The removal lorry is bright yellow with six foot red lettering running its length – Reggie’s Removals. It seems an unnecessarily large container for our modest assembly of furniture, clothes and trinkets, but it transpires there is another family’s possessions already filling more than half the space. I waft about redundantly between the front door and back of the lorry, watching our life go by in cardboard boxes. I feel I should be waving them off, like children on a school bus.
“We’ll drop your stuff first thing in the morning, around eight. Shouldn’t take long – you’ve got far less than the other lot, and they’re going all the way up to Carlisle. Bit different from Tooting, eh?” Reggie grins, revealing a set of startling jumbled teeth. He shoves our final package of belongings along the lorry’s floor to join the others, then secures a length of fabric around our collection of boxes, herding them away from the others like a flock of alarmed sheep.
“Perfect!” He declares, brushing his hands together. “Be done in no time tomorrow. The other lot’s quite a job though, big house they had, the Jamesons, and you should see the one they’re moving to.”
Reggie chats away about the Jamesons and his route up to Carlisle as though it’s some kind of pilgrimage. I smile weakly feeling somehow inadequate, both in terms of our volume of possessions and relative distance from London we have chosen to move. Seventy miles had seemed a long way to me.
My husband can’t find his car keys and is the only person left in our empty house, darting from room to room like a blood hound. Our children are already strapped into their car seats and I can see the two year old, his arms stretched horizontally out in front of him, reaching for something. He looks like a two point plug. Eventually, my husband emerges from the house looking harangued, keys protruding from his fist. He joins me on the pavement and we tilt our heads to look a final time at our first home.
“Ready?” he asks. One word, loaded. I let out a long breath.
The agent meets us at our new home the following day, dropping the keys into my hand with a cheerful flourish.
“All yours!” he declares. Our two young boys chase each other around a large fir tree in the front garden, squealing as the fronds brush against their faces, while the agent, my husband and I stand admiring our new home – a thatched cottage with warm, terracotta brickwork which glows in the soft September sunshine. I reach for my husband’s hand and smile. This feels right.
Later, after Reggie and his wordless assistant have deposited the last of our boxes and we have located the kettle, some teabags and mugs, we all toast our arrival in the countryside.
“No going back now, you realise?” Reggie ruminates. “Not with London prices. You’ll be a country bumpkin for life. Still, worse places you could end up, I suppose.” He sniffs elaborately and casts an appraising eye over the peach coloured kitchen cupboards. His assistant nods ruefully and my husband looks at me with an expression I can’t interpret. Leaving London had been a joint decision, I was almost certain of it.
We struggle all afternoon, manipulating furniture up the narrow staircase, and liberating the contents of boxes. The boys weave around us, running excitedly through the empty rooms. I watch them as, heads together, they pause for a moment and stand at the window, pointing at two horses in a nearby paddock.
“Mummy, where are all the buildings?” our four year old suddenly asks. I join them at the window and realise he is right. From up here at the back of the house the view is of uninterrupted fields and hedges. I can’t decide whether to be soothed or unnerved.
“Want Thomas on!” our two year old demands, stomping about the living room, looking for somewhere to sit. I scrabble around behind the television, squashed beneath the stair case, attempting to connect it to the DVD player. My husband raps on the window, making me jump and bang my head against a wooden beam, running diagonally and, as far as I can tell, pointlessly, beneath the stairs. The cottage is full of them, all expertly positioned for maximum injury. He shouts,
“Guess what now? The bed frame won’t fit through the door. I’m going to have to dismantle it and then reassemble the bloody thing in the bedroom.” He glares at me through the grimy glass for a moment, a complicated looking screwdriver clutched grimly in his hand. I blink back at him. Moving out of London was not entirely my idea, but it’s beginning to feel that way. I extricate myself from behind the television brushing gossamer cobwebs from my face and wonder how the Jamesons are getting along, waiting for Reggie in their vast, empty property in Carlisle. I picture them hand in hand, silhouetted against an enormous sash window overlooking rolling hills and valleys, Reggie’s yellow lorry tooting merrily in the distance. Part of me feels I need to warn them.
