Cat-sick

Today, 4 am: ‘Waaoow!’ The gentle patter of rain is rent by mournful cries as Henry Wowler yells his ‘wet-wah’ up at our open bedroom window. ‘Waaoow?’
Hubcap sighs. ‘Shall I give him his breakfast?’
‘If you like,’ I reply.
Hubcap returns in due course. ‘Soaked, starving and hysterical,’ he says. ‘There was half a mouse and a big pile of mouse-vom in the middle of the rug – It’s a wonder I didn’t step in it.’
It makes such a nice change for Hubcap to rise first and deal with one of the early-morning horrors our cat-son regularly presents me with that I laugh in the dark. ‘Welcome to my world.’

4.25 am: ‘Waaow! Waaaooow!’ Oh God, not again… it’s going to be one of THOSE nights. Before he wakes the entire neighbourhood, I stumble out of bed and say, ‘I’ll go downstairs and sleep with him.’
To my surprise, I find Henry isn’t particularly wet – but he claims, loudly and repeatedly, to be insufficiently fed. Guessing that Daddy-cat forgot to give him dessert, I administer his daily ration of dental biscuits and a little extra cat-food, then tuck myself up on the couch. Normally, Henry would leap aboard in great delight and sleep in my armpit for as long as I’d let him – but not today. No, today he prises the living room door open, scratches noisily on the hall carpet and thunders upstairs.
In a vain attempt to stop him disturbing Daddy-cat again, I follow, return to bed and invite him to lie on my chest. Henry tramples it briefly then retreats to lie on my feet in the most uncomfortable position possible. I move to make space for him at the foot of the bed. For five minutes it seems he’s gone to sleep. Then thu-dub! He lands on the floor and starts shouting again.
‘*%!?@*!!!!’ Daddy-cat shouts back. Henry flees. I follow him down to the kitchen, (good grief, he thinks he’s going to get more food), shut the door on him, go back to bed and callously shut the window against further outcry.

6 am: The alarm goes off. Feeling jaded and irritable, I head downstairs to make our breakfast and discover that Henry Wowler, in great chagrin, has scratted up the duct-tape repair on the old lino ripped by previous scratting (roll on retirement/installation of new kitchen with tiled or laminate floor) so that I struggle to open the door between living room and kitchen. Threading dangerously between my feet, he pleads loudly for yet more food. On the basis that he had, after all, sicked up last night’s supper, I relent and give him a little – for which Daddy-cat rebukes me. It transpires that actually, as well as a generous breakfast, he HAD given Henry his dental biscuits – so as well as both of us being disturbed and sleep-deprived, I’ve been conned out of extra extra food. So when the cat-pig finally settles down in his accustomed place on our bed and goes smugly to sleep, I take revenge and apply spot-on wormer to the back of his head – and laugh when it makes him get up and go off in a huff.

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Beating the Heatwave: my Top Tips for Garden Survival

This summer has been hard on us gardeners, sweating out in the merciless sun every day; but it’s been even harder on our poor scorched gardens. Instead of our usual grass-cutting work, which has literally dried up, we’re mainly clearing the dead leaves drifting down in this super-hot, pseudo-autumn – and doing our level best to help plants and wildlife survive it. So I thought I’d share with you a few top tips to help your garden beat the heatwave:

Plant Survival Tips:
Lawns: if it’s got any green left, don’t mow it! Our completely un-watered pocket-handkerchief lawn is still remarkably lush because, luckily, we didn’t give it ‘just one last cut’ before the extreme heat really started to bite. Shaggy green patches with daisies and clover look pretty enough, they’re providing food for insects and birds, and above all, they’re keeping your lawn alive – if you mow them down it’ll all simply frazzle to uniform brown and take longer to recover when the drought finally breaks. Meanwhile, don’t bother trying to keep it all green with sprinklers – it’ll use a colossal amount of precious water which would be better deployed on your herbaceous borders.

Hedges and Shrubs: help reduce their need for water and energy by snipping back spindly ‘water shoots,’ dead-heading, and removing yellow/shrivelled/diseased leaves. Don’t cut anything back hard – the cut leaves will dry out and look unsightly because the plants don’t have enough water for re-growth.

