Last night, I had dinner at the M25 services. I don’t mean I stopped for a break mid-journey. I mean I purposefully got into my car and drove from my house to a service station on the M25 because it was the only place to eat.
This is not quite what I envisaged when I left London for the countryside. I imagined cosy meals in welcoming pubs. But of course the reality is that everything in the sticks shuts at an unknowable hour that changes every evening, so no matter what time you turn up the staff are cleaning the counter down.
I don’t have a kitchen yet. The house is being gutted. The temporary power blew the microwave up. All we have where the kitchen should be is a room full of teabags and sugar that the builder boyfriend and his team of plumbers and plasterers inhale like air.
Every night, when the men have gone home, we either barbecue or eat out — if we can get there between 1905 and 2049.
But when the BB works late into the evening, impervious to hunger or thirst, I have to go on the hunt for food alone, like a lioness.
‘This is living,’ I thought to myself, as I sat in my Volvo with my KFC in the dark car park, stuffing chips into my mouth, watching the characters of the night, mainly truckers, workmen and people in jogging pants, wanting, possibly needing emergency takeaway.
Someone got beaten to death here a few nights ago. Perhaps it was a fight over southern fried chicken is the grim possibility that comes into my head as I gulp down my dinner. When I drive back to the cottage, the builder b is asleep on the sofa covered in dogs.
We just need to get the hang of this, that’s all. Some of it has been a shock. For example, when we first went to the local pub the door creaked open and a dozen sets of eyes turned and stared at us like that scene in American Werewolf.
At one table was sitting the entire parish council, discussing parking, or possibly who to put in the wicker man if the harvest fails.
And then there’s the bakery. I can’t get the hang of the bakery. I bought a fantastic loaf of artisanal bread there, so the next time I went in I said to the lady: ‘Have you got any more of that wonderful spelt and honey bread?’ As she stared back, a black expression on her face, I ploughed on: ‘It was absolutely delicious. Have you tried it?’
To which she screamed: ‘I don’t eat BREAD!’ And then she stood with her jaw jutting, like she’d lunge over the counter and bite me if I mentioned baked goods again.
‘I’m really sorry,’ I said.
She emitted a low growl as I meekly requested two croissants and crept away.
But the most baffling thing of all is the woman who shouts random insults at me. Like the anti-gluten bakery employee, she isn’t obviously merely insane.
She is well dressed, middle class, respectable. The day after I moved in, I encountered her on a narrow pavement on my way to the shop. With no other motive than to give her space, I walked in the gutter to allow her room. But as she passed me, instead of thanking me, she shouted: ‘What a face!’
Since then, she has always aimed a choice insult at me. ‘You again!’ or ‘Don’t smile then!’
I’ve tried to smile at her; it doesn’t work.
She confronted the builder boyfriend as he drove his old banger down the track one morning. ‘Wait there!’ she barked.
‘Wait there. My dog wants to cross.’
Thinking the pooch was right by his wheels, he stopped and waited. She stood next to him with her hands on her hips scowling. But a dog didn’t appear. After a few minutes he said: ‘Er, is your dog going to cross soon, because I’ve got to get to work.’
She looked at him like he was a piece of dirt on her shoe and said: ‘My dog is over there.’
And she pointed to a small mutt sniffing the ground and lifting its leg to pee on a patch of grass a hundred yards away.
Whereupon the builder b simply drove on. ‘Can you go any faster?’ she screeched after him sarcastically. ‘Yes!’ he called back through the open window, and slammed his foot down on the accelerator sending a dust cloud into the air.
I’m told by those who have gone before us that this is all part of the initiation process. We will be accepted at some point. Until then, a neighbour advises: ‘Keep your head down, say nothing and you’ll be fine.’ Oh dear.