Knee deep in this life

By Martin Kirby

Yes, here too. The vagaries of this winter have not been a northern despair alone.
Now we wait. In 2002 less snow than this sapped life from olive leaves and forced us to saw off the crowns of nearly all our trees.
We thought we had won. The 14 inches that fell a few days before Christmas was knocked from branches with rakes and brooms and then thawed almost as swiftly as it had descended. Some boughs had broken but it could have been far worse.
The festive week was dry, clear and warm enough to prepare feast vegetables in the sunny lee of the house. The New Year dawned dreamily, but we listened to news from iced England then gritted our teeth at talk of how we might just catch the tail of a winter storm winging in from the Atlantic.
Might, they said.
Early on January 7, as Maggie set off down the track to take her mum Beryl to the airport after three weeks with us, the first flakes began to fall. By the next morning 18 inches blanketed all, reducing head-high brambles to indentations on the bleached land. It was classically enchanting, but the crush of it brought down already weakened oaks, pines, olives, figs and almonds. Our neighbours were forced to flee their home as part of a towering pine smashed onto their roof, taking their and our power and phone lines with it.
We laboured to clear the defeated olives again, only now there were lumps of ice beneath the mushroom caps of snow. A boar had ploughed its way across the farm. Rodents had burrowed free, their tiny trails fanning out like flowers from snow holes. Unyielding branches were weighed to the ground and even what was left of the wafer-thin phone line had six inches of snow balanced on it.
At least with wood-burner, candles and butane cooker we could close in and ride the storm and devote energy to keeping the animals safe. The kitchen was scented by drying soaks. Sleep was fitful. Then, at 3am, something heavy wandered beneath our window and set off the dogs. I caught sight of the rear of what might have been a boar ghosting by, but it soon dawned that our ponies were out, freed by the visiting stallion (11 times and counting) who had smashed his way into the corral.
By 4.30am the damage was patched and they were penned again, along with their suitor because there was no option. Have you ever tried to lead a reluctant Shetland stallion through knee-deep snow? We had tried to take him home in the dark, but he didn’t walk, he bounded. After covering the best part of an exhausting mile like this I stumbled, fell, was dragged until no more snow could be jammed down the front and back of my coat, then let go.
When, a week on, the earth reappeared, we were almost out of candles and still without phone. As the sun shone and the gutters wept buckets the devastation became clear. The tops of pines that had not snapped off resembled Tom’s tail after Jerry had plugged it into the mains. The ornate 10ft square porch to the cottage was wrecked, and everywhere we looked the view had changed.
You are, I appreciate, more than familiar with this twice or thrice a decade wintry potpourri of infant glee, toboggans, front lawn snowmen, blocked drives, black ice, blue fingers and the nation grinding to a halt.
Here in seriously hilly Spain, though, it is fundamentally different. While we, at circa 1000 feet, were deluged, the cities of Reus and Tarragona 15 miles away down the mountain didn’t see a flake.
So there am I, shovel in hand, looking a tad rustic, trying to do something about digging an escape route through the snow and also punching a hole in the waist-high wall left by the snowplough, when by they glide in slow motion; cardigan sightseers from the tidy suburbs in shiny, climate-controlled saloons. Lots of them. They stared at me open-mouthed from beyond the tinted glass like they were on some surreal 3D fair ride.
Imagine it is your average dry or mildly moist day in Dereham but the word is Wroxham has turned into Lapland. You’d be tempted to check it out. But do the afflicted a favour – don’t. And certainly don’t, as an unbelievable number did here, block tracks and slip lanes to build snowmen and lop snowballs at each other.
And as for the gentleman who lent out of a passing government highways 4x4 and laughingly advised me I would be shovelling forever, I hope he appreciated my Churchillian hand signal denoting digging for Victory.
When things get as sticky and back-achy as this you need a Nepalese Himalayian trekking guide with ayurvedic massage training. It just so happened we had one handy.
Pusker has been with us for nearly two weeks now, staying with Judith, his friend from Switzerland. He used to run a hostel and tour company in Kathmandu, has led countless travellers to Base Camp of Everest and into Tibet, and has warm hands.
Ayurveda is the ancient Hindu “knowledge/science of life” rooted in the metaphysics of the five great elements, earth, water, fire, air and ether. To listen to Pusker explaining its significance to him gives great depth to the history of body and soul. We all need to make up our own minds of where wisdom lies, but if you want to find to learn more see, the Ayurvedic Practitioners Association.
Pusker has spiced up our meals too. I have managed to chomp through a couple of green chilli peppers with steamy consequences, but will never acquire his habit of devouring a handful of them, biting off the top and filling each chilli with Tabasco sauce before munching.

