London’s Heathrow Airport, it’s huge but not as frantic as I’d expected. Another baggage claim in another country, all this travelling was affecting my memory. How long since India? Was that before or after New Zealand? Had I really been in the Netherlands and Germany?
I simply couldn’t remember. The only clarity came from my folders with pictures and notes showing dates and places. Now, standing and waiting for my suitcase, I realized that too much travelling is exhausting.
For the next three weeks, though, I would be staying in Gloucestershire, England, two and a half hours northwest of London.
I would be mother to Roxy, a six-month-old border-collie-cross, and Paddy, a ten-year-old purebred border collie. But first I had to meet their owner in the arrival hall. Nick and I had spoken once, and I was sure we wouldn’t have a problem finding each other.
And so it was. As I walked out of the arrival hall, I saw him holding a handwritten sign with my name on it. “Hi, Monika,” he said as I waved. The conversation was easy right from the start, and during our long drive to their home, we chatted about nothing in particular, just getting to know each other.
About halfway through the trip, we left the highway and headed into the countryside, mostly wide fields, with occasional small patches of trees popping out. It was the English countryside of travel brochures, and I felt pleased to be surrounded by nature again. I had chosen this house-sit to refresh myself and improve my English before going back to New Zealand. After my time in India, I felt that my English had become a bit lazy, and I hoped that the house-sitting would encourage me to speak ‘proper’ English again. The conversation with Nick had been refreshing, and it got even better when I met his wife.
Pam greeted us at the small front gate. A curious Roxy trotted alongside her, while Paddy stood calmly behind them. We got out of the car and walked back together. Their bungalow was comfortable, and the guest room had been carefully prepared for me. After a short chat, I took a few minutes to unpack, then went back into the kitchen. A generous and inviting deck extended from the kitchen directly into the garden. Of course, there weren’t many flowers in February, and the trees wouldn’t blossom for a few weeks, but you could imagine the view in its full spring glory.
At six months old, little Roxy displayed typical puppy behaviour, running back and forth, and pawing at the door of my bedroom to find out what this stranger was doing in there. Pam showed me the rest of the house, simple and practical. Roxy’s basket was in the laundry, an attempt to keep her from harassing Paddy, who, as an old fellow, didn’t like that very much.
That evening, we would be having dinner at a nearby pub, where I would meet some of Nick’s and Pam’s friends. I felt really welcome, and their generosity and friendliness reminded me of my earlier stay in Auckland. I wondered whether there were some key similarities between the English and New Zealanders, more than just a common language.
Pam explained the chores. Then we had another cup of tea and went for a walk in the fields, muddy fields. She looked down at my stylish leather ‘city boots’, smiled and pointed to a pair of her rubber boots. “Better take one of these,” she said, and I gladly obliged. By now, both dogs were excited. Little Roxy sprinted to the gate and stood with her paws on the top rail, wagging her tail. Behind her, Paddy waited excitedly.
Pam’s next comment was, “If you go away and leave them here, you’d better put the rubbish bins in front of that gate. Roxy once managed to lift the lock, and she ran across the road to the sheep farm, naughty girl. Fortunately, nothing happened.” Good advice, and with a bonus. That sheep farm had its own roadside shop with fresh meat, fresh eggs and bread. Just what I like and I would be able to chat with the owners, too.
We wandered along Pam’s usual dog-walking route, though she commented that Nick did it differently. Their bungalow was at the far end of the village, so the street wasn’t busy at all. Paddy didn’t need a leash, but wild little Roxy was a different story. Pam wanted to teach her some basic rules, and I certainly agreed. If you don’t learn something when you’re young, you will suffer from it later in life. I think this applies to all living creatures.
Roxy couldn’t wait to keep walking, standing on two legs with her tongue hanging out of her mouth. As soon as Pam opened the gate, Roxy pulled on the leash, but Pam corrected her. We turned right and walked up an even narrower street towards wide fields, such a contrast. Cattle were everywhere, separated by temporary fences and gates. As soon as we got to the walkway at the bottom of the hill, Pam unleashed Roxy and I started laughing.
