One woman, one dog… and a disastrous move to Devon. Previously published as Dream Cottage: Four Seasons in Devon, this is the omnibus edition of a four-part mini-series. Shortly after moving back to the UK from France the author finds herself embroiled in home renovation hell. Meanwhile, her cruel and distant mother has just been diagnosed with dementia and the author finds herself reluctantly pulled back to her childhood home in the north of England. Fans of Karen Wheeler’s writing will love this unforgettable and superbly written tale of relocation – and a mother-daughter relationship – gone wrong.
I’m in my favourite garden centre – a lovely emporium of plants, nautical-themed tat, and outdoor essentials such as windchimes, Laughing Buddhas (surely the 21st-century equivalent of the garden gnome?) and ‘Gone Surfing’ signs. It’s become a sort of sanctuary, a place to regroup, gather my thoughts and sedate myself with sugar after stressful meetings with contractors. I particularly love the café with its lovely selection of homemade cakes piled up on glass stands on the counter. On many occasions I’ve sought solace here in a cappuccino and slice of lemon drizzle.
This morning I’m on a less pleasant mission: to buy rodenticide. Tomorrow, Davy Trewin is coming to fit the rat flap in my drain and fill the disused pipe with concrete and metal filings. As a belt-and-braces measure, I’m also planning to put poison in the inspection chamber under the manhole cover. I am bossing this problem.
It’s Monday morning – a time I’ve deliberately chosen for this potentially embarrassing mission, as hopefully the store will be empty. A rat infestation is not something you want to share with a crowd.
I find the rodenticides near the pet section and pick up the two products that look the most lethal. One has a large skull and crossbones; the other is vivid red and yellow, like the McDonald’s branding, which certainly screams ‘toxic’ to me. But there is no indication of efficacy or how many rats they will kill. I look around for the least-populated cash desk. ‘Excuse me,’ I whisper to the assistant, grateful that there are no customers behind me. ‘Can you tell me which of these would be most effective for a bad rat infestation?’
The assistant, to her credit, does not judge me. If she’s thinking ‘Hello, here’s a person with a filthy house and slovenly lifestyle,’ she does not show it. Nor does she wince or screw up her face in disgust. ‘How bad exactly?’
‘Really bad.’ I look around to check no one else is listening. ‘Dozens and dozens of them.’
‘Hmm.’ She examines the small print on the two boxes. ‘I think these might be for… smaller scale problems. Let me check with a colleague.’
She looks around the hangar-like store. Far away on the other side of the building, is a young woman arranging wicker plant pots. The assistant takes a deep breath. ‘CHERYL!’ she yells. ‘Which is our most effective RAT POISON? This lady’s got A LARGE-SCALE INFESTATION!’
My cheeks flush like an overripe peach. A woman approaching the cash desk with a cactus suddenly thinks better of it, and scurries off to pay elsewhere, as if my rats might be catching. Cheryl comes over and picks up the boxes. ‘I’m not sure either of these will do. By the sounds of it, you need something a little more… industrial.’
I nod. ‘The stronger the better.’ No point in faffing around with second-rate toxins.
Cheryl looks at her colleague. ‘I think we’d better call Steve. He’s the expert on this.’ She turns to me. ‘If you hang on a sec, we’ll get the manager.’
I watch as she produces a small, hand-held microphone from under the desk and pushes a button to switch it on. ‘CAN STEVE COME TO EXOTIC SUCCULENTS, PLEASE?’ she shouts, ‘STEVE TO SUCCULENTS!’
Thankfully, she does not add: ‘WHERE A CUSTOMER WITH AN INDUSTRIAL-SCALE RAT PROBLEM IS WAITING!’
When the manager appears, he is not the wise-old-farmer type that I was expecting. Instead, I’m going to have to share the details of my affliction with a clean-faced chap in tailored trousers and shirt, who looks as if he should be managing a bank rather than dirtying his hands in a garden centre. He is friendly but brisk. ‘How can I help?’
