I started in the spring as the village nurse, working under Doctor Lee, who was elderly and really needed the help. The man they all referred to as the ‘new’ doctor, a man who had been living there for the 10 years since Doctor Lee retired had been swept up in that great military machine and been taken off into the war. So many men had gone, leaving the villages with only women, children and men who couldn’t convince anyone they were still young enough to sign up. Life in these rural villages had become a struggle for survival, the farms battling to produce enough for local needs, let alone for the cities and to feed the military, none of whom were employed to help us.
It was late summer when I was asked to go up to the local ‘big house’ to see the matriarch of the now reduced family.
I arrived and was warmly welcomed by the housekeeper. A slender enough woman, but whose clothes betrayed the fact she had been somewhat larger in the not too-distant past. The matriarch, ‘Madame’ as the housekeeper named her was like a little bird, sitting propped up in her bed. She had had a fall, and the wound on her leg was not healing fast enough.
That day I changed her bandages, cleaning the wound. On subsequent visits I also massaged her legs, improving her circulation, and this seemed to start the healing process. Slowly she began to trust me, even though I was a ‘stranger’.
One day when her leg was showing good signs of improvement, as I finished, the housekeeper arrived carrying a tray, and I was requested to sit, have a little break with a cup of tea and a sandwich, as Madame was worried I was working too hard and not taking care of myself.
The three of us sat and chatted. I was admiring Madame’s desk in the corner, especially the handles on the drawers and the door; made of exquisitely fine metal, almost like wire that had been embroidered. She said “Oh that was made by the young man at the smithy.”
A few weeks later Doctor Lee asked me to check on the smith a Mr Brownlee, who was apparently suffering from a debilitating cough. I packed a bottle of Doctor Lee’s cough mixture that he had had made in large quantities to help the village through the winter, and on my round of new mothers battling alone, small sick children and some elderly people who really just needed some better food and company, I ended up at the smithy.
I knocked at the door and eventually heard someone moving around, and then a dreadful coughing. I opened the door which, like most in the village was closed against cold, not locked against caring neighbours and went in. Standing and supporting himself against the kitchen table was a man, medium height and rather thin, but showing where muscles used to be. What took my breath away was how he looked, I had never looked at a man and thought he was beautiful before. Be must have been at least 60, but ageing hadn’t destroyed his beauty.
I mentally shook myself and reminded myself why I was there. I went and helped him back to a chair next to a dead fire. Then I gave him some of the cough mixture and sat quietly with him as his coughing subsided, and he rather oddly, just fell asleep. I looked around and found his bedroom, and took the blanket from his bed and put it over him.
I went outside and raided his large woodpile for some twigs for kindling and some logs for the fire. I built a nice fire and the room started to warm up. Then I looked in the cupboards, but found only a few potatoes, an onion and some ham hanging from the rafter. I boiled the potatoes and put them in a pot with the ham and onion next to the fire so that he could have a warn meal when he woke. Then I left, mindful I wanted to finish seeing all my patients before dusk settled in.
Two days later I went by to check on him. He was sitting at the table, drawing on a scrap of paper. He was planning a new sheep-funnel to make it easier for the women working with the sheep to herd them into the dipping tanks for removing pests. We chatted for a bit and I gave him another bottle of the cough mixture. He expressed his admiration for how the women had all just taken over running everything. He said, “no man at the front need worry that his woman will be unfaithful, they are all too busy. But when they come home they will be surprised how these women are now the boss.”
I wondered how he had designed those delicate handles, when his talent seemed to lie in making such functional items. I remembered Madame calling him a ‘young man’, but then she too was no longer young.
In all the years I lived there it took my marrying a local man, and having children, before people really trusted me as one of them. But I was an older woman myself when I finally heard the true story of the handles.
“Madame” had been the somewhat wild and wilful younger child of the noble family who lived near the village. A beauty according to the story I was told. And she used to go riding on her own, not really accepted back then, but she was wild.
Her father had ordered a desk to be made for her (in what may have been a vain attempt to keep her indoors). When she was at the joiners admiring his work, he had introduced the smith, the then young Mr Brownlee. Between them they had discussed the handles to go with the desk, and Mr Brownlee, or Brownie as he was generally called had made them in secret. Not the plain ones that had been ordered, but the beautiful creations, different from anything he had ever made before.
You see he had fallen in love with this beautiful young woman, and she had apparently amused herself with flirting with the handsome young man. But of course she ignored him when a wealthy friend of her elder brother came courting, and took her as his wife. They lived on the outskirts of the village in a new large house, in great style.
She asked the smith to make more of those beautiful handles for her new house, but he refused.
He said, “they came from a loving heart, a broken heart cannot make beauty.” He never married, and he never again made filigree work of any kind.