… there is more mistletoe on the winter-bare trees than I’ve ever, ever seen anywhere else.
… when seasonal pruning of roadside trees is done, the prunings are piled up into a series of bonfires a couple of inches from the main roads and set alight with petrol.
… huge trees growing inches from the road are not cut down on the grounds of health and safety, a white line is painted round the trunks that show up in the dark.
… car indicators aren’t used much here and if they are, it’s occasionally advisable to not believe the indication.
… roundabouts are a fairly new phenomenon here and are used as if they’ve never been seen before.
… white plastic bollards by the side of winding roads up steep hills are cleaned – by men wearing high vis jackets and using buckets, mops and cloths.
… speed cameras aren’t really used here but the police sometimes lurk with their speed guns. It’s possible, however, to look up on a website where they’re going to be over the proceeding few days.
… it’s possible to have a leisurely breakfast, go out for a drive, criss-crossing your way through three other countries and be home in time for afternoon tea and cake.
… there are houses painted the colour of highlighter pens. I’m serious.
… the average property price here, irrelevant of colour, is over 500,000 Euros.
… the population is half a million. Nearly half of those are, like us, ex-pats.
… it is advised that an annual blood test be carried out. This, the doctor told me, “may highlight any problems early which can be dealt with before they get more serious”. This sort of pro-active malarky can be hard to take in sometimes.
… when prescribed daily iron supplements (see above), they may come in the form of individual glass vials, the top of which needs to be snapped off. I feel like I’ve morphed back to a bygone time.
… when buying glycerine at la pharmacie for cake-icing purposes, you will be asked how much you want, the quantity of which will be decanted from a huge glass apothecary bottle into a tiny glass bottle and labelled, handwritten. Bygone times again.
… it is impossible to buy any form of painkiller anywhere other than a pharmacie.
… it is possible to buy large apothecary bottles, 20.00 Euros for eight, from flea markets.
… the locals are likely to be able to speak three languages, often switching between them mid-conversation. This is both maddening and hugely impressive.
… when in waiting rooms, whosoever joins the room will say hello as they enter and goodbye as they leave.
… it is highly likely you will be greeted as you enter a shop, probably asked if you need any help and if you advise you’re just looking, you will be left alone. I repeat, you will be left alone to browse.
… there is not a Starbucks on every corner in the city. There is not a Starbucks. This makes me happy.
… there is a supermarket which supplies various fancy restaurants which is also open to the public although not over the lunch period. The supermarket shuts for lunch.
… by and large, on the whole, generally, women are more well-turned out and better groomed here than in Blighty.
… vet bills are considerably cheaper than in Blighty. This is just as well given Le Chat Roux seemingly requires weekly trips for various ailments or afflictions.
… there is an annual potato festival.
… the old, now unused railway line which passed through our tiny village, complete with tunnel, has become a well-kept cycle path.
I pressed End Call on my phone and dropped it in to my pocket, having finished a conversation with one of my sisters that two weeks previously I’d never given any thought that I would have. Pulling my black raincoat around me against the cold winter wind of 2005 as it whipped round the building – the coat that this sister said made me look frightening to old ladies and children as it billowed out like a cloak as I marched along – I walked back through the automatic doors, pausing out of a recently-acquired habit to squirt anti-bacterial gel on my hands, and made my way to the lifts. As I stood waiting for one of the four to arrive, it struck me that none of the people bustling around me knew, they had no idea what my story was, why I was there.
The lift doors opened and I stepped in after a few others, people who took no notice of the black-clad woman standing amongst them. Just as I pressed the button marked 8, the doors started to close and a woman appeared in the quickly decreasing gap holding a carrycot. I held my hand against one of the doors which hesitated then slid open again. She stepped in, wafting further cold from outside into the lift. “Thank you” she murmured.
The doors closed and the lift ascended, various people chattering, carrying flowers, a balloon, bags. There was a ting, we halted, doors opened and people stepped out. Once the doors closed again, it was just myself and the carrycot-holding lady left as we began to slowly drift upwards in our box. I looked downwards, vaguely glancing at the contents of the carrycot. Babies don’t normally hold much interest for me but, at that moment, I wanted something to focus on. What I saw shocked me. Nestled amongst the white blankets and under a pink, beribboned woolly hat was a face, a perfect little face – two closed eyes, symmetrical half-moons of dark eyelashes, a small bump of a nose and a rosebud mouth. Slightly pink-tinged cheeks. It was a tiny, tiny face, her whole head seemed little bigger than an orange.
“How old is she?” I blurted out.
