After 14 years in London, Helen Walmsley-Johnson finds that settling into a new home in the countryside involves more than retuning TVs and placating middle-aged cats.
Illustration by Claire Jones
The other day I got my hand stuck in the ironing board – proper bruising stuck – because the ironing board, like everything else at the moment, is new and unfamiliar. This unfamiliarity is down to shifting myself, and the Cat, out of London and back to where I’m from – Rutland. I’d had 14 (mostly) excellent years in London but I yearned for countryside I loved and the family I loved even more. More important still, I had a book to write. Not everyone needs peace to write but I do. London is many things but peaceful isn’t one of them. I’m more your slow-tick-of-a-clock, crackling fire, cake-and-gin sort of writer so I set my course, the move happened and here I/we are.
Someone told me it takes a month for every year lived in your previous home to settle into the new one, which goes some way to explaining why Mr Pushkin Cat and I are both considerably out of countenance. In his case it’s understandable – the shoebox London flat was the only home he knew and he was very much a pampered indoor cat. As a rule I’m generally pretty resilient but Mr Cat and I are both in late middle age, a bit set in our ways and both walloped by a year of setbacks and bereavement. Mr Cat was unaware of my own losses (although I did squash him to my bosom in tightly held, snotty cuddles more often than he would have liked) but the death of his brother, Titus, upset him dreadfully and as a result we’ve bonded more closely than is perhaps usual for human and cat. So, given this collective misery what do I do? I wedge him into a travel basket and cart him off into alien countryside where the spiders are gigantic, the mice are real and the huge open skies are populated with red kites the size of a barn door. He reacted with immediate and crippling agoraphobia. I went all wobbly with exhaustion.
The two of us huddled defensively into our little stone cottage, which in turn huddles into the side of a high ridge. If we’d had a drawbridge we would have pulled it up. From the kitchen window I can see the house where I raised my daughters; where winter windows froze on the inside, where bats and an owl roosted in the roof and mice lived in the walls; the house where I kept finding local kids hanging around the yard on a ghost-hunt (we were rumoured to be blessed with at least one). There, in that other house, we were gloriously happy. It feels a little odd to be back, like the last 20 years never happened.
Coming back to somewhere is like putting on a pair of old shoes – they feel familiar but they don’t quite fit the way they used to. Initially the Cat and I had no furniture except bookcases and our first few nights were spent rolled up in a duvet on the sitting room floor, surrounded by boxes. (Sleep in these circumstances is greatly assisted by the liberal application of neat whisky – you forget about rustling in the wainscoting). The chill of the stone floor worked its way up to my bones and was a sobering reminder that my greatest fear, to be made homeless, had been hauntingly close through redundancy and unemployment. Writing was the only thing that brought in any money so in the absence of a better plan I stuck to Churchill’s edict that “when you’re going through Hell, keep going”. In our new home poor Mr Pushkin Cat, grooming forgotten, grubby of paw and dry of nose, pressed tightly against me whenever I sat on the floor (no chairs). The two of us clung together like a refugees for the first couple of weeks.
But then, slowly, things started to find their right places. A second-hand sofa arrived from my brother. My daughters and grandchildren visited (bearing food) and declared my new home to be absolutely a “mummy/nana house” – high praise. Washing happened, books filed onto bookshelves, the Cat poked his nose briefly out of the door while I figured out how to work the oven. Broadband was installed which meant I could work and I retuned the telly (always a big deal). The “bed” (a mattress topper and 3 duvets) moved upstairs to a sunny room with a warmer floor. Possessions were sifted and drifted away into cupboards and corners where they seem to have always been. You can’t rush it. You have to live in a place before you know what belongs where.
For the moment, Mr Pushkin Cat feels he belongs in the space behind the sofa or on the bedroom windowsill, watching the birds. He does not feel he belongs in the great sunlit uplands of Rutland. For my part, I belong at the kitchen table with my laptop, writing. In the evening we both belong on the new/old sofa in a companionable slump. And just before bedtime, when the Cat and I step out into the velvety blackness and gaze up at the sprinkled stars we both feel we belong here and that this, finally, feels like home.
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The view from Helen’s back door.
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