Water, water everywhere …

Staying in a family’s holiday home is never a holiday for the family.  There is always a long list of jobs to be done, and those who tell me how jealous they are of the fact that I have weeks away every year a) have a point, and b) are wronger then they know.  By the time the jobs are done – or, more likely, started and abandoned due to any one of a number of limiting factors including weather, the absence of people to do the tricky bits, the difficulty of running somewhere by committee, dwindling finance, etc – it’s always time to come home.  ‘The kitchen sink may be different’ my mother used to say ‘but it’s still the kitchen sink.’  At the time that made no sense to me at all.  Now, I get it entirely.

Some jobs, however, are more fun than others.  Emptying the water tank on the hill has always been a bit of a cracker.

In Argyll, we’re on a private water supply.  Which is a grandiose way of saying that we are dependent on rainfall for all water.  Despite being in a part of the world where five feet of rain regularly falls in a calendar year, this isn’t always as simple as it sounds: in very cold years the supply can freeze; in very hot years it can dry up.  Whatever happens, it often comes with little bugs and wrigglers in it, and the washing machine usually makes things dirtier.   Certainly, you routinely can’t see your feet as you get into your full bath.  For small children, the old and the ill we supply bottled stuff.  The rest of us take pot luck and enjoy the weight loss that results from incautious consumption.

And yet, it sort of works.  The rain falls, and comes down the burn, into a series of three pools that have been dug on a steep bit of the hill.  From one of these there has been, since time immemorial, a length of hose which diverts some of the flow into a huge concrete tank perched a little way away.  Over the years the slab sides of this have weathered and they’re now covered in lichen and their edges are softened with bracken and saplings to the point where it is almost indistinguishable from the undergrowth around it.  Once a year we open the green brass tap at the bottom of the tank and empty it: to this day, watching what my father always called ‘the muck and ullage’ plop out of it  remains immensely satisfying.  Then we scour it, clear the filters at each end of the hose, and then flush the pipe through that runs from it first along the road, then beneath it, and then underground down to the house by the sea.  (A word about the ‘filters’: for years they were pierced McEwan’s lager tins, with scantily clad ladies on them.  When ‘Emily’ and ‘Rhona’ finally rusted away entirely, presumably into the water we then drank, we lashed out family capital and invested in two watering-can roses, one for each end of the pipe.  We’re not Luddites, for heaven’s sake.)

When the children were small, of course, they came into their own.  Over the years they had become less keen on going up the chimneys – no idea why – but offer to tie a rope around them and lower them into a huge, echoing water tank with a dodgy torch and a coal shovel to scoop out the big bits?  Well – they positively fought for the right to be first in.   The last time I squeezed through the hatch on the top I was about eleven and I can still remember looking up at the square of daylight and watching it shrink as one or other – or probably both – of my delightful brothers shut the lid on me ….

Down the length of relatively new, bright blue neoprene pipe between the tank and the house we’ve put in stopcocks.  This way, sections can be shut off and cleaned in turn and, if the worst happens and there’s a burst, we should only have to replace a relatively short length of the stuff.  Where the line emerges above ground, we used to tie hot water bottles to it to keep the contents liquid in mid-winter.  Now, in the Apple-riddled wifi enabled 21st century, we wrap bubble wrap round it.  I repeat: we aren’t Luddites.

I may grumble, but I tell you.  There’s nothing like coming in frozen to the core from clearing the whole system out in February and climbing into a chestnut brown scaldingly hot bath, with the first hot cup of tea made with the fruits of your labours.  Bliss.

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You can run, but you can’t whistle.

It didn’t take long before I decided enough was enough.  ‘For all our sakes’ I announced, a tad dramatically, ‘we are breaking for the border.’  Forty eight hours later we walked through the door of our Other Life.

My mother had always said you should be able to march straight into the kitchen of that house, put the kettle on, and put your feet up.  Do you think she somehow knew that we would all, in turn, come to use the place as a bolthole?  I can’t express the joy of pressing a switch and having whatever was on the other end of it, actually come on.  Lights worked, doors closed, the water was hot and the ice was cold and above all, beyond all that … there was silence.  That wonderful ear buzzing, bone melting silence that makes your limbs soften and tension evaporate, visibly.  (Well, when children, dogs, seabirds, wind, waves breaking, shingle shifting and all the rest, allowed.)

