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.

The House on the Hill

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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.

Twenty Fourth: Out of Time

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As I trooped up the path this morning with a boxful of archive paperwork to be burned in the garden incinerator rather than cart it with us to the small country The Week After Next, I spotted this pretty young thing under the hedge.  I’ve seen it every year since I’ve been at The Little House by the Big Wood but never now, not in August.

Clearly, out of time which I’m shortly to be out of too.

Seventh: Kindness

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Apparently, I can take plants to the small country from my garden.  I checked and double-checked.  It took me two days before I plucked up the courage to tell Joe Brown, fearing his response would be to sigh long and loud down the ‘phone at the idea of his car being stuffed with pots full of plants following frantic digging up and dividing.

“Oh right” he said when I told him and, without hesitation, carried on “Well, what I suppose we could do is hire a van in Blighty, get the plants over and then get the van back”.

I’m not sure if his kindness and indulgence is the seventh reason I married this man but it’s right up there at the top.

Third: Sungold

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For the third year running, there are Sungold tomatoes in the greenhouse and, believe me, you haven’t tasted a homegrown tomato as good as a Sungold.

First: Red Rose

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Tomorrow there is someone coming round the house to troop through rooms taking pictures so someone else can see if they possibly want to come and live here whilst we’re away in the Small Country for, um, a fair while.  I’ve tidied and picked flowers from the garden.  The red rose is from my Ena Harkness hybrid tea which has never flowered well, as I moved it from one house to another, left it in a pot for a while and then planted it in wholly the wrong place.  Still, this morning it has thrown out a first, rather perfect bloom. 

Joe Brown sleeps in our new house in the Small Country for the first time tonight.  I shall join him at the end of this month.

I shall endeavour to participate in the August Break this year but I’m going to be pretty busy so don’t be surprised if I trail off.

August Break 5th

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I forgot to make bread so, at lunchtime, was wandering round the kitchen trying to decide what to have.  Result was first harvested shallot from the garden, a pile of which are drying off in the garage before plaiting, two courgettes twisted off the plants, a handful of small early potatoes from the allotment which are a bit scabby but fine nonetheless, chopped garlic (nearly last clove from bought bulb) and half a red pepper sliced.

Chopping and cooking this up was probably the most energetic thing I’ve done today having cancelled this morning’s gardening gig owing to still dodgy knee which made my right leg feel like a tree trunk.

August Break 3rd

Given that I took on an allotment last year, I found that one of the vegetable beds in the garden was rather superfluous to requirements.  Square, nearly 3m x 3m, I decided to use it as a dedicated bed for cut flowers which seemed a nifty idea.  A wigwam for sweet peas was erected in the middle, four planks act as narrow paths leading to the wigwam from all four sides and half the planting area was pretty much stuffed with Dahlia tubers and interspersed with white Cosmos I grew from seed.  Anxious weeks were spent waiting for the Dahlias to appear but appear they have.  The Cosmos has grown far taller and voluminous than I thought they would but the overall effect is pretty good and very pretty.  I’m also cutting flowers virtually every day and regularly running out of vases.

Stand and stare

The morning rain falls gently on the grass as I pour coffee and crack open a new jar of jam, a surprise  find on the shelf a couple of days ago after I recently mentioned to Joe Brown I used to buy it, an occasional treat in days gone by when I truly couldn’t afford it.  Spread on buttered toast, I’d forgotten how good it is.  I’d cried off my morning stint of gardening, the idea of crawling through shrubbery to dig out years’ worth of creeping weeds in the rain just too unappealing a prospect.  Having spent three hours there last week tackling stinging nettles under shrubs and small trees in the pouring rain and sheltering under a lilac bush to drink plastic-tasting tea from my flask, I think I’ve already proved I’m no lightweight. 

