Saturday 29 August 2020

Is the war over yet?

Do you remember, back in 2005, when former Japanese soldiers Yoshio Yamakawa and Tsuzuki Nakauchi emerged from the jungle on the island of Mindanao, 600 miles from Manila? You may not remember their names but they’d been hiding in the mountains since US troops devastated their division in 1945. They were unaware that world war 2 had ended 60 years before, and were afraid that they would be court-martialled for desertion. So they’d hidden in the trees. 

In May 2005, as old men, they emerged from their hiding place in the Philippines, asking to go home.

Another Japanese soldier, Hiroo Onoda, secreted himself in the jungle on Lubang Island near Luzon, in the Philippines, until 1974, because he didn’t believe that the war had ended. It was only after his elderly former commanding officer was flown in to see him that he surrendered.

Speaking of emerging, for a variety of reasons we’ve hardly emerged from our house over the last month. But 30-odd days is not the same as 60 years. And our comfortable home isn’t a cave in the woods or mountains of a foreign land. 

Last week I was explaining to a visitor that our cleaning ladies hadn’t resumed their duties since lockdown. They felt it was too covid-risky to be travelling and working from house to house. And I agreed with them.

‘What? After five months? And they still haven’t gone back to work?’ he exclaimed. 

He felt, rightly or wrongly, that they should be going out to work. 

But I have some sympathy for their plight. I am very risk-averse and only now am I considering doing anything as brave as having my hair cut. When I do go out to the shops or travel on a train - in the next couple of weeks - I’m sure it will feel like I’m emerging from my own jungle hideout. But emerge I must before I start growing roots! How must those veterans have felt in hiding for all those decades? We are struggling after just five months locked-away. 

The last time I walked into Bath it was a blazing hot day in late July. About a month ago. It isn’t simply covid-19 that has isolated me for the last four weeks and kept me at home. After a mammoth gardening session, lasting a week from late July to early August, my trapped nerve and old knee injury were so aggravated that I couldn’t walk. August, for me, has been a bit of a write-off. But there’s so much to do at home, it seems. 

Over the last two days I’ve carried huge whips of brambles and climbing roses, thankfully a friend initially used the secateurs. And I’ve dug soil, transported soil, tipped soil, you-name-it I’ve done it with soil. And I’m waiting for my knee and trapped nerve to hurt in response to all this hefty gardening. I’ve hardly had time to poke my head above the parapet and ask ‘Is the war over yet?’

Sunday 23 August 2020

Aargh! Our ceiling’s just collapsed!

My plan for today was simple: take my Observer voucher to our little shop, exchange it for the paper, buy bacon, make breakfast and settle down to read the news. Thence to write about how lucky we are to live in a quiet part of a lovely city and happy to have plans to go away once schools are finally back. That’s if schools do go back and teachers are able to take up their posts safely. I’d want lots of assurances that I could wear a see-through mask and have a perspex screen from which to conduct lessons if I were contemplating teaching in my old classroom once more. Currently I feel very uncertain that teachers and pupils will be safe from covid. However I see plans for less movement around school buildings and shorter days are in place in some institutions. I see little detail about sanitising and mask-wearing, though.

With few thoughts other than a leisurely Sunday to look forward to I listened to BH with one of my favourite broadcasters and went downstairs to make tea, feed the cat and get Richard’s meds ready.

As I entered our breakfast room it looked as if our cat, Nelson, had torn apart two cushions and left the inards on the floor. I got closer and called him. The table cloth I’d put down was covered in grit and once inside the room the full horror of a fallen ceiling met my eyes. It wasn’t the cat’s fault. Some dodgy plasterboard, which had needed replacing for years rather than months, had collapsed. The carpet was covered in grey slabs which broke up even more as I handled them. 

I’d planned to get to our shop soon after 10:00 am before Maya ran out of Observers but by 10:20 am I was still clearing, hoovering, trying to feed the cat in a clear area of 30cm square and making a pot of tea.

