Finally, I see the point in being kicked out of the family home, all those years ago

How else would I have met a Wolverhampton woman with a dry and ready wit and tattoos all over? 

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Oxfordshire, week two: I think the biggest surprise has been the garden in the evening. I have sat in many a country garden, but none of them have niffed as pleasantly in the twilight, and then the dark, as this one.

I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,

Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs,

But, in embalmèd darkness, guess each sweet

Wherewith the seasonable month endows

The grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild;                 

White hawthorn, and the pastoral eglantine;

Fast-fading violets cover’d up in leaves;

And mid-May’s eldest child,

The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine,

The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves. 

Not one of mine, but it sums things up very nicely. Luckily, the weather, as I write, is not as glorious as it has been. Luckily? Yes, because otherwise I would be outside, sunning myself, and possibly with a beaker full of the warm South – you know,  the true, the blushful Hippocrene, with beaded bubbles winking at the brim and all that. I wouldn’t be writing this column because it would be too bright to see the screen. Keats never had this kind of problem.

Last Sunday I had a visit from my friend T—. We met some years ago and decided that we enjoyed each other’s turn of phrase, and we have remained friends, but as she lives between the Black Country and Shropshire we don’t get to see each other often. But she roared down the M40 to see me when she heard I was here, bringing her granddaughter with her, for reasons too private to air. She wanted to buy me Sunday lunch in honour of my birthday, and I had heard that the pub in the next village, the Star Inn at Stanton St John, did one of the best in the county.

Rumour had not lied. When I begged for more crackling the young man who’d served us brought me some. He shall be mentioned in my will, if I have anything left by then. As will the barmaid. T— noticed my expression when she came around, but I made clear it was due to nothing more than my appreciation of her competence and professionalism.

But Lord, I had forgotten what it was to take a small child to the pub. A—, T—’s grandchild, is three and three-quarters, which, while the age of maximal cuteness, is also the age of maximal pestering. Well, more insatiable curiosity. At that age, they’re really beginning to notice the world and build up the mental skills to deal with it. This is a nice way of saying you can’t speak for more than ten seconds without getting interrupted.

The Star Inn is well accommodated for children, as long as the weather is nice (the garden outside has walls and trees to climb, nothing too high or dangerous), but it doesn’t mean you can escape the endless questioning, the endless assertions.

At least I could drink. T— had to content herself with a pint glass of wine and soda in a one-to-five ratio. No conversation could ever reach a conclusion; threads were lost; anecdotes faded into oblivion before their point was made; fingers were stuck into ice cream and dealt with.

“Waste of a napkin,” said T—, when I went to clean A—’s fingers. “You’ll only be needing it again in a minute.” “Rookie mistake,” I agreed, marvelling that I could have forgotten the basic rules of being in loco parentis to a three-year-old.

But it was lovely. In the garden I taught A— how to play cricket; and she gave me a stick which I have promised never to lose. Once again, I wonder about the turns my life has taken ever since being thrown out of the family home some years ago.

Had I not been… then what? I would have a roof over my head that I could call my own, but chances are that I wouldn’t be sitting out in a garden heavy with scents and the song of blackbirds, and, most crucially, I would not have ever met T—. How do you meet a Wolverhampton woman with a dry and ready wit and tattoos all over if you are married, awfully middle-class and living more than a hundred miles away? You don’t; and when you don’t know T—, you don’t know a lot of things. (Like how brides in forced marriages get themselves rescued at airports: they put a spoon down their knickers before they go through the metal detectors. It’s an agreed signal.)

Later on, I discovered that in the passage by the side of the house there was a beehive. What would have happened if we’d hit it, I dread to think. But the bees have been considerate and unobtrusive. You could go so far as to say they are very well beehived.

And now it looks as though the sun is coming out, just as I finish. I shall move from Keats to Yeats and sit in the bee-loud glade. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Age of the strongman