A Month in The Countryside

Helen Walmsley-Johnson’s been celebrating the solstice with some new friends.

Roses climbing the cottage wallOn Midsummer’s Day I like to rise early and go out just before dawn but this year’s solstice has been dominated by the arrival of a beautiful refugee: a fluffy eight-year-old tortoiseshell cat in need of a home.

Her name is Soukie and she arrived on solstice eve, bringing with her more luggage than a Kardashian. As a consequence we’re all confined to barracks while she settles in and I spent midsummer night with one ear cocked for feline turf wars.

Thus the dawn was greeted, bleary-eyed, from beneath the duvet. The Cat, determined to defend his territory against enemy incursion sat heavily, and far too warmly, on top of me throughout the hours of darkness.

A new cat isn’t something I’ve ever thought about. After Mr Pushkin Cat became a singleton when his brother Titus died in 2014, I found that just me and Cat was really rather nice. We have formed an unusually close cat/human bond (as far as it’s possible to tell with a cat).

In proper cat terms he’s probably slightly defective. He never jumps onto tables or kitchen work surfaces (too lazy). He has never caught anything bigger than a moth (laziness and pacifism). He doesn’t favour cuddles and resolutely refuses to be picked up.

He has a vocabulary: an authoritative squeak means “Open the door”; a “thripp” with an upward jerk of the head means “Hello and where the hell have you been?”; a pained wail with an echo means he’s sitting in the bath and would like me to turn the tap on for a drink, despite having fresh water in a perfectly good and rather expensive cat bowl.

In short, we rub along together very well – not unlike an old married couple. Taking in a waif would disrupt this harmonious status quo.

Soukie makes herself at home.

Soukie makes herself at home.

But I looked at Soukie’s picture and thought… oh dear. So now the Cat is upstairs throwing all kinds of ‘I am the midnight cat who walks alone and how bloody dare you’ shit; Madam (she has that look about her) is downstairs, sashaying about as if she owns the place, what with her posh microfibre blankets, ‘Simon’s Cat’ dinner service, special food and down-filled bed; and I’m stuck in the middle, trying to meet writing deadlines.

Cat diplomatic relations sit somewhere between the Cuban Missile Crisis and North Korea. The kitchen table has become the United Nations.

When the Cat and I first moved into the cottage he found his safe place (which every cat needs) at the very back of the cupboard under the stairs, which goes on for miles, possibly as far as Narnia. Interestingly, this is also the choice of Madam.

The Cat lurks about on the landing, ready to repel boarders. Both cats are eating and drinking normally but not, for the moment, in the same room. I shuttle up and down between the two, stroking first one and then the other so that strange smells start to blend and become familiar. Eventually I am sure the Paw of Friendship will be extended as it has been to young Frodo, the ginger tom from across the lane, who occasionally pops in to say hello. One day I will walk in on the Cat and Madam playing together or snoozing side by side on the sofa… one day.

Another, less welcome, arrival is the Sitting Room Snail. I think the Cat might unwittingly be responsible for this. It probably came in on his fur after one of his hedge-bottom forays and it has been very damp. It might even – the horror! – be a slug.

The first I knew of it was when I opened the curtains one morning and thought, ‘how pretty’, then recognised the tangle of glittering lines for what they were – snail slime. Now we have a war of snail attrition.

Occasionally, and I can’t help thinking it’s having a laugh, it takes a night off and I think it’s turned into a snail crisp under a chair somewhere. Then the next day, there it is again. A crepuscular creature, we never see it – just the evidence of a long or short excursion around the sitting room. It’s been there for about 10 days now. Surely it can’t last much longer?

a moth on the mint plantMuch more fun has been joining in the Great British Bee Count. Until the end of June you will find me wandering the garden, phone in hand, peering at bees’ bums (Red? Buff? White? Black?) and ticking them off on the free bee count app.

I’ve discovered that the majority in our garden are white-tailed and honey bees with a few common carder bees and a solitary red mason bee living in a hole in the cottage wall like a medieval hermit. I wonder what else is in our walls?

Finally, the swallow chicks are fledging. Their parents arrived very promptly this year – one day the skies are silent and the next filled with swooping, chattering aeronauts. At this stage, halfway to independence, fledgling feeding happens on the wing. I stand on the back step and watch the parent birds hang in the air mid-swoop to thrust a bolus of insects down an eager gullet. It’s like a furious game of tag.

At this time of year – the apex – I am reminded that change will continue to happen whether you want it or not and as far as Madam goes, I think she will prove to be a good thing for both of us.

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