Wednesday, 27th February 2008
The sun was out but my unexplained melancholy from the day before still lingered. I dropped L at school and decided to take ‘due pasi’, as the Italians say, down the lane. No big yomp up any hill, just a bit of fresh air and some connection with the earth and the air. As I reached my turning point I saw a determined little figure in padded jacket and hat with earflaps coming towards me. It was the indefatigable octogenarian Henri, out on one of her daily, or twice daily, walks. I told her I’d walk back with her. Her eyes were streaming as they always do in the cold. Last autumn her dog and faithful walking companion, Kippie, passed away. They were on their way back from their morning walk, almost home, when he suddenly collapsed and couldn’t walk any further (any of Henri’s walks would do that to me, mind). He died later that day. She hasn’t cut quite the right figure ever since. She needs a dog by her side. She tried a rescue dog, but sadly it had been too badly treated in the past and was such a bunch of neuroses that even no-nonsense Henri couldn’t cope. Since then she’s been waiting for a Spaniel puppy. I asked if it was imminent.
‘Yes, next Wednesday. He had to be eight weeks old, you see, before she’d let me have him’.
‘Oh marvellous! What colour is it?’
‘Oh lovely, my favourite.’
‘Just like the first dog I ever had. Best dog I’ve ever had.’
‘That’s lovely, life coming full circle.’ I smiled. Dear Henri.
With that, I noticed a dead rabbit in the ditch to our right.
‘Ooh, look. Dead rabbit.’ I observed, chattily.
‘Yes, seen a lot of them’. (Henri always talks in clipped, let’s not waste time with bullshit, sort of sentences – she’s wonderfully old school and I love her for it). ‘Myxomatosis’.
‘Oh, that’s a shame’, say I. ‘We’ve only just got them back after the last epidemic’. Indeed, I remark (boringly) to the girls every time we go down the lane, dodging bunnies which fling themselves out of the hedge at my wheels or headlights, how it’s good to see the furry things back in business after a three year absence. It seems we’re about to lose them again. In fact, thinking about it, I’ve already noticed that there have been many fewer to swerve round in the last couple of weeks. And there was one sitting rather listlessly in the hedge opposite the school gate the other day. I realise now it must have been ill. Sad. Nature’s cull, I guess.
I tried to fix up a time when Henri and her equally octogenarian, but decidedly frailer, friend Mary could come up for a cup of tea after lunch. I’d been promising it for months. Thought, foolishly, that it might liven up a dull diary for them. How wrong was that? They’re busier than I am! Mary is currently driving 45 minutes away on a daily basis to see a specialist about her swollen legs condition. Fridays she’s at the hairdressers. Today they were out to lunch together, as they do every week. Henri has a new car and was pleased to have the excuse to drive to show it off to Mary.
‘Have you seen how fast she drives?’
I reflected and realised that Mary had narrowly missed me a number of times on the lane and it had crossed my mind she was going somewhat fast for her age and reactions (dodgy legs aside), fixed manic stare, seemingly oblivious to other road users. I saw Henri’s point.
‘She took me out the other day and when we got back she said, “Henri, you’re looking a bit pale”. I couldn’t tell her it was her driving. She goes so fast, overtaking in really dangerous places, and with her legs…but it gives her independence, you see. I daren’t tell her. Richard’s tried [stepson], but she won’t listen.’
‘I admire her spirit’, I said weakly, but couldn’t help thinking of the poor humans at peril out there, let alone the rabbits. More bodies in the ditch, and not just furry ones.
I left Henri to her fate (in her hands, at least, today), when the recycling lorry came along. As we parted she glanced into the cage at the back, pointing to the cans of Srongbow. ‘They’re mine! Have one every night!’ Girding her loins for her white knuckle rides with Mary no doubt…
Having got home and put my own detritus out to be turned into something else, I felt the need to stay outdoors. The sun was shining after all. One must make the most of it in these parts. So I set about scrubbing outside paintwork – doors and gates. Trouble was, the harder I scrubbed off the green algae, the more paint dropped off. I cast my mind to the names of exterior decorators…From there to the long neglected back door. Once a nice piece of natural wood, it has become blackened and weather-beaten in our persistent rains. Sanding down didn’t improve matters. Cleaning with white spirit neither. I rummaged around in the potting shed and found some wood preserver, bought enthusiastically some years ago, and left gloriously untouched. I dug around some more and found a paintbrush without paint-stiff bristles (chucked two out with) and slapped on a couple of coats. The door looked worse. And really stank. Vile smell, truly vile. The girls held their noses on returning from school with lots of melodramatic ‘POOH! What’s that SMELL?’ noises in little high-pitched incredulous voices. SO predictable. I made no excuses.
A little friend of L’s came to tea. I wanted to bake and see them play games together. They were more interested in rubbish TV. In the end I couldn’t be bothered to fight. At least they were out of my hair and I could get on and watch some rubbish TV myself over a cup of tea and the ironing.
Oh, yes, almost forgot to say that on the way back from school with the children I’d caught site of Mary and Henri returning from their lunch out. Relieved to see them back at least. Mary’s thin auburn hair was being blown by the wind as she leaned into Henri’s new car, presumably thanking her for driving. But she was probably actually thinking, ‘God, why are you so bloody slow, we could have been back HOURS ago if I’d been at the wheel!’ And Henri was no doubt off to down another couple of Strongbows before bedtime.
As it turned out, she needed them. Either to sleep through the earthquake or steady her nerves, it doesn’t really matter. I’d only just gone to bed when it happened, and sat bolt upright, shaken from my first 20 minutes of sleep, at 1 o’clock in the morning. Was it a dream? Was it real? ‘Did you hear that?’ I asked N, not bothering to check if he was even awake. The bed had shaken like in a fairground House of Horrors and there was the sound of a train hurtling through a tunnel. ‘What?’ He says sleepily. ‘It was just the cat.’ Well, if it was the cat, it was one hell of a scratch. The landing light was still on. No pictures hanging off walls, the Valentine cards hadn’t even fallen off the chest of drawers. Did I imagine it? Himself helpfully suggested I go and turn on the news to see if it was the earthquake I thought it was. God, I wasn’t THAT bothered! Sleep seemed more important right then, but it was not a peaceful sleep. Rather one imbued with a sense of how all that seems so solid is actually fragile. Our whole world can come falling around us in one blink of Nature’s eye. Thankfully, it didn’t. The children slept on, oblivious. Even the cat, snoring on a cushion in the sitting room, didn’t come mewling for comfort. I couldn’t help thinking of the rabbits. Their little world was currently being shaken by some other act of Nature. Wiping them all out. ‘As flies to wanton boys are we to the Gods, they kill us for their sport.’ (My favourite quote from King Lear - apart from being the only one I can remember). The fact of the matter is, you never quite know what’s round the corner, when it all might end. It’s a sobering thought. And just maybe it was all this build-up of seismic energy which had been affecting my mood. I’d certainly felt in some strange limbo, waiting for something to happen, unable, meanwhile to settle to anything. Strange that just the other day, when E, currently engaged on a project about earthquakes and volcanoes, asked nervously if they ever happen in this country. ‘Good God, no!’ I’d replied cheerily.