That tiny bundle of pure energy ran away like a cannon blast. Out of sight, you only could hear her excited, high-pitched barking. If you caught a glimpse of her, it was probably her tail, whirling like a propeller when she ran. Within seconds, she had sped from one side of the field to the other and back again. “Well, that’s youth,” I said, grinning at Pam. “Yes, and she also likes running into the woods, chasing deer, rabbits and pheasants. But she always comes back if you call her,” Pam answered.
Paddy never got tired of fetching a stick. If we ignored him, he would pick one up, walk a few steps ahead, and stare at us. He really got his message across. Following my two weeks in Amsterdam, I was truly enjoying rural England’s panoramas, clean air and the sounds of nature. An hour of walking had seemed like minutes, but we needed to go back to the cottage.
Nick was sorting out a problem with their travel agency. They had booked a trip to South Africa, which Nick had visited quite a few years earlier. Now he wanted to show his wife the incredible landscape and, hopefully, the ‘big five’. The problem was that his tickets showed the name ‘Nick’ instead of his full first name. Would the airlines and South African customs accept that? A basic problem that shouldn’t have happened, but unfortunately it did and ironic, too. South Africa’s middle name used to be ‘corruption’. Most of the population still can’t even read or write properly. I’m not sure whether Nick took the risk or bought another ticket, but in the end they got into the country with no questions asked.
Evening came and we drove to the pub for dinner. As a perfect conclusion to the rest of the day, the dinner was delicious, and our conversations were full of laughter. I enjoyed hearing their opinions about ‘Brexit’ and about Europe in general. Beyond just reading or listening to news, I like to talk to the people living in the country. I call that my ‘reality check’.
Nick and Pam had an afternoon flight the next day. Before they left, Nick wanted to show me his walking route and the village grocery store, so we got up early. He didn’t put Roxy on a leash, which was fine with her, because she ran straight to the end of the road and turned right into the field. Nick’s walk went the other way around, not in the direction of the hill, but towards the village. He also went into a patch of untouched forest along the side of the main route, different but just as beautiful and relaxing as the route that Pam took.
“What about getting a few things at the shop in the village?” Nick wondered whether I wanted to practice driving the car. “Sure,” I replied. “Good idea.” Driving on the ‘other’ side of the road is different, of course. After my time in India and Auckland, I was used to it, but a refresher would take away any worry. Then it happened. While Nick was pointing out some places worth visiting, I got a bit too close to the bushes. “Oops,” I said, and quickly adjusted the steering. He was startled, but I wanted to reassure him. “Oh, don’t worry. I was just listening to you and got a bit distracted.” He nodded and pointed to the street I had to take. Since getting my driver license in 1987, I had never had an accident. So, considering all the countries where I’d driven, I really didn’t think there was any need to worry. Nick seemed to understand, because he didn’t mention it again.
After lunch, a friend came to drive them to the airport. I sat at the kitchen table and checked my emails. I’m a kitchen sitter. No matter where I stay and how much space there is, I always end up in the kitchen. When you’re house-sitting, you become really aware of your habits.
Before it got too dark, I called Roxy and Paddy, and we went for an hour’s walk. Paddy and I started to play, while Roxy was busy exploring the world like only young puppies can. Suddenly Roxy ran back and with the recklessness of a juvenile she ambushed Paddy, trying to steal his toy from him.
After a few days, I realised that, besides speeding around like a loose cannon, this really was her favourite game. Sometimes Paddy managed to keep his toy, but it was usually Roxy who got her way. She would speed off, only to drop the toy, distracted by something else. She never brought it back, and it became our job to find it again. After Paddy had found it, he guarded it more carefully. I felt sorry for him, because he could never catch up with ‘Reckless Roxy’. So I changed my routine and didn’t throw it so far. It was a treat to watch Paddy trying to prevent Roxy from getting a grip on his beloved toy.
That was just the start. On the first evening, I was sitting in the kitchen, writing in my journal. Paddy was lying next to me. Roxy was nowhere to be seen, but I didn’t think about it. It was only when she trotted into the kitchen that I asked, “Hey love, where have you been?” And then in a raised voice, “What’s that on your fur?” Tiny white dots covered her from head to toe. She innocently looked up to me as I asked again, “Let’s have a look. Where have you been all the time?” and still wondering what those tiny white dots were. She followed me through the hall into the living room. As I turned on the light, I saw this.