“Six days” the lady answered. Her voice sounded small, she sounded tired, she sounded worried. Her face was pale, her hair frizzed by the cold and rain outside. “She’s a bit small” she continued. “She was a bit early. My first, I’m rather terrified by her, I didn’t think she’d be this small”.
“How much does she weigh?” I asked, my disbelief that a human could actually be so small and live - breathe in and out without the need of being surrounded by starched uniforms and bleeping machines.
“I’m not sure what she weighs now but she weighed 5lbs, 3oz when she was born”. I laughed out loud. The frizzy-haired lady looked at me quizzically, clearly laughing at her baby’s lack of baby-bouncing weight was not what she expected.
“I was 5lbs, 3oz when I was born” I explained. “At six days old, my mother apparently put me outside in my pram to get some fresh air. It was winter and she told me she’d had to brush the snow off my pram before she brought me indoors”. The lady audibly gasped and almost mouthed “My God”, my reaction having been exactly the same when my mother told me what she’d done with her newborn fourth child. Both myself and the new mother looked down at her child, undoubtedly musing on the idea of putting something so small, so tiny, so vulnerable and precious outside in the snow completely shocking. “You were fine” my mother had said at my outraged shock at her more than blase behaviour “You had lots of blankets, you had a hot water bottle wrapped up with you. Did you no harm”.
“Clearly did you no harm” said the frizzy-haired lady and I was conscious of her looking at me, really looking at me, starting at my shoes and slowly upwards to my full height of 5’9″.
The lift tinged again, slowed to a halt and the doors opened at floor 8. I gave the mother and child one last look and with a small smile stepped out, caught in a throng of people who’d just spilled out from other lifts as they hesitated to look at the signs pointing ways, signs I had no need to look at and signs I would not see again.
“Thank you” said a voice behind me. I turned, not sure if the words were directed at me. The frizzy-haired lady stood in the lift holding her tiny baby girl in her carrycot in one hand, her other hand holding the lift door open. “Thank you” she said again. She smiled. She looked brighter. “I feel a bit more reassured having seen you. Thank your mother as well for me”. I opened my mouth but there was nothing there. What could I say? How could I explain?
“I will” I said just as the doors closed on her and she disappeared. I turned and went to join my eldest sister who was gathering up various belongings so that we could leave once and for all, leave the hospital where we’d watched our mother draw her last breath half an hour ago.
The November mists have descended upon the Small Country, just as they did this time last year, cloaking the countryside in ethereal ghostliness. The car headlights snake their way through the gloom on our morning drive up the hill through the trees to the main road for Joe Brown to face the white-knuckle ride to work on the bendy bus so I can have the ridiculously fast car for the day. Sometimes the strength of the sun is sufficient to burn the mist off by mid-morning and a couple of weeks ago, on a perfectly clear day and a perfectly clear, straight German autobahn with its lack of speed limit, I tried testing just how ridiculously fast it is. I think the car laughed in my face when I got sweaty hands and lost my nerve but I certainly drove faster than I ever have before.
It’s over a year since I arrived here and much has happened and much has not. Progress with learning French is, I feel, timorous due to my seeming lack of ability for concentrated study outside my one-to-one lessons and I’m being a rather timorous beastie about joining in with the two social groups I’m a fully paid-up member of. I know not why. As is apparent, I have blogged little.
I would have thought I’d have had much to say about our trip to New York at the end of June to which we travelled first class but I did not. I said nothing of the wonders of turning left as you step on a plane rather than turning right and there was no mention of the amount of walking we did in a city that seriously doesn’t sleep, any more than we slept in the hideous summer heat in a sweltering hotel room. The only shoes I found comfortable were a pair of pink flip flops. We sweated our way round the usual tourist spots, putting our hands on the names of people who were felled, on the spot where they were felled. We ran our hands along bannisters in a building which was the first building thousands of people came to from far, far away decades ago to start a new life in a new country. We sheltered from lashing rain which cooled the city for an hour or so, by which time my feet had turned cheap flip flop pink. I took a multitude of mostly crap pictures, Joe Brown’s were better.
The three cows were taken away from the field out the back of the house some time after we returned but, it must be said, the farmer was astonishingly gentle about it, leaving the open trailer in the field for a week and daily trying to coax them in with food rather than forcing the issue. We missed their puffs and wheezes as we sat in the late summer evening sun on the terrace after they’d gone.
Having, in the past, dug out pernicious weeds in an area the size of the whole garden here at the Tangerine House, as well as doing the same at the allotment I had in Blighty, even I couldn’t believe how much hand-wringing and bitching I did when digging relatively small flowerbeds here but, in my defence, I’ve never come across such shite, heavy-clay soil. I fear for the survival of some of the plants given that they’re facing a Small Country hard winter in waterlogged soil that will undoubtedly freeze solid. I started walking past the enormous pile of manure at the end of the village and staring at it wontonly.