But, of course, it didn’t last long.  Day two was all it took on this particular trip – and ‘trip’ it was, in more ways than one.  Off we went in the RIB to climb to the heronry on the point opposite.  I took particular care to strap Jib into his lifejacket that day: it was a bit choppy and he was still somewhat prone to hurling himself into/over/under/out of things, and frankly I couldn’t face the paperwork of registering a missing child, gone overboard.  (Let alone the headlines, or the opprobrium at the school gates on our return to the south where people notice these things and feel extraordinarily free to comment.)  So, deaf to his complaints, I straight-jacketed him into the thing, and told him not on any account to blow the funky orange whistle now attached to his front, and for the four zillionth time to sit still and STAY still, and off we set.

Can you guess?

No, we landed perfectly safely on the other side.

Relieved and not a little surprised, we decanted.  Try as I might however, I found I now couldn’t unstrap Jib.  In turn we all battled and swore (adults only, of course) and wrestled with the hitherto obvious system of straps and clips: eventually we gave up, persuaded him it was cool to stay trussed like a beef brisket, and set off up the track through the trees.  von Trapp-like we revelled in the nature all around us.  Perfect mother that I am I pointed out creatures and growths of interest, reminded them about moss mostly only ever growing on north facing trunks, swatted at the midges that rested on my little darlings’ fair skin.  I tell you, Disney had nothing on us.

‘Where’s Jib?’ Bug asked.

‘On ahead!’ I replied, blithely.

‘Er, no ….’ said Whizz, reaching the corner.

Trying very hard not to look down to our left, where the climbing path dropped somewhat abruptly to the rocks and the water below we sped up the track, calling his name.  Nothing.  No answer.  Just the wind, and the waves, and my unfit panting.  The hitherto beautiful surroundings were now hostile: every gnarled root tried to catch us as we ran, and every twisted trunk could be hiding a small boy in a ludicrous vest.

And then we heard it.  A piercing shriek from yet further up the slope.  Bug was off like a hare: by the time we reached them, he was on the ground with Jib in his arms, rocking him.  ‘Let me see!’ I insisted, peeling them apart.

Now I’m not very good with blood.  It’s very inconvenient, actually.  Until I had children, I was fine but the minute the first was born, it was game over – a pinprick remains just about manageable but anything else is still seriously bad news.  A scraped knee elicits retching; a shaving cut requires a bucket and mop.  The scene that now met us had me spilling Jib to the floor as I bent double in the undergrowth, honking for Britain.  When it was over, I braved it and took another look.

‘Let me see!’ I repeated, gulping bile.

Remember the whistle?  He had got out of sight, and put it in his mouth, and trotted on enjoying the squeaks it made as he breathed.  Uphill he went, loving his day and his freedom – until he tripped and fell, shoving an incisor right back and forcing both it and the whistle into the roof of his mouth.

That was the first time we went to A&E by boat.  Quite fun, actually.

 

We are sent packing.

Except.

The Guys weren’t on the insurers’ list of approved whatsits, and we were in their hands – given that they had said they would pay for everything, we weren’t going to argue.  So one day a battle-worn white pick-up arrived in the drive and we met the team with whom we would share our lives for what we were told – no, promised – would be the six months of Phase Three.

Now I have a dilemma.  I don’t really know how to refer to these people.  They were very nice, but unreliable and bone-achingly slow.  I’m sure they’re good people, too: there was no question of dishonesty or creepiness, and I didn’t ever think twice about the fact there were two small children around a lot of the time, and that I was mostly on my own with them.  And to be fair, they seemed at first entirely capable  and remained throughout completely friendly.  But they just somehow didn’t get on with it – there was no discernable slacking, it was just that things didn’t seem to get done.  Each had his own sad story to tell – one was being divorced by his wife, who was taking him to the cleaners and preventing him from seeing his children.  One had been hideously ill and though now better, was prevented by it from doing much other than tell me about it.  The third was clearly dealing with some huge personal issues: he was entirely silent and usually deaf, too.  Perhaps he didn’t like being told what to do, or maybe he didn’t understand English – who knows.  The result was the same.  And between trying to counsel the divorcing one, comfort the ailing one and communicate with the silent one, my days would soon be as full as they had ever been.    