Two important changes to report.
Joe Joe has switched to a larger primary school three miles away and henceforth wishes to be known as Josep. Oh, our little boy is not so little any more.
He has gone from a peer group of just five to one of 40, and is in a class of 20. Reason? He is neither a footballer nor pugilist. That is no reflection on his ex-class, a bright, sporty, tactile bunch. He will miss them, and them he, but he is different beyond his nationality and needed a wider society in which to find core friendships. His new classmates include members of his dance troupe and, it seems, like-minds abound. Let’s hope.
We indulged in some verbal handwringing over supper about how he will cope with switching to such a large group, and Pusker smiled. His mother is from Darjeeling and he was schooled there. The classroom, of typical dimension, had to cater for 70. It became so warm in there that pupils frequently dozed off.
Joe-Joe’s – I mean Josep’s - move ends our nine-year association with the village school, but so be it. The parents’ committee consists of people more than 20 years younger than me and we have done our bit. A new beginning is refreshing for all, we feel.
The other change is nowhere near as significant, but it took Joe Joe – I mean Josep – to solve it.
The need to relocate our hens has been pecking at our consciences for a considerable time. Five years ago I had foolishly fortified an area around a pear tree that has always made the netting of the top ludicrously complicated. It has to be netted to stop the hens escaping when the dogs are roaming, and to dissuade collared doves from eating the corn and eagles from eating the hens.
So, egged on by cousin James and my old Norwich School friend David Moore (on a flying visit from his Toronto home) we picked a tree-free spot 25 metres further along the fruit terrace.
The first problem was the hen house weighed more than a banker’s bonus. The four of us could barely raise it an inch off the well fertilized, very moist and subsequently glutinous ground.
As the adults jabbered on about dragging it with James’s jeep, which would have obviously torn it apart, up stepped the nine-year-old and suggested ancient know-how as applied in the construction of the pyramids.
All we needed to do was to fix planks under the feet and then roll it across three short lengths of telegraph pole that we just happened to have lying around (along with all manner of gumph that, equally, may come in handy one day).
So with ex-second-row forward David pulling, Maggie and James pushing, Muggins lugging the poles from the rear to the front, and Josep cracking the whip, we did it with relative ease and joyful satisfaction.
The second problem was the faintness of chicken brainwaves. We waited for the hens’ approval, but they just wandered about their old ammonia patch clearly aware something was missing but not entirely sure what.
Pusker and Judith rolled up and there then ensued a chicken chasing farce best accompanied by the Benny Hill theme tune - DE-DE-DA-DA-DIDDLE-DIDDLE-DA-DA-DIDDLE-DIDDLE-DA-DA-DIDDLE-DIDDLE-DUM –and Maggie uncomfortably remembered the egg she had put in her pocket.
Hen apprehending forms, it seems, a significant part of a rural Indian upbringing. All the same it was dusk before a muttering Pusker and a laurel bush joined forces to detain the fleetest fowl.

Martin Kirby’s Norfolk novel Count The Petals Of The Moon Daisy is published by Pegasus (ISBN 9781903490297). No Going Back – Journey to Mother’s Garden is published by Little Brown (ISBN 0751535486)
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