For Felix – with love and squalor

So I’m not moving. Yes, it’s all fallen through again. Story of my life.

Why has it all fallen through? The nail in the coffin I suppose was the central heating system packing up. A very nice man came and basically condemned the wiring that feeds the central heating boiler (don’t ask me, I’m only an electrician’s daughter…). Then the man who was buying my house sent a boiler man to do an inspection and then he wanted a large amount of discount to cover the unexpected rewire/new boiler. Understandably, but it made it not worth my while to move.

Anyway, I’m here, and facing my first winter without central heating or hot water. I say this now. I may be a tad less sanguine about it when the Gales of November Come Early or when Snowflakes Keep Falling On My Head (Oh no, that was Raindrops, wasn’t it? He was going round in circles on a bicycle and then he got shot.) At the moment, however, it’s fine. Hot outside. Quite a few kettles inside. Shower and washing machine still work. How are they still working? No idea. Expect they’re on a separate… whatsit.

For the winter I’ve got several of those big plug-in radiators. Luckily I moved them with me from house to house to house, storing them in sheds, garages and whatnot. Wipe away the cobwebs – good as new.

It means getting used to Being Here again, rather than Being There. It means appreciating what you’ve got instead of yearning for something else.

I was looking out at my garden yesterday evening – at the overgrown grass, the twisty path I foolishly thought it would be a good idea to rip up and grass over; roses, passionflower, honeysuckle and giant, vicious brambles running riot up the side of the garage, attached to a rusting bedframe. It’s way over my head now. Even at my height and standing on a chair I can’t reach them with the secateurs. All I can do is keep an eye out for brambles forced down by heavy rain and rush out there and snip them before they have a chance to recover. And yet, there’s a certain pleasure in that. In the brambles. In the snipping. In the unruliness of it all.

I noticed the neighbours’ orange bush had blossomed. They spend most of their time in France now and often miss the blossoming of the bush. It’s a moving sight, somehow – a fire of petals. I feel like Moses, witnessing something profound.

I watched the sparrows feeding on chunks of bread, not knowing, as I did, that Felix was lurking in the undergrowth. I love Felix. We have a bond. He’s not my cat, I cannot possess him; there’s no way he could be mine unless his owner should die of the Plague or meet with an unfortunate accident. (I try very hard not to think about this in case wishing makes it so.) But Felix is a beauty. Black and white, long and lean, he has the look of the wizard about him. And now, since I’m not moving, I can commune with him whenever he chooses to come into my garden. Leaving Felix would have been the hardest thing.

Even in winter, muffled up in layers of charity shop jumpers, woolly hats and the fingerless mittens I’m about to start knitting; even when there’s a gale blowing and those brambles are bent almost to the ground by the force of the wind but it’s too cold to go out and cut them; even when the sky is the colour of saucepans and great clouds race across it; even then I will know there are sparrows about, and Felix; even then I will know that the blossom is coming again.

felix

 

Not in Kansas Anymore

I don’t know what it is but driving to the vets with cats mewling pitifully in the back – No No Mummy, Not Claws Clipped Again, Don’t Like Nursie…etc., etc – tends to bring out the Muse in me. Or should it be Muser?

I was just musing, as I approached the Island’s Eccentric Traffic Lights, as to whether there was such a thing as home for me anymore, and coming to the conclusion that probably there wasn’t. The traffic lights chose to stay red for some considerable time. Other times they just bully you through.

I’m moving soon – fingers crossed, no date yet – and what has been ‘home’ for the last three years or so has now become an un-hoovered, inconvenient brick cube full of stacked cardboard boxes and jumpy, confused cats. There are no shades on the lamps. There is nothing much in the garage apart from flattened cardboard boxes. I am hoping there will be no more trips to the tip with car-loads of rubbish. Everything’s in the wrong place. I’m eating off the same two plates and drinking from the same two mugs; the rest are packed.

