Versailles comes to Lincolnshire

Imagine my excitement: once again, I was living the dream.  Baby and children safely looked after (ie somewhere else), I felt certain that anyone who saw me in Bridget’s black 4×4 would be bound to mistake me for a WAG being chauffeured around London in search of Expensive Things for my dream home.  Just so long as I didn’t get out and reveal the inevitable Cotton Traders slip-on shoes, Lands End jeans, the Latvian granny rolling gait, the spots and the bad hair, I would be fine.  And so we trailed from one end of the Fulham Road to the other, down the Kings Road, round Chelsea Wharf and all points between, miraculously managing to move the car from meter to meter, collecting swatches and brochures and ideas and – in my case at least – having a blast.  As the day wore on however and my bones became ever more sore, it dawned on me that we hadn’t actually achieved anything: lots to look at and think about, sure, but in terms of decisions made and orders placed: zilch.  Time was pressing and my real life of school runs and fishfingers  was beginning to loom large, as I realised that we didn’t have long to make it back to King’s Cross.

And then I saw it.  The Sofa.  Huge and inviting and (ominously) in the very front of the window of an hysterically expensive shop in Walton Street.  As I yelled, and the car screeched to a halt, I leapt out and lurched in while Bridget guttered the motor and followed me, seemingly oblivious to the hoots and bad temper all around.  I wasn’t, and tried to look like a Bob Geldof, I-don’t-care-what-I-look-like-and-don’t-need-to-either sort of Chelsea fixture.  With hindsight I think it’s unlikely I carried it off, but at the time my excitement and eagerness finally to buy something was such, that it didn’t matter much.

I stood in the hallowed building and gazed at a spectacular leviathan of soft furnishing.  At least a mile long; good and high; beautifully finished in a fine, supple leather – this last could also have applied to the slim, black clad girls freshly out of Heathfield who homed in on us and hovered elegantly as they smelt a sale.  Intimidatingly beautiful, they were kind enough not to laugh in my face as I tried to look as though I belonged in their world.

‘Wow Bridget!’ I enthused.  ‘What do you think?’

‘Mmmm’ said Bridget, tellingly.

I sought to ease her troubled mind.

‘Just imagine: in the drawing room, back to the big window, facing the fire ….’

‘Yesssss …. ‘ she drew the word out and up , leaving me in no doubt.

‘…. or the sitting room, half way down, making it into two distinct areas …’  – a cunning one this: throughout, both Bridget and He Who Knows had sought to teach me about giving rooms Zones, and Multiple Uses.

‘Yessss …’ she was at it again.

‘Or in our bedroom, at the foot of the bed, facing the window … ‘ I wasn’t going to give in.

‘Yessss ….’

I lost my nerve.

‘Bet it’s comfy!’ I almost begged, as I dropped into it.

Big mistake.  Something in my hip pinched and I gasped, grabbing my side.  I squeezed my eyes tight shut as white light shot across my vision – and finally opened them, to a Damascene revelation.

‘The walls!’ I puffed.

‘What?!’ Bridget and the Heathfield lovelies, all now worried and bending over me, were equally confused.

‘The wallpaper!  It’s fab!’

Bridget straightened and looked about her.  I could see the relief in her eyes.  ‘Ah!’ she said, in a completely different voice.  ‘I see what you mean.  Yes …..’ thoughtfully this time, with no clanging undertones of despair.

Suffice it to say that we left having ordered four large squares of the stuff in different colourways.  Unspoken, it was understood that the sofa was staying put (Bridget’s victory) but the hall walls looked to have a real future as things of great beauty (mine), and honour was mutually satisfied.  By the time I limped down the platform and collapsed onto the train, my heart was set on what I had already told Eeyore was the ONLY paper for us, and I had in my mind a clear picture of the front hall, stairwell and landing resplendent in the full, finished glory normally only to be seen in the palatial residences of Europe’s crowned heads.

 

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It’s not what you know ….

