At long last spring cleaning down on the farm is coming to an end. Soon I will be able to get back to work on the second book, tuck myself up in my dining room and get on with things. But first I will have to make the place my own again.
I turfed myself out of my nest so that we could have a special Pentecost dinner with friends. It was lovely - well, the company was, I could take a rain-check on my cooking but we're all still upright and walking about. But now 'my room' doesn't look like mine. I know every stick of furniture, every book in the bookcase, every quirky ornament and all the pieces of china on the dresser and yet somehow it has a strangely impersonal feel to it. We have had countless dinners in this room with all manner of folk and conversations going on, wonderful evenings,but it is not 'my room.'
It's a bit like moving house. It's all new and unfamiliar. everything is clean and tidy. I need to mess it up a bit, ruffle its feathers and strew my writing paraphernalia about and then it will perhaps feel right again and I can sit down and think myself back into my plot, pick up the threads.
Thinking of my plot, does art reflect life? I was out shopping with my other half last week and he grabbed my arm as we tried to cross a busy road. 'You have to be careful,' he told me. 'The traffic goes much faster now than in the days of the stagecoach.' Ouch! Was this my quiet, laid-back husband speaking? Jekyll and Hyde???
I have two characters in this new novel that are not all that they seem and in due course their deceptions will have to be revealed. I have no idea how I will do this. I like to plot a book only so far and then enjoy the journey, which means leaving myself a few surprises along the way - a carrot before the donkey. Now there's a funny thing, my mother's favorite expression for me was 'you donkey!' Did she know a thing or two?
When I was a young girl I bought my first cottage. It was quite old, dating back to the early eighteen hundreds. It was a cosy little place, or had the potential to be in the eyes of my mortgage providers, who in their wisdom witheld quite a chunk of funding until I had done certain works on the cottage to their satisfaction - renewing the roof, installing an inside toilet and bathroom being top of their list; modern central heating coming further down.
I had a day job, one of my many in industry and whilst it paid enough to live on and re-pay the mortgage, it did not allow for any repairs and renewals as per the schedule of Messrs Grabbit and Grabbit, purveyors of mortgages to the lowly. So what to do? I went gardening. By day I was clad in four inch heels, tailored suits and Miss Dior and in the evenings, wellies, corduroys and eau-de-compost. I had been taught my gardening skills by a very dear old friend who had been bought up on a country house estate and what he didn't know about planting and pruning, you could probably have written on the back of a postage stamp.
Evenings and weekends I sashayed forth, my car loaded up with horticultural paraphernalia to tame the gardens of North Yorkshire. Unfortunately for me, many of these gardens had been abandoned by their owners who had traded up to pastures new in the whirlwind of a financial and property boom. The houses awaited a new owner, likewise the gardens. Yours truly was then called in to sort out the rapidly developing jungle. This was fine for me. Business was great, but ... with no occupants the houses were locked up.
When one has been toiling in the vineyard all day, so to speak and quaffing quantities of water, certain facilities are required and these were not available to me. When matters became urgent, I would seek out the most private and sheltered spot in the garden and 'perch', ready to do the necessary. It did not matter what time of day or late evening this event occured, I could guarantee that the moment I perched, a kindly neighbour would hove into view, bearing a tray of refreshments or offer of a loan of a rake, etc. Synchronicity?? I think so. Someone decides to bring me a cup of tea at the same minute as I decide to perch. Causally unrelated events but definitely occuring together ...
Synchronicity is busy about its work in my current novel. My characters do not drop their drawers in the garden to answer nature's call, but they all pursue their own paths which have a certain synchronicity about them, which will become apparent later in the novel, providing I can keep all the balls in the air. If only I'd had more of a misspent youth and run away to the circus ...
Spring has finally arrived. The driving rains have stopped and the sun has come out, so the grass is growing like billho and the cows are happily sunning themselves in lush pastures. No more over-nighting in the byres for them.
Spring cleaning down on the farm is going on apace. God bless the inventor of the pressure washer. In days gone by, stiff brooms and scrubbing brushes made a laborious and back-breaking job of it. Now, a powerful jet spray shifts the most stubborn of clarts very quickly. I am the junior member of the team and humbly follow behind with my brush and barrow, sweeping the old muck and straw into mounds, to be shovelled up and taken away to the midden.
