It was very nice rice. I don’t think I have the vocabulary to say any more, but yes, Bil or Ali, it was the good stuff. We had a wearing afternoon. The Professor, trying to write, upstairs, me, trying to read (mostly ), downstairs. Miss Dog had had a proper walk in the forest, ate her dinner in regulation style, and so forth. Miss Kit relieved herself, ate, sparingly but adequately, yummed up some raw beef, and drank in a perfectly normal fashion. Yet, for most of the afternoon and evening, Miss Dog whined, and Miss Kit wailed. I can certainly say in re Miss Kit that the little creature seemed really distressed. She sat on my knee crying incessantly, sometimes wriggling up to stare me desperately in the face, refused to be put down or handed over to her hot spot, and made it all but impossible for me to work. When I got up to confer with the Professor, she followed me upstairs wailing all the way. A shot of Metacam painkiller went down without incident, and nothing seems to be wrong with her back or legs. Between half nine and ten, Miss Dog went to her steel hotel for peaceful slumber, Miss Kit to her hot spot, where she remains, immersed in placid dreams as far as I can see. Were peculiar atmospheric conditions upsetting both of them? Has a wildcat or some other fearsome beast passed silently through the wood? One or other seems the most obvious, since they were both upset, and both stopped being upset at about the same time. They’re generally fairly scrutable. But not always.
We were relieved to welcome poor Olga back today. As it turned out the first and simplest explanation was the right one: she had had the winter vomiting virus very badly, and couldn’t tell us because she couldn’t muster enough English to do so in terms which would not offend or alienate us (there being a world of difference between ‘I not come to work, okay’ and ‘I’m terribly sorry but I’m still feeling very wobbly and the doctor doesn’t want me to go out’). She still doesn’t know us that well. The poor thing is not mistress of English conditional and subjunctive clauses, which are such an aid to courteous self-espression, and evidently feels the lack. I don’t know much about the Baltic languages but I begin darkly to suspect that were she trying to express any such sentiment in her native Latvian there would be quite a lot of bells and whistles. In herself, she is looking a bit washed out, but she ate a reasonable lunch, and certainly got us very tidy — we weren’t that bad, in fact. The canine moult is producing such outrageous quantities of fur that we were pretty much driven to the wielding of broom, mop and Hoover. Soon I will go through to the kitchen to organise our supper, which will be the occasion of broaching a new bag of rice, a more exciting event than it perhaps sounds. When the Professor went down, as he did, to England’s curry belt shortly before Christmas, I asked him to see if he could get some good rice (we have become luxuriously accustomed to Dehradun rice rather charmingly called ‘Pooja’, with a curvy sari-clad lady on the packet who is making a little domestic sacrifice; this is obtained in Edinburgh). He therefore ended up wandering into a late-night grocery store in somewhere like Bradford, where he found a couple of cheerful young men taking up space in the vicinity of the till; the sort of hoodie-clad young Asians who tend to trade as Ranj or Sri or something of the kind (though these particular ones were more probably Alis or Bils), and enlisted their aid. They were helpfulness itself. He was firmly advised, ‘you don’t want that T*l*a, it’s shite’ (naming a rice available in British supermarkets), and ‘Pooja’ , which is self-evidently Hindu, was not to be had, but was passed, in principle, as edible. ‘But this’, Bil, or Ali, said firmly, ‘is the dog’s bollocks, mate’. So the Professor, who has more sense than to argue with experts, did as he was told. Tonight we open the dog’s bollocks, otherwise trading as two kilos of ‘Lubna’ 2009 vintage super kernel Basmati, in a bag made of surprisingly good quality cotton, with a zip. Real rice nuts believe in maturing the stuff. Await reports.
