The Bilberry Cottage Chronicles

Friday January 1st 2010

Relief – Brian and I are now alone to enjoy not only the post-festive slump but also the post-move collapse. Having bought at the beginning of September, we finally took possession of Bilberry Cottage on December 8th 2009 after 3 months of work including some re-plumbing and wiring, rather more re-plastering and a complete redecoration. Work still outstanding comprises a new oak floor in hall (original parquet collapsed beyond redemption), a front porch and what we had hoped would be a 4 foot balcony off the master bedroom but which (thanks to kill-joy Middletown planners) are French doors currently opening into thin air, to be made safe with decorative iron railing and complemented by pergola-style open porch over the kitchen door.

Built in 1927 (the exact year of 2 other of our now 7 Middletown abodes), in buying Bilberry Cottage it could be said that Brian and I have returned to our roots. In fact, we have regressed 30 years as in 1980 I wanted to buy this very house but was disappointed by Brian who didn’t like the look of a crack in the back bedroom wall. In the intervening years that issue had been dealt with by the construction of a two story rear extension which, together with a pretty conservatory, meant that the once-rejected dwelling now offered just the right amount of accommodation for downsizing Merchants. The remaining cracks on the staircase, bedroom ceilings and kitchen walls seemed less daunting in the knowledge that we had bought under budget and therefore had the “readies” for swift remedial action. When I say we bought under budget, I don’t mean to give the impression that, despite our 2 years of renting and waiting, we bagged a bargain. It was the vendors’ lucky day when my eye alighted on an estate agent’s email which, mirabile dictu, actually contained something of interest. Once again this modest semi, on a main road within walking distance of the town centre, spoke to me of a gentler era of magnolias and wisteria, open fireplaces , sun shining through stained glass, a range-master cooker and squirrels through the kitchen window. Apparently it said something rather different to Brian – a sinister susurration of subsidence underlying the strident demands of lawns needing cutting and windows wanting painting. I was not to be denied a second time, however, and with the possibly over-optimistic promise of a substantial amount left over to plump up an undernourished pension plan – Reader, I convinced him!

Saturday 2nd January

I wake up feeling unusually perky and decide on the spur of the moment to invite a few friends over for a New Year drink (and a look at the house, of course). Brian is not enthusiastic, expressing doubts that the house can accommodate 16 people, even for a couple of hours. Undaunted, I throw open the doors to the conservatory and switch the stove to maximum. Predictably, Brian starts to lecture me about Saving the Planet (and our electricity bill) and I tell him to Get a Life. The evening goes well even though most of the guests prefer to huddle in the 12x12 living room while my lovely candle-lit conservatory stands empty. People say kind things about the decor and only a couple fall foul of the difference in floor levels between the hall (new concrete base laid before Xmas) and the rest of the ground floor rooms, unwittingly giving the impression that the alcohol content of the mulled wine was generously high.

Monday 4th January

Brian is back to work and Sir William and I have the house to ourselves. William or Wesley as Brian has taken to calling him (Wesley Barrel – argh!) has in many ways adjusted well to the move. He appreciates having his own private facilities – a litter tray in downstairs cloakroom where the loo has been removed pending new flooring – and, when not sharing our bed, has claimed the “Blue Bonnet” bedroom as his own, doubtless on account of the over-sized radiator. Our other, front facing guest room is “Cookies n’Cream” while the Master is Garden Greenery – or so they will be designated when I enrol Bilberry Cottage on an international house swop website. I just know the Texans will find it “mighty purty” – as long as walking into town is not compulsory. While the house has had the Sir William Merchant seal of approval, The Great Outdoors is, somewhat surprisingly, a different kettle of fish (Whiskas Tuna in jelly it is NOT). The frontage giving onto the road is, of course, verboten and therefore regularly and keenly observed from the dining room window sill. The fairly extensive, private south –facing back garden is freely available but never taken advantage of for long – 10 minutes being about the average with the exception of an alarming 3 hour absence which only came to a happy end when Brian (with the aid of his trusty planet-saving wind-up torch) discovered him apparently turned to stone under the gaze of a feline femme fatale from “over the back”. In the weeks before we left our rental house in Twitcher’s Turning, William had suffered at the paws – and jaws – of a malevolent neighbouring dark grey cat who, on the day before His Lordship’s booking at L’Hotel des Chats, had inflicted some nasty tummy bites, necessitating a 24 hour delay and thus exposing My Darling to more of the removal upheaval than he, or I, would have wished. I have it on good authority (next door neighbours) that Mrs Tabby has no such evil intent and I am inclined to agree as a crafty kip in our greenhouse would appear to be the summit of her territorial ambition but Sir W is unconvinced and her presence plus a great deal more wildlife than he has encountered in many a year has made a big dent in his expeditionary zeal.