Mrs B had moved to the area at the same time as us, and we had been put in touch by a mutual friend who had left London for the nice safe Home Counties and consequently felt sorry for us.  (‘Where’s that?!’ had been her response when told we were off to  muddy Lincolnshire.)  In the spirit of sharing, and perhaps in an attempt to salve her conscience as she sat within an hour of Sloane Square, she put us in touch with each other and when we spoke on the phone for the first time I immediately recognised in poor Mrs B a kindred spirit. I’m afraid that from them on she didn’t stand a chance.  Add to this the fact that our husbands had known each other 100 years previously in the frozen north, and the facts that they had bought a house far bigger than ours and used the same builders and that they were now living in a finished and fantastic dream home, and my way forward was perfectly clear.  With pen eagerly poised to take down a phone number, and a feeling that what I was about to do was very grown up and sophisticated indeed, I rang to ask her the name of her Interior Designer.

‘Me.’ she said.  No trace of smugness, just fact.

Hell.

So then I asked New Best Friend’s sister-in-law (stick with me) who, I already knew, made the best curtains in the world, and she gave me the name and number of Barking Bridget – networking is alive and well at all levels and, in my experience, invaluable.

Barking Bridget was a godsend, and my legs.  She was also a steering hand, and a comforting grounder.  She arrived in a sea of samples and gradually worked out the kind of thing we liked, and then reappeared a week later with a narrowed down range from which I began to pick possibles.  Paint colours, sample boards, tins and swatches – gradually we moved from patches painted on the walls and fabric masking taped to the window frames, and put together a package for each room, laid out neatly on the floor of what would one day be the study.  Eeyore would descend at the weekend and look over the lot, often in silence, sometimes with a favourable comment, usually with a grunt.  Used to his economy with words (an understatement and a half, that) I carried on, choosing to interpret his lack of actual, voiced opposition as approval.  Each time I began to panic at the scale of the task in hand, Bridget would calm me and help me remember that this wasn’t Versailles but a jumped-up farmhouse on the edge of the fens.  As we met more people and ventured further in our new social life I felt better: I saw that while this might be a big house to me, it really wasn’t compared to a great many others around us.  And if everyone else could do it, so could I.

We made huge progress in quite a short time – and then, with a crunch, we hit the buffers.  We needed more to choose from, and more ideas, and the only way forward, said Bridget, was via London.  By this time my right hip in particular had declared itself as almost unwalkable-on and was making driving extremely painful, so by arrangement one morning I took a taxi to the station, and the train to the Big Smoke.

 

Snow joke.

Were it not for you, dear Reader, I would choose to gloss over much of the ten days we spent away.

You will get a flavour of the trip when I tell you that I didn’t ski at all.  At all.  No2 wouldn’t go to ski school – and I mean wouldn’t – so I spent the mornings sitting in a café at the bottom of the nursery slope watching her make snowmen.  Eeyore had one-to-one lessons and hated each one more than the last; No1 took to it like a duck to water.  Which was a real problem, as afternoons had to be spent in the swimming pool, because No2 would have it no other way.  Eeyore is a non-swimmer (don’t even go there), so I had to be with her, which in turn meant that he had to be on the slopes with No1, who effortlessly out-skiied him (not difficult) at every badly executed turn.  The British Loo Position became second nature to Eeyore, and we found it hard to straighten him up at the end of the day.  Even more so as his feet – never his best bit – deteriorated to the point where he had difficulty standing, let alone walking or, God help us, skiing.  He was baffled and in pain and I was just plain cross: with him for behaving like a peeved child and whinging (as I saw it), with No2 for stopping me skiing, and with No1 for having a ball and not noticing that although his sister was having a whale of a time doing as she pleased, her parents most assuredly were not.  A nicer person than me would have been delighted that my little babies, around whom of course my entire universe turns, were happy and flourishing.  Well, I wasn’t.  The highpoint of my day was the very end when I stood on the balcony with a large G&T in my hand and rang home to hear about Jabba – who, I quickly discovered, wasn’t missing any of us at all.  Ungrateful little sod: soon, mindful of my mantra of never discriminating between my nearest and dearest, I was cross with him too.

Back in Blighty, it was apparently time to begin thinking about the decoration of our palace.  Hard to contemplate when all around was still plaster and wires sticking out of the walls and pipes that didn’t seem to go anywhere – or was it that they didn’t seem to be coming from anywhere? – and planks over gaps, but He Who Knows told me I had to get a move on.  ‘Hurrah!’ I thought ‘The best bit!  Colours, fabrics .. whoopee!’