That night, lying on our mattress on the floor and listening to the strange, unfamiliar sounds of our new home, I whisper “have we made a terrible mistake?” Our two year old son lies between us, the novelty and excitement of his new, unshared bedroom having worn off twenty minutes after putting him to bed. Nobody likes to sleep alone, why do adults assume children do? His breathing is raspy, his immune system already reacting to some unidentified pollen not present in London. It punctuates the silence in the room. The house feels dense, its ancient walls seeming to absorb all sound, and I wonder if they can absorb emotion too. I think of our old bedroom with its soothing traffic noise and distant laughter, and fall into a restless sleep.
The following day dawns bright and the boys potter about happily in their new garden playground, staying close to the house despite having half an acre to roam. “Come on boys, let’s go and explore the top of the garden,” I encourage, observing my husband wrestle with an unreasonably large bed frame for any house, let alone a four hundred year old cottage. Our four year old squints up at the looming horse chestnut trees and shakes his head. “No, I stay here,” he states, and toddles off to pluck some more flowers. I reassure myself it’s fine, it will take a while for them to adjust. They’ve only ever had a patio.
By the afternoon the silence is beginning to bug me. The boys clatter about in the earth borders with a brightly painted plastic truck, loading small stones into its shovel. I can hear birds – pigeons I recognise, and others I don’t, chip-chipping, gently warbling, and one that sounds like two magnets being rubbed together. I strain my ears for other sounds, but there’s nothing.
“Here,” I say, dropping an armful of miniature vehicles next to them, “you can make a whole building site.”
Later on, exhausted but at least smiling, my husband informs me the bed frame is assembled and he’s going to have a beer. I regard the boxes stacked around the house, knowing they will be left to me for the morning, when he will begin life as a commuter and return to the place we have just escaped. It seems ridiculous now we are here. What on earth had we done?
I watch him casually amble into the kitchen in search of beer. He looks comfortable in his new surroundings, his shirt untucked, sleeves rolled up as both his arms disappear into the depths of the fridge to wrestle a can free from its plastic tether. A scene I’ve watched a hundred times before. Perhaps it is the performance of these everyday rituals that will smooth our transition. As I gather washing from the freshly plumbed machine, I hope the act, performed so many times before and to be repeated many more, will somehow force a kind of acceptance on me of our new situation. The two year old is jigging around next to me. He’s spotted ice-pops in the freezer, and is demanding one, while my husband tries to distract him with a banana. Normality.
I step busily into the garden, balancing the laundry basket on my hip. The lawn is a canvas of dappled sunshine, and I think to myself, perhaps I’ll have a beer too. We’ll sit in our garden, on the grass, and have a beer in the late afternoon sun. As I peg tiny tee-shirts and pants on the line, the cacophony of bird song seems even louder. Perhaps it is just the absence of competing sound, competing life. We are just bit players here, it is nature that has centre stage. It is not hidden behind anything manmade or designed. It is not in the margins. I smile and decide, this’ll be fine, it’s just not what we’re used to.
Out of the corner of my eye I notice a frenzy of wings. Three magpies sweep overhead, their feathers shimmering with an iridescent purple and green sheen. Then a scream, high pitched, and I drop the pegs I’m holding and dash in its direction. My two year is squatting on the grass, his little hands over his face, at his feet a headless blackbird. I scoop him up in my arms and glare up at the magpies, chattering and squawking above. One of them drops down and struts nearby, ready to retrieve its prey.
“Bad bird!” my son scolds.
“What’s wrong with the wildlife here? Some magpies just killed a blackbird. You need to deal with it,” I inform my husband as I pass him in the kitchen, beer in hand. He studies the dead bird as I pacify my son with an ice-pop.
“The countryside is brutal,” he mutters, with a weird satisfaction, and flings the bird into a hedge. The magpies jerk about in the branches above, watching and waiting. It leaves me feeling a strange mixture of disgust and awe. Moving was definitely more my husband’s idea. He notices my son, slurping happily on the ice pop.
“I’m being undermined by a bird,” he says.
“Get used to it,” I tell him. We stare at each for a moment.
“Beer?” he asks. One word, one question. He waits, and I give him two words back, right between the eyes.