We are having a splendidly quiet time here in the Deep North. It was a beautiful sunny day for a nice change - I took Miss Kit out last thing last night, and while it wasn’t actually raining, I found the ground had got so wet that it was like jelly. Miss Dog was walked in the forest, which is emerald green with moss and ferns, under a blue sky striped with yellow cloud, since when Les Wirlwinds Boys have, I think, wandered off for a zizz. The Professor is reading on the sofa. The only thing I can hear is the fire, which is crackling merrily, and shining on a string of little red lanterns which my mother has just added to our Christmas collection: these form a pleasant counterpoint to the string of small Norwegian flags swagged across the overmantel mirror. Miss Kit has been given a splendid round red felt sleeping pad by our friends in Tromso: with a typically feline view of innovation, no matter how positive, she promptly jumped off it again and went and sat on the Professor, but she will certainly come to appreciate its charm. She is, even for a cat, inclined to be conservative. There was a lime green toy mouse which I bought her when she first arrived seven years ago, which finally and terminally unravelled in the course of this autumn, but for all that time it has been her only special toy, sometimes played with, but more often simply embraced like a teddy bear. She has refused to accept any substitute. Later I will wander into the kitchen and cook. We have decided on a panettone bread and butter pudding, which will strike a Christmassy note due to the fruit and spice without being as heavy as the dreaded pud. There is fillet steak and asparagus and stuff, so dinner will be dead easy, but also very nice.
The wind is blustering round the house as if it was the equinox not the solstice. The country is saturated - a brief expedition to buy smart knitting wool for a friend’s daughter stuck in hospital was over roads running and sheeting with water — though not, we gather, as much water as there is further south. There is mud everywhere, though the amount of mud actually in the house has been significantly reduced. There is still no sign of Olga, who not even her friend the taxi driver has seen for a few days, so we begin to wonder if her old Ma back in Latvia has been taken ill and she’s dashed to the rescue. However, we are in possession of mops, buckets, a Hoover, and, crucially, TIME so we can guddle round the house ourselves. Otherwise we are dealing with a mountain of roots provided by the Two Nice Girls (the parsnips were beginning to get well out of hand), and awaiting the arrival of Dr Biswell and Mr Wil (who, at times of transit, tend to be referred to as Les Wirlwinds Boys, a phrase of Ed’s). Les Wirlwinds are coming up tomorrow, we hope, if the Solway behaves itself. The University has stopped sending us emails, a brief but welcome respite. The knitting wool shop is a beguiling place, full of such beautiful colours that one longs to be able to knit. Apart from the wool for the languishing patient, we came away with a charming little cardigan for a baby in bold and brilliantly coloured squares — a most cheerful object, and what’s more, the lady who knits them up does so to support a children’s charity in Malawi, so it’s a bit of a win-win. A friend had a baby last week, so we even have someone to give it to.
It’s always a good moment, when you begin slowly to realise that battling the weather, traffic system, bus schedules, etc. to meet the first lecture of the day is over for a while. Seventy-odd lectures have been more or less successfully given - given, at any rate. The weather is vile: as promised, it has got warmer, but what that meant, coming home, was scouring, near-horizontal sleety rain. Even the dog thinks it a bit much, and what the cat makes of it I have yet to find out. Meanwhile, we have a domestic crisis: the excellent Olga has vanished. On the first of her days this month, she rang in with the dread winter vomiting virus, last week, we were pretty much snowed in, but this week she’s disappeared. I don’t think she can possibly be illegal because she was briefly in need of income support and could hardly have asked for it if she hadn’t built up some rights, but she seems to have vanished. Meanwhile we are knee deep in black fur because neither of us has had time to deal with it; kitchen yes, hoovering, no. But I think I’d better get it sorted out before we start looking like a Joseph Beuys installation.
I am currently in receipt of the full force of canine disapproval, the Professor being at the moment, in Edinburgh. I managed (just) to get back from work in time to take Miss Dog for a roam in the gloaming, so I felt I’d sort of done my duty by the animal. We then got back, and I fed her. A bit later, she ankled in and sat whining under her breath in the most irritating fashion. She had, as far as I could perceive, relieved herself copiously on our excursion, but you never know with dogs, so I let her out. Out she stayed, for the best part of an hour, and returned in the pitch dark with something on her mind. Miss Dog belongs to the tribe of dogs that groan to express their feelings. After a while, someone behind me went ‘Muuurhh. Muuuurrhh.’ I was, insofar as Miss Kit permitted, attempting to mark essays, so I paid this as little attention as I could; however it escalated to something more like ‘MMUUURRRHHH’, a kind of pained bugle, somewhere between a 32-foot organ pipe with indigestion and a camel in a state of obstetric emergency. Further investigation revealed that the new sack of dog food, though it’s what she used to like best, has been found wanting for some reason, and these lively communications add up to ‘I’m hungry’. ‘But I won’t eat that muck’. The prolonged auto-walk was doubtless to see if she could do anything about self-catering, but fortunately, the enterprising Monty has not been free with his leftovers. She is as mad as fire with me. More cheerfully, Miss Kit’s sciatica seems to be coming under control. This evening, I saw her in that most Yogic of cat poses, balanced on the base of her spine, with one leg pointing to the stars. And actually, I haven’t seen her do that for weeks and weeks — I’ve been grooming her lower spine and points adjacent myself since she clearly couldn’t reach — so it suggests there’s hope yet. She’s tumbled to the Metacam Soup, alas, but I’ve worked out ways of getting the stuff into her, and she hasn’t bitten me (yet).
