Chapter 1: The cost of living
Emigrating to Transylvania seemed the obvious thing to do: I had to sell up in Liverpool and remove myself to a solitary wooden house in the Carpathian Mountains. I was the Undead, alive but not living, and I had to get out or go six feet under.
But in September 2008, sitting in warm sunshine outside the Eagle & Child pub in London’s City Road, this decision was about to cost me a long and close friendship; it wouldn’t just be me that paid the price.
‘What do you mean? You must be mad.’ Tony Reeve, my closest friend, was aghast.
‘That’s rather the point,’ I said. ‘I’ve lost my marbles, and I can’t see I’ve got any choice.’
I’d taken Tony to an appointment at Moorfields eye hospital and afterwards we’d nipped over to the Eagle in City Road for a drink before I took him home.
He put down his Coke carefully on the table. ‘There must be. You’re doing really well with the publishing and you’ve got more ideas for books than you’ll ever have time to write…’
‘But I can’t write. I’ve told you all this. I can’t think. I can’t make decisions. My brain’s like cotton wool and I can’t manage anything. I’ve sat in my office for months staring at the walls and feeling sick if I open a book file on the computer. I haven’t earned a red cent since last year and I’m letting people down.’
‘Tony, I’ve butted and iffed my way through the last couple of years and if I don’t sell now I’ll lose the house anyway.’
‘If you go out there I’ll never see you again.’ The pain in Tony’s voice was audible. His illness had progressed to the point when he couldn’t easily travel to see his father living on Spain’s Costa Blanca. Travelling to rural Romania was never going to happen.
‘Course you will. We’ve never seen each other very often anyway. You’ve been up to Liverpool twice in twenty years.’
Our friendship had started by post and telephone, and although we met now and then, the real friendship had been conducted down the line, with confidences exchanged and nonsense talked since 1985. There was no one else I trusted more with my emotional wreckage, and he said he felt the same. We told each other the most intimate and excruciating details of our foolishness and fears, and buoyed each other up with honest praise and stupid jokes. I’d believe Tony’s praise where I’d rarely believe anyone else’s. And we’d laughed, a lot. Whether he was feeling suicidal or I was flat as a tape worm, we’d always made each other laugh. Breaking the link now was a betrayal, and we both knew it.
‘But I do see you whenever you’re in London. You’re only three hours away up the M6,’ he said.
‘Exactly. We’ll still see each other whenever I’m in London. I’ll be back several times a year. And I’m still three hours away, just by plane. I’m not going to Patagonia.’
But logistics weren’t the problem. It was an abandonment, a shift in the pattern that would break the ties between us.
I did see him again, but he died in 2011, aged 50, and I had to read about his funeral on Facebook. He’d scratched me out of his will, not leaving me the self-portrait he’d promised, not the slightest of sketches – he was hurt and angry enough to exclude me from his circle of friends in the most final of ways. It’s not the things, of course – I have lots of treasures that he’d given me, some paintings and cartoons that I’ve bought from his exhibitions. By taking me out of his will he had made his feelings clear, in heavy ink, double underlined, that I had destroyed our friendship. I’d known that, and hated myself for it, and I’d still left.
That’s how much I’d needed to escape.
Chapter 9. Good Fences, Bad Fences
In his poem Mending Wall, Robert Frost declared that good fences make good neighbours, but asked himself why. Isn’t it where there are cows? He wonders.
It is where there are cows, yes. And horses. And especially sheep. Sheep can leap fences; cows try; certain horses (that’s you, Fana, yes, you) lean their massive rumps against my fence and push backwards until they hear a splintering crack. I have no large animals, so the smashing of fences is always down to my neighbours’ beasts. The rotting of fenceposts, however, is down to time, wind and water, and is my look-out.
So while good fences are sound local politics, bad fences need good neighbours. Mine never fail to make good their animals’ transgressions, and fix the break with new posts of acacia, willow or birch hammered deep into the ground, and patched up rails, using bent nails which they straighten patiently before driving them through the wood.
Since I moved here in 2010, my neighbours on the spine have been unfailingly generous with time, expertise, and tolerance. This is the Romanian way, the tradition of neighbourliness which says that you look after your neighbours and they will look after you. Even so, mine have made my life here both feasible and se- cure. Without them, I doubt I’d have survived the first winter, or got close to finishing the house.
