Four

Merc

The lowering late summer sun causes a shadow from the Tangerine House to seep across the small back garden. By the end of September, it will have reached the fence line and the garden will not see sunshine, other than a thin sliver in the morning and late evening, til next March. For now, the Verbena bonariensis, Gaura linheimeri and Persicaria flower in sun, with daily visits by hummingbird hawk moths. The Rudbeckia I brought with me from the Little House by the Big Wood flowers profusely although not as tall as usual – even they, robust and cheerful in heavy clay soil, need some help occasionally in the form of manure. I need to seek out the farmer again and practice my French.

I’m in the last throes of handing over a voluntary role to two women that I’ve done on my own for the last eighteen months. I’m glad I did it, focus-giving and new software-learning that it was, but it was taking up the equivalent of half a working week and for a voluntary role that largely consists of sitting in front of a laptop, enough’s enough. It has not gone unnoticed that blogging fell by the wayside as a result and much else seems to have been lain aside too, not least my weekly visit from the lovely lady who screams “I’m French, I’m French!”, purely by the way she dresses just so.

By the 7th September it will have been four years since I first pitched up in the Small Country and I have done much and undoubtedly changed somewhat. Joe Brown has commented on how my taste in cheese has developed from basic cheddar to all manner of cheese I eat, rind an’all which would not have happened before. Apparently, I also speak more with my hands than I used to, with the occasional request received to put at least one hand on the steering wheel when I’m driving. I have, with cheese a likely contender at least in part, increased in size. Other reasons for basic weight gain is lack of physical exercise; indeed, there have been periods of weeks when I haven’t picked up a garden tool, my nails have remained earth-free and pristine and much as I don’t mind being on my own, I dislike walking on my own in the middle of nowhere to get a bit of exercise and there is much nowhere to be had here.

I have, however, recently acquired a garden project. It’s across the border in the land of gummi handschuhe and polizei and owned by friends who, for one reason or another, have neglected their large garden which is now an overgrown tangle of brambles and seeded Hornbeams, some of which are taller than I. It is, essentially, a paid gardening job but I have made it clear that if I choose to turn up for more than three hours a week, this is my choice and therefore not chargeable, my reasons being I’ve missed having a veritable ongoing gardening task and, larger of belly and derriere I may be, but thinner of arms and untoned thighs I also am. “Trust me”, I wrote in an email, “you’d be doing me a favour by letting me loose in your garden for all sorts of reasons”. I miss my biceps and firm abs and I’m sure Joe Brown does too, purely because their presence indicates I’m regularly outside and doing physical work and am therefore happier. I think it’s fair to say that if I’m happy, Joe Brown usually is too.

Joe Brown’s health was rubbish for a fair while in the last eighteen months or so, requiring stints in hospital owing to alarming weight loss which startled me every time I saw him first thing in the morning but I’m glad to say, he’s much improved. The surgery he had on his back improved things too but he’s of the opinion this is more to do with the regular sessions of physio he had afterwards, the cost of which was almost negligible given it’s heavily subsidised by the health care system (living in one of the top three richest countries in the world has its benefits, trust me). His parents are ageing, (a ridiculous statement as, aren’t we all?), with Mrs Brown becoming alarmingly stick-thin in the last year and has now been given a terminal diagnosis. We hold our breaths and brace on that one but Joe Brown has just organised for a bouquet of flowers to be delivered to The Browns’ hotel room where they’re celebrating their 63rd wedding anniversary for the weekend. She’s feeling better than she was as, six months ago, she wouldn’t have wanted to leave the house.

Chat Roux has grown into a healthy, robust cat which is something of a surprise given his runty start after being abandoned in a cardboard box outside the door of a dog refuge across the border. I’m sure half the village knows the orange cat, frequently to be seen hunting in the field and, of late, he seems to be The Only Cat in the Village due to house-moves, age and a weasel attack. There are, I know, other cats around but these are farm cats – shady creatures across the way who Chat Roux wisely avoids. We often cite him as a bit stupid but actually this is isn’t wholly fair – steering clear of shady cats aside, he’s certainly sharp enough to know within an hour or so when we’ve gone away rather than just out and will go and whinge at our neighbours who’ll have a key to let him in and fill his bowl.

By the 7th September, we’ll be theoretically half way through this stint in the Small Country and I’m acutely aware how fast the time is going and how much I have not done. “I don’t want to get in the car as we leave and feel I’ve wasted the opportunity of being here” I’ve said to Joe Brown on many occasions and I certainly feel that’s the case at the moment. I spent an evening having dinner with friends in the city a few weeks ago and realised it was the first time I’d been in the city of an eve. In four years. This is nothing short of pitiful and embarrassing. There is much to learn, see and do and I don’t think learning a software package and developing an appreciation for three year-old comté quite cuts it.

