The Way We Lied

Although Caroline had not seen Furze Cottage before, she had heard of its reputation. Jean had told her many apocryphal stories about village history and local characters, and one of them concerned a gamekeeper who had murdered his wife in the twenties.
“Came home early one day and found ‘er ‘avin’ it off with the farm ‘and. Shot ‘er stone dead ‘e did, then shot ‘imself. There was blood everywhere. Terrible it was.” Jean had shook her head as she concluded the story while they had their mid-morning coffee. “My old grandad went there soon after and said there was a strange feeling about the place. Really cold. Then after that, all those artists and ‘ippies moved in. Sort of commune it was.”
And now Caroline was on her way to visit the infamous cottage to see Mary. Half a mile out of the village, on a winding lane through woods of beech and birch, there was a sandy track off the road. A shabby sign stood by the roadside, the only indication that there was a house beyond the trees. She turned off and bumped along the ruts, thankful there had not been heavy rain in recent days. And slowly the building emerged from the woods, not as forbidding as Jean had been hinting, but a simple redbrick, late Victorian workman’s cottage with a dark green door.
Smoke curled from the chimney and as Caroline walked from the car she could smell it on the air; the sweet smell of wood smoke mingling with the slightly damp, mushroom scent of leaf mould. A ramshackle outhouse was open, revealing stacked logs and Mary’s green car was parked a little way beyond it. Caroline lifted her hand to knock at the front door but it opened before she could do so.
“It had to be you,” Mary said softly, as she greeted Caroline in the doorway. “ No one ever comes down this way unless I invite them.”
She led the way into a small, warm sitting room, with a worn Turkish carpet spread over wide elm boards. Tongue and groove panelling lined the walls and she gestured to a threadbare winged armchair beside the open fire. A tray was set out on a large tapestry covered stool and Mary poured the coffee.
“What a lovely atmosphere this place has,” Caroline said, admiring the many paintings hanging on the walls and the glow from the softly crackling fire. “I’d been led to believe it had a haunted feeling because of its murky past.”
Mary laughed quietly. “I think my aunt was partly responsible for those rumours. She wanted to keep people away and generally succeeded, though selected friends and family were always welcome. I was one of the favoured few as she had brought me up and then she left the cottage and all her belongings to me when she died last year.”
Caroline sipped her coffee and patted the chestnut spaniel which had wandered in from another room. “Did she live here before or after the hippies that everyone talks about?”
Mary shook her head then finally laughed. “They weren’t hippies! They were just hard working artists like me. My aunt and her friends were all artists of one kind or another. She always had a soft spot for anyone who was hard up and she had private means, so in her early days here she often had several people staying for months at a time. I think the locals just didn’t understand them and their way of life.”
“It sounds as if she must have been a very generous, trusting person, sharing her house like that.” Caroline stroked the spaniel’s silky ears and he gazed at her with soft brown eyes. “And were any of them successful as artists?”
“A couple of them did quite well and some of them did a bit of teaching at the art college here and others in London. But otherwise she just gave them the time and space to reach a better stage in their lives.”
“She must have been a very understanding and charitable woman.”
“She was,” Mary said, looking at Caroline directly with her luminous blue eyes. “It would have felt like a haven for some of them. And I think most of them found it helpful. They managed to do some wonderful work while they were here.”
Caroline looked around the room again at the paintings on the walls. “Were any of these done by them?”
“No not these particular ones, but some of their work is still here. Come with me and I’ll show you.” Mary stood up and Caroline followed her through a passage which led to another room at the back of the house. She opened the door and they entered a space filled with dancing, whirling figures and colour. Every surface seemed to be covered with vibrant life.


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