The Way We Lied

David strode through the woods, hoping that he might glimpse her at any moment. This was where he had first seen her, this was where she had danced before him. But the woods were empty. The only sounds were the crunch of his feet crushing that year’s fallen leaves, the soft call of pigeons and the occasional screech of a pheasant.
He had to see her. She had not answered his calls and he had not been able to see her for over a month. He had thought about her of course, and dreamt of her. But he needed to see her. Caroline was filling the house with people he didn’t care about for her marathon New Year dinner when the only person he wanted to see and talk to was Mary.
He wanted to stare into those cool, deep blue eyes and see that she approved of all he had done. It had been so hard at first, enduring the criticism of his colleagues and the aggression of the whips, but he was beginning to understand now how satisfying it was to live by the rule of conscience and not convention. Slowly, eventually, pure honest principles would surely win, even in politics.
As he neared the cottage, he expected to smell the sweet mossy wood smoke, but the air was clean and clear. He slowed down for the last few yards until he reached the final fringe of trees, then stopped, hoping to see her fetching wood from the shed, calling to her dog or feeding the hens. It was utterly silent and although it was a cold day there was not even the thinnest stream of smoke from the chimney. His heart stilled. He had been so sure she would be here. He walked at speed through the gate then saw that the hen run was quiet and empty. Perhaps they had finally been taken by the fox.

He knocked on the front door, then, when there was no answer, ran round to the door at the back of the house, the one she used the most. Rattling the knocker, the sound echoed inside and he knew she had gone. He stood back for a moment, then put his hand to the latch. It lifted and as the kitchen door opened, a few dried leaves blew across the quarry tiled floor. For a second he was unsure whether he should enter, he even wondered what he might find within. Perhaps she had suffered an accident or was seriously ill and unable to reach him.

to be continued January 28


A Moving Story

July 12 – Bags of memories

Twenty-one years of life has been crammed into bulging black bin bags, making the hall look like a rubbish dump. No, not our life, just our tendency to hang on to vague plans for the future and memories of the past. A moses basket filled with soft toys, a child’s pram, picture frames, a plastic policeman’s helmet. The hall is heaped with the toys from our children’s childhood, props and costumes from the parties we’ve held here, recipe books never read and dresses no longer worn.
One pile of bags is destined for charity shops, the other for the recycling centre where the various bins are clearly labelled and where it is all too easy to throw in bags of unsorted toys and clothes. But the tendency to value even the oldest doll, even the shabbiest teddy, is hard to abandon, so the charity pile grows larger by the day.
In three weeks time this old house, where we have loved its bulging wattle and daub walls, its oak timbers, its steep tiled roofs and its diamond paned windows, must be empty. A new family will arrive to fill the house with their life and our life will have gone.
We shall take away with us our memories of the litters of kittens born in the spare bedroom who took their first steps tumbling down steep stairs, the scenes played out with the dressing-up box in the hall, when a niece said she was ‘only a starter nun’ while re-enacting The Sound of Music, and the wild games of hide and seek which once resulted in mild concussion and a bitten tongue. We’ll take away the many parties and dinners in the candle-lit dining room; the Elizabethan banquet for a class of eleven year old girls, the New Year Murder at the Manor dinner where a body was chalked on the floor and we drank Bloody Marys and ate Bang Bang Chicken; the annual lunch party for a horde of female friends and the very first Christmas party when the Dickensian Carol Singers entered the library bearing lanterns.
We shall also take away the many, often startling, memories of the wild life that thrived outside in the grounds and sometimes inside the house too. The roe deer that dropped dead beside the front door one Bank Holiday, which had to be transported to the woods in a wheelbarrow for the foxes to devour; the mole that was found crawling around the drawing room one hot summer’s day and the grass snake that slithered under the courtyard door and into the house during a lunch party.
And we’ll take memories of the animals which were part of the family too. Itchy and Scratchy, the Kune Kune pigs who arrived the size of fat puppies and grew to be gentle giants who loved to be stroked and greeted us with conversational grunts. Miss Lala Honey Bunny, the little grey lion head rabbit, who chased the cats and begged for bread, who loved to sit on the sofa and tear up, rather than read, a magazine. The many hens who have come and gone, some to natural deaths, some to a fox’s dinner table, who have provided us with a regular supply of eggs and fluffy chicks in some years.
And we’ll never forget the sheep, both our own and those of our tenant. In the early years Tom the ram came to service our ewes, who knocked him down and nearly killed him, but he provided the first lambs. In later years the fields around us have been grazed by Welsh Mountain sheep which excel at escaping and always think the grass is greener beyond the fence. We have watched lambs playing games of chase in the early evening, with their mothers calling to them it will be tears before bedtime, we have come to know individual sheep by sight and sound and we have seen them give birth and we have seen them die.
But as well as taking away so many memories, we are also leaving a legacy in this wonderful ancient house. When we came here two rooms were unusable and the roof was leaking. Before we could even think about decorating and recarpeting or refitting the kitchen and bathrooms, we had to rewire, replumb, retile. We removed secondary double glazing and polystyrene wall insulation, we uncovered tongue and groove panelling, beams and wooden floors, unblocked fireplaces and brought the house back to life.
And we are also leaving a garden which has grown with us over these years. To the majestic magnolias and amorphous box we’ve added climbing roses, beds of delphiniums, rows of flag iris and billowing hydrangea. We’ve planted pleached hornbeam, silvery whitebeam and a grove of silver birch. And we’ve added a rustic folly, uncovered a well and created formal steps leading to a meadow filled with buttercups and clover.
In three weeks time, our life here will have been sent to charity shops or recycled and packed into crates which will sit in storage. But our old life will live on in memories and we shall look for a new life in a new home.

