The Move: Hell and Horseboxes
“Investment? What investment? You cancelled it in April.”
It was now September. September 22nd 1995.
I froze. I’d only called Simon, our financial adviser, to ask a few routine questions. I hadn’t expected this. He was talking about our investment bond – the bulk of the proceeds from our house sale, our life savings, the money that was going to fund our new life in France.
“No, I didn’t,” I replied, hoping that there’d been some kind of mistake.
I could hear a riffling of papers, pages being turned, a note of panic in Simon’s voice.
“I … er … have the correspondence here. Yes … April. You wanted the bond encashed and the money sent to your business account in Spain.”
What business account in Spain? I didn’t have any accounts in Spain. I didn’t have any business accounts anywhere!
I couldn’t believe it. This could not be happening. Not to me. Things like this happened to other people!
And then I thought about the chaos that marked our first seven months in France – the move from Hell, the neurotic car, the police roadblock, the fire, the ten foot long caterpillar, the day I accidentally signed for the local football team … and realised … I’m just the kind of person this does happen to.
It was a shock. That sudden shift in my internal picture. I was no longer the person who sat safe and warm watching events unfold upon the television screen. I was the person in front of the camera. The man standing in the doorway as the getaway car mounts the pavement. The man eating his sandwiches in the park when the sniper opens the attic window.
They’re all me.
Seven months earlier…
It was the day before our move and doubt was sitting on my shoulder, whispering. Was moving to France a terrible mistake or just the result of unpardonable crimes in a previous life? Even the weather was against us. The latest forecast for Wednesday – the day of our ferry crossing – had the English Channel buried in isobars and lashed by gale force winds. What if the ferry was cancelled? The Channel Tunnel wasn’t finished yet. We couldn’t take a plane – unless British Airways considered two horses, one dog and three cats acceptable cabin luggage. And we’d have nowhere to stay either – the new owner would be moving into our farm tomorrow morning.
All we’d have were a single change of clothes and a collection of dog and cat bowls – our clothes and furniture having gone ahead of us. They were being loaded into the removal van today.
But moving to France had to be the right thing to do. We’d spent three years with more money going out than was coming in. Which gave rise to The Plan– sell our farm, free up the capital and move to rural France where we could buy a similar property for a third of the price and use the balance to live off of. Simple and brilliant. All problems solved and a better climate thrown in for good measure.
Even though it was a nightmare to organise.
We lived in Devon; the new house was in the foothills of the Pyrenees – an 800-mile drive and a six-hour ferry trip distant. We had a jeep and a thirty year-old tractor. Neither excelled at long journeys.
And then there were the animals. Two horses, three cats and an enormous puppy.
Even if we could fit the dog and cats into the Suzuki – which I doubted – could we all survive an eighteen-hour journey cooped up together and remain sane?
This thought fuelled a recurring nightmare – me behind the wheel of our jeep with my face being licked by the dog on my lap and a cat fight filling the rear-view mirror.
We had to find another way. Which led us to the horsebox. It was one of those rare moments in our move when everything suddenly came together. We knew we had to hire someone to transport the horses, could they take the dog and cats as well? They could? Excellent! Could they take us? Even better. And to prove there really was a deity they even reduced the price on the proviso that we doubled as grooms for the journey.
I didn’t dream that night. A force field of contentment kept the demons at bay. I didn’t have to drive; I didn’t have to knock on hotel doors in the middle of the night covered in scratches and dog slobber. Bliss.
A word that could not be used to describe the weather. The storm hadn’t arrived yet but the wind was picking up; playful gusts were turning meaner, clouds were looking busier. The one silver lining was that it hadn’t started to rain yet. At least our possessions were being loaded into the back of the removal lorry in the dry.
We had thought our last day on the farm was going to be a quiet one – a day to say goodbye to our home of six years and walk the fields for the last time. But no, it’s a day of constant interruption and visits – electric and water meters being read, removal men walking in and out, boxes being packed, furniture loaded, inventories filled in, telephone calls, vet inspections. The latter taking two whole hours as every whorl and marking of the horses had to be scrutinised and faithfully recorded on their travel documents.
Did I mention the cleaning?
We’d thought our house reasonably clean – for a farm – for a farm in a muddy winter overrun by cats and a dog with big feet. But, as soon as the rooms were cleared, bright islands appeared on our carpets where the furniture had been. Were the carpets really that colour when we bought them?
Which brings us to the dog, Gypsy, a four-month-old lurcher. For anyone unfamiliar with the breed, the lurcher is the one that fills the gap between the Irish Wolf Hound and the crocodile. She was immense. And her favourite game was dragging her favourite toy across the floor. Sad to say, her favourite toy was my leg. What can I say? I have highly desirable ankles.
Which can be a problem when you’re rushing to clean a carpet … and your dog decides it’s playtime. Note to all husbands: being dragged across the floor by one’s ankle is not a credible defence when your wife is under stress and expecting help with the carpet cleaning.
“Stop playing with the dog!” shouted Shelagh, trying to make herself heard over the sound of the vacuum cleaner. “You’re supposed to be helping.”
People who’ve never had their ankle between a canine’s canines cannot appreciate the pain. It’s a cross between having your funny bone tapped with a hammer and a tooth drilled. And it activates a nerve that has fast track access to the part of your brain (the Little-Girlie Thalamus) responsible for making your eyes water and raising your voice two whole octaves.
As I said, no defence.
Shelagh gave up Hoovering and resorted to bartering, trying to swap me for a biscuit – not the first time in our marriage she’d attempted this. Gypsy held out for two custard creams before unclamping her jaws. Which gave us time to lay a trail of biscuits leading to the lounge door, open the door, throw a biscuit through and … goodbye hellhound. One point to the limping Homo sapiens team.
It took a lot of scrubbing but eventually the bright islands receded and out came a passable example of the carpet we’d bought.
On to the next room.
This time we tricked Gypsy without having to resort to biscuits or displaying a provocative ankle. We opened the door, let her bound through, then slipped past her in the excitement, slamming the door shut behind us. An hour later, we’d shampooed, scrubbed and vacuumed the living room carpet back to acceptability.
Then I returned to the lounge to fetch Gypsy.
And stepped into an alternative universe – something that rarely happens in Devon. I was in the lounge. But the carpet wasn’t the same freshly cleaned carpet I’d left an hour earlier. It was a different carpet. A much darker, dirtier carpet.
Teeth smiled at me from the centre of the room. Teeth pleased with themselves. Teeth wrapped around a small circle of carpet. My first thought was one of complete panic. Our dog had somehow managed to rip out a one-foot diameter circle of carpet which she was now devouring. My God, was anything safe!
But I couldn’t see a hole in the carpet – one foot or any other diameter. I looked. I peered. Where the hell had it come from? And then came the realisation. Our log basket! We’d left it in the inglenook fireplace. Our wicker log basket with the one-foot diameter circle of carpet at the bottom to catch all the mess and bark and dirt and wet leaves and all manner of hideous things that clung to damp logs in the winter. Except now they were all clinging to our freshly cleaned carpet. Spread and ground-in from wall to wall. Gypsy was nothing if not thorough.
Twelve hours to go and I screamed.