I couldn’t believe my eyes! “Roxy, where did you find that cushion?” I stared at her. Proudly she looked up, as if to say, “Didn’t I do a good job?” I raised my finger saying, “No, that’s not funny. Now I’ve got to clean up your mess. How do I explain this to Nick and Pam? I hadn’t even noticed the cushion on the sofa, and they hadn’t mentioned it. Meanwhile, Roxy realized that I was not impressed, so, with an ‘I don’t know anything’ gaze, she disappeared into the kitchen. I followed her and said, “No, Roxy, you’ll go into your basket and stay there until I’ve cleaned up the mess.” And so, in the middle of the night, I found myself vacuuming the carpet. The Styrofoam balls were everywhere, in and under the furniture, behind the curtains, under the carpet, just everywhere. It took about an hour to get the room looking normal. It felt like a never ending task, and I had to clean out the vacuum bags several times. Despite that massive effort, I kept finding more for the next three weeks. When I finished, Roxy was in her basket, dozing. Her eyes opened and, without moving her head, she looked at me as if to test whether I was still mad at her. “It’s all right,” I said, realising that I’d have to watch her more closely from now on.
The next day, I drove to the local shop and got some essentials, as I do when I am in a new place. Compared with the previous day, the entire day passed without drama. In the evening, Paddy decided to hang out in the living room, and I checked on Roxy before sitting at the kitchen table. She had cuddled up at the front door, where a heavy curtain blocked the cold draft. A bit later, Paddy moved and was now lying next to me under the kitchen table. A lovely silence, or was it a bit too silent? Better go and have a look, I said to myself, so I got out of the chair and walked to the front door. My hunch was spot on, because around the corner I saw this.
She looked up, happily chewing on the rope that tied the curtain. I pulled it out of her mouth. My voice went up an octave and I said, “Again? This is simply not working, Roxy. You are taking advantage of me, and I need to have a serious word with you.” I pointed at the basket, and she immediately trotted there with her head down. I looked closer at the rope and luckily, it wasn’t damaged, so I put it on the table next to the door. I walked into the laundry, where she was curled up in her basket. “Roxy, you really need to pay attention. Don’t make us mad at you.” She wriggled slightly and licked my hand as I patted her. “Ok, just listen. From now on, you will stay with Paddy and me in the kitchen. Come with me now.” I pointed to the deck. “Go and lie down over there, and do exactly what Paddy does.” And for the rest of that evening she behaved nicely.
The days went by, quietly and without any more surprises. I enjoyed the long daily walks, the peaceful feeling of the countryside, and the company of Paddy and ‘Reckless Roxy’. I always checked that there were no sheep in the fields we wandered through. If I met another dog owner, I would try to chat for a while. One farmer even thanked me for having both dogs on a leash when passing through a field with sheep. There was just one time that clever little Roxy found a gap in a fence and actually chased some sheep. I saw the woolly creatures running frantically to the other side of the field and heard Roxy’s high-pitched yapping. The sound dogs make when they’re excited and having fun. I put Paddy on his leash and hurried through the nearby gate, where an enthusiastic Roxy was running around. I called, whistled and shouted, and after a few troubled moments she obeyed and came to me. I clipped her to the leash and asked, “How did you get through the fence?” Her tongue was hanging out and her tail was wagging at twice its normal pace. She still was fully caught up in the moment, and I was remembering the saying ‘Dogs don’t go for a walk, they go for a hunt! “Well, enough fun for now. You’re lucky that the farmer didn’t catch us”. And from that day, whenever we walked along that path, I put them on their leashes one paddock before the sheep paddock.