There were a couple of grassy skirmishes involving Aurel and Viorel, the brothers who owned the land just above mine, but these were mild protests to make a point about boundaries. I still hadn’t got a fence up (there had been a fence when I bought the place, but between the sale and my next visit, the fence had melted clean away), but since I wasn’t using the grass nor doing any work near the boundary, I didn’t see it as a priority.
One day just after the Great Grass War featuring the red JCB, Luminița’s phone rang while we were having coffee in her kitchen in Zărnești. There was a brisk exchange of which I understood about ten per cent of the half I heard, and after ending the call,
Luminița shook her head, laughing.
‘That was Emilia. She told me that Aurel’s cow is tied to your fence and is eating the apples on her tree.’ She flung her hands in the air. ‘What does she expect me to do?’
The only apple tree near my land was between my house and the Banus’ place down the hill. Aurel and Viorel’s land was up the hill – in other words I was sandwiched between the two families. So one of the brothers had led the cow over my land, past my house, and tethered the cow on top of the new septic tank. From there she could reach up and wrap her lips round the green apples hanging over the old fence.
Emilia was annoyed, said Luminița, because this was due to my not having put up a fence round my land. No one knew where the boundary was, she said. When I bought the house, the fence was there, but I didn’t think it politic to say so.
‘Maybe,’ I said, edging past amused towards irritation. ‘But how can my northern boundary be to the south of my house? That’s utter nonsense.’
Chapter 11. From River to Hill
One of the most crucial reasons for buying a house in Măgura – maybe even the deciding factor – was that I immediately felt so much at home here. I noticed the sensation the first time we tipped off the town road and on to the gravel of the national park, a bunch of English tourists in a horse-drawn cart heading up to a mountain village for the day.
This was part of my first holiday in Transylvania, in August 2003 – little did I know, as we trundled up the pale limestone road, what would be sparked by that day’s excursion. What struck me, though, was that I could easily have been in Amberley, the West Sussex village where my father’s family had lived and worked for well over a century. The chalk white road; beech trees soaring overhead, and lush undergrowth; silence punctuated by birdsong and the crunch of hooves and cartwheels on gravel. There was something in the air, an almost physical sensation of familiarity.
I was born in River, a West Sussex hamlet, smaller than a village, no more than a half-mile string of houses; no shop, no church, no pub. It lay on the Weald, rolling terrain just inland of the solid chalk South Downs that run east-west for 80 miles separating London from the English Channel. Orchard House stood on rich alkaline loam, where everything grew except azaleas and camellias, my mother’s favourites. A few miles to the west the geology changed to sandy acid soil, home to pine woods, heathers, and bracken, a type of land where I instinctively felt uncomfortable. Still do. The woods round us were beech, oak, larch, and hazel – bluebells woods in April, with starry white wood anemones dotted through the blue haze, great yellow king cups down by the river; there were swathes of single and double snowdrops in February on the banks of our orchards, which gave way to primroses in soft yellow drifts that hid violets, too. Cowslips grew on the chalk of the Downs, and larks sang in the sweet warm air rising from the rabbit-cropped grass of the hills, perfectly rounded, separated by wooded clefts and folds dropping steeply to streams, threaded with footpaths and bridleways.
I always felt as though I’d been grown like a sapling in the Sussex soil, deeply rooted. In this era of hospital births, I have always been proud to have been born at home, not surrounded by medics and clinical equipment. The truth was that I emerged so fast there would have been no time to get me to the nearest hospital in Chichester, 17 miles away, even if my parents had planned it. My mother said she had started cooking Sunday lunch when she felt the first twangs of pain, and she barely had time to get into bed before I pinged out of her like a cherry stone squeezed between thumb and finger.
My life was fixed around Orchard House, the 15th century row of three cottages turned into a single house by my parents, surrounded by a garden of lawns and herbaceous borders, in turn surrounded by three orchards planted with long-forgotten English varieties of apple and plum trees – well over a hundred ancient trees, trunks covered in mosses and lichens, pruned over the decades and fruiting faithfully.