Borders: despite the long dry spell, our gardens are currently infested with self-set tree seedlings and various weeds, all competing for scarce water – so pull ‘em out! But you might make exceptions for hard standing; some flowering weeds are pretty little plants which can brighten up dull bits of paving, and their seeds – including grasses – are food for the birds.

All these measures will help your garden and its population of creatures weather the extreme weather; but in the continuing absence of rain, plants also need to be watered. This is far from wasteful or frivolous – entire ecosystems depend on your garden’s survival. Equally, during a drought it behoves us all to conserve water as much as possible – so here are some tips for making the most of this much taken-for-granted essential:

Watering Tips:
Water in the evening when the soil is cooling – this maximises the time for overnight absorption before the sun rises again and water evaporates off the surface – or failing that, in the early morning. On sloping ground, apply uphill of the plants so that the water runs down onto/through them.

Water selectively. Prioritise food plants (it’s a great year for soft fruit!), flowering plants and shrubs whose nectar feeds the insects which feed the birds, bats and hedgehogs, plants in containers (especially small pots, which dry out fast and need watering daily), and the most wilted or tired-looking things in imminent danger of death.

Water in rotation if there’s too much to do all at once – it’s better for a plant to be watered once a week than not at all, and even trees or deep-rooted shrubs will appreciate a drink in this weather.
Water hard, baked ground in small repeated doses, allowing time for water to soak in before the next application (or it’ll run off and pool where you don’t want it). When the soil has softened enough, break it up with a fork or hoe to facilitate penetration, then water again. As well as stimulating earthworm activity, for which the blackbirds will thank you, this prepares the soil to receive future watering, and the rain, when it comes, will soak in rather than bouncing off a compact surface.

Apply mulch! Water the ground, not the foliage, around the main stems or in the centre of a clump, then immediately cover the wet earth with a mulch of grass clippings, leaves, bark chippings, turf – you can even use newspaper or cardboard to trap the moisture in. We find a mulch of grass clippings covered by dead turves (soil-side up) works a treat in our orchard; originally applied to stop the resident pheasants from taking dust-baths round the saplings and exposing their roots, it’s enabling the trees to survive and fruit nicely on a half-gallon of water a week – we just lift up a section and pour it onto earth that’s often still perceptibly moist from the last application.

Avoid guilt about watering the garden by saving water in the house! We try never to waste our clean water or take it for granted, and have stepped up our efforts to save it since the Big Hot started. Taking brief showers, never baths – and if I’m not particularly dirty I just scrub myself down with a basin of water and a flannel. Not flushing the loo for a few tiny tinkles, (luckily no-one in Helmickton is grossed-out by this!). And we’re both obsessive about saving the water from rinsing hands, glasses, vegetables, running the tap to get hot or cold and so on – it collects in a washing-up bowl to be poured in turn on the raspberry canes, blackcurrant bush, apple trees or whatever looks most in need. (We don’t use washing up water containing detergent; some sources say it does no harm, but Hubcap fears it may kill essential soil bacteria.

Finally, remember the birds, bees and beasts struggling to find food and drink in these arid conditions. Fill your bird-baths daily, keep the feeders topped up, put some appropriate food and a shallow dish of water (never milk!) out for hedgehogs, pray for some meaningful rain… and with care, everything in your garden will survive until it comes!

Why I’m Not Watching That Wedding

Today I will definitely not be one of the zillions of people worldwide sitting glued to a screen to watch the royal wedding.

It’s not that I have anything against Prince Harry. On the contrary. I’ve always thought he and Prince William seemed like decent young blokes – refreshingly normal, free from the stiffness and strangulated vowels that make some of their relatives painful to hear and behold, and so confident, relaxed and media-savvy that they’re the only royals I’ve ever really enjoyed watching on TV (their double act is particularly amusing).

I don’t have anything against Meghan Markle, either. On the contrary. She seems like a decent young woman, she’s used to being in the public eye, and she’ll doubtless make the most of her position to do good for the humanitarian causes she and her new husband care about. Plus I’m glad that their marriage is a nice smack in the eye for the ‘ain’t no black in the Union Jack’ brigade – and that now there IS some black in the Royal Standard. Ha ha hurrah.