We still haven’t had the promised rain, with the result that the snow is lingering about in a discouraging fashion. Much of it is slush, but not all of it. We left the little car with our patient friends at the garden centre, because we thought the track was too icy when we got back last night. The Professor’s cough, which seemed to be getting better, has come back again, perhaps due to the walk down the track: it’s been three weeks now which is pretty tiresome. We’re getting on with things as best we can. Miss Dog has developed a strange obsession with tussocks. I can only think that voles and so forth are hiding out in them, but she keeps becoming utterly fascinated by some tump indistinguishable, to the human eye, from any other, and huffs excitedly into it, tail wagging furiously, not to be distracted even by a dog-treat. Oddly, though there are deer tracks all over the place, she doesn’t seem to pay them any attention. It has to be said that she probably stands more chance of catching a vole than a deer, but it does strike me that her choice of hobby suggests a certain lack of ambition.
Today we awoke to a blanket of snow. Miss Cat is disgusted, Miss Dog thinks it’s lovely. We’re hoping it gets rained away. It’s already caused considerable difficulties since someone was supposed to be coming to stay and we weren’t sure we could get down the drive: we suggested the visitor in question might stay in Aberdeen where she was supposed to be tomorrow night in any case, but then hung round the phone for hours waiting for confirmation that she wasn’t in fact stranded in Turriff — there was no way of knowing if she’d managed to make contact with tomorrow night’s hosts who could perfectly well have gone out for the day. All’s well, but it’s tiresome to be back to the improvisations and sudden panics of snow season. I don’t adore being rained on, but in this particular context, a lovely downpour will be fervently welcomed.
It was an absolutely rotten summer for growing vegetables. Last year, the box we get from the Two Nice Girls had quite a bit of cavolo nero and what they call braising greens in it, even in December, but this year, the weekly box is very heavy on roots. The Professor has developed a sideline in pickling turnips. I keep making potage Crecy. But it’s not enough to stem the tide, so before we’re actually overwhelmed with the damn things, we are having a Rootfest tonight: a gratin of celeriac, potato, parsnip and carrot, and a grated raw carrot and turnip salad. Roots of another kind, or rather, bulbs, have also been on our mind. The erratic Tony was asked to plant black tulips in front of the house, and did, but he being a literal minded cove, anything not a black tulip wasn’t planted. This has been preying on our minds a bit, since the great outdoors has been alternately pouring with rain and freezing cold, and we ourselves have been alternately too busy, or ill. The Prof has had a cough for a fortnight; he’s just started on a course of antibiotics which seems, finally, to be breaking it all up. I therefore walked the dog after we’d come back from the chemist’s and the weekly shop, thinking I’d better get it over with while the weather was reasonably open. I got back with the little beast (who, by the way, is recovering from the sore shoulder at a rate of knots) and realised that it was amazingly mild, so I booted her into the house, and spent a strenuous hour planting everything that remained. I have some pink parrot tulips of the sort which have green streaks even when fully blown, and I’ve put them in a bright blue pot. After months of grey-black-white, that sort of thing is strangely welcome. I found fifteen black tulips Tony had overlooked, so they have gone in a tasteful black pot. Paperwhite narcissus are in a celadon pot, since they’ll end up in the sitting room. And I have put three yellow Crown Imperials at the far end of the garden: I love the things, in spite of their strange, foxy smell. They’re rather expensive, or I’d have got more, but I look forward to their proud crowns. Also, we’ve put blue Iris reticulata on either side of the front door. A variety called ‘Joyce’, which I always buy because for one thing, it’s beautiful, and for another, it reminds me of a nice old neighbour in our previous life. They don’t naturalise, so I buy them every year. They’re very early, and so when you’re really not expecting much except snowdrops, you get a sudden flash of searing delphinium blue. I am so glad that next year’s are now safely in the ground and have not been eaten by what are locally called ‘meeces’.