How many times have I been through this before? How many photos have I got of cats curled up on cardboard boxes, enjoying a transitory patch of sun, wondering where the next meal will come from – assuming their cat-food stash hasn’t also been boxed up.

After three years of doing nothing much about the various problems in this road, all my neighbours seem to have sprung into action for some reason. The lady next door has suddenly decided to replace her boundary fences with lovely new, expensive wood panels after three years of no fences in part – so we were continually catching sight of one another bleary-eyed in our dressing-gowns and slippers first the morning, shambling about the garden – and fallen fences in other parts, leaning drunkenly on my garden shed and slow-motion dismantling my water-butt. The fence man has been here for days, his radio on at full blast, hammering and clanking, his white van blocking the road to my right.

The man over the road has decided to dig up the scruffy square of concrete in front of his house. This might even cure the torrents of muddy water that have been cascading down the hill, making a beeline for my driveway and deluging my back garden every autumn and winter: except I won’t be here to appreciate it.

All day yesterday, over the road, there was a pneumatic drill controlled by a man with a white hat in a small yellow machine of some description. He too had a portable radio on loud. He couldn’t possibly have heard it over the pneumatic drill but he had it on anyway. Now the road in front of my house was blocked, by a big lorry with a trailer on the back and yet another white van.

Reversing out of my driveway has become an even greater challenge. The workmen pause and wave their arms around, grinning – those mysterious ‘reverse this way’ signals which only confuse women. Shut eyes tight, wrench steering wheel hard left and pray that Jesus has control – that’s the way to do it.

not in Kansas

Not in Kansas Anymore: Eric Diaz

What makes a brick box a home? I wondered. And what stops it being home?

Silence. The traffic lights at last turned amber. First gear. Handbrake off.

When was the last time you felt at home?

I never did. I am a stranger in a strange land. I was born one and I will die one.

So what is home?

Home is not a place, it’s a knowledge. It’s being loved by someone else, loving someone else. Home is feeling safe.

Have you never felt safe?

Have you never felt safe?

Have you never, ever felt safe? 

Ehh, what’s up, doc?

I have moved house quite a few times now, and always single-handed. I used to enjoy moving. It was a chance to throw away surplus stuff, sort stuff out – and then the more leisurely process of finding a home for one’s accumulated equipment and ‘treasures’ in the new house. I was amazed, the first time, to find that I could. I had had years of being told – or at least it being implied – that I couldn’t organise a bun-fight in a bakery.

On one particular house move two of my husband’s friends, a man and a woman, turned up unexpectedly. Well, he knew they were coming, I didn’t. We were only moving round the corner so a van was involved, but no hired removal men.

The three of them then proceeded to carry all our joint possessions out and load them into the van, driving off and returning half an hour later for the next load, leaving me alone in a rapidly-emptying house. I asked what I could do to help; they ignored me. It was all very efficient, but I wondered what my husband had considered so defective about me that I couldn’t even lift the other end of the mattress or carry a box down the stairs. I was younger, taller and probably stronger than the woman who was doing all this manual labour on my behalf. Would it have been so impossible for my husband and me to accomplish a bit of box-packing and heavy lifting together for one day?

My first solo house move was away from him. It was a sad day. Worse, it involved two trips so there were two lots of marriage-ending horror in one day. I remember him telling me I hadn’t ‘burnished’ the parcel tape onto the cardboard boxes properly. I remember him giving me a brief, awkward hug – the first ever – but not actually asking me to stay. On the second trip I had to get petrol at a petrol station. I had never got my own petrol before – it was ‘one of my phobias’. However, the car couldn’t care less about my phobias, so in I drove and made a terrible mess of unfamiliar petrol pumps and whatnot. I didn’t realise it was a lot easier if you parked with the petrol cap towards the pumps, never having noticed the petrol cap before.

On all subsequent moves I knew I had the skills. I was a worrier, therefore a careful organiser. I was a logical thinker, and could see the ‘pattern’ of what I was going to have to accomplish. It was just like arranging visits to the Power Station, I realised. You had to get everything in place beforehand – enough people, the right people, all knowing what they needed to do. You had to ‘rehearse’ the day and imagine what might go wrong. You had to have some sort of contingency plan in place in case they did go wrong.