And then it happened.  Rabbit in the headlights time.  I looked at the empty rooms and the big blank windows and the echoing floors, and I froze in the face of too much choice.  My fear was that we were about to spend a great deal of hard earned wonga on the next stage of a once-in-a-lifetime project and I didn’t want to waste either the sums involved, or the opportunity to get it right and set up a home that we loved even more than we already did.  More than anything, Eeyore and I wanted a family house in which we could bring up the children and see friends, but we also wanted to be able to be grown-up in it.  For a while I had been ignoring grumbling pain in my hips but as it began to turn from a whine to a yell I simply couldn’t do the slogging round shops to see what was out there – especially as the answer was that locally, there was precious little.  And magnificent though Sylvia undoubtedly was, I did have at home a four year old and a one year old I actually quite liked (never let it be said) and wanted to spend time with, although preferably not while trawling the streets.  So I did what any self-respecting female would do when faced with all the colours and fabrics and papers and paints and carpets – and I rang Mrs B.

It’s all about managing expectations.

Hard on the heels of a nod to my busy-ness and total brilliance in being able to cope (just), I have now to admit that the state of domestic horror in which we found ourselves was fast becoming a wonderful excuse actually to do nothing at all, much.    Pot Noodles don’t deserve all their bad press, and it’s surprising how quickly even small babies get used to ready meals.  Only once did Eeyore rashly suggest having a dinner party, and once we had both recovered from the scene of appalling violence that ensued, he admitted that perhaps he had been a little premature and ambitious.  I found that with very litte effort on my part, a quick coffee after the morning drop-off could be stretched to nearly lunch time – although after a few months the invitations to partake in friends’ kitchens seemed inexplicably to dry up, and Jabba and I began to take our conviviality elsewhere.  There genuinely wasn’t any point in doing more than the bare minimum of cleaning – and it’s surprising how very bare that can be.  And while even I insisted on clean school uniform, it’s amazing how seldom I personally felt the need to change my clothes: given that my go-to outfit was always jeans and boots, I really didn’t see the point in doing anything other than occasionally varying the very top layer of ubiquitous, squeaky nylon fleece.  And I got away with it – as far as I’m aware.

At No1’s scarily trendy London school my days had been fraught with fashion terrors. Utterly unable and unwilling to keep up with matching Prada outfits to handbags, I endured degrees of humiliation you can probably only imagine, until I grew up and began to derive a perverse pleasure from dressing much as I do now.  On the same basis I used to make a point of taking my grandmother-in-law’s knackered Nissan Micra on the school run, partly because I loved showing I had it, partly because it was fun putting No1’s quarter size double bass through the sun roof (seriously), and partly so I could nip into the Holland Park parking spaces under the very wheels of the blacked out Range Rovers with personalised number plates.  Until some cow backed straight into me (and very nearly over me) and consigned that valiant little machine to the great scrapheap in the sky.

And so, Christmas came and went as Christmases usually do, and despite the trials and tribulations – or perhaps because of them – it was an exceedingly jolly one.  There’s nothing like the shared experience of battling through something essentially safe and unthreatening to lift the spirits and in a funny way, take the first-world pressure off.  Silly hats and Christmas pud under the Berlin Wall was a hoot and as there was simply no way I could produce Victorian garlands, hand sugared almonds and artfully distressed individual snowflake place mats, I too was relaxed and happy.  Perhaps the imminent prospect of a break from it all helped as well: mercifully a temporary end was in sight.  I, my husband, and Nos 1&2 were off skiing.

Looking back, I’m not quite sure why the promise of this might have lifted my mood.  Realistically, it was only ever a disaster waiting to happen.  I was the only one of us who had ever been before and I remember then that my sister had sworn on her eyesight that she would never go with me again.  Something to do with me whining about the cramp in my feet …. Whatever: this time, of course, I was also at the head of a massively dysfunctional family group which included a grumpy stressed hypochondriac with funny arches, a diva who would only wear pink and didn’t until the day of our departure fully understand that cold snow would be involved, and a future member of the SAS who couldn’t see why he might possibly need any lessons.  (No3 was the lucky one: he was staying at home with the sainted Kirsty.) What could possibly go wrong?

 

Reflections, alcohol … and washing.

Have you ever noticed how intensely irritating it is when people with far less to do than you keep telling you how very busy they are?  As though you aren’t, and are somehow therefore a lesser being.  As Christmas loomed that year I feared for my sanity as warm friends in cities all around the world kept calling, seemingly with the sole purpose of reminding me how little time there was left before my ‘Country Living’ meets ‘Homes and Gardens’ Christmas had to be complete.

