In a fit of impetuosity (the year before last it was tickets to see Eminem), I have booked the Italian and I into a Shepherd’s Hut as a Christmas present for himself. And so here we are, in the middle of Elmley Nature Reserve a few days into January, sitting on our bed with our toes toasty, reading the paper. Yesterday, I wasn’t sure if we’d make it at all. Although she is much better, Natalie has spent most of our Christmas fortnight in Kent sick with flu and a horrible impetigo. She’s still not herself, easily fatigued, and often sleeping during the day. I’ve been rubbing her feet with Vick’s vapo rub at night, tending the impetigo, and wondering / worrying about the strange quiet child who has replaced my exuberant, forceful daughter. Yesterday, having returned to my parents from a night in Canterbury and several nights with my younger sister, the Italian had a round of wrestling called ‘doing your Italian homework’. I unpacked and repacked – for our children to have an overnight with my older sister, and for us to go off to the Shepherd’s Hut. Half an hour after Italian homework started, Natalie went back to bed and fell asleep. We delayed everything to let her rest, and eventually got to my other sister’s in time to cook carbonara the way Alessandro has trained us, our pancetta tucked under my arm. I’d had to wake Natalie just before lunch, and cajole her into washing and dressing. At my sister Melanie’s, Natalie heads straight for one of the beanbags and lays down again, complaining that her ear hurts. I realise I’ve left the Calpol at my mother’s house, and drive the few miles back there to pick it up. By the time I get back, I’m close to tears, thinking that we shouldn’t leave her, and because I’ve realised we are ill-prepared for glamping. I’ve spent so much time organising the children, that I’ve forgotten to think about us – I’ve got my Italian piumino on with the fur collar, and my new boots. I’ve no wellies, waterproof coat, hat, gloves or food. And it’s raining. I didn’t even print out the map. My sister warmly reassures us, gives me a coat, wellies, and some beers, before waving us off into the drizzle.
Elmley Nature Reserve is on the Isle of Sheppey, about twenty minutes drive from where I grew up. My Dad’s father’s family were all from Sheerness, the main town on the island, and my childhood was punctuated with Sunday trips to Uncle Bill’s house – a red brick terrace a few hundred yards back from the stony beach. Sheerness and the Isle of Sheppey have long been run-down and depressed, so that my family choke on their tea, when I tell them, I’m taking Vittorio there to a Shepherd’s Hut for his Christmas treat.
Georgina meets us in a foggy car park in the Nature Reserve and shows us to the hut. It’s very small, but beautiful – a double bed takes up one end, then there is a little table, room to cook on a one ring stove, and a bathroom with toilet and shower. We have electricity, and an oil-fired radiator (!) By the time we arrive it’s mid-afternoon, and dusk is hastening. Once we’re left alone, we collapse on the bed, and fall asleep. When we wake up, plans to drive and get milk evaporate, and instead we eat the smarties I stole from the children’s Christmas stocking stash, and brew black tea. We start watching the last season of Breaking Bad, with a break for the casserole that Georgina brings us in a basket at 7, and sleep a wide, deep sleep.
This morning, outside alone in my pyjamas and the piumino doing Tai Chi, the silence seemed crafted from bird calls, and the strange stillness of the marsh. After pulling on my jeans, I drove the little purple hire car slowly through thick mist. Cattle loom out of the whiteness, a gaggle of hares tumble across the road. At the entrance, I have to unlock a creaking gate, before I can get out and hunt for breakfast. Someone has lost me in a Dickens novel.
Twice today, we walked through the Nature Reserve. I’ve no hat or gloves, but have five layers on, and have been improvising valiantly – I wrapped the scarf Anna Beth knitted for me around my head, and gratefully accepted Vittorio’s gloves. I look like a fool, but don’t care, because I have hours alone with my husband. We walk through a silent, misty marsh, giggling at the eeriness. We get back with our fingers numb and grin at the prospect of hot tea and cake. By the time we go out a second time, a lot of the fog has cleared. We can see vistas of marsh pools, grasses, hides and the Swale estuary. On the way back, we stand still and wonder at the vast clouds of birds turning and curving in formation.
I wanted for us to have a moment of stillness, before we move again. We please ourselves, doze, walk, wonder at birds we don’t know the names of, and greet birdwatchers, who ask us troubling questions about what we’ve seen . . . On Tuesday we’re leaving England, but my husband and children are going back to Rome, and I’m going to Ireland for 10 days of work, and the beginning of three months of commuting between Cork and the Eternal City. And whilst my belly tightens at the thought of this, the curlews call their thin reedy call through the cooling mist.