A Month in The Countryside

This month in Rutland, Helen Walmsley-Johnson’s been learning flu coping strategies from the wrens.

Mr Pushkin Cat, offering typically feline levels of sympathy to a flu-stricken Helen.

Last October I trotted off to the local surgery for a flu jab. “No flu for me!” I chortled to the nurse on the way out.

Fate, sorely provoked by this wanton smugness, waited a couple of months and then clattered me with a flu virus I hadn’t been inoculated against. It was brutish, nasty and bad enough to take me off my legs for a whole fortnight. I suspect – oh, the irony! – I picked it up along with a prescription at… the surgery.

The first sign something was amiss came as I walked along the high ridge on the south side of the village. I felt as though someone had put a saucepan lid on my lungs and it was, to be honest, a bit alarming. I wheezed a few yards and stopped to catch my breath, wheezed a few more yards and stopped again, carrying on like this until I achieved the lane and the knowledge that if I keeled over someone would find me before hypothermia set in.

The next day a hacking cough announced itself together with a hot, dry feeling and by the afternoon even my hair ached. All I wanted to do was lie on the sofa and suck my thumb. I couldn’t concentrate, I couldn’t read, I couldn’t be upright, I was as weak as a kitten.

And speaking of cats, this is when some payback from my two for their lives of unparalleled catty luxury would have been welcome. Fat chance. Both Mr Pushkin Cat and the Sodoffskaya avoided me like the plague, which to be fair was what it looked as though I had.

By the second week I was a husk. Wracked with a consumptive rib-springing cough, my powers of concentration stubbornly refusing to rise above the level of a gassed gnat. This is when frustration set in, together with some fairly baroque levels of swearing, a sure sign I was entering the recovery phase. The cats reappeared on the sofa and immediately began what my mother would have called ‘taking advantage’.

The Sodoffskaya seized possession of my hot water bottle and I do mean ‘seized’ – she has a grip like the Boston Strangler. The Cat eased himself into the warm hollow I left when I went to make a mug of tea and stubbornly resisted extraction. Neither of them had the grace to apologise. That’s cats for you.

Madame Sodoffskaya: a lot of bottle.

As I began to stretch my legs a bit I wandered about the cottage, looking out through the windows at what I was missing.

Ivy riffling along a steep bank was moved not by the breeze but by a wren, mouse-like, stitching a path through glossy green leaves. The bare bones of a little apple tree, a Regency silhouette against the grey valley mist, showed the black outlines of two more wrens bouncing from twig to knotted twig.

The weather turned bitter and it snowed, raw and wet. The rubbish bins and log pile froze solid. My sinuses began to throb painfully but the birds needed food so I bundled myself up in warm layers and ventured out to top up the feeders.

Tiny birds like the wren have few resources to cope with these conditions but they conserve their body heat by huddling together when they roost. According to the British Trust for Ornithology, the largest number of wrens found cosily together in one nest box is 63. I can well believe this is effective.

A packed, furry huddle of pipistrelle bats in my old house generated enough warmth to be felt against my outstretched palms. Blue tits keep warm by shivering, which expends a lot of energy and accounts for their constant presence on the fat balls. Perched in the bushes around the bird table, each seems aware of their place in the queue, only swooping in when their turn arrives. Exceptions to this are a pair of starlings and the jackdaws.

Although there is a large colony of jackdaws in the village, it’s not often I see them on the bird table and because of their size I think of them as thugs. This time, studying them more closely, I was struck by the blueness of their eyes and the silky grey of their ‘hoods’.

snowdropsThey are noisy, sharp, intelligent birds (appropriately a group is called a clattering) and in this most miserable of weathers, they have as much right to a decent meal as the tits, sparrows and finches. I am, however, rationing the one-eared squirrel, which continues to spend an excessive amount of time skilfully extracting peanuts from the not-quite-so-squirrel-proof-as-advertised nut feeder.

Today I was finally able to leave the cottage and totter around the village perimeter on my post-flu jelly legs. The sunshine was surprisingly warm and where, before I was quarantined, there were only glaucous spikes, now there are gallant drifts of snowdrops, each waxy flower containing a clutch of inner petals stamped with a delicate green ‘V’.

Indeed, the signs of spring are everywhere. It was almost worth having the flu to be so beautifully reminded of what’s right under my nose.

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