We leave in our wake, gleaming byres and sheds, fresh and clean, ready for the cows to come into again in the winter. We are still at it. There are still more byres and the huge silage pit and yard to clean. Let us not count the hours - there are too many.
If only I could spring clean at home so easily. Just hose the walls and floors down and hey presto, it would be done. But that would mean no furniture, carpets or pictures on the walls. Mmm not an unattractive idea, especially as spring cleaning is not my favourite occupation ... perhaps a yurt or timber-framed hut might be the answer.
I wonder how we got into this business of decorating and furnishing our houses? I blame it all on the Kings and Knights of yore, building huge, draughty old stone castles. Then they had to put rugs on the floors and thick tapestries on the walls to keep the cold out. That's when the rot set in. They set a trend and now here we are, with wall-to-wall carpets and 'stuff', all to be cleaned and maintained.
Thinking about it a little more, when we were carefree hunter-gatherers, roaming the forests for our dinners - Mrs Ugg, bone- weary after a long day of 'gathering', probably sat down on a grassy knoll and defiantly declared, 'No, Mr Ugg, not another step will I go. I am staying put. I am having a stone-age holiday.' It was a short step from there to staying put permanently - cosy caves, paintings on the walls and skin rugs on the floor ... and so here I am, in my bricks and mortar, duster in hand...
The upside of all this is that I will probably be happy to return to the writing in another week or so, even if I am nearly crawling about, crablike, on all fours. My characters are impatiently running about in my head, waiting to get on with their lives. Patience children, I'll be with you again soon.
It is a truth universally acknowledged ... that if the plumber is coming in the morning to place a new oil tank in a spot where an oil tank has not been sited previously, then the site agreed (with aforementioned plumber) needs to be prepared and the new flags laid down as a base.
Thus it was one bitterly cold March afternoon on our smallholding high up in the Durham dales. In the morning we had dug into the fellside at the back of the house and had reached the point where there was only space left for one person to work. At this point we went indoors for lunch, during which time a few snowflakes began lightly drifting down, but we remained upbeat and light-hearted and tucked happily into our hot soup and crusty bread.
After lunch there was some dispute as to which of us would be going outside to finish the hacking out of the fellside. My other half was all for tossing a coin to settle the matter, but when it was pointed out to him that if I was out there working at the sharp end of things, (a) I could not indoors preparing a gastronomic delight for his supper and (b) if I did the job, I would be too knackered to do anything but throw a dry crust his way when I came in. And as cooking is not his forte I knew I was arguing from a position of strength. Better half loves his grub and the thought of no dinner clinched the deal.
We went our separate ways, me to commune with my pots and pans and him to climb into his wellies. Only ten minutes later he was back under my feet again, looking mournful and chilled. "It's blowing a hooley out there," quoth he "and blizzarding with snow." Now, I come from tough stock and was having none of this. "Your skin's waterproof," I said and also pointed out, quite truthfully, "You'll be sheltered around the back. A deal's a deal, so hop it."
Possibly he was too flabbergasted at my reaction to argue and he trailed back outside again, reappearing an hour or so later when the job was finished, looking tirumphant but frozen. My heart smote me (a little) and I poured a slug of whisky in his coffee to defrost him.
What has all this to do with 'Not Spring Cleaning'? Stay with me, we are getting there. My farmer friend has recently put her cows out to summer pasture and we were all set to start the spring cleaning of the byres. Unfortunately, Mother Nature has not fully made her mind up about the arrival of Spring and mischeviously keeps flinging heavy bursts of rain at us in between beautiful sunshine and then very cold winds. All in all, we don't really know what season we are in. But with the rain continuing to rain and the nights being cold, my friend has decided to continue bedding the byres and allowing the stock to wander in at nights to keep warm and dry.
So, we are not spring cleaning byres just yet. The knock on effect is that I can't get a haircut. What has that got to do with cows? Everything. I'm not going to shell out shedloads of dosh on a fancy haircut, (or in my case once round with the scissors quick as you like) and then jam a woolly hat on my new improved bonce as a small protection against the jet-spray and cow muck flying around the byre as we go about our cleaning.
And the connection to the better half digging away in a blizzard? His skin is waterproof and so are the cows. Should I tell my friend her beasts are wearing leather coats and they are meant to be outside at this time of year, not inside holding up the proceedings and leaving me uncut and looking as if I have been plugged into the mains?
