Wife Mary has been nagging me to clear the mudslide from the area ’twixt cottage threshold and the street.I suggested that, like my mother, she might enrol in preventative falls classes as offered by the NHS.
‘But falls classes shouldn’t be necessary!’ railed Mary. ‘Can’t you just shovel away the mud so there’s no risk of my falling?!’
‘Doucement,’ I coo - just as my father used to when my mother was over-reacting.
You see, it’s not that simple. It would be Canute-like to attempt a clean-up before clement weather returns.
I urged Mary to practise patience until one of the predicted episodes of overnight frost would allow me to get a spade under the leafy encrustations. Frankly, the short hop between cottage front door and car has given Mary the only exposure to fresh air she has been getting over this exceptionally soggy winter in our country idyll. She views our own one-acre patch as a no-go zone. Due to my various conservation experiments and the ongoing garden shed construction, she considers the turf is ‘too lumpy’ to walk on safely.
Meanwhile, the village road itself has been exceptionally muddy due to tractors and Amazon delivery vans churning up the verges. Our shed-builder and sage Patrick, a local man, had predicted a ‘correction’ in the weather after the months of drenching palls.
Finally there dawned a glorious day when gnats formed pillars like dust motes in the sun’s rays. Other Britons had noted the change in weather, just before the lockdown, and, wherever I looked, the landscape was studded with little knots of foot-travellers braving the flooded fields in gay apparel.
One person remained oblivious to the change: Mary, who was ‘working’ from bed, fondly self-deluding that, just like her heroine Mrs Stitch in Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, she was orchestrating jobs for friends.
But this was a glorious day stolen from summer and, as my father used to tell me in my childhood, too much indoors was, in another of his favourite words, verboten.
I marched into the bedroom. ‘It is verboten for you to stay inside on a day like this, taking phone calls from timewasters,’ I chivvied, reminding her that her own super-healthy mother had made a point of ‘going for a blow’ every day.
Mary countered that the difference was that her mother went for a blow of sea air on a concrete seaside promenade on the Antrim coast road rather than on a mudbank in a dank Wiltshire dell.
But I persevered and eventually watched with satisfaction as her figure entered the landscape. I believe there is an inner scoutmaster in any man born north of Watford - although channelling my inner Baden-Powell has sometimes cost me dearly in holiday invitations not repeated after I have insisted hosts go on lengthy hikes before breakfast.
What is toxic masculinity by the way? It was only for her own good that I bullied Mary into taking the dog out on that sunny morning. However, fresh-air shaming backfired because the walk did not go well.
She took an unwonted short cut and when our Tibetan Spaniel, Merlin, refused to enter the clandestine snipe and redshank bog that I had spent the winter creating on someone else’s land by cunningly stopping a drain, Mary had to carry the mutt through it. This unbalanced her and she did indeed have a fall. Then the ice-cold, chalky water entered her footwear when she was still some way from home.
‘Now I’m going to have to sacrifice 45 minutes out of my busy schedule’ (these days, much of it is apparently spent foiling bank-scammers) ‘just to get warm again in a cottage with no central heating by boiling myself in a bath!
‘And it’s all the fault of a coercive and bullying man from Up North who’s modelling himself on Walter Morel.’
Of course I knew exactly who she meant, since Sons & Lovers by D H Lawrence is one of the few books of classic English literature I have read, as it was on the A-level syllabus. Walter Morel was the bullying alcoholic father who made his wife’s life a misery.
‘Nonsense. Nothing to do with Sons & Lovers. You’ll soon warm up in the bath. The fresh air will have been good for you.’
‘You’ve had fresh air 24/7 ever since I met you. Yet you’ve been as sick as a dog 365 days a year, so why do you think fresh air is such a good idea?’
‘Doucement. Doucement. Patrick will be upset if he hears you shouting,’ I reminded her.
Why do I think being outside is such a good idea? It’s a fair point. I haven’t felt that well since Mary met me, forty years ago now.
Perhaps the answer lies in the modest trust fund set up for myself and my sister by a great-uncle, Tom Scott Sutherland from Aberdeen, who suffered as a child from polio. With one leg amputated, he nevertheless became a millionaire tycoon, achieving more in his lifetime than have my sister and I with our four legs. Were we to expire before coming of age, decreed Uncle Tom, the monies would go to the Outward Bound Trust, a charity concerned with getting slum children into the great outdoors.
Who knows? My whole outlook on life may well have been coloured by this subliminal connection between outdoors and money.