To make matters worse, I found everything took four times longer than it should have done.

Take, for example, the night that I decided a large gin was the only answer – and then remembered that to reach the vital ice (ironic, that) I had to don the wellies, extra coat and fleece, find a torch, unlock the front door and walk down the side of the house through the mud, negotiate my way across the yard around the many piles of building materials, the skip and the rubble-laden trailer (tip: towbars hurt much more in the dark and cold), heave open the garage door, climb over the mower and get to the freezer.  And then get back again.  I think that’s when I became a Baileys drinker, and when it discovered it’s new resting place just behind my head as I sat in the relative warmth of the sitting room/playroom (which used to be the dining room, and still sported its quaint orange checked wallpaper ceiling) squinting at the telly through the narrow slit in my balaclava.  Brilliant bits of kit, balaclavas.

Moving the washing around was another source of endless entertainment.  That Christmas Eve it involved negotiating three precipitous uncarpeted stairs in the dark (of course: no lights in that bit of the house), climbing through the scaffolding that was holding up much of the back of the first floor, unloading the machine and bringing the wet washing downstairs through two stairgates to our friend’s spare (spare?!) tumble dryer in the front hall.  (With no hot radiators, snow outside and our dryer – like BOTH the hoovers – too full of dust to be capable of anything at all, we had yet again become dependent on the largesse of our new friends who had supplied tea, sympathy, warmth and eventually even their precious white goods over the last few months until they must have been ruing the day we crash landed into their lives.)  All the while, of course, I was trying to avoid the razor sharp carpet gripper which gripped nicely, given half the chance, to my bare feet – shoes were naturally out of the question, as clacking on bare boards and stone was bound to wake the Little Darlings.  Carpets, meanwhile, were a thing of both the past and the future.

And yet.  That birthday night in London?  After the lovely carol service we had sat, Eeyore, No1 and I, and talked at length over dinner about what we had done.  It was extraordinary how detached from the city I already felt: my home for 39 years was even now familiar but completely unappealing.  Grey, dirty, full of people, above all loud – as a family Eeyore and I felt we had most definitely moved on, and pretty much with never a backward glance.  But we were keen to hear No1’s point of view: he’s no fool, and naturally cautious, and he had been unsure about leaving the security and safety of the only home he had ever known.  Now, it transpired, he, perhaps more than all of us, was sure we had done the right thing.  He loved the space, the colours, the freedom, his bike, the dog (we hadn’t got one, and he looked sort of sideways at us and rushed on a bit as he mentioned it) – and the scale of his new life.

Eeyore and I looked at each other and grinned.  Perhaps it was the distance we were from them but suddenly, if only for an evening, the downsides didn’t seem so bad.

Happy birthday to Me!

So to recap.

A large, and largely hysterical mother standing in a snowy yard at 3am on her 40th birthday, holding a cerulean baby and shrieking at two bemused paramedics.  So far so good.  To their credit, they didn’t turn round and leave: rather, they took one look at No3, and one (rather meaningful, I felt) look at each other, scooped him out of my arms and disappeared into the back of their ambulance.  I ran to get No2.

Dear No2 was deeply reluctant to wake and get into a dressing gown.  Before very long we were joined upstairs by a puffing paramedic, alarmingly keen to get on the road.  In front of a rather burly and increasingly agitated health professional I felt I couldn’t really resort to yelling at her that she was a selfish pig and she would do as she was told, NOW.  Only when Mike (the bearded, panting medic) turned and ran back down stairs in response to a siren blip from the yard did I simply pull her from her bed and force her into the ambulance, dressing gown and slippers in hand.  Unbelievably she continued to complain all the way into town; she’s a true force of nature, my daughter, and my vicious, scorching stares entirely failed to scare her into behaving.  And they have been known to split stone.

As is the way of these things, No3 quickly rallied once safely in A&E.  He went from a fetching shade of blue to a much more reassuring WASP pink in mere minutes – coincidentally about as quickly as my pulse and blood pressure returned to normal.  Indeed we were home by 10am, No2 finally silent and adorable again after I had managed to snarl at her in private.  The lovely taxi driver who brought us back didn’t even blink when I realised I had left my handbag in the hospital, and burst into tears in the back of his car.  He rang to check it was in fact there, took us home, refused to let The Guys pay him, went back into town to get it, brought it back and wouldn’t let me pay him for the second trip.  As ever the kindness of strangers took me by surprise.