Joe Brown has blatantly said in the past that he would have difficulty being in the house with my sisters and I for any length of time – the phrase used was “a cauldron of women” – so, during his fortnight stint of business trips at the end of September, Sister Two came to stay for a long weekend, bringing her impossibly neatly-packed bag, flips flops that don’t dye her feet, shorts and perpetually lightly-tanned legs. A fellow gardener, she poked a fork in the rock solid, as then un-dug and sunbaked lawn, and laughed at my misfortune. This tells you something about Sister Two. Her casual enquiry as to what temperature I wash the bedlinen tells you something else about her and the fevered manner in which I cleaned the house before she arrived probably says something about me too. We drank cremant in the unseasonally hot garden – she in her shorts and me with lily-white legs covered – and watched the birds of prey hanging in the air high above the tree line beyond. We mused on manure and my reticence at speaking with the gentle farmer, fearing inability to make myself understood. We drove in to the city, something that took me ages to conquer the fear of doing – this from a woman who, years ago, would drive in to London in a car whose ability to make it to the end of the road was highly questionable. We walked down to the old part, which is a World Heritage site, ambling along winding valley paths lined with narrow houses and, surprisingly, vegetable gardens. Tiny lizards scuttled near our feet on the ancient walls. We had lunch at Le Fromagerie, a shop that Joe Brown and I came across a while ago, the smell of which hits you as the doors slide open. As we slid in to our seats, I leaned forward and told Sister Two she was in for a treat and indeed, she was. We lunched on glasses of red wine and platters of breads and different cheeses, slicing slivers from each others plates and comparing favourites. I think we were at our table for well over an hour before winding our way past the Royal Palace and across the busy city square which, a month or so later, heralded its own royal wedding, stopping at a cafe which serves coffee at its best. Sister Two simply nodded at the first sip of her double espresso. No more words were needed. As we drove home, we cruised round the village and spotted the gentle farmer.
He had no manure at that time but explained in a mixture of French and, surprisingly, English, that his neighbouring farmer did have and the pile I’d been coveting was, in fact, horse manure.
“C’est mieux, non?” he said as I explained why I needed it. Indeed, yes, horse manure would be better than cow for heavy clay soil.
“Ah, oui” he continued, adding that he’d seen me in the village and that I was “a strong soul”, a phrase I think is the local equivalent of “a sturdy girl”, a phrase bandied around our family for some years, the reason for which is Sister One’s daughter, as a robust toddler in her pushchair, was deemed by a Bahamian to be “a sturdy girl”.
Sister Two and I drank more cremant chez moi that evening whilst we made an enormous fish pie and planned a river trip the following day but regrettably the scheduled sail was cancelled and Sister Two was flying home later that day. On the way to the airport, she pointed to our right and observed “stick-on cows” in the field across the way. She’s quite right – a herd of cows in the distance look like they’ve been stuck-on the landscape, cows close up do not. Have a look next time you see a field of cows in the distance and you too will now point and say “stick-on cows” I’ll be bound. I shocked myself by getting a bit weepy at the airport as I waved goodbye and came home to an empty house, with an impeccably made spare bed and leftover fish pie I picked at later.
A week or so later, after many wanders round the village which takes all of five minutes, I finally found someone in the farmyard at the end of the village and stated my desire for “le fumier”, apologising for my poor French. The wizen-faced man I spoke to pointed me in the direction of another man who I approached, picking my way across the muddy yard.
I pretty much skipped up the road towards the Tangerine House some while later, partly because I was on a promise of a pile of manure being delivered over the fence the following day but also because, as the wizen-faced man wandered across the yard towards our conversation, he gestured towards another man who apparently spoke some English and the farmer I was speaking to replied:
“Ce n’est pas nécessaire, c’est bien”. My French was seemingly sufficient.
Joe Brown returned home as the sun lost its heat and, with it, our joie de vivre seemed to dissipate. We both became lethargic and a tad dull, not helped by the shocking news that a work colleague of his is possibly facing not being around to witness his eight and ten year-old sons’ voices breaking. This outrage of life happens, I know, but it seems particularly cruel to happen to an infinitely kind, gentle giant of a man who looks capable of ripping out fully-grown trees with his bare hands.
A week later, Joe Browns’ father called to let us know that Mrs Brown would imminently be going in to hospital.
“Private health care” she announced to me on the phone at the weekend. “I refused to let him cancel my health care when he retired” she added. Wise lady, Mrs Brown.
