Wife in the North


By Judith O’Reilly

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When Judith O’Reilly, a successful journalist and mother of three, agreed to leave London for a remote northern outpost, she made a deal with her husband that the move was a test-run to weigh the benefits of country living. In the rugged landscape of Northumberland County, O’Reilly swapped her high heels for rubber boots and life-long friends for cows, sheep, and strange neighbors.

In this tremendously funny and acutely observed memoir, O’Reilly must navigate the challenges and rewards of motherhood, marriage, and family as she searches for her own true north in an alien landscape. Her intrepid foray into the unknown is at once a hilarious, fish-out-of-water story and a poignant reflection on the modern woman’s dilemma of striking the right balance between career and family.


Summer 2005
Road Rage
As we drove out of the city's fabulous sprawl last night, I wondered whether I could kill my husband and plead insanity. I knew it would be slightly unfair—I had agreed to the move although I had not meant it. "Hormones ate my brain, Your Honour." Might work. Or I could try: "He beat me for years, Your Honour, but it entirely slipped my mind. I suddenly remembered in the car and snapped." In truth, the only abuse I have ever suffered is his music collection and the fact he can only cook two meals—fish pasta and bacon and leek pasta. I am not sure that would be considered adequate grounds for murder. Particularly if the jury insisted on sampling them because they are really rather nice.
We have been married so long and it turns out that after all these years he wants something entirely different to what I want. He wants to live in the country. Cor blimey. What possessed me to agree to such a ridiculous idea? If my cousin the priest had said: "Do you, Wifey, take him over there in sickness and in health, for richer for poorer, up in the North and down in the South," I would have said: "Hang on a minute, a poverty-stricken invalid's one thing . . ." I never, ever thought he would pack us all up and carry us away with him. I did not think he had it in him to make me leave London, still less for the Northern wastelands. Who wants to live up North? Northerners. But not me—I stopped being a Northerner a long time ago. I love London—it was where I wanted to be. He suffered it; he thinks we will move to Northumberland and life will be perfect. Life is never perfect.
Outside, it was all speeding cars and sodium lights strung along the highway; inside my head—a blur of resentment and taillights. I rested my hands on my pregnant belly and turned my head away from him. I stared at the fake diamond of my engagement ring, nestled next to my wedding ring which is missing a diamond chip. I thought: "If I kill him, how will I explain it to the children? 'Boys, the good news is we are going back to London; the bad news is your father is staying here. In this lay-by, just under that bush. Look, we'll tie a bunch of flowers to the fence. Wave bye-bye to Daddy now.'"
The bloody A1 did not help my mood. There are signs along it. Signs like "168 casualties 3 years" and "Next 7 miles 42 casualties 3 years." Presumably they are there to make you think, "It could be worse; I could be dead." I have never liked road movies—the endless journeying, the deep and witty conversations en route to the wherever place the hero is headed, the quirky destination itself, and it is something of a shock to find myself in one. I felt like abandoning my popcorn and going to watch something else entirely—possibly something with graphic sex and hard-core violence in it, definitely not a romantic comedy where two goofy no-bodies ended up married. Maybe I should try Star Wars now the two-year-old and four-year-old have fallen asleep. Then again, I do not want to watch anything where a hero fulfils his destiny. I am feeling like a bit player in my own life—that cannot be good. The pay will be terrible.
Awkwardly I reached through the gap between our seats to turn off my boys' DVD players which were blazing inter-galactic war and as the silence introduced itself to darkness, my husband glanced across and gave me a sweet and joyful smile. It reminded me that I loved him and he did not even have to speak. I thought: "I hate it when you do that." My life was in a removal lorry with a man in overalls and an interest in martial arts. I was a fat woman in a car heading nowhere I wanted to go with a husband, two small boys, a foetus, and a cat. "Repeat I am not fat I am pregnant." If I had not been pregnant I would never have agreed to this ridiculous experiment in country living. I sincerely hope I do not resent this baby—it might get in the way of me resenting my husband.