It all took a huge amount of energy, but I had that energy. I had files, and filed all the solicitors’ and other miscellaneous paperwork in those files, with dividers, and Postit notes. I even used to think about where I was going. Where are the nearest supermarkets, how far to the vet’s, where is the nearest recycling centre? I had a section for that too. I arranged cattery accommodation for an ever-growing number of cats and made sure those cats were up to date on their vaccinations.

My boxes were labelled with room numbers according to what they contained, and the removal men were given a photocopied plan of the new house, so they would know which box went in which room. I had notified all the services people in advance, arranged for a new telephone number and for the broadband to be moved. I read all the meters and phoned the gas, electric and water people from my car before I left, to give them my closing readings.

This time it seems harder. Physical energy seems to drain from you as you get older. There have been times, in these past few weeks, when I have longed for a controlling husband and hordes of unexpected distant acquaintances to arrive and take everything out of my hands. I’m packing a box or two a day. I move stuff around, emptying some rooms and filling others – one small piece of the jigsaw, then another. It will all be done in time, just more slowly.

Unfortunately I find slowness, this ‘bit at a time’ method really frustrating. I’m a ‘magic wand’ kind of person: I see the task in its entirety and I want it done now and out of the way. I find it almost impossible to leave things unfinished, which of course you have to do with something as complex as a house move. I know why things have to be left ‘dangling’: each item is contingent upon another item – they have to be done in the most logical order otherwise you find yourself undoing work, repeating work, doubling work.

bugs drawing

I can see this pathway. But it will keep unrolling itself in my mind, shifting, adapting. It infuriates me not to have already done it. Not to have already done everything interferes with my writing. It stops me reading. It stops me resting. I seem to be using up a lot of energy just restraining myself from working three days flat out and finishing it all, without even a moving date.

I rather wish I could just, you know, be the sort of laid-back, Bugs Bunny sort of person who could leave everything till the last minute, work till 4 in the morning with the radio on loud (bother the neighbours); throwing stuff into any old cardboard box at random; whizzing twisted (and heinously unburnished) bits of parcel tape across the top, not bothering to label anything; then fall asleep on the sofa for a couple of hours and stagger out into the kitchen only to discover there’s neither kettle nor mug. Oh well, a splash of water from the tap. I thought I’d taken all the cats to the cattery. So what’s this one doing still here and eyeing the empty cat cupboard expectantly?

It would probably work just as well.

Shrink Me!

This is what I hope it won’t feel like, moving into a flat. My first flat – apart from the four year ‘first marital home’ – after all these years.

I never actually thought I would get a flat, what with the thirteen Furry Friends, but luckily I stumbled across some fellow cat-friends and they don’t mind. And it’s got high ceilings, which is good, since I’m a tallish lady (or, as my sister once less flatteringly put it, a giantess). No bumping the old head on the ceiling.

At first I wondered how the cats would take to it – after a having glorious three bedrooms to roam around in, now to be confined to two and no upstairs. But in fact they don’t tend to roam around. Cats stake out their own spaces – huge, dominant gingers mostly downstairs, close to the food – old, feeble tabbies upstairs – young, mostly female cats choosing between levels, depending on who’s asleep and who’s roaming about. Kitten – the most ancient one – never leaves her dusty corner of the front bedroom, though the door is always open. She has her own basket, next to the radiator, her own food tray, her own personal dirt box and there she sits – or mostly sleeps – unless accidentally invaded, in which case a lot of fearsome hissing and sideways skittering breaks out.

I have observed that whereas humans seek out plenty of horizontal space – floors, rooms – what cats like is vertical space. They like shelves, stacks of stuff at different levels. They have this competition going to be top cat – on top of the kitchen cabinet trumps on top of the fridge, which trumps on top of the tumble drier, though that’s warmer. Aloft is good, carpet is draughty and worse – low status.