My father’s family had for over 100 years run a thriving business quarrying chalk from the South Downs in the picturesque village of Amberley, 14 miles from our home, and I spent a good deal of my childhood playing in the chalk pits, the surrounding woodland, fields, and quarry buildings. My father would bring home ammonites and other fossils found by the men in the pits, and I used chunks of chalk to mark hopscotch boxes on the terrace outside the house. So chalk (calcium carbonate, different to gypsum, the blackboard ‘chalk’) was in my blood. Literally, sometimes, as I often came home with white grazes on hands, elbows, and knees from scrambling up and sliding down the steep quarry slopes.
I have strong memories of helping my father pot up tomato seedlings in the little greenhouse, weeding the asparagus bed, harvesting apples and plums from the three large orchards, and helping my mother pick gladioli, roses, and sprays of japonica from the flower beds around the house. When I was five, my father gave me a narrow bed beside a garden path, and handed me packets of annual flower seeds, teaching me to sieve the soil into a fine tilth, plant the tiny seeds in rows, water them, and take pleasure in watching the plants grow and flower. I’ve never forgotten the names, even after half a century: ageratum, alyssum, and aubretia – pretty low-growing clumps of colour, in perfect scale for a child. I was hooked: I loved digging my fingers into warm soil and caring for fragile plants, and have been growing things ever since – even if only in window boxes at my London flat.
Now, in Măgura, I have a patch of land, and am gradually turning part of the virgin meadow into a mix of veg and flower planting, fruit bushes alongside lavender; plum and apple trees underplanted with mixed annuals and flowering shrubs; mint and catmint on opposite sides of the path, salads and herbs grow- ing with marigolds and borage under clambering peas and beans. Not quite permaculture, but organic, and as satisfying as anything can be. Unlike most acts of creativity, the art of gardening is to be a catalyst. Once given a start, plants keep growing; your creation has a life of its own and in many cases may well outlive you. Planting trees, planting bulbs around their roots, will give pleasure for generations of humans, food, and shelter for many more generations of birds and insects. Investing in life.
Later memories of my father weren’t so happy – but in those first years of my life, he instilled in me the deep love of animals, gardens, and growing things, along with the freedom of tomboy delights – climbing trees, mucking about in water, playing with
dogs and horses and pigs, and creating small eddies of havoc unsupervised by adults.
Chapter 21 – Borrowing a zoo
Sheep – now, sheep have been a trial. They have tested my patience way past its limits. Lambs are adorable. No question. Enchanting. They play, they skip, they form little gangs and queue up to leap off fallen trees, and they protest when their mothers call them in for tea. All charm, no tantrums. But unlike goats, who remain naughty and joyfully adventurous for life, lambs lose their sense of humour and playfulness within three months and become truculent, joyless, fly blown lumps.
If my neighbours used sheep’s milk as well as cows’, I’d see them as an asset. As it is, sheep are big fat liabilities. They bring ticks to the cats and thence to me. They break my fences. They eat my flowers. They drop turds on my steps. They attract flies. They walk into my house. They tread on my toes when mobbing me for food. They are jointly and severally a serious pain in the arse.
One of them, Obraznica, is smart and entertaining. Still a pain in the arse, but I like her. They’re all brazen (hence her Romanian name), but she is the boldest and brightest, and comes when called. Doesn’t go again, of course, but I can’t help a sneaking affection for her long yellow nose. Two others have names: Peers, because she lowers her head to peer at me through the fence; and Bubble, because she is an airhead with a permed top-knot of blonde curls above her black face. The other two are anonymous, with no discernible personality or physical distinction. Just tick-ridden, shameless, shitty sheep.
It’s not commonly known, but lambs are made of water. A lamb can, like a mouse or an octopus, squish itself through impossibly small holes, like the eight-inch gap in my fence rails, even when the lamb is considerably more than a foot in diameter. This quantum paradox only ends when its fleece gets too thick to compress.
