Fiction Month: The Courtyard Pest

             A new, two-part  story  begins today. Nancy has moved to be near her daughter but has left her old life behind. How will she adjust? A neighbour is offering support; or is he?

The Courtyard Pest

                  Nancy wakes again. The grey glow of an autumn dawn is seeping between the curtains. This room is still new, shadows in strange places. She pushes the quilt back, eases pale legs over the bedside then pads across the carpet to the en-suite, shaking her head at the incongruity of it. An ‘en-suite’! Imagine!

On the way back she pauses by the window to peer out at her tiny patch of yard, bare except for the wooden bench, a flat-warming gift from Sarah. “What will you do with this courtyard?” her daughter had asked her as they sat on it, only three days ago. Nancy shrugged. “Not sure yet. A few pots. A bird feeder.”

Sarah laughed. “You and your birds!”

But they were company; bird company was easier to come by in a strange town than the human sort.

There is a movement, a flicker in the passageway outside the yard gate, caught in the corner of her eye as she stares. But it is nothing; a moving branch across the faint light. She sighs. It is still only six. She must try to get back to sleep. The days are already too long to fill.

She is washing up her breakfast bowl when the doorbell rings, a shrill unaccustomed sound above the murmur of the radio news programme. A silhouette fills the door’s frosted glass as she fumbles with the key. “Won’t be a minute!” she calls and at last the door yields, revealing Jeffery, from number five. He leans down towards her, eyes protuberant in his florid complexion. “Is the door a bit stiff? I can fix it, if you like.”

She knows her smile is weak. “It’s just new, that’s all; new to me.”

Clad in a beige waistcoat with pockets, he is grasping a canvas shopping bag. “I’m off down the road. Can I get anything for you? Hexton’s bread is marvellous. Shall I get you a loaf? And I’m going to D0-IT-ALL for a few bits this afternoon if you need anything”.

It is only eight. Early, Nancy thinks, to be setting off for the shops. What time does he get up, this neighbour? She has a sense that he must have been waiting until it was an acceptable time to call on her. She shakes her head. “It’s kind of you but I’m going out myself later.”

“Like a lift?” He breaks in. Too fast. She maintains the narrow opening, lifting her chin. “I shall walk. I like to walk. It does me good.”

He takes a step back and she lets out a breath.

“OK. By the way-watch out for rats, won’t you? Some have been seen in the alley at the back. They’re probably from the social housing in the close. Vermin, that’s what they are.” Nancy nods, unsure whether he means the rats or the residents of the housing association development opposite their flats.

He turns with a wave and withdraws, swinging the canvas shopping bag as he plods around the corner.

Later, as she drifts along the unfamiliar High Street Nancy wonders if she should have asked Jeffery to fetch her some compost for her courtyard pots. Has she been a little hard on him? He is only being neighbourly. She did ask Sarah if Danny might be able to take her to the garden centre but they are so busy all the time.

It had been Sarah’s idea for her to move here, to be nearer the family. Nancy was reluctant at first, then attracted by the notion that she might be of some help now that Sarah and Danny were both working full time. She’d thought she might be able to collect the boys from school, help with homework, even make some meals when the parents had to work late. But Sarah pointed out that the boys had little need of childcare and either went to clubs and after school activities or messed about with their friends.

Nancy stops to study a display in the window of ‘Chic Shack’, a small shop selling household items, many of which appear to have been made from driftwood, or been painted and subsequently had patches worn off. She snorts. These are things that wouldn’t have got into a jumble sale in her day.

Since she moved to be near Sarah she’s had no more contact with her and the boys than she did when she was seventy eight miles away. At least then they’d talked on the phone every evening.

Later, when she’s finished clearing up her supper things and is settled in front of the TV the phone rings.

“Will you be in tomorrow evening, Mum? Danny can drop your compost off then. He’ll pick it up on the way home from work”.

Nancy had been looking forward to a morning at the garden centre and had been going to suggest she treat them all to lunch. “It’s very kind, when he’s so busy.”

“It’s nothing. How are you settling in? How are the neighbours?”

“Oh-the couple in the flat above are very nice. They say Good Morning”. She hesitates. Jaqui and David are polite but self-contained and disinterested.

“Anyone else?”

“There’s Jeffery.”

“Is that the man with the wild, grey hair and the county accent?” Sarah met Jeffery when Nancy was moving in. He’d been on the forecourt sweeping up and had introduced himself, shaking their hands and offering assistance. “Has he been a nuisance?”