Therefore when I move into my new flat (fingers tightly crossed) I shall make sure to pile stuff up for the Furry Ones to scale. This is likely to happen of its own accord, it seems to me, in that receding removal men leave behind a tidal wave of stacked cardboard boxes. There’ll be plenty for the first five to use for mountaineering and by the time I have collected the remaining eight from the cattery (possibly two separate catteries) next day I will have  had time to do some more ‘spatial engineering’. That’s the plan anyway. But we all know what happens to best laid plans.

And then there’s just me. Me adapting to living in close proximity with other people again. Me re-joining the human race, perhaps. Me returning to the small town I inhabited for most of my marriage and – I realised recently – the very last place I can remember feeling ‘at home’. I am looking forward to rediscovering familiar territory, old walks, old shops, new shops. I am looking forward to actually being able to walk without being observed with a stone-faced, slack-jawed stare from every doorway. Honestly, it’s like Deliverance round here.

Ex and My Replacement, however, have long since moved away so meeting them walking hand and hand in the street (as I did, once) is a vanishingly small possibility. They probably don’t hold hands any more anyway – or if they do, I don’t wish to know that. In my experience hand-holding tends to be a short-lived phenomenon, all too swiftly replaced by bickering, and then silence. But perhaps I’m wrong on that. Just a sour old cynic!

drink me

My house puts on her Pretty Party Frock

What is that J-cloth doing in the corner of the bath?” I am getting upset over cleaning the bath. It’s at times like this that I realise just how akin to Sheldon Cooper I am. I could be Sheldon Cooper’s granny.

The man is coming to take the photos today – the ones to be uploaded to “a comprehensive range of property portals” along with a fulsome description of the Idyllic (or Eyedilic, as property guru Phil Spencer insists on saying) lifestyle I have enjoyed since moving here, and with what reluctance I will be Moving On To Pastures New. Sunset strolls along the beach with pooch, sharing a glass of wine on a sunlit evening patio and so forth. “You blog?” he said. “Well, could you manage 90 words on your Idyllic Lifestyle? It takes me hours to cook up one of those for the brochure. Better in your own words. People begin to recognise my style.” So I have cooked him up – 357 words, actually. He can précis it down himself.

But today – today a man is coming to take the photographs. In an hour and 15 minutes, to be precise. Except he probably won’t be because estate agents are endlessly late.

The Pretty Party Frock thing. That came from my old headmistress. She would lecture us in Assembly as to the Correct Denier of Stocking to be Worn. Which was 60 Denier Sun Mist, with seams. An uglier and less erotic Stocking could not have been invented than 60 Denier Sun Mist. Thick enough to disguise the un-depilated limb, for sure, but a shade of brown-orange such as no female leg ever was. “30 Denier Seamless Stockings are fine for Evening Wear, Gels. With your Pretty Party Frocks.” Velvet hot-pants were in fashion at the time.

And today, My Colleague Nigel, whoever he is, is coming to Take the Photos. This is where the tables are turned. You see, I quite enjoy browsing through photos on property portals. Some houses are so sparkly and wonderful, it’s depressing. Are they really living, from day to day, in that spotless magnolia box? Do they not have cats that vomit on the carpet just before visitors arrive, or leave smeary pawmarks on the windows? Do they never have damp bath-towels in their bathroom? Does their bed really have fifteen giant cushions in toning shades of fuchsia arranged upon it, geometrically? Where do they put all those cushions before go to bed? Or do they not go to bed in that bed? Maybe they sleep on lilos in the living room, and deflate them at dawn. That way, no unseemly rumpling.

And then you get the others. The ones with fifteen cans of lager on the draining board and wasps everywhere. Every room overflows with uncollected laundry. There are cigarette packets and what may be some sort of apparatus for drug-consumption on the coffee table. The TV is still on. The curtains are still closed. How could you do that? I wonder. How could you allow the Whole Universe to see that you live like a Pig in Poop?