I don’t object much when the explorer-lamb is in its charming phase, because they don’t eat much and having rebelled long enough to scramble through the fence, all they want to do is get back to their mums. I have hefted a few over the fence if they forget how to scramble through, grabbing their wriggling bodies as they yell in panic. One spring a very young black lamb got completely lost in my garden and wandered around bleating pathetically. She saw my cat Mouse and went over, perhaps to ask directions, innocent of cat habits. Mouse didn’t do much to help, and the photo I snatched showed the cat’s expression of pleased surprise at lunch strolling up and volunteering itself. Little black lamb got hoisted over the fence before Mouse could sharpen her claws, and skipped off to find her mother.
Another ovine paradox is that fences act like one-way valves. The sheep can easily make their silent way over or through any fence (leaping like stags if necessary) to greener greenery, ie the lovingly cultivated stuff in my garden, but cannot pass back through the same access point without panicky bleating and wrecked fences.
Bleating. Baaaa. My neighbouring sheep rarely bleat beyond the age of six months and don’t graduate to baaaa. Some manage a soprano mehhhh, but most of them sound like old drunks throwing up. Bleurghhh. A complaint from a throat that has been subjected to cigarettes and whisky for 50 years. But they do wear bells, which is a genuinely charming sound.
The sheep have one use. In the winter, when compost freezes, the sheep get my vegetable ends; when yellow winter grass is buried under three feet of snow, the sheep greet me with passion whenever I open the back door, running pell-mell to my fence. Apple cores, carrot, cabbage, and broccoli ends, of course, but these sheep have exotic tastes: melon skins, banana skins, pineapple skin and leaves – all get wolfed down with gusto. But they don’t stick to my menu – they forage.
The week I moved in to the house, I bought a hanging basket of pink begonias from the market, and hung them on the balcony rail outside the front door. In those days there was no fence, but the balcony rail is seven feet above the grass. Safe, I thought. The following morning, there was a scant inch of stalk, neatly severed, sticking up from the soil, and one sad petal lying on the grass below. No sheep actually had a smoking begonia hanging from its lips, but they were lurking to see if I’d hang out any more pretty breakfast for them.
‘You bastards! You woolly bastards!’ I screamed, pointlessly. ‘You’re Sunday lunch in overcoats! I’ve got mint growing round the back. I… you…’
They just stared, and chewed their begonia cud, insolent hooligans.
One hot and sunny day, I’d left the front door open while I took a bucket of vegetable ends to the compost bin. It took me three minutes, during which all five sheep materialised (there’d been no sign of them), tiptoed up my front steps and in through my door. I found them grouped like hungry lunch-guests in my hall, twenty cloven feet on my grandfather’s Persian carpet, ten slitty eyes turned on me expectantly.
Here I’ll confess to violence. The thought of hitting an animal without severe cause (eg animal trying to kill me or mine) is unthinkable. I’d thought. But to persuade the bastard sheep to move at all, I have learned to kick them as hard as I can without falling over. Only when they are in full fleece, mind you, when even the pointiest steelcapped toe bounces off fleeces as dense and springy as six inches of sorbo rubber. Once shorn, of course, I couldn’t kick their bony rumps for fear of hurting them, and instead shove them with my knee, if they’re not standing on my foot. Either way, the violence is futile, and resistance is useless. They will go where they wish, toecaps, knees, screeching, and flailing arms notwithstanding. The only way to move them is to fling food; they will chase after it, giving me time to escape before they come back for more.
The word ‘sheepish’ is seriously misused. To say someone looks sheepish implies they look a bit shamefaced, rather embarrassed. Phooey. Sheep don’t coexist with the concept of shame. They are all brazen, insolent, remorse-free, house-breaking, begonia-stealing bastards.
Chapter 24. The Parrot
Giving people lifts has its hazards: occasionally I get enveloped in a mixture of garlic, sweat and alcohol fumes, and more than once I have been talked to near-death.
On a hot June day, a week’s shopping weighing down the car boot, I was on my way out of Zărnești, heading for home. At the side of the road was a man flagging me down with one hand, palm down as though bouncing an invisible football. I stopped, and the stranger squeezed himself into the front seat. Six feet tall and four wide, the stranger was in a ratty Manchester United shirt and rattier shorts, his black hair wind-blown and a bottlebrush moustache bristling under a boozer’s nose.
