People who move to the English countryside tend to start an animal collection. Introducing Zoe, the miniature Shetland pony who was being ‘broken in’ while her humans were in a pool in a loaned villa in Tobago. Nice for some! The only person who missed out was Pam the professional house sitter (for the price of a bongo drum).
My parents-in-law house-sat for us while we were away over half- term. When we lived in London N8 we could set off on holiday and scarcely think about the house from the moment we set the burglar alarm, quadruple-locked the front door, and told the newsagent in a quiet voice, in case that middle-aged woman with the child seemingly dithering between the Monster Munch and the Cheesy Wotsits was actually a burglar with a small accomplice straining to hear our address, that we wouldn’t be requiring the papers until Saturday week.
But holidaying away from a rambling old house in the country is a different proposition. There are things that need attention on a daily basis, notably our growing menagerie, to which we have just impulsively added three more chickens. Moreover, our septic tank has an uncanny habit of misbehaving the minute we disappear down the drive with our swimsuits and suncream.
Last week, as the children and I frolicked in the swimming pool at the villa in Tobago we had generously been loaned, I could hear Jane on my mobile phone, talking to her mum about the nice man from Dyno-Rod who has practically become a family friend, all but bringing us a bottle of Jacob’s Creek and a box of Terry’s All Gold when he calls round with his suction apparatus. Besides, as well as pets and a septic tank that need mucking out, there are also our three holiday cottages to consider. Happily they were all occupied over half-term, but that was another reason why we couldn’t take off into the blue yonder without leaving someone in charge.
When we went to Cornwall in the summer we hired a professional housesitter, Pam, who was fabulous but charged pounds 30 per day plus travel expenses, which didn’t half bump up the cost of the holiday. My in-laws come cheaper, bless them, bumping up the cost of the holiday only by the price of a nice bongo drum, which we thought would look fetching on their hearth. And they treated our holiday cottage guests even more solicitously than we do. In fact, as I applied ice and hydrocortisone cream to my 97th mosquito bite and prepared for the flight home, I decided that, as beautiful as Tobago is, half-term in the autumnal and almost mozzie-free Herefordshire countryside might have had the edge.
While house-sitting, Jane’s mum and dad were denied the pleasurable and sometimes not-so-pleasurable company of our miniature Shetland pony Zoe, who is currently being broken in by a woman in nearby Aymestrey. Breaking in, for the benefit of those even less horsey than I, is the process of teaching a horse how to bear a saddle and, upon it, a human.
‘She needs to be taught some manners,’ the vet had said. It seemed a strange, rather severe, headmistressy choice of words at first, but we have since discovered that ‘teaching some manners’ is horsey jargon too, and indeed enhances the notion that Zoe is away at a kind of finishing school. It will be a nice bonus if she comes back knowing how to curtsy and conjugate the verb acheter, but we’ll settle for her giving small children rides around the garden.
The vet also praised us for keeping Zoe in excellent shape, which pleased us enormously. Those of our friends who ride were curiously disapproving when we bought a pony, and in some cases downright cross. ‘It’s not like getting a hamster, you know,’ huffed one. The clear message was that we did not have a clue what we were taking on; moreover that we were not being merely naive, but disagreeably frivolous. Jane in particular bridled at this, while I wondered whether our horsey friends might also question her right, as a non-horsewoman, to bridle. I tease, but in fairness they had a point. We did acquire Zoe without fully thinking through the ramifications, and had to have a fence hastily erected when it was pointed out to us that the orchard, where we planned to keep her, was bordered by a large yew hedge which would very quickly be the death of her.
Still, without turning into Princess Anne and Captain Mark Phillips, we seem to have done OK with Zoe, protecting her from laminitis and other nasty pony illnesses, and giving her a life of reasonable contentment. The only thing we haven’t done is provide her with some four-legged company, which is why our next acquisition is likely to be a goat, and why we’re now bracing ourselves for a letter from the Goat Society of Great Britain, saying, ‘It’s not like getting a pony, you know.’
Copyright 2003 Independent Newspapers UK Limited