This week it was Miss Dog who decided that our lives lacked variety. There is something nasty in the wood, we have come to believe. She has developed a tendency to whine at the door, and when let out, vanish for some considerable time, with a great deal of placatory wagging on her return. I suspect that someone has shot a deer and there is a depot of unwanted giblets and so forth quietly rotting in an out of the way spot. Anyway, the dear little animal did a runner this morning, and when she returned she was seen to be missing a square inch or so of fur and skin from her shoulder. I thought she’d damaged herself on wire, and she was hauled off to the vet, where it transpired that she had a patch of dermatitis, probably caused by an earlier minor injury, and squeezing under or through something had knocked the scab off, fur and all. She was given an antibiotic. These things can cause trouble if the animal can lick at the wound and prevent it healing, but this particular lesion is high on her shoulder where she can’t reach, so it should sort itself out in a few days. The Metacam soup routine is still working, by the way.
Well, dearies, things are a little better than they were last week. We retrieved my computer on Wednesday; it’d cost an unrealistic amount to repair but has been equipped with a keyboard and mouse. I don’t use it to travel with so that will work perfectly well even if it looks a bit awful. I have also, at least for the time being, solved the problem of feline medication. She has rather gone off the chicken I give her, perhaps because she has a dark feeling I want her to eat it. But, on the odd occasions when I’ve had to unfreeze some in a hurry for her, it has always been the case that she will eagerly lap up the juice, so what I have taken to doing is heating a little water with a pinch of reduced salt chicken stock, putting hr painkiller in it, and adding a little chopped chicken. She then laps the chickeny water, and pointedly leaves the chicken under the impression that she has outsmarted me. It has turned very cold all of a sudden, but at least the leaves are off the trees.
I still don’t have my computer back. The latest word is that it would cost north of two hundred pounds in labour to repair the keys. Solution two, as I had rather thought it might be, is to attach the machine to a keyboard and a mouse, at a total cost of about forty quid. Meanwhile, the Law of Sod being what it is, I managed to mislay the pink pen-drive which contains most of what I’ve done all term. Last used in a class at three o’clock on Friday. Disappeared, I don’t know how. I’ve looked in every conceivable pocket, in the seminar room in question, and turned my bag inside out. This leaves me with internet access on a small computer on which I can otherwise do nothing (Mr Gates having declared its window package illegal, a long, boring and tiresome saga) and an old machine I can’t access the internet on which offers, otherwise, the state of my life in 2006 and on which I can’t open pictures because pictures have got so much bigger than they were when said machine left the factory. The reason why nothing was done about my laptop proves to be quite exciting, and an insight into what they teach them in Business School these days. Someone in a suit has come up with a special wheeze, that to be a client of this computer company (which we have used since it started up), one will have to pay £300 a year. Not to be set against call-out, you understand, but merely that they will be graciously pleased to have heard of you. As Godfather pointed out, if they’re running an intranet for you with 25 machines and the understanding is that you can expect someone to turn up in a couple of hours if things go wrong, it might be sensible. For us, it’s stunning and unmitigated cheek, as the Professor pointed out to the suit in question. As a principle it works if you’re the only game in town, can persuade people you’re miles better than anyone else, or if you and the oppo form a cartel. I do hope it doesn’t catch on, and the vet starts charging you a couple of hundred a year just to have your beasties on their books.
Miss Kit has been having an unnecessarily heroic week. After the scrambling over the keyboard debacle (my main machine is still with the computeristas who maintain an ominous silence), we had a difficult moment last night after it became clear that the chicken with her painkiller on it had dried up uneaten. The stuff has to go down on a full stomach so it was a question of watching till she had scoffed up some griblets. Unfortunately the element of surveillance was perceived by Miss Kit: she jumped down and had it away on her toes. I siezed her and took her back to the counter, but by then she was set to hysterical resistance. I tried to fire some Metacam down her gagging and spluttering wee gullet, and as we struggled, she bit my left index finger to the bone. It didn’t half bleed. I was a bit concerned this morning that the wound might be infected, since it was a bit swollen, red and hot, but as the day progressed it seems to have settled down to be mere ordinary soreness. I don’t like the notion of antibiotics on the safe side because I’m not sure it IS the safe side.