She had surgery on Monday and during an update phone call yesterday, Mr Brown recounted how a nurse explained that his wife had given her a seriously hard time earlier that day on the grounds of rudeness. Apparently, the nurse had, in an endeavour to reassure Mrs Brown how pleased they were with her progress, she’d told her she was doing really well “for a woman your age” and got severely reprimanded for her impertinence. She’s had major surgery. She’s in intensive care. She’s eighty-three. She’s a sturdy girl.
Also? There’s someone else living with us as of a month or so ago.
He’s Belgian and, obviously, a redhead. Le Belge Roux.
I put the key in the lock and the door resists being opened, swollen with recent rain, causing it to stick in its frame. As I push against it, I muse ruefully on why it couldn’t have sealed itself in its frame during the winter, thereby halting the freezing wind whistling round the edges and down the corridor towards the kitchen. The cloying smell of damp mixed with sickly sweet air fresheners hits me as I step in and I exhale loudly, the only sound in the house. It took weeks to clear the air of ‘fresh peach’ or somesuch, even after I took down the ghastly curtains which reeked of it and bagged them up in the attic when we moved in but I was never able to rid the smell of damp which pervaded in the study and bedrooms and I could sometimes smell the house 20 kilometres away when I was in the car as it clung on my clothes. Windows were opened timorously as there was a fair chance the glass would fall out in a welcome breeze. The ghastly curtains now hang again but there are no clothes hanging in the wardrobe. There is little furniture here now and none of it is ours. The house is empty.
I check for any post which is ostensibly why I still have a key and wander in to the study and am, as always, taken aback how gloomy it is. Little light reaches through the window. Outside the back door the lavender is in full bloom and I tut as I see that the small crab apple tree, awash with blossom a few months ago and recently showing a mass of tiny fruits, has been rather brutally pruned. It’s quiet, there is no clicking sound which came from the pair of breeding black redstarts which nested in a crevice in the barn wall and I hope their young all made it. Up the steps, the grass is long and looks more lush than I ever saw it before. The marestail has started poking its spiky leaves up through the gravel of the seating area again where my sisters and I sat and drank tea in the unusually warm early evenings at the end of March. The tree I planted is still there and I breathe a sigh of relief – this house is no longer my home, it’s nobody’s home at the moment but the A Vendre sign at the front an open plea by the owners that soon it will be. I’ll then no longer have a key and will not be able to check for post, a ruse really for my real purpose. The tree was the second thing I planted in this garden, my cat the first and it would be fair to say I had a huge problem with what felt like leaving him and hoping he’d be safe under his tree. I had, and still have, a huge problem with the fact that he’s gone.
“I think he’s gone back to Somerset” I told Joe Brown a while ago. “Well, I like to think he has anyway”. Back from whence he came, back to when he was robust and hefty.
I turn and leave, pulling the front door to and double-lock it. In the car, I drive in silence – no radio tuned to a French radio station to aid in attuning my British ears to another language, no music. I always drive away from the House on the Hill now in silence.
The Tangerine House sits in a small village a kilometre or two down a winding road which opens out to the valley as you reach the bottom. Bizarrely, it was the first house Joe Brown and I looked at when we came to the Small Country in December 2010, a month before he started his new job. I’d snickered at the very notion of potentially living in a tangerine house which was newly built and therefore not our style at all although we both almost reluctantly admitted we quite liked it. We rejected it largely due to the size of the garden which, compared to the garden in Blighty, looked pitiful. We have since learned that here this is classed as reasonable.
The walls in the living room are now white – tangerine on the outside is one thing, inside was not acceptable – and mid-morning, the sideways light causes a checkered pattern to appear on the walls from the marble tiles on the floor. The study has blinds to shade the bright light so we can see our computer screens. There are plants in the front garden, some of which came with us from Blighty which never got planted at the House on the Hill. I think I knew fairly soon I didn’t want to stay there. I’ve bought roses. I still sometimes find fine strands of cat hair, unmistakeably familiar with their tabby ring of white at the tip.
The windows are large and I spend time watching clouds scud across the open sky, of late dropping rain on distant villages before reaching here. In the evenings, we sometimes sit on the terrace with glasses of cidre, occasionally visited by a pair of black redstarts. Three cows of varying hues of gold mooch around the field at the back of the house, the open view beyond the low garden fence sweeping upwards. Westerly winds hiss through the dense line of trees up in the distance and it sometimes sounds like the sea. In the twilight one evening, Joe Brown mused that the snorts and puffing emissions from the cows could be mistaken for passing whales in a darkening green ocean.