First however we had to clear the decks.  Back came the removals men and out came the packing cases.  The clothes rail on wheels I had bought from Amazon and not got round to reselling was resurrected and our colossal wardrobe was taken apart.  With much grunting it came back down the stairs we had never expected it to see again, and was wrapped and packed into the van.  The piano too was dismantled and removed by the man who had only relatively recently brought it in – presumably he had a nice long holiday that year on our insurance.  Bedding, carpets, curtains, pictures, books, everything out of the family bathroom – who knew it was possible to amass so much stuff, so quickly?  Lots was stacked in buildings on the other side of the yard behind the house: we tried very hard to be massively organised and to ensure that it was only things we really wouldn’t need for six months that actually left the premises but, I have to say, we failed miserably.   Once everything was gone, we shut the doors between the front and the back of the house and taped them up, and the next morning Phase Three began for real.         

Or would have done, had the chaps turned up.

Eeyore rang, from the hermetically sealed, dust free, beige-and-taupe quietness of his office.

‘How goes it?’ he asked, foolishly.

‘How goes what?’ I trilled.  Incredibly, he didn’t sense the danger.

‘How are they doing?’ he persisted.

‘Who?’ I breathed … you get the picture.

When I relented and broke the news that there was no-one there, and that we were already, on the first day, one day behind, he helpfully suggested I give them a ring.

I married him for his courage in the face of fire and his uncanny ability to state the entirely bleedin’ obvious at moments of maximum stress.

The next day they did arrive, full of smiles and suggestions of tea – of which I swiftly disabused them – but not a word of where they had been the day before, nor of why they hadn’t answered their phones.  When I asked them outright, they were charm personified and waffled at such length that I eventually gave in and muttered something about being sure that now they were here they would want to get on with it – they were very kind and didn’t laugh out loud at this bit.  I left them to it, and stomped off round the corner of the house with a sense of foreboding I initially mistook for indigestion.

Then again, it could have been so much worse, in so many ways.  They were nice, and gentle, and we all rubbed along quite well really.  A good thing, given how long we were to spend with each other, and how it was to end all those long months later.

 

 

 

Roundabout and roundabout and roundabout we go …

So good as gold, off he trotted.

Well, that’s what I’d like to be able to say.  Actually he took a lot of prising loose, poor chap.  I recall several somewhat plaintive conversations in which he said apologetically that he was rather relishing some real time off – his first ever, given that he had gone straight from A levels to degree, a zillion years before.  I agreed of course that leisure was splendid, but that while he was engrossed in watching the snails whizz by, I was carrying on as normal and having to speak to him during the day.  Never part of the marriage contract, as far as I was aware – and believe me, I had gone through it with a fine toothcomb.  (‘Obey’?!  Oh please ….)

When he had told me of his impending redundancy I had covered myself in glory by allowing my first reaction to be a snarled ‘well you needn’t expect me to do you lunch every day’ – hence the unfortunate sardine scene, so recently described.  Now, I  compounded my errors by telling him I didn’t like being accountable for my movements on an hourly basis.  Well!  I might as well have impugned his manhood.  But it was only when I played my joker and told him I wasn’t prepared to carry on nipping him to and from the station every day to avoid paying for carparking that he realised I was serious, and that the game was up.

And so he started again: back up to the Big Smoke, every working day.  Some light consultancy work very soon grew into a Grown Up Job, and the relaxed Eeyore we had come rather to like began to mutate back into the version we knew of old: taciturn and grunting.  Not helped by the fact that I had put him firmly in charge of running the earthquake repair building works.   Incredibly, the loss adjustor (he of chocolate biscuit fame: what an investment they had proved to be!) had come good, and the whole cost was going to be covered by our insurance.  I cannot overemphasise what good news this was: inevitably Phases One and Two had cost more than we thought, and Phase Three was going to be almost as eye watering.

There were two chimneys to rebuild, from the ridgeline up.  Our bedroom had to be emptied of absolutely everything, including carpet, wallpaper and plaster, and strapped back together.  New lintels had to go in above the windows both there and in the dining-room below.  The Victorian encausticated tiles had to come up from the front hall floor and 60 tons of concrete had to be poured in and dried off before they could go back down again.  Outside, the ground under the front left corner of the house had to be excavated and filled in with more concrete and once that had set the work on the dining room could start: plaster off, back to bare walls, bolt it all together, replaster, replace the original late-Georgian cornice, wait for it all to dry, fill in the holes that had appeared around the edges of the wide wooden planks and the skirting-boards, wait for everything to dry and then redecorate.  A year after the last redecoration.  The huge slabs that constituted the front steps and those from the full-length dining room window into the garden were to be taken up and relaid, once the gaps underneath had been filled.

