Monday, 31 January 2011

So I found a few more things to unscrew....

A strange little thing, isn't it? It is one of those objects that I have dotted around the house that bring R back to me more vividly than any photograph.

It is a billet of aluminium that he subjected to many psi of pressure to demonstrate diagonal shear as a result of compressive stress. He was very proud as it failed at an almost perfect 45° angle.

R did his degree in Aeronautical Engineering. It wasn't one of his better life choices, as he freely admitted that his decision was based on being quite good at physics and having made lots of Airfix models as a kid. After a few months he realised that the course was about 87.54% maths. Very hard maths. With huge long equations that extend over several pages.

As a result of all this maths, and possibly his discovery of beer in a big way, he ended up taking 5 years to complete a 3-year course. But he stuck at it and finished. Much to the pride (and not a little relief) of his parents.

What he should have done was to change to something like structural engineering or materials science. That was what interested him - the way materials behave when subjected to external forces. He could expound on this subject for hours if I let him. This explains how I know why the ancient Greeks removed their chariot wheels at night (to prevent them deforming due to extended loading - also known as 'creep'). Or why this arty-farty linguist could explain Hooke's Law to you if you really wanted her to.

It also explains why my thoughts this weekend were full of bending failure in copper piping.

After two weeks of tripping over the things I had moved out of the kitchen and into the corridor so that I could remove the boiler, I decided to have another go at shifting the wretched thing. It took a matter of moments to bend and break the copper pipes that I had so singularly failed to saw through. That gave me the leverage I needed to undo the last remaining nut on the pipe manifold thingummy, thus allowing a couple of gallons of the blackest water I have ever seen to pour out over the kitchen floor!

That made the whole structure light enough for me to wrestle onto the sack truck and out of the house forever. Hurrah!

See, R. I was listening.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011


My Dad had the dreadful habit of allowing our dogs to lick the plates and dishes after we had eaten. Looking back on it I find the thought quite revolting - I wonder sometimes how I made it to adulthood without succumbing to some noxious disease. It probably explains why I have the constitution of an ox now.

R, who came from a non-doggy family, once witnessed this mealtime ritual and it rather freaked him out. During the 'talks' that led up to us getting Moose, not allowing the dog to lick plates was one of his non-negotiables. As I secretly agreed with him, this was obviously an easy point to concede. (I find it is always good to have one or two principles that can be easily dropped in the course of important negotiations!)

We also agreed that dogs should not be fed scraps at the table.
I have a particular dislike for dogs that stand and drool on my knee while I am eating or, worse still, attempt to snatch food from the table. Moose knows that he has to lie on his bed while people are eating. Fortunately, being a mostly-Collie, rules aren't a problem to him. He likes to know how things should be done, and will make up his own rules if I don't do it first.

But he does have expectations.
After we had eaten, R would make up the dog's dinner, including any leftovers from the meal. It was one of those little things that made me smile - R went from being someone very nervous of dogs (something he learned from his Mum) to being totally besotted with our initially rather difficult and troubled Moose. The way they both grew together was lovely to watch.

The meals eaten in this house have changed somewhat over the last couple of years. There are very few roast dinners now, so much less watered down gravy to pour over his biscuits. But Moose does enjoy a bit of yoghurt once in a while. Every time I decant a little into a bowl for my lunch, there is an interested glance in my direction. He is just waiting for me to get to the end of the big pot so he can have his turn.

Yep, Moose does enjoy his yoghurt!

Sunday, 23 January 2011

But first ...

Two little words that seem to characterise my life at present.

Whenever I think of doing something, there is always something else that has to be done first before I can get started. Sometimes a whole series of things.

Take the old propane boiler, for example.

My house is L-shaped, and the two wings of the house had separate heating systems when we moved here - one oil and one gas. When the solar tubes and thermal store were installed, we had the two systems amalgamated and the large bomb-shaped gas tank removed. But for some reason we never got around to taking out the gas boiler.

So it sits there still, along with a couple of lengths of flue pipe, the new sink top and taps, and a large box of pipe lagging (to mention just a few items), in the little room that is - or one day will be - the back kitchen. The room is tiny - a little over seven and a half feet square - and has been waiting to be fitted out for more years than I care to remember.
It is funny how you can simply ignore or, more precisely, stop seeing things. I walk past this room several times a day to get out to the garden, but because it belongs to the granny flat and not the main house I am able to ignore the fact that it looks like a building site.

