When you move far away from your friends, the only thing you can do is get out there and make new ones. If you're lucky, they might turn out to be some of the best friends you've ever had...
Being a two-hour, ball-busting motorway drive away from my friends and family was not something that happened by choice, and I talk about why we moved here in a previous post, if you're thinking, 'Well, what utter dumbos they are for doing that'. Both of us are at home 24/7 save when Gautier goes gigging or to visit his friends and family in France, or when I visit mine in Kent or Brighton for a few days every couple of months. I haven't worked in an office since Madonna looked like a human rather than an alien, and Gautier has been doing up the house. We knew we wouldn't make friends the usual way - through work, or through meeting parents at the school gates. I mean, we could have hung around the school gates, I guess, but that would have been frowned upon given that we don't actually have kids. I could have joined a Book Club, but I don't like being told what to read. Besides, when I did look, there wasn't one. There's no music scene like there is in Brighton or London, so I had to think outside my comfort zone. I decided to go to a boxercise class that was advertised on a local Facebook group - the kind where people post things like 'Them kids on bikes came passed again last nite so noisy gettin sic of it called the police they don't wanna no' - and to this day I don't know what made me think I could ever box with spinal arthritis. Anyway, I had no idea where the sports centre was having just moved here, we didn't have a car at this point and it looked like I'd have to catch 43 buses to get there, so I backed out. Just then a message popped up from someone saying they lived locally to me, and did I want a lift? I accepted, and it was the best lift I've ever had. Wait: the best lift I ever had was from then-Liverpool defender Phil Babb in his Lotus Elise circa 1996 right after I interviewed him which culminated in me snogging his face off. This was during the interview - and to think I was often called 'unprofessional!' Really.
Anyway, it turned out that Carol and I lived in the same street, almost opposite each other. 'It's meant to be!' I thought, 'I will have a brand new friend!' so off we went one dark Tuesday night to join this class. Five minutes of trying to do star jumps and failing because it killed my back on the first one, Carol screaming, 'I'm going to have a bloody heart attack!' and me gasping, 'I'm going to wet myself!' we found ourselves doubled-up on the floor, crying with laughter. We did do some of the boxing bit (I'm quite full of rage so thought it'd be good to let some out) and I can punch quite well, but for two weeks following I was in so much pain I thought I was going to have to go to hospital and be put in an induced coma. Never again. It turns out that Carol and her husband, Robin (and their dog, Trixi) had moved in just a couple of months before we had. We went to the local pub with them that week and soon after I started walking Trixi, popping in for coffee (lie: it was usually a gin and tonic) and we were soon having dinner together. Because our street is so 1970s they left their front door open when they knew I was coming over so I didn't even have to ring the bell, I'd just pop up in the kitchen and a drink would appear in my hand. I've had lifts to the station from Robin, given them lifts into town for a night out, borrowed all sorts of items from waders to wheelbarrows, and even borrowed their washing line so I could hang my sheets out before we got around to putting one up. Robin is retired, which means his garden looks fabulous. Only retired people have time to make gardens look fabulous. We've spent two New Year's Eve's at their house (actually, Gautier was ill this year so I popped back with a food parcel at 10pm, including a slice of Neil's famous Stilton bread, more on that later) and not a week goes by without me walking round the back into the garden, yelling, 'I'm here and I'm thirsty!' and us enjoying a drink in the garden. We have barbecues with them and Pantouf, my panda teddy (he's actually my son, more of that later) even has sleepovers so he can watch TV with his Uncle Robin and have crumpets for breakfast. Honestly, they're as mad as us. When Pantouf takes Sweep (as in Sooty's mate) with him, it's known as a 'Sweepover'. Too much? You'll get used to it.
Sweep enjoying the countryside on a social-distancing walk
During the World Cup we watched all the games at their house with other neighbours who've become firm friends. Robin bought a klaxon and let Pantouf press it every time England scored. When I make a cake, I always take some over to them. Carol does the same. Gautier and Robin don't make cakes, they just eat them. Before lockdown Carol and I walked Trixi every Sunday morning at the nature reserve come rain or shine; often we end the day with Sunday roast at theirs or ours. They bought a boat last summer, and we often join them (and Trixi) for a day out with snacks and drinks, slowly taking in the scenery of the local nature reserve - and its many swans and herons - as we go. Once I was sitting at the helm and got swiped in the face by a tree branch, which was apparently very amusing. The river is beautiful, and we actually live on part of it, although typically it turns out that we have the worst outlook of all the houses as we're in a dead end with no view of the main river. Doh!
Trixi enjoying some socially-distanced exercise nearby
I'd never have imagined that I'd meet so many lovely people in one street - not even that, but just at one end of it. I can't walk down the road in nice weather without stopping for a chat with at least three people. Now, in lockdown, I'm supposed to be shielding which means I'm not meant to leave my house at any point unless, presumably, it's on fire. Well, I do. I walk, and chat to my neighbour friends without coming within three metres of anybody. They're not at risk - they don't go to work and they're almost all over 70 so they're isolating like pros, and they all know how alert I have to be with my ill-health. The irony of me being more fragile to coronavirus than my pensioner friends is not lost on me. I feel pretty lucky, all things considered, that I don't need to go more than 30 feet to have some social interaction (or less, if you're thinking, 'OI! TWO METRES!') I'd always wanted that 1970s suburbs feeling that I grew up with; a life in which everyone knew everybody else, people took care of their neighbours and we all enjoyed a gossip at the gate or at the kitchen table. I didn't have that in Brighton, despite a few years in the suburbs there, but I do have it now, and I couldn't be more happy about it. I honestly don't know what I'd do without them. Next time: Geoff's jokes, Jola's homemade vodka and Neil's courgettes!