I know it’s wrong to love material things, and that the only things in life that really matter are flesh and blood, but let me tell you: we loved our finished home, and living in it.  Not the things we had amassed – the furniture (apart from one epic sofa) and the china and the bits had all come with us from London and were definitely showing that they were old friends approaching retirement.  No, we loved the very bones of the place, and the knowledge that we had rescued it and were loving it and putting it back together.  It was – and is – a kind house, and we were being kind to it.  Every room had a story behind it of renovation and renewal,  and we were all now connected to it in a way certainly I had never felt before.

But back came the removals chaps and everything left, just as it was starting to settle in: the piano in the hall, the huge made-to-measure wardrobe in Our room, the gurt big dining-room table – the whole blooming lot.  Plus all the bits and pieces from within that had to be either distributed around the house or wrapped, packed and sent to storage.

At work and at home, we were back on the roundabout with a vengeance.

 

 

Life on the Edge (of the Arctic Circle)

Newly at leisure, Eeyore became very good at his version of the 3 R’s – Relaxing, Resting, and Recharging.  I maintain that many years of marriage have made me into a patient woman, but I grew increasingly frustrated as the list I had thoughtfully produced for him of things that needed doing grew ever longer.  To begin with I loved the fact that he was home.  For the first time, he was really living in his house.  It was a pity that he couldn’t have done it while it was at its loveliest, before the Great Shake, but at least now he could enjoy it all day every day, in all weathers – and, as the months passed, in several seasons.

I’ll tell you when I knew it was time to get him back out there, though.  It was when I walked into the kitchen at about lunchtime one day, mid-week, mid-winter.  I was carrying yet another enormous basket of dirty washing and asking myself whether it really needed doing, or was my motivation actually  the prospect of ironing it all in the small, warm, steamy laundry room?  The rest of the house was absolutely freezing – hold on: let me just explain that.

While Eeyore had been working in London, he had had a rule about the use of the central heating.  This was born not of financial need, nor of green conscience, but of a total lack of imagination.  He couldn’t – or wouldn’t – understand that at home, we weren’t basking in the regulated warmth of a city office block.  We were deep in the 19th century, where we constantly blew on our fingers and were often taken aback by our own sudden, jerky shivers.  Because he wasn’t there, he was resolute: the heating remained off, until either a) the temperature in the back hall hadn’t risen above 5 degrees for three days, or b) there was snow on the ground – proper snow mind, none of your ‘light dusting’ nonsense.  The oil level in the tank was monitored assiduously, and he took to quizzing guests to determine whether or not his law had been broken.  Any complaints were met with instructions to ‘put another layer on’, or ‘move around more’.  My insistence that when the wind was from the west I could sit in the study, at my computer, and have snow blowing onto my feet had been met with … well ‘scorn’ is a harsh word, but here I’m afraid it’s bang on.  (The hours I spent crawling under the desk trying to find where the stuff was coming in were warm enough, it’s true, but as a model for the future it really wasn’t a goer.)  I took to leaving earlier and earlier on the school run: seat warmers and the heating on full blast meant that short trips mysteriously became longer …  We were generously allowed to light the log burner in the sitting-room, but not before the children got back from school.  Electric blankets were acceptable, but lying in bed all day to benefit from them, was not.  Apparently.

Embarrassingly, once he was at home all day, and began to realise that bone-aching cold was wearing and indeed impractical, I got stubborn.  There was no way he was going to crank up the thermostat on my watch – we had suffered: now, he could too.  Yes, I know it was childish and petulant, and that I was cutting off my nose despite my face and all the rest, and that a sensible person would have cast off several layers and basked in the new-found warmth of a habitable home, but this is me we’re talking about and I was more than happy to Suffer, loudly of course, to make my point.

Anyway – on this day I walked into the kitchen and there he was.  In multiple grey layers, looking more like a heron than ever, he was perched on the edge of a chair with his German banker style glasses balanced on the end of his nose.  I’m afraid to report that he was wearing a cravat.  And my (rather fetching) orange felt wrist warmers.  He was eating cold tinned sardines in tomato sauce on toast, and reading the newspaper in poor light and total silence.  Suddenly I had an insight into our future: increasingly monochrome, in an echoingly quiet, freezing house that smelt of fish oil.

From that moment on the honeymoon was definitely over and the gloves, improbably, were off.

 

If you thought the rest was incredible, read on.