“No. He’s friendly enough. I’ll see you later.”

“Not me, I’m afraid Mum. Just Danny. I’ve got to collect Lewis from football training.”

Danny arrives with the compost, leaving the engine running while he heaves the bags into the small yard outside her living room and waving a cheerful goodbye as he drives off. Nancy surveys the three bags stacked against the fence. At least she’ll have something to be getting on with tomorrow. She can’t get to the garden centre for spring bulbs but the ‘Supercuts’ shop had some mixed bags on offer outside in a basket. She is about to close the curtains when a face appears above the fence, prompting her to cry out in alarm, hand over her mouth. An arm waves at her. She opens the patio door. Jeffery.

“You’ve got your compost then? Want a hand with the planters tomorrow? I can bring a trowel.”

She sighs. “Alright. Just not too early.”

Nancy’s sleep is restless. In her dreams giant rats stream over the gate, flooding her tiny yard, squeaking at her, hectoring, chastising, although she can’t catch the words. She wakes many times, hears scraping sounds, feels disorientated and sleeps on to an unaccustomed eight o’clock.

She is on the phone when the doorbell rings, chatting to Meg. When she’d heard her friend’s voice she’d visualised her unruly hair and bright lipstick and felt tears pricking her eyes. ‘Yes’ she tells Meg, ‘the move was fine. The flat is perfect. Just what I wanted.’ She doesn’t say it was what Sarah wanted.

“And how have you been, dear? Any more falls?”

Nancy shakes her head then realises Meg can’t see. “No. And I don’t need to use the stick Sarah got me. I’m as steady on my feet as I’ve ever been. I’m not sleeping well, but I suppose it’s just the newness of the place.”

There is a pause.

“We all miss you here, Nancy. ‘The Nettlehide Players’ isn’t the same without you.” The tears are threatening again. “We should arrange a meet up. Shall we? A weekend, even! There’s always the coach-why don’t you come to me? Or I’ll come down if you’ve room. What do you say?”

“I’d like that.”  The bell is ringing. “I have to go, Meg. We’ll arrange it.”

Jeffery is wearing overalls and brandishing a trowel. “I’m not quite ready” she tells him. “You’d better come in. Would you like a cup of coffee?” He takes up all the space in her miniature kitchen, scrutinising the tiny room, unabashed.

“You don’t have much…” he sweeps the trowel around at the walls “…stuff, do you? My place is an Aladdin’s Cave! You must come round.” She brushes past him to get to the kettle before reaching into a cupboard for a small jar of Nescafe. “Could I have tea? I’m not a fan of instant. I grind my own beans. Costa Rican. A friend gets them for me. Have you tried Costa Rican? It’s marvellous!” She replaces the jar and pulls out tea bags. “I’ve got a spare tea pot at mine. Do you want it?” he asks, watching her. She takes the two mugs of tea outside and places them on the wooden seat.

“Where are you having the pots?” Jeffery gestures at the tall, terracotta planters which are dotted about on the paving slabs in what Nancy considers a satisfying, random arrangement. She stares at him.

“They’re staying where they are.” Nancy’s chin lifts a little then she stoops to take the bags of bulbs from under the bench. He shrugs. “I prefer a bit of symmetry myself.”

When Nancy can take no more advice about which bulbs to put where she goes in to make more tea. They sit on the bench to drink it.

“So, Nancy, what did your husband used to do?”

She frowns at the paving slabs by her feet, taking a sip of the tea. “I’m sorry?”

“Your husband. What was his line of work?-if you don’t mind me asking. I was a financial adviser myself. Got it all up here still.” He places a finger on his unruly hair. “If you need any help with investments, that kind of thing, you have only to ask!”

She is silent for a moment, placing the mug on her lap between her hands.

“I’ve never been married”.

“Oh I’m so sorry!” he blurts, drops of tea splashing on to his overalls.  “I’ve been married three times. Had five children. Not that I see much of them of course. They’re spread far and wide. One in Singapore, one in America. I expect they’d contact me if they were in trouble. No news is good news, as they say.”

Nancy stands up and holds out her hand for his cup. “Thanks for helping. I’ll have to leave it there for now, though. I have an appointment after lunch and will need to clear up and get changed.”

