Tuesday, 30 November 2010


Some days you just want someone to open the pickle jar.

Try as I might to ignore it, Christmas is fast approaching.
For the time being at least, it is easiest for my family to come to me. I have plenty of space, the all-important turkey is here and it means I don't have to arrange for someone to feed the animals while I am away (which is both difficult and expensive during the festive season). But it does mean that I need to warm up the back part of the house that isn't currently in use.

Sadly there is no chimney out there, so it isn't feasible to fit a woodburner. I have been looking at electric versions of my cast iron stove for some time now, but most have been too noisy, too tinny or just too not quite right. Then I discovered Broseley stoves which pushed all the right buttons for me - locally-made, proper cast iron stoves, rather than flimsy sheet metal and even the pretend coals aren't too tacky. Altogether really rather nice.
Unfortunately they were also rather outside my budget!

But last week I spotted one on EBay, advertised for pick-up only less than 15 miles from home. Well, it was just meant to be, and I won it for about a third of the normal cost.

I went to collect it yesterday and am absolutely delighted with my bargain. What I didn't take into account, however, was the fact that it weighs almost exactly the same as me. It went into the Land Rover fine with two of us to lift it.
Now I can't get it out!
All will be well once it is on the ground as it will go on the sack truck, but I'm afraid that it will land too heavily and break one of the cast iron legs if I try to get it out by myself. So it is stuck in the back of the Landy until I can enlist the assistance of some kind passing gentleman.

One will doubtless be along sooner or later, but it is infuriating having to wait. Had R been here it would be in the house, fitted and warming up the back room now as I type. It frustrates me so much being reliant on other people for stupid little things like this.

And no, I haven't got the pickle jar open yet either. Not even with the aid of my trusty Baby Boa. Grrr.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Let it snow

I have had many occasions to smile at R's bulk-buying habits over the past couple of years, and not a few moments spent shaking my head in exasperation. Every once in a while, though, I have good reason to be thankful and feel that he is still looking after me.

This early spell of snow took me quite by surprise.
The weather forecast seemed to suggest that we were only due a light sprinkling. Well that may have been true down in the valley, but up here on my hilltop we had a proper snowfall and I really wasn't prepared for it. So my first job this morning was to rediscover the path from the house.

Fortunately R had been prepared, and I was pleased to unearth a bag of salt that he had stashed away for a moment such as this. (Buying salt had been on my "must get round to it soon" list, but I didn't expect to need it quite yet). I also found a couple of cans of windscreen deicer on a shelf which I suspect will be very useful tomorrow.

The snowfall is beautiful, but this is always a difficult time for farmers.
When the fields are white, most of the traffic on the road seems to be related to ferrying food around for sheep and cattle in one form or another.
This year was a bad one for hay and silage. It was so dry in late Spring and early Summer that the grass seemed to stop growing in the peak haying period. As a result, many farmers were only able to take a single crop from their fields, or at best a fairly meagre second crop later in the season. The price of hay seems to be nearly a third higher than it was this time last year.

For me, with my micro-flock of just 7 sheep, this isn't the end of the world. I can take the financial hit. The lamb in my freezer probably won't be cost-effective this year but I can cope with that - and it will still taste wonderful. For my friends who farm for real, having to buy in hay or silage can mean the difference between making a profit and making a loss.

My little Hebridean sheep are hardy souls. When the weather is bad they aren't too fussy about what they eat, unlike some of their more highly-bred cousins. But they do appear to have an aversion to eating food that is damp, whether that be hay or the concentrates that they also need when there is no grass. This means that I find myself taking food out to them three or four times a day in bad weather as they will simply ignore their pellets once they get wet and go soggy - even though they were tucking into them happily a couple of hours previously. Damp food means both hungry sheep and a waste of money.

As I said, this early snowfall took me by surprise, and I was down to my last bale of hay this morning. No problem, I thought. I'll take the Land Rover down to the feed store and pack it with enough hay to see me through this cold snap.

It was a great plan.
Unfortunately the Landy wouldn't start. It was turning over, but there wasn't enough charge - or it was too cold - to start.
I can just picture R, standing there with an exasperated grin on his face, wondering why on earth I didn't make sure the battery was fully charged when I learned that snow was coming.