He looked back to the road, checked his mirrors, pressed lightly on the indicator, and pulled out into the fast lane. I felt the car pick up speed as we drove alongside and then left behind a lorry, its headlights blazing. He said: "How are you feeling?" My stomach muscles were in spasm; my feet had pins and needles and I could not reach them to rub; I had been crying on and off since we left. I scrupulously folded up my ancient black silk jacket to make a pillow, rested my head against it, and closed my eyes.
Twenty-odd years ago, my husband and I were in the same American politics seminar group at university. I remember him because he would tilt and balance on the back two legs of his chair and never knew the answer to a question; he has no memory of me as I sat foursquare and eager to impress. Studies over, we met again in Newcastle, where I trained as a journalist on a regional morning paper. I cannot remember enjoying a day out in Northumberland, unlike my husband who loved the North-East from the start. As soon as I could, I went down to London, and love-struck, he followed.
Unlike my husband, I do not care that much for holidays, all that expectation and dislocation. Every year we would take a cottage in Northumberland for a week. On one of those holidays, nearly five years ago, he saw an advert in the paper. "Cottage for Sale." A farm had been bought by a farmer who also owned the local castle. This King of the Castle wanted the cropped fields around and the great barn behind it. He was keeping Number 1, a tenanted cottage which was still home to the former farm manager and his wife, but selling the empty adjoining cottage. It was a rain-sodden day in December, grey clouds papered the endless skies. The slate-rooved cottages, built of whinstone and sandstone, stood in a row of eight, on a slight rise overlooking hedged fields. To the left a dark bank of trees protected them from the North winds while an access road in front separated the houses from bunched coal sheds and gardens beyond.
The former farm manager gave us the key to look round. There was no view from the sitting room window other than the coal sheds but from the bedrooms there was glory, land and sea and sky stretching up to forever. We stood together in the empty master bedroom, looking out into the twilight and towards the striped, blue grey horizon. My husband said: "Let's do it. After everything we've been through, let's just do it. We promised ourselves we'd do things differently."
The light had gone from the day by the time we went back into their house to return the keys. The lounge was dark and snug, watchful with china birds and photographs of grand-children hanging on the walls. His Little Old Lady wife made us tea and we ate fruitcake in front of their coal fire. My husband was lying back into their sofa, his long legs splayed out, his knees pushing against their coffee table, laughing at a story the man was telling. They looked like they had known each other for years. I asked: "Is it alright if we try and buy next door and come up here on holidays? We wouldn't be here all the time." He smiled at us. "That's the way of things," he said. It turned out that only the retired couple and one other woman lived in the row; the other cottages were all second homes.
Buying the cottage meant we could not afford a bigger house in London. I agreed to it because it made my husband happy. I was pregnant then too. My brain must shrink to the size of a walnut when I am pregnant. I remember the exact words my husband used. Wrapping his arms around me, he said: "Don't worry. This is not the thin end of the wedge. I am not going to ask you to live here." Hah.
Sometimes when you are drunk, you comment on the lives of friends. You would never want them to hear you; if they did, they would not be your friend. You predict who will divorce, who will stay together. Smug. You include yourself in the ranks of the gloriously and utterly committed and you can feel foolish if the game runs its course and leaves you in an altogether different category. There are variations on the game such as: "Whose Children Are Monsters?" "Who Earns The Most?" and "Who Among Us Will Die First?" You play that one when you are old enough to care. I always thought the least interesting game to play was "Who Will Move to the Country?" Even worse, we just lost that round.
We used to go to a therapist in London. I would go in; my husband would sit outside in the car and sleep. I would come out. Cry sometimes. We would drive to an East End café for large yellow cups of coffee, warm ciabatta and sweet berry jams baked in the oven. That would make me feel better. My husband would say: "I can't believe you pay someone to make you cry," and "If you didn't go for therapy, you wouldn't need to make yourself feel better after it." I would laugh. I would feel better because he made me laugh, not really because I liked the oven jams. Though they were good.
One day in February, I came out from my appointment to find him drawing pictures. Large pencil pictures of his dream house; our Northumberland holiday cottage knocked through with the one next door to make a family home. My husband had heaven on his mind. I thought: "Bollocks." I stood on a dirty North London street, large Edwardian terraces on either side, thinking what I would do, what I would say. I looked in through the open window to see the sketch resting against the steering wheel and my husband, so intent on scribbling in a bathroom, that he had not heard me trip trap up to the car. I knew what he was sketching out—his dream and my future.