Remember:

In 2003 we had a baby, and we moved.  We actually did it – we stopped talking about it, and did it.  We then lived in squalour for a year and in 2004 I hit 40 and we started the building works which continued through two phases into 2007.  Then we waved good-bye to The Guys and had almost a whole year of living our dream, in comfort and smugness and the smell of new paint.  Then there was the Great Shake of 2008, and shortly thereafter, because all that hadn’t been enough, Eeyore was made redundant.

Now this, dear Reader, was a right pain.  He had worked for the same vast American bank for umpteen years and had really, really toiled for them.  Yes, I know he was paid stupid money, and yes, I know no-one will have sympathy, but I have to tell you that he earned every single bloody sou of that pay packet.  An absolute minimum of 12 hours physically in the office every day, plus travelling, mean that wherever we lived he was very seldom at home.  Plus weekends sometimes, and lots on the phone, and latterly flying overnight to South Africa every three weeks for two working days, and the stress of hoping he had got it right (which, incidentally, he always did) and the knowledge that lots of people’s pensions depended on him – believe me, he worked harder than anyone I know.  For five years he was the No1 rated analyst in Europe for his sector, and that doesn’t happen by chance.  So when they dumped on him from a height, it was horrendous.  All I could think to do on the day itself was to ring and yell at someone in his office to get champagne and make a party of his leaving.  It was disgusting, I shrieked, that he was about to leave the building and no-one was marking his going in any way.  When I drew breath the poor chap on the other end managed to squeak that they had rolled out the red carpet, and fizz had flowed, and people had cried, and that everyone was gutted and the place would never be the same again.

And, looking back, it was probably a good thing.  Despite all our best efforts Eeyore and Jib had never really got to know each other.  It was nobody’s fault: in London Bug and Whizz had stood a chance of bumping into their father occasionally – perhaps in the hall, or the bathroom doorway maybe.  At least they all actually slept under the same roof, even if they weren’t always aware of the fact.  But to Jib, Eeyore was someone who blew in on a Thursday night, vanished again on the Friday, reappeared on Friday night, stayed around – often asleep, or reading, or issuing orders – until Sunday night, and then disappeared again.  Over the months of Eeyore’s enforced sojourn at home the two of them gradually became acquainted and, it became clear, each liked what they saw in the other.

I, of course, reacted to their burgeoning relationship in exemplary fashion.  I facilitated and encouraged their growing closeness.  Not for one second did I resent at all the way in which they took to whispering to each other while looking at me sideways.  Did I care that they quickly came to prefer each other’s company to sharing time with me?  No!  Did I bristle when I remembered the sleepless nights I had spent keeping an ungrateful, heartless, asthmatic toddler breathing while his father snored next door?  No!  Did I think that either was being even slightly disloyal to me in buddying up so blatantly?  No!  Of course not.  Not I.

The crunch came when Eeyore accompanied me – unheard of, this – on the school run one afternoon.  We stood with the other parents (mothers actually, to a man) huddled against the Lincolnshire rain under an inadequate portico waiting for the little darlings.  Whizz of course came marching out bang on time and immaculate with her little red felt hat on, duffel coat done up, book bag swinging.  (Divine.)  Jib arrived in a whirl of loose clothing and sheets of paper – and, for the first time in his life, shot straight past me into Eeyore’s wide-spread arms.

The snap of my heart breaking would have been deafening had it not been for the silly chorus of mothers, billing and cooing.  I’m afraid I rolled my eyes and got in the car.  Not my finest moment.

 

 

 

Honesty pays.

Two weeks later the loss adjuster arrived in the yard in a nice shiny blue car and parked it as far from the house as he could.  Eeyore had taken the day off to meet him – you and I, dear Reader, know how serious that means the situation was –  and as we went out to meet him, behind us the kettle was on, the house gleamed and the children were elsewhere.   I had even brushed my hair – not sure why – and lashed out family capital on chocolate biscuits, the better to woo him.

The open smile on my honest face froze, as the man looked Eeyore up and down, mid hand shake, and smirked.  ‘What’s your game then?’ he sneered.

I beat them to the kitchen and put the biscuits away.