Or at least I used to be able to ignore it.
Last week I must have looked at it with all my New Year zeal, and suddenly realised that this can't go on. The mess just saps my energy and the inertia it creates spreads to all the other areas of my life too. If I don't get it sorted, it will keep on holding me down. Unfortunately my BIL won't be able to come back and do the work for months, if at all this year, so I am just going to have to bite the bullet and find someone else to fit the kitchen that has been sitting in the spare bedroom for at least 4 years now. Just get it done!

But first...
But first I need to have the room plastered so I can sit down with someone with the final measurements and decide what will go where - and in such a tiny room it will have to be done right. So that means I need to empty the room.
No problem, I'm on a roll with my major declutter. Just carry on in the same vein.

But first I have to get rid of that boiler.
Everything was disconnected, so it should have been plain sailing from there. Onto the sack truck, out to the car and a big heave to get it inside.


Here we go again. Can't shift it. I don't know what they put inside gas boilers, but it weighs a ton. Why does it always boil down to me not being physically strong enough to move things? When R had heavy things to move, he could ask me to help him, and together we could usually manage. Where is he when I need someone to lend a hand? That's what I want to know.

So I find the toolbox, collect an assortment of screwdrivers, mole grips and adjustable spanners and start dismantling the boiler. At first it comes apart quite easily and I become quietly confident. But then I run out of things to unscrew, and am unable to undo the nuts holding on the long lengths of copper piping sticking out of the top.
So I try cutting them off with a hacksaw, but the blade is worn and very ineffective. Can't find a new blade.
Kicking it hard made me feel better, but the noise scared Moose and it didn't do much to help in any case.

By now it is getting dark, and there is no light in the room. Plenty of wires where the lights will one day be. But no actual lights.

Give the boiler one last kick and go and drink beer. Resolve to tackle it with renewed vigour in the morning.

I shall get that bloody thing out of here if I have to take an angle grinder to it!

Thursday, 20 January 2011

To everything there is a season

I guess I have answered one of my "Where do I go from here?" questions.

The box on the table is an old army surplus detonator box. R bought it from a strange little shop at the back of Euston Station many, many moons ago. So long ago that I can't even remember his justification for buying it - possibly just because he liked it, which I guess is as good a reason as any.

For a long time he used it to store part of his burgeoning coin collection, but at some point along the line the collection outgrew the box and I appear to have appropriated it.

For my seed collection.

As that is obviously something that needs to be stored in a detonator box!

Growing things is important to me.
The ground was rock hard this morning, with a delicate white dusting of hoarfrost, but I am already thinking about getting started again. It is time to sow chillis, aubergines and sweet peas, and it is always worthwhile setting off a couple of jars of seeds to eat as sprouts. It would also be good to get the greenhouse cleared so I can start sowing salad leaves soon. The speed with which they grow and are ready to pick is always gratifying, even when there isn't a chance of getting anything started outdoors.

Since R died, there hasn't been a lot of planning going on in the garden. I have just reacted to the changing of the seasons, and simply sown what I had when there was time in which to do it. This inevitably meant poor germination in a lot of cases due to sowing old seed that should have been culled. This is a double whammy of crapness as I never seem to catch up even when I do buy new seed - there simply isn't time to sow them again.

And the food I eat has changed dramatically. Much more than I ever imagined it would. These days I barely touch potatoes, the thought of Jerusalem artichokes turns my stomach, parsnips seem to be just for Christmas. Green beans now interest me mainly for the seed inside them. Fruit I enjoy when it is fresh, but R seems to have taken my sweet tooth (such that it was) away with him, so I no longer make pies - or jam or ice cream or even chutney. On the other hand I can't seem to keep up with my demand for green leafy vegetables, tomatoes and curcubits of all sorts.

Then there are the ones that I would love to grow, but that just can't handle the conditions up here, like the sweet potatoes and outdoor peppers. Carrots which do fine in pots in the greenhouse, but succumb to slugs or rootfly outdoors after mid-Summer. Time to either give them up or give serious thought to erecting a polytunnel over some of the raised beds to extend the growing season.

And the flowers.
Megan is right about those. They are not frivolous at all, they are balm for the soul. I think that more time spent growing flowers that do not need preserving or turning into something, and simply give pleasure will be time well-spent.

The seed catalogues have been plopping onto the doormat since New Year, so it is time to set aside an evening in front of the fire to look through the seed stocks and see what is too old, what I may as well pass on to someone else because I know I won't grow it and what, if anything, I need to buy new this year.

