I was watching next door’s fireworks through the bedroom window, when it suddenly occurred to me that it was forty years to the day since we moved into our current home…
Our first home was a tiny, two-bedroom, mid-terrace house that we lived in for just over a year before prematurely deciding that we needed a bigger house, hopefully out in the country, where we could raise a family. As we were more than a little deficient in the monies department, what we actually ended up with was the kind of ‘project’ that meant we would be in no position to have children for some years after we moved in – we may well have had to eat them before then. We liked what we felt the house could become, although forty years on, it is yet to become it, which tells you much about our ambitions and even more about our aptitudes. We liked the village – small then, unlike the demi-town it has grown into over the last few years – and we were blind to the pitfalls of so much to do, no idea of how to do it and no money with which to employ anybody else to do it. Even a bitingly cold winter, in which a large snow drift formed in the front room, facilitated by the gaping fissures in the windows (which should have been replaced under the terms of the mortgage) and our reluctance to turn the heating on – as we needed the money to replace the windows so that they did not repossess the house – could not stop us: we had our fourteen inch black and white TV set with its metal coat hanger where the aerial used to be, we had a quantity of crocheted blankets and an ancient two-bar electric fire in front of which we huddled for warmth and cooked toast whenever the electricity was working: we were living the dream.
Every house here had a garage and every garage had a car – in our case an ancient Vauxhall Viva with rather more rust than bodywork and a petrol tank that was almost entirely water-tight as long as it wasn’t filled above half way – we were on our way to the good life. We knew that as soon as we had restored the house to its original ticky-tacky 1960’s glory, we would move onwards and upwards, to somewhere better and brighter, and we will, sooner or later, I am sure. We had the asbestos central heating pipe removed before we needed specialists to do so and we swept the dust from the floor with brush and pan. We fitted new windows ourselves – gluing two standard 4×4 units together because we couldn’t afford a bespoke 8×4 – and were thrilled to find that we could open them even after we had glazed them – as long as it wasn’t hot… or cold… or raining… We fitted the front door which we still have today. It is to insulation what a sieve is to water conservation. When it opens, every other door in the house slams shut. It is about to be replaced and I’m not sure how I will manage with the new one. I have grown used to the draughts. I know exactly where they are coming from.
We were so happy to be here: I am a council estate boy, born and bred and here I was living in a village with a stable* at its centre! For the first time in my life I saw horses that were not attached to a totter’s cart. People rode past our door on them. They were dressed in tweed and spoke a language I barely understood. I was so impressed by them: they were a symbol of true country living, so you can imagine my joy when, after being in the village for just a few days, one of these giant beasts deposited a very large pile of its doings right in front of my house. This shit was indisputably mine! I ran to my bucket and spade. It was a happy man who strode into the kitchen a couple of minutes later to display my gently steaming bounty to my wife who, it must be said, was less than impressed. After a short period spent screaming, she eventually calmed down sufficiently to instruct me – rather abruptly I felt – to remove it from the kitchen.
“What the hell do you intend doing with it?” she asked.
“I’m going to put it on the roses,” I answered.
“We haven’t got any roses,” she said.
“…Can we get some,” I asked.
Her voice took on the quiet, tolerant tone that I have since come to dread. “You have to rot it down,” she said.
“Rot it down?” I queried.
“Rot it down,” she nodded.
“But it’s shi…”
“Colin!” she warned. (It was forty years ago and we barely ever swore back then.)
“Are you sure?” I asked. “Perhaps we should look it up.”
Now, this was a time, many years pre-internet. Google was something that the sink did when the drain needed rodding. If you needed to know something, you went to the library and found a book that just might have the answer you sought – if only you could find the page it had it on. We needed gardening advice and that was available only through a gardening compendium or a bona fide gardener. I could have written to ‘Gardener’s Question Time’ on the radio, but it would have taken ages to get a reply. I might as well just let the poo-poo rot.
“Maybe we could ask the lady at the village shop,” I said, suddenly blinded by the light bulb flashing over my head. “If we bought a rose…”
We had a village shop back then. It sold small amounts of absolutely everything. You could probably buy a bucketful of horse shit there. You could definitely buy a rose – she would dig you one out of her own garden if necessary. She would know what to do. These days we have only the Co-op and the punctured youth behind the checkout would be highly unlikely to be able to solve my excrement conundrum.
It transpired that the manure had to be ‘well-rotted’, that being one step on from common-or-garden rotted, and one step down from putrefied, and whilst that was happening we had our newly purchased rose to keep alive. We didn’t really have the money to waist on a floribunda back then, so having bought it, the pressure to keep it alive was intense. We manage to do so and even, over the years, bought it a few friends for company, but, my my, roses are hard work: greenfly, blackfly, mildew, black spot, Blind Pugh… there was so little to which a rose could not succumb and as our little garden established itself over the years, roses ceased to be a part of it. Forty years on we have only one rose, a giant rambling specimen that forms part of the back hedge and is remarkably thorn-free. (I’m sure we bought it as a rose, but I have my doubts.) The whole garden has evolved over the last forty years and, I think, has matured nicely, unlike the horse shit which, to the best of my knowledge, is still rotting down somewhere in the field behind us…
And that’s what set me off, the smell of manure. We get it sometimes. I think the farmer has a little ‘countryside machine’ – you know, like the supermarkets use to introduce the fragrance of freshly brewed coffee and newly baked bread to the aisles, but with the smells of the countryside – so that even as we become increasingly urban, we are still able to experience the authentic country odour of yesteryear: dung, pig and cow parsley. I opened the door to the scent and saw there, bang in front of my house, glisteningly fresh, a giant pile of horse’s doofahs. I strode to the rode. “Can’t you control that bloody animal?” I shouted at the fast diminishing rump. “Somebody will have to clean that up.” But nobody did…
*The gloss soon went off when I found out that the horses were used by the local hunt. However, the influx of townies, like ourselves, into the village soon put a stop to that barbaric palaver. These days the horses just plod around with an assortment of helmeted children and Barbour-clad adults on board. They still shit on the roads, but nobody ever picks it up…