Via the voluntary organisation I am/was involved in, I’m putting together a stack of school supplies for Those Less Fortunate (richest country it may be but this carries the assumption that all parents are financially able to provide their children with all equipment for school, ranging from pens and pencils to paintbrushes, exercise and set books). This stack of unused and unopened ventures, nay, adventures, highlights the fact that it’s the start of the new school year even more so than usual and, as always, this brings an element of a new start. It’s four years on since I whispered “Are we here?” and, to a large degree, I have a clean slate for the new school year. Half the working week has been freed up, I have a new garden to find amongst the wilderness and even the study has been streamlined of overflowing shelves which makes me anxious (it just does). My French books are in a tidy line, new paper to conjugate verbs is in hand and I plan to work my way through the travel books we have of the Small Country and all three neighbouring countries and make a list of where I’d like to go, taking my new camera with me. All I need to do now is sharpen my pencils and polish my shoes.

Recently …

– we went to a small-ish summer barbecue at friends, the number of nationalities present were about twelve.

– on a balmy early summer’s eve, we sat on our terrace drinking champagne with four friends before wandering down the road to the restaurant for astonishingly good food and, unusually for this restaurant, astonishingly slow service. The restaurant is the only ‘public’ place in the village. There is, in fact, no shop in the commune (equivalent of a UK parish council).

– Big Bro and his wife came to stay for a few days. Given that I’d never hosted Big Bro in my house before and Joe Brown hardly knew either him nor his wife, I was a tad nervous. It was all rather mighty fine despite the changeable weather but excellent planning on my part meant that the wettest afternoon was spent at a private wine tasting followed by a tour of the cellars, headed by the chap who runs the winery who was possibly young enough to be my son. Interestingly, when I asked if he’d noticed a problem with pollination due to reduced number of bees, I was told that vines aren’t affected as they’re wholly wind-pollinated.

– Joe Brown and I did a day-long road trip on a fiercely hot day, as much as possible using the road winding along the Mosel river in the ridiculously fast, air-conditioned car. This was a good call on his part and one of my most favourite days since being here.

– I narrowly missed the birth of a calf in the field at the back of our house. Lots of mooing and broken waters heralded the arrival but after an hour of no further progress I thought I had time to walk down the road to post a letter. By the time I came home, there was a pure white, still slightly steaming calf in the field, complete with wing nut ears. It was up and wobbling around within half an hour. Three days later, the other cow produced a beige calf overnight. They’ve become good chums and often canter round the field together playing chase in the cool of the evenings.

– over dinner one evening, my neighbour announced she would cut her forthcoming holiday short by a couple of days when it became apparent we were both away at the same time and neither of us would be at home for cat-duty, both her and mine. Her husband was clearly horrified by this, particularly as this was partly so she could look after le chat roux who’s Belgian.

– le chat roux, usually only absent for an hour or so, went missing. I would like to say I was quite chilled about this, confident that he would return home, but I was not. Convinced he’d come to harm or was trapped somewhere, I wrung my hands, looked forlornly out of the windows, pitifully called his name as I walked round the small village and knocked on neighbours doors to see if he was perhaps shut in their garage. It was only after I’d compiled a ‘DISPARU!’ notice, in two languages no less, to print and stuff through letterboxes that the little orange git returned home, apparently none the worse for wear.

– I’ve bought shoes; heeled black sandals, strappy red wedges (a first for me) and sling backs, the colour of which can only be described as fuck off pink.

– after a seven month sabbatical, purely on the basis of laziness on my part, I’ve resurrected my French lessons with the lovely French teacher.

– the summer flies have arrived in the small country and seem even more numerous than previously.

– I had an appointment with a gynaecologist (anything to do with down there isn’t dealt with by a general doctor). I have never seen a more Gallic-looking man in my life. His profile must, I’m sure, be stamped on a coin.

– I sewed a cushion cover. Believe me, this is noteworthy, really it is.

– I sat on the terrace with a friend I’ve known for over thirty years drinking far too much champagne late in to the night and the small country showed her just how good their storms can be.  A couple of days later, we sat in a sunny cafe in the city square drinking coffee and listening to a string quartet in the bandstand a few feet away playing The Dying Swan. There are many sublime moments in my life and this was up there.

– after a couple of afternoons spent sitting in the garden, barelegged, I have freckled knees. I’d forgotten this happens.

– on a perfectly still, breathtakingly clear night, I stood in the garden and saw three shooting stars within a couple of minutes.

– I saw an exhibition of photos and had a hankering to pick up my camera more often.

And now? Now Joe Brown and I are imminently heading to London  to watch a performance by the Bolshoi Ballet at the Royal Opera House. Afternoon tea is also planned. Rest assured, fuck off pink sling backs will be packed.

 

In this country …

… 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.

Seven years

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.

Windows

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.

Thursday’s Cat

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.

She’ll be six now …

and six days.

The House on the Hill

 6185214593_deeab37b43

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.

Sunday

6135798574_2e61604d17

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.

Twenty Seven: All good things

6086747370_8ba873d1ca

Champagne afternoon tea, with fondant fancies and my sisters this afternoon.