So today is the day I get my come-uppance. Today is the day that my shabby, sad little house has to put on her Party Frock and pretend to be an Ideal Home. Today is the day I could, if not very careful, get found out.

You have to get up at dawn. You have to cover up ugly stuff if you can’t get rid of altogether. It really does come down – as time gets short – to throwing stuff in cupboards. I remind myself that it doesn’t matter whether clutter is stored logically – it just has to be out of sight for half an hour. This goes against all my neurotic, Cooperish instincts. Stuff must either be in plain sight or stored in the logical place – so that I can find it again. If I can’t remember where it is I need to be able to work it out. If my ancient dressing gown, say, or those five hundred bottles of shower gel accumulated from Christmases past, are under the bed, or in the brown wheelie bin out in the back garden (no – that’s where the cats’ play-tunnels are, together with a lot of decomposed brambles) and the peg-bag is under the sink where no peg-bag ought to be – it’s gone for ever.

Oh, stress, stress, stress, stress, stress! I’m so longing for the moment where My Colleague Nigel, with his digital camera and his black plastic clipboard, is waving a cheery goodbye. Slippers on, make self a coffee and sandwich. Unwind. Only three Open Houses and an Opening of Sealed Bids, whatever that involves, to go.

 

 

Do you have to be so nice to me?

I think I may have mentioned that I’ve decided to move house this year. I have moved house solo several times before and, although I found it stressful, part of me really enjoyed it. I get bored, you see. I have this capacity – what would you call it? – to plan, in detail. I used to enjoy making lists and flow-diagrams, getting the calculator out, fitting the whole horrendous procedure together like a jigsaw. I suppose it’s the flipside of being a worrier.

But this time is different. This time I have to move, and it will probably be to a smaller house. Downsizing is never easy, is it? You get used to having three bedrooms and then there’s the prospect of two – or one – and maybe not in the area you would have chosen, and maybe… Now I’m older, and that does make a difference. You wonder where the energy went, for all that extra housework, for all the smiles and the greetings and the bulging legal packs that have to be gone through, and the twenty-page questionnaires you have to fill in concerning boundaries, cavity wall insulation, and the  boiler. Do I really want the hassle of that again? One day at a time.

One day at a time is what I tell my sister on the phone, as my brother-in-law struggles with cancer. One day at a time is what I tell myself, when my mother refuses to use her commode or offers her carer soap-powder tablets as if they are chocolates. One day at a time is excellent advice in approaching any trying situation. But easier said than done. Too many other things going on, that’s the problem.

And then there’s the cats. Last time there were five, I think. I fitted the two oldest and sickest ones into my little car and booked the others in a cattery overnight. Now there are thirteen. One of the things I have to do is some discreet cat-box-juggling. I say discreet because the neighbours here – although rarely to be glimpsed – glimpse everything. They probably already know my intentions, since a pair of estate agents turned up yesterday. The man had the tell-tale clipboard – ie estate agent of Jehovah’s Witness – and the girl had a snazzy black suit (not so snazzy by the time she had sat on my sofa for half an hour and picked up a film of cat-fur) and the highest-heeled patent-leather shoes I have ever seen. “So you’ll not be wanting to look round the garden?” I heard myself enquiring. It’s just a mass of squelchy grass this time of year. She’d have sunk without trace.

The cat-box juggling – well, I’ve got a garage full of pet-carriers in various sizes. Some are big enough for Alsatian dogs, others so bijou I don’t feel happy confining one of my Beloveds to them, except in an emergency. Moving day may well be such an emergency. I think, with a bit of juggling, I can fit six pet-carriers into the car, with the back seats down. But I need to practice, and as soon as I start practicing one of the normally-invisible neighbours is almost bound to appear, delicately skirting rubble-filled potholes and muddy puddles, off on some sudden and mysterious ‘walk’. Just off to the shop to get a cabbage. Just taking Big Puppy for a walk. How are your cats? Oh, I see you are juggling cat-boxes… Anything you want to tell me? Go on, grant me an exclusive…

The idea is that I would take six with me on moving day, assuming none have died in the interim (two are very old), and put the other seven in the cattery. This will be expensive. It will also involve getting them all vaccinated – twice. Fourteen injections will be even more expensive than one night for seven in the cattery, I suspect.

