Today, I met a man who doesn’t exist.
‘That’s one for the diary,’ I told myself as I watched him unloading logs into my lean-to shed, and thought he was pretty chunkily built for a wraith.
It all started when the mid-summer weather (leaden skies, wind and rain) reminded me that I should really be giving some thought to the coming winter and laying in oil, coal and wood for the boiler and the fire. So I wandered down the road to Joey and Mrs Fitt at ‘Conifers’, who always had a mountain of very precisely stacked firewood around the sheltered side of their house.
Joey was out, somewhat to my relief (perfectly nice man, but talks a lot, most about his tomatoes), but Mrs Fitt was in her kitchen cooking up chutney. I knew she was chutney making before I got anywhere near the back door because the smell of vinegar and spices drifting from the windows were starting to eat into the mucus membranes of my nose as I came through the gate.
Mrs Fitt presumably has a first name, but I have no idea what it is, because everyone, including husband Joey, just calls her Mrs Fitt. She’s a friendly soul: a bit world-weary and frayed around the edges after years spent caring for her husband and their five hulking sons, but always helpful and welcoming.
‘Firewood? You need Adam. He’ll see you right.’
‘That’s great. Where do I find him?’
‘Lower Slaughter.’ She saw the look on my face and allowed herself the ghost of a smile. ‘Out of the village, up the hill, then take the unmarked lane on the left. It’s right down in the valley. I’d walk if I was you.’
‘Isn’t he on the ‘phone?’
‘No, he isn’t … And make sure you have some cash. He doesn’t take cheques.’ She turned her attention back to the bubbling pan on the hob for a long moment, then added mysteriously, ‘He doesn’t give receipts, either.’
Lower Slaughter, once I’d found the unmarked lane and slithered down the hill to the bottom of the wooded valley, turned out to be a picturesque dump of a place with tumbledown outhouses, collapsing fences, a weed-choked cobbled courtyard and a sturdily built farmhouse with thick walls and a roof that looked to be only just the right side of weatherproof. Everywhere you looked there was rusting farm machinery festooned in bedstraw, empty zinc buckets dumped in the long grass and tractor tyres apparently discarded where they fell which provided snug retreats for the chickens and geese that were apparently roaming at will. The tiny front garden of the house was a forest of rotting corrugated iron and barbed wire.
Feeling a bit uncomfortable and fish-out-of-waterish, I called out nervously, ‘Hello? Anyone home?’
There was no response. I tried again, with the same result.
Across the courtyard, through a gate that was hanging on by one hinge, I saw that the front door of the house was ajar, Cautiously, and keeping a wary eye on the geese, I eased the gate to one side and gently pushed the door open.
‘Hello? Adam? Are you home?’
Nothing. The interior of the house was gloomy.The small windows, designed to keep cold out and heat in, allowed very little light into the room, but the back door was open wide and I could just about make out an ancient cooking range on one wall, the tall bulk of a massive welsh dresser on another and a white wood table in the centre laden with pots, pans, crockery and a cat: a huge ginger cat which was curled up in the fruit bowl and glaring at me balefully.
I tried one more time.
To my relief, there was an answering hail from the back garden.
I briefly debated with myself whether it was better to retrace my steps and go around the outside of the house or simply cross the gloomy room to the back door; but remembering the obstacle course in the front garden, I voted for the latter option and headed for the open door, praying that the cat didn’t smell the dogs on my clothes and decide to exact revenge on me on behalf of all cat-kind. It watched me with a decidedly malevolent gleam in its amber eyes, but I made it to the door unmolested and escaped into the back garden.
What I saw there stopped me in my tracks.
After the war zone at the front of the house, what lay behind was simply unbelievable. Before me was laid out, with mathematical precision, an immaculately cared for and thriving fruit and vegetable garden. Green beans on bamboo frames ran the length of the plot; potatoes, carrots, peas and much else besides burgeoned in the weed-free beds at the front, in the middle were raised beds of salads and herbs and I could just make out raspberries and loganberries ripening in the fruit cages at the back.
And in the midst of it all stood a sturdy, weather beaten man in old but clean tweeds and wellington boots. His dark curly hair was greying, but he could have been anything between forty and sixty.
I found my voice. ‘Mrs Fitt said you could sell me some logs.’
‘I certainly can. You’re the lassie from Tigh-na-Mara, aren’t you?’ He grinned. ‘The house by the sea.’
‘Also known as Puddle Cottage.’ A bit non-plussed I smiled ruefully back at him as he stumped towards me in his boots, holding out his hand in greeting.
‘Pleased to meet you,’ he said as we shook hands. ‘I’m Adam. The logs are around the side.’
They were in a clearing in the woods, in an open-fronted barn and neatly arranged in order of age: the green logs on the right and the seasoned on the left.
We agreed a price for a trailer load of seasoned logs, money changed hands and no receipt was offered. He promised to bring them up to me in a couple of hours, and indicated a pile of junk by the side of the barn which, on closer inspection, proved to be the oldest tractor I’d ever seen in my life. Walking me back through the house he waved me on my way up the hill and I headed for home feeling as if I was emerging from an alternate universe.
Needless to say, I wasted no time in pumping Maggie for information about him.
‘Adam?’ she said, inspecting the fruitcake for mould before offering it to me. ‘Adam is the man who isn’t there.’
‘Eh?’ I watched her putting the kettle on the hob and felt my brow furrowing. My brow furrowed a lot when I was talking to Maggie, I found. ‘What do you mean?’
‘That farm – if you can call it a farm – has been in his family for generations. His parents were living off the grid before the term was even invented. When Adam was born, they didn’t register his birth. As far as anyone knows, H M Government is totally unaware he even exists. He doesn’t pay taxes, claim benefits, fall ill or vote. He lives on what his parents left him and what he makes from selling logs, garden produce and odd-jobbing. Anything you want doing, Adam’s your man.’
‘And nobody’s ever ratted on him?’
‘He’s our secret. We look after Adam. And Adam looks after us. ‘
‘For cash only.’
‘Precisely. But a word of warning – that psychotic cat of his thinks it’s a rottweiler. If you go in the house alone when he isn’t there, you’re spaghetti.’
I nonchalantly picked a bit of mould she’d missed from my slice of cake, and examined it closely on the end of my finger. ‘I’ll bear that in mind,’ I said casually, feeling the sweat trickling down the back of my neck. ‘If I’m ever in the house alone with it.’
(Image based on a photograph of an abandoned tractor in Northumberland courtesy of Swalophoto on Flickr, under a Creative Commons Licence.)