I had a day at home, most of which was spent writing exam papers. I’ve always found the only way to do this is take a run-up at the whole paper and free-associate, cover a couple of pages with questions, then make a list of the topics to be covered, tick off the topics you’ve achieved, and do the others. It may sound a bit backwards but if you start with the topics then you pretty much write the same questions year on year. That done, another chore beckoned. The weather is dull and the nights are fair drawing in. By 3.30 it was evidently time to take Miss Dog for a walk, if she was going to have one in the proper sense of the word. I returned sometime after four to find a completely new, if predictable crisis. Miss Cat had evidently wanted to get up to her hot spot in the middle of my desk. She’d had trouble getting herself up, and in the process of scrambling across my laptop, had kicked four keys off it. With laptops, the visible key covers a fascinating little bipartite nylon device faintly reminiscent of a teensy clay pigeon shooter which provides the necessary springiness. I assembled all three detached parts for each key, but putting them back together is completely beyond me. The whole machine is at our computer sorter-outer, and I am meanwhile using the modest little affair I travel with, and hoping that nothing on the main machine I’ve forgotten to get off it goes critical before the weekend.
The Professor and I both had a day at home today, which, given the amount of work which had to be done last Saturday and Sunday, constituted the weekend. Among other things, we picked the rest of the grapes, and the absolute last of the apples. The grapes have become grape jelly: I left then on their lees for an hour because Miss Cat had to go to the vet for her annual booster between phase 1 and phase 2 of processing, and the added tannin has produced result a bit more characterful than the previous batch, which was at the very least, all right. The Prof made the apples into a sort of tarte Tatin, somewhat less glorious and/or calorific than the traditional variety, but also very good.
One remaining problem of the year is the leaves. For reasons quite obscure to us much of the leafage is still firmly stuck to the trees. We need the gutters cleaned out, but till the larches behind the house have dropped the last of their attractive golden-russet needles, there isn’t really any point because it’ll be all to do again. We had a bout of wind around midday, and, seeing the leaves waltzing past the windows, were much inclined to cheer.
We did have our evening party on the Friday. It took quite a bit of organizing: on Thursday and Friday I need to be in to the works by 11 and not homeward bound till after 5, so nothing could be left to last-minute improvisation. The freezer was groaning with stuff, but the great facilitator in the whole enterprise was the arrival of the ex-Tropical Godparents, who turned up on Wednesday evening, with rolled up sleeves and a general air of determined confidence. The good Olga polished and tidied with a will on Thursday, and Godmama, who cooks, was left on Friday morning with a list of what needed to be done to what, while I trotted off to give sundry lectures and classes on eunuch saints, the idea of the Roman republic as refracted through the French and American revolutions, the Black Death, and the rise of the Dominican order. I got back at quarter to seven to find order, calm, a merrily crackling fire, and a high state of polish generally. Guests arrived at about half past, and our singer friend then gave us Dicherliebe, with the assistance of a talented youngster who is one of the Professor’s current PhD students. This was lovely going on magnificent. Schumann in a domestic setting with a concert standard singer is quite something. Miss Dog, incidentally, was shut in the kitchen. The last time we had lieder in the home she was seized by the misguided notion that it might help to sing along. I can only say that it didn’t. Without canine interventions, this time, all went well, and the subsequent supper was a very jolly occasion. Three cheers for Godmama.
