A Month In The Countryside

Spring has bounced through Rutland and Helen Walmsley-Johnson couldn’t be keener. Just don’t mention the squirrel. (Or the nurse with the pamphlet.)

Illustration by Claire Jones

Illustration by Claire Jones

Ordinarily I wouldn’t have been delighted to find myself up to my left knee in frog spawn but this is my first spring back in Rutland and frogspawn, along with everything else, is a rediscovered joy. It’s surprising to find my inner child again – surprising, and rejuvenating in a way bum-achingly expensive “anti-ageing” gunk can never be. Returning from my walk – squelching a little and trailing a fruity miasma of pond – I’ve already passed primroses and catkins, fading snowdrops and new flowered violets. In the copse there are celandines, wood anemones and wild garlic. Buds are swelling, birds are singing and I’m remembering just how thrusting spring can be. And what a relief it is to see it when you’re a returned country dweller.

The village has been quiet all winter. Occasionally I’d see someone ride or walk by, or the postman would knock, but hunkering down and hibernating is very much the order of the day. That suits me fine – it’s what my body tells me to do anyway. You fight against it when you live in the city. You haul yourself out to make the darkling commute to a desk, spend the day under fluorescent lights, cast yearning glances at weak winter sunshine, and then you travel home, again in the dark. My commute now is ten steps to the kitchen table. It will be a flight of stairs longer once I’ve finished unpacking boxes and rearranged the spare room as my study. To slip out into fields when my brain refuses to cooperate is already utter bliss. Fresh air is the WD40 of the mind.

Before Christmas, in a subconscious nod to my late father, I bought a rather smart, slate-roofed bird table. It has a special centre slot for the delivery of squirrel-proof peanuts. I interrupted a squirrel hanging upside down by its back feet while it attempted some nut-based thievery. It failed and made off with a few sunflower seeds instead – so it definitely works. The bird table also provides some lovely displacement activity. The Cat and I often sit at the bedroom window together and watch the table and feeder. Somewhere among dusty, less-trodden neural pathways I have the names of our feathery friends stored and it’s good mental exercise to drag them out again, into the light. We have goldfinches, greenfinches, chaffinches and bullfinches; there are dunnocks, blackbirds, thrushes and chiffchaffs together with a full complement of tits (great, coal, mallow, blue and long-tailed) and a pair of reed buntings. Larger visitors include an exceptionally stupid pheasant, a pair of collared doves and two wood pigeons. I’m enjoying it so much that I wonder if I’m beginning to turn into my old man.

The would-be thief in action

The would-be thief in action

Thankfully Mr Pushkin Cat continues to lack a cat’s killer instinct but I wonder if he might actually fledge this year. Under cover of darkness he’ll slink off and investigate the woodpile or trigger the security light as he trots around the corner of the cottage to see if there’s been a further occurrence of the mystery mouse (deceased) that appeared on the side path a while ago. With his handsome velvety blackness he’s better suited to night hunting in any case. In the meantime he remains a Zen master of the subliminal message, effortlessly bending me to his will. To wit…

Backlit by the light from the Kindle I am baffled to find myself making shadow rabbits hop along the bedroom wall while the Cat sits rapt, silent and transfixed. Wavy seascapes, whales and snakes followed as my skills improved. I am an idiot and entirely powerless to resist that little plaintive “thripp” noise he makes when he’s ready for his bedtime story.

Speaking of which, if it’s a clear night I often stand outside and look up at the stars. Undiluted by city lights they are awesome, bright and beautiful. The other night I was dusting off my knowledge of the constellations when I remembered a very nice middle-aged lady I once invited to call in for coffee when I lived in that house on the other side of the valley. She was a nurse and had been drafted in to help look after an elderly neighbour. We sat in my kitchen discussing this and that when she suddenly said, “Of course, I’m not from around here, you know.” “No,” I said, “I know you’re not local…” “I’m from the constellation Orion,” she added in a confiding whisper.

I fumbled around for the correct etiquette, discovered I had no basis for comparison and politely whispered back, “Oh, how interesting!” She called round once more before she left and gave me a small pamphlet about “The Purple Light”, which she said would explain everything. It didn’t.

Looking up at the twinkling firmament I sometimes wonder if a passing light might be her, on her way home, but I expect it’s only the International Space Station. I hope they wave.

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Written by Helen Walmsley-Johnson

Helen Walmsley-Johnson is a journalist and author who writes as the Invisible Woman. She has a weekly style column for older women which she writes for the Guardian. Her first book, The Invisible Woman: Taking on the Vintage Years, is out now. @TheVintageYear