At the start of this month, I was sat in a log cabin by a loch. The rest of England was jamming twitter, remarking that it was so windy they'd seen their car drift by the patio. I was snug.
It was my boyfriend's idea. He quite fancied going up to Fort William - and it turned out to be a lovely thing to do. The sleeper train leaves at 9pm and gets in at 9am which means you can actually enjoy getting drunk in the buffet car, rather than crawling into a rattling bed at 2am, and staggering hatefully out of it a 7am cursing your head and the civet cat's piss coffee. Instead, come 8am we were sat eating croissants and chugging through snowy mountains.
Using the internet, I'd arranged for a taxi to take us to that castle by Loch Ness you see in the postcards. It seemed like "A Thing To Do". It was all dour fun, in its own bleak way, but you can probably imagine what four hours in a cab were like when the driver's opening gambit was "No, don't get me started on politics..."
It was like a primer on Scottish Political Theory, mixed in with some caustic remarks about how hard it was to find employment in the area if you've done "a wee bit of youthful GBH", and a couple of laden remarks about how nice it was when English people paid a tip. There was also a very long silence after he asked "Are you two... brothers?".
Anyway, two days sat in a log cabin, walking along the shores of a loch until you could chew the rain, and then back home for soup. I think that's what's nice about being old and happy.
My boyfriend is a statistic. You see on the news about graduates applying for hundreds and hundreds of jobs without getting an interview... well, he's that statistic, plugging hopelessly away at a job market where suddenly even a trainee junior assitant intern (unpaid) must have an MBA and fluent Mandarin.
His first job vanished while he was on holiday. He came back to find the office literally gone. For a while he washed dishes at the local pub. And now, finally, he's got a job saving the world in... Manchester.
Now, I love Manchester. It's a wonderful city. And Salford Quays, like any shiny sky palace by the water, has a certain bleak grandeur. But my boyfriend's flat is in Salford – the bit in-between.
When we went up to view it, it seemed nice enough. Horrible street, but the flat itself had been the victim of a gay decorator with more money than sense – an explosion of halogen, chrome, wood and granite, beams exposed, surfaces angled and a Juliet rail dangling over Salford's only tree. It was, in other words, lovely – and the flatmate very laid-back. Mind you, when there's a remote control for your curtains, why wouldn't you be laid-back?
The snag came when I visited for the weekend. It turned out that last time, the laidback flatmate had done “rental tidying” - whipping up a cupboard jumble of ashtrays and magazines that now spilled over everything. It was filthy. Not in a bohemian way but in a “I'm not sure I'd even piss in that toilet” way.
Stuff dangled from the ceilings – some of the wires had held up a fish tank. Others had held up a sling. One of the mirrors in the bathroom was apparently “two-way”, but was luckily so filthy that it no longer worked.
So we spent the weekend tidying and bleaching until it reeked of swimming pool. It's made me cheerier about the cat-hair squalor I live in. Much cheerier. I may take the next year off cleaning.
Salford does have some charms. We've found a Polish Shop that sells 12 flavours of Vodka. But that's about it, really. We sat outside a drag casino waiting for a bus for 20 minutes in rain so fierce even the old ladies tutted, their knuckles tightening on their shopping trolleys.
Mostly, we walked around the Arndale Centre, buying cleaning products and talking brightly about how we were going “to make this work”. And by last thing on Sunday night, we'd kind of done it. It still looked like a brightly sparkling recycling bin, but you could at least touch things without feeling like you were in one of those adverts for “the hidden germs that lurk in your home”.
Come Monday morning I woke up and it felt nice. I even managed to walk back from the shower without my bare feet crunching on a domestic gravel of breadcrumbs, dust and cigarette ash.
Back in the bedroom, my boyfriend was waiting for me. “I've made us coffee,” he said. “We've got five minutes. We can sit in bed and drink it.”
My boyfriend is brilliant. He can salvage any situation. This was, I thought, as I picked up my coffee and sat down on the bed, going to work after all.
My parents now live an odd, yet beautiful place. There's a cafe on the seafront, there are regular steamtrains, and the cat loves sitting in the garden staring with lazy, curious hunger at nothing in particular.
All these things are good... but, after a few days, it gets to you a bit. My mother has started behaving oddly. Always a bit "old-fashioned" in her views (describing the local pharmacist as "a lovely little brown fellow, as chocolate as you like. What? They're always laughing those people..."), she's started saying some things which... well, are actually racist. We were watching Countryfile (I know!) the other day and, when a Polish expert on canal-side microbiology was interviewed, she announced loudly, "Disgusting! Why couldn't that job have gone to someone local? Eh? Eh?"
It's not excusable, but it is at last explicable. I discovered the fire bucket was full of pamphlets from those weird political parties you hear about but don't-quite-believe-in. With names like "Campaign for a cleaner britain". One of the leaflets was about "Overcrowded UK". You don't get things like this in the city - but in the countryside (which is bloody empty) these parties are everywhere. My mother doesn't actually read them (her glaucoma is so advanced she no longer reads), but, as she's lighting the fire with the damn things, she glances at the headlines and it confirms Her Worst Suspicions about the world.
While it's rather wonderful here, it's odd like that. There's a sign on the local charity shop which says "YOUR HOSPICE - YOU'LL BE SURPRISED" which sums it up, really. After a week here, I've started doing the "country laugh" where you'll finish a sentence ("It's warm today, isn't it?") with a little jovial chuckle. This lovely little town is full of people greeting each other with the country laugh ("Musn't grumble - hee hee hee") and pottering about like Second Victims on an ITV3 show. I'm watching a lot of ITV3. That and property shows.
I do rather love it here. But I'd also quite like... yes, I'd very much like to go home soon. Still, mustn't grumble, eh? ha ha.