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Spitting Distance by Janette van de Geest Van Gruisen

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I’ve decided to move back out into the country. Isn’t it queer, the way we say “out into” the country, as if we’re not sure whether it spurns or embraces us. Well, I’ve decided to move back out into the country. I never was a city girl, you see. Oh, I tried it, for a long time, but the dust and dirt and constant motion going nowhere got me down. Tom loved it, of course, more than ever after he’d tried being out in the country for a time. He said the country was too quiet. Too quiet! When I took him up onto the fells, I told him to just stand still, to hear the wind swooping around our heads: the hiss and ripple as it dived and flicked at the surface of the tarn, but he said he couldn’t hear a damn thing and anyway it was time for tea.


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He was a great one for his tea, was Tom. We agreed on that at least. Tea suited any occasion, helped any situation. “English Chicken Soup” our boys called it when they came home from their travels. They laughed at us, but they still like to drink it, hot and milky, with just the right number of leaves floating on top.


I was brought up on those fells. Well, not actually on them, but close enough to call them home. Whoreby was the village where I lived. W-h-o-r-e-b-y. Tom got a laugh out of that name, not being from around there, but of course us villagers, in our peculiar English way, observed the W and pronounced it “Warby.” You never can tell with the English language.

Warby, as I’ll call it from now on, is barely more than a hamlet, just a rough scratch of a village halfway up a hill, with a post office–cum–general store and a graveyard without a church. From our house, we went straight through the gate, up the stone path, and out onto the fells. In two minutes, all we could see was stone wall, plenty of sheep, and the odd spiral of smoke coming from god-knows-where. But the spirals of smoke weren’t what took your breath away. What took your breath away was being able to breathe: the absolutely enormous openness of it. Breathing country, I called it, and still do.

Not like the city, where you can hardly talk to yourself in the street for the fumes. In fact, I think the fumes get into the houses — through the windows, through the doorways as you leave and enter. They gradually slow down your breathing. And your talking. Come to think of it, Tom and I didn’t talk very much at all, those years when we were in the city. Of course, life was busy; there was always so much to do, places to be and things to get. But talk? No, we didn’t talk much. Tom liked to go out a fair bit, to see the films they’d made of all the books he’d read. Or to a show. I’ll admit, there was good music in the city. But I did worry about the boys’ lungs, especially as they walked through the streets to school and back each day.


And there was the pub, of course, but I didn’t go with him, not me. Too smoky for me. I’d start coughing the minute I walked through the door, and the smoke would follow me home through the streets, clinging to my ankles as I came in the front door, like one of those tiny vicious dogs that hangs on like death all the while that you’re trying to shake it off. I hated the smoke. It made your mouth feel dry and dirty, and you wanted to spit it out. But Tom loved the pub. He was a big smoker, so he was happy there. I could smell it on him the next morning. I’d wash all his clothes and hang his suits out in the garden to air. But what good was that going to do, with cars in the street on the other side of the house? It was a small house, too, so there wasn’t much air between the front door and the back to begin with.


To give him his due, he did try the country. We spent a year in Warby, after my mother died. Tom was still teaching part-time, but it wasn’t far to drive to town. The old house was roomy, and the boys could bring their friends home from university and go “fell-walking,” as they liked to call it, in their big expensive brown leather boots.

I thought Tom might get used to it. I tried to teach him some country ways, like shutting gates behind him for one thing, what with all those sheep. And wearing Wellington boots and a waxed coat so that you could embrace the rain instead of shy away from it. And spitting up the wind to tell which way it was blowing. He was good at that: plenty of practice coming home from the pub, I dare say. But he wasn’t a great one for walking much farther than the pub, and frankly, walking was the best thing to do around Warby. So usually it was just me and the dogs, and we’d be gone for hours.

One afternoon, he thought I’d got lost, and he was in a real state when I turned up at dusk with a red nose and tingling cheeks, happy as Larry. Lost indeed! My fingers were frozen, but it was a wonderful, wonderful walk, up on the tops, the dogs chasing each other to the point of exhaustion. Tom’s fingers had probably spent most of that time flicking through the Daily Telegraph or up and down the TV remote, until he realized the time and saw the light going. That was in the days before we all had mobile phones glued to our ears, so he had to wait it out, frantic, until I walked in, completely oblivious and barely out of breath.

“That’s it!” he panted.

“That’s what?”

“That’s it. I’ve had enough of this bloody place. Anything could have happened to you, and not a soul around for miles. It’s pitch bloody dark out there. No streetlights. It’s like the back of beyond. I’m telling you, that’s it.”


And that was it. Three months later the house was rented out, and we were back in town. We found a very nice detached house at the north end, on Edmund Grove, with a bit of a garden for the dogs. When I walked down to the end of Edmund Grove and up the road a little, I could just see the fells. I could almost breathe again. I wasn’t resentful, because he had tried, bless him. He just wasn’t cut out for country life. After all, “Warby-Whoreby” didn’t even have a pub. And that, for Tom, was the best part of being back in the city. Plenty of pubs, and a local right around the corner, where he could sit and smoke with his friends, and not talk.

It was probably around then that he started coughing.


I didn’t walk as much after that. And the less you walk, the harder it gets.

So I get a bit out of breath these days when I’m coming back up Edmund Grove. And the boys worry and say that I shouldn’t be moving back into the country. They’re afraid I’ll be lonely. Like Tom, they don’t really have a feel for it. But I’ll be fine. The tenants leave next month, and I’ll be moving back into the old house as soon as it’s been painted — I hear they were smokers. I’ll have the dogs, and I even have a mobile phone these days. And I’ll still be within spitting distance of Tom. The boys didn’t understand why I had him buried in Warby. I don’t think Tom would have understood either.


God Bless America© 2003 Timshel Literature