Thursday 7th January

The view from my kitchen window is so lovely. Of course the snow lends its own magical effect and we have kept the red berry lights in the big magnolia tree even though Christmas is officially over. It is so restful not to see another house or fence, just lawn and trees and shrubs and the old green house which Good Friend and I have claimed as our own and plan to renovate this summer. Brian is to have an all singing all dancing log cabin of his own complete with veranda and chimoniere to which he will retreat and defend against female intervention. Despite the warnings of more seasoned gardening friends, I love to watch the antics of the squirrels (of which we, so far, have just enough at 5 or 6) and am developing an interest in bird life. Who can resist a pair of friendly robins or the blue and yellow bobbing tits – oh dear, that does sound awful. Even the ubiquitous magpies and comic prehistoric-looking “woodies” make me smile. We think there is a fox and have been told to expect a pheasant in the summer. Can’t wait for spring and magnolia and crab apple blossom and then I can get planting. I want roses, all kinds and lots of them and peonies, lupins, sweet peas, lavender and hollyhocks and then I’ll swan about in a big hat and an old silk dress like Virginia Woolf and drink tea with my girlfriends from 1920’s floral china cups (or cocktails from the 2005 Texan Margarita glasses) and pretend... until Brian comes home and wants to know what’s for dinner.

Saturday 9th January

For the past seven years, both here and abroad, we have enjoyed the benefits of a four/five bedroomed detached house with generous double garage. The latter never saw a car of course but was put to good use almost exclusively by Brian as his own personal warehouse, not only for the storage of things which have and/or do come in handy from time to time but also those items which mostly don’t but might do “one day” and whose disposal would be nothing short of a cataclysmal event. At Bilberry cottage we have a garage but it is old, detached from the house and, although bearing the description “tandem”, just does not have the storage capacity required of it by Brian. Within its confines, we inherited a couple of sturdy if cumbersome work benches and also a number of old discarded wardrobes and chests which Brian could not bring himself to say we didn’t want despite having a truck load of his own. The garage has two large windows and is smothered in honeysuckle, prompting me to day dream (in vain) of converting it into a summerhouse, ladies and cats of leisure for the use of. It might as well have no windows at all now as both are completely obscured by removal boxes and the door is rapidly becoming redundant as it is not possible to enter by more than 6 inches before running the risk of a horrible demise by crushing, impalement or terminal despair. Despite having acquired a nice new commodious fridge/freezer (but not “American” style as planned (the relevant alcove having been condemned as too narrow by He who loves to say NO), it is still necessary at certain times (Christmas being one of them) to make use of back-up appliances in the garage. Expressly forbidden by Brian to as much as open the garage door without supervision, I now have absolutely no idea what delicacies might be mouldering or suffering freezer burn within its murky recesses and, as bad weather has prevented any further “sorting out” (in which I am to have no say) it will probably be another seven years before I find out.

Sunday 10th January

While Brian is attempting to retrieve an Aldi fish pie from the freezer in the garage, I decide to have a look in the more substantial of the 2 garden sheds in the lower half of our plot. I expected to find it empty and was therefore very annoyed to find a number of bulging sacks which I naturally assumed had been negligently left behind by the vendors. Initial investigation left me nonplussed as they appeared to contain lots of oblong wooden blocks, most of which were tarred on the underside with a sticky black substance. As the penny dropped, the next colour I saw was red – bloody, flaming red!! Here was our former hall floor, the wood so worn and stained with bitumen that it was, by mutual agreement, (or so I thought) deemed of no further use to man not beast and therefore to be consigned to – whisper it – The Tip. It was a pity I hadn’t noticed one of our lovely neighbours making a trip to his dustbin just as I let rip about Brian’s dirty little secret in the garden shed.