Roxy also liked to steal food from Paddy. That’s why Pam put Roxy’s bowl inside and Paddy’s bowl outside. But Roxy would invariably gulp her food down in no time, walk straight to Paddy, and push him away. With his gentle and sensitive character, Paddy would move and watch while Roxy scoffed down what was left in the bowl. It annoyed me, and I felt compelled to change that. I closed the door after I put down Paddy’s bowl, and kept Roxy from putting her nose through the cat flap. I just wanted to see whether Paddy was giving away his portion willingly, or was Roxy putting some pressure on him. Like a dog language thing. And as I had imagined, when Paddy had enough time, and when there was no threat from Roxy, he emptied his bowl. I smiled to myself, because there was no reason for Roxy to be greedy. And Paddy, being an older dog, really needs his food to stay in good condition. I waited a few days before leaving the door open again, just to see what Roxy would do. Now she knew that she wasn’t allowed to go after Paddy’s bowl before he had walked away, so she stood at the door and looked at me. I didn’t say a word. I just watched her with raised eyebrows. She hesitated, but waited until Paddy was finished. Then she sniffed at the bowl and licked it clean. “Good girl, Roxy, good girl.” I praised her and rubbed her back. I didn’t know whether she had learned that lesson or whether it was because I was watching, but it had definitely been worth a try.
We got through another week without incident until, going out for another walk. I saw that the gate was wide open. As Pam had warned me, impatient Roxy had lifted the lock again. Paddy was on the other side of the road, lying in the grass, with his toy in front of him. Then I heard the neighbour’s farm dogs barking and saw Roxy running around in their paddock. “Roxy, come here now!” I called, but to no avail. “Fine,” I thought. “Let them teach you a lesson.” Five against one they chased her out of their space, because those dogs were working dogs and surely territorial. A minute later, she came running back, looking for cover. She had learned about the ‘power of the pack’.
I always walked at seven in the morning, but today it felt a bit colder than the other days. I hadn’t been reading the news or watching TV and didn’t give any more thought to it, so I totally missed the warnings about the ‘beast from the east’ cold front which was expected to hit the country that week. My eyes widened when I looked out of the window the next morning. “What? Am I still in England?” I was looking at a landscape which reminded me of Finland or Norway. Snow everywhere, untouched, inches high, covering everything. Even the street had vanished. And it still was snowing. I walked into the back yard to check the temperature. Really cold, I shivered and went back in. Roxy had run past me and was excitedly eating the snow and snapping at snowflakes. Paddy was more sensible, just waiting for me at the steps. Thermal underwear and two pair of socks didn’t keep me warm for long. The snow was knee deep. Paddy had lost his play time, and Roxy couldn’t run around. All the gates were blocked shut and the sheep had been brought into the barn. Back home, I dried the dogs with an old towel and poured myself a hot cup of tea. Then I turned on the radio and heard how unusual this weather was. Major traffic jams and other weather-related problems throughout the country, with a jaw-dropping 30 cm of snowfall in just one night. I turned to Paddy and Roxy and said, “Let’s see the bright side. We’re sitting in a warm house with plenty of food for the next few days, so nothing to worry about, right?”
I couldn’t have been more wrong. This ‘beast’ was going to test me! When we came back from our walk the next morning, it wasn’t very warm inside. I went to turn up the thermostat and noticed that the actual temperature was just 18 degrees. The kitchen was cold, too, as were the bathroom and bedroom. I turned on the bathroom tap, but there was no hot water. Not good, I must find the boiler. I looked in every room and checked the garage and the shed, but no boiler! With no cellar or upper storey, where could it be? I needed to find it before I could call for service. Maybe it was just a simple thing and could be fixed by phone. The temperature was still dropping. Who could I ask? The radio was saying that most streets were blocked, and people were advised to stay home. Then I remembered that Pam had introduced me to an elderly lady living in an apartment that belonged to the farm. So I bundled up in all my thickest winter clothes and went across the road. I knocked on her door and introduced myself then I asked what she might know about the boiler. But she shook her head. “Dear, I have no idea. But I’ll walk with you and help you look for it.” So she bundled up in all her warmest clothes and we went back across the road. We searched the whole house again. The difference between the inside and outside temperatures was getting smaller by the minute. She couldn’t help, and so she went back to her warm house, time for action. Nick and Pam had written a phone number for service, so I called it. I explained the problem and asked the technician when they could come. “Well, about 3 days from now. We’re fully booked with emergency requests just like yours.” “Oh, by then I’ll be frozen,” I answered. I thanked him and started looking for another solution.