It is good to feel a sense of anticipation and growing enjoyment about something.

Yep, whatever the future holds, there will be room for seeds in it.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

A year in the death: January

The soup must have worked its magic as I survived the week relatively unscathed. A couple of days in bed sounds quite nice right now - I have a huge backlog of books to work my way through - what a shame it normally means having to be ill to do it.

On Friday, I felt I deserved a day off though.
When R was here, I was able to do this most of the time, and we were working towards me cutting back to three days a week, so I could spend more time on the smallholding. The place looked very tidy in those days. Ah well.

Friday's treat was a trip to the tip to get rid of all the junk in the Land Rover, with a view to filling it up again this weekend. Such is the glamorous life I live these days.
But it did give me a chance to call in to see R for a few minutes. Just to be there and feel close to him.

The contrast in temperature compared to this time last month is quite incredible; +12, rather than -12 C. But the warm front has brought with it high winds and lots of rain, which is the sort of weather that really sends my mood into a tailspin. It brings on inaction and passivity, which doesn't suit me at all, and makes me long for Spring.

But the field has changed very little since my last visit.
The grass appears flat and lifeless and there is not even a trace of the first bulbs. It is a frustrating time, as always. My hands are itching to start sowing and planting again. Even digging isn't possible because the ground is so wet. I know there is life starting again as the moles have started to excavate the paddock, and sparrows can be seen carrying feathers back to their nests. It seems to be light a little longer every evening, yet it still is not really time to start working outside.

I have decided that this will be a quiet year on the animal side of the holding. It would be nice to do more with the garden. There is a patch outside the back door that is a real mess, largely because it has been devastated by chickens - something that used to drive R mad, as they would constantly scrape soil from the flowerbeds onto his lawn! Well now the chickens are firmly under lock and key, and duck numbers will be reduced soon, so it would be good to have some frivolous, non-productive flowers this year - just because. I even have plans to plant a small patch of flowers behind the greenhouse just for cutting for the house. It would be nice to think that will happen this year too.

I may not be able to dig at home, but there was digging occurring at the burial field when I arrived. I had to take a deep breath before walking past the new grave being opened up. Life may be at a standstill for the time being, but it appears that death is still in business.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011


I was feeling quite smug because I thought I had got away with it.
Most of my family had come down with the lurgy either at or around Christmas, but I sailed through the festive season in rude good health.

But now, ten days after they all went home, taking their sniffles, portable drug cabinets and soggy hankies with them, I can feel the achiness starting.

I really don't have time to be ill this week. Or at least not until Thursday when I have to deliver quite a large job to a new client. One I would like to impress, so calling in sick just isn't an option. Working freelance mostly makes for a wonderful life, with the flexibility to control the content of the day. But having no one who can take over the reins occasionally means keeping going when you would rather be tucked up in bed.

So, attempting not to think resentful thoughts about my friend whose husband managed to wangle a week working at home to look after her when she had 'flu, I have been preparing for a possible visit from Mr H1N1:

Extra bag of chicken feed bought - check
Friend to walk Moose if I can't get up - check
Table tennis match cancelled - check
Paracetamol - check
Boxes of tissues - check
Fire made up and ready to go - check
Adequate stores of honey, whisky and lemon - check
Hot water bottle beside the kettle - check
Big pot of soup made - check

This latter is essential if I am not actually on my deathbed. Soup to nourish and comfort.
There was no chicken immediately to hand, and I wasn't about to start exploring the icy depths of the freezer, so lamb bones would have to do. They make a lovely rich soup, with lots of instantly health-giving veggies and barley. Barley is one of my favourite comfort foods; it is easy to eat and digest and soaks up all the flavour of the stock. While I would rather have a gentle nursemaid here to soothe my fevered brow, magic soup will have to do instead.

Bring it on!
Well actually I would much rather it passed me by altogether, but at least I am ready for it. But not until Thursday, please.

Sunday, 9 January 2011

On a roll

I knew I shouldn't have listened to it.

But The Archers, that everyday story of country folk, has been part of the soundtrack to my life for 15 minutes a day ever since I was born, so it was sort of predestined that I would have to listen to the 60th anniversary edition. (60 years! How can a radio programme keep going for so long?)
I held out until the omnibus catch-up this morning, then simply couldn't resist despite my better judgement.

