One of the many different aspects of living in a sparsely populated rural community here in beautiful Pembrokeshire (in remote west Wales) is the way people interact.
Here, we all have lots of space around us; people are scattered across the landscape. Many live here precisely because they have come in pursuit of some alone-space. Lots of locals stayed too, for that reason, even when jobs and sustainable lives seemed hard to achieve.
So when you do come across another human, it can be either annoying – or exciting. If it hasn’t happened for a few days, it certainly is novel, especially in remote villages where you could go for weeks not conversing with another resident.
I lived in one such community for 10 years and experienced just that. Now I’m closer to people, which suits me much better, though I did learn how to be alone and I’m comfortable with my own company these days and enjoy it when it happens (which, with a house full of kids, is not that easy to achieve).
Being isolated can also incubate a rather obsessive interest in the tiny details of other people’s lives, when you do happen upon them. Talking to, or even just seeing another resident can be the focus of perhaps rather unhealthy speculation.
I remember (yes I do, really) one particular incident. We had a chap from the council measuring the width and dimensions of the windy, dead-end lane through the village and the grass verges and lay-bys that lay at each side of it.
He had a wheel on a stick and spent several days taking precise measurements as he physically surveyed the village. The data he obtained would then be fed back to the authorities to make sure it all matched up with what they already had in their files and databases.
I know this because, of course, fascinated to see a strange man in the road with a wheel on a stick, I had stopped and asked him. I gathered that the council did this sort of thing to make sure landowners didn’t sneak onto land they shouldn’t or quietly extend their grassy areas in front of their houses or secretly take over little hidden corners. Big Brother at his finest. He seemed a friendly sort of chap just ‘doing his job’.
Anyway, after a couple of days of this wheeling and measuring, I popped into a neighbour’s house for a coffee and a gossip. As one does when body and brain feels thirsty. And we quickly got round to the subject of the man with the wheel on the stick. All very hydrating, of course.
A day or so later, I happened across another neighbour, a widow I hadn’t seen for a while. I stopped in the middle of the road in my car for a quick chat. And soon we too began talking about the man with the wheel on the stick.
‘Yes I have seen him several times,’the lady observed. ‘Yesterday, he was carrying an umbrella!’
At that moment, I spotted a car heading down the lane and needed to pull away, and that was the end of our conversation. Later, I reflected on this over a cup of tea with my neighbour. I still hadn’t managed to work out the significance of the umbrella. “Well, that’s the sort of detail that you notice when you live in a quiet place like this’ was the explanation.
This took me back to my heady days in various cities across the globe; the endless noise and parade of people that whizzed across one’s consciousness, like a film on fast-forward. And back to me, the countryside-me, reflecting on why a man with a wheel on a stick had stuck in my mind and now with the addition of an umbrella.
Multi-tasking male? Good at predicting the weather? Bit of a Big Girl’s Blouse who couldn’t take a bit of Welsh liquid sunshine without resorting to an UMBRELLA? How big was his umbrella, I wondered? And at what angle was he holding it? Then I remembered that I really needed to get out more.
Jump forward a couple of years and now I am happily installed near the beach and have some sense of people and activity around me; I also go out to work every day and get my dose of society through that and running my children’s taxi service.
It’s very early on a Monday morning in May. Today in fact – a few hours ago. I’m up with the dawn chorus. The birds are flitting about me, the sun is shining, the road that heads for the beach is silent and the kids are still asleep. I need to get the bins out and dry some school uniforms before my own offspring start tweeting.
And so I find myself, before 6am, outside my house, in my PJs, lugging large bin bags and recycling containers into the big wide world beyond my house in time for Nigel the Singing Bin Man who generally arrives promptly at 7.
I look down the leafy lane in the dappled sunshine and smile. It is so lovely.
Movement catches my eye – and as I turn to look an attractive lady of a certain age comes into view. She’s walking with a very small dog – a Jack Russell, on a lead. I look at the dog and then at her and I say ‘Good Morning! Isn’t it lovely!’ and she agrees.
Her canine companion wanders into the middle of the road towards me and rather than yanking him back on the lead, she follows. She’s wearing a beautiful, long, shoulderless, diaphanous dress – the sort of dress that would look as well on the beach as at a cocktail party. The apricot colour shows off her tanned, brown skin and dark hair.
‘I had a few too many last night and left the car in the village – so I decided to walk the dog as I am collecting the car and I’m glad I did because we are having such a lovely walk’ she explains. I smile as I clutch my bin bag.
‘It is lovely – but look out for the cars’ I respond. “it’s quiet now but they do come up and down too fast!’
‘I have walked from Kilgetty’ she goes on. (That’s two villages and a mile or so away) and I have to go down to the harbour for the car so I’m starting to feel warm!’
‘That’s a bit of a walk” I quip, ‘Nice though, especially at this time in the morning.’
I look at her we make friendly small-talk, sharing this beautiful moment, her in her apricot dress and me with my orange bag full of empty cereal boxes. My mind starts to spin. I’m taking it all in and something’s not quite right.
Under her slinky dress, that billows in the early morning sea breeze, peek delicate red pumps, with large, floppy, silk poppies on the top. Decorative, evening shoes. The ones that dress the dress up, when you move from the beach to the cocktail bar.
Why, I find myself asking, is this lady walking from her house in Kilgetty to the seaside village of Saundersfoot in a beautiful sun-dress and ornate shoes at 6 o’clock in the morning?
Ah, the penny drops. She’s been staying over. It was unplanned, hence no change of clothing or walking shoes. She’s still in last night’s outfit and has sneaked out early to reclaim her car and quietly go home.
So who’s dog is she walking? Did her dog accompany her on her night of drinking and staying over unexpectedly? That didn’t make sense.
Maybe she’s walking her secret lover’s dog? Isn’t that a bit beyond the call of duty though? Especially while wearing last night’s clothes?
I imagine him, smelling slightly of Sunday’s Chardonnay and Chinese takeaway, rolling over in bed as she sneaks out of it, saying ‘Would you mind walking the dog for me as well love?’ Eh? Really?
And then I stop and laugh. I have turned into a woman who notices a man holding an umbrella in a quiet lane.
Memo to self: you need to get out even more often.
I still can’t help wondering what her story was though, and that is what happens when you live in the countryside. You no longer need to filter out what is going on around you to cope. In a frantic city that bombards your senses into submission you end up living in a self-constructed tunnel just to get through your day. Down leafy lanes, you can indeed, as you slowly and quietly empty bins and watch birds, consider all the options. And even blog about it.