I decided I needed an hours’ sleep before setting off to get No1 and celebrating my birthday.  Handing everyone over to a suspiciously bleary eyed Sylvia, I went to empty the washing machine before my kip.  I climbed into the back of the sitting room to where it was currently lurking, to find that The Guys had put scaffolding up across the front of it, full though it was of wet washing.

At the time, it felt like very nearly the final straw.  I admit that my shoulders went down, my head drooped, and I just stood there, looking at it.  Everything was such a flipping struggle: children, building works, the dirt, Christmas looming – even hanging the washing seemed an insurmountable problem.

An arm went round my shoulders.  ‘Ooops’ said Unca Pete.  ‘Don’t worry, we’ll sort it.’  And they did.  I went upstairs and shut the door and nobody disturbed me and the phone didn’t ring and nobody started drilling or sawing or banging and they even – for the first time in months – turned the radio off.  I came back down an hour later to find that the washing had been liberated, and that Sylvia had hung it up, and fed the children, and that The Guys had got me a cake and a card – and then suddenly it all WAS too much and I started to cry.

Poor things – nobody knew quite what to do next.  So obviously we all ate the cake and felt much better.

The rural idyll is shattered …

Back in the real world I quite often found the best part of the day was when I drove Eeyore to the station at 6.45am.  Assuming we got out without waking a child or two (never a given: being largely deaf he has the perfect excuse to claim that he has no idea of how much noise he makes) we would set off with our hearts in our mouths in case someone heard us.  Poor Sylvia got used to turning over and going back to sleep for another half an hour: the cars were parked under her windows.  But for the mother of any small child, the idea of starting the day proper at a time with a six in it is too frightening for words.

That winter gradually turned into a wonderful snowy one.  In London we had failed to notice the passing of the seasons and in the warmth of the city the only weather that impinged on the hell of rush hour was rain.  The subtleties of the year were wasted on us but now, although still inevitably dashing for the train, we had space to notice the first frosts that brought a peculiar quiet light to the empty countryside.  In the summer the roads were buried between high hedges and invisible from the house.  In the autumn they were gradually laid bare, and the winter left them shining with frost before burying them again in snow – it seemed that whichever the season, we were not going to be subjected to ugly grey tarmac ribbons as in London.  ‘Shepherds Bush’ might sound wistfully bucolic but fat foxes do not the country make: on just one run here in the wilds we spotted a heron, a herd of deer, hares, a moorhen and a red kite – all in the first two miles.  David Attenborough, eat your heart out.

With luck, having dropped my beloved at the station I would be able to creep back into the still sleeping house and crawl under the covers again for a sneaky ten minutes before the second start to the day.  I defy any mother not – at least sometimes – to hear the stirring of her offspring without experiencing a certain sinking feeling at the prospect of starting the whole daily merry-go-round again.  Pathetic though it may sound, the quiet snatched trips to the station in the morning could be very therapeutic.

My fortieth loomed.  Gone were all plans of a marquee job on the neatly manicured lawn.  It looked like the Somme out there.  Not gone of course was the post-baby weight, and there was no way I was gone to waddle through my own party.  I said I didn’t want to do anything and I got my own way.  Instead we agreed that as the day coincided with the end of term for No1, I would leave No2 and No3 at home with St Sylvia and collect him from his scarily smart school miles away, en route for London and dinner at Ken Lo’s.  (Remember: I had been away for some time now, and this seemed the height of sophistication and excitement.  Please don’t judge me.)  Then the night at the flat, and home the next day for the start of Christmas and jollity and all the rest.

At 2am on my birthday I woke to the unmistakable sounds of No3 suffocating.  Newly enamoured Sylvia was out, Eeyore in London – I had begun to see a pattern emerging: whenever anything went really horribly wrong, I was always the only adult present.  Puffers and the nebuliser had no effect and at 3am I rang 999.  Forty scary minutes later I could see the ambulance going backwards and forwards along the road at the end of the drive, presumably being driven by a blind driver with a blind co-pilot.  I stood with a very blue No3 in my arms, in the door-less doorway of what remained of the original dining room, flashing the 32 light bulbs on and off furiously in an attempt to get their attention.  Finally they got the point and came haring into the yard and up the drive, arriving with a screech that was barely audible over my frantic yelling.