And the clunky dialogue and even more obvious plot-signposting did nothing to lessen the impact of having one of my favourite characters killed off. The resulting shock, pain and disbelief was beautifully played by the cast. Which was how I found myself sitting at the kitchen table this morning, sobbing my heart out at the imagined grief of an imaginary wife in a pretend village on the radio!

Time to get a grip.
Time to shake off a mood that was rapidly spiralling downward.
Time to get mucky and start clearing out the barn.

It is revolting at present, with everything covered in a couple of generations of duck poo and polystyrene bobbles. I don't know why, but polystyrene has an irresistible fascination for chickens, and mine had spent many happy hours pecking to pieces the insulation sheets that R had put in there for safe-keeping.

Then there are the piles of wood, cardboard boxes, stacks of old feed sacks, solidified bags of old cement, soggy straw, old demijohns, many lengths of baler twine, tarpaulins and plastic sheeting - and that's even before I get back as far as the disintegrating shelving units left behind by a previous owner. Somewhere under all the mess are the boxes containing the parquet floor blocks that R bought about 2 months after we moved here and which I would like to have laid in my sitting room - when I finally get around to decorating it.

Outside there are a couple of old radiators, a stack of old windows that R was going to make into cold frames for me, the pile of quarry tiles that I hope one day will be sufficient to cover my kitchen floor.

It was like Steptoe's yard out there and getting worse by the day.

A couple of hours later I was totally filthy and the Land Rover was packed to the top with - let's not beat about the bush here - with crap.
Not potentially useful stuff that just needed to find another home, but pure, unadulterated crap that has been making me feel awful every time I went into the barn. Getting it out of there felt wonderful.

It would be nice to say that I had got most of it done this afternoon, but I am not even close. I had to stop due to lack of space in the car. There will be several more trips to the tip needed after this one. But it feels better already, and if I can keep up the momentum it might once again become a useful space rather than a dumping ground for general rubbish.

Thursday, 6 January 2011


It is incredible what a few days with people around can do to lift my mood.
People who loved R nearly as much as I do. People who forgive me if I am a bit tetchy or weepy or just generally useless. People with welcoming arms and ready shoulders. People who make me laugh.

The only down side, if indeed that is what it is, is that it does not leave much time for reflection. There is no space in which to do the balance-sheet accounting that is usual at this time of year. No quiet hours to sit and think and plan for the future.

So I am a bit late with my New Year's resolutions!
Actually this is not something that I have done much of in the past, as it always seemed such a pointless exercise. But that was in that other, charmed life where things always appeared to work out for the best.

Now I feel that I am approaching some sort of crossroads.
I seem to have been simply marking time for so long. It is difficult to say exactly what I have been waiting for - probably for the deus ex machina to descend and explain that the last two and a half years were all a bad dream.

Nope! Much as I'd like that to be true, it just ain't going to happen, so I need to do something about the inertia that has been rooting me to the spot for so long.

I could write a long and very boring list of all the things that need to be done around here, but that would be missing the point. First of all I have to decide what I want from my life from now on, otherwise anything that I do achieve will be nothing more than rearranging the deckchairs.

I think it all came to a head when I was plucking the turkeys. It was about 10 below zero and my hands and feet were painful blocks of ice. At that moment it wasn't entirely clear to me why I was doing it - other than that was what we always did. But that was when there were two people to share the work, and it was the precursor to a hugely-satisfying home-produced Christmas dinner.
With one person it was just a miserable exercise.

It would also be nice to do a bit of travelling this year, and that is much easier to arrange if I keep the animal numbers to a minimum. But then it feels like holding up the white flag of surrender to say that. On the other hand it would allow me to concentrate on getting the house sorted, or at least half of it, which would be a very positive achievement and make me feel a lot better about myself.

Gah. I just don't know where to go from here. All I know is that I don't want another few months like the end of last year, when I found myself running - and failing - to keep up with everything. Something has to give. But what? And how to make that feel like a positive thing, rather than making me feel I have failed?

So, my resolution is to find out what I really want from the next phase of my life - whatever that may be. If it takes a year, then so be it. It has got to be better than watching myself becoming increasingly overwhelmed with everything.

Oh, and I want to run at least one 10 k race this year, plus a sub-28 minute 5 k.
And catch up with all those overdue letters that I owe people (you know who you are)!

Saturday, 1 January 2011

Blwyddyn Newydd Dda o Gymru

A Happy New Year from Wales.
May 2011 be everything you hope it will be.