 

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Personal Effects

I can never remember my parents buying any furniture, or visiting a furniture shop. The things we had-tables, chairs, beds, ‘suites’-they seemed to have been there always, moving house when we did, packed away into a removal van and taken out at the next house; then fitted into whatever space there was. A number of pieces were inherited, accumulated over the years. My mother could say who they’d belonged to: ‘That’s Great Aunty Mabel’s cabinet’ and so on.

Back then you used whatever you’d been given without a thought of renewing or even choosing something. This approach continued as I entered adult life and moved from renting places [where you put up with whatever eclectic mix the landlord had assembled] into home ownership.

Later, becoming single again and beginning home ownership once more, but with less cash the luxury of choice was tempered by limited funds. I could choose, but from whatever was in the skip, at the council recycling depot or if feeling flush-at the junk shop and the small ads. Each acquisition felt like a triumph, whether coming home from the council rubbish dump with some brass coat hooks on a pine base or discovering a French, inlaid walnut bed outside a second-hand shop.

Pairing up with Husband meant pairing up the belongings, too. Collapsing two households full of effects into one is a tricky business when both householders have struggled to amass said items in the first place. There were lively discussions, debates and compromises. A number of fiercely contested pieces followed us into the home we bought together-happily a stomping great house that was capable of accommodating every treasured, hard-fought-over object, whether treasured or detested.

Waiting almost six months for the next move-a move that almost didn’t happen-we shed items in a gradual purge, resulting in a refreshing, minimalistic environment containing two camping chairs and a TV. This was an echo of my house as a new singleton, albeit a temporary phase in the limbo between homes. We’d agreed that the new house was neither suited to our collected contents nor did it contain the right spaces and therefore we cast caution into the teeth of the gale and got rid.

I let my fingers do the walking [remember that old ‘Yellow Pages’ ad?] with varying degrees of success. A set of six, white, Charles Eames style dining chairs arrived as a set of five. ‘Who buys five?’ I asked Monsieur Customer Support, who agreed it would be unusual. Husband is something of a traditionalist when it comes to furniture and was [and continues to be] less enthusiastic about my choice, although I conceded over the selection of the TV housing. Compromises continue to be made.

Like the house, we haven’t mourned the passing of our old belongings. It is, after all just ‘stuff’. But a couple of boxes still lurk under the bed in a guest room. They contain ‘stuff’ from the old place, ‘stuff’ we don’t know what to do with; ‘stuff’ that may, perhaps get passed on to the next generation-so they can ditch it…

The River House

I woke this morning and opened the blind to the view I’ve been treated to for the last two weeks. This morning the sunlight is dancing on the water as the river flows around this voluptuous curve in a sinuous meander, fringed by a border of mature willows whose grey-green foliage sways in a light breeze.

Across the meadow moles have toiled overnight to produce a smattering of brown hillocks. By the time I’ve descended into the living room a fisherman or two will have established a prime spot along the bank and will have organised the space with their equipment-a chair, a large, green umbrella and of course, their rods and landing nets. Some stay rooted to their chosen position all day, others wander up and down, trying various places by dipping the line in then moving elsewhere. A pair of swans cruise past in a nonchalant voyage up river and an occasional cormorant passes overhead.

Outside our back gate is a footpath that leads for miles along the river and across the path is a hedge marking the expanse of the private fishing zone. This hedge is a riot of brambles, nettles, buddleia, willow, hawthorn and wild fuchsia and is alive with small birds and butterflies-too many species to detail here.

Across the river another meadow sports a herd of cows who amble through at the same time each day, tails flicking, jaws munching, following the matriarch in an ordained timetable, their route taking them under a railway bridge. Every so often a train comes or goes behind the meadow, some to London or Manchester, some to Poole and Weymouth, making no impact on the cattle, the wildlife or ourselves.

A robin and a pair of blackbirds have already become confident enough to claim our patch of garden as their own, now that dogs and cats are no longer in residence. The robin perches on the rooftop of our new, rustic bird table and dips up and down in a proprietorial way. I have begun to reclaim the cherry trees from the suffocating killer embrace of the ivy that is strangling them and am undertaking a mission to clear the steep bank under our trees from the ferocious brambles that have had their own way for too long.

The small wedge of scruffy grass is responding to some regular trimming and digging-out of weeds by greening up and the pathways and decking are visible now that the accumulated leaves and detritus have been swept away.

