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Thursday, 4 August 2011

Another deliciously cool morning, with grey skies and about an inch of water in the wheelbarrow, which I translate as half an inch of rain. I wonder whether that will signal the return of the mosquitoes, or whether their absence is due to the swarms of dragonflies that still fill the evening skies. We shall see.
It was a brief but noisy storm which seemed to be brewing for much of the evening but only kicked off after I’d gone to bed, around eleven thirty. The wind got up and blew so hard that I had to go and close a couple of windows, reluctantly, because it took a lot of effort to get them open. But I had no choice. My papers, neatly filed on the living-room floor, were being scattered about. I hadn’t been back under my sheet for  long when  the rain started, and shortly after that a steady dripping from near the foot of the bed as water found its way through the floorboards from the attic. I fumbled around for my flashlight, climbed the stairs and emptied the large bucket I have under the rafters. Back into bed, this time with my earplugs in. With one or two exceptions the thunder wasn’t actually that loud; it was the lightning which now kept me awake, illuminating in turn the elk’s head, the badger, the raccoon and, when I decided to lie on my front and face the other way, the bared teeth of the coyote on the far wall. And the bob-cat, lounging on that branch with his feet dangling. I wondered what I would have felt like had I had this on my first night here. Uncomfortable, I dare say. I found those trophies quite spooky at first. 

I probably shouldn’t mention it, and I know it’s tempting fate, but I have made yet another start on a long piece of writing. I believe this is my third, perhaps even my fourth attempt, and I now know there is no chance that I’ll get anything finished before I go home in… let me see, 62 days. But, yesterday’s thoughts on Buffalo Bill gave me an idea, and I am pursuing it.

The subject of my ancestors, particularly the sea-farers, interests me greatly. I often muse on the fact that while I call myself a historian, a biographer and so on, I have never had a very good grasp of my own family’s background. It is my sister – not a historian at all, but a women who holds great store by family, and family ties, who did all the painstaking work of piecing it together, searching parish records, visiting Somerset House, prowling through old graveyards and calling on total strangers in villages the length and breadth of England as she traced our ancestors back into the early eighteenth century. That was on one side. On the other we know very well where we come from – a fellow named Smith who owned a little field in what is now central London, not far from Harrods, way back in the 1600s.

I still have little more than a vague outline of all this in my head, and a number of vivid impressions. I knew from an early age that I had at least one member of the family tree lost at sea, and I often wonder whether there’s a connection to my own deep-seated fear of drowning. My father loved sea travel. He did all his sailing during the war. When I was very young he often talked about the thrill of standing at the stern of his troop-ship as they crossed the Bay of Biscay in a storm, looking up at an angle of 45 degrees (he said) to the prow. One of my brothers, the one who lives in England, recently spent six months travelling right around the world without ever stepping on a plane. He and his wife crossed Europe, Russia, Mongolia and China by train, the Pacific and Atlantic by cruise liner and freighter. He developed a taste for travelling on cargo ships and later made a return trip to Australia on a container vessel.

But the story I wanted to tell is of my great-grandfather. When he left home his wife was pregnant with their first child – who would be my grandmother, and raise me from the age of three until I was ten. Communications in those days were by letter, and by ship. The wife didn’t hear any news, and didn’t expect to. Some months later, after the birth, she was pushing the new baby down the street when a figure stepped out from behind a hedge, bent over the pram to look at the child and smiled at her before disappearing. It was my great-grandfather. Several weeks later came the news that his ship was lost, off the coast of New Zealand. For many years, my father would talk about a letter his mother always treasured. The mother of the cabin boy, who went down with the ship, had written to my great-grandmother telling her what a comfort it was to know that her son served under such a wonderfully kind and decent captain. I never saw that letter. I suspect it went the same way as the autographed photos of Cody and Oakley.

Back on the ranch… I had a brief visit from Matt last night. I haven’t seen much of him recently: he’s been over at Kitty’s father’s place putting up hay. I thought he’d come down to admire the paint job on the front of the house – and, to be fair, he did comment on it. But what he was after was the old video player I have down here. Kitty was away overnight and he was grabbing the chance to watch some of his favourite old movies.

Today… well, today I have a stack of dishes to wash, a huge tub of boiled pinto beans to turn into chile con carne, and after that I need to be a writer for a few hours.