat. He half- filled my glass, “Here's to the lady,” he said. He talked incessantly, as if he had been deprived of conversation for years, nervously moving around in the room, apologising that his TV was out of order.
“Visitors are much better company, anyway. We will just have a little background music from my radio,” he said, pouring another drink.
“You didn’t know that you would be visiting Uncle George to-day, did you? Well, aren’t you pleased you came?” We managed to give him a smile.
The haunting music of Sibelius` valse triste` from the radio filled the room. He jumped up and increased the volume, demanding silence by putting his fingers to his pursed lips and listened enraptured. I had time to study the small, wiry man with the large moustache, his eyes downcast and his erratic movements at rest for the moment. When the music had finished the man got up slowly, switched off the radio and finished his beer.
“My mother is not at home,” he said curtly.
“Now let us have a look at my beautiful hens, my pride and joy.”
He handed me a bowl and, once outside in his large garden, I began to pick raspberries without much enthusiasm. The man was scattering corn to his hens, watched by James, who had said very little but was looking at `Uncle George` from under his eyebrows. All but two of the hens obliged the man’s efforts to coax them into the chicken run. Suddenly, he lost his temper by smacking one of them with the back of his hand, sending it flying with a frightened screech. The remaining hens joined in the chorus as he violently snatched up the second bird, tossing it like a ball over the fence.
I was absolutely shocked at the man’s action and petrified what he would do next. James quickly moved forward, making his presence felt.
“I can manage my hens!” the man shouted, with a wild look on his face.
I dropped the bowl filled with raspberries and stood, like a frightened child, rooted to the spot. The man’s mood changed quickly and he was calm again as he pointed to a shed, which sported a painting of a goat with the name `Arabella`. “She was a lovely goat,” he said tenderly, “but one day she butted my mother and she had to go!
James and I looked at each other, and we said that it was time for us to go now. We waited for the man to show us the way out, but with a hurt look on his face he almost pleaded, “Oh! Not yet! You cannot go without some of Uncle George’s vegetables!” He moved hastily to another part of his garden, pulling out a selection of onions, carrots and lettuce. James quickly paid the man the market price, indicating to me with his eyes to make a move towards the car.
`Uncle George` interrupted our silent communication by asking us back into the house, so he could wrap up the vegetables. We were aware that we needed to go through the house towards the front door to reach the safety of our car. Back once more in the room I reluctantly sat down on the edge of an armchair, feeling mentally exhausted. James remained standing with his arms folded over his chest, giving me accusing looks. He obviously blamed me for the situation we found ourselves in. The discomfort of his stiff neck did not help matters.
The man could be heard opening drawers in the kitchen, banging cupboard doors and talking to himself, before returning to the room.
“I don’t know where my mother keeps her wrapping paper! Will this do!”
he muttered, thrusting the items, barely wrapped, towards James. I stood up, ready to leave, but `Uncle George` stood in the doorway, blocking the exit.
“ I want to show you my old bureau in that corner over there,” he said, fixing his eyes on me. “It has a secret drawer. I want you to try and open it. Go and open it! You don’t know how? I thought women were so clever! Look!”
He produced a long pencil and prodded at the back of the bureau until two secret drawers slid open.
“What about that!” he said triumphantly, “This old thing held what you may call a` windfall` for me. All those years in the family and I didn’t know a thing about it. Gold coins! I found them in the end!” he chuckled. His excitement was intense as he relived the event.
I tried to look polite, not daring to look at James. The man’s blue eyes stared at me again. He moved forward to one of the small tables, snatched a crocheted cover from under a vase with flowers and flung it towards me. I had carefully watched his movements and managed to catch it.
“I know that you have been admiring this masterpiece, which I have crocheted on the long winter evenings. Here is a present for you from Uncle George,” he said. I stammered ”thank you,” looking down at the cover in my lap, thinking what a story this could tell if ever we were to get out of the cottage. I looked at James and knew that we had one identical thought: to make our departure NOW.
`Uncle George` stood again in the doorway, staring at the fireplace, where the embers were glowing a dull red, although it was midsummer. “I can’t let my fire die!” he shouted, reaching for a can from behind the door and swilling part of the contents onto the fire. The room erupted with the roaring noise of the angry flames as the petrol exploded. James grabbed my hand and together we made a dive for the front door, only to find that it was locked!
”Wait! Let me give you some flowers from my garden!” yelled the man, pushing past us to the kitchen, rummaging through the drawers.
“I don’t know where my mother keeps her scissors!” he muttered. Finally he withdrew his hand from one of the drawers, clutching a long-bladed kitchen knife, which he slipped into his jacket pocket, the sharp point protruding dangerously from under his armpit.
James raised himself to his full height, looking down at the small man in a stern manner. He managed to turn his head slowly towards the locked door and back again to face the man, who dug a key from his trouser pocket. He opened the door and we followed him quickly once more into his garden.
The man wielded the blade like one would use a machete in the jungle, the blade of the knife slicing through the stems of the roses, gladioli, and camomile like butter. Having created this weird bouquet, he ceremoniously presented it to me. I managed to thank him, but by this time I was shaking like a leaf inside. James put his arm around me and we quickly walked to the car.
I started the engine in reverse and the car shot backwards several feet. I fumbled with the gears as the man moved closer to the car window. His eyes were piercing into mine. .
“We did have a nice time, didn’t we?” His moustache twitched nervously and, without waiting for a reply, he continued, ”You will visit Uncle George again soon, won’t you? Today is my 47th birthday and I was on a vendetta. I am glad you came!”
We were utterly shattered. I managed a three- point turning of the car on the track, back in the direction we came from and drove along the bumpy lane like a bat out of hell! In the mirror I could see the lonely figure of `Uncle George` waving to us until we reached the main road.
James and I looked at each other in silence. The produce from `Uncle George’s` garden, the crocheted cover and the weird bouquet on the back seat were a stark reminder of our encounter.
This is a true story and I still have the crocheted cover in my possession.
©Copyright Erika Seetzen-Woods 2005
All rights belong to its author. It was published on e-Stories.org by demand of Erika Seetzen-Woods.
Published on e-Stories.org on 24.03.2005.