Nor do I have anything against the Queen or royal family as a whole – though I do find the institution of monarchy a bizarre anachronism, a medieval throwback as outdated as the Doctrine of Signatures and completely superfluous to the running of a country. It might be part of our history and heritage – but so were public executions, bear-baiting, ducking scolds and committing unmarried mothers to Bedlam. The idea of being ‘subject’ to the Crown is repugnant to me; like Hawkeye in ‘Last of the Mohicans,’ I don’t consider myself subject to much at all (apart from the law). Our monarchy has caused enormous personal unhappiness to many of its members including Princess Margaret, (prevented from marrying the divorcé she loved), Diana, Princess of Wales, (driven into despair, eating disorders and suicidal impulses), and Prince Harry, (an able, well-liked and respected officer, forced to give up a promising career in active service because his royalty made him too great a target for terrorists and thereby too great a risk to his men) – and Prince William obviously doesn’t relish the prospect of becoming king one day, although no doubt duty will constrain him to it. So no, I don’t like the monarchy. I’m sure Britain would rub along just fine without it, and that tourists would still come to gaze upon our palaces and castles and spend their precious dollars and yen on tacky souvenirs and picture postcards. Still, we do need a Head of State, and the perils of electing one are horribly plain in today’s world; so since (alas) we can’t have Justin Trudeau, I guess I prefer a member of the House of Windsor than risk having Britain’s whimsical, unpredictable electorate inflict a self-seeking muppet like Nigel Farage, some moronic reality-TV ‘celebrity’ or a barely-articulate sports ‘personality’ on the nation.

But what I really, REALLY hate is the obnoxious cult of royal-worship whipped up by our cynical, sycophantic mass-media. I’ve always loathed having things rammed down my throat (that’s why I’ve never to this day been able to watch the movie ‘E.T.’) – there’s nothing more likely to infuriate and turn me off than endless advertising and saturation coverage. I don’t feel like celebrating something which is costing so much money at a time of so much more pressing national need. I’m not interested in the nuptials of people I don’t know and never will, much less in watching hours of incredibly boring preamble, the footage of gathering crowds and tedious vox pop interviews. I don’t give a flying eff about sad gits who travel hundreds of miles to camp for days on the pavements whence Windsor’s homeless were recently evicted in the hope of glimpsing, for a few seconds, someone famous as they drive past. And I can only pity poor Thomas Markle, a quiet, private individual now linked by his daughter’s marriage to one of the most famous and most scrutinised families in the world, and sucked into the ghastly media circus which will surround her, prying, praising and decrying, for the rest of her life.

Bleah. It makes me puke. I don’t know which I despise more, the media or the pathetic nosy obsessives who like to think of themselves as royalists, but whose appetites for the ever-more candid (ie intrusive) exposé fuel the paparazzi – the people collectively responsible for killing the woman who should have become Meghan’s mother-in-law today, and for plunging Britain into its morbid, breast-beating guilt-trip back in 1997. I refuse to be a part of it – so while the ‘fans’ lap up every last drop of the media drool, I’m off to do something more constructive with my day.

A Happy Gardener

After my abrupt, unplanned career change in September 2017, (from freelance writer, Wars of the Roses interpreter/walk guide, funeral celebrant and general rent-a-gob  to full-time professional gardener), a friend and regular client told me, ‘You’re such a good public speaker, you’re wasted on gardening.’

I was extremely touched by his kind compliment – but explained that, although I’ll always enjoy doing speaking engagements, for many reasons I felt happy to let that part of my career come (largely) to a natural end. And here’s one of them…

I dare say my dear late friend Kate would’ve laughed like a drain (in a sympathetic way) to hear of the travails that preceded her funeral service this morning. As celebrant, I set off early enough to make the 50-odd minute journey to Doncaster’s Rose Hill Crematorium with a good half-hour in hand to compose myself, confirm final arrangements, meet Kate’s guitarist friend, Roy, who’d be playing her in with a heartfelt blues instrumental, and prepare myself in a suitably relaxed, respectful way.