There followed an excruciatingly awkward two hour interview, during which it seemed every second of our lives since the Big Move came under the microscope.  Every date, time, bill, plan and drawing had to be forensically examined.  No glimmer of humanity or humour did the man display: in vain Eeyore and I worked hard – not to win him over, or to dupe him in any way, but to make the experience less awful and, pathetically, to persuade him that we were Good People.  We weren’t swinging the lead or trying it on: this was real, and we were genuine, and we had paid our dues and truly felt there was some moral merit in trying to claim at least part of the repair work on our insurance.  At one point I offered to get Whizz from school to confirm our version of events: obviously I was joking, but his eyes narrowed as he considered the suggestion.  Nonetheless, and despite the fact he clearly thought we were lying through our teeth and that there was nothing wrong, he eventually went to get his hard hat and high vis jacket from the car so he could go round the house.  I hugged Eeyore.  ‘Dear God … good luck!’ I hissed, as I left them to it, deliberately blind to Eeyore’s desperate mime suggesting I go with them.

It was with a huge sense of satisfaction therefore that I heard pounding feet not twenty minutes later, and saw the man run – yes, literally run – to his car and return, with another hard hat and jacket.  ‘Oh ho!’ I thought to myself, dashing away domestically with a goffing iron.  I was torn between hope that he was over-reacting and that there wasn’t any real damage to be addressed, and hope that whatever damage there was merited his full attention and even fuller wallet.

Time passed.  I finished the ironing – unheard of – and cleaned the fridge.  I buffed the Aga and microfibred the island.  I plumped the cushions in the sitting-room and laid the fire.  I worried the children would think there was something wrong if they came home to such domestic splendour, so I played Woodblock for a bit – other games are available.  At long last I heard voices and leapt guiltily to put the kettle on yet again.  The kitchen door opened and an ashen faced loss adjuster preceded Eeyore into the room.

‘Well.’  he said.  ‘I would like to apologise.’  (This was, of course, the loss adjuster.  Never, ever would it have been Eeyore.  Believe me.)  Unused to apologies from men I blinked.  ‘Errrr …..’ I offered, wittily.

‘I’ve spent the last two weeks driving round the country, being lied to.’ he said wearily, as he took off his hat and sat at the table.   ‘Every Tom, Dick and Harry has smacked in a claim since the ‘quake.  And I admit, I drove down the drive thinking ‘well here’s another one, on the make.’ But I was wrong.’

I passed him milk and sugar, with the rueful smile of one hurt, but forgiving.  ‘So.’ he continued.  ‘The top right and left bedrooms are uninhabitable.’  That was Bug’s, and ours.  ‘The chimneys could come down at any point – one puff, and they’ll be over.  Beyond that …’ and he went on to list the damage.  I didn’t hear most of it.  I was feeling sick, thinking how I had unerringly gathered my chicks into our bed in about the most dangerous part of the building.  ‘However’ he said, finally drawing breath ‘The good news is that I will be recommending full payment by your insurers.’

I looked at Eeyore, and Eeyore looked at me.  Neither of us said anything.  I got up and went to the cupboard for the biscuits.

Not just shaken – stirred, too.

And then it got worse: the Great Shake of 2008.

Don’t scoff: Google it.  0056, 27 February 2008.  It hit 5.2 on the Richter Scale, and even though it apparently happened 12 miles below the surface, believe me when I tell you we jolly well felt it up top.

There we all were, fast asleep.  Not together, needless to say: Eeyore was safe and warm in London and Bug was snoring in a room full of snoring boys in Oxfordshire.  Whizz and Jib were sleeping as only young children can and I was out cold – snoring too, I expect.  (I’m told I do.  Classy.)  I was exhausted: at only a metre high, the handrail on the front landing had been dangerously low and some months before we had taken the decision to replace the banisters, in order to be able to raise it.  Consequently, moulds had been made and replacements forged and February 25th and 26th had been spent in a haze of tooth-shaking vibration, as The Guys drilled very hard into very thick stone walls to put in the new one.

So imagine how my heart-rate spiked when I was yanked abruptly from my slumbers to a deafening, grinding roar and the whole house shaking.  But REALLY shaking you understand – not just left and right but up, down, diagonally and every which way.  I was certain that the whole house was coming down round us.  As I ran to the window to look out I was thinking fast.  What to do?  Get half way down the stairs to be crushed by falling masonry?  Stay put and fall into the dining room, but at least in my nice warm bed?  What if the roof and eight foot chimney came in, onto my nice warm bed?  Pulling open the curtains I watched, astonished, as the field in front of the house rippled away from me – it actually physically moved: the furrows wavered and then settled again as the tremor passed under and through the house, and moved on down to the village a mile away.   I will never forget that sight – but I was interrupted by two small children arriving in the room, screaming.  In fact, their noise was such that my completely insincere and inaccurate ramblings (‘Don’t be afraid, it’s nothing to be scared of, I think it’s just thunder’) fell on deaf ears.  Or stony, wobbling ground.