Well I just didn't.
So it messed up my entire morning waiting for the battery to charge. At least I got my ironing done while I was waiting.

Friday, 26 November 2010


At this time of year it is difficult fitting everything in within the hours of daylight.
This isn't a new phenomenon; it has been the same ever since we moved here. If I don't feed the animals early enough before it gets dark, for example, the food lies around all night and encourages rats, which is never a good thing. This means that I really need to stop working at around 3.30 to do all my animal chores and give Moose his evening walk. It really messes up my working day, but even at his venerable age, the thought of having an underexercised collie in the house is still worse than actually wrapping up warm and going out!

That's the official timetable anyway.
Some days it doesn't quite work out like that, and the light is fading by the time Moose and I are ready. No matter. The roads are quiet here, so I don my reflective vest, put a torch in my pocket and set out regardless.

There are only a couple of street lights in the village, and none whatsoever after passing the village sign. There used to be more, but the Council switched two thirds of them off in a fit of money-saving zeal and it is so much more pleasant. I love walking in proper darkness without the sodium glow on the horizon.

This evening I was half-way around my usual circuit when I met an elderly gentleman I sometimes see, and stopped for a brief chat.
"Aren't you scared?" he asked, "Out here in the dark on your own."
I was puzzled.
It had never even occurred to me that I should be scared. I like the dark. I had a torch in my pocket and a rather protective medium-sized dog with me. There is very little traffic, and the thought of someone lying in wait behind a hedge in the frigid conditions on the off-chance that I might pass seems very unlikely.

I don't want to be scared about things like that.
There are plenty of things that I am nervous about now I am alone. I don't use the chainsaw when there is no one around after promising my family that I wouldn't. I'm not keen on heights, so ladders are best avoided where possible.
The thought of breaking an arm or leg is a constant worry as it would make my life well-nigh impossible.
I am totally paranoid about being tripped up by the dog on my way downstairs and breaking my neck.
And constantly at the back of my mind is the nagging fear that I will wake up dead one morning, just like R did, only there will be no one here to call for an ambulance.

But walking in the dark? No way.
I shall continue to enjoy that. Particularly on a cold, crisp, icy night like tonight when the starlight is almost dazzling and there is a nearly full moon to light my path.
That is a pleasure, not something to be feared.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

*&@£$%"+* foxes

Oh well. That's one fewer turkey to put to bed every night.


Tuesday, 23 November 2010

It's raining men

From a few conversations I have had lately, the world seems to think it is time that I "move on".

At a meeting the other day, one elderly lady asked me if I had found myself a "little friend" yet. At first I thought she was asking if I had got another dog!
There was a time when I would have been shocked or upset or insulted by a question like that, but I am a lot more sanguine about it these days. People mean well.
I told her that I didn't think I was ready yet, and we talked a little about living alone. I explained that, although it had taken a long time to become comfortable with my own company, there are some benefits - the house is feeling a lot less cluttered, for example, and the kitchen table doesn't regularly disappear under a layer of detritus!

And I think that is where I am right now. Comfortable. In my life and in my own skin.

There are times when I would love to be sharing my life with someone again. Not because I need to - I am pretty self-sufficient these days - but the sharing part does appeal. Sharing meals, sharing moments, sharing a joke, sharing a bed, even sharing sadness. Living alone does tend to make one a little selfish, and that is not who I really am.

Every now and again I take the idea of looking for another partner out of its box, place it on the table and examine it well from all sides. So far the thought of dating again has appeared overwhelmingly awful, and the idea is carefully wrapped up again and returned to the box.

My friend Natasha decided the other day that she was going to act as my Official Matchmaker. Unfortunately (or should that be fortunately?) she was unable to come up with any eligible bachelors who weren't either under 25 or well past retirement age, which came as something of a relief!

And therein lies the rub.
For the past two and a bit years I have been surrounded by women.
Funny, smart, comforting, gentle, supportive and loving women. It was exactly what I needed - they have wrapped me in love and kindness, picked me up when I stumbled, handed me tissues on the bad days and laughed with me on the good ones. I wouldn't have got this far without them. But with very few exceptions, the only men I have spent any time with have been family members or the husbands of friends. The top of a hill in the back of beyond isn't the ideal place to start a new career as a single person.