I’ve dreamt about him every night for the last week since he’s gone, vivid dreams that melt away as I wake but amongst the jumbled stories that fill my sleep I’m conscious that his furry presence was by my side, my abiding sidekick, just as he has been for the last fourteen years.
I hadn’t really wanted him, giving vague mutterings to Vic of “Well, not really, well, OK, I’ll think about it” but suddenly there was a lanky-legged twelve week feral kitten born on the local rubbish tip delivered to my house and Vic was gone. We regarded each other from across the room through the bars of his small cage – I hadn’t even got up from the sofa as he’d arrived - he was all eyes, pointy ears and legs and looked like a rangy, tabby-furred fox. Having been caught at about seven weeks old, he was the largest of the litter of five by far and certainly the bravest, being the first to come forward as we’d smeared cat food on our hands and held them up to the bars of the big cage Vic kept them in as he slowly accustomed them to people and various domestic noise. He licked the food from our fingers, his bravery encouraging his siblings to come forward and over the next month started to look rather eager to start a life outside the metal bars. I got up from the sofa and opened the small cage.
Eddie ate like a horse and grew like a four-stemmed weed, supplementing his diet with an alarming number of kills which he’d bring home as soon as snared and, to give him his due, all were eaten with gusto if I didn’t manage to wrestle them away if still alive. All that would be left were perhaps a leg, a few tail feathers and, in the case of furry critters, a small whirly bit and tail. My neighbour, an ex-paratrooper, once admitted he’d had to abandon his shoe-polishing session by his back door as he found the sight of Ed cracking the skull of a bird between his teeth rather distressing. He’d creep in to my other neighbour’s house and steal the cat toys she bought for her over-indulged cat and regularly came cantering up the garden path with all manner of swag; a magpie which flew round the kitchen before escaping through the window, the lower half of a turkey leg including its foot, burger buns, a garlic baguette and once, an oven-warm lamb chop complete with traces of mint sauce. He developed a penchance for spongy pot scourers which I’d find shredded all over the house and was frightened of plastic carrier bags after getting his head stuck in the handle hole in a quest to lick the remnants of an Indian takeaway from the tinfoil dishes. Fights with other cats, if they happened, seemed to be over quickly – he appeared not to follow the rules of endless crooning and slow circling for an age but would dive straight in. My ex and I once looked on in horror as he leapt on a cat who just happened to be passing and expertly flipped it over on its back. Wary of strangers, once stroked, he’d be a mate for life, happily approaching people he hadn’t seen from one year to the next but avoiding anyone he’d never met before. I still get the occasional email from someone who met him twelve years ago, purely to ask “How’s big Ed?” Neighbours knew him well, he was always ”Eddie from the tip” given that everyone knew the local tip and if you knew the tip, you’d be aware of the clowder of tabby cats that lived there. He was languid and long with a shiny sleek coat that was as soft as rabbit fur and smelled of fresh air. He weighed 16lbs.
When I left the ‘Set to live with Joe Brown in 2007, Eddie seemed to put himself into retirement, avoiding fights and rarely hunting, which was a surprise. He became lap cat, sofa cat, lolling in the garden cat but still with his unmistakeable loud miaow. He’d come when I called him and respond if I asked him if he was a peckish puss but not flinch if Joe Brown asked him the same thing. He became less hefty to pick up. When having a blood test and resisting mightily at having his front legs held, the vet asked “Is this a feral cat?”
“Yes” I replied and, out of habit, went on “He’s from the tip”.
It was odd to have Ed on medication, he just didn’t seem the sort of cat that would need it, being picky about food was strange and stints on drips felt just plain wrong despite the fact that they flushed his system and kept him going. I’ve stood in the vets on more than one occasion quietly weeping at the sight of my cat tucked into the corner of his caged cube, attached to a drip and with a litter tray. Litter trays were an absolute outrage to Ed, he once protested at being forced to use one when I moved house by weeing in my handbag.
In the last month or so he deteriorated rapidly, thinning alarmingly, became disinterested in food and looked pitiful during another stint at the vets which didn’t appear to be having any effect. I brought him home. My cat who’d always greeted me cheerily gave me sideways looks that seemed accusing, he who’d crunched and eaten the heads of starlings refused to eat and who’d once caught a swift wobbled and fell down a couple of stairs. It was, in fact, the sight of him obviously having tried to get to the litter tray and run out of steam, lying in his own wee and looking humiliated, which caused me to pick up the phone and ask the vet to come.