By 10:30 am I’d tidied enough such that the worst of the plaster board and insulation was in a huge plastic bag on the patio. I’d rung our builder who advised wearing a mask just in case fibres got to me. And the carpet was slightly damp. A leak! Water must have forced the flimsy plasterboard south. 

This isn’t the first collapsed ceiling that I’ve dealt with. I’m reminded of a similar state of affairs,  that equally took me by surprise, but that was almost forty years ago. 

When Richard and I moved into our first house, about three weeks before we married, he was still teaching full time. And, although we’d moved house on the Friday he went back into school that evening to act as Judge Hathorne in the school production of ‘The Crucible’. I’d moved house, essentially, with friends. One loaded her very large estate car with much of our belongings. A van from Somerset arrived with my mother-in-law’s furniture, ( she was moving into a care home), lots of men friends helped me carry boxes and ‘white goods’ into the appropriate rooms and by the evening I felt settled. 

Lo and behold, just as I felt a good day’s work had been had by all, I went into the bathroom and witnessed the ceiling light fall to the floor, as if in slow motion, followed by tons of insulation. We’d known the ceiling was dodgy and already had quotes from builders to get the work done. In time. Not the night of moving in.

Weeks before I’d rehearsed Richard’s lines with him, in our rented flat, surrounded by packing crates. I couldn’t wait to move to our own house with our own garden and kitchen. I didn’t bank on having a bathroom we couldn’t use...

And again, this morning, the same sight faced me. Plasterboard all over the show, albeit only a fraction of the total ceiling area. 

We have our builder coming tomorrow. But, as I relax, finally, 12 hours after discovering the collapsed ceiling, I’ve put my feet up and am ready to peruse The Observer. It’s not been a relaxing day. After lunch I discovered even more plasterboard behind a glass-fronted cabinet and a drip, drip, drip from somewhere rather too close to electric sockets. This afternoon was spent emptying the cabinet, moving it, clearing up even more debris and cobbling together a meagre meal of roast duck. That was around 5:00pm. 

My family thinks it’s best to get the work done rather than rely on house insurance pay outs, which can take an age to process. That will be a decision for tomorrow, by which time I will wake up and plan my day as if it’s a Sunday all over again. I feel I’ve lost a day today. As I draw the bedroom curtains and shut the windows I remember the optimism I felt when I opened them. I did not then know the state of our breakfast room floor, nor the work that lay ahead. And yet I still feel lucky. 

News from India, Belarus, The Yemen, Beirut, Syria, our own unemployed and those fearing eviction is so much worse. Falling plasterboard is unlikely to be the worst thing endured by those people at this time. Our television, internet, lights, cooker, electricity, warm running water and safe, cold drinking water are still at hand. I count my blessings. Falling plasterboard is a set back, not a way of life, and it hasn’t, as yet, affected anything else in the house. 

On Wednesday the weather looks fair. I shall enjoy it. And make up for today. 

As you were...

Friday 14 August 2020

But it’s just not British!

We are to be beset with these ‘tropical days’ ( BBC Weather’s words, not mine) until Tuesday it seems. 

For the third night in a row I have changed beds at 4 am and 5 am respectively. After a time the marital bed gets simply too hot and I transfer, first, to the sofa bed. 

Last night (and the night before that) even the sofa bed was in a room that felt as though the doors from three heat-blasting ovens had been left open. My sojourn there didn’t last long. 

Yesterday, downstairs at 5 am, I opened the back door and all the kitchen windows. I wanted a through draft in the coolest room of the house. Our living room does stay at a survivable temperature while the rest of our home is finding it hard to breathe.

My bed, on the six foot, four-seater sofa, yields a comfortable sleep. And yesterday  it was already made up with sheets and pillows. Indeed we have had guests who chose to sleep on the long sofa rather than bother with a fold-up bed. It suits me. My gammy knee prevents me from wrestling with furniture, however light-weight and foldable it may be.

