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Feather's Miscellany: Edie Phillips

John Waddington-Feather tells a satisfying story in which a hard, uncompromising hill farmer who got the shock of his life.

Sometimes life blossoms for us at the end of our lives, not at the beginning. I’ve known many folk who’ve come into their own in the autumn of their days after a lifetime of mediocrity, or even misery. Edie Phillips (neé Higgins) was one such. She was the elder daughter in a family of two boys and two girls brought up on a hill farm above Keighworth. Her father was Fred Higgins who ran the farm single-handed and rented more acres of moorland on the Pennine heights above his farm.

It was bleak at the best of times on the Pennine Hills. In winter, which lasted four or five months of the year depending on the weather, it was desolate. Snow and frost hung about for weeks, and when it was not snowing it rained. The land was permanently sodden, boggy in parts, and nothing grew there but cotton and marsh grass. Much of the rest was covered in bracken, which given half a chance would have overrun the intake meadows reclaimed from it and the sour bogland years before.

At the best of times, it was hard making a living on those upland farms. A generation or two before the families living on them were in near penury. They worked hard and they were hard – some of them hard-hearted, too. Amos Higgins was one such; so was his neighbour Hezekiah Phillips and Phillips’ son, Ebenezer, and his grandson, Seth; all cast from the same mould.

They farmed adjoining small-holdings and all their lives eyed each other cautiously. Throughout their lives, they gave nothing away but took all in; so that by the end they were comfortably well off; yet to the end they pleaded poverty. They worked their children to the bone and their wives, too, who were mere chattels, married as cheap labour and ground down both inside and outside the house.

When Ebenezer was in his early forties, his dad Hezekiah died suddenly. They found him sprawled, staring blankly at the sky on the moors above the farm. He’d been looking over his sheep, when he’d had a heart attack and it was several hours before his son found him. When he found his dad, he carted him home in the back of his battered Land Rover – as he would have done an ailing sheep.

The doctor was called but there was nothing he could do. Hezekiah Phillips had joined his Maker, and what He made of him was anyone’s guess. There was an inquest, then the funeral, and that was that. Ebenezer was now the owner of Hill Crag Farm as the only child, and his mother died shortly afterwards, worked to the bone. Ebenezer had now no one to look after him, run the house and work on the farm. He decided to wed, after all that’s what wives were for. So he cast his eyes over the boundary wall dividing his farm from his neighbour, Fred Higgins, and decided he’d throw his cap at Edie Higgins, Fred’s unmarried daughter, now in her forties.

Ebenezer had known Edie all his life and she’d grown up a likely lass, well trained by her father. She was very strong for her size and for years had looked after her father after her mother died. Her siblings had all married and left the district as none of them wanted to farm; now she was the only one left, a middle-aged spinster. She had courted a young teacher years before, but her father had soon put the dampers on that. He didn’t want a son-in-law who couldn’t work on a farm and, worse still, was worth next to nothing. So that romance died the death and Edie thought she was well and truly left on the shelf, doomed to a life of grinding spinsterhood, that is, till Ebenezer started showing an interest in her.

It was an odd sort of courtship, which started when Ebenezer began visiting Fred rather more regularly and after an initial suspicious reception it slowly dawned on the old man that Ebenezer fancied his daughter. No flowers or presents for Edie or anything like that; just general chit-chat about farming matters, and the occasional question about Edie. They might have been talking about stock.

Then Fred cottoned on and he decided it wouldn’t be a bad idea for Edie to wed Ebenezer. After all, Fred was getting on and he’d need someone to help him run the farm one day. None of his sons wanted it. And he thought that when he grew too old to work it himself, Ebenezer Phillips and Edie could run it – and look after him at the same time. Edie’s marriage would be a big deal.

And so it was arranged. Edie tried hard to sow some love into her marriage, but the seeds fell on stony ground. Ebenezer remained as hard as ever, though he did give her a son, Seth, who turned out to be as hard as himself.

Time rolled by at Hill Crag Farm and Edie Phillips was ground down more and more by her heartless husband and father; then the old man died in his eighties. By then Seth had grown up and was able to take on his grandfather’s farm. He tried to employ a full-time labourer, but the Phillipses’ meanness and shady dealings had become widespread and none would come, so they had to make do with daytel men, part-timers, who cost them a lot more in the long run.

