Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Back on my head

My head may currently be full of philosophical thoughts about life, the universe and everything, but the reality of my existence, it would appear, insists on being much more prosaic.
Very down-to-earth, in fact.

There has been an odd smell in my house for a couple of weeks now. Not bad enough to worry about, but definitely there, and quite obviously getting worse. Then yesterday I noticed that the drain outside the back door was filling with water and overflowing whenever I used the sink.

I have been here before. When this happens, there are a couple of things to try before really panicking.
The first is, well, to don the industrial-strength rubber gloves and have a grope to see if there is an immediate blockage. I can tell you, there is nothing like being up to the elbow in it to reconnect oneself with reality. I will gloss over some of the language that escaped my lips as I was doing this, but suffice to say, it did not do the trick.

The second step is to get out the drain rods.
And no, I had never heard of drain rods either until I moved to a house with a septic tank, at which point they became an irregularly-used, but nonetheless essential part of life.
Then I had to locate the rodding eye - the manhole cover that gives access to a section of drain - and lever up the heavy metal cover with a crowbar. Down in the drain, one way heads towards the septic tank, the other towards the house. If there is nothing in the rodding eye, then you have to work back towards the house, as that is where the blockage is. If the eye is full of, ahem, stuff, you must head towards the tank as the drain may be blocked on that side.
To do this you select your attachment - one has a sort of double-helix affair, another a big sink plunger type of thing, and the last a hinged semi-circle that I don't quite understand. My choice of weapon was the double-helix. If it's good enough for Watson and Crick, it's good enough for me.

Into the hole it goes, then screw on the next rod and give it a good shove. When it has gone as far as possible, screw on the next one. Repeat until there are no rods left. Then give them a good to and fro, just in case there is a blockage.
If the content of the eye stubbornly refuses to go down, then this can only mean one thing. The septic tank is full, the contents are rapidly backing up and are about to invade the house. Now I have never had this pleasure, but it happened to a friend of mine not too long ago and she assures me that it is every bit as awful as it sounds.

Having by now exhausted my knowledge of drains and how to care for them, I started to pull out the rods, unscrewing each one as it came up. Until I got to the one with the double-helix ..... which was not there. Somehow, amid all the pushing and shoving and turning, I had managed to unintentionally unscrew the last rod, leaving it languishing somewhere in the bowels (sorry!) of the earth.

Well I wasn't going back in there for it.

By now it was too late to call out the tank-emptying company. So I tidied up outside, removed 95% of my clothing by the back door, contemplated whether to put it into the washing machine or simply burn it straightaway, and headed for the bathroom. Where, of course, I was unable to have the shower I wanted because of the risk of imminent invasion by the Thing That Lurked Beneath.
Washing in half a teacup of water was not satisfactory at all.

Fortunately the company was able to come out and empty the tank late this morning and all is fragrant around here once more. I was, however, too embarrassed to say anything about the lost drain rod and the nice man didn't mention finding it, so doubtless it is just biding its time down-under, waiting to bring another wave of chaos into my life.

Monday, 22 March 2010


After 19 months and 17 days, I thought I was an old hand at this being a widow business.

By this, I don't mean that I have all my feelings under control. I certainly haven't managed that trick yet. But the benefit of time means that the waves of emotion have become familiar. A flashback is very different from a flicker of sadness triggered by a piece of music. A lonely evening full of tears requires a different coping mechanism to the stabbing pain of a briefly-remembered moment.

What they have in common, though, is that I have experienced them all - many times - over the months, and now know what to expect and how to respond. "Know thy enemy" truly is a large part of the battle.

But a recent 'conversation' on an online forum that I visit regularly really knocked me for six. It is a place I go mainly to talk about growing vegetables and raising animals, not to discuss the big issues of life. But someone raised a question about childlessness and how it affected people, and I was astonished at the strength of emotion it raised in me.

As will be evident from reading this blog, R and I had no children.
When we were young, we were firmly in the militantly child-free camp, but even as we mellowed and our lives and work changed, the subject never reached the top of the agenda. I don't know why - timing, perhaps, or circumstances or just that we felt we had each other and didn't need anyone else to make our lives complete.

