Friday 27 April 2007

Friends as books

Photo deliberately blurry to protect the innocent!

Woke up to the sound of rain coming through the bedroom window (yes, you did read that right) and knew it had to be tipping it down. Hurrah, I thought and turned over and went back to sleep. Heavy rain means no football and no football means not having to stand, frozen-footed, on the edge of some godforsaken windswept pitch watching our team getting thrashed again.
So instead I get to stay home, catch up on the washing and snatch a few minutes to blog. While I can justify the odd half-hour during the working week, I do feel a tad guilty about abandoning my family while I sneak up here. But Adrian is out walking Asbo – gone to survey the large branch that came down in the night and to look for deer while James is enjoying a rare lapse of parental control and is stuck solid to the PlayStation.

I had a wonderful night out last night with some of my best mates and this morning I still have that warm fuzzy feeling that excellent food and fabulous conversation give (and, because I was driving, I’m not suffering from the usual payback for such evenings!). Neighbours may be the bread and butter of country life (they pull you out of ditches, patch up your fence when the horses sneak out onto the road, round up the young bullocks that have gone AWOL and are rampaging around the plantation and so on) but friends are the coffee walnut sponge of rural living.

Last night we gathered at Katharine’s for supper. A sort of Last Supper really as she has, reluctantly, decided that she is spending too much time on the road, ferrying her girls to two different schools and that it would be sensible, practical and cheaper to move to Wellington. We are all totally glum about this but trying to keep positive and bolster up her failing courage.
‘Oh I love this house,’ I said, with a supreme lack of tact, as I walked through the door of the Manse. It’s tucked away down a tiny alleyway behind the Chapel, playing hide and seek amidst a huddle of old cottages and ancient mills by the leat.
‘No! Don’t say that,’ said Katharine, horrified. ‘I’m not sure I can bear to leave it.’
‘Oh, I was only being polite,’ I replied firmly, back-peddling furiously. ‘Awful place really. Must be damp down by the river. Far too big and expensive to heat. It’s a nightmare.’
She laughed, but a little hollowly.

Katharine should be in a Jane Austen novel. She has a sort of puzzlement with the modern world, a permanent mild confusion, a sense of worry that wraps her like a shroud. She lives in genteel poverty (the Manse is rented and she scrapes a living doing translation), thanks to her ex-husband, a rather delicious Frenchman who had the unlikely twin careers of horse-wrangler and photographer. She is really as smart as a whip and has a big generous heart. Why no man has had the wit to snatch her up is beyond me. Though, when she talks about the Frenchman, a look of wistfulness flits across her face and I suspect that if he came to his senses and begged enough, he might still stand a chance (why isn’t real life like fiction?).

Which made me think, if Katharine is a Jane Austen heroine, what are the rest of my friends? Looking round the table, I thought what a varied bunch they are. If I lived in a city, I would never have met most of them – but the country is a great leveller and the bliss is that you don’t just end up being friends with people who do the same job as you. Take Gill, ex-midwife, whose husband farms land that has been in the family for generations. Their dairy herd was wiped out by TB and now they raise chickens (and quake at the mere mention of bird flu) and are diversifying into solar panels and bio-fuel. She’s the sensible one in a Jilly Cooper novel. Vicky, on the other hand, lurches straight out of Cold Comfort Farm – another farmer who lives a life of ongoing chaos and drama, whose ancient farmhouse is held up by poles and who has several nasty things in the wood-shed. Carolyn is pure Joanna Trollope – elegant, refined, beautifully dressed and perfectly organised – she is an Aga-saga on long lean Pilates-toned legs. Jools is bonkbuster material – feisty, gutsy, straight-talking and with a vicious sense of humour. She used to run a lovely gallery until it burned to a crisp (which was rather ironic seeing as she is married to one of the local firemen). Chris (a bit Maeve Binchy) has set up a florist business and is supremely creative and successful – yet languishes under a dark cloud of low self-esteem and impending doom. And Lisa, who works in one of my favourite shops and is married to a gamekeeper, is pure chick-lit (she first met her gamekeeper at her own engagement party – but that’s a long story).

We chewed the fat, put the world to rights, indulged in a bit of gossip and did that uniquely female thing of asking Interesting Questions about each other – such as ‘what was your favourite childhood memory?’ and ‘what has been your greatest regret?’ Time passed in a blur and I stayed up far too late and drove back bellowing along to Avril Lavigne, keeping a beady eye out for deer crossing the road (you can’t win round here – if it’s daytime it’s pheasants; if it’s night-time, it’s flipping red deer trying to squash your car).

So today I’m a bit tired, a bit sore-eyed, but very mellow. A fire will be lit; lunch will be tucked into the Aga; no doubt the Monopoly board will be hauled out and I will, once again, be mortgaged to the hilt. Which just goes to show that life really does mirror art (or even games).

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