Of Mice and Zen

Updated: Oct 19, 2019

I don’t know why the mice moved out, but I empathise with them. One day they were as busy as ever, holding manic squeak parties every night, getting drunk on crumbs and plaster, and leaving about two tablespoons of mouse poo as evidence of their debaucheries every morning. And then they vanished, with the single exception of one that turned up dead under Jan’s bed in a death shroud of socks and discarded orange peel.

Tabula rasa for the garden


The odd thing is, this was in the middle of winter, when you would imagine mice would want to huddle up to the wood burning stove with the rest of us. We concluded that the combined impact of having the attic cleared, the kitchen wall knocked down, and the ambient temperature hovering around minus 10, had inspired them to seek alternatives.

Things hit minus 24 at one point, but then began a slow climb back to zero, with a long week at minus 17 to test our durability. With snow piling up in the attic, a frozen loo, holes in the wall wide enough to admit a decent sized bear, and one wood burner to keep it all at bay, it was a proper winter.

Spring is in the air… later this week


At the beginning of the second week of April we were still watching the dogs ski down the hillsides on their bellies, while the kids played in waist-deep snow drifts. But by the end of that week rain had cleared the last of the snow, sending a melted tsunami of water into the gorged rivers, and by the weekend the sun was out and we could go to bed at night in fewer than three layers of clothing. The speed of the seasonal switch, and its completeness, was spectacular.

Septic tank in the snow – classic winter scene


It was now a year since we’d eloped to Czechia. To an outsider it would have looked as if we were living on a building site in a war zone, but the changes were subtle and deep. The original structured plans had given way to philosophical fatalism and intuition, all very Zen.


Walls were plastered ad hoc, ceilings were fitted with leftover plasterboard, cables and underfloor heating were in place just in case we could ever afford to use them. Fourteen new windows had been fitted, which meant there were only 30 more to go. Our bedrooms even had doors on, and the wrecked shell that was to be my office now looked as if it was just a lick of paint, a couple of windowsills and a grandfather clock away from being ready to let me in. The work certainly isn’t finished – barely started is probably closer, in view of the task ahead – but it’s moving.


After decorating the grass verge like a sci-fi Portaloo, our bespoke London flat-sized septic tank was finally sunk into a pit deep enough to conceal a Loch Ness Monster. This involved destroying the road that separates the house from the subterranean tank.

We’d told as many people as we could that this was going to happen, but inevitably there was one neighbour from the track up the hill who innocently drove his car down and discovered a yawning chasm where his route to work should have been. He climbed from his car, surveyed the pit while smoking furiously, and then flicked his cigarette end into the hole.

Burying the septic tank and destroying the road: Theo surveys the damage


“So where was the old septic tank?”, he asked, in surprising good humour. We don’t like to talk about this, but in the circumstances, given his inconvenience, it seemed polite to reply. There isn’t an old septic tank: all our toilet waste flushes into a shallow pit in one of the less frequented downstairs rooms. It’s a part of the house we intuitively avoid. (Now you know why none of you have been invited to stay with us yet.)


It was definitely spring, I decided, when the mummified cat we had discovered under the floorboards the previous year began to rot. Its blue-white mould was unlike any I’d seen before, resembling bubbles of tiny mushroom caps. Perhaps it was a mould that grows exclusively on hydrating mummified cats.


And because it’s spring, it means we finally get to finish the roof, which we’d paid for this time last year. The roofers arrived on the first weekend in May, three weeks later than planned, but within 24 hours they had stripped the house of the last two thirds of its covering. The views were magnificent, the dust is spectacular, and the dogs insist on chewing the toxic tar panels that the roof shed in its death throes.

Ventilation, Czech style


For the last three weeks the weather has been glorious. Now the roof is off, the clouds have arrived. Rain is pattering on attic dust that hasn’t seen moisture since the first roof was fitted here 260 years ago, and the hastily stretched sheets of tarpaulin are made more from hope than resilience. The weather forecast says thundery showers for four days. The roof is due to be open to the elements for those four days, and the return of the roofers looks set to coincide with the return of the good weather. Fate, Thor, or some other malevolent universal urge, toys with us.


But there are always bright sides. The rain is just what the grass seed on the newly stripped garden needs. We hired the septic tank-burying digger to flatten and terrace the hillside that used to pass as our front garden. The transformation is spectacular, if a little post-apocalyptic. It looks more like an overworked quarry than a place for barbecues and herbaceous borders; but, like everything else in this ridiculous house, it’s getting there.

Picnic in the ruins

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