dubiously true stories and cartoons

Saturday, February 22, 2014


A few years ago I lived in a 19th Century cottage in a small village in Cambridgeshire with my wife, three children, three goats, six ducks, twelve chickens, a rabbit and two goldfish. We grew mint in a patch of earth under the kitchen window and strawberries in a greenhouse and there were wild blackberries growing in abundance at the bottom of the garden.
Sounds idyllic, doesn’t it? A bit like the TV series The Good Life.
But fiction and fact are rarely the same. The goats were a pain in the arse – they ate all the mint and munched their way through the blackberries and also the bushes they grew on, they smashed their way into the greenhouse and polished off most of the strawberries and they systematically destroyed the goat-house we had built for them before them one of them died in mysterious circumstances in the night. The ducks shat everywhere and the males shagged the females repeatedly until they couldn’t take any more, at which point the males changed tactics (and species) and started on the hens until we were forced to get a rooster to separate them. The rooster crowed from dawn ‘til dusk and the hens finished the rest of the strawberries as well as eating all the grass, before three of them drowned in the duck pond we’d just installed. The rabbit hated me and attacked me whenever I went near it and then died and I accidentally killed the goldfish with some embalming fluid.
There will always be problems associated with keeping that many animals – the daily grind of cleaning them out and the cost of feeding them and checking them out to see if they’re still healthy and the vet bills when they’re not. There was no chance for the family to go away together because no-one with any sense would take on the responsibility of looking after such a large menagerie of beasts and birds. 
On the bright side, we took comfort in the fact that our children were growing up in an environment which would teach them to treat animals with respect – once, that is, we had explained to our two boys that chasing the goats around the garden with sticks was a bad thing. So, although it wasn’t The Good Life, it wasn’t exactly a bad life within the boundaries of our property. The bad life, it turned out, was when we had to leave the safe confines of our animal kingdom and try to mix in with the locals.
Anyone moving from a city into the country will find that things are vastly different. People are not as friendly or as forthcoming in a village as they are in an urban sprawl. In some parts of Lincolnshire you have to have lived there for more than thirty years before anyone will accept you as a member of the community. You can help the church, donate to local charities, go regularly to the local pub but all that counts for nothing because the locals will still think of you as an outsider and regard you with suspicion and mistrust. A friend of mine once told me that after his mother had died he and his father had moved from London into a village in Norfolk in the late fifties, but it wasn’t until his father died over thirty years later that he was accepted by the locals. “Death,” he said sadly, “seemed to be the only way in for outsiders.”
It wasn’t nearly as bad as that where we lived, but moving into a small village is sometimes like turning the clock back fifty or sixty years. Attitudes are different. Men go down the pub while the women stay at home – even if they have no children.
One of the women my wife knew inherited some money after a relative died, which her husband promptly used to buy himself a brand new motorbike, but when his wife came home a week later with a paddling pool for the kids that had cost her the princely sum of £3.99 in Wilkinson, her husband called her a whore and made her take it back.
This same man also complained to his wife that she wasn’t giving him enough sex. Any normal woman would have ignored him and carried on as usual, but his wife insisted that she was providing him with the correct amount – and to prove it she would mark each day she had fulfilled his carnal desires with a tick on the calendar that was hanging in the kitchen.
When my wife and two of her friends went to see her one day they asked her what all the ticks on the calendar meant and the woman stupidly told them. She even elaborated by telling them that her husband had insisted that only full sex counted and that if she treated him to oral sex then it had to be immediately followed by full sex – presumably giving him a few minutes to recover before the second act. The story, as you may imagine, spread around the village like wildfire and whenever this couple came round to see us we always made sure that there were more ticks marked on our calendar than theirs.
By far the worst thing about the village was waiting for the morning bus to pick the kids up and take them to school. When my wife was working as an Art Tutor for the Cambridgeshire County Council she used to wait with the other mothers for the bus to arrive before she went to work. Every night when I got home she used to moan and complain about the women at the bus stop and I used to listen to her and try to calm her down by telling her to just forget about it.
“I can’t forget about it,” she said. “They’re all bitches who talk all the time and say nothing. And that’s when they’re not totally ignoring me because I have a job and they don’t!”
“Come on,” I said. “It can’t be that bad.”
Six months later my wife changed jobs and started working for an accountancy firm in Huntingdon, which meant leaving the house early.
Which meant I had to put the kids on the bus before I left for work.
Now, I’m not saying that my wife and I are the cleverest people in the world, but standing next to these women every morning made me think I was. The boundaries of their conversations with each other never went beyond babies, cleaning and household products. They knew no life at all outside child care, housework and TV soap operas. Two or three of them actually considered it a badge of honour for never having read a book in their entire lives. Ever.
