Eastern Promise

cambridgeshire-summerTwo weeks ago, my fiancée and I piled our remaining belongings and our grumpy cats into our aged French car; we then left Bradford. A fortnight is a stutter in time, barely a blink of an eye in the context of a year: yet Yorkshire seems a lifetime ago, shaken out of memory like a shifting pattern in a kaleidoscope. Now when I wake up in the morning, it feels like the large bedroom window, the garden I see out of it, the roses I planted (one of them white in memory of my former home) and the straight line of the distant horizon have always been part of my life.

There is plenty of evidence that this is not the case: a fair number of boxes still remain packed. The lingo in our home for a freshly unpacked carton is “I killed a box”; their murder is cause for celebration as each slaying is a symbol of settling in. Nevertheless, every morning over the past two weeks has provided a fresh game of “Where the heck is that” – whether one is trying to locate clean boxer shorts, an egg whisk or a long departed remote control. Broadband only arrived a few days ago and the aged, sturdy walls of the house prevent strong signals from penetrating throughout, a situation only slowly being remedied with strategically placed WiFi boosters. The connection to the satellite dish in the breakfast nook is dodgy, though its inability to receive Channel 5 could be better thought of as an unintended yet benevolent form of editorial control. Though a forwarding address has been put in place and registration with our new GP has been completed and final bills have been paid and direct debits redirected, it will take a bit of time for all the changes to wash through and finalise. Magazines will go missing. A few circulars of no consequence will be delivered before the advertiser gets the message. Despite these rough edges, a pattern can be discerned: given time, the last remnants of the move will be swept away and summer will largely be spent in the garden and on the lawn, connecting with nature in a way that wasn’t possible back in Bradford.

asparagusNot long after we arrived, my fiancée and I went into the garden: we found that potatoes and asparagus were growing there. The asparagus was particular cause for excitement: it generally takes years for it to yield a crop. A slight unearthing and a poke with a trowel indicated that the potatoes would be ready in a matter of weeks. Last weekend, we had fresh steamed asparagus for dinner. Additionally, we have planted a raspberry bush, carrots, tomatoes, chillies and sweet peppers. Aubergines and courgettes will follow soon. Fresh herbs are in a pot near the front door. Every day as I go outside, I look up and take into account the combination of rain and sun, hoping for the best. Around our home, fields full of rye, peas and rapeseed are being cultivated by our landlord: in two weeks, it’s been possible to discern the crops’ burgeoning. Yet summer seems all too brief a season in which the processes of growth and harvesting will take place. This is despite Cambridgeshire being extraordinarily fertile: it is like one could plant a stone in the ground and it would sprout leaves. But how fecund will it remain? The heat and sunshine of the past week almost seemed too much and digging in the garden became a dry, dusty business and the stale scent of barren earth stuck to my clothes. Only cool soothing rain provided reassurance: when it fell, the lawn exuded the scent of fresh grass, as if the earth itself had exhaled.

Probably thanks to their new proximity to nature, the grumpy cats are less irritable than when we departed Yorkshire. My cat Amelia has wandered around the garden a few times, attending to her little cat errands while patrolling the perimeter. I have seen her hiding underneath a bush, her black and white head tilted left then right. Her yellow-green eyes scanned the grounds as if to reassure herself that all was well. Having done so, she then emerged and delicately trod on the tips of her paws across the lawn.

When one needs relief from nature, there is the nearby village. It is quaint without being cloying: there’s a set of 19th century cottages, a Chinese takeaway of last resort, and an old petrol station that has been turned into a dealership for restored classic cars including a black Rover P5 which glints in the afternoon sunlight like it had just rolled off the assembly line.

The local pub serves as a cake shop as well as post office and dry cleaner. In terms of convenience, it can’t be bettered: what other post office is open on a Sunday, closes at 7 PM, offers homemade pies and has fine ale on tap in the next room? The postmaster is a kindly woman with close cropped blonde hair: when I had an urgent package to send, she told me that she would drive to the next town to ensure that it got to its destination in a timely manner. This was entirely unnecessary, the recipient could wait; nevertheless, she did it. I thanked her profusely.

After I left the pub, I thought about how prior to moving to Cambridgeshire that I was curious about the East: unlike Yorkshire, Lancashire or Cumbria, there’s no widely established reputation for the area. What are the people like? What is the character of the East? What binds the people who live there? Perhaps it is the flat landscape of the Fens which unites the region: earlier this week, a fearful wind blew up, ripping through trees and causing them to fall over and block the roads in some places. Perhaps living close to nature and knowing with how fickle it can be leads to an awareness of the value of calm, kindness and courtesy which contrasts with the environment’s vicissitudes.

Calm and courtesy prevailed at a meeting of the local branch of the Labour Party. My fiancée and I were welcomed by the officials and we met our recent (unsuccessful) Parliamentary candidate, who may have lost the election but certainly gave no impression of being defeated. We talked about Bradford’s politics and our election night; our new colleagues told us about theirs. They had a surprise triumph in one of the local contests: the freshly minted councillor was faultlessly unassuming, fully aware of the challenge that lay ahead in serving his constituents and eventually being re-elected. Labour Party meetings in Bradford had only lasted an hour at most: this one was more like a social occasion, many cups of tea and glasses of water and soft drinks were drained as we spoke at length. In total, the event lasted approximately four hours. By the time it was over, the sun was down. We went home: in the darkness I missed the turning to our home several times. When we finally arrived, we hastened to bed and slept for a solid nine hours.

It would be tempting to assume that the East is some kind of utopia: as much as one might think so when looking at an ancient abbey or drinking a pint of dark mild, it is not. It is not immune to the problems which plague the rest of Britain. My fiancée and I saw a protest in one of the larger municipalities against NHS privatisation. We have encountered Farage’s toxic influence in casual utterances about foreigners and ethnic minorities. On the edge of the quaint but not cloying village is a set of modest bungalows which speak of limited incomes. It is tempting to drive down a country lane and see vast fields full of blooming rapeseed and think that the golden blossoms somehow represent wealth, but recent falls in commodity prices tell a different story. No place is perfect, and my palate still sometimes craves the spicy flavour of Bradford’s intensity and diversity. Nevertheless, Cambridgeshire and the East have swiftly become home. The seasons will turn: the trees will change colour, maybe a light snow will eventually fall on the flat fields. I’ve been reliably informed that the Fens regularly imports weather from Norway across the North Sea, and it’s relatively easy to envisage how bitter winds will smash into anything standing out amidst the flat landscape. But we’ll adapt. The cats will huddle in warm corners, the broadband will hopefully continue to work and the sky blue Aga should keep the kitchen snug. I’ll stand at the living room window and remember summer and working in the garden. I’ll also remember that the promise of the East is not that life which is perfect.  Rather, there is a chance of a good life: so far, it is.

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