January 2009

By Martin Kirby

Clever blighters, mice.

January. That deflated balloon of a month, and this year a foolish world wincing with a monumental hangover that won’t go away.

Unusually persistent fog and penetrating dampness followed on the heels of the sierra snow clouds, forcing us to close the Mother’s Garden shutters, feed the farmhouse fires for all our worth and try and take stock.

What were our ambitions for 2009, beyond staying afloat in the storm of recession? Can we make ends meet? Will the holiday cottage bookings come? Can I finish another book and have it published before Christmas? Have people understood our message that fresh olive oil is a life food not a luxury? How will we find more time for ourselves, to break away once in a precious while from the labours which bind us so strongly to this home and land?

There’s January’s worth, I suppose. The blunt questioning, the quest for reason, and the reaffirming of such truths as the finest things in life are free. Then comes the buoyancy of renewed hope, that re-evaluation will return the world from the isolation of self to the sense and support of community, to sharing and understanding.

We have both read President Barack Obama’s books, Dreams of My Father and Audacity of Hope. How absorbing and timely are they, is he.

Last Sunday, finally, the weather turned and within hours of the hoar frost we were crimson-cheeked in the caramel sunlight and still air, down to T-shirts as we freed a hazel that was being choked by brambles. It was mindless, blissful labour in the company of a robin, savouring and sharing one task, clearing one tiny patch, instead of being paralysed by the burden of all that must be faced.

I wandered off to the meadow armed with a tiny spanner to where Nell the tractor has languished for more than a week since she conked out in the slush. I’d been pulling the children on their sledge when the old girl had given up the ghost as she is prone to do when I ask unreasonable things of her.

She was close to the hive where the warmth had stirred the inhabitants filling the air with the hum of life.

Maggie came to hand pump the diesel while I bled the fuel of airlocks. Nell fired and I chugged home relieved.

There were the snow tyres to take off the little Suzuki jeep too, a task I wasn’t relishing, but with Joe Joe’s happy help it was soon done and dusted, then I was in the new vineyard, weeding for a contented half hour to the sound of Maggie rounding chickens and feeding them.

We released the ponies from their grazing tethers and watched them race back to their supper buckets in the corral, then walked the lower terraces between the two laurels that gave up quite a bit of valuable dead wood and badly scratched my face in early December.

Here and there we have piles of brambles and prunings ready for burning, while our wood store is emptying too fast to last the winter.

A four-day visit by people from Peru was welcome income, but it took vast quantities of timber, electricity and paraffin to keep the cottage as toasty as they wanted as night temperatures sank as low as -7 degrees and the snows came.

The wintry storm did not last, but for a couple of day it brought families into the mountains from the coast, their cars dotting the valley as they padded about in Christmas hats and scarves lobbing balls at each other.

For weeks snow piles on village street corners lingered, ash-grey lumps that looked like fake Star Trek rocks, protected from the sun by the depressing fog.

And the cold and damp brought the usual winter mind games in the farmhouse.

If you opt to buy an ancient dwelling with walls consisting merely of rocks in-filled with mud you can rest assured you will never be alone.

There are hundreds of us sheltering within this house and adjoining barn; we four homo-sapiens, two hounds, Jess the burly cat, summer swallows and a scops owl, a mélange of marvellous arthropods and lizards, an infrequent serpent and a town of rodents.

I can deal with the spiders, centipedes, beetles and winged insects. The gecko lizards are more than welcome because they dine on mosquitoes. Rats occasionally risk coming nose to nose with Jess in the barn and we have had one in the house which wasn’t funny. Snakes? Well, we’ve only had two that have made it into our living space.

But the mice . . . The brain-strain regarding them over the past eight years are turning me grey.

The vast majority of the insect and reptile menagerie sort of play by the rules, namely that through the gaping holes in the outside render and into the walls is at far as they get. We try and help them grasp this by ensuring as best we can that the inside of the 18 inch house walls are sealed, the windows are netted and the doors bead-curtained or closed.

