We don’t set out deliberately to live in two places at once. It’s just that when it looks like happening, we don’t make a serious effort to stop it. We can’t bring ourselves to abandon one place in favour of the other. An East African childhood gives you big horizons.
We were both over thirty when we married. On display with our wedding presents was a photo of us aged three and four, holding hands and standing on the shadows of our topis in the foothills of Kilimanjaro. For once, we looked reasonably clean. A friend saw the photo and asked, “Aren’t you two sorry you didn’t get married years ago?”
We responded instantly, in unison. “No bloody way! Neither of us was fit to marry ANYBODY until now!”
We share superb times together, and the extra daily phone calls when we are apart aren’t enough to double our monthly bill. Phyllis uses the telephone to thank people living in New Zealand for their Christmas cards.
The real point is that from the start we have made sure that either of us could pick up the threads if the worst happened. Twice so far, that possibility has come too close for comfort.
When I leave Phyllis to cope on her own, she gets landed with clearing out sheds and garages full of my junk and arguing with the council about whose job it is to fix the burst pipe leading from the water main. Once, the kids got measles as well. Traumatic, but there is an end to it.
Her revenge is to leave me with a horde of animals to look after. She even sent three dogs and a cat WITH ME when I went to the USA for a couple of years. (“Just to make sure you get regular exercise,” she said.) A springer spaniel, having forced my beloved cat to seek refuge with a neighbour, finally snapped my near-infinite patience by insisting on wrapping herself round my head when I went to bed on a summer night in a temperature of around thirty-five degrees with eighty percent humidity.
I threw her into the lake. Five minutes later, she was back at the door, dripping, with that stupid spaniel look on her face which I interpreted as, “I couldn’t find your stick. Could you throw another one, please?”
Now I’ve been left in Botswana, and Phyllie has gone to France to sort out the mess caused by a builder whose rate and quality of work descended close to zero as soon as she wasn’t around to chivvy him along. She’s also doing a few sessions in the UK with Nannies Incorporated, to keep the money flowing while I try to find a new source of income.
This time she left me with eleven dogs and four cats. Our absent lodgers added three more dogs. Since we were heading into winter, Phyllie made insulated mattresses for the kennel village outside our front door. This worked for a while, but now all eleven of our gang just scratch away at the door until I let them in, then wake me up a couple of times in the night to let them out to investigate strange noises. They don’t seem to mind the jackals in the empty plot across the road, or the car alarms. What really gets them excited is the cattle which sometimes come looking for something juicier than parched and frosted grass.
The air turned blue the other night, when I woke to find myself sharing our queen-sized bed with two cats (no problem, they snuggle under the duvet like living hot water bottles, and only complain when I turn over) and three medium-sized dogs. I’d swap for a submariner’s torpedo-tube bunk any day.
Now I bring several of the mattresses in from the kennels each evening.
Last night there was only one dog on the bed. Instead, it was the moonlight that caused the trouble. You can distinguish reds and greens on nights like this, and they happen for one week in three except during the rainy season. Remember the Moonlight Barking in 1001 Dalmatians? The six adjoining plots around here house more than fifty dogs, and there are others within howling distance.
Around one o’clock, the dogs all settled down. Then Stanley howled. Stanley is a middle-aged golden cocker spaniel, which is a bad start, and Stanley howls in his sleep. He also steals food and digs large holes. I have thrown Stanley out of the window twice since Phyllie left. He isn’t normally allowed inside, but he appeared with a torn eyelid the other day. Probably got it pushing through a wire fence to steal food, but I decided I’d have to take him in until it started to heal.
With a new routine that includes getting up twice in the night, then being wakened at five when the lodgers’ dogs appear at the front door and wake the indoor dogs, it’s just as well I’m not trying to hold down an office job.
Anyway, it’s worth it in the end. On Saturday the Maire came round to look at our French cottage, tut-tutted about the problems we were having, and assured Phyllie that he would write a letter which would convince the relevant authorities that our cottage was ‘pas habitable’ and stop them from demanding our taxe d’habitation for a while yet. Now she can concentrate on making it ‘habitable’ before the winter sets in and bursts the water meter again.
There’s one thing about this life – I have never yet suffered from writer’s block.