After the usual courtesies, my passenger turned the conversation into a monologue in fluent English. I soon gave up trying to respond to anything and focused on driving, letting the tidal wave wash over me.
In the twelve minutes it took to get to the village, I discovered that my passenger was called Gabriel (‘you can call me Gabi’) Limax, he was a utility company manager and a local politician, he lived in Cluj, and he had family in Măgura. There was a long discourse on the benefits of mountain life, and the tragedy of having to live in a city. He explained how he relished the sour milk here in Măgura ‘from cows who wander free in the mountain meadows’, he loved ‘cottage cheese’ – ie. cheese made in a cottage – and ciorbă (sour soup). He knew everything there was to know about British politics, had lived in New York in the 1960s and London in the 1970s, and made elaborate promises to surprise and shock me when he next saw me with revelations about his thrilling past. And he had invited me to Cluj. If I’d had any plans to go to Cluj, they evaporated at that point.
At the T-junction he tapped my wrist. ‘Here, here. Thank you.’ He started to gather himself to leave the car. ‘I am staying now with my aunt; tonight I stay with my cousins,’ he shook a finger towards the Moieciu road to indicate where they lived. ‘And we are going to eat sour soup, and drink țuică and talk…’
I thought I could guess who’d be talking.
‘Where do you live? Maybe I come to visit you tomorrow and we can drink some țuică and have a nice time.’
I squashed a shudder and lied. ‘I’m, er, out tomorrow. Early. Not sure when I’m back…’
‘The next day, then,’ said Gabi, unfazed. ‘I am here all week. I will find you and we will have a nice time. We are friends, sure.’
It didn’t take Limax long to hunt me down. I was sitting under the zarzin tree drinking a cup of coffee in peace, two days later, when I saw the shorts-clad Limax knees on their way down the hill, with the rest of him attached. Too late to scuttle back inside my hermitage and pretend to be out, I was forced by decades of middle-class English mores to stand up and greet him politely.
‘Gabriel,’ I said, trying to force my cheek muscles to smile.
‘Hello Arabella!’ he crowed, thrusting a plastic carrier bag at me. Inside were two cans of beer. The thrust of the bag implied an unspoken order for glasses to be brought, so I obeyed, at least in part. I brought one beer glass and another full of tap water for me.
‘I don’t drink alcohol,’ I explained. Not entirely true, but I didn’t want to accept his offering.
Gabi shrugged and poured himself a beer, plonking his shorts down on the chair I’d been sitting in. I went and found another.
He stayed for five hours. He drank the second beer, and a third that I’d found at the back of the fridge. Although he’d waved away the suggestion of lunch (‘I have eaten,’ he declared), he asked for a little something; he drank the soup that I’d made for my supper, and ate the only cheese that I had in the house. I didn’t tell him that I’d decided it was past its best and fit only for the chickens; I just carved away the mould and put the good bit on a plate.
He talked. Stopping only to gulp down food and drink, he talked for the entire afternoon. I don’t think he asked me a single question, nor did he let me get halfway through a sentence before continuing his seminar on Limax, G, his thoughts and adventures.
He claimed to know all the important people in Cluj – ‘the capital of Transylvania, did you know that?’ – and that he had very high standing in the city. After his stint in the army and a thrilling role he would tell me about another day, he had become the manager of a sewage works in Turda. The comic potential of that job in that town had passed him by, being a very English joke, and I managed – just – to suppress my growing hysteria.
Eventually he hauled himself to his feet. ‘It’s late. I have things to do this evening.’ He said this as though I’d been keeping him from his day. He bowed to me in an old-fashioned salute. ‘I look forward to our next meeting. We are neighbours, are we not?’ He laughed like the last gurgle of an emptying bath and slapped my shoulder with a meaty hand.
He sloped off up the hill, shorts flapping, and disappeared round the corner of Chivu’s house. The next day Țică told me that the wretched Limax had bobbed in to say hello and chattered at them for two hours, swigging back their țuică and chomping on slice after slice of cake. She told me where the Limax cousins lived – I knew one of them, and happened to see him on the road a week or so later; he rolled his eyes at the mention of Gabi Limax.
‘Ah! Papagal… he never stops talking. Drives us crazy.’
And that was that. Papagal, the parrot, he became.