Thursday, 30 December 2010

A year in the death: December

I was a little worried that I wouldn't manage to visit R in December due to a combination of weather, work and guests. Fortunately the thaw set in with a vengeance a couple of days ago, and the snow disappeared almost as quickly as it arrived.

Having sailed through my first two Christmases alone, I expected to do the same this year, but it proved to be a long hard slog. It was difficult to derive any pleasure from the preparations - almost everything I did emphasised his absence. Not having him there to discuss the menu, share in the gift wrapping or even rush around getting the rooms ready seemed to suck out every last vestige of enjoyment from the process. It is many months since I was last so consistently weepy and for such a sustained period.

The inevitable meltdown came on the morning of Christmas Eve when I came to dress the turkeys that had been hanging in the porch for a few days and were thus semi-frozen. Standing there with my hand up the rear end of a frigid turkey in a chaotic kitchen and totally unprepared house proved just too much. An hour or so of railing at the gods about the bloody unfairness of it all, and how this wasn't my job and I should be happily faffing around with my lavender beeswax polish at this point helped a bit. That and a stiff talking-to.
I am thinking of having one of those posters made up with "Have a Good Cry and Carry On", as it seems to be my motto these days.

Once people started arriving it got better, even though R's absence from the room is still huge for everyone. Talking to his family on the 'phone on Christmas Day was difficult; all of us putting on our best jolly voices as we always do and pretending that nothing is amiss. But we all got through it - as we always do.

My no. 1 niece stopped on for a couple of days after the others had left.
Up to a month ago she had been living in Finland with her partner, but the relationship had gone pear-shaped and she has returned to the UK - and is currently both homeless and jobless as well. So she deserved a little TLC, and it was good to think and talk about someone else's misery for a change!

So I didn't get to visit R until today.
When I arrived at the field I wasn't alone. Had I turned up an hour beforehand there would have been a funeral in progress. Fortunately I missed that, but Eira and Ifor (the owners of the field) were about to start filling in the grave. The wooden frame holding the mound of slatey soil excavated from the ground brought back bitter memories of an August afternoon two years ago.
We had a little chat - about mutual friends, about the weather and about their young Collie who had had to have a leg amputated, but was still charging about like a mad thing on three legs - then they tactfully withdrew to give me some time alone.

It was a dull, damp, grey morning as I stood and told R how much I missed him. R's normal view had almost entirely been swallowed up by the fog, and Cefn-Bryntalch - the big house that was once the home of composer Peter Warlock - was barely visible. This was where he composed his haunting song cycle, The Curlew, a piece that suits my current mood very well.

It will be a few months before the curlews return, however. This morning I would have been satisfied with an elusive glimpse of the sun, but it was not to be. The wind farm that is normally all too present through the gap in the trees was nowhere to be seen either. With the fog pressing in on all sides and filling up the valley, it was as though this hillside was the only place left on earth.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Care and maintenance

My poor old walking boots have taken a bit of a hammering over the last few weeks. They are the only footwear that keep my feet warm enough in this weather, so they have been worn a lot. Salt, snow and grit aren't a great combination for the leather, however, so they were looking rather sad this evening.

R was very conscientious about looking after shoes and boots. Cleaning was usually a job for Sunday evening before he went off for the week. He had a vast array of cloths and brushes and pots of polish, and each had to be used in the correct order. I loved to see the shoes all neatly lined up on a sheet of newspaper, laces removed, waiting for their final buffing and shine.

On the morning of his funeral I totally fixated on the need to polish my boots. I spent about an hour sitting on the step with the little pot of parade ground gloss he always used to give shoes that extra-special shine. It was always the polish of choice for weddings, funerals and interviews, so how could I do anything else? People moved around me, chatting and getting ready, as I sat with my brush and duster. My SIL said a few months afterwards that she thought I was going to rub a hole in the leather. Mechanically brushing, buffing and polishing - over and over - proved to be an effective substitute for thinking that morning.

Walking boots required a different approach.
That was always done in front of the woodburner as the warmth from the fire helped the wax to sink in. As he rubbed the wax in with his fingers, he would explain why it was important, particularly in damp, muddy Wales. Wet boots would be brushed clean of mud, stuffed with newspaper and allowed to dry naturally. Then they received the Nikwax treatment.