On previous occasions when I – and Roy – have done services at Rose Hill, that’s pretty much what happened. But not today. Today, to my horror, I found the A638 out of Wakefield gridlocked, my lane blocked by a broken-down truck. Instant mega-stress. Map-less, sat-nav-less, (well, I thought I knew where I was going), I was too distracted and panicky to work out the obvious alternative: simply hang a left and take the M62 and A1 South. No, I queued for 20 agonising minutes, wringing my hands and muttering uselessly, ‘Please please please move,’ before I got round the obstruction and back on my road where, police or no police behind me, I floored it. At least, (barring further incident), I knew I’d be there to start the service on time; but as for arriving in a suitably composed and dignified fashion – it was way too late for that.

Unlike on previous occasions, I didn’t take a wrong turn or go to the wrong car-park. Arriving with a quarter-hour to spare, (phew!) it turned out I did have time to greet a few people, go to the loo, get a cup of water, and lay out my orders of service. And, luckily, to check the music running-order, because there’d been a slight mistake which we soon rectified. What I didn’t have, as the minutes ticked on, was a musician… Luckily the unflappable crematorium assistant stopped me having hysterics by substituting a terrific blues track; I was too flustered to mention it at the requisite point in the service, but if you were there and wondered about it, the song was ‘Sad Sad Day’ by Muddy Waters. I hope Kate would have approved.

Meanwhile her cortege had arrived, but still no Roy. So we went with his understudy Muddy, and kept Kate waiting at the gate while we fannied about with the sound system. From that point on, things settled down and resumed their expected order and pace. Then, part-way into the service, someone came in: tall, cowboy hat, dressed all in black. Even without seeing his Facebook photo I’d have recognised Roy – looking like that, he just had to be a musician. I later discovered he’d also been having the morning from hell, including breaking a guitar string shortly before he was due to set off – hence his failure to turn up as planned. He stood considerately at the back while I managed to get through the important bits without my voice breaking. It was a different matter the second I got out of the chapel – I clung onto and blubbed freely over friend, acquaintance and stranger alike if they said a kind word. But the tabby cat who wandered in as we were leaving cheered me up – cat-mad Kate would have liked that. (I hope she would’ve liked the service, too).

Maybe if I hadn’t had such a stressful start to the day I’d have enjoyed going on to Kate’s wake to give her an appropriate send-off (she loved a bevvy, did our Kate). But I was so drained I just Wanted To Go Home in the worst way, so I gave it a miss and headed straight back to Wakefield. And at first the drive was just fine, until I ran up against a new road closure on the A638 at Wragby and had to make a diversion…

I won’t bore you with further details; suffice to say, by the time I reached The Three Houses on Barnsley Road a couple of miles from home, I was screaming with frustration. So the first thing I did when I came in was to raise a very stiff drink to Kate in lieu of going to her wake, and neck it down PDQ; and several hours later, calmed down and half-cut on Hubcap’s Jagermeister, I can laugh – as Kate no doubt would – over these funeral farces. But it wasn’t very funny at the time… my pet hates are being late, stuck in unexpected traffic, and keeping people waiting, especially for something as important as a funeral.

So that’s partly the reason, dear reader, why I’m now such a happy gardener: it doesn’t much matter if I turn up a bit late, and the only thing I have to worry about is the weather.

Henry Hates Firework Nights

Now that Slack-jawed Selfish Morons’ Firework Season (run-up to Hallowe’en, Hallowe’en, run-up to Bonfire Night, Bonfire Night, numerous extra Bonfire Nights for people unable to celebrate on November 5th, run-up to Christmas, Christmas, post-Christmas, run-up to New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Eve, post-New Year’s Eve, plus random explosions in between times) is in full swing, Henry Wowler has to spend most evenings cowering in his safety box under our bed – and given the propensity of said selfish morons to continue letting off bangers till midnight, we don’t have the heart to evict the poor little chap.

On such occasions, when he eventually feels it’s safe to emerge and wants Mummy-cat to take him downstairs and administer bedtime biscuits, he usually sits at the foot of the bed whispering, ‘Mrrp? Mrrp?’ in a very small voice until I awake. But last night, he mrrped to no avail – both worn-out cat-parents were too fast asleep to hear him; so the first I knew of his wakefulness and desire for attention was when he jumped on the bed, landed on my feet and snuggled down in the space between our legs. I stroked him. He purred. I thought, ‘Aw. This is OK – I can cope if he settles there,’ and went back to sleep (after throwing back the bedspread and sticking one leg out from under the duvet to compensate for the extra heat generated by his large furry presence).