We drove to the café and sat in the back, warming ourselves over the coffee. A budding yellow rose on the pressed aluminium table, gritty from a legacy of a stranger's sugar. Trendy, haggard mothers let toddlers wander while they jolt started their day among other trendy, haggard mothers. A few weeks before, my husband said to me: "The good thing about our relationship is that we always put the other person first." I thought to myself: "You do. I don't." Then shrugged away the guilt. I sipped at my cappuccino: "Talk me through this house then." When we got married after ten years together I did not think "marriage" would make a difference. I was wrong. Marriage, the everyday everything of family life, melted us one into the other—no one warned me that was the way of it. My husband looked up from stirring his coffee, the black water crashing into the suddenly still spoon. "Let's do it," I said. I thought: "I am tired of standing on your dreams." I thought: "Don't expect me to like you while I'm doing this." He did not say anything at all. He put down the spoon carrying a tiny pool of coffee in its bowl, safe back, on his saucer. He reached for my hand and held it.
Holiday Home
We arrived in the early hours of Tuesday, unloaded the boys into their small bedroom, let the cat out of her box in the kitchen, carefully shut the door behind us and crawled upstairs. I did not expect to sleep. I never do when I am pregnant. Too hormonal, uncomfortable, and stressed. I surf sleep instead, taste it, then spit it out again. I was not helped then or last night by the fact the curtains need a blackout lining. We are two miles from the sea across fields and every twenty seconds, the light from a lighthouse on the Farne Islands, raps against the window then sweeps round, back and away again to sea.
The cottage is nearly 350 miles away from London. So far away it took the removal van two days to get here. It arrived yesterday as we were clearing away from breakfast. The gaffer climbed down from the cab and came in from the sheeting rain; he wiped his boots on the mat and poked his head into the small lounge. He said: "You've already got furniture in here then?" We all looked into the small room at the three-piece suite, oak table and two chairs, pine dresser, and TV. "This was our holiday cottage." I could hear his mate outside swinging open the metal doors and fixing the steep ramp between the van and the threshold. The gaffer rubbed his large, calloused hands together. I think he was looking for a place to put things. There was none. Being a removal man must put you at risk of a hernia and too much insight into the human condition. People move up the property ladder or slide down it. Full of newly married hope or divorced despair; desperate to impress each other and their neighbours, at the start of new lives. Convincing themselves that the sun will shine brighter; that their wife will love them more; that they can be happier in this house than they were before. I wondered what they thought of us. Then I thought: "I don't want to know." I said: "Kids. Let's get you dressed. We're going out."
His Dream: My Future
Unpacked so far: knickers, cat (about as relaxed as I am), the feeling I have made the biggest mistake of my life, 34 black bags (33 of them belonging to the children), 12 plastic boxes of toys (not so much "unpacked" as put up on a shelf so the children can't get them. Who needs more mess?). Maternity notes (in case of emergency, already lost). Gaggia coffee maker (a "going away" present from London friends who doubt Northumberland café society). Colombian coffee (similar). Wine glasses, a packet of photographs tied with a narrow black ribbon, my address book with all my friends' phone numbers (if I lose this book, my life ends). Mobile phone (no signal, so much for the address book). Digital radio (no signal, good grief).
Thin End of the Wedge
I had to get away from the chaos for half an hour. I drove along the road which borders the dunes, parked up, then climbed carefully down through the marram grass to the beach. I sat on a rock and watched the shivering sea and the islands that litter it. My bones felt cold. If Northumberland does not work out for us, if it is not a "fit," the deal is this: we go back to London, go back home. December 31, 2007. D-DAY when we make our decision to stay or go. I said out loud: "I am never going to get out of here. He is never going to let me leave." He must have slipped some date rape drug into my latte but he did not want to remove my panties, he wanted to remove my life. He loves Northumberland and I do not. He thinks it is his spiritual home; I think it beautiful but bleak and chill and nowhere that I want to be. And yet I love him and he wants this chance so badly. For us all to make a life away from noise and city strife, the smell of dirty streets and hostile strangers. I told myself: "This is what marriage is—a question of loving, honouring, and compromise." I am compromising right now on where I want to be. I do not know how good I am at compromise. I thought I heard a child laugh behind me—there was no one there. The beach was all but empty; a few walkers, a man throwing a hard rubber ball into the waves for his dog to fetch. No laughing child and no escape route.