R practically lived in his walking boots when he was at home, so they needed a lot of maintenance. After he died I couldn't bear to see his boots on the rack in the porch. Other shoes didn't bother me so much, but seeing his boots there was torture. So one morning, fairly early on, I took them to town with me and dropped them in the Salvation Army clothes collection bin as I couldn't stand to have them in the house any longer. None of his other clothes or shoes had that effect on me - just those boots.

So I know that he would be cross to know that I hadn't Nikwaxed my walking boots since he died. They have been neglected for nearly 2 and a half years. Definitely worthy of a disappointed look. When I got back from walking Moose this evening I finally noticed how sad they were looking. It was time.

I always feel very virtuous when carrying out this type of maintenance job. It is daft really. All it involves is rubbing in some wax, but it makes me feel like the latest in a long line of thrifty housewives, darning socks and applying their stitches in time. The scent of the wax is very strong and heady, and quickly fills the room. Not exactly pleasant, but again homely and upright. My fingers move in greasy circles, paying particular attention to the seams - just as it says on the tin. The parched leather drinks in the wax, deepening in colour as it does so.

It doesn't take long, certainly not long enough to justify avoiding the task for all this time. My comfy old boots now sit ready for use once more. Sure they are a little battered and worn - just like me - but they polish up OK and seem to still have a few miles left in them yet!

The view from my window

I think I need to do something about those gutters!

Friday, 17 December 2010

Slowing down

The last week has been quite a hectic one for this little homebody.

Last weekend I was in Liverpool visiting friends, then on Monday I finally forced myself to go to Shrewsbury to do my Christmas shopping. Wednesday saw me driving up to Manchester for a production of The Messiah at Bridgewater Hall. Unfortunately what was supposed to be a quick trip up there, followed by a leisurely supper and an evening of sublime music ended up being rather frantic. An accident on the M6 turned the normal hour and a half journey into one lasting four hours. When I finally arrived, Jane thrust an insulated coffee mug into one hand and a bowl of lasagna into the other and said I would have to eat them in the car on the way to the concert hall! We made it with literally two minutes to spare.
The music was worth it though, and the whole experience made me very grateful that we made it out of the city and away from the daily commute when we did.

Yesterday, however, everything came to a grinding halt.
I was supposed to be going down to Essex for Vera's funeral, to see R's family and to deliver Christmas presents, but the weather had different ideas. The snow forecast for Saturday arrived two days early and I found myself stuck on my hilltop again.

As a result I spent much of the day wandering around aimlessly, trying to focus on some housework - so that I could actually achieve something with the time. I have no idea why this always happens, but the sudden relaxation after frenetically running around trying to get things sorted always results in a more or less wasted day.
Possibly it is a small amount of guilt at not making the journey, even though I know it would have been rather foolish to go. R's Dad was relieved that I didn't as he would have worried about me the whole time, but it still felt wrong not to be there to say goodbye.

In the end I simply gave up and went out with Moose for a good long walk. The snow was fresh and still shallow enough to walk on comfortably. I love the leaden light created by weak winter sunshine fighting its way through snow-laden clouds. The complete lack of traffic allows the other sounds of the countryside to ring out clearly - hungry sheep in the fields waiting impatiently for the farmer to bring a new bale of haylage, startled black rooks rising as one from the white-shrouded depths of an oak tree, snow falling suddenly from an overhanging branch.

I am glad we went out yesterday as another foot of snow arrived overnight.
Feeding the animals was interesting as their bowls and waterers had completely disappeared. Everything - including me - was more than ready for their breakfast by the time I got round to them.

The snowplough has just been along the main road, so I now have the choice between digging out the Land Rover for a trip to the shops to pick up a few things, or staying inside in the warm and putting on the oven to do some baking.
At the moment the thought of the baking is winning!

Monday, 13 December 2010

The visit

I have just returned from a trip to the Hall at Abbey-Cwm-Hir, a restored Victorian Gothic Revival house.

I'm not sure why I agreed to go as visiting country houses really isn't my thing at all, but I guess I couldn't come up with a reason why not quickly enough. And it was a trip out with friends, which is generally a Good Thing. At this time of year, the tour centres on the fact that the house has 52 rooms, and each one is decorated for Christmas.