As I entered my 40s it became a mild source of regret in a ticking clock sort of way. This feeling has become stronger since R died as I would love to have a part of him still with me. And if I'm honest, it also raises worries about what will happen when I am much older - I always expected R to outlive me by a long time, so old age was never a concern.

The question created such a feeling of aloneness in me; probably more than I have felt at any time on this journey. I try very hard not to live in the past, but it is difficult not to wonder whether, if we had known what was going to happen, would we have followed the path we did? Would a child in my life make it harder or easier to cope with life now and think of the future with optimism?

Of course, these are all impossible questions to answer, but it doesn't stop them constantly running round and round my head. I hate it when thoughts like these penetrate the chinks in the armour I have dressed myself in to cope with the world. The best I can hope for from my life at present is calm, and this thought is like a piercing siren in the early hours of the morning, shattering my peaceful life.

I guess it is still technically possible as it is all still in working order(!), but it would be with the wrong person and an incredibly selfish act to have a child - alone - at an age when most women are looking forward to being grandmothers. And there is no shortage of children and young people in my life. Between us we had 7 nephews and nieces, I am godmother to one and surrogate auntie to many more.

No, that definitely wouldn't be the answer. I just need to stomp up yet more hills until I have worked out where to take this feeling. At least Moose will be happy.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Seeing things in a new light

Sometimes I feel a bit of a fraud moaning about some of the minor issues that trip me up every now and again. After all, single and divorced people have to face them every day too. Nothing is insurmountable given a bit of time and thought, although they always seem to surface when I have work piling up on my desk or am trying to get something else done. But what the heck, it's my blog. If I can't have a bit of a whine here, where on earth can I do it?

This week it is lightbulbs.

R had a thing about lighting. He liked a room to be bright. Inappropriately bright in my opinion. Arc lamp or crude interrogation technique sort of bright. Particularly while eating. He once put on a head torch in a restaurant in a silent protest against its use of subdued, "romantic" lighting - or at least until I had a hissy fit and made him take it off.

He was forever on the search for the perfect lightbulb. Every time a new one came out - whatever the size, shape or wattage - he would buy a couple and try them out in various sockets around the house. And would carefully put the old, part-used-but-still-working bulb back into the first box he could find that would fit it and return it to the lightbulb shelf.

Light fittings were another obsession.
If he saw one he liked he would bring it home and put it up in a room to 'audition' it. Normally only one, regardless of whether one was needed or four. And no matter whether it took G10, Edison screw or bayonet fittings, and may therefore require a whole new selection of lightbulbs. Alternatively he would fit one of his many ugly, plastic bulkhead lights as a 'temporary' measure. There are still a few of those around the house; I am gradually having them replaced and shall enjoy a quiet celebration when the last one has gone.

When a lamp no longer works, I go to the mismatched assortment of compact fluorescent, low-wattage halogen and LED bulbs. New, nearly new or possibly even blown - R could never quite bring himself to throw away lightbulbs as he felt they ought to be recyclable. He was presumably saving them all up until the local authorities came over to his point of view on this issue!

I then have to find something that both fits and offers the same light level as the other light fittings in the room. Invariably I will only be able to find a spiral type when all the others are straight. Or the bulb I choose won't fit into the fancy-schmancy light fitting that was only put up on a trial basis. Or it is actually a dud and should have been thrown away...

By this time I am grinding my teeth with frustration and about to give up and light a candle instead. At least I know where those are and that they work.

Today another lightbulb blew. That is the third in a fortnight.
In the great scheme of things it is nothing, but I am starting to feel just a little persecuted!

Monday, 8 March 2010

For WitM

Some flowers for you.
Just to tide you over until yours appear.

I love snowdrops.
They are so delicate and yet incredibly tough. They appear to withstand almost anything nature can throw at them, and seed themselves with total abandon. The ground is rock solid at the moment, yet here they are.