My next idea was to call Tony, the friend I had met for dinner in the pub the first evening. Why I hadn’t called him right away? It turned out that he knew what to do. The boiler was in the roof space, but how would I get up there? Tony said he would ask a friend to come over and have a look. “Don’t go up there yourself, because it’s not really safe,” he said. So far so good, time for a cup of tea. Fortunately, the electricity and gas were still working. The fireplace in the living room was a gas fire. So with a fresh cup of hot tea, and wrapped in blankets, I nestled in front of it, with the dogs at my feet. It produced just enough warmth to keep my spirits up.
An hour or so later, I saw a car driving slowly up the street. It stopped in front of the house. I quickly unwrapped myself, opened the door and waved. “Hi, are you Monika?” I nodded and let him in. His name was Pete. Tony had explained the situation to him, so he walked straight to the corner of the house where the roof hatch was, opened it and pulled the stairs down. Up in the roof space, he showed me where I could walk and where I had to be careful, than I followed him into the corner where the boiler was. An error code was flashing on the display. But with no manual, he said, “It’s probably a frozen pipe. It could be anywhere up here or outside. It happens in these low temperatures. Let’s check outside first.” Pete asked me to heat some water while he looked for some insulation material to cover up the section of frozen pipe, if he could find it, which he soon did. After pouring four kettles of hot water over the frozen pipe, he climbed back into the roof and tried to reset the boiler. It took a few attempts, but finally the boiler started working. He wrapped the insulation tape around the outside pipe, and said that it would do until Nick and Pam got back. “In case the boiler shows that error code again, you know now how to reset”, smiled and left.
I walked back into the living room to watch the temperature rising, but that didn’t happen. I climbed up the ladder and saw already from a distance that the display blinked, again, in error. For about an hour I reset, always with the same result. The boiler started working, but within minutes failed again. Sure it kept me warm for the time. But what if night falls and the temperatures dropping down even more? With no other option or ideas left, I called Tony again. ‘What’s the error code?’ he asked. After a while he said, that he probably knew the problem and that he’d come over later. When he arrived we climbed up again and with the instructions on his mobile, he pulled out a tiny hose. He explained me, that this was the only work around possible. I had to check the water twice a day, to ensure that it wouldn’t run over. And just before nightfall, all was up and running again. Steadily the house warmed up and I felt very grateful that Tony hat put in so much effort and time, to help me. And while Paddy, Roxy and I walked into the fields that late afternoon, snowflakes became thicker again. It was obvious that the “beast from the east” had a grip on the whole country for a few more days.
It was my last day. The ‘beast’ had moved on and the streets were clear again. Nick and Pam returned as expected, just before noon. I had cleaned the house and packed my suitcase. Pam showered, and we had a cup of tea in the kitchen while she told me about the trip. Nick was already meeting people for business.
We had talked about going to that pub again, to meet some of their friends, but Pam was tired and didn’t really feel like going out. So Nick and I went down for a drink before dinner, but we had one more whisky, and then another one. By the time we got home, Pam had put the dinner in the oven and was sitting relaxed on the couch. Still a bit ‘tipsy’ from all that whisky, we ate the delicious dinner quickly and went to bed.
The next day, we got up early for my flight. But halfway into the 2½-hour drive to the airport, we encountered a serious traffic jam. After an hour of stop-and-go traffic, we wondered whether we would make it in time. Nick drove onto a side road that was built by Romans centuries ago. It’s really the only street they ever built in England, totally straight, because they didn’t know how to build turns. There was less traffic, and it was interesting to drive on an ancient road with a modern car instead of a horse and cart. Why don’t today’s road last this long? Were the Romans smarter? Were their materials better?
We made it with just 20 minutes to drop off my suitcase and get through security. Fortunately, I had checked in online the night before, but there was no time to say goodbye. I still remember Nick’s last words, “You came as a stranger and leave as a friend.”
And indeed, Nick still sends pictures of their now -grown-up Roxy and old gentle Paddy. This was such a great experience. I am very thankful for the chance to meet such amazing people, to live in such a lovely place, and to look after Roxy and Paddy. Thanks for having me, Nick and Pam. I really hope we’ll meet again.