If you close your eyes, then open the green one on the left and squint a bit, in a dim light, my husband looks like a Hollywood star. The kind who wears a Smith and Wesson slung round snake hips, sports a woollen poncho, and chews a cigarillo. The kind who spits in the dust then kills you. There are all sorts of red rose reasons he deserves his shot at happiness, not just the cowboy charm and spurs. Every other month, he will say something to make me laugh so hard I fall off a kitchen chair. I am not sure who else could make me laugh like that now Benny Hill is dead. In any case, the boys look like him, so I could not forget the man and I have grown to love the sad, plastic-wrapped garage flowers he rescues from the forecourt buckets of petrol stations and which he carries in with care. To which I say "Thank you" and "I'll put these lovely turquoise chrysanthemums in a vase." Then drop them in a bin.
Sick and Tired
One day you wrap, in acid-free tissue layers, the daughter in you. You admire it as you put away its girlish chiffon colours, you mourn its passing as you stand on tiptoe to put it away on the very highest shelf. From a hanger, you take off and shake out the sensible navy role of mother and slip it on. Mother not only to your children but to your own mother. I am at that moment.
My mother was very sick this summer. I thought she would die when she was suddenly struck down by rheumatoid arthritis. One of those diseases which leaves you in so much pain, you close your eyes and rest your head upon the pillow. Still. You take a moment. You ask yourself: "Shall I go on?" Another breath. "Can I go on?" She is over the immediate crisis but infinitely frail. In my head, she is a pretty forty-two; in reality, she is still pretty but cannot manage stairs. One of my part-time neighbours came up for a couple of days and popped in to see how I was getting on. She is a hospital consultant. She sat down in a rocker by the door and gave me a warm smile. "How are you?" she said. I am enormously pregnant, cumbersome, shattered, old, tired beyond belief. I have abandoned my city of dreams. We have cleared the lounge; it now has a single bed against the back wall which I have made up so that it is ready for my sick mother who is arriving tomorrow. My dad is going in the cottage next door. I am sitting on the single bed because there is nowhere else to sit. My husband is about to leave to go back to work in London. He has not yet left and I am already as lonely as I have ever been. I cry. Loudly. I cannot find the words. The Consultant comes over and sits next to me. I think: "I am ridiculous." I think: "I am not ridiculous," and cry some more. There is a sympathy between women which does not need words to feel another's hurt, to ease another's pain. She rubs my back, says: "There, there." And I feel better.
All told, it has been a damnable summer. Over the past few months, between arranging the move from one end of the country to the other, working, looking after a four-year-old, a two-year-old, and being pregnant, I have been up and down to Yorkshire hospitals and moved the entire family to North Wales for ten days when my mother took up convalescence with her niece. I did not want to spend that much time away from the children so my husband came too. Every day, he took the boys to the beach or adventuring while I was with my mother. Every night, after clearing the knives and forks and marmalade pots from the table in the dining room of the B&B where we were staying, he worked on his laptop till three.
We had been back from Wales a week when we moved house. I am an only child. That was bad planning on my part. I was utterly and entirely grateful to my cousin for stepping in to care for my mother whom I know she loves. But another reason I agreed to the move is that I need this chance too. In London, it would be difficult to afford a house with a comfortable setup for my parents, room for three children, and an office for us. In Northumberland, it becomes a runner. When illness and age strike again, my mother can come to me. My husband lives where he wants to live; the children get small classes and large beaches; my parents get space in our house when they need it. All I have to do: hold it together long enough to have a baby and create a new life for everybody. If this move does not work, I am busted.