I’m not sure if there’s cats at the tip any more, certainly not the true tip cats anyway with their unmistakeable tabby rabbit-fur coats. The Cats Protection League caught them, had them neutered and either found them new homes on farms or returned them to the tip to slowly die out over time. Eddie was one of the last litter. He’s buried in the garden which apparently is against the law here and therefore seems fitting for a cat that was born on the edge, as it were. He’s within earshot of the church bells and pretty much in the shadow of the chateau up the road. Clearly he came an awful lot further than could have been the case if I hadn’t opened his cage nearly fifteen years ago. I’m so, so glad I did.
There is ice on the inside of some of the windows at The House on the Hill and the fine, icing sugar snow which fell a few days ago is frozen solid. It cracked underfoot as I walked up the garden yesterday to upright the bird table which fell over during the high winds of a month or so ago. I noticed it but did nothing about it, any more than, to my shame, I did anything about refilling the bird feeders. It was a robin I saw through the kitchen window, puffed up against the cold so as to be almost wholly round, bibbity-bobbing about on the terrace looking for food that induced the guilt trip and I wiped my doughy hands on a tea towel and went to find the bag of bird food. Freezing temperatures which are set for the whole week have raised my hibernation requirements even higher than before and I cried off going to a yoga class yesterday, preferring to salute the sun on my own with a DVD whilst le chat wound himself round my mountain posed feet, licked my hands whilst downward dogging and drooled all over my mat. I cancelled my French lesson for today, delightful as my French teacher is, as the idea of conjugating verbs frankly filled me with dread. Concentration on French studies is proving difficult, mindless mixing and kneading is far easier. The furthest I’ve been in the last few days is up the road to the post box. Tellingly of insulation levels in our house, ours is the only roof in the street which has no snow on it. I think the turrety thing up the road has more snow on its roof than we do.
My recent forays in to breadmaking, both sourdough and otherwise, despite a perfectly good breadmaker, has produced disappointing results – loaves are somewhat flat like ruptured implants rather than the huge inflated airbags I’d envisaged. I’ve now learned that this is likely to be due to French flour being different to British. Who knew?
My pasta however, is fantastic.
We’d turned off the motorway just in to the border after hours of a long, hard drive, pitiful mewing coming from the back every time we’d bumped over a pothole on the way. Belgian motorways are pretty crap, it must be said. The car seemed to crawl through the smooth, even streets after hours of whistle and whiz and I remember the butterflies, the short breaths and wide-eyed need to take it all in. The houses looked vaguely familiar after months of daily trawling through a louer websites in an effort to find a new home, their style, however, unfamiliar and strange to my British eyes. There were snapshots of oh-so-continental French mixed with dashes of German and modern boxes dotted amongst them looked like enlarged models on a table in an architect’s studio. Staring through the floor to ceiling windows, I half-expected to see life-size plastic models going about their business, showing how life could be in these tile floored, triple glazed, class B energy-efficient abodes. Le chat quietened in the back. Village after village passed until we wound our way upwards and a scene I’d envisaged hundreds of time in weeks previously unfolded as the car finally slowed to a halt. This was really happening. This was it. I was really here.
I sometimes drive through those first villages I saw, my first real glimpse of the Small Country that was to be my home for the foreseeable future three months ago and, every time I do, I still get butterflies and stare at the houses, the memory of that day having been etched in my head. The open land between the villages look very different now, trees are mostly bereft of leaves, twisted branches pointing upwards to an often wild sky or looming out of a foggy gloom. The slightly raised beds in the centre of the roads as I approach the small roundabouts have had their shrubbery neatly pruned now and salt grit bins have appeared, complete with handy shovel standing to attention next to them. The Gaura lindheimeri and Verbena bonariensis which waved in the autumn breeze amongst the central bed through one village has been cut down for the winter but I recall the delight and almost relief at seeing such treasures were here.
A few days after we arrived, I heaved my old deckchair out of the small barn at the side of the house and spent a couple of hours sitting in the warm afternoon sun reading a glossy magazine, a scene which caused Joe Brown to smile widely. It’s not often that I just sit in a garden but, that afternoon, time stretched out before me a’plenty. I’d tackle the dull garden later. The warmth didn’t last and I can’t remember the last time I walked up the steps outside the back door to even look at the back garden which can’t be seen from any window in the house. Later, another time, really.