So it is ours, this place; seducing us from the moment the removal men left us. We stepped out on to the balcony outside our living room on the hottest day of the year, took in the glorious landscape on our doorstep and all thoughts of our old house were swept away like a clump pf weed on the river. We’ve had to collect items wrongly delivered and return items wrongly removed from the old place. Otherwise it has become a mere stop along the bus route of our history. Now you know…

A Moving Story

In a week that was nothing if not instructive there have been winners and losers. Before I explain I should warn anyone who is without a strong constitution or nerves of tungsten that if you are contemplating any kind of house move you should reconsider.

I have lived in the same house for about twenty years. This is long-extremely so for me, since I have documented before the many, many times I moved up until arriving here, to this house which, it must be said has had everything [or if it didn’t to begin with it does now]. Alas the house became too large to house two people and needed a new, sprawling family who would love it as we do. This has taken two years; so long that we quite forgot that we were selling it and the trauma of having done so is profound.

Still, it is done. Someone new is to reside here and we must de-camp. And here is the problem; there is nowhere to go! There is not a villa, a cottage, a bothy or even a hovel that excites us enough to call it a home.

While we ponder this conundrum we set about distributing the house contents to the world-or at least those who are interested in any of it. This is where the delights of EBAY provide an unending thrill and surprises abound in the throngs of people who are interested enough to want to buy the plethora of tat we have advertised.

For some reason, as time progresses towards leaving we become increasingly gung-ho and uncaring about ‘stuff’, casting our belongings to the wind as if we were emigrants to a desert island. There are several pages of items for sale, prompting a deluge of questions-‘what is the height of it?’ [the dimensions are in the description], ‘what is the buy-it-now price?’ [as it states-there is none], ‘can I post it?’ [NO-hence the well-known phrase, ‘local collection only].

Items get sold. They get collected. Gaps appear around the house, flattened areas of carpet the only sign that something was there. An entire room becomes empty. There is a slight echo-and billowing motes of dust circulating in the light. A tower of boxes starts to rise, then another. People come to view things-then want to see other things. It feels like living in The Old Curiosity Shop’.

At intervals I stop to shred another pile of redundant documents, seeing the narrative of our lives metamorphosing into hamster bedding before my eyes. Does it reduce us, this casting off of possessions? It shouldn’t. We are not composed of personal effects.

More spaces appear as items disappear. It begins to look less like home. This is EBAY’s way of accustoming us to the impending departure. The corner where my tall, luxuriant palm sat is particularly barren, somehow, although the purchaser of this beautiful plant was delighted and will no doubt treasure and enjoy it as I did. Ho hum…

Accept the Inevitable…

Chez nous is in a state of flux at the moment. A period in which both Husband and I were bogged down with health annoyances has prompted a rethink of our housing situation. Up until the present, when one of us has succumbed to a complaint the other, being the more fit, has taken on the nursing. Husband undertook a memorable mercy dash home from South West France when I was felled by a bout of septicaemia [although we were ignorant as to my condition at the time]. The return took nine hours of driving sans navigator or co-driver [me], as I slumped in a near comatose state in the passenger seat.

Another time, on a particular, milestone birthday, Husband became welded to the bed due to a debilitating burst of labyrinthitis- an unpleasant condition causing nausea, vomiting and drunken-like staggering and which takes weeks to overcome using religious observance of an exercise regime. This has recurred, at a time when I am crippled by my [previously explained] foot problem.

The result is that we have begun to consider our property, our house and garden somewhat larger than it was before. The garden [my responsibility] seems to be growing in size as it also burgeons forth with spring growth. The house stretches into seeming endless rooms filled with cobwebs, dust and worse-scuffed paint and dingy carpets.

This is an age old dilemma. No one wants to leave the home they have nurtured and loved for so many years. Once you have lavished care, thought, elbow grease and vast amounts of money on a house it becomes part of the fabric of your life, your history and your family. You think of all the life events it has supported, both the crises and the celebrations. You think of all the meals prepared and consumed, the comfortable nights of sleep, the books read curled up on a snug sofa, the work undertaken, the visitors entertained, the barbecues enjoyed, winter evenings by the wood burner. You wonder how on earth it will be possible to re-create such a congenial environment anywhere else at all.

But above all it makes you face the stark nature of ageing and allows you an unnerving view of the future. In his nineties my father fought with every frail bone in his body to maintain his independence and stay in his own home, despite his failing health, but nothing could prevent his having to go to a care home, the very place he feared and hated.

As yet we are far from this state. But the strange phenomenon of time accelerating as you grow older makes me realise it could be better to make changes sooner rather than later. What a dilemma!