Wednesday 13th January

Aided and abetted by Good Friend, I am hooked on Charity shops – so much lovely loot at pocket money prices. Where once I might have looked to add to my wardrobe (not as much fun at size 14-16 as at 10-12 of yesteryear) nowadays it is all about china(books, pictures, kitchen ware etc etc) Somewhat awkwardly, Good Friend and I share similar although fortunately not identical tastes but have an unspoken agreement that she who first sees, exclaims or touches has first dibs and so far we have managed to avoid any unseemly eye-scratching scenes. Recently we have branched out to auctions with gratifying success although our expeditions seem to have struck terror in the heart of Brian who made a quite unnecessary fuss about being asked to collect a raspberry pink Lloyd Loom chair and matching linen basket although has since been mollified by the surprise gift of a brand new tree branch lopper, secured for an unbelievable two quid.

Sunday 17th January

As Sir W is not allowed out of the front door but might make a sudden break for freedom, we have got in the habit of ringing the doorbell when we come home as the old-fashioned “bring bring” has him running for cover if anywhere in the vicinity. I returned home at 10pm tonight to be admitted by Brian in a state of great agitation. My concerned enquiry as to what was the matter brought a startlingly dramatic announcement “We can’t go on like this!!”. I followed him into the living room to find a scene of wanton desecration – laptop flung to one side, a broken wine glass, contents on the rug. Dumbfounded, I went through to the kitchen to fetch a cloth, nobly quashing any complaints about the loss of a favourite vessel and silently pondering just what is was about my brief attendance at a colleague’s 65th birthday party which had apparently brought our 33 year old marriage to an end. Further enquiry left me relieved on one count but seriously alarmed on another as Brian wildly continued his insistence that it was too stressful and had to stop, that he really couldn’t go on “having people ringing the doorbell when they want to come in”. Male menopause, anyone?

Thursday 21st January

Now it is Sir W’s turn to be in a snit. Sadly I have no idea what lapse on my part has triggered this major sulk and naturally, being male (of sorts), he expects me to know without being told. When I tried to get close to him as he snoozed in front of his favourite radiator in Blue Bonnet, he immediately slithered into the Sir W shaped bunker between the boxes under the bed and glared out balefully, just out of reach. I suppose it is possible he has come out in sympathy with Brian but more likely that I allowed Good Friend to sit on Sir W’s end of the sofa without first removing his blanket or forgot to replenish his water glass to its preferred level or some other treasonable offence. I’ll just have to serve out my sentence and sleep apart from My Beloved tonight although Brian will be there as usual, trying, as he has since before Christmas, to find out from Robert Peston “Who Runs Britain” before slumber overtakes him – about 7 minutes on average.

Sunday 24th January

My sunny kitchen window sill is excellent for growing things. A formerly moribund cactus has burst into flower and my African violet is a vision of dark blue gorgeousness. Spring bulbs are flourishing and I have successfully cultivated 2 cafe au lait cups (Carrefour circa 1987) of cat grass for the delectation of Sir W. One has been placed by his dishes for a couple of days but, disappointingly, doesn’t appear to have been sampled. I am vacillating over an internet holiday booking (singularly lacking in encouragement from my other half) when I received a bellowed message from above: “YOUR cat has been sick all over our bedroom carpet!”. I attend the scene of the crime to discover a humiliated Sir W busily disowning a few chunks of regurgitated something or other, more up the French window than down on the carpet. Making soothing noises (“Nasty Daddy, fuss about nothing, don’t you worry”) I begin the mop-up and Lo! amid the effluvium, a blade of nice fresh cat grass. Good job Brian has already taken himself up into the loft for the afternoon, there to brood on the leaking chimney which has spoilt the pristine decor of Cookies n’Cream and upset his renovations budget with the exorbitant cost of replacement lead.

Thursday 28th January

The front porch comes on apace and now the concrete has set I can escape from house arrest and make my debut appearance (of this year) at the Middletown School swimming pool. Just a pity that there are no builders present to witness my sportily attired departure as I’ve got the distinct impression that delivery of their first cup of tea at 11am while still in dressing gown and slippers has not gone down very well. Apparently the Boss Man’s wife is up at 6 am, rain or shine, to exercise her horse. Yeah and ......

Saturday 30th January

I am increasingly fond of my new (to me) range cooker. It is a very pleasing shade of Royal Blue and, so far, has proved a very simple and reliable kitchen companion. Fan assisted oven it may not have but it has roasted and baked to perfection and, best of all, rice pudding and tender, slowed-cooked casseroles are now back on the menu. In fact, I am very pleased altogether with my somewhat eclectic Mexican (tiling) Farmhouse (pine units) high tech (stainless steel appliances) retro (cooker) kitchen. Cooking apart, I may not find most domestic chores any more palatable but at least I have a smile on my face when I’m doing them.

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