But he didn’t settle there, of course. Night is his time to do cat stuff; so shortly he got up, went out in the pouring rain for a while, then came back upstairs shouting, ‘Wet!’ I ignored him, and- aha! Instead of pestering on to be mopped dry, he dealt with the situation himself, allowing me to doze off again to the slight, soothing sound of a washing cat. But of course the peace didn’t last – soon Henry was wowling again, obliging me to arise before he woke Daddy-cat too, escort him downstairs, give him some fuss, then lure him into the kitchen with the usual biscuit bribe and shut the door firmly behind me.

All this took place between 10.30 pm and 1.40 am; and this, dear reader, is the reason why on normal nights, if Mr Wowler tries to evade the normal nightly routine of being confined to the kitchen by hiding under our bed, he gets prodded out with a longbow…

Feline Friends!

Henry Wowler doesn’t take kindly to strangers on his patch. If visitors are human, his normal response is to hide in his safety box under our bed and sulk until they go home. If they’re feline, he’ll caterwaul terrible songs of hate and retribution at them; and if that doesn’t work, he takes more positive action. Given that he’s twice the size of most of our neighbourhood moggies, seeing the feline equivalent of a Rottweiler (sixteen pounds of spectacularly fuzzed-out Wowler) charging towards them at high speed generally suffices to see them off the premises pretty damn quick – and if that fails, he won’t baulk at resorting to violence.

So it was with some trepidation that I noticed the new kid on the block – a sparky ginger tom-kitten – had taken to exploring our garden. Last week he got stuck on the roof of our wood-box, and was so over-excited, fighty and bitey when I tried to rescue him that I had to don heavy leather gardening gloves in order to pick him up. Yesterday afternoon GK (Ginger Kitten) was back again; and when I went upstairs I was surprised to find Henry sitting on the bedroom window-sill watching him potter about down below. Not fluffed up, or growling, or even lashing his tail – just watching with mild interest, which was extremely unusual.

At tea-time, with Wowler in his customary early-evening position on my lap, the young intruder returned. This time his reaction was what we’ve come to expect: he sat bolt upright, glaring; then dismounted and sat by the patio window, yowling.

“I’m not letting you out, Henry,” said Daddy-cat. “If you want to see him off you’ll have to use your cat-flap.” While Henry thought about this, the undaunted GK came up and inspected him through the glass, then began frolicking around the patio clearly wanting to play. Henry stopped yowling and watched. Intrigued, I took a jingly ball outside and entertained GK with it, wondering if Wowler would follow; but no, he just continued to watch.

I petted GK as he twined round my ankles, then went back indoors. “This is what he smells like,” I said to Henry. He sniffed my hand. Finally, as the kitten went on cavorting, he could stand it no longer. Hubcap and I looked at each other as the cat-flap clicked, expecting the usual mayhem and braced to rescue GK if the Wowler tried to savage him. But to our utter astonishment, he simply strolled up and held out his nose. So did GK. A mutual bottom inspection followed. “They’re greeting!” I gasped. Then came a slight laying back of ears and batting with forepaws; then Henry bounced away with his tail in the air, hotly pursued by the kitten; then the kitten came back into view, hotly pursued by Henry.

Hubcap and I watched entranced. The only other cat Wowler normally tolerates is the ginger tom from three doors down, who we’ve always jokingly referred to as Henry’s dad (as he may well be); but they don’t cosy up or play together, they just hang out in a companionable, blokey sort of way. So this was the first time in six years that we’ve ever seen Henry larking about with another feline, apparently enjoying its company, (admittedly, he did fetch GK one good clip round the ear that elicited a cry of protest, but it was no more than an uppity kitten deserved).

Delighted, I went out to fuss them both, and my amazement was complete when Henry flopped down on his back, giving the full social roll. Playful chasing then continued until Henry, in wild excitement, leapt into Hubcap’s wheelbarrow so forcefully that it overturned and scared him back into the house.

