The door was closed against the chill draughts of the January afternoon; the chairs were close to the hearth. The open fire had been heavily stoked with coal and burned with a radiant warmth and a bright light.
“Do you always burn coal?”
“Always, now”, he said, “it’s delivered by a man with a yard in the village”.
It seemed odd that a farmhouse in the Irish Midlands should be heated solely by imported fuel, delivered in plastic bags that declared the European origin of their contents.
“Did you never burn turf?”
“We did, our land included part of a turf bog, so we cut our own turf”.
Cutting turf never seemed the most attractive of occupations. In his younger days, it would have been cut by hand with a slane, a sharp right handled spade that demanded effort and dexterity if the turf was to be correctly cut. It was then stacked by hand to allow it to dry before being collected and brought back to be stored in sheds at every farm and cottage across the landscape. However, there is a great emotional and cultural attachment to turf cutting; to have suggested it was an unpleasant task would have been inappropriate, particularly as it was the only fuel available to generations of local people and going to cut the turf was a great community activity.
An open-ended question would allow him to respond as he wished. “Did you enjoy cutting turf?”
“Happiness is about being content with what you are doing”.
It was an enigmatic response worthy of a lawyer; no indication given that turf-cutting meant contentment or being discontented. The words had a mood of finality about them, as if the subject of domestic fuel was closed and there was nothing else to be said.
Staring into the fire, mugs of tea were drunk and news of the family shared. The clock showed 4.30 and there remained a further call to make before teatime. Sitting longer at the fire would have been tempting, particularly as stepping into the hallway brought a reminder that it was still January outside.
Driving from the house to the road, the winter sun had a white brightness and there was an expanse of blue sky to the south. The hint of spring lingered no more than two minutes, slate grey clouds came over the mountains, armed with wind, rain, sleet and snow. A day when a turf fire would have been the only warmth for the long dead occupants of a ruined cottage.
Happiness is about being content with what you are doing. Can one be content driving roads more mud than tarmac, staring through the windscreen wipers into the storm outside? Maybe.