We had a very wearing Wednesday, which in retrospect, was due to a significant extent, to Twisbies. Or at any rate, an individual in human guise which only revealed its twisbotic nature as events proceeded. An ancient and exotic keyboard instrument specialist. We have a square piano, which has been unplayable due to the absence of a part. A recent visit to the man who gave it to us produced, after a cellars-to-tower hunt, a mysterious piece of wood which was supposed to be the answer. But no! there was another missing piece of wood, we were told, without which the pedal would not function. The notion of ‘bodge’ does not readily enter the world of rare instrument specialists, but beyond that, there are personalities who delight in the negative and we certainly seemed to have found one. There was quite a bit of argy-bargy establishing what the missing bit of wood should actually do (it needed to tilt the aforementioned large piece of wood through about fifteen degrees if you put a foot on the pedal. This, obviously, could be achieved by pulling down the near side, causing the far side to tilt up). Then it was a journey through impossibilia. He admitted that this end might be achieved by cutting a bit of wood a quarter inch thick, only we didn’t have one and there was nothing to cut it with. I took the back off a drawer of a not very valuable bit of furniture, and we borrowed a hacksaw from our friends at the garden centre. The next triumph of the negative was that — being a not valuable bit of furniture — the drawer back was deal, i.e., soft pine. Alas, alas, it would split, it couldn’t be done, and so on. I was getting a bit cross by then. The next thing I produced was my draughtman’s set square, one of the large things people used to use for architectural drawing before computers. Having produced a variety of wallpaintings in our various houses, I have a use for such a thing. The twisby concluded, with ill grace, that it was hardwood and might do. He cut a piece, with Calum-the-Garden-Centre’s hacksaw. Remember this was Wednesday towards a Friday occasion. ‘The glue won’t be dry within 72 hours’, he warned. ‘What about screws?’. Screws were produced. Screws were, with a somewhat ill grace, screwed. And the end of the story is: this very expensive chappie left after what was officially, a half day, rather than going off to tinker in his workshop (add three hours), back the next day (another three hours), at which point, we might have been thinking about remortgaging. The square piano is working, a good thing in itself. And, for Friday’s concert, the musician contingent who have meanwhile eventuated have decided they would rather use the grand piano in the sitting room, which leaves us feeling really quite good about not spending an absolute fortune on the square piano, or rather, its attendant Twisby.
Miss Kit’s new health regime seems to be working. She was quite poorly the last time the vet saw her, and is now a lot better, though she still can’t manage the serpentine twist which allows a cat to lick its lower back. I comb her, for which she seems grateful. But movement generally isn’t troubling her: the vet advises that while nerve damage heals we should encourage her to rest, at the same time, she ought to lose the weight she put on due to the previous vetinary intervention. I have, thankfully, found that she seems to find the ’senior’ variety of her cat food perfectly palatable, and it’s lower calorie. She is looking notably less like an orange furry rugby ball. Otherwise, the middle of term is the peak of my workload in terms of numbers of lectures plus stuff to mark, so I don’t have much time to write. A gay social whirl is in prospect at the end of the week. I will report on Sunday.
We have been worrying about Miss Kit for some time. She was at the vet’s last week, but didn’t seem to be a whole lot better, so while I was at work, the Professor took her back again. Having been alarmed by an unruly dog in the waiting room, she threw her occasional but most dramatic symptom actually on the vet’s table (an indication of her essentially lovely nature: generally an animal practically foaming at the mouth will, once brought before a person in green scrubs, will revert to apparent health). The vet decided to X-ray, and revealed that she has sciatica: an inflammation of the nerves, which is controllable with a regular painkiller. The reason the hormone replacement therapy appeared to be working is that it has anti-inflammatory properties as a side effect. But it has caused her to put on a kilo, which is inevitably adding to her problems. So we will need to try and get her weight down, but it looks as if there’s an answer to this whole set of one thing after another which has been complicating her (and our) life for about six months.
When we were all in Cromarty, the Professor was hanging out with the Queen of Cracked China, while godpapa and I racketed round the countryside looking at unsuitable cottages (a different story), when a stranger came into the shop and proved, on inspection, to be no stranger at all, but a woman last seen twenty years ago. Peter and the lady’s mother were friends from years and years back, and when we were trying to sort out the house before last (the one which had been empty for 17 years and had no electricity, that is), she and her sister spent part of the summer with us — she had just come to to the end of her first year at Cambridge and was suffering from omniscience, as one does, and her little sister was gloomily awaiting her A level results, which were in fact, in the end, more than respectable if I remember rightly. But their mother was finding them, in combination, perfectly insupportable, so they were put on a train south and sent off to make themselves useful. Fast forward twenty years. The Professor is grey, I am stout, and the erstwhile Omniscient is a beautiful woman with a good haircut and, it turns out, an interesting husband. They came to lunch, and we enjoyed each other’s company. Nobody talked about the past at all, which is always a good sign.