Writer and broadcaster Julia Fisher shares her short stories
PUBLISHED: 11:12 21 July 2014 | UPDATED: 11:12 21 July 2014
Julia Fisher is a writer and broadcaster with a particular interest in the Middle East and now, having moved to the country, is enjoying the new experience of country life, gardening (hopefully moving towards self sufficiency) and hen keeping.
My sheep know my voice by Julia Fisher
It happened on a perfect winter’s Sunday afternoon. After days of stormy weather, the wind dropped and the rain stopped. Finally, all was quiet and still. Within a few minutes the sun was shining and the sky had turned from dismal grey to azure blue.
It was early May when we moved into the hamlet where we now live in the heart of the countryside of West Sussex. During the previous eight months we had been restoring our home – an old property that had fallen into neglect. The winter storms had been relentless so when the sun eventually shone once again, we decided it was time to leave the comfort of our log burning stove, put on our wellies and venture out to explore what lay beyond the boundaries of our plot and remind ourselves of why we had moved to the country!
We walked along the lane to a foot path that led up a hill through some woodland. We hadn’t taken this route before and were curious to see where it led.
The ground squelched under our boots. Progress was slow as we climbed over fallen branches lying across the path. As we continued slithering and sliding through the mud we started to hear the sound of fast flowing water. We stopped to listen. Was it a waterfall? We carried on and as we rounded a bend the ground fell away steeply to our left and there below us was a bubbling, raging stream that had been transformed into a torrent. Swollen by days of heavy downpours the water was tumbling over fallen branches, gathering sticks and leaves and sweeping them along as in a dance. The rhythm was intoxicating. We stopped and gazed and listened. It was a moment that fed the soul. A moment that held us entranced by its joy and exuberance! Here was a stream enjoying its new found status! Liberated at last! No longer a non-descript muddy trickle; after days of pouring rain it had come alive!
Slowly, almost reluctantly we carried on with our walk. Emerging from the wood, we came to a stile and ahead lay a large field that spread gently upwards into the distance before dipping away again concealing the far boundary. Towards the top of the field we could see a large flock of sheep quietly grazing in the sunshine. This gentle, pastoral scene was a picture of contentment and peace. All was calm. All was well. That was until we heard a woman’s voice.
“Come here. Come, come, come,” she called. “Come, come, come.” We stopped to watch what was happening. Where was the voice coming from? A woman appeared over the crest of the hill.
“Come, come, come,” she called again.
Three other people came into view. They were following the woman at a slight distance. Was she calling her dog we wondered, fearful that the creature may be out of control and liable to chase the ewes. She was moving closer and closer to the flock, continuing to call, “Come, come now, come, come on.”
By this time the entire flock of sheep had raised their heads and were looking in the direction of the woman who by now was very close to the sheep. We watched intrigued as she slowly knelt down on the grass. And then it happened. One of the ewes ran over to her and she threw her arms around its neck and gave it a huge embrace! We could hardly believe our eyes! The rest of the flock also looked surprised to witness one of their own behaving in this rather ‘unsheepish’ way! What should they do? Would they behave in the same way? We didn’t have to wait long because a few seconds later they all started to run towards the sheep with the woman. But after just a few paces they stopped; they seemed afraid to go any closer.
The ewe with the woman looked over its shoulder at the rest of the flock. We watched as it started to walk back towards them. Then it turned and ran back to the woman who stroked its head and talked to it some more. The sheep turned to the flock again as if torn as to what to do.
This continued for some minutes before the woman started to walk away from the sheep and rejoin her companions. The sheep too turned and started to walk back to rejoin the flock pausing from time to time to glance back at the woman.
Strangely warmed at what we had just witnessed, we continued our climb to the top of the field and at the next stile met the woman, and her companions, who had called the sheep. “That was amazing,” we said to her. “What was that all about?”
She told us that the sheep, now two years old, had been one of triplets and the farmer, a friend, had not expected her to live as she was by far the weakest of the three lambs. “I wanted to see if I could rescue that lamb”, she told us, “so, I offered to take it home and for several weeks she lived next to the Aga and with the help of my family, we bottle fed her and gradually she grew stronger. We wanted her to have a normal life and have lambs of her own. And now, even though she is fully integrated back into the flock, she still comes when I call her,” the woman told us, “but she is always torn between being with me and being one of the flock.”
The Lost Clematis by Julia Fisher
It has been just over a year since we moved from our comfortable home into a two berth caravan. After many years of commuting daily to London and with my husband already retired, it was time for a change of lifestyle, so we decided to leave the convenience of town life and move to the country.
It was the half acre plot that persuaded us to buy a dingy, run down, neglected 1920’s bungalow in a hamlet in West Sussex. Having searched for several months, I found it worthy of note that this was the first house my husband had shown any interest in. Looking at the estate agent’s details when they first arrived, “We should go and view it”, he said, “it’s got great potential!”
The rest, as they say, is history. Once seen, the ‘potential’ was clear. With some extensive restoration and the addition of a small extension, we would have a home cosy enough for the two of us as well as versatile enough to accommodate our young grandchildren when they came to visit during their holidays.