So I had a bit of a shock yesterday evening.
I have mentioned before that I help to run a table tennis club. A couple of the older lads and our coach Brian have formed a team that plays in the local league. Last night Brian was unable to play so he asked me to stand in for him. I was a bit nervous, but that was at the thought of playing at a seriously competitive level, rather than in our little club. But when I walked through the door into the gym, it suddenly struck me that I was the only woman there - it was wall-to-wall men and really quite overwhelming! Had it not been for the fact that I had to drive the two teens home again afterwards, I would probably have turned tail and run.

Naturally once I had calmed down and started playing it was all fine, but it did bring home to me quite how out of practice I am at this being out in the world on my own business.
Oh, and I was roundly thrashed in every game I played. That is OK, though, as improving gives me a goal to work towards while the little box is still on the shelf. Displacement activity is the order of the day in this house.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

A year in the death: November

It has been an intense few days. For once not on my own account.

A good friend is possibly - probably (who knows?) - on the verge of leaving her husband. It isn't my story to tell, so I shall leave it at that, but she has been staying for a while in a little holiday cottage that just happens to be very near R's burial field. So I took the slight detour to go and say hello on my way home yesterday.

Talking to R at his grave still helps me to clear my head better than almost anything. The grass was too wet yesterday to sit down so I couldn't settle for a long chat, but a few minutes was long enough to off-load it all.

It was also an opportunity to look back at how far I have come.
A year ago I would have found this situation too difficult to cope with. There was a time when I simply couldn't bear to be in the same room as a bickering couple. Watching two people who are supposed to love one another causing pain instead was too unfair, too much to handle.

If I'm honest, it still hurts to see, but I can now look beyond the unpleasantness and be thankful to have had the life I did with R. We argued from time to time, of course we did, but rarely allowed the sun to go down on our anger. I cannot imagine how it feels to be trapped in a life with someone who makes me unhappy.

I guess even our relationships are subject to the entropy that rules the universe, and it takes both parties working hard to prevent them moving inexorably towards disorder.

This field where I come to think and talk also paints a picture of the changing seasons.

I can tell as I walk up the hill who has had a visitor recently. Some graves have a few flowers marking the spot, at others it is the beaten-down grass that reveals the footfall. It is also an automatic reaction to clear away any overgrown grass or fallen leaves from the stone marker, and it makes me a little sad to see that R's immediate neighbours have 'disappeared'.

The young trees that were little more than sticks in August 2008 are now healthy-looking saplings, and there are more chairs and benches around the periphery of the field, sponsored by families who want their loved one's name to be visible to the world as well as just a number.
It was a dull November afternoon yesterday, and I only had my phone with me so the pictures are not great.
I don't understand why, but I still feel a need to record the passage of time without R, and this place would appear to be the ideal place to do it.

November is perhaps an odd month to start, but I guess it is as good as any.

Thursday, 11 November 2010



Have you forgotten yet?
For the world's events have rumbled on since those gagged days,
Like traffic checked while at the crossing of city-ways:
And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow
Like clouds in the lit heaven of life; and you're a man reprieved to go,
Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare.
But the past is just the same - and War's a bloody game.
Have you forgotten yet?
Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you'll never forget.

Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz -
The nights you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on parapets?
Do you remember the rats; and the stench
Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench -
And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a hopeless rain?
Do you ever stop and ask, 'Is it all going to happen again?'

Do you remember that hour of din before the attack?
And the anger, the blind compassion that seized and shook you then
As you peered at the doomed and haggard faces of your men?
Do you remember the stretcher-cases lurching back
With dying eyes and lolling heads - those ashen-grey
Masks of the lads who once were keen and kind and gay?

Have you forgotten yet?
Look up, and swear by the green of the spring that you'll never forget.

Siegfried Sassoon

Monday, 1 November 2010


It is not for nothing that Wales is known as the Land of Song. I have probably done more singing in the past seven years than I did in the previous 40. It is just a part of life here, and there is none of the apologetic mumbling that you get at weddings and funerals dros y clawdd (across the dyke - my favourite way to say "in England" in Welsh). For a long time, I always carried a little piece of paper in my handbag with the words to the national anthem - to ensure that I never had a John Redwood moment!