The forecast for hereonin is thunder and one or two heavy showers every twenty four hours until Tuesday and this is only Thursday. Nights continue to be ‘tropical’. Hardly British! 

Yesterday I didn’t even attempt to sit outside. There was something menacing, powerful even, about the heat on our patio. I pity anyone who had to work in temperatures of 30 degrees plus (86 F). Apparently the humidity factor made it feel even hotter than that. And we just aren’t set up for domestic air conditioning in the UK. If we survive the 2020 plague having air con installed might be a good investment. Our summers are getting hotter.

Apart from sleep deprivation my moonlight flits from room to room necessitate remembering a kit bag that I transport with me: my water bottle, wheat bag, co codamol and eye mask. As it gets lighter outside my eyes need the mask. My gammy knee requires a supply of strong painkiller and the joint-soothing wheat bag that I heat up in the microwave, although that act seems like masochism when one is already so hot. And I always have water nearby. At dawn, yesterday, I had the early flickerings of a migraine. A sure sign of overheating, tiredness and dehydration.

Looking back Lockdown, for us, hasn’t been too tricky. We have a large enough home and garden to spread ourselves out in. So much so I hadn’t seen our cat much over the last 24 hours. He would have been sheltering in a dark knell under the cool, leafy shrubs in the garden or in the woods opposite. But he was very hungry when he did return from his away day. No sooner had he fed, at 5 am, than he was out again. It’s simply too hot for him indoors. And as soon as he hears my movements on the stairs he waits for me to feed him. Only then can I resume sleep.

However, Lockdown, my husband’s illness, a painful knee and tropical nights require coping strategies on my part. And a lot of patience and adaptability. But I keep my life simple and, at the moment, I don’t expect too much. But I do need my sleep. 

I read that the modern concept of sleeping for eight hours at a stretch is in contrast with the medieval way of life. Apparently it was quite usual, then, to sleep for four hours, to wake and eat, then to resume a long, deep sleep until morning. I appear to be medieval in my habits. At least while we have this heat wave. 

Next week I promise myself that, providing my knee allows me to walk any distance, I will resume a healthy sleep, eating and exercising regime. But the temperatures have got to drop down from tropical for me to return to a life of discipline and good habits. Just walking upstairs brings me out in a sweat and my knee injury prevents me from tackling steps, either up or down. 

When temperatures are less tropical we will meet friends in our gardens, again. And sitting outside in drizzle is much more British. The challenge will come in November when the air is dank, patio tubs are devoid of colour and it just isn’t pleasant to sit outside for long. And it will be dark by 5 pm. 

Let’s hope for a vaccine against covid-19 sometime during the winter months of 2020-2021 so that we may resume enjoying life as it used to be, indoors - and out. 

(Then we can tackle climate change.)

Saturday 8 August 2020

What makes a happy neighbourhood?

 This morning I half heard a radio discussion about happy neighbourhoods. One interviewee found it hard to move off his concern about defining the term ‘happy’ but I quickly tuned into ‘features of a happy neighbourhood’ being put forward by another.

These features included:

  • The area has lots of trees. 
  • You can move around in it without a car.
  • You can find essentials nearby. 
  • It is a safe area ie the crime rate is low or non-existent.
  • It offers easy access to medical care. 
  • It offers a variety of housing types. 
  • It looks appealing.

As he rattled off the list I pricked up my ears. It sounded like our neighbourhood. ‘We’ ticked all the boxes. Smug? Moi?