Into my bed we all got – and when it stopped moving (or according to the youngest, when the spaceship that had just landed turned off its engines) I spent a moment considering our options: stay put and hope; get out and have look round; call 999?  Naturally I didn’t do any of the above, but I was suddenly almost overwhelmed by the need to hear an adult voice.  Pointless to ring Eeyore: he would be fast asleep, unsuspecting, on his good ear (remember the deafness?): a little trick he had learnt when the children were small enough to need tending in the middle of the night – and anyway, why worry him?  What could he do from 100 miles away?  So I rang a friend two villages off who confirmed that the earth had moved for him too (arf arf) and told me, quietly but firmly, to go back to sleep.  Which we all did, a mere four hours later, just as the alarm went off.

At first light I was outside, checking for damage.  Amazingly, all looked well.  No trees down, no visible structural changes to the house.  Until I looked up: a whopping chunk out of and a 34˚ twist in the chimney immediately over my nice warm (full) bed, and significant damage to two of the other three equally lofty chimneys.  And inside, cracks and gaps and crazing ALL OVER the place – wrong, actually: not ‘all over’.  Only ‘all over’ all the bits we thought we’d finished, decorated, ticked off and paid for – but seemingly not worsening the bits Eeyore’s siblings had pointed out.  Bravely, I rang him.

Poor Eeyore is known for his inappropriate responses to crises.  He didn’t let us down this time.  I told him the news: it was an earthquake, it was a big one, we were 49 miles from the epicentre, it had been very frightening.  I had felt alone, in danger, and scared for myself and the children.

‘Oh my God!’ he shouted.  ‘How’s the house?’

 

 

The cracks appear.

And so, ladies and gentlemen, we scroll on.  Fast forward to 2007 and what do we see?  Bug happily moving up through his distant prep school; Whizz now settled in a local one, setting off daily in her eye-wateringly red uniform; Jib busy counting pigs at the nursery.  In the last six months the house had lost its brand new edges and now felt more like a home.  The first chips of paint had come off the doorways, the first blob had appeared on a pale carpet (serves us right) and the very new smell of a just-finished building site had faded.  We loved it – and I mean, really loved it.  It was everything we had always wanted, and it had been worth the years of hassle and dust.  Eeyore was loving his job, and had settled into living in the flat for most of the week, and I was starting to look around for something to do.  With three in school, and a largely absent husband, things were slowing a bit and although we didn’t fully appreciate it at the time, life was calm, and quiet and under control.

It’s true what they say: everything is relative.  And sometimes Relatives are the bringers of bad news.

Dear Uncle Angus, FRICS, brother of Eeyore, paid us a visit.  Usually a joy, but then he announced, with barely concealed excitement, that there was A Problem.  The cracks which had recently appeared in some of the upstairs walls were, it seemed, a bit ‘interesting’.  In fact, even better – they could be…. .  trouble.  We, of course, had assumed that they were the result of drying plaster; we would wait six months and then have them filled in and painted over and that would be that.  How foolish we were!  According to this harbinger of doom, the RSJ recently inserted into the newly extended kitchen wasn’t doing what it was meant to, and as a result the load bearing wall on top of it now needed propping up, stripping back to brick, filling and replastering.  This, Uncle Angus explained kindly, would explain why the door in said wall would no longer shut.  We had wondered.

On hearing the news my beloved retired to our room ‘to read’ (aka ‘sob gently into the pillow’). I however rang He Who Knows and shouted, and felt better.  Then I got very busy saying things like ‘Well, that’s what a contingency fund’s for’ in irritatingly brisk tones, and taking small people off on bracing walks so they didn’t see their father being unmanly.

It was decided that we should wait to see what happened.  No particular time scale was mentioned but that suited us beautifully: procrastination is something at which we both excel.  We carried on, determinedly oblivious, until Christmas Day, when another of Eeyore’s relatives (his sister this time, I recall) sat at the table in the dining-room and pointed with her fork at the ceiling.  ‘Should that be happening?’ she asked, ‘innocently’.  Jib delightedly started waving his cutlery round, too: I reached to hold his hand down and as I did so, stupidly, looked up.  I don’t think I had looked at the dining room ceiling since we had stripped off the orange and cream checked paper that our predecessors had loved so much.  Now, several years later, I very much wished I’d kept my eyes on my plate.

