When I moved here I thought – well, this is the middle of nowhere, the end of the earth, but at least I’ll be able to get a good night’s sleep.
It was not exactly the area I would have chosen, but it was the nearest I could afford to move to my ailing mother. This week I have been wondering how much longer I will be here. A few days back I was visiting her at home with a lady social worker and Mum airily referred to me as my friend over there. She was never much of a one for verbal flourishes, but could she have meant it in an elliptical, literary sort of way? Or had she, for that moment, forgotten my name and how we were related? These lapses are only brief; another time she will know me, but for how much longer? Not too long I suspect before it doesn’t really matter where I am; I’ll just need to turn up to visit every couple of weeks and remind her I was once her daughter.
When that time does come maybe I will up sticks and go back to where I once belonged; or go somewhere else new, where I have never belonged. Maybe at that point I’ll discover that what’s left of my gypsy spirit has trickled away and I just can’t face all over again packing my life into cardboard boxes; amassing two great lever-arch files of legal paperwork, one labelled Sale and one labelled Purchase; booking cattery places on an industrial scale and being fawned over by two separate sets of estate agents. Oh for a crystal ball and a magic wand.
Well, it certainly is dark here. We did have a street-light. It gave off a faint orange light, most of the time. The lamp-post is still here, right opposite my house, listing drunkenly to port, but the orange light no longer lights up. Opposite my house is where lorries and delivery vans are obliged to reverse, so being reversed into was something of a foregone conclusion for that poor, solitary lamp-post, but that wasn’t what stopped it working. That was the local Council on one of its economy drives. Since we lived in the middle of nowhere they didn’t think we would miss it.
Almost every night the current custodian of the famous, beautiful and psychic Felix (see FELIX BROUGHT ME A MOUSE) stumbles up and down our unmade road in pitch darkness with a torch in search of him. We have all memorised the potholes and it is possible to avoid them, even in the dark, but you have to concentrate. Firstly Neighbour whistles that anxious, repetitive cat-summoning whistle that cats automatically disregard, then he starts with the calling:
Felix? Felix? Where are you, boy?
Felix quite often lurks in my back garden but I refuse to reveal his secrets. Felix and I have a bond.
I know what’s going to happen next. After ten minutes or so the whistling and calling resumes in my back garden. I am not supposed to notice. I am assumed to be asleep.
Felix? Felix? Where are you, boy?
This does rather annoy me. How come I am the only person in the street whose back garden can be entered by anyone who pleases? Just like I was the only person who could be left sitting around in a waiting room at the eye hospital with both eyes full of atropine drops, unable to read a magazine or even see the time on the clock without help, until the drops wore off and had to be put in again because a lot of more important people came in.
They have a different concept of privacy round here. It’s a cultural difference. At one point I found several children clustered round my side door, laboriously reading aloud a note I had taped to it for the delivery man. My next door neighbour at that time was an Irish lady with a red jumper. She’d never knock, just somehow be outside my side door now and again. I’d pass the side door and either catch her clambering stiffly over the low garden wall that separated our two houses or she’d just be there, silently waiting for me to pass my side door on the inside, catch sight of a scarlet woolly cloud behind the glass and open up. It could have been an hour since I last passed the door. Had she been there all that time?
Felix? Felix? Where are you, boy?
If the worst comes to the worst Neighbour knocks on my door, wringing his hands in the darkness, distressed, pathetic, imploring, and I have to put on my fluffy slippers and go out into my own rain-soaked garden, with my own torch, in my dressing gown, to search for his cat. Felix, wherever he is, now realises the game is up; Neighbour will almost certainly have disappeared into his own house, a svelte black and white bundle under his arm, long before I get back to my living room, muddy, cross and even less likely to sleep.
Then there are the shift-workers coming home. This tends to be about 2.30 a.m. if they’re on 7 to 2. Their headlights sweep past my window, gravel swishes, rainwater exits deep potholes with a splosh, car radio gets turned off in mid-thump, car door opens, car door is slammed shut. Sometimes they give each other lifts and then there has to be the lengthy goodbye-see-you-tomorrow-all-right-mate conversation.
Then there are the doggy conversations echoing all round the hillside. These have got louder and more frequent since the coming of a giant black dog, Ayesha (Ajska) who was rescued by my next-door neighbour from another, far less kindly, neighbour. Ayesha is actually a lady of Polish origins; she has a Polish passport, even. She also has the deepest, loudest bark imaginable and is an early riser. Four o’clock in the morning:
Wooooooof!!! (It’s ME!!!)
At once a doggy dawn chorus starts up, answering her, answering one another:
Here I am! Me too!! Are you there? No, I’m here! Who are you? Are you her? No, I’m me! Who’s me? Me! You know me! Me down here. You’re down there? I’m up here! He’s over there!
Occasionally there is a party and dance music will drift up to me from open windows. That isn’t too bad – it’s free music after all, and sometimes I sing along. It’s the way the partygoers tend to get drunker and drunker and louder and louder that’s the problem. Then come the arguments and then the bottle-throwing. Everything seems to echo round here. Thunderstorms; parties; Saturday night Karaoke in the social club down the road; police car sirens; ambulance sirens; after-pub staggering home conversations, the boys cajoling, the girls shrieking in response. Once in a terrible while a girl will scream and not stop screaming. Occasionally gangs of caravan site people bump into gangs of locals on the beach and stab one other. Drowning would be a quieter, and the sea is conveniently close, but knives seem to be favourite. Shortly thereafter, the sirens. But that’s only on the worst nights.
There are pleasanter noises. Bats for instance: strictly speaking you don’t hear bats, their cries being ultrasonic, but you do kind of sense them drawing near. Somewhere around nine or nine-thirty, that’s their time. You’ll see them if you are patient: watch for a bird not moving like a bird, something black and winged that dips and swoops, abruptly changing direction. At around the same time the hedgehog is on the move. On moonlit nights, look for a patch of lawn appearing to move; a small, round, scuttling segment of darkness. At around midnight he’ll come closer in search of food. I leave a bowl of cat food out for him; sometimes Felix nabs it first but if there’s any left the hotchi-pig has it. And I always know which one of them it was. Cats will pick from the bowl, and always leave some; hedgehogs stand in the bowl, tip it up, empty it out and clatter it around with their little pointy snouts; and in the morning there is nothing left.
I once went out to change the bowl of cat food. In the darkness, I groped around for the bowl in its usual place and found the hedgehog instead. Hedgehog hearing isn’t good; my hand accidentally brushed the top of his spines. Instantly, a great clattering and scrabbling as he jumped forward and rolled himself into a ball. Sorry, I whispered, putting the new food down and creeping indoors to bed.