I lick jammy fingers and pull off my nightdress, flinging it on the bed where I’ll undoubtedly need to rummage for it later amongst rumpled bedclothes, Joe Brown not here to straighten duvet, puff pillows and lay my nightdress out as he always does whilst I brush my teeth at night, one of the many rituals that have evolved between us in the three years I’ve been here, rituals I miss when he’s away on a business trip.  I dress, work trousers, laundered of weekend weeding on the allotment but pull on a large cashmere sweater which at the very least needs airing of its smoky scent from an evening spent alone just sitting, staring and smoking last night.  I go downstairs, push open the kitchen window and prop the door open to air downstairs, soft rain silent as it falls.  There are two goldfinches picking at the nigella seeds in one of the birdfeeders and the peanut feeder swings back and forth, telltale evidence that the woodpecker has just flown away, skittered by the opening door.  I swirl remnants of the coffee in the cafetiere before pouring it in to the bucket for composting and leave a dish to soak in hot water, its burnt on vestiges of last night’s roasted vegetables too tiresome to contemplate dealing with right now.  The rain suddenly gathers pace and starts hissing outside, spattering in to the porch through the open doorway.  I give a small cry as cold drops hit my back through fine wool as I pull shut the door, an involuntary shiver running through me as I sink on to the sofa and press myself against it to get rid of the wet coldness.  I sigh, my breath pushed out hard as though by emptying my lungs I could empty the cloud that hangs over my head, worrisome thoughts that won’t go away and I consciously let them in and view them, turning over options and outcomes that are largely out of my control.  By the time I shut them all down and contemplate tea, an hour has passed, the hiss of rain has fallen silent and the sun has broken through the clouds.  I prop the door and meander up the garden to see what’s changed since yesterday.  The ‘Jolly Bee’ geranium has started blooming which will flower from now ’til early Autumn and there is a Californian poppy ready to unroll its vivid orange petals, still hidden by its pointy hat which I cannot resist gently taking off.  Frondy fennel sparkles with rain and tiny violas, with blooms that look like screwed up faces, shake in the slight breeze.  There may, just may be seedlings in the wild flower bed but I may just be willing this after weeks of bare earth staring back at me.  Plantain heads nod amongst the strips of aluminium and glass, greened with algae, lying amongst the grass, awaiting a new concrete base for the second greenhouse, acquired from a client who was happy to be rid of it.  Hanging baskets and pots are beginning to sprout and spill their growth, promising trailing hair of green and grey, long garlands of purple and fuck off pink petunias, with fuchsias that pop in the sun to show their can-can girl underskirts.  The two ‘Devonshire Dumpling’ fuchsias are already showing pale round buds and I gently twirl them between my fingers, my recollection of my mother’s fingers doing exactly the same five years ago to the row of them she had in her window box as she smiled and said “Just wait ’til these bloom, they’re just delightful”.  They were but at the end of the season they weren’t taken in and died during that winter, just as she did.  I nearly wept with joy as I spotted the label amongst rows and rows of different fuchsia plugs in the nursery last month after four years of looking for them everywhere in a rather J.R. Hartley kind of way and I vowed to keep them safe.  Rose bushes dotted round the garden have masses of swollen buds, the Gertrude Jekyll having unfurled her first bloom and the two elegant Forest Pansy trees are finally covered in green and purple leaves.  My throat constricts slightly as I recall my saying to Joe Brown just after I planted it two years ago “If we ever leave here, this Forest Pansy would be the one thing that I take from the garden”.  I turn away and go indoors to stand and stare blankly for unknown amount of time before clumping heavily up the stairs, not sure where or why I’m going.  I open the wardrobe and muse on the row of clothes, each hanger pulled out yesterday during a stress-induced clutter clear as I pondered yet again whether to sell or charity shop some of my suits which I rarely or never wear any more.  One binliner was filled for the charity shop but none of the suits went.  I may be glad of them at some point, possible city living may call for suit-wearing as I learn to sprechen le languages.

I close the wardrobe and busy myself with tidying the bedclothes in a vague, ineffectual way, turning to the window to look out over the garden which has changed muchly in three years.  We laughed heartily over the weekend as we recalled The Great Garage and Garden Clear Out of 2007, a clear out of rubbish that Joe Brown had had neither the time nor motivation to rid himself of until I pitched up for good.  It involved four skips, welcome coke floats in the shade of the garage and a bonfire that was kept going for over a week which we sat round in the evening with cups of tea.  The huge garden rubbish pile was where the vegetable garden is now, rows of onions, shallots and garlics fattening in the warm sun and early summer rain.  The strawberry bed was netted over the weekend, concentrated effort made between us but both undoubtedly with other thoughts in mind as we did it.

It would be hard to leave, heartbreaking even, the prospect of city living in an unknown country makes me feel like I can’t breathe, with visions in my head of standing and staring out of an apartment window but if fate, forced job move and fear of unemployment forces it, I will go to remain by the side of the man who puffs pillows, buys me jam, keeps me safe and warm and was the best decision I made.

Official

There will be champagne at the Little House by the Big Wood shortly and all the plants in the garden are clapping their leaves and shouting “Hoorah!” as they now know they’re in the hands of someone who officially knows what they’re doing – someone who is qualified.  I passed my exam and got a Commendation.

I’m so bloody relieved, I can’t tell you.