And this afternoon at 2 o’clock I have another estate agent. I just dread them; dread all ‘incomers’ to tell the truth. This is my hidey-hole, my sanctuary. I’ve met him once – he seemed really nice, all smiley. And I need an estate agent: they are so good at what I’m so bad at – selling. I suppose that’s it – it’s the fact that they are nice to me. It’s so easy to be persuaded that you have made a New Best Friend, even though you know that as soon as you’ve safely signed on the dotted line of the Agency Agreement you will be passed on to an eighteen year old trainee back at the office and never hear from your New Best Friend again. I’m allergic to salesmen, and yet… if only they really liked me.

 

A penchant for chambermaids

Life without a computer – it sends quite a shiver down my spine, though. In the short while I have been blogging stuff has come together for me – the blog gives me somewhere to put all those random bits of writing I’ve been randomly writing all my life. Better whirling in cyberspace, unpaid and anonymous, than attracting mildew at the back of my garage and read by no one at all. It’s given me an outlet and a focus – something to achieve each day.

I suppose I would adapt and survive if all computers were suddenly beamed up by a silver spaceship, and in some ways it might be easier for me than for a younger person who has never lived without computers, and blogs, their little furry inhabitants. I would keep on writing, but the blog would become a paper object, a combination of diary, “essais” as Montaigne called them, commonplace book, notebook and attempted fiction. I would miss having readers – probably more even than I want to imagine at the moment. One half of writing is expressing oneself, the other half is communicating. Without a reader I would have lost half my reason for writing but probably not all of it. I’d still derive a certain amount of satisfaction from keeping up with my diary/notebook in obscurity. And after all, what else would there be to do?

I do hope that another time around I’d be more organised – work out some sort of format or system and stick to it. No more rusty paperclips, scraps of paper and overflowing cardboard boxes. All in the one place, and indexed. Ideally I’d be a latter-day Pepys, sitting down at my desk to write of an evening, in longhand, in a series of beautiful ledgers. Maybe even by candle-light, though a periwig might be excessive. Maybe I’d even invent a code, as he did. It would be amusing to write ream upon ream of stuff in hieroglyphs that would occupy scholars for centuries to come, trying to translate. Of course I don’t have as much to hide as Pepys, who went about the King’s business and needed to be discreet. He also had a clever and somewhat shrewish French wife and a penchant for chambermaid-fumbling. The bits in plain English are juicy enough.

But as for life without a computer, that would be inconvenient. I live in a remote place and if I had to rely on the village shop – well, I couldn’t. There’s hardly anything in it. Try feeding eighteen cats from a shop that puts out four tins of cat food per day and thinks that party balloons, plastic clothes pegs, can openers and little sewing kits are more important than bread and baked beans. If I didn’t have the computer I would need to be somewhere else post haste, always assuming that I had the choice. If computers suddenly ceased to exist, I’m guessing we would see a mass flight to towns and cities. Baby boomers especially would be on the move, trying to insure themselves against a computerless old age.

Even selling houses. Imagine it, without Zoopla and Rightmove. Virtual window-shopping would be out and endless trailing round estate agents’ offices and leafing through sheaves of property details would be in: no sidestepping the over-attentive oily charm and the hard sell then. Instead of eliminating a lot of unsuitable properties via some practised snooping on Google Maps – doing that dizzy-making thing with the arrows to see how wide the street is, whether there’s parking or a dirty great un-photographed factory opposite – we’d have to actually go there. What a waste of time.

And emails – no more emails. Back to handwritten letters with stamps on. Postcards, even. I wouldn’t mind that: it would be nice to hear that papery rustle on the doormat and not be absolutely certain it was either a bill or a colourful candidate for the recycling box.