In May 2007, after two months living in Melbourne with my sister and her family, I waved good-bye to the southern hemisphere and jumped on a plane to London. I was filled with sadness at saying good-bye to my 18-month-old niece, my hilarious brother-in-law and my five-months-pregnant sister, mixed with excitement at seeing Tall again. He’d met up with some mates in the West Indies for the Cricket World Cup, followed by a couple of weeks in Mexico.
We didn’t see each other for eight weeks, so you can just imagine the grins plastered on our faces when we were reunited in London!
After a couple of days, it was time to make our way to what was to be our home for the next two-and-a-half months: Tall’s grandfather’s old manse in the tiny village of Beelsby, Lincolnshire.
Beelsby isn’t your quintessential British village. There is no pub, and no post office (although they are becoming a rarity these days anyway); no village off-licence or newsagent. There is a little stone church, a rickety old postbox, and a dilapidated old phone box (Dr Who styles).
The old manse is named ‘Greenwood House’. It’s the kind of house that invokes all sorts of period-drama thoughts; I lost count of the number of times I mumbled to myself, “This is the place to write my novel”. The main staircase has elaborate marble columns, and the sitting room is home to an old piano and an antique chaise lounge. There’s a back staircase for the servants that would have lived there once upon a time: steep and dark, with threadbare carpet on the stairs.
There’s a stable out the back (Tall comes from a horse-mad family; both his parents were competitive showjumpers and his dad rode in the NZ olympic team), which local people rent for a ridiculously cheap price. The grounds are sprawling, with huge trees and an overgrown treasure garden, full of long-lost fountains, garden chairs and rabbits.
Tall’s grandfather is in his mid-eighties, and has lived in that house alone since the death of his beloved wife in the early 1990s. Sadly, he has dementia, which means he lives in the past most of the time. While we stayed with him, he knew who Tall was, but he never remembered my name – I was “that girl who cooks for me”.
He could be painful to live with at times. He’d start his day with a gin and tonic at 10am, and all day, we’d find glasses with a slice of lemon stashed all over the house. He’d sneak down in the middle of the night to drink red wine, and try to hide the evidence; his doctor had advised him to stop drinking, but he refused to admit that he had a problem.
He did give us many moments of hilarity, too. Like the time we searched high and low for his lost dentures, finally giving up when he shuffled off to bed having tried – unsuccessfully – to eat a piece of steak for dinner. The next morning, he told us he’d found the dentures in his pyjama pocket. Of course.
He was fond of the saying, “A meal without cheese, is like a kiss without a squeeze” (“French,” he insisted. “My wife was French, you know.”), and we heard this at the end of every evening meal. One night, after a few too many wines, he got confused. “A kiss without cheese…no, that’s not it…a meal with cheese is like a squeeze…like a hug without cheese…”
But no matter how frustrating he – and the isolation – could be, we knew we were incredibly lucky to have a roof over our heads, and unlimited use of a (gas-guzzling) car. Now we look back on those early days and feel grateful for this, but at the time, we were almost ready to throw in the towel and come back home.
Good thing neither of us are quitters though!