We slept on an airbed the first night we were here, our furniture thundering across crap Belgian roads on its way. The morning sun pressed against the curtains, the light slowly seeping out their sides and spreading across the bed. I didn’t hear the 7 am church bells that morning. I hear them most weekday mornings now although, for the most part, the first sound I hear is a slight click of a cup being put down on the chest of drawers. Joe Brown is unfailing in his daily task of bringing me a cup of tea in bed. Occasionally I wake earlier, sometimes stirring as he leaves the bed when it’s still dark, the skin on his back and shoulders looking momentarily patterned as though covered in a huge intricate tattoo until my eyes adjust. We are a one-car family of two now and if I want the car for the day whilst Joe Brown’s at work, I have to leave the warmth of our bed and drive him to the bus stop, full beam headlights snaking round the hairypin bends and over the top of the next hill, the narrow road cutting through fields with dark silhouettes of cows and horses, their shapes filtered by the heavy fog often hanging in the not quite dawn. We drive past the donkeys who seem to have finally been taken in for the winter. There were three when we first arrived but now there are two. Joe Brown tried to placate my worries by suggesting perhaps one was in training for forthcoming manger duty but I’m not convinced and fear the worst. I confess I’ve sometimes returned to bed once home again, not to sleep, but to contemplate my day and make decisions as to what to do with it. My work trousers have remained in the drawer since arriving and I’m shocked that this is the case, cold weather and not really looking for work aside. The one gardening job I did two weeks ago in a garden a few kilometres away resulted in a swollen thumb which is still far from right.
I have driven a lot, my fear at driving on the other side of the road slowly abating as I swing round corners and across junctions with sometimes nary a thought in my husband’s ridiculously fast car. Sally satnav has become a jolly good friend although I confess I sometimes snicker at her appallingly bad pronunciations of French-named roads. I can occasionally be found trailing round a supermarche or two undoubtedly wearing a look of some bemusement and vaguely confused. I find it strange, nay rather bizarre, that I am doing something as basic as food shopping when I cannot understand many of the signs and tannoyed announcements which can be in any one of three languages. Clementines can be bought still with leaves on and I buy oranges individually wrapped in twists of paper. Cherry tomatoes taste as though I grew them in the garden. I scrabble in my bag for the now tatty list of translations for different fish whilst waiting in vague line at the poissonerie, watching a madame next to me choose two crabs which are held up for inspection before being put in a plastic bag, their claws and legs still flailing at their forthcoming fate. Shopping malls are awash with the scent of freshly brewed coffee from the plethora of cafes and eateries, trolleys full of bought provisions parked near tables as shoppers rest with espressos or glasses of wine. A young mother, her long blonde hair pulled in to a ponytail, rocks a pushchair with one foot whilst eating a plate of moules mariniere on her own. Triangles of pre-packed sandwiches are here but they are not easy to find. Piles of baguettes, stuffed with ham, cheese and salads are everywhere. I have found a lingerie shop full of pretty frillies, with bras three times the cost of the pair of Levi’s acquired today. The cup size of bras in French is bonnet which made me chortle at its sweetness and apt suggestion of ribbon and lace.
A lady who at 30 paces is so obviously French has started to come to the house once a week. I make coffee in proper cups with saucers and ensure I am wearing lipstick. We speak French the whole time although I am very stilted and slow, often trailing off as I either cannot remember or simply do not know the word. Despite this, we press on, sometimes lapsing in to conversations about shoes and the oft square shape of German clothes and she leaves workbooks and papers with me to study before the next lesson. She strokes le chat as she leaves, referring to him as le minou. I sometimes have to stifle a laugh as I stand in warrior pose with three other women in an apartment in front of a lady whose serenity dribbles all over her yoga mat because this, all of this life that I have, the place where I’m at, seems rather unreal.
As I lay in bed sipping tea this morning, I asked myself if I wanted to go back, go back to The Little House by the Big Wood and the life that we had there. My answer was no. I’ve been slow to start here for sure, picking my way round this tiny country rather timidly and by no means have I hurled myself in to a social whirl but I’ll find my way. Still, surprisingly, my answer was no.
“Really?” I queried my self
The village is perched on a hill, reached by roads that wind through evergreen and deciduous forestry, late summer sun flashing and sparkling through the foliage. There are sometimes alarming drops one side but sturdy trunks should prevent any serious careening down long banks too far. The church bells cling-clang continentally for a few minutes three times a day; seven in the morning, noon and seven in the evening with an extra set of cling-clangs at three on Friday afternoons. There is no shop but a bread van toot-toots through the village at any time between late morning and early afternoon most days.
Like some of the houses in the village, ours is spilling over the edge of the hill, facing the morning sun and the valley beyond which is soaked in the green of tall pines and tinges of Autumnal golds although our view is mostly obscured by the equally old house on the other side of the narrow road. We’ve lamented this lack of wide view but I suspect the house opposite will take most of the flack of cold easterly winds during the winter. Our windows are old and there are gaps in doors which I suspect will whistle with wind in the coming months. Even during the unseasonally warm weather over the last week or so, the downstairs of the house remains resolutely cool and once the sun falls out of view from the back garden drops to cold. The butter in the butter dish is just about spreadable despite being left out of the fridge. The heating, of slight bizarre system involving a trip in to the attic, has been on during evenings. The warmest room in the house is the large living room on the first floor.
