Updated: Oct 18, 2019
Our Oxford house had been put on the market in a gesture of defiance. It was never meant to sell. It was just a protest listing (arguably the tamest form of protest ever conceived). I was going to reverse the entire Brexit process simply by tipping off an estate agent that a 1950s redbrick on the edge of the city was up for grabs.
Bear in the moat at Náchod
But a wave of viewers washed over us, followed by the swift arrival of offers, and it was all out of control. With the dust settling and the poor old building ruthlessly assessed and measured by its soon-to-be new owners, I caught my breath. Events could easily have gone a different way, I told myself. There could have been a trickle of interest and no offers. The house would then have stagnated in the fallow archives of RightMove, the price would half-heartedly dip, and we would quietly remove it from all listings. At that point we would have been shepherded safely back to our existing pen, and the daydream of emigration would be over. We could get on with our lives and face the mess of Brexit like grownups.
Instead, the house was snatched from us within a week, the ensuing chaos resembling a drunk’s attempt at the pull-the-table-cloth-from-under-the-china-service routine. Before we could raise an objection, money was heading our way, house deeds were changing hands, and removal vans were being marshalled for either battle or retreat, depending on how you wanted to look at it.
We gave the buyers a moving in date sufficiently distant to allow us to sort out our affairs and arrange removals. Oh – and to look for a place to live, too. We’d somehow forgotten that bit.
A metaphorical boot up a proverbial arse is a marvellous thing. Magda and I shook off the whimsical nature of our previous house-hunting and narrowed the geography down to the immediate vicinity of the rolling acres owned by her uncle and aunt on the Polish border. It was a family hub, it was wild and beautiful, and it made sense. Not only did we get on with this wing of the family really well, but they were also intimidatingly practical and eager to help. As soon as we arrived, our domestic vision in sharp focus for a change, there were offers of assistance with everything from temporary accommodation and DIY to loans of heavy machinery and troops of burly Ukrainian workmen.
We arranged to view a former pub in the village of Bĕlý, near the not-much-more-than-a-village town of Machov, in the vicinity of Náchod. Additional small details had recommended the region. Náchod was home to the Primátor brewery, one of my favourite Czech beers, and had two bears in its castle moat. These things weigh in with a surprising clout when a decision needs to be made.
The minimally addressed Bĕlý 2
The former pub, an unimaginative but solid building of huge proportions, looked grim in the downpour that had accompanied us all the way from Oxford. Wet people shook our hands, a confusion of the seller’s family, estate agents and two stray architects. We spent the rest of the day imagining how it might work. We would occupy the downstairs bit while the upstairs bit was being rebuilt as a suite of bedrooms and a ten-room hotel. It had that dangerously vague thing, potential.
Because there was nothing inherently bad about the place or its surroundings, we knew from the moment we said our goodbyes to the hopeful crowd of sellers that we would probably go for it. It felt right, even in the terrible weather. And we had been given a 1920s postcard with a tiny picture of the pub in its former glory, owners and staff standing proudly outside the edifice. That somehow sealed the place’s character. It had a past that we could see.
“Sod it, let’s buy it” is an accurate summary of our discussions over the next 48 hours.
Bĕlý rooftops, a short dog walk from the house
Back in England three days later, the reality of the now fast-moving situation kicked in. There was somewhere to aim for at the far end of the removal process, something to pin things on. We took the kids on a visit to the new house a week later, to consolidate our decision. Jan vowed never to set foot in such a dismal place ever again (it was still foul weather), but Theo was already planning where the plugs should go and how his room could be divided into a top and bottom layer. At this point I fell somewhere between my chalk and cheese offspring.
To my embarrassment, I realised that there were swathes of people I hadn’t even mentioned our emigration plan to. Friends (or so they thought), some of them very dear and ancient friends too. I felt like an unlikely and slightly irritating convulsed plot twist at the end of a lukewarm TV drama. I now had to emerge from the rushed ending now and tell everyone what was happening. It was badly scripted and all in the wrong order, like all those novels I’d been sending to publishers over the years.
In Oxford, a shadow of unreality cloaked everything. Trivial things suddenly became poignant and emotional rollercoasters. The last trip to our favourite city landmarks, the decision not to replace the broken washing line, and the call to the bloke who delivers logs to say that we wouldn’t be buying any more, (in spite of an empty wood store and several more weeks of potentially cold weather; and no, we said, it wasn’t because the logs were damp and rubbish, as we had accepted that fact over a sizzling, smoking fire many years ago, but had also accepted that no other mug would supply them as readily and cheaply).
The list of things to cancel, unsubscribe and redirect felt like last love letters. The sad farewell to Theo and Jan’s comics, the grim announcement to the tearful piano teacher, the final “Good luck. I do not think we will meet again” from my retired Latvian Professor of Physics friend at the school bus stop on Theo’s last day.
There were also things that just felt wrong. The kids’ passports and ID cards written in Czech. The concept of arranging flights for holidays in Britain. The realisation that Wrocslaw airport is nearer to our new house than Prague airport. Jealousy that Saffy the dog can already speak dog-Czech, as confident in her communication as a Latin scholar on a pub-crawl across mediaeval Europe.
That hoary old battle with the Czech language was as one-sided as ever. It was symbolised neatly by the fact that I had, for the past 18 years, been the owner of a book called Learn Czech in Three Months. I was currently on chapter three.
And I actually hated writing any of this down, too. I resented every scribbled note and aide-memoire. Perhaps living was being done for a change, leaving the writing as a mere chore. The wonderful Gerald Durrell hated writing. He did it because he had to; but also with a grudging acknowledgment that what he was doing needed recording. What I was doing didn’t need recording. I was just a flabby appendix in the family history. So why was it such a drag to write?
One of the reasons for the reluctance, I suppose, was that it made me fess up to the irresponsibility of what I was doing; and the naivety of that irresponsibility. Lining up the dominoes, pushing the one at the end, and then watching agog at the domino effect.
Someone once told me that if you’re going with the flow, you need to be a great surfer. I can neither surf nor swim. I’m afraid of water. But if the answer lay in endless cups of strong milky tea and a faraway look, enlightenment would be mine.