 

 

We live and learn …

Back in Shepherd’s Bush we had been woken nightly by the flipping foxes as they tipped up the bins, bonked each other senseless and howled with devilment in the middle of the road at 2am, simply because they could.  The place had been thick with the things: big, shiny and muscly they were clearly in the fantastic condition that only a proper diet of left-overs and cold takeaways could provide.  But here, in the wilds where they were required to fend for themselves and live in muddy holes instead of warm toolsheds, we had yet to see even one.  By the end of the day the score was resolutely: Foxes many, Humans 0.

‘Like it or not, that Ban was a complete waste of time’ Eeyore muttered.  ‘Look.’  He had a point.  We were nothing like alone: the foot followers had been joined by upwards of twenty cars and as the day wore on it became apparent that for many, this was an integral part of their lives.  We learnt that several of the hunt were very new indeed to the whole thing – in fact some, incensed by what they saw as the Beginning of the End for country pursuits, had only learnt to ride in protest, once it became apparent that the Ban was imminent.

We headed for home when we had to put the tea on for the ravening hordes.  What they didn’t eat at the beginning they hoovered at the end and threw my meal planning (always a bit dodgy, to be fair) into disarray: the idea of finishing the bits over the next few days vanished as all the bangers and mince pies, plus a vast fruitcake my New Best Friend had kindly made and brought, began to disappear.  Along with a few more bottles of booze, and pints of thick black tea from a huge china teapot supplied by the great-niece of a man who had many years before got married in the garden of the house.  (When I say ‘huge’ – it took two of us to lift it when it was full, and was undoubtedly yet another health and safety disaster waiting to happen.  Lovely though; very old, and hand painted with hunting scenes … I digress.)  Anyway: great tales of horrible falls abounded, as did scratched faces and torn gloves, and the smell of steaming wool and drying mud hung in the air.  I went round passing out plates and food – and came across a fascinating conversation which served to remind me both how very new we were on the scene, and how competitive people can be to know the most about incomers.

Two elderly ladies in full hunting garb were discussing the family that had bought the Hall.  (Me and mine, dear Reader.)  In particular, they were commenting on the big age gap between No1 and No2.  Clearly completely unaware that she was talking in front of me about my children, and with not a blush for her immortal soul, one told the other that there had been another child between the two, who had very sadly died.  This, apparently, was a cast-iron fact.  I’m afraid I didn’t behave very well.

‘No!  Really?’ I exclaimed.

‘Absolutely’ she confirmed.  ‘Very sad.  She was only little, too.  These things of course take a while to get over.’

‘Oh, if ever!’ I agreed, as I smiled sweetly and sadly and moved on.  To my certain knowledge there was never an extra, and No2 has always been No2, and a nice person would have said so and not told the story later – but as I said, I’m afraid I didn’t behave well.

I often don’t, I’m told.

 

 

Meet and drink …

One day Farmer Fortissimo reappeared and before we knew it we were holding the Meet.  Just take a moment to picture the very English, very traditional scene: the Hall; hounds; huge hunters; the Pink.  That morning I reflected that while I had had no idea what my rash promise to host the gathering had entailed, I was quietly confident that I, in my new neoprene wellies, would stage manage the whole thing perfectly – the golden autumn day, the magnificent mounts, the gleaming hounds, the creamy tight Jilly Cooper jodhpurs, the whole thing.

And then it rained.  Not London rain: dense, freezing, brown Lincolnshire rain with bits in it.  As I staggered round the field with a large plate of small sausages held aloft I had to strain to hear the polite “No thank you”s of tense riders in clean gloves, through the whine of the wind and the calling (for that, I gathered, is what you call the incessant baying)  of hounds.  As horses champed and turned and strained to be off I had cause to be thankful for the pretty red ribbons round the tails of many of them: in the half light of 11am they were often the first sight I got of their huge bottoms as they backed onto/over/into me.  Eeyore had much more luck: a foot taller, he had the advantage of height – and indeed, of having something everyone wanted.  There’s nothing like the odd glass or three of fortifying fortified wine if you’re about to face death on a huge mound of muscle thundering across uneven ground and huge hedges in the freezing gloom.