Outside the back door is a terrace which spans the width of the house, to the right is an outbuilding and to the left leads to a covered area awash with flattened packing boxes and round to the small barn. The barn door key for the door to the front of the house is huge. Facing the back of the house beyond the terrace is a retaining stone wall which is taller than I. Steps lead up to the garden which slopes upward and is ringed with waist-height wire fencing. A variety of other back gardens are beyond and two sheep graze in a small patch at the far end of the garden. Their owner talks to them gently in what I believe to be a German equivalent of kootchie-koo fashion. Beyond the sheep there ‘s a clump of trees and on the other side of the shadows these cast are geese, chickens and a loud cockerel. Occasionally I can see a slinky black cat. To the right is a strip of land owned by an unnamed man “who lives North” which is dotted with a number of fruit trees – apple, cherry, damson and apricot. Some of the apples fall on our side of the fence and the apricots fall and roll down the roof of our outbuilding in to the gutter. These can be collected by walking across the flowerbed, bending down and picking them out of the gutter. Hateful conifers, mercifully only knee-height, have been planted along the left and back perimeter of the garden, in front of which are rows of newish box plants. Flowerbeds are mostly awash with numerous lavender plants and a few short shrub roses and attempts at vegetable-growing have been made in wooden box-like raised beds. All the beds are barkchipped, with evidence of weed control fabric. It took me two days before I saw the reason why. Mare’s tail. Overall, the garden looks dull but, due to vile pernicious weed, challenging. I have done nothing to rise to this challenge as yet.
At the front of the house is a narrow flowerbed which, until last weekend, was full of old, tatty lavender which I dug out, leaving only three. There is another tiresome row of small box, planted in a regimental row and now only visible as the lavender’s gone. The family next door but one are southern mediterranean, numerous in number and loud. We are told we won’t hear a peep from them over winter as they huddle inside against the cold. The couple in the old house opposite are smiley, helpful and generous – Joe Brown was given a small pot of homemade jam before I arrived and I was the recipient of a huge hunk of pumpkin and a bag of locally picked apples last week. Their garden slopes to the point of needing climbing gear. My garden challenge is nothing in comparison.
“Come, come see” said the man last week. He’s worked hard and is slowly terracing, differing levels containing vegetable beds, shrubby areas and a host of herbs including one which is more usually grown in people’s attics. His garden has the constant sound of rushing water from the run-off from the hill which goes under the orchard area next to our garden, under the road and cascades down in to the valley. There are steps down the side which go a considerable way down with, apparently, evidence of where local women washed their laundry in times gone by.
“They must have been strong women to carry wet washing up all those steps” I mused to the Herb Grower as I stood and looked over the wall. I haven’t ventured down then back up them yet, my venturing has been concentrated on being in control of a vehicle on the other side of the road. So far, I seem to have managed it.
I picked Joe Brown up from the airport on Friday afternoon after his week away on business and we picked the cat up from the vets on Saturday after stint two on a drip. Ultimately, his kidneys are failing but, for now, all three of us are at home.
I’ve been looking forward to today for weeks, with visions of a lazy Sunday breakfast at the dining table with my husband in our new home in our new country, morning sun streaming through the window, house with some sort of semblance of order given we’ve been here since Wednesday evening.
Instead, large vital furniture are in the wrong rooms as they either won’t go up the stairs and/or through the living room door which is upstairs, boxes are still packed full of crockery as the small kitchen really does have a storage issue and it’s lashing with rain, with rumbles of thunder. Joe Brown and I are full of colds – he having driven us here for seven hours with a fever, a fever I caught up with on Friday. The cat, albeit not happy at spending so much time in the car, coped remarkably well and seemed reasonably happy the day after we arrived, has now not eaten since Thursday afternoon. Weepy session on my part resulted in trip to gentle-voiced vet yesterday morning and we came home with a veritable meze of different foods, in line with his known kidney issues, to try and tempt him. Desperation has halted all major unpacking and moving around of furniture in the hope that calmness will ensue the consumption of more than the occasional laps of water. Light pottering is the order of the next couple of days – Joe Brown is changing plugs and I plan to clean the bathroom. Coaxing doesn’t work, smearing his paws with food just pisses him off. In the meantime, he displays moments of acute alertness and feline deftness but mostly curls up or crouches sphinx-like on the chair, occasionally padding slowly and carefully out in to the garden where he sits on the edge of the border, end of tail swishing slowly back and forth, back and forth.