A Month in The Countryside

In Rutland, feline activity and the astounding beauty of a winter dawn are keeping Helen Walmsley-Johnson occupied.

frosty dawn viewI am not a morning person. I remember a brief period of childish enthusiasm when the last word in excitement was to sneak out before dawn and pedal my blue and red Raleigh bicycle furiously to a field where there were (allegedly) mushrooms of enormous size and quantity, but you had to be there at first light or they vanished.

Of course they did. I was a gullible 11-year-old and the moment, and my belief in vanishing fungi, had passed by the time I turned 12.

These adventures did, however, leave me with a lifetime’s fascination for those chimeric lakes of mist that drape the countryside and leave treetops stranded like islands: narrow your eyes and shift your focus and strange phantasmagorical landscapes are revealed.

It’s a pity that for most of the year this beguiling part of the day remains as elusive to me as last night’s belting dream about winning the Man Booker. (What did I WRITE??)

Sometimes a pre-dawn trip to the loo stirs a mild inclination to get dressed, pull on some boots and head out but the lure of bed and book always wins. And to be honest, the world is so terrifying at the moment it requires some work to find the courage to face it on a daily basis.

It’s as well, then, that as we make the inevitable slide down the shoulder of the old year into the narrow dark days of December, sunrise happens later and later and eventually coincides with my definition of a civilised hour. Unfortunately winter days shorten at the other end too, so my preferred evening ramblings now land two-thirds of the way through my working day.

I more or less lost track of this while I was living in London, each metropolitan day blurred into the next, bookended by an exhausting commute in flickering half-light. These days I commute from bed to desk to sofa through puddles of sunlight, which is both convenient and nurturing and I am grateful daily for the twist of fate that brought me here. Mr Pushkin Cat much prefers it to long lonely hours in a London flat and the novelty of a human at one’s beck and call 24/7 certainly appeals to relative newcomer, Madame Sodoffskaya Cat.

“‘Oggy, oggy, oggy!’ yells Mr P, galloping up and launching his whole and considerable self into the hedge. Madame belts him on the nose and tells him, quite rightly, to sod off, probably through clenched teeth.”

Observing cat life in and around the cottage is an absorbing pastime and a very good one for avoiding my writer’s terror of a blank page. For instance, I hadn’t previously considered how a resident cat could make an excellent barometer.

Madame, who is more of an outdoors kind of cat than Pushkin (more of an anywhere-comfy-and-warm kind of cat) is a surprisingly accurate weather predictor: if her super cat sense tells her the night will be a stormy one, she spends all day engaged in outdoors high jinks and then retires to the top of the central heating boiler where she is dry, warm and safe.

Impervious to most things, she does not enjoy cold toes and so, if a frost is forecast I notice her gadding about around the garden in brittle sunlight, returning to cosy indoors for the coldest hours.

pushkin-and-soukieWhen she first arrived, she was almost exclusively nocturnal whatever the weather, and the development of weather-based alterations to her routine is intriguing and reveals more about her contentment in her new surroundings than anything else.

The Cat, being a city boy, has never been good at these things and is almost entirely useless on a practical level, although he is wonderfully good company in a way that Madame is not. Feline yin and yang.

If you did Madame Sodoffskaya’s ‘colours’ then autumn would without question be her season. She is blessed with a spectacular Impressionist fluffy fur coat, smudged and dabbed with sooty blacks and the burnished shades of conkers and fallen oak leaves. In sunlight her orangey bits sparkle but for the most part she blends into hedgerows in an elemental sort of way. An accomplished mouser, her current record is a scant five minutes from exiting the cottage to presenting a lightly mauled mouse at the back door.

The Cat, who to my certain knowledge has never caught a thing in his life (except fleas), is deeply fascinated and eager to learn. Madame therefore often finds her Zen-like contemplation of a section of hedgerow rudely interrupted by the Cat clattering through to see what’s going on. I would anthropomorphise a garden encounter thus:

Madame Sodoffskaya is sitting stoically in light drizzle, focused on a toothsome rodent fossicking a mere six inches from her elegant snout.

“Oggy, oggy, oggy!” yells Mr P, galloping up and launching his whole and considerable self into the hedge.

Madame belts him on the nose and tells him, quite rightly, to sod off, probably through clenched teeth. The mouse, meanwhile, sidles away discreetly. I think her patience might be wearing a bit thin.

pink sky dawnA basic difference between the two cats is that Madame is used to being sole cat in residence while Mr P, until the death of his brother Titus, has never been alone. Any displays of affection are therefore a bit one-sided, although (and much as I had hoped) the winter weather has brought longer spells when both are indoors and this has resulted in an increased tolerance. They now greet each other with touched noses and a ‘thripp’ noise, which makes me happier than I can say.

Such small pleasures go a long way to soothe and reassure and even if, as seems likely and vanishing mushrooms notwithstanding, I will never ever get to be a morning person, for at least this part of the year I have the astounding beauty of a winter dawn and a firmly held belief that things generally come right in the end.

Helen’s book, The Invisible Woman: Taking on the Vintage Years, is out now.
Read more of her 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