We swung the van out of NorfolkSquare and headed out of town. We decided to ignore the mess in the van for tonight as we wanted to celebrate, have a drink, a good meal and sleep in a pretty village in the countryside; the perfect first night. This was the life! I pulled Leela closer to me and felt happy. I was with the two beings I loved most in the world and about to experience a whole different way of living. The sun was starting to go down and a red glow was cast on the country lanes. I loved the feeling of the weight of Leela’s warm body as she leaned against me and slept in my arms. I glanced over at Josh.He looked beautiful as he drove along, a glint of anticipation in his big brown eyes. I would remember this moment forever. I felt free and content. It couldn’t get any better than this.
We pulled up in the car park of the Anchor. It was empty. There was nobody in the garden and no lights on in the pub.
“It’s closed,” Josh said.
Wanting to keep the optimism going, I said, “Let’s go and see.It may just be quiet, maybe we can just have a bar snack and a quick drink.”
We parked the van, and walked over to the pub. Sure enough, it was well and truly shut. It was also getting late and we didn’t fancy driving around looking for somewhere else to stay. After a few minutes of looking at the closed door with gormless expressions, we decided to stay in the car park anyway, as that way we could get an early night and wake up feeling refreshed.
Leela was exploring. I looked around to call her to me and spotted her in the corner of the garden, flat on her back, having the time of her life gleefully wallowing in a big pile of fox poo! Now, if you have had the good fortune never to have been in contact with a dog that has rolled in fox poo, you may not fully appreciate why van + dog + fox poo + humans do not make up the recipe for a great night in.
I shooed her off it and clipped her lead on but it was too late, she stank. We had no way of washing her as we hadn’t filled the water tank up yet and the only place for her to sleep was with us on the bed. Great. It was then we noticed that there was a light on in the pub upstairs. The people who lived there were obviously in, so we went back to the van quickly, to spend the rest of the evening in the dark in order to avoid drawing attention to ourselves, as the last thing we needed was to be moved on in the middle of the night.
We moved the piles of stuff off the bed and loaded it all on to the front seats. We were hungry, but the kitchen was out of bounds as we couldn’t get to the cupboards. Josh found a large packet of crisps on top of a basket of cutlery. We sat in the dark and shared them, with Leela, stinking, in the middle of us. It started to rain.
“We’ll get used to this,” I said nervously.
“It’s just a case of feeling more confident about just pulling up and sleeping wherever we are,” said Josh. “We’ve done it enough when we’ve travelled, it’s no different living permanently in a van.We’ll be okay.Just remember, we know that this was the right move.”
I don’t think either of us felt that reassured as we climbed into bed that night and we both knew we were putting a brave face on for each other. We cuddled up close, and Leela wandered up the middle to snuggle up, oblivious to the foul smell she was subjecting us to. I closed my eyes tight and prayed things would take an up-turn in the morning. At least it had stopped raining.
I woke up to the sound of light rain on the tin roof, which made me feel cosy. I squinted my eyes open in the direction of the little ledge where Josh kept his watch.It was 5.30am. I snuggled up to Josh. He was lovely and warm. Leela was curled around my feet at the bottom of the bed. I drifted back to sleep with the gentle pitter-patter of rain in my ears.
When I woke again a little later, it was raining harder. I wondered if it had been continuous through the night.The last few days had been gloriously warm and sunny but, with the great British summer, who knew whether that was summer done and dusted? I snuggled further down under the duvet. I didn’t want to look around the van as I knew it resembled Primark in the mid-January sales. When the rain stopped, we would find a dry place and empty everything out. Put it all back nice and neatly and turn Romany into a little kingdom to be proud of. I spent the next hour drifting in and out of sleep, making plans to the soundtrack of rain beating hard against the van.
At 8.00, we decided the rain wasn’t going to stop and we may as well get up and drive to Stanmer Park. There, Leela could bomb around to her heart’s content and we could spend the morning sorting out the van before Josh dropped us off at Sally’s and went to attend his course
At Stanmer Park, we threw everything off the front seats and onto the bed. We must have got used to the stink of fox poo as we couldn’t smell it any more. I wasn’t sure that it was a great thing to acclimatize your olfactory senses to, but I guess at this point in time it was more practical to be oblivious than house-proud.
The morning was challenging, to say the least. The rain was relentless and we had nowhere to keep our stuff dry other than inside the van, which was getting wetter by the minute as we had to leave a door open so we could keep an eye on Leela. We tried our best to get organised while Leela ran around in the mud and rain and thoroughly enjoyed herself. Every now and again, she would bomb into the open side door, eager to share her joy, only to be greeted by one of us screaming, “OUT!” She would shoot out again, equally as happy, tail wagging in anticipation of finding a new puddle to play in. Meanwhile, we frowned, huffed, puffed, sighed and struggled around each other and our possessions, trying to create a bit of order.
Leela had it right; come rain or shine, she was happy. She never woke up in a bad mood or was grumpy for no reason. Life was to be enjoyed. Rain was rain, wet was wet, muddy was muddy and smelly was smelly. Pure acceptance. Wherever she was and whatever the circumstance, she always chose to throw herself into every day with gusto. I envied her. She often broke my mood when I felt stressed or unhappy. I’d be in mid frown, thinking about an issue with work, or grumbling about the weather and she would trot in, drop a ball in front of me and do her funny backward walk to entice me to play, reminding me that there were much better and more important things to focus on in life. Like enjoying yourself.
This morning, though, she just couldn’t snap me out of it. I was wet and cold and not looking forward to saying goodbye to Josh. The thought of leaving him to go off in our home made me feel uprooted and insecure. I was surprising myself. I had spent fourteen years of my life as a professional dancer, travelling the world with everything I owned in a suitcase and I had loved it. When I was in my twenties and early thirties, I house-shared or stayed in hotels, B&Bs or caravans. In between contracts, I stayed with friends or went back home to Manchester to see my family.
I had always thought of myself as a free spirit, yet here I was, at forty-three, realising that I had got into some very staid habits in the last ten years. I was more settled now, and even though Josh and I still travelled a lot with our work,in the last ten years we had always had the flat to come back to. Our stuff was always there. It was home and my heart had felt settled. Did that mean it wasn’t free any more? Or was I just having yet another mood swing? I wasn’t sure.
By eleven, we had created some sort of order and I called Sally and told her to prepare for a filthy dog to be thrown in her shower. We headed back into Brighton with Leela, who was firmly instructed to sit still in the well of the passenger seat. Apart from a few spontaneous shudders of joy, she did pretty well. I smiled weakly at her attempts to engage me in her merriment and comforted myself with the idea that damp splatters of mud on one’s face gave one a look of a wild, mystic traveller!
IT'S NOT WHERE YOU START