During the early weeks of lockdown we came to appreciate the friendliness and helpfulness of our neighbours, big time. Suddenly our small corner shop closed. I panicked (well maybe panic is far too active a verb in my case). I really did get concerned about our daily milk, though. I always have enough strong flour and yeast for bread baking. But fresh milk is a basic necessity. With our supermarkets unable to deliver to us more than once a month fresh produce like milk needed to be bought more frequently than that. Neither my husband or I are drivers at the moment. Our nearest mini market and farmers’ market is down a hill. That’s not the issue. It’s the image of pushing the loaded trolley back uphill with vats of milk that became troublesome to me. Something had to be done. The prospect of black tea was more than just an added lockdown inconvenience. It was adaptive behaviour taken far too far.

I remember so clearly that a couple of days after lockdown was posited by our PM a local WhatsApp group was set up for people to request and offer support. I dived in. 

By March 20th I had two neighbours shopping for me. One was an unknown until I contacted the WhatsApp support group and the other were neighbours who asked if I wanted anything from the supermarket when I was chatting to them in the road. The first night my WhatsApp shopper delivered my groceries she was wearing a long Barbour mac and stood under a man-sized black umbrella about 4 metres away from our front door. It was evening, dark and wet. We hadn’t yet changed our clocks to summer time. 

That first night of relying on others seems an age ago but as I write we are still in lockdown, we still need grocery deliveries, we are still not using our car and the country has the worst death rate from coronavirus per million population by a very long chalk. Yet we live in a very supportive neighbourhood. And I came to appreciate that support even more as that first black, wet March night turned into long, hot April afternoons. Especially when our new WhatsApp friend brought us homemade ice cream and lots of lovely goodies. Another neighbour left a cream tea on our doorstep and others brought veg, milk... yes milk, and meats.

The permitted hourly walks people took past our front garden meant there was always someone to chat to, provided I stood behind my plague-resist gate. When I did go for walks the roads were quiet, the sky sizzled in the heat and it felt like being on an Easter holiday in Cyprus.

Then we came to May. Neighbourliness got even more interesting when I put out plants and books, on our front wall, with the necessary hand sanitisers, for charity sales. I got glowing feedback, made significant amounts of money for worthy causes, and I felt I’d given something back to the community of which I truly felt part. I enjoyed doing it and all the time I stayed behind my plague-resist gate.

But I was getting tired. Every night I had to cover the items I was selling and every morning ensure everything was sanitised. I washed the money that was dropped into the honesty box, some coins lost forever down the plughole! and I was collecting tomato plants from other neighbours whom I’d never met and transporting them to neighbours who were in strict lockdown through medical necessity. It was busy, busy,busy. I was also hardening off my French beans, my courgette plants and watering and feeding the veggie plot at the far end of our long garden.  But it was a productive life and a friend helped me by getting in garden gravel, compost in bags and huge amounts of bark. He also put my raised beds on legs so that I didn’t have to bend to weed and water them. 

Once all my vegetables were established outside and the charity sales came to their natural end I began to relax. Supermarket deliveries became more frequent. A close neighbour automatically added my fresh produce needs to her shopping list and the immediate issues from the start of lockdown dissipated. I took to reading The New Yorker while lounging around on my mother’s old but well-preserved deckchair in the middle of our lawn. Life seemed sweet indeed.

I certainly felt we were very lucky to live in such a lovely area, with long gardens and plenty of space. And the weather was fantastic. We surely met the criteria for a happy neighbourhood!

Another list of features of a good neighbourhood, from Bonava, a residential building company in Northern Europe, a development of the Swedish construction company NCC AB, includes:

  • Has common places where you can enjoy spending time (eg a pub, a park, a cafe with outdoor seating during lockdown)
  • You are close to friends and family.(Neighbours become good friends.)