This variety with its pretty green frilly edging is my favourite. I can never have too many.
They last and last until the daffodils appear.

But judging from this little lot, they are going to be late this year. I hope there will be at least a few in bloom by R's birthday later this month.

Have a nice day!

Sunday, 7 March 2010


It's funny.
Most people take a trip to the country to recharge their batteries and relax.
For me it is just the opposite. I go to the city to reconnect with the mass of people and lose myself among them. For a few hours or a couple of days, the colour, bustle and purposeful busyness of the city is so invigorating.

My hilltop is beautiful, and I wouldn't want to live anywhere else, but at times I itch to be an anonymous member of a crowd. This feeling has been particularly strong lately given the last couple of months of snow-related semi-isolation.

So I have been looking forward to this weekend for a long time.
I went to Liverpool to visit my friends Tony and Delia and to see their new house. Tony worked with R several years ago and the friendship continued after we left the north-west - to the extent that I asked him to give one of the eulogies at R's funeral.

They are both great talkers and listeners.
After the usual catch-up conversations and sharing of plans for the future, we got to talking about R. With them it was so easy and natural. There was none of the formal "And now shall we talk about the dead person?" business - R was woven in and out of the conversation as though he were still with us. It was relaxing and normal, and for once it didn't make me cry.

Going out for a beer and a curry on Saturday evening was another welcome treat for me. At home, the round-trip involved in buying a takeaway means that it is not something I ever do. It all felt very decadent!

Sunday morning saw us taking a pre-brunch walk along Otterspool promenade in the crisp morning air. Despite the sunshine, we had to keep moving to keep warm, but the bright light glinting off the Mersey and the massed daffodils on the verge of flowering made it very worth the brisk walking pace required.

Moose and his friend Leo enjoyed the park as well!

In the afternoon, we took a trip up the Radio City Tower. This was something Tony and R had intended to do on the visit that should have taken place a few weeks after he died. It seemed appropriate to do it today.
Over 450 feet high, the Beacon as it is also known gave us a fantastic view over a city that I don't know very well. From the Liver Building to the two cathedrals and back over to Everton Heights, taking in the wealth of fine Georgian buildings in the city centre, it appeared much more grandiose from our vantage point than it ever does at ground level.

Tony joked that we could see my house from up there. Who knows? Had the Snowdonia mountain range not been in the way, he may have been right!

I have two more trips away planned this month.
From the viewpoint of getting things done around the homestead, this is a very bad idea; it would be far more sensible to stay at home and do some much-needed work. I am hoping though that, after a month of decadence I will come back and get going again with renewed vigour. The garden can wait that long, and nothing else seems to be doing the trick as far as generating enthusiasm is concerned.
I really hope this works.

Friday, 5 March 2010

Where does the time go?

In a couple of days I shall have been living in this house for 7 years.

I have written before about the state it was in when we moved here. Filthy, full of rubbish, damp, cold and very sad.
We shouldn't have bought the place. The house was too big. It needed too much work and we weren't great at DIY. We had wanted a bit more land, and the village was a lot further from the train station and R's work than was ideal, which would mean that he would have to commute on a weekly basis rather than every day. We had intended to get somewhere a lot closer to my family, and this was an hour away.
So we agreed that it was all wrong and we would carry on looking for somewhere else.

But over the course of the weekend we kept on talking about the ramshackle house we had visited in the little village in the middle of nowhere. A week later we went back for another look - and made an offer that was less than the asking price, but still more than it was probably worth.
The offer was accepted and the rest is history!

And for all the expense, cold nights, hassle and work that it has caused, it was the perfect place for us. R loved it here; when he came back on Friday evening, he would take off the professional suit and change into his tatty checked shirt and ancient combat trousers, drink a beer, relax, talk and plan, eat hearty home-produced food and decide on the next project.

