I spent my last month in Scotland going through the residue of my mother’s stuff (she died in June 2017 and if you’d like to see how wonderful she was click here). We had a container full of things and I gave most of it away, to family and friends, but some of it had to be chucked. One of the last things I dealt with was a tatty-looking notebook I thought was only filled with scores for card games and to-do lists. It had to go.
Thank the Lord I fished that notebook from the bin as it contains a bit of writing by my mother and offers a rare glimpse into her life. I miss her a lot and it’s wonderful to be able to get a glimpse into her thoughts like this.
She was the co-founder and main editor of Canongate Books for its first decade, she published hundreds of books, some of which are beautiful creations – but she barely wrote anything herself.
These notes were written in Montenegro where, about 15 years ago, she bought a little house. Here is my transcription, and the sketch she did of the hen I’m using to illustrate this article was also taken from that scruffy notebook.
In one of the first pages of the notebook, hidden among endless lists of things to do, is this statement which acts as a sort of title:
With hindsight I can see this is not a good way to progress through life but being old has some compensations.
By Stephanie Wolfe Murray
I am offered friendship and help. There is one man, Marko, who speaks a little English and does the translation. His pores exude alcohol fumes but he seems to function just fine. He and Sava have left my garden where they scythed and hacked at the hard earth.
Sava looks like a boy who has aged overnight. Maybe he’s 45, maybe he’s 60? He is clearly a gardener and they did in an hour or so what I would have done in a month. Sava wants to know why I’m here: “I’m very curious. I do not understand why you wanted to buy this place.”
Well, I find it hard to answer this question. Last year I was left some money by my Aunt Mary. She died a few weeks short of her hundredth birthday. With her sweet smile, she was polite to the nurses to the end. She never had children of her own but she and her husband, long since dead, adopted a little girl called Janet. She died at the age of 12 of an asthma attack at her boarding school. I was very sad.
Aunt Mary was generous in her will and left all her great nephews and nieces ten thousand pounds each, and more for those of us a generation closer. I won’t say how much but let’s just say I am far from being a millionaire. But to me it was a windfall. All my life I have been slightly impoverished. Never poor exactly but we always had to keep an eye on the bottom line. My father was killed in the war and from then on my mother never really had enough money. But everything is relative. We were well off for God’s sake! I went to boarding school and hated it, although it gave me a lifetime of vivid memories – always unbidden.
Back to Sava’s question. It’s hard to say why I bought this house here. I guess I was fed up with my indecisiveness – always wanting to be where I’m not and never making a proper decision. Last summer my daughter-in-law Alina I were here, in Montenegro, staying in rented rooms in Budva. Five euros each per night. Cheap but hot as hell. We were both interested in having a base here.
We met a charming pair of estate agents, Mijo and Dragan, on the terrace of a cottage where the owner had just given us some delicious, home-made cherry juice. We were sheltering under a vast grape vine and feeling at peace with the world. There was a line of small basil plants that gave off a sweet, pungent smell. They stretched for the whole length of the terrace, about twelve metres long.
“I’ll have to buy the house for the basil,” I said. Everyone laughed but I did just that.
It is the hum of traffic now that I can hear, not the sound of the sea. The basil has long since died although I planted some more this afternoon.
A Russian who lives further down the lane owns the empty, dilapidated cottage a few metres in front of the terrace. There is a line of tangerine trees between us and the fence. He threatened to build on top of it and Alina, Hamish and I are meeting with the Russian on Sunday to try and sort out what could be a horrific problem. He told Mijo, the agent, we could buy it but later said he wanted to buy our cottage. Oh, what to do? I am thrown into a quandary of indecisiveness again.
Sava says the Russian is playing and changes his mind every day. I don’t like the look of him. But we’ll see. He wants no agent present: “We just do deal between us. No agent, no lawyer.” I say we must wait for my daughter-in-law to arrive as she speaks Serbian.
So I wait for them to come from Bucharest with their sweet children, Lara and Luca. They’ll set off tonight, put the car on the train in Belgrade and sleep for the final leg of the journey.
I am fearful of being on my own but I welcomed the opportunity because I know that travelling alone – being here alone – brings its rewards. I am away from my dysfunctional family in Scotland who dominate my life. But I have escaped. It is 9pm and I’ve only had two cigarettes today. I slept in the afternoon for the first two days – I felt like an escaped and exhausted prisoner.
It’s Friday evening, almost night. The blossom outside my bedroom has a dark and interesting smell.
I’ve been out, to Sutomore [the local village], on a pointless errand. I promised I would pick up some petunias by 6 o’ clock and got there just after 5.30pm, but the stall was closed. I must have misunderstood.
I went for a walk along the pinewood beach. You approach it from the village, through a massive open field. It’s about a two kilometre walk. Wild horses were grazing contentedly. Sometimes they canter down the lane in a large group past my house. It’s scary to think of the traffic so nearby. Goats occasionally canter down there too.
Although the setting is idyllic and has a pungent smell of sweet pine, my last visit there was anything but idyllic. I was with my other Romanian daughter-in-law and her two children (my son being in Bandah Aceh, Indonesia, doing aid work). The sky and sea were a pearly grey, a bit like Scotland. Far worse were the empty plastic bottles. The winter’s sea had pushed them to the back of the narrow beach where they were nestling determinedly. Why can they never put rubbish bins on beaches, we wondered?
This afternoon was different. Lots of little (too little) bins with pale blue liners were spaced evenly along the beach in readiness for the tourists. Three men were setting up the bar (when we were here before the structure looked like something left over from WW2). Two little tiled rooves had been built over the open bars. I remember last summer sitting up there drinking delicious coffee, watching boys diving off a rock into the sea. Rock island rock.
Back here, I went the few metres down the lane to buy some washing powder, miming an energetic wash to the lady [shopkeeper]. A great woman, like a warrior queen. He hair dyed an aubergine black.
Back home, I opened my washing machine, put in the powder and was about to switch on when Marko came rushing into the garden saying: “Stephanie! Why you not tell me you want buy soap for washing?” There followed a confused conversation. I looked at the packet and saw that it was for removing crusty rust from machinery. My wash was saved. Sava charged back down to the shop and brought back the right stuff. I forced some euros on him.
I planted some geraniums under the grapevine, scrubbed the terrace and watered the miserable looking tomato plants. Tomorrow, Sava will bring some cucumber plants. He chuckled over the new word and told me to buy some carnation seeds in the market. He will bring me some parsley. I’m a lucky woman.