It meant poor Edie had to work harder. She cleaned and she cooked and worked hard on the farm for a pittance. Ebenezer gave her little housekeeping, and what scrap of money she had for herself was earned by selling eggs in Keighworth Market on Saturday mornings. Then, she treated herself to a slap-up lunch at a café and bought a lottery ticket, hoping for a miracle.

In time Ebenezer died and left the whole of his estate to his son. Edie was left penniless and her son, Seth, inherited everything. Edie was now tied to her son as she’d been shackled to her husband. Life looked very bleak for her. Then it happened.

She came up on the lottery and was a multi-millionaire overnight.. The lottery people wanted to make a song and dance about it and give her all the publicity they could, but Edie would have none of it and her win was kept under wraps. No one knew and certainly not Seth.

Life carried on as usual for a time till Edie sorted herself out and planned her next move. Since her husband’s death, she’d had to go cap in hand to Seth for her living but she surprised him by suddenly not turning up for her weekly allowance from the tiny rundown cottage he’d put her into.

It was about the time things weren’t going well for farmers for the farming industry was running down. In successive years there’d been outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease and BSE. All exports of cattle had been stopped and there was no market for sheep. Farmers were going bankrupt by the score and Seth was at his wit’s end.

One morning he arrived unexpectedly at his mother’s cottage and she thought it was about her not visiting him; but no, it was about himself. He’d come to tell her he couldn’t afford the weekly pittance he made to her for he’d gone bust. She’d have to live on her pension. Things were so bad he’d have to sell the two farms and live off the capital when he’d paid off the bank overdraft.

He’d expected her to be downcast, but her eyes lit up and that surprised Seth.

“I’ll manage somehow,” she said. “I’ll be all right and there’s no need to worry over me.”

Seth was relieved she took it so well and didn’t make a fuss. He was glad about that for he’d enough on his plate having to sell up. He’d no idea how he’d make a living for he’d been a farmer all his life. At best he’d have to try and get a job labouring on someone else’s farm.

Yet if he’d have looked more closely, he’d have seen a glint of triumph in his mother’s eye. She couldn’t feel sorry for him after what he’d done to her and she almost laughed aloud when he said he’d have to sell up, but she kept her face straight and duly acted out her part.

That afternoon, Edie went straight into Keighworth and visited a lawyer. She said she understood Hill Crag farm and the adjoining farm would shortly be coming up for sale and would the lawyer act as her agent and buy them as cheaply as possible. On no account was anyone to know she’d bought them. As it turned out, the two farms went for a song and Seth was in a tight spot. He owed the bank almost as much as he got for his farms and he was skint. But fate was to look more kindly on him for completely unknown to him, his mother, through her lawyer, offered him the job of managing the farms and for the rest of his mother’s long life he unwittingly became her farm manager.

Years later when the time was ripe, Edie told him who his boss was. Seth was gob-smacked, but he was also a changed man, a more humble and open man. His mother little by little nurtured him to be more like herself and less like his father till by the time he was forty five she’d prepared him for marriage.

In the way that only women can, she nudged his way Helen Goodwin, the single, middle-aged headmistress of Ruddledene village school, a lady in her mid-thirties. Under his mother’s discreet guidance, Seth became a governor of the school and was invited to tea whenever Helen was. In the way that things happen Seth and Helen fell in love and gently pushed by Edie they married. In time they made her the grandmother of two children, a boy and a girl and lived happily ever after. The bleak past simply faded away.

Edie spent the rest of her life living comfortably in a new home at Utworth, that most exclusive suburb of Keighworth, and during the harsh Pennine winters she abandoned Keighworth completely and went cruising on a luxury ship in warm tropical climes.

She died a chirpy, old lady in her nineties, but before she went, she made sure some of her wealth went into a trust for penniless widows; and the rest of her estate including the two farms went entirely to her daughter-in-law Helen – just in case Seth slipped back into his old ways after she’d gone.

John Waddington-Feather ©

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