Grandma’s higgledly cottage stood roadside, though it was older than any road in the district. The doorways were low, the crooked windows small, the roof, though once of thatch, corrugated sheets. A red rose clambered untidily over a wooden porch, waiting to snatch at the sleeve of those going in or out. The cottage had a garden, the edge of which was decked in flowers summer long. Between delphinium and hollyhock, amid vermillion and blue, grew neat rows of onion and carrot, green globes of lettuce, blood-spot beetroot, twiggy peas and more, and at the end of this manicured plot stood a small shed which housed the sustainer of life for all around. Grandma’s well.
The well had an old iron pump with a heavy handle – the work was in lifting, gravity did the rest. It squeaked and rattled in use, yet drew water up from the deep, water bitingly cold even on the hottest day, water so clear it could barely be seen, as sweet as life itself and so abundant it was never known to be lacking.
A large saucepan draped with a damp towel acted as a reservoir for the house, the precious fluid being measured into teapot or stewpot by the cupful. That’s how the boy remembered his Grandmother, dipping water, or just her back as she stood over the stove. She had the unique ability to take any combination of ingredients and blend them into an anonymous broth from which all flavour had somehow been removed. ‘Hmmm,’ she’d say, taking a taste and reaching for cornflour or for another half-cup from the pan. He remembered, too, the top of her head as she bent over her knitting, and just the occasional flash of blue eyes, bright as the Forget-me-nots that crowded at the well door.
One dry summer the well ran so low that the garden could only be refreshed with water already used for washing and cleaning. It was a good time, she said, for limewash to be applied.
The lock was taken from the shed and despite the long protest from the rusted hinge the door was pulled open. A tall ladder was dropped into mysterious depths and a paste of lime prepared.
While this was done the boy found a great number of garden snails gathered into the cool damp corners of the well shed and after filling his pockets took them into the hollyhocks to play.
It wasn’t long before his absence was discovered. The well had been left open, unattended, and the boy was missing! Panicked voices were raised as his father hurried down the ladder with a torch. The child was safe, of course, but the air was heavy with angry words.
A neighbour building a new house hired a man with a machine to dig a trench along that road. Into the trench went a great snake of heavy plastic pipe, and from that pipe a lesser one was brought into the cottage and connected to the sink.
The garden shed was emptied and everything unwanted went into the well, iron on iron, stone on stone, until it was filled and capped with concrete.
The new water had a chemical taint. In summer it became tepid. Flowers failed to flourish and the plot overgrew with weeds. Even the rose at the door shrank back from snagging.
Forget-me-not eyes sank and grew sightless. When Grandma died the house fell into the hand of a stranger and now the well cap holds a weathervane and a pot of faltering petunias.
They knew not what they had.