A Month in The Countryside

It’s September in Rutland and Helen Walmsley-Johnson’s counting sheep. In more ways than one.

Moonlight: all the better to see those zombie sheep by.

Moonlight: all the better to see those zombie sheep by.

I’m often asked whether it’s scary living on my own in a tiny cottage in deepest Rutland. The answer is no, not really. By and large I was more nervous living on my own in southeast London than I am up here. Yes, there are fewer people but I rather like that. I like the lack of human noise. And I like opening my door at night to inky blackness except for a handful of lights twinkling at farms scattered about the valley. I like to tick them off in my head: America … Jubilee … Leigh …Withcote…

To the front of the cottage there are other houses but there is only one streetlight, flickering through the trees. If I had money and opportunity I’d take myself even further away from civilisation. My late father was much the same – I think it’s a family trait. Mind you, things can get a bit weird from time to time.

The other week we had a spell of peculiarly warm weather, which meant that come the witching hour, Mr Pushkin Cat, Madam ‘Sodoffskaya’ Cat and I could comfortably sit outside under a curved dome of glittering sky and admire the long shadows stretched out across meadows bone-white under the full moon.

We were thus idly contemplating the meaning of life when something large and white drifted out from under the beech tree, paused, and coughed. The Cat let out a startled squeak and shot back indoors while Madam quietly repositioned herself behind me, just in case.

After a few minutes of breathless tension the unnerving presence helpfully released an asthmatic bleat and revealed itself as one of this year’s lambs, now fully grown. So not a flesh-eating zombie then. (I do so worry about zombies, don’t you?)

“Eventually the warm soupy air blew away on a stiff north-westerly, the alarms fell silent, the Cat released my ankle and Madam emerged from my handbag. The sheep steamed gently by the beech tree.”

Next morning announced itself not with the gentle light of dawn but with bruised purple skies, a flash of lightning and thunderous crashes overhead. Both cats – neither are likely candidates for the Dickin Medal – vanished behind the sofa. The rain lashed down in stair-rods, bouncing a good six inches off the ground.

Then all our various house alarms went off and I hobbled around poking them with a bean stick, my progress impeded by the Cat who had wrapped himself tightly around my left ankle. Eventually the warm soupy air blew away on a stiff north-westerly, the alarms fell silent, the Cat released my ankle and Madam emerged from my handbag. The sheep steamed gently by the beech tree.

All this activity occurred on a day towards the end of one of my occasional spells of insomnia. These are often accompanied by nightmares so terrifying I’m reluctant to go to sleep in case I have another one – although eventually I just become desperate. In a ‘desperate’ phase everyday things take on a slightly dislocated surreal edge. I do all the stuff you’re advised to do: lavender, a bath, well-ventilated room, aired bed. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but I was beautifully relaxed and hopeful when the Cat and I retired to bed that night.

However, the very second I turned out the light a vague rhythmic beeping started up somewhere. Isn’t it amazing how many things there are in a house that could be the source of a noise like that? It was like a game of Hunt the Thimble designed by Escher – every time I thought I had it, it beeped somewhere else.

no-cats_pushkinEventually I tracked it down to the smoke alarm in the hallway. I poked it with the bean stick. It beeped again – every 30 seconds. The battery was running down but this alarm is too high for me to reach, mainly because I’m quite a short person and at 1 o’clock in the morning my brain was reluctant to come up with any workable solutions.

So I closed the door and hoped that a couple of inches of good English oak would muffle the beeps enough for sleep to happen. 

Returning to my lovely comfy bed and the Cat (who hadn’t budged while all this was going on) I again switched off the light. Somewhere in the front garden an owl hooted. Somewhere in my bedroom the falsetto whine of a mosquito was distinctly audible. I put the light back on, hunted it down and whacked it with a slipper. I went back to bed, turned off the light and heard another one. I carried on like this for a further hour before I was sure that all buzzy noises and their owners had been eliminated. I returned to bed and lay there, rigid with exhaustion but unable to sleep.

Early next morning (5 o’clock), with the alarm downstairs still emitting regular beeps, I wheeled the kitchen block into the hall, climbed unsteadily on top of it and killed the damn thing. I did, for a moment, consider the possibility that I might fall off and break something vital, like my neck, but at the time it felt like a price worth paying. Sleep deprivation does that to you.

That afternoon, barely able to string a sentence together, I crashed out on the sofa and slept for three hours, followed by blissful night of deep, restorative, dreamless sleep. Well, I say ‘dreamless’ – it seems Hugh Grant woke me up at some point and asked if I fancied a snog. Like I said, sometimes things get a bit weird.

Read all of Helen’s beautiful countryside dispatches here.  


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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