Monday, 28 January 2013

The best of all possible worlds

(With apologies to Voltaire!)

The thaw has truly set in, and most of the snow has vanished. As Tramp and I reached the fields on our walk today, we had the worst of both worlds - underfoot at least, with slushy, melting snow giving way to a boggy quagmire beneath. Whereas white poodle-bobbles of snow stuck to Tramp’s fur last week, today it was soon coated in thick, black, mud.

But it’s good news for the ducks on our village pond. Today as we passed, I saw they were afloat. They were no longer stranded on the ice, perplexed that the element that usually nurtured them had turned so hostile and impenetrable.

Today, Tramp and I called at a friend’s. Marianne spotted me from the kitchen window as I skirted the old well in her garden, which I recalled is adorned with rambling yellow roses in summer. She came out to greet me. In an attempt to clean off the worst of the mud, I baled water over Tramp from the half barrel under the disused, but attractively rustic, pump. Marianne handed me an old towel for him.

          ‘Come in, come in! Don’t worry about the mud. Tramp’s fine on the flag floor!’

Marianne’s is a snug, stone cottage. It was originally built for farm workers, like the one next door, and they date back to the early 1800s. It has a small lounge with exposed beams and an open, log fire, which Marianne is proud to ‘keep in’ throughout these cold days, even if she spends most of her time in the kitchen. Everywhere there are throws and cushions; then there are watercolours and old prints on the walls, and brass lamps and knickknacks on the side tables. The kitchen has a large pine dresser holding crockery, pots and jars, along with a long farmhouse table and mismatching chairs. Along the end wall of the kitchen, like a battleship in dock, is, of course, The Aga.

For this is Aga Country – where the Aga showroom features prominently in the High Street of our nearby town, right next door to the Farrow and Ball paint shop.

As usual, our Aga conversation went something like this:         ‘It's lovely and warm in here, Marianne.’
          ‘Well of course. I have The Aga.’ (True Aga converts always use the definite article.) ‘It heats the whole kitchen.’
          ‘But you do swelter in here having it on through the summer… Wouldn't a radiator do the job, and be more efficient? And yours runs on oil, doesn't it? Oil is so expensive now, and it’s so hard to control, surely?’

          ‘It did take a bit if getting used to as you know. But I do all my cooking on it now. It’s so wonderful for scones... and slow roasts and casseroles are perfect in here.’

She was opening and closing flaps and doors as she spoke, and as her missionary zeal accumulated. ‘AND, I dry all my clothes on the ceiling rack… so I don’t need a dryer!’ She lets it down on the pulley a little way to demonstrate, and to finish in triumph.

Marianne’s conversion is complete. She has all the accoutrements of Aga living… the Aga oven gloves, the Aga tea towels and an Aga kettle. She also has the Aga rail alongside the ceiling rack, from which dangles her collection of Aga kitchen utensils.

Until I got to know her, I thought Marianne was born and brought up in our village – instead, she has adapted to country life like a duck to water. She retired here shortly after her beloved Jack died of a stroke, at far too young an age. Until then they had shared a life under the bright lights of the city, financed by their respectively pressurised careers in IT, with Marianne working for an investment bank.

Despite the Aga – which, to be fair, came with the house, I would never accuse Marianne of any shallow affectation in adopting her new lifestyle. Rather than the constraints of the city's glass and steel, Marianne’s country cottage seems a natural progression for someone whose original element was the excess of fabrics, flowers and beads that characterised the new freedoms of the 1960s.

But, and again despite the Aga, she is not keen to turn back the clock altogether; instead she has the best of both worlds. When she is not texting and skyping her grandchildren, a light often shines from her spare bedroom window, announcing that Marianne is at her computer. Here she dabbles in stocks and shares ‘to bring in a little pocket money.’

After tea, and consuming what I have to confess were simply delicious Aga scones, Marianne walked Tramp and me to the back gate. At the foot of the gate post, we spotted a new colony of snowdrops – so inappropriately frail and trembling as heralds of Spring, yet fully acclimatized to the winter cold.


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