Finally, a blast on the horn and they were off, filtering slowly through the gateway onto the track and round the back of the house into the true middle of nowhere beyond.  It was only when one leviathan kicked out backwards and split the (new) 4×4” solid oak gatepost that I realised the pretty red ribbons were more than decorative: they are the equine equivalent of warning lights, designed to tell anyone with the faintest scintilla of country know-how that the beast on the other end of them is prone to lashing out.  Even Eeyore got the point when a second decided to join in – who knows why? – and caught the beast behind it a fine smack on the nose.  Much squealing and reversing into others ensued before finally they were all through, and my beloved and I were left in a morass that would not have looked out of place in 1914 France.  We looked at each other, and the clearing up that needed doing.  ‘Bugger it’ said Eeyore: we slung all the empties, the glasses, the uneaten bangers (destined to be our supper for about the next three weeks) and the mince pies in the boot of the Land Rover and slammed the door on it.  Then we put the waterproofed baby in his seat in the knackered old Renault, and set off after the hunt.

One of our better decisions really.  Rain, potholes, lurching across the countryside down neglected tracks with the heater full on and the baby spark out – bliss.  We wasted hours that day, chasing cold wet hardy souls and trying to think like Brother Renard.  In this, both we and the entire hunt singularly failed: we had already commented on the total lack of foxes locally, and we were right.  Nothing was found, much less killed: they’re not stupid, these animals, and nothing was going to shift even one of them out of a nice warm den.   Foul weather and a fright v staying put and waiting for it all to go away?  No contest.  The joke was very definitely on the humans.

‘What is this life if, full of care ….’

41/2 months into the six month (yeah, right) Phase One of our building project, and we reached ground zero.  From that point on, we were assured, the only way was Up.  To celebrate, The Guys rigged a flagpole on the top of the house and proudly hoisted the red and white English flag.  Until Eeyore (a Northumbrian of Scots descent) came home and hotly insisted it be removed.  Unfortunately the only St Andrew’s cross we could find at very short notice was nailed to the wall over No1’s bed, covering a particularly mouldy bit of wallpaper – but nothing daunted, in short order it was torn down and then there was a real flag cracking in the wind blowing in off the steppes.  The one advantage (apart from the views) of living on what passes for a hill around here is that kites and flags perform spectacularly.  Small comfort in the months when it also blows snow and rain through seemingly shut windows, but comfort nonetheless.

We reviewed progress.  In eighteen-odd weeks we had pulled down a perfectly good bit of house and replaced it with another perfectly good bit of house, removed three internal walls, six doorways and untold acres of woodchip, poured gallons of asphalt and rerouted more piping and wiring than any of us knew we had.  The long, high, narrow kitchen on the dark side of the house that the first set of builders had inexplicably painted a particularly gastric shade of euch that only a mother would recognise had become (temporarily, we hoped) a Stygian 9′ square with a towering breeze block wall.  With all of us in there and the little heater, the oven and all four burners on, it was almost warm.  We still had newts in the cellar and the inside of the back door still showed canine (we hoped) tooth marks but He Who Knows assured me that the beginning of the end was in sight.  And I have to say, I was ready for it.

I was learning every day.  It is, for example, fascinating to know just how fast you can bath two small children when it’s so cold that you all get dragon’s breath in the bathroom.  I actually began to look forward to our nocturnal ambulance dashes sometimes: asthma’s serious (and doesn’t appreciate cold, damp and dust apparently – who knew?) but at least hospitals are warm.  In a similar vein I found that the school run mysteriously seemed to take longer on the freezing days when I made it my mission to build up a lovely fug in the little car that was rapidly becoming my second, and preferred, home.

There were however many golden moments scattered among the debris.  The trips we made to the top of the scaffolding – we all got up there at some point, and a large number of visitors too, over the weeks.  The view was spectacular, not only across the rooves of the house, but over fields to villages so far away that I couldn’t believe we were naming them correctly.  A very jolly afternoon was spent up there with an Ordnance Survey map, checking places off one by one – until the thing blew away, of course.  Rolling golden fields rippling in the endless wind; a combine so far away it was inaudible, seeming dragging a dull gold ribbon after it as it took the movement out of the acres.  Miles of waving green trees, huge clouds, skylarks and buzzards – W12 seemed like another world.