For me, it was absolutely the right place. I loved it the moment I first saw the house and the village, but didn't want to persuade R because he would be the one who had to work away.
The benign nosiness of village life has been just what I needed. People aren't intrusive, but they care and they do check up to make sure I'm alright. Even now. I have not once felt afraid to be living alone because I know the neighbours are there and they will look after me. I don't often ask for help, but when I do, it is freely given. I don't think that I could find a better place in which to be widowed!

And today it is 19 months exactly since R died.
I don't quite understand how that can be possible, but the calendar tells me it is true.
The tears, the stomach lurches when something reminds me of him, the longing to feel his touch again are all still there, and I don't think will ever leave me entirely, but I feel I can do grief now in the way that people must learn to manage their lives if they lose a limb or their sight.

It also occurred to me today that I have been writing this blog for over a year. I cannot for the life of me remember exactly what it was that prompted me to start and it amazes me that I have carried on for so long, albeit with a couple of gaps. In the past, diary-writing has always gone the same way as New Year's Resolutions!

Before I started, I was always slightly suspicious of people who cast their thoughts and feelings out to the world in this way - it never seemed quite The Thing to do. Yet the writing allows me to express what I would never say out loud. Focussing on the words has helped me to get through some of the hardest periods of pain and clarify exactly what I am feeling. It also helps with remembering what has happened over these past months, as I certainly don't remember if I don't actively put it into words.

And I gain so much strength from our little community brought together by sadness. Knowing that there are people out there who understand, who know what I am feeling - even if they don't actively speak to me - is such a source of strength.
Thank you to you for being there.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Mid-life crisis?

I try not to do New Year's resolutions. They never last and I always end up feeling guilty.

Since I suddenly found myself alone, however, I have been very conscious of the need to stay healthy. This was emphasised rather dramatically by a bout of stomach 'flu last Autumn; the initial crisis was over quickly, but dragging myself out of my sick bed twice a day to feed the animals and give Moose enough exercise to stop him going stir crazy was no fun at all.

I have also developed a rather unreasonable paranoia about falling downstairs and breaking a major limb as this would mean a) I couldn't do all the animal stuff and b) I wouldn't be able to drive, which would be a disaster and make me almost totally reliant on other people.

There's not a lot I can do to prevent the freak accidents, but it is within my gift to try to eat more healthily and up the exercise.

So when a friend challenged me to run the Race for Life with her in Aberystwyth, I rather rashly agreed, working on the basis that we would shame one another into training for it.

"It's only 5k," I thought. "I walk at least that distance every day with Moose".

It is a long time since these old legs have run anywhere on a regular basis, though, and I had forgotten how much harder running is than walking! Moose isn't too keen on the idea either as the faster I go, the less time he has to sniff all his favourite smells.

And I know it would amuse R a lot. He was the athlete in our house. With his wiry build he was a natural distance runner, and did several half-marathons over the years with very respectable times. It was something I happily left him to do on his own, so I can only imagine what he would say if he knew what I was attempting to do!

Bright red and sweaty isn't my favourite look, but I shall persevere, even if it means doing tomorrow's run under cover of darkness to minimise embarrassment.

Running shoes are ugly things though, aren't they?

Wednesday, 3 March 2010


In the past I have always enjoyed Winter.
I like cold, crisp days and have never really been affected by the lack of sunlight.

But this winter has been different.

On my Welsh hilltop, Winter normally means rain. And lots of it. It always comes from the West and lashes horizontally against the side of my house.
For weeks on end sometimes.

This year it was replaced by snow.
Snow which has done its best to wreck what remains of my social life. It has sometimes felt that every time I have invited someone over, the snow has fallen. The latest was last week when my friend Rosie spun her car on her way over to supper. Fortunately she was OK and is made of sterner stuff than many other people, so she made it all the way here, we had a lovely evening and she stayed overnight until the snowplough went through in the morning.

I can live with the quiet evenings, but the ground was frozen solid which has meant that I haven't been able to get outside to do all the tidying that I would have normally done by now. Not to mention all the Winter chores that R used to do like cleaning out the gutters.