The episode was no fluke or one-off. This morning GK came back, peering in through the patio door obviously looking for his playmate. I let him in, entertained him with a piece of string, then led him to our bedroom where the Wow was asleep on the bed; and when he eventually woke and condescended to notice, another amicable meeting and greeting took place, followed by more outdoor play. It can’t just be down to GK’s youth and smallness – Henry has hated our opposite neighbour’s lovely lavender-grey pair, Boris and Doris, and chased them off with extreme prejudice ever since they were the same age as this little lad. So I can’t help but wonder whether they belong to some secret League of Red-headed Cats – whether Henry recognises GK as a fellow ginge and, like Tormund in Game of Thrones, finds him ‘kissed by fire’ and beautiful.

Whatever, at long last it seems our anti-social Wowler has a real cat-pal – and I’m chuffed to bits!

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Change of Life

What a difference a day makes…

On September 12th, my main job was working from home as a freelance writer and speaker. On September 13th, my main job became working outdoors as a full-time assistant gardener, a drastic change that happened literally from one moment to the next, and for the saddest of reasons: early that morning, my husband’s sole employee and workmate Mark was taken ill, (we assumed with a heart attack), and rushed to hospital. Knowing Hubcap would never manage the day’s schedule alone, I abandoned my plans and hurried out with him to help. Then at around ten-thirty we received awful, shocking news: Mark had died in the ambulance – almost certainly the one Mick saw racing past on the main road, sirens blaring, while he was at his first job – before even leaving our street.

It was impossible to take in. We’d envisaged him having an operation, convalescing, making a good recovery and, eventually, returning to work on light duties. We’d planned to find out about sick pay, something Hubcap had never dealt with before because Mark had the constitution of an ox, and seldom missed a day’s work though illness. I’d expected to give only short-term emergency cover, and perhaps to carry on part-time if he wanted to reduce his hours. Now all that was suddenly wiped out. Hubcap’s assistant for twenty-five years, a guest at our wedding, a near neighbour I’d seen or spoken to almost daily since 2005, and worked with on many occasions – he was suddenly gone, completely and forever. It felt surreal, dislocating, unbelievable; I had exchanged greetings and a brief chat with Mark only eighteen hours ago – it seemed impossible that he could be dead.

But he was; and being stuck out in mid-job, we had to stop floundering and deal with the new reality we’d been so shockingly catapulted into. Our immediate problem was to get round all the customers waiting for their gardens to be done as usual, not just today but for the rest of the week and the foreseeable future. My immediate solution was offering to step in as a trainee replacement. Gardening is, after all, our bread-and-butter; my freelance ventures, with their wildly unpredictable and often minimal returns, have only ever been the jam. So instantly changing profession made sense, even though I knew it would be very arduous work, requiring total commitment and leaving me little time or energy for anything else.

This may sound an extreme, perhaps ill-advised course; however, if you follow my website or blogs about Beckside, our nascent smallholding, you may not be too surprised by the decision. Gardening has long been a favourite hobby; I’ve done casual work in the business for over a decade – especially in the past two years since my hip replacement restored me to full vigour – and thanks to re-enacting and land work, I’m well used to (and can enjoy) long days of physical graft. So I’m not risking my health by leaping straight from a desk job into full-time hard labour; it’s more like expanding some leisure pursuits into my main paid occupation – and thankfully, so far, so good.

There is a price to pay: I had to close my funeral celebrancy business straight away, (although I’ll still perform the odd service for friends and sell Safehands Funeral Plans). I also cut back on Herstory services including lectures and guided walks, as you’ll see on the pruned-down and updated website; it really goes against the grain to turn down further talk requests, but on weekdays I’ll be too unavailable, and most evenings I’ll be too shattered to go out again and try to entertain an audience. I’m even selling my male re-enactment kit because I can’t imagine ever doing battle or cross-dressing for a schools presentation again, (but I’ll never give up archery or sell my beloved longbow!). And while I doubt I’ll manage to publish any new books before we retire in 2020, I’ll keep selling all my current catalogue and writing for fun in the meantime.

What a difference a day makes, indeed. And while I’m enjoying the challenges of this new lifestyle, I sincerely wish that it hadn’t come about under such tragic circumstances… yes, RIP, Mark.