I genuinely thought that, after last year’s plugging of the hole that appeared in an old stone arch in the store room I had finally cracked the mice problem. They had tried everything – loose floor tiles, chewing through thin plaster, squeezing through tiny seams in the relatively new upstairs wooden floor – and each time I had fixed it.

I thought I had them beaten. Those I caught were released far away.

Then, just before Christmas, Biba the dog started barking in the night and could be found sitting in the middle of the kitchen, hall or office, head swivelling and eyes scanning the floor in a “which way did it go?” fashion. Calling cards began to appear.

I naively hoped, as I always do, that it might be an isolated incident, namely a single mouse that had shot in through a door and was living in a corner somewhere.

So I set a trap and began tracking the blighter. But he or she seemed to be everywhere and nowhere. The evidence was widespread, but there was no sign of the interloper. I rechecked all the former points of entry and they were still air-tight.

Then I got lucky. Early one morning I came in from the ponies and I was warming by bum against the wood stove while waiting for the kettle to boil when Biba started doing her thing in the hall. My eyes scanned the floor then something struck me as odd.

The corner of the batik cloth that conceals our head-high electrical switchboard under the stairs was moving faintly. Then something dangled for a split second – a tail. I ran to it, lifted the cloth and - nothing.

I peered all around the plastic casing and there, bottom left, was a little hole. I opened the switchboard and inside was the rubble and dust of demented tunnelling. This was the wall of the once weak plaster before I had sealed it, a former outside wall as thick as from your fingertip to your elbow.

I spent the rest of the morning gingerly spooning rapid cement into the holes beneath the fuses like a dentist filling cavities.

Only if and when we raise enough money to re-render the house will the shenanigans cease.

The New Year has been one of several firsts and possibly one last.

On pinch and punch day, after seeing in the New Year beside a roaring fire in the garden, singing songs with mum-in-law Beryl of Mattishall and cooking bangers on a brazier, Maggie and I trundled off in the car with an afternoon walk in mind.

To the south of the farm stands the Sierra de Llaberia, rising to 3000 feet, and on the far side of it, about seven miles as the ravens flies but considerably more by twisty lane, lies the castle village of Pratdip. It sits at the meeting of streams in a cleft in the mountains, en route to nowhere.

What an admission all the same, that in eight years we have only now finally wandered through its alleys and up the steps to the old fortress, and, later, stood in the flowering gorse and heather and looked at the terraces and gardens of a valley so near and yet so far.

That’s like someone from Fakenham never having visited Wells (if you can visualise a mountain range between them).

Back home the children and Nana did the chores, feeding the chickens, ponies, cat and hoopoe.

The crested birds with curled beak, distinctive brown, black and white plumage and far-carrying “poo-poo” call, normally wing it south in the winter, but this year one remained, feeding with the chickens, sparrows and collared doves. Another first.

And as we talked in the first week of the year to those we care about and wished them well there was the very happy thought that babies Balma and Rosalia, born in 2008, are now very much part of our lives, the daughters of our good friends Juan and Carme and Paul and Barny.

As for our babies, there was a tall, good-looking page who carried a flaming torch for one of the three kings on Twelfth Night who (but for the fake beard and make up) looked remarkably like our 13-year-old Ella.

Fireworks and drummers hailedl the arrival of the kings, then out of the night they trundled on tractor trailers to deliver gifts to children in the village.

Mother’s Garden was too far out of their way so, somehow, we managed to get a message to the East that it would be necessary to give Joe Joe his gift in the plaza. Our little man parked his furrow-browed suspicions about the page who was wearing his sister’s boots, and obligingly brimmed with glee that the wise men has heeded his letter requesting a toy farm.

He is a bright spark. He knows an elasticated beard when he sees one.

Maybe we have already had the last Christmas of innocence ...

No Going Back - Journey to Mother's Garden,by Martin Kirby, is published by Little Brown (ISBN 0751535486).

His novel Count The Petals Of The Moon Daisy, published by Pegasus (ISBN 9781903490297) is now a film project. See www.mothersgarden.org.


Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published