A Month in The Countryside

In her last column (no YOU’RE crying), Helen Walmsley-Johnson’s been enjoying some private concerts.

sheep against a spring backdrop

The view from Helen’s back garden this month.

For the last couple of weeks the cats and I have been serenaded at every available opportunity by an anonymous bird, which has taken up residence in the large rambling rose cloaking the front of the cottage.

There are songs to welcome the dawn, songs while we enjoy our breakfast, songs over lunchtime, songs in the evening (loud enough to be heard over the telly) and songs at bedtime to sign off.

The song we hear now is not the same song we heard at the beginning of April. What started as simple repetitions of four alternating notes has extended to a full octave embroidered with trills, flourishes, recitative and a swooping endnote before the whole performance goes around again.

I’ve gone through the RSPB website and listened to recordings of all the birds I’ve seen in the garden but nothing sounds quite the same. My best guess is that it’s a blackbird, or possibly a robin, although it might be a thrush.

Whatever it is, it’s delightful and I can’t think of a better way to start the day than sipping a large mug of coffee in dappled spring sunlight while achingly beautiful birdsong laps around my ears. I should sell tickets.

It sounds idyllic and it is, or rather it would be if Mr Pushkin Cat and I were not sharing the cottage with a psychopath. Madame Sodoffskaya Cat has revealed herself to be a cat of uncertain temperament. She is the Norman Bates of the feline world.

Madame Sodoffskaya Cat: only soft on the outside.

This is a common trait with tortoiseshell cats and having some previous experience – Stanley, of blessed memory – I can vouch for that. The colour would drain from the face of the family vet at the sight of Stanley purring benignly in her basket – “Haha… a little spitfire this one,” as he attempted to insert a thermometer into the rear end of a spitting flailing ball of claws and teeth.

The Sodoffskaya likes the world arranged on her terms and I can’t blame her for that, but the Cat and I fall under the heading of ‘staff’. Yes, she might wriggle around on her back like the Whore of Babylon but that is not an invitation to stroke her tummy, nor is purring fit to bust an indication that she would like her chin rubbed. She is a cat armed to the gunwales with sharp pointy things.

I honestly thought she was mellowing a bit and I said as much to my youngest when she popped round the other day but then she (the Sodoffskaya, not the daughter) suddenly went off on one, lovingly embraced my arm and bit me through two layers of woollies. That was a two-plaster job.

Her disposition is mercurial and given to fleeting irrational hatreds – slippers, my hairbrush, the log basket… It’s not uncommon to find her spread-eagled across a door trying to bite that. Temporarily embarrassed, as though I’ve interrupted her in a private moment, she freezes in a ‘nothing to see here’ kind of way and then saunters off into another room. The other day she jumped out of the bedroom window.

As if all that isn’t unnerving enough, once or twice a month she behaves as though she’s been out on an almighty bender, lurching into my bedroom at three in the morning and slurring the cat equivalent of “I bloody love you, I do.”

“The fact that Madame Sodoffskaya Cat has a pathetic little girly miaow is her saving grace. It’s like finding out that Conan the Barbarian speaks like Po from Teletubbies.”

She clambers up onto the bed and then inches her way up on her belly until she squirms in under my arm, sighs contentedly and set about kneading ‘air biscuits’, all the while purring at 150 decibels and exhaling hot, rodent-scented breath directly into my face. This would be fine if a) she wasn’t quite so fluffy and I didn’t have asthma, b) she wasn’t enormous and c) she wasn’t a copper-bottomed certifiable maniac.

I sleep with one eye open in case she decides to have an episode although she hasn’t… yet. A relief when you consider the defensive capabilities of pyjamas. She does, however, make a point of picking out the twigs and leaves she’s collected in her immense furry trousers and spitting them out onto the bedspread.

Mr Pushkin Cat enjoying the sun.

The Cat finds it all quite baffling but he is, alas, completely in thrall to this Boudicca among cats and is more than happy to comply with his beloved’s wishes and let me know in his best basso profundo when she is on the wrong side of the cottage door wishing admittance. The fact that she has a pathetic little girly miaow is her saving grace (as well as her remarkable beauty). It’s like finding out that Conan the Barbarian speaks like Po from Teletubbies.

Living in this cottage and being a writer is a funny old life but it’s one I enjoy, except for when a column comes to an end, as this one does now. Writing for Standard Issue has been the greatest of pleasures and it was truly an honour to have been part of something very special, so thank you to the editorial team (who are nothing short of magnificent) and to you for joining me as I transitioned back from city dweller to Rutland resident.

But now, I have a book deadline looming and my lawn is covered in sheep shit because we’ve just moved the ewes and lambs off down the hill, so if you have a minute, the shovel’s by the door…

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