  • Provides easy access to culture and other leisure activities ( in our case a walk down a hill to reach the culture)
  • The area and its buildings has an attractive appearance and architecture (That’s certainly true of the city of Bath)
  • Facilitates a healthy lifestyle, with easy access to sports and excercise activities ( plenty of lovely walks near our house) 
  • It supports an environmentally sustainable lifestyle ( new allotments have just been created with great concern taken over local inhabitants-human, animal and plant)
  • It has a good reputation. (Erm. Ask the estate agents.)
  • Neighbours and other people in the area have good relationships. (See above!)
  • Is conveniently located to health care and other public service ( a library and community hall are available outside lockdown )
  • Has good accessibility to own parking.Tick - at least by our houses.
  • Is close to parks and green areas.Tick
  • It has a good vibe and atmosphere.Yes.I think so 
  • Is pedestrian and bike-friendly.Tick. 
  • Is close to public transport ( yes - if we wear masks - we have a really good, safe bus service)
  • It feels safe to be in for you and your close ones.Tick.

Again our neighbourhood ticked all the boxes. We truly were collectively happy.

But by June the temperatures dropped. Fewer people were walking past. The rains came. The covers went on. And we retreated indoors. I was still busy but my time was spent on Zoom pub quizzes and book group discussions. I was cooking hearty meals from scratch. And I needed slug prevention aids. But I still couldn’t get to the garden centres...And I was meeting friends in our garden - at a safe distance - but the change in weather meant I got a cold from too much sitting about in cool, near-drizzle conditions. And, of course, the grass grew.

And then my spirits lifted. Early in July warm, dry days were interspersed with showery cooler ones. Some showers were very heavy. I rarely used the garden hose but my vegetables and patio plants grew loud and long. But ... best of all...our little corner shop reopened. They provided hand sanitisers, a screen between themselves at the till, and us, the customers, and never again did I have to worry about running out of fresh milk. We truly did fit all the criteria for a happy neighbourhood with ...

‘Is conveniently located nearby grocery stores

However I’d put on 4 pounds during lockdown so I neglected the garden for over a fortnight, stopped baking bread and cakes and for almost three weeks I went out for an hour’s walk a day. And it worked. My bathroom scales showed a better result. 

But to every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. The garden just went mad. Both rose arches weighed down their cast iron supports, wretched bindweed grew everywhere and engulfed everything. The grass was so long it looked as if we’d been out of the country for six weeks. Operation garden reconstruct began. 

With a friend’s help we now have two respectable rose arches, a trim forsythia shrub, a lopped, slender laburnum tree, the stump of a dead weedy, unwanted dog rose, a trimmed cherry tree and a very neat laurel hedge. And because we live in a happy neighbourhood, no-one complained about the bonfire we had in order to shift the garden waste. And my lovely neighbour lent us her green garden waste bin for the surplus twigs, leaves, branches and clippings. 

We began August with a much neater, pruned, light garden. Tomorrow I will be back on the deck chair with The Observer or The New Yorker. That is, if, now I’ve injured myself with too much ‘slash & burn’ gardening, I can actually get up the garden steps to lounge around on the lawn. 

Today has been hot. The garden is splendid. But I could barely walk and another kindly neighbour brought me round a packet of his co codamol as my knee was causing me some grief. 

Thankfully Richard was well enough to get to the pharmacy on foot and the chemist finally got my script right. I’d waited a week for the co codamol that I need on prescription for a trapped nerve. For some reason my knee has been extremely painful for the past three days and it’s no fun when you can’t actually walk well enough to get to the pharmacy to pick up the much-needed painkillers. 

Having got over the rationing of milk at the start of lockdown, in late March when the nights were long and wet, I’m now rationing my painkillers. The nights are short, the weather warm, the garden’s looking good and we have had improvements to the house made by chaps who wore masks and were socially distant. But I can barely walk! Having spent all these months acting as a carer and cook-housekeeper-gardener I can barely get up the stairs to use the loo or go for a lie down!!

Thank goodness we live in a happy neighbourhood where people help when you just can’t manage. As the writer Fay Weldon once said to me, regarding a character in my fledgling short story she was critiquing for me, ‘Everyone needs help at some time. Put that in the dialogue, Nina.’ 

(With heartfelt thanks to the Social Raglan WhatsApp group who have proved we live in a happy neighbourhood.)