What is strange is that before they were married and had kids they must have been able to hold intelligent conversations with their peers before they all turned into the Stepford Wives. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe they were always like that. Maybe it’s what attracted their husbands to them in the first place.
 "I went to see the new James Bond film last night,” I said to one of them.
“Oh,” she replied vacantly. “Which one?”
Casino Royale,” I told her.
She thought about this with her mouth open for a few moments before saying, “I don’t like James Bond Films.”
“Really? I love them. I always have.”
“Oh no,” she said finally. “He makes too much mess, I just want to clean up after him.”
“Get a fucking life,” I said, “you moronic, empty headed thicko!”
I didn’t really say that – I just thought it because she had already turned her back on me to talk to someone about how the Tesco own brand kitchen cleaner is just as good as Flash, but cheaper.
No wonder my wife used to leave that bus stop angry and upset. Within two weeks of standing at that there I wanted to machine-gun the lot of them.
We had moved to that small village in Cambridgeshire from another small village in Buckinghamshire, and we had moved there from the city of Winchester.
Winchester was a wonderful place to live. We were housesitting for some friends of ours who had moved to Seattle in the United States. The house was a large three storey Edwardian building that was a two minute walk from the centre of town and so we were almost in its cultural heart – the beautiful Cathedral was nearby, there was a cinema just around the corner and a theatre a short stroll from there. There were pubs, wine bars, book shops and galleries all within walking distance. The schools were excellent and the people were open, warm and friendly.
All good things, as they say, must come to end and when I accepted a teaching job at Halton in Buckinghamshire, I found that the ninety-minute drive to and from work every day was killing me and so we reluctantly decided to move closer to where I worked.
We moved into a small village in the Claydons, about twenty miles from Halton because it was all we could afford. To say that it was a culture shock would be putting it mildly. It was like moving from Shang-ri-la to Royston Vasey. It was a cultural vacuum.
The house was situated in a small cul-de-sac and the neighbours seemed friendly at first, but it wasn’t long before we discovered that there was a seething resentment towards us because ours was the only property in that dead end street that was privately owned. All the other properties that surrounded us were owned by the Housing Association.
Now, I’m not having a go at tenants of Housing Association properties because my wife and I had once lived in one ourselves and, in amongst the relatively few junkies, pissheads and serial killers, there were some genuinely nice, friendly people.
I was on leave for the first month after we had moved into the house in the Claydons and so I spent that entire time dressed exclusively in jeans and T-shirts. One set of neighbours befriended us and they couldn’t have been more helpful. They invited us over to their house for pancakes and even lent us a chair because we were a family of five and only had four dining chairs.
Life seemed good, but all that stopped on my first day of work. Living in our own house was bad enough, but seeing me leaving the house in a suit to go to a real job was beyond the pale.
The neighbours who had befriended us stopped talking to us almost immediately. They refused to give back things that we had lent them and so we held onto their chair out of spite. The husband was a gardener of no fixed ability whose own garden looked like the Somme – after the battle. His wife had a pinched face who looked like she was permanently angry about something, and in a cage in the alleyway next to their house they had a dog that barked day and night and was never, as far as I observed, taken for walks.
They turned overnight into the most spiteful, evil people we had ever had the misfortune of knowing. They tampered with my car and poured weed killer on our front lawn when we went away. They told the other neighbours unfounded stories about us, which backfired on them after my wife had the brilliant idea of never talking about them in the company of others, no matter how bad we felt. This had the desired effect of the neighbours not actually believing anything they said about us.
We lasted eighteen months there before we moved to the village in Cambridgeshire after I secured another teaching job at Wyton. The day we moved was a joyous occasion, and not just because we were moving away.
Three days before we moved I overheard the gardener talking to his friend about how he hadn’t taxed his three cars for over two years and that he had placed forged or photocopied tax discs in his windshield and had never been stopped by the police. As a result of the anonymous call I made to the Buckinghamshire constabulary he was paid a visit by some nice uniformed gentlemen and made to tax all his cars within twenty-four hours and pay a fine or go to prison.
We still had the chair they had lent us eighteen months earlier and I took great delight in chopping it into little pieces and taking all but one leg of it down to the tip, which I placed on their path just before we drove away forever.
And just to put the icing on the cake, the day before we left I made a note of all the telephone numbers of the Chinese and Indian takeaways in the local area (of which there were many). Once we were safely in our new home I called each and every one of them and got them to deliver delicious oriental and sub-continental meals to his house at fifteen minute intervals throughout the night.
That one still makes me smile.
Our new immediate neighbours were - if a little mad - at least friendly enough.

But even so, after two years of living there, it suddenly struck me - as I was waiting at the bus stop, listening to the mums talking about cleaning materials and whatever brainless programmes they'd watched on TV the night before - that I much preferred the company of my family and our collection of beasts and birds than the animal kingdom that lay beyond the boundaries of our property.

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