Hence we lived in a caravan in the garden for three months from May to July whilst the bungalow was repaired, renovated and restored to provide a warm, light, comfortable if not quirky home. By knocking down two walls we combined three small rooms to create a kitchen/diner/sitting room and installed a log burner. This room has proved a triumph. It’s now the hub of the home; the place where we congregate, cook and share meals together. A door leads from the kitchen into the back garden which at the time of writing is no longer the wilderness it was but still requires much work to conquer twenty years of neglect.
But the garden was once loved and tended and discovering its original lay out has yielded some surprises. We learnt from our friendly neighbours (who have lived in their house for over 30 years) that the previous owners, two generations of the same family, were keen gardeners. There was once a kitchen garden they told us; two greenhouses; a workshop; a log store; a tool shed and a potting shed. There was, and still is, a summer house.
When we arrived in May, we hardly noticed the summer house; it was obscured by a fallen tree and various rambling plants that had successfully managed to cover this once charming artist’s studio – for that is what it used to be. When we cut away all the growth and teased the doors open there before us were baskets of paint brushes, tubes of paints, an easel and numerous canvasses; some finished, others were still a work in progress. It was as though the artist, an elderly lady, had left her studio one evening and never returned. Years later, a hole in the roof meant rain had poured in and saturated everything; spiders had taken up residence; mice too had found shelter there; ivy had grown through the windows and attached itself to the inside panes of the windows! The floor was rotten. It was, in short, in a sorry state. Could anything be done to salvage this once much loved retreat?
Whilst builders worked on the inside of our property, we spent the summer working in the garden. Attempting to rescue the summer house was one of our projects. We cut away the ivy; pruned back the climbing roses and the honeysuckle; reduced the height and breadth of the forsythia that had grown unchecked for all those years, and removed all the contents of the summer house that were by now either rotten, rusty or ruined.
When we considered the extent of the damage – the broken roof and rotten floor - it occurred to us that most people would probably have pulled the entire structure down. But we could not bring ourselves to condemn a place that had obviously been so well loved in the past. Its position in the garden meant it basked in the afternoon sunshine. We were probably being sentimental; however, we took the emotional decision to restore it!
A few days later, and with the help of some good friends, we had mended the roof, replaced the rotten floor with new boards and patched the holes in the walls. But the biggest transformation happened when we painted it a subtle shade of olive green and cleaned the windows! We thought it looked magnificent! For us, at that time, with still so much work to do, the encouragement of overcoming the odds and giving this once dilapidated building a new lease of life filled us with sheer joy!
We imagined our grandchildren playing cricket on the lawn and using the summer house as their ‘club house’ with the score board hanging to one side of the double doors. The summer house, once an artist’s studio would become a place that housed the garden games – croquet, tennis, badminton and various other bats and balls.
But that wasn’t the end of the story. As we peeled back the undergrowth from around the summer house, we unearthed a pathway that led in one direction to the greenhouse and workshop and in the other direction to a border where, on closer inspection, we found some deep pink irises planted in front of a large rhododendron in a similar shade – all were smothered in brambles.
It was then that I stumbled over a flower pot buried under layers of ivy. Judging by the density of the ivy, it had been there for years. It took some effort to free this pot but it was worth it because it contained a plant with obvious signs of life - albeit feeble shoots. A label on the pot showed the plant was a clematis, Clematis viticella Sodertalje. “Flowers of pinkish-red are borne on the vigorous climbing stems of this deciduous variety from midsummer. Ideal for scrambling through shrubs”, it read. “Prefers moist but not waterlogged soil. Tolerates any aspect as long as base of plant is shaded.”!
I later learnt that this variety of clematis was raised by Magnus Johnson of Sweden in 1952 and ‘Sodertalje’ is the location in Sweden where Mr Johnson had his nursery.
It was both remarkable and encouraging to find a small plant that had managed to endure such hostile conditions for so long. “You deserve a chance to live” I told it, and rather than toss it onto the compost heap, I put the clematis to one side.
Life continued; the builders completed the renovation of the original bungalow and after three months of camping in the caravan, in July we moved in.
And it was around this time, just a few weeks after making that original discovery , that I walked passed the pot with the clematis. I could hardly believe my eyes. The once feeble looking shoots had sprung into life and new buds had appeared. Here was a plant with attitude that deserved the chance of a new life! By this time we had cleared a walled area of garden opposite the kitchen window. Our Clematis viticella Sodertalje would have a position here, with its roots in the shade and its head in the sun! Instructions on the label read, “Water thoroughly or stand container in water for an hour before planting. Plant in hole large enough to avoid disturbing root ball. Back-fill with soil previously mixed with peat substitute and a suitable fertilizer.”
Having prepared the ground, we removed the clematis from its pot. I had never seen such a pot bound plant – the pot was full of roots with hardly any soil remaining! A few weeks later, obviously happy in its new environment, our clematis had grown a meter and this year we have enjoyed seeing it flower and scrambling through a pink buddleia!
To think we almost missed finding this treasure amongst the weeds, ivy and brambles. It has been experiences like this that have made the often arduous job of restoration worth all the effort.