I don't think it is just a rural thing either; certainly not if you have ever heard the rugby crowd singing at the Millennium Stadium. The eisteddfod tradition has a lot to do with it. Every school, even at the primary level competes in local and national eisteddfodau, so getting up on stage and singing, dancing or reciting is not a thing to be feared. Most people seem to be able to tell a few jokes, play an instrument, sing tidily or act on stage.

I love singing myself. I'll never make a soloist, but I can hold a tune and love being part of a bigger noise. And I quite enjoy being on stage and making a fool of myself, so I was rather pleased a few years back when I was asked to take part in our village's entry in a local "entertainment" competition. And rather more surprised when, a couple of years later, I found myself writing it as well.

For obvious reasons, I took some time out from this after R died. Then last year I had a small part which did me a lot of good at the time. This year, the writing baton somehow got handed back to me so, for the last couple of months, I have been totally absorbed with scripts, props, casting, rehearsals, finding suitable music and all the other minutiae of putting on a playlet. It is amazing how a 30-minute performance can totally take over your life - it is the ideal distraction for the widow with the slightly obsessive personality!

Well, we entered the competition. It wasn't a stellar performance, but we came joint second, which was probably a fair result. But as it always seems such a waste to put all that effort into just one night, we repeated the performance at our local village hall as a fundraiser for the church. And the winning team was asked to join us too.

"Where on earth is she going with all this?", I am sure you are thinking to yourself by now.

Well, all this goes some way to explaining how, yesterday evening, I found myself standing on stage introducing the Master of Ceremonies for the event - who was none other than the funeral director who buried R.
This situation was made all the more weird by the fact that he was wearing jeans and T-shirt, rather than his sombre funeral garb, sang in a rather excellent tenor voice and told a lot of slightly risqué jokes over the course of the evening. I am not sure what I expected a funeral director to do in his spare time, but it certainly wasn't this.

But it didn't end there. The other team performing this evening was led by the couple who own R's burial field. They are lovely people, and made sure I was OK, but it was all very peculiar, standing there having a post-performance glass of wine with them.

Oddly none of this was the least bit upsetting.

But it was very, very weird.


On Saturday morning I was rushing around getting ready to go over to see my Mum. Late as usual. There was a knock on the door. I opened it to a little Welshman with a broad grin on his face. He is the archetypal retired Welsh farmer; about my height, round, cheerful face, late 70s, walking stick, clean 3rd best suit and a flat cap.

He has been calling upon me about once a month since early Summer.

He stands on the doorstep and we talk about ducks. Specifically my ducks. The ever-growing flock of juvenile muscovies that clutter up the place like so many indolent teenagers in a shopping mall on a wet weekend. Occasionally he throws a few Welsh words at me to test my knowledge, but so far I have passed the test.

Mostly we talk about ducks.
He may have introduced himself the first time he appeared, but I don't recall, and it is equally probable that he didn't. I do remember, though, standing in the doorway with a fixed grin on my face, wondering why this man was talking to me about ducks. And could he please get to the point as I had work to do.
Eventually it percolated through that he might be interested in buying some - not that he ever said it in so many words.

At the time the only ducklings I had weren't feathered up, so they weren't ready to leave their mother. But in a roundabout way, he wondered what price I would sell them for if I were interested in selling. I suggested a figure and there was a sharp intake of breath, at which I felt compelled to explain how much it had cost them to feed them so far and how I would simply put them in the freezer if I couldn't find a buyer. This exchange was followed by a couple more minutes of pleasantries and then he left.

It is the Welsh way of negotiating and it drives me mad.
Don't mention a price. In fact don't even say that you are interested in buying in so many words while, at the same time, making it perfectly obvious that you are. Assume a slightly quizzical and expectant look. Then when the other person suggests a price, appear puzzled at the beginner's obvious miscalculation and then change the subject. At which point the poor person who didn't realise that they wanted to sell their ducks in the first place finds that they are completely on the back foot and start chuntering on, trying to defend their entirely reasonable price proposal.

Repeat at monthly intervals until the poor benighted duck owner, who knows deep down inside that she has too many beaks to feed and is almost certainly not going to be putting the excess, layabout drakes in the freezer any time soon, suggests a price that is way under the market value, but appears to be acceptable.

Shake hands on the deal and arrange to pick the birds up in a few days time. Go on your merry way, leaving the duck owner feeling ever so slightly steamrollered!