Well, I had probably had my fill of tweely-bedecked Christmas trees by about the 11th room, and we hadn't even left the first floor. The place was on the unacceptable side of lukewarm in most of the rooms as we padded around in our stockinged feet (shoes had to be left at the door because of the carpets), and the lady of the house flitted around behind the scenes in her bright red dress, never introducing herself to us, but constantly "there", glimpsed briefly and elusively going into another room at the end of a corridor or the top of a staircase. All very Daphne Du Maurier.

By the time we reached the frigid 'servants' quarters' at the top of the house, each room still decorated in its own Christmassy theme, it was all becoming very surreal.
I had hoped that the trip might help to bring on a little festive spirit, but it was rather counterproductive. When we left I swore that I didn't want to see another Christmas tree for as long as I lived!

This will be my third Christmas on my own.

The first one I planned simply to survive. In the end I found it very comforting to go through the ingrained rituals with my family around me. For R and I, it was never one of the 'big' things in our year. Mostly it involved frenetically driving all over the country visiting relatives, so we rarely spent it just the two of us. Of course his absence was huge that first Christmas, but it wasn't as bad as I thought it would be, and nowhere near as awful as most of the other 'firsts'.

Last year I actually enjoyed the holidays. The preparations were a great distraction. I had lists and timetables, and spent a week or so making beds, cleaning, baking and generally turning the house into a home for the season. My family were all on good form, and it was wonderful having us all together, eating, talking and playing silly games with the kids. The period afterwards was difficult for me when the snow came back and I was all alone for several days, but Christmas itself was an unexpected pleasure.

This year I seem to be struggling much more with it.
My family are coming here again, which is just how I want it, but I don't seem to be able to gear myself up to getting ready.
I can cope with the feasting part - I love that and always will. But thinking about and shopping for gifts feels like swimming through treacle. It doesn't help that I regard the whole gift-giving part of Christmas as a totally meaningless exercise for anyone over the age of about 18. Don't get me wrong - I love to give people gifts when I happen upon something that I know they will like, but desperately rushing around trying to find a present for someone who doesn't really want or need anything from me, and all for an artificial deadline, just sends my head into a spin.

It used to be so easy - I would hand the whole thing over to R, who loved shopping and could happily wander around for hours, if not days, looking for gifts. In contrast, I find it totally stressful, and really wish people would grow up and decide not to bother after all. Right now it is sucking out all the pleasure that I should be feeling at looking forward to the feasting and companionship which, for me as a non-religious person, are what Christmas is all about.
Oh well, it will all be over soon.

Sunday, 12 December 2010


Success at last.

Several days of tapping, banging the jar on the worktop, levering and channelling of all my frustration came to naught, but then I remembered. Heat. That's what was needed. A little light expansion.

Half an hour seated on the radiator (the jar, that is, not me you understand) did the trick. And I am delighted to announce that ...
we now have pickles!

(The heater is also now in the house, although that did require some assistance).

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Warming up

It feels as though I have spent the last week or so doing nothing but feed things and deliver water to replace the last lot of water that froze.
And trying to keep warm, of course.

It takes a few days to get habituated to the snow and develop a new routine.
It is the same every year. I always forget just how cold this house can be with its rubble-filled stone walls and undersized boiler, or at least until the wood stove and central heating have been going full-blast for a few hours and the benefits of the large thermal mass eventually start to make themselves felt. R had some incredibly unfeasible ideas about how to insulate the house, most of which were vetoed by me on the grounds of a) cost, b) loss of internal floor space or c) general bizarreness. On the other hand, when I think back to our first couple of winters here and how uncomfortable they were, I am very grateful for most of the improvements he did organise, like the beautiful new windows or the rather more prosaic repointing of the stonework so the walls no longer run with condensation in the cold weather.

But despite the improvements, it is still a cold house and I forget how many clothes I need to wear when the temperature drops below zero; for the first few days I am constantly cold with even more frigid feet. Then more and more garments are gradually added until I reach a balance between staving off hypothermia and actually being able to move.