So I guess the snow did me a favour when it brought the guttering off the wall and sent it crashing through the porch roof. Having that repaired is a bill I could do without, but the lovely man who is doing the work is also doing a number of other little jobs that needed doing and I was unlikely to get to any time soon, like painting a couple of windows. And as the exterior is going to look so much smarter, it has inspired me to start cleaning up the inside of the porch as well - another job that is long overdue. I have been a regular visitor to the tip this week, and it has been good for the soul!

But it still bothers me that I haven't been able to dig over the vegetable garden or sort out the greenhouse. The garden has been so far from my thoughts that I haven't even ordered any vegetable seeds yet. Normally by early March I have already sown the first peas, sweet peas, broad beans, cabbages and leeks. The salad crops and oriental greens are starting to come up in the greenhouse. I might not have managed to dig over all the raised beds, but at least some should be ready by now to plant onion sets, garlic and shallots. I should be itching to get the heated propagator running with the next batch of seeds, and the annual clearance of space on the windowsills should have begun.

And on the animal side too, I have only been doing the bare minimum - cleaning out the henhouses, feeding everyone, going out several times a day with warm water to replenish the frozen waterers.
I haven't yet built the chicken pens that will keep the birds from marauding round the garden and digging up what I have just sown. There are still several Muscovy drakes and a couple of cockerels that really should be in the freezer. I haven't sorted out the floor of the pig ark, so I won't be ready to go if a couple of suitable weaners become available at short notice.

And most depressing of all is that my sheep have been surviving on a régime of benign neglect.
I have two wonderful neighbours who have been towers of strength since R died. They have made sure that the sheep are up-to-date with their vaccinations, brought their ram round to visit my ladies and best of all have helped me with the foot trimming.

But I can't keep relying on them to essentially do what is my work. If I am going to do that, I should be entirely honest about it, get rid of my own sheep and simply allow them to graze theirs on my land.

And while I'm being honest, if I don't keep the garden going, what is the point of having this land? I can barely justify having a house that is more than twice as large as I need as it is (we had plans to turn part of it into a holiday cottage or possibly a bed and breakfast), so the sight of the garden getting away from me and starting to look so messy was really getting me down. To the extent of wondering whether I should simply give up, sell the house and buy somewhere more sensible.

Fortunately the sun came out this weekend and I was able to get outside and do some proper tidying in the garden.

Most importantly of all, I had enough get-up-and-go to take a good look at the sheep. A couple had been limping slightly, which is a sure sign that their feet need trimming. If you are a strapping chap like my neighbour Dave, foot-trimming means grabbing a sheep, turning it onto its bum and holding there while you wield the clippers.

If you are considerably smaller than that, female and your sheep aren't known for sitting meekly while you trim their feet, then you need a cradle. This is essentially a sloping metal box that you up-end the sheep into and it is unable to get up until you let it. This is a job that R and I used to do together, and one which I had been putting off trying because I knew that, if I couldn't do it, then I would have to stop keeping sheep.

So this weekend it was make-or-break time.
For once, the sheep went easily into the corral and I decided to give it a go.
I managed to get the little one into the cradle without any problems and gave her a much-needed pedicure. She has a hint of scald - an infection that will clear up quickly after an antibiotic injection - but otherwise it went fine. The next one was a bit heavier, but she is my best behaved girl and it all went OK.

Then came grandmother. She is the biggest of the three and had absolutely no intention of lying on her back in a metal crate! When I finally got her pinned in a corner and up onto her back legs, we then danced a bizarre tango while I backed her into position. A final burst of effort got the stubborn little madam on her back. Even then, she struggled and wriggled throughout the entire procedure to the extent that my back was screaming with pain by the time it was all over.

But I did it.
On my own!
I can't put into words how triumphant I feel about it.
It means that I can do it on my own. I can stay here without everything falling apart. The place may not be as tidy as it was, or at least not yet. But if I put my mind to it, I can do it.

It somehow seems disloyal to say that I can do it without him, and maybe that thought has been holding me back all these months. Perhaps I just need to change my emphasis and convince myself that I can do it for him and keep our dream alive.