Cheryl picks up the two boxes of poison. ‘This customer wants to know which of these products is the most effective against a large number of rats.’
‘How bad is the problem?’ he asks in a low voice, his manner that of a doctor braced to hear the details of an embarrassing complaint.
‘They’ve escaped from the sewer and are nesting in a disused pipe that runs under the garden.’
‘Right. How many roughly?’
‘I counted several dozen in a CCTV image taken over a month ago. So God knows how many there are now.’ He nods. ‘I’m having the abandoned pipe cemented in,’ I continue. ‘And a rat flap fixed, but I want a strong poison to kill off any rodents already there.’
He strokes his chin. ‘Unfortunately, over-the-counter products are usually aimed at minor infestations – nothing on the scale you’re describing.’ He hesitates, possibly seeing the curtain of despair fall across my face. I notice a look of sympathy forming on his. ‘We do have something which is extremely effective,’ he says. ‘But I’m afraid it’s not on sale to the public.’
Fantastic. This is what I need. I give him what I hope is my most winning smile. ‘It sounds exactly what I’m looking for.’
‘I’m not sure…’
‘Please. I’d be so grateful.’ I look at him with imploring eyes and the tortured expression of someone who is only just holding it together. (Minimal acting required since it’s a fairly accurate reflection of my mental state.) My instincts tell me that Steve is not a jobsworth. He seems decent, kind and open to persuasion – qualities easily exploited by someone as desperate as me.
Before he can say a definite ‘No’, I launch into a resumé of how my life has unfolded over the past few months. I bought a lovely cottage and was so thrilled to be moving to Devon, I explain. Unfortunately, I employed a dodgy drains company who didn’t tell me I had rats. And a surveyor who missed £6,500 of dry rot. I have had to move into a holiday park. Meanwhile, my poor dear mother has recently been diagnosed with dementia and – fingers crossed behind my back – I really ought to be with her, making sure that she has settled into her new nursing home in the north.
I’ve got Steve on side now – I can almost feel the compassion – and I’m certain that the rat bait is as good as mine. It’s time to land the plane. ‘The thing is,’ I say, giving it my best and final shot. ‘I’m at my wits’ end – and this poison sounds like the one thing that could really help.’
He sighs, pauses for an instant and then jerks his head in the direction of the café. ‘OK. Come with me.’
Jubilant, I follow him through pet supplies, faux plants – who in this world buys a plastic mother-in-law’s-tongue? – and past the busy café, where I notice that the Bakewell tart looks particularly good. Once I’ve got my hands on the poison, I might treat myself to a slice.
Thank you, Karen Wheeler and Random Things Tours
About the author
Karen Wheeler is a former journalist and national newspaper fashion editor who has successfully published five comic travel memoirs about her life in France, starting with Tout Sweet: Hanging up my High Heels for a New Life in France, which made it to #1 in Amazon’s travel writing book chart.
She wrote for the Financial Times for over fifteen years and is a former fashion editor of the Mail on Sunday. She studied Modern History at Kings College, London University and worked briefly at Sotheby’s art auctioneers before embarking on a career in fashion journalism. During her career she has interviewed many of fashion’s top names including Tom Ford, Karl Lagerfeld, Giorgio Armani and Calvin Klein. Her work has also appeared frequently in Vogue Japan, You magazine, the Daily Mail and Sunday Times Style.
Originally hailing from the north of England, Karen is one of the many ex-pats now returning to the UK – as she points out the food is much better here. She has run holiday cottages, knows the Farrow and Ball colour chart inside out, never turns down a glass of pink champagne and lives near Budleigh Salterton in East Devon with her boyfriend and her dog Biff.
Karen has great interview experience and is available to write feature pieces.
Earlier this year the Daily Mail published a moving feature on her relationship with her bipolar mother: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-6676089/Writer-shares-story-cruel-childhood-reluctant-deathbed-visit.html
High quality selection of images available to illustrate her story.
Contact her directly at Karenwheeler1@gmail.com
blog : http://www.toutsweet.net
Twitter at @mimipompom1