Powerless – The Year the Lights Went Out

POWERLESS – THE YEAR THE LIGHTS WENT OUT began with a dream. A dream in which, faced with a long-term power cut, I responded by emptying the freezer to make a soup of frozen vegetables. When I woke, I thought it would be interesting to write a fictional blog based on such a calamity occurring in the country house where we have lived for 21 years, near a village, near farms, surrounded by woods and fields.
I thought about how we would heat the house, gathering kindling before the winter rains soaked the wood, how we would pick mushrooms and nuts, hunt for game and how we could survive on the wild food around us. I imagined being resourceful, resilient and positive, writing the entries each day, being faithful to the weather at the time.
Many of the incidents in POWERLESS are real, though many aren’t. We did once find a deer dead on our doorstep, but no one was injured by an axe splitting logs. I really did rescue a fox cub from drowning in a ditch and I bottle fed a sickly abandoned lamb this spring. But the real lamb died and only Sooty, the fictional lamb, lived on. And amongst the many incidents recorded in the blog, the disappearance of the hens, the hellebore circle, the toad-eating snake, the chain and the run-away horse, the fearsome cockerel and the hatching chicks, have all been experienced by us. They didn’t all happen in the last few months, but they have happened at some time over the years here.
During the winter we also experienced a four-day power cut which made me wonder if I should be careful what I wish for. But it gave me an opportunity to cook over the fire and test some of the theories incorporated in POWERLESS.
But now, our time in this ancient house with its huge inglenook fireplaces, its uneven brick floors worn over centuries, its rough wattle and daub walls, its oak beams and its spiders and cobwebs, is coming to an end. We shall shortly be leaving and moving onto another adventure, which will be documented in a new but less frequent blog. Entitled A MOVING STORY, it will start tomorrow and will record the dismantling of a much loved house and the life we have lived here. We have fed chickens, bred sheep, patted pigs, made hay and scared deer. We have sat by blazing fires, mown acres of lawn, pruned rambling roses, stacked logs and planted an avenue of trees, but now it is time to leave and find a new way of life.

Powerless – The Year the Lights Went Out

Sunday, May 18 – Taking a shot

Such glorious weather, my day began very early with boiling water for the washing and for breakfast. We should be able to eat outside again this evening, so I’m keen to dry the laundry before we start barbecuing tonight. Tony and Gail brought us hamburgers they’d picked up at the pub yesterday and we all sat outside until nearly 10 o’clock, then Jane gave Sooty the last bottle feed of the day.
We were in a celebratory mood last night and rather wished we’d had something stronger than tea to toast Martin’s success as a crack shot. He’d been sitting at the back of the house enjoying the early evening sun, when he spotted a fox with its nose to the ground in the field. He sent Jane to fetch the rifle then went back to quietly watching and got it in one shot as it followed a trail on our big lawn.
I know I’ve praised the foxes for their efficiency in removing dead and rotting corpses, but I have come to like them less since the lambs have been born this year. Around five twins have been taken by the fox and it is heartbreaking to see the mother with a sole remaining twin less than 24 hours after the birth.
So Martin was toasted for his heroic actions in tea. Less heroic was his reluctance to deal with the body. Not only could he not hobble across the lawn to satisfy himself that it was well and truly dead, because of his wound, which is not yet healed, but he would not be keen to do so even if he was fleet of foot. Martin is squeamish about small furry creatures and all dead ones, so I had to check for him. It was quite dead and it was a female, which means there may be young ones which will also die, so Neil will be pleased to hear about the kill. I threw the vixen into the wheelbarrow and took it to the far side of the wood as it won’t be eaten by its own kind and only crows and magpies and eventually insects will dispose of the body.
I’m sorry for any cubs that may now starve, but I am not sorry that our little black lamb and our hens will be safer. The hens laid well today, giving us four eggs, but one had broken in the nest and I may have to determine whether they are eating their eggs or the shell was soft and broke as it was laid.