The loving recreated multiple folds of cream plaster that made up the cornice had separated from the walls and a long, jagged crack now stretched two thirds of the way down from the corner to the floor – where, I realised, there was a gap opening between the skirting board and the carpet.  I truly didn’t mean to, but I gasped – and Eeyore heard me.  He’s a very particular chap, is Eeyore: particular about his car, his house, his clothes: he likes things right, and neat and tidy, and to be fair we had just spent a ridiculous amount of money getting things spot on.  There were fifteen people round the table that day, but you could have heard a pin drop.  The children and I looked at each other, nervously.   The festive season was clearly over.

Eeyore turned back round to face us and picked up his glass.  ‘Happy Christmas!’ he said with a wink, toasting us one and all.

What a man.

Do our eyes deceive us ….?

At 8 months old, Ziggy was now irreplaceable and glued either to Jib, or to me.   We all knew that if she was pushed to choose between us I would lose out, but wherever we went, she went; usually slightly in front, always looking over her shoulder to make sure we weren’t coming to any harm.  She clearly thought we were incapable of taking care of ourselves, let alone her.

But.  There does come a point where common sense has to rule head over heart, and we were (almost) all agreed that a boat trip across open water was probably a step too far, however lovely the picnic on the other side.  The dinghy was going to be laden and I felt I, the lone adult, was going to have my hands too full with Jib, the outboard, the other two, the picnic, the inevitable fishing lines, the tide and wind and water – you get the idea – to manage a small dog, too.

Deaf therefore to Jib’s protests, we shut Ziggy in her cage in the house, and left her under the watchful eye of Eeyore – the eye that wasn’t either shut, or perusing another forest’s worth of newspaper.  We set off down to the shore, loaded the boat and safely navigated half a mile of very cold, very salty, very deep water to one of our favourite picnic spots on the other side.  We stopped and listened: sound carries over water but Ziggy’s tragic howling had stopped, and Eeyore’s had never started, so we relaxed and set about gathering fire wood.

The channel we had just crossed is heavily used by trawlers large and small, and ferries carrying workers and machinery – some of it massive –  to and from a huge quarry not far off.  Add to that the vessels from the seaweed factory, the charter yachts and the little lobster boat that chugs in and out, and it’s a busy strait which is also full of seals and otters.  Half the fun of sitting on a beach frying sausages is to be had from watching the to-ing and fro-ing and I soon found myself caught up in the little dramas of the day.   Bug had caught a lithe (think of a bottom-feeding, lesser version of a mackerel, generally thought to be the dustbin of the sea but surprisingly delicious) on the way over and he was determined to clean and fry it himself.  With the heightened senses all mothers develop I was therefore fairly fully occupied, torn between watching him brandishing a sharp knife, feeding the fire, wondering where Whizz had got to, and making sure Jib didn’t fall in.  As I scanned up and down the beach, keeping an eye on things and trying to spot more driftwood I saw …. what?  A little, fudge coloured creature trotting towards us over the stones, wagging its tail and vigorously shaking itself dry.  It looked remarkably familiar … a Border Terrier to be sure, but …. no. It couldn’t be.  It really couldn’t.  But …. it was!

It would have been too ironic if, having survived a very perilous crossing, we had killed her with kindness, but I think it probably came close.  We were incredulous, touched, relieved, and appalled in turns, until it came to consider the logistics of getting us all back over in one piece.  The old army selection poser sprang to mind: in this instance we had two young non-swimmers, a slightly older sibling, one dinghy, a load of picnic hardware, a red hot campfire, lots of tasty but potentially disastrous leftovers (chocolate, fish bones), a middle-aged hassled mother, and an over excited very young dog to transport across a large expanse of open water full of hungry carnivores and much bigger boats than ours, most of which were being driven by working people in a hurry.

Well, in the end I read Bug a very stern safety lecture and then left him with Ziggy on the shore while I made two trips, pressing Eeyore into service at the house in between.  I did point out to my beloved that not noticing the escape of a much loved family pet was bad enough, but that if he became entirely unaware of the whereabouts of two of his children I would consider it an even more serious breach of trust and might well do him serious physical harm – but I’m not convinced he heard me.  He had got to the crossword.