Having reached this balance, it was a small surprise when the temperature rose drastically on Saturday and a short thaw set in.
That gave me an opportunity to get over to see my Mum and take her to do a bit of shopping. The negotiations of the Summer sadly came to nothing, and she has decided that she doesn't want to move for the time being. Which is entirely her decision, of course, but does make life difficult for both her and the rest of the family as she is now dependent on infrequent public transport after giving up her car earlier this year. It also doesn't help when she tells me that she fell over in the road while going to visit a friend a few days ago. Fortunately she got away with a sore wrist and bruised hip, but it could have been so much worse.
At what point do we take over the baton from our parents and start worrying about them, rather than the other way around?

The slightly warmer weather also allowed me to get a few jobs done outside on Sunday, like cleaning out the henhouses and sorting out the woodpile. I also needed to ear tag the two ram lambs prior to taking them to the You Know Where today. The lambs are still quite small, having only been born in June, so I decided to keep the ewe lambs until next spring. The boys had to go, however, as they were still intact and I am unable to keep them separate from the ewes. I want to give the ewes a rest next year and not put them to the ram again as they were still lactating up to a couple of months ago, and it doesn't seem fair to get them in lamb again so soon afterwards.

This is an ongoing problem I have with the male lambs.

***Look away now if you are at all squeamish***

It is not the first issue that comes to mind when you start keeping sheep, but eventually if you are going to have lambs, then at some point you have to think about castrating the rams! There are essentially three choices. Do it within the first week using a delightfully-named Elastrator, which applies a rubber band to the scrotum so that the testicles eventually wither away and drop off - just like the tail does if you decide to dock (which I don't, as I don't seem to have a lot of problems with flystrike up here). I haven't yet managed to use this device successfully, and R was never any help as all he would do was to hold the lambs with his eyes shut, refusing to look until it was all over! This year, faced with a wiggly ram lamb and no one to help, I completely chickened out and decided to worry about the problem later.

Or you can do the deed just before puberty using the rather mediaeval-sounding "irons", as my neighbour calls them. Only he only offered to show R how to do this and, as is probably obvious from the Elastrator fiasco, his heart wasn't exactly in it, and he never took the neighbour up on the offer. To tell the truth, I was quite relieved as I didn't fancy the idea much myself.

The third alternative is separation. When the lambs come off their mothers, move the boys to a separate field. Which I do not have. And my third little ewe is the result of the unnatural son-and-mother action that was the inevitable outcome of my abject failure to complete any of the above steps successfully!

So this year's ram lambs had to go, and two fewer mouths to feed will make my hay supply last a bit longer.

***It is safe to look again***

After I had finished all my outside chores, it was time to take Moose for a walk. He was in need of a good stretch of the legs, so we went up the road towards the moors, passing the Widow's House on the way. The poor little cottage looks even more desolate and lonely in the snow. Nothing has been done to it for a couple of years now, and I suspect it will just be left to rot. Which is so very sad.

The weekend was a pleasant respite from the cold, but the temperature has dropped ten degrees once more.
Back to chipping out blocks of ice from the water bowls and nursing my chilblains!

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Here we go again

Well it looks as though the Grim Reaper is still dogging my tracks. R's brother rang me this evening to tell me that his Aunty Vera had died.

Now Vera wasn't a huggable sort of aunty at all. "Formidable" was probably the best word to describe her. A classic old-school army wife with a ramrod straight back and inability to suffer fools at all, let alone gladly. In the course of her life she moved house nearly 40 times and, even in her eighties she thought nothing of upping sticks and moving to new accommodation. At the age of 90, she had her driving license renewed.

I remember feeling rather daunted at the thought of meeting her for the first time. When the day finally came, I had a horrible bout of food poisoning after eating fried chicken at a party the night before. R had to stop the car a couple of times on our way to his parents' house so I could throw up, and I spent most of the afternoon with my head in a bucket! Strangely it proved to be an excellent ice-breaker and she never let me forget our first meeting.

As a woman who liked to be in control of her life, she seems to have been in charge at the leaving of it too. She had recently lost a lot of weight and was eventually taken into hospital because of stomach pains. The doctors suspected a hiatus hernia and wanted to do exploratory surgery. Vera told them in no uncertain terms that she had had enough and wasn't going to be "messed about with" by them! Within a few days she had said goodbye to all the people who were important to her and passed on in her own terms.
I cannot help but admire someone who is so uncompromising right to the last.

I was planning a trip down South to drop off Christmas presents, but it now looks as though I shall be combining it with a funeral. I'd better make sure I don't eat fried chicken the night before - just in case!