Powerless – The Year the Lights Went Out

Wednesday, May 13 – Where there is life

Well, I was wrong. It wasn’t dead. There was still a flicker of life.
I kept watch until early evening yesterday, by which time the mother had abandoned her lamb and wandered off to the far side of the field to rejoin the flock. I know that Neil doesn’t leave the dead out as it encourages foxes, so I climbed under the barbed wire and over the stile, carrying an old compost bag to collect the body. As I approached, a crow flew off and I knew that the carrion eaters had already spotted the lamb.
I was dreading what I would find, but to my surprise as I bent down to pick up the body, I found it was warm and breathing. The crow had pecked at the top of its head and there was a little blood, but at least the bird hadn’t gone for its eyes. I held the little black lamb and stroked its tightly curled fleece, knowing that if I left it in the field it wouldn’t last the night. I thought it stood little chance of surviving, but I couldn’t bear to leave it there to be pecked at by crows and torn to shreds by foxes.
So I brought it back here. I was sure it was going to die soon, so I wrapped it in a fleecy blanket then shut it in a little hut we once used for geese. I thought that would be kinder than leaving it outside in the dark for predators.
And early this morning, even before I’d dressed, I went outside in dressing gown and wellies, expecting to find it stiff and cold. But it was still alive. Its breathing was fast, but it tried to lift its head and kick its legs. I carried it indoors and dripped some warm milk into its mouth, then rocked it in my arms and wondered what to do. I haven’t the stomach for putting it down and it has fought to stay alive this long, so I decided to bottle feed it. I wasn’t sure where I’d find bottles, teats and formula, but when I told Gail about the frail lamb she said she still had all of those in the house from when Alfie was a baby. The milk is not as rich as a ewe’s, but it will have to do.
The lamb sucked weakly at first, but has suckled well on the hour since mid-morning, consuming almost half a bottle. It still can’t lift its head and it may still die, but we have done our best today.

Powerless – The Year the Lights Went Out

Monday, May 12 – Short lived

Although today has been mostly sunny and bright, there have been some dark clouds too and not just the ones overhead. Yesterday evening I’d walked across to see the sheep and noticed that yet another ewe had just lambed. She had two tiny black twins nestling beside her.
But by this morning she had only one. The fox must have been out hunting again. Neil is furious and says he will stay up all night until he’s shot it. Martin says as soon as he is able to patrol the grounds he’ll be looking out for it with his shotgun too. And I feel guilty for saving the fox cub and still haven’t told Neil what I did. This year I think the fox has fed well on five lambs and every time it has been a twin.
Neil has blamed himself for not leaving a light out in the field last night. He’d noticed the new arrivals but was tired, so for once he didn’t hang his storm lantern nearby. Strange lights can help deter the foxes but they still aren’t a cast iron guarantee.
On the bright side, Jane and I managed to get a good wash completed and hung out this morning. It was almost dry when the sky darkened this afternoon, so we brought it in with Anna’s help. And the girls went to the school to see what baby goods were available and came back with another smock for Anna and some terry nappies, which will be vital in the absence of disposable ones these days. Anna was tired by the walk into the village and although she is still keen to take some exercise I think she will soon find it is better for her to stay here and rest.
The hens have done well on their regular feeds of lush green weeds and produced five eggs for us today.

Powerless – The Year the Lights Went Out

Monday, April 28 – Utterly foxed

I don’t think I dare tell Neil what I did today. I’m not even sure I should tell Martin, he’s such a terrible one for tittle tattle he’d be sure to tell Neil or Tony at some point. But I told Jane, who then told Anna and Stephen and they all said I should have kept it. They wanted to raise the baby fox as a pet and name it Ferdy.
I have such mixed feelings about the foxes now. I used to think they were nature’s dustmen, clearing away the bodies of dead deer and other animals. Then I was annoyed and somewhat distressed when they killed all the hens and left the dead and dying littering the hen run. And lately I have come to see it from Neil’s point of view, when a newborn lamb is taken so soon, when it has just found the springs in its legs. So Neil won’t be pleased to know that I have rescued a fox cub from drowning.
It happened this morning, soon after I’d fed the hens. I was walking round the garden to see how wet it all was after yesterday’s downpour. I had to empty some pots in the courtyard of their pools of surplus water and then I walked across the lawn to admire the new silver leaves of the whitebeam, when I noticed a strange screeching cry. I thought at first it was an angry squirrel quarreling with one of the cats, or maybe a young magpie calling hungrily for its parent. But it was an odd noise so I crossed the ditch towards the wood where so much had fallen in the winter. And I was just about to turn back when I saw it. A little bundle of dark fur crawling on the edge of another ditch. I went over to look and realised it was a very small cub, still with its charcoal baby coat, crying crossly for its mother.
I thought I should leave it for its parent to rescue, but then I thought how close it was to deep water, how near it was to drowning. It was much much smaller than the little lamb that sprang out of a watery ditch the other day and I was so afraid that it would drown before its mother returned that I had to pick it up. As I held it in my hands I thought it looked more like a very small bear cub than a fox. Its front paws were square and spade-like, its nose was snub and not yet elongated and its fur was soft and dusky, with not yet a hint of red. I couldn’t put it back down on the grass with swollen ditches close by, so I carried it into the wood where I knew a fox had dug its earth in previous years. Sure enough, there were signs that the burrow was back in use, so I placed the cub by the entrance and watched as it sniffed, then waddled down the slope and into its home. I hope its mother will return soon and that it will survive, though I’m not sure Neil would agree with me.
And when I went back out late this afternoon to feed the hens, who delivered five eggs today, I couldn’t resist creeping across to the wood again. But all was quiet and there was no sign of the little fox or its parent.