How does taking a walk around the periiphery of the village admiring bouncy spring lambs playing in gangs connect with making discoveries about the nature of identity? Quite right, absolutely nothing. I think it was the old subconscious working away again. A bit like my Internet Security system does on the computer. If I leave my machine on for a while and go away to a displacement activity, the programme gets busy and tells me its working on background tasks.
I was advised to include a little information on my website about the authors I like to read and something about my favourite books. I was taking my daily amble, absorbed in the landscape and the lambs and absently considering these subjects. Whilst I have a very catholic taste in literature and authors, I realised I actually spend a lot of my time imbibing any historical texts I can get my sticky mitts on, the more ancient and medieval, the better. I wondered why this was and a couple of miles and several flocks of sheep later, realisation dawned on me.
I am connecting with my roots, however tenuous a connection this may be. I will not be alone in being born in one place, (in my case in the south of England), uprooted and plonked down aged eight and a half, in the north of England - with hindsight, never to truly put down roots again. So, maybe I am searching amongst my ancestors for a place for myself - harking back to ancient memory to give myself a sense of inherited identity and a sense of place.
Interestingly, the three serious novels I have plotted all involve issues of identity in one way or another - a deliberate change of identity, an imposed change of identity and loss of identity due to age-related illness.
And so I arrived home a little more muddy and rain sodden than I set out, but happy with my historical perpectives on life. I am fine with Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Medieval Knights and Ladies, but marauding Vikings, Eric Bloodaxe and all that ... mmm, maybe I need to investigate that ancestry a bit now.
We have had a day of spring. Being a dedicated writer I was ignoring the beautiful weather outside and working away like a good little bunny on a new scene involving dogs, rivers, mud and misunderstandings. Then my farmer friend called in and asked me if I fancied a walk around her fields to check out the stakes for the electric fences, before she turned her cows out for the season.
Did I want a walk? Amongst the most breathtaking scenery south-west Scotland has to offer? Of course I did. There was a moments tussle with my writerly conscience, but only a moment. I was into my wellies and out to her pick-up before you could say free-range eggs.
It was all superb. A few fluffy clouds floating in a bright blue sky. We made our way around the edge of the fields checking stakes and replacing broken ones where necessary, gradually gaining height until we arrived, hot and panting, at the topmost point. We were rewarded with the most spectacular views out over the sea with the Cumbrian hills beyond.
We chatted as we walked and worked, reminiscing about our past adventures on the farm over the last few years. Happily modern technology has reached into our wee corner of the world - no more manual castrating of bullocks, always a dangerous pastime. Now, the strategic placing of a stronger version of an elastic band does the job. No more sawing off of budding horns on young calves. An instrument resembling a very large hot brush does the job. So our close shaves with irate mother cows and wriggling calves are no more.
I do not lament said close shaves, as last years tagging of a young calf was nearly my last and I did not feel I was ready to meet my Maker just then. I have to 'fess up that it was my own fault. It was carelessness and you can never afford to be that around animals.
From birth all calves have to have a plastic tag put into each ear, bearing their herd number. When 'Mum' wasn't looking, we snaffled the calf and pulled it into the byre at speed. Sheena had the tags and punch-gun ready to go. I had to check the adjacent byre door was shut. I duly went and it looked shut. I was half-way down the byre to join in Operation Ear Tag when 'Mum', discovering her calf was missing and hearing its high-pitched moo, nudged the sliding door to the byre open.
Note - I was still only halfway down the byre. 'Mum' came galloping down after me, eyes bulging, nostrils flaring. An irate Pamplona bull has nothing on a cow deprived of her calf. She was hell bent on rescuing her offspring and possibly crushing all else before her, which was me. Believe me, no Olympic runner ever moved so fast. Greased lighning wasn't in it. I was round the corner and slamming the door to the next byre like Mo Farrah on Speed. Never mind my wobbly legs and thumping heart, we had that calf tagged and turned back out into the yard before Mum could break the door down and get to us. "You'll check the door properly next time," Sheena grinned at me. Next time!
So turns the year. Soon the cows will be out to pasture again and I will be assisting in spring cleaning the byres, water and cow muck flying everywhere. I can't wait ... but it's all grist to the mill for the next novel, co-incidentally set on a farm .....