All this Living Apart Together – the joys of me being in the city and my partner being in the deep countryside – sounds blissful, and I’m not pretending that there aren’t wonderful aspects but that’s not the entire story.
There are of course, the benefits of separation which means that we don’t slip into cosy slipperdom. Romance lives on in ways that it wouldn’t if we were together all the time. Although I have to confess that at the tender age of nearly 70, I have bought myself some vaguely structural slippers although at least they do have multi-coloured dots. I’ve always had a horror of slippers.
This January, I went up to North Wales –Asanga’s wild and magical land amid sheep and great spotted woodpeckers – for a month. Traditionally over the last ten years of our relationship, I have avoided winter in Wales, too many memories of freezing fingers and purple limbs in my childhood in Yorkshire. However, those lockdown experiences –the first one and the Xmas one – in Wales were formative. I learned a lot. And significantly, I realised how beautiful it was despite the cold.
One of the most challenging parts of our LAT relationship is that we have different dominions. And they are dominions of which we are Queen and King. I have my small flat in London and like to keep it, superficially at least, unadorned by mess. When Asanga comes to mine – I am constantly relegating items of his clothes, glasses, wallets to the study where his stuff is. I swoop on jackets left on the sofa or scarves on a chair. I know it’s controlling but hey, my sanity is at risk! And we do discuss it so that Asanga doesn’t feel cast aside/not cared for. I do my best to take responsibility for my behaviour while carrying on behaving in that way! Classic.
His old farmhouse comes with a different set of conditions and regulations. Although in many ways, Asanga is a lot more easy-going than me. It’s much colder, lots of draughty bits, bigger rooms, smaller radiators than mine. My solutions include extra cardigans and a blanket. Very kindly, Asanga let me use his office – in fact, more of a tool and furniture repository – to work in. A blanket is very useful after a couple of hours of sitting at my computer.
I always have a thick –one of my mother’s that she knitted – cardigan at hand to go on top of the cashmere one that I’m already wearing when I go to the kitchen for any length of time. I adore his kitchen – I wrote a poem once about my cupboard envy – because it’s vast and has enough room for a big table. It’s always been my dream to have enough room in a kitchen to dance, cook and entertain guests. Now I get to live that dream wearing a few cardigans. Strategically-placed extra cardigans are part of my living in Wales January plan.
I just have to add that another of the wonders of the kitchen is that there is a bird-feeder right outside the back window. I can have breakfast and bird watch at the same time. Heaven. Two weeks ago, Asanga looked up to see a dazzling orange breast on the brambles. Not even on the bird-feeder. It was a male bull finch and that orange was surreal. Like the bird version of Versace amid the greenery. And then the more delicately coloured female turned up. Beyond heaven.
Who needs television and nature documentaries? Asanga doesn’t have a television. No big screens. That took a while to get used to. Watching Netflix films on his small laptop was hard to bear. For one who loves to be engulfed by the cinema screen. Also we often have a different taste in films and series. I don’t really do series. Nor Rom-coms. But I discovered something radical about myself. I can compromise and enjoy it. This time, Asanga made a huge effort to find films that we could both like and it worked. A kind of cosydom was emergent.
There’s the log-burning stove in the middle room which has always bewildered and slightly frightened me. Asanga always seems to be chopping wood with a medieval-looking tool that I now know is a bill hook – a kind of machete. There’s the wood that comes from the trees when they fall down on the land. They have to be cut with a chainsaw. Yep, he’s still out there with his chainsaw at almost 80. There’s a limit to my aspirations on this front. But I do now wheelbarrow in the pre-cut wood from the wood shed. I keep an eye on what’s going on. I have even been known to set the fire.
Oh and there’s the re-cycling. In Harlesden, there are simply ugly bins to be dealt with outside the door. In Pentrefelin, those bins are at the end of quite a long track. Every Sunday, the bins around the house have to be emptied and sorted, then transported by car to the end of the track. I remember this now and empty the bins the day before. For me, so often calmness comes from preparation.
And cooking. I tend to do more cooking in Wales. Sometimes I remind myself of a 1950s housewife preparing lunch and dinner, laying the table etc. But I enjoy looking after Asanga – and he does all the baking, bread-making etc – in that way. And I know that as soon as I get back to London, I can rebel and not pick up a pan for days if I don’t want to.
Another confession in terms of gender stereotypes. Asanga tends to drive while I’m there. For all the bigger journeys. I love it. No-one has driven me for years. Not since I was a child. I can stare at mountains and appreciate waterfalls. He’s even started driving more slowly.
Asanga and his breakfast ritual. He used to have a dog and a cat. Both have died over the last couple of years from old age. So now he feeds the birds – particularly two robins – with tiny bits of crust from the toast he eats every day with his own marmalade on it. The robins often start a territory war over these crumbs. There’s diving and fighting. There is fluttering from the tits. And dunnocks who join in.
Asanga is convinced he could feed them out of his hand. He probably could. He’s got birdman leanings. I don’t join him every day but sometimes I do. We sit quietly, relish the bird song and the stunning view of mini-mountain Moel y Gest which is always different depending on the weather. We’re always invoking the great spotted woodpecker to arrive on the feeder. Sometimes we’re lucky.
The rhythms of the house. The sounds of the house. The store of acorns in the cupboard under the stairs. Asanga excitedly shouted to me to come and have a look not long ago. And we laughed. A squirrel had been gathering a substantial horde. The countless hibernating butterflies. The rat that makes a huge noise above the kitchen.
Not so much his dominion now, more my second home. We feel like a team.
I go back to London and fill up the bird-feeder that Asanga made me from one of his logs. Then decide not to cook for a few days.