We’ve been at our new house for almost 36 hours, and to mark the milestone our four year old decides to shut his finger in the kitchen door.
“What now?” my husband sighs as our son wails and runs to us clutching his finger. I fuss over him, kissing it better and trying to cool it under the tap, to no discernible effect. After five minutes his finger looks to be turning blue and he is still stamping his little feet and looking at me with desperation and an incomprehension that I haven’t made the pain go away.
“I’m taking him to A&E.” I state, running my eyes over the two empty beer cans on the worktop. My husband looks blank.
“You don’t know where the hospital is.”
“I’ll follow the signs.”
Moving to the country, we had anticipated A&E runs, having two adventurous boys who would regularly launch themselves down the stairs of our victorian terrace.
“They’ll be dropping out of trees and sitting on rusty nails all over the place, you realise?” I’d mused when we viewed the house. But shutting their fingers in the kitchen door? We could have stayed in London for that.
By the time we enter through the swishing glass doors of A&E my four year old’s wails have calmed to erratic, gulping sobs. The receptionist processes us with disinterested efficiency.
“You haven’t put your postcode in,” she points out as I hand the incident form back to her.
“No, sorry, I don’t know it yet.” She looks at me with world weary eyes, and I continue, “we’ve only just moved in, and I…and I…” but I fail to get the rest of my words out. They are choked back by sudden and wholly unwelcome tears.
“Take a seat,” she says softly, permitting me a small, sympathetic smile.
We sit together, my son on my lap, his head leaning against my chest as he peers with curiosity at his finger. He has stopped crying, and I begin to feel that perhaps the trip wasn’t necessary after all. Perhaps I was just cross. A television suspended from the ceiling is broadcasting the news on a 24 hour loop. A cheerful and earnest man informs me that the weather over the next few days will deteriorate – “the end of our Indian Summer” he imparts, with a little too much smugness. I find myself wondering about the Jamesons again, and how the weather is in Carlisle. I ponder on whether Mrs Jameson is sitting right now, as I am, in a harshly lit, unfamiliar A&E waiting room with one of her offspring, fretting over not knowing her postcode, wondering if it is too late to change her mind. I somehow doubted it.
After an hour or so at the hospital with the Sunday evening crowd, my disenchanted four year old has seen enough.
“My finger’s better, can we go home?” I don’t know where he means. A young boy sitting opposite us with his mother suddenly opens his legs and vomits between them. His mother places her arm over his shoulders and peers around desperately for some kind of help. Our eyes meet for a second. There is something in her harrowed expression I recognise.
“I’ll go and tell the receptionist,” I say, and she nods, looking wretched and rubbing her son’s back. My own son is fascinated by the kaleidoscopic pool of sick inching its way over the linoleum towards us, and babbles excitedly, pointing and asking over and over why that boy do that? I can’t get out of the place fast enough, pausing only to alert the receptionist to the boy’s plight. She blinks slowly before reaching for the phone, and I make good our escape.
It’s dark by the time we get back, and I lift my son carefully from his seat, trying not to wake him. After the racket of A&E the quiet of our new environment feels amplified, magnifying every noise I make as I clumsily try to nudge the car door closed with my hip. As I do so, my sleeping son balanced across my chest, I am aware of movement around me. I realise it is our shadow, snaking across the ground away from us and merging with those of the swaying trees. I frown, wondering where the light is coming from to produce it. My son squirms on my shoulder, waking up, and I stroke his head,
“Shhh, we’re back now.” I soothe. Suddenly, my son gasps,
“Mummy, look at the moon!” His eyes are wide like saucers, his face illuminated, and I turn to see what he sees. The moon, huge and glowing white in a star-sprinkled sky, and brighter than all the street lights we’ve left behind. I gently set him down, and he clutches my hand as we absorb our new, magical reality. My ears tune in to a myriad of night noises – the whispering dance of poplar leaves, the mournful creak of rose bushes straining against their bindings, the melancholy hoot of an owl somewhere in the distance. Then, my husband’s voice,
“All okay?” his silhouette calls from the back door. Two words, tinged with hope. I breathe in the cool night air, heavy with the scent of earth and rambling wisteria, and give him three, equally tinged, back,
“Yes. It is.”