Fall 2005
Park and Ride
My four-year-old's first day at his new school. It is a small school with around forty pupils on the outskirts of a stone-built village, set next to grazing sheep and across the fields from a spired church. His London school where he was in the morning nursery class had a roll of four hundred. I loved the London school—despite the fact I was old enough to have given birth to the other mothers. I wore more lipstick. That solves more problems that you would think. In London, we would walk my son along a canal and through a park to school. In the country, we drive. About a mile into the journey, my four-year-old said: "I liked my old school." "I'm sure you'll like your new school too, darling," I replied. He kept looking out of the window. I said: "Look there's a horse." He harrumphed. "Why do I have to go to school anyway?" "And a chicken," I said. "They have chickens up here, too. 'Hello chicken.'" He harrumphed again. My two-year-old piped up: "I like the soldiers. Where are the soldiers?" My two-year-old is obsessed with the Changing of the Guard. I said: "The soldiers are in London, darling." He started to cry.
When we got back, I said to the two-year-old as we got out of the car: "Shall we go for a walk in the woods?" Next to the cottages and across the road there is a steeply sloping wood of huge beech and sycamore trees. He shook his head: "Bears might eat me." "There are no bears," I said. I stroked his hair, crouched down, said: "Are you OK with the move, with living here?" He shook his head again: "Bears might eat me." "There are no bears," I said as I looked into the darkness and the growling started.
Kiss and Make-up
Yesterday afternoon, when I picked up the four-year-old, I said: "How was it then?" "Can't remember." "Did you play with anyone?" "Can't remember." Later, slumped against my mother in her chair, his arms around her, I heard him confide: "I don't have any friends." She said: "You will. It takes time." He thinks he has it bad making new friends in school. Life in London was simpler in many ways. Cafés knew how to make a decent skinny latte with an extra shot, muddy wellies weren't de rigueur, and most importantly I had friends. Quite a few. Those who had children juggled their responsibilities, adjusted their career expectations, and got on with it. Those who didn't tried not to talk too much about the exotic holidays and how long they spent in bed on a Sunday. I had things in common with my friends: work, children of the same age, an outlook. Now I have to start again. I said to my mother: "I don't have any friends either." She patted my arm, said: "Give it time."
This is me at the school gate. Hand extended for warm, professional handshake. Big smile. It says: "Trust me. I'm a mother. Just like you." The fact I am shaking hands at all, however, is a giveaway. Shaking hands is something you do in an office. Or with a stranger. I tend to do it with men. Do you shake hands with other women out in the real world I suddenly wonder? They do not know, but it could be worse. I could be doing that metropolitan swoop to air kiss their cheeks. A blur of women shake my outstretched hand. A few look like they might even have done it before. Some of them wear gilets—padded sleeveless coats. Some wear wellies. One looks like she climbs off a horse to get into her 4x4, picks up her child, drives home, then climbs back in the saddle. Another wears tweed and a strange furry hat. Her husband farms oysters as well as cows and she used to teach mathematics in a secondary school. Hardly anyone seems to wear make-up. Do they have natural make-up down to such a fine art that I cannot spot it? It takes me an hour and a half to look as if I am not wearing any make-up. No one took it upon themselves to introduce themselves to me. Perhaps I just leapt on them with my class president campaign buttons a little too early.
Have You Heard? Love Is Blind
My mother is registered blind. Macular degeneration affects the central vision of the eyes; fragile capillaries grow underneath the "macula," the central area of the retina at the back of the eye. In my mother's case, they have leaked and bled, leaving her with peripheral vision—the edge of things. My mother who can see to the heart of the matter in moments now lives at the margins. I find it almost unbearable to see her hold a grandchild's face between soft palms, turn her head this way and that to snatch at what is hers by right. Later, sitting sideways pressed against a television screen, squinting hopelessly at a letter tilted and close against her eyes, struggling to find her way in a place of darkness and fighting it every moment.
Deafness makes it worse. She cannot hear you in a crowded room. Cannot hear you in a room with the two of you unless she concentrates. Unless you are saying something you do not want her to hear. That she can do. Two hearing aids help her get by. She buys a watch for the blind and has to lift it to her ear to hear the voice. She buys scales for baking, made especially for the blind. The scales too have a voice. It rings out: "One pound and seven ounces." She says: "What was that?" and presses it again. "One pound and seven ounces." She says: "No, didn't get that" and presses it again. As for me, I laugh, and she laughs herself and says: "Don't laugh." Helpless, I say: "I'm not laughing," and I am not laughing—inside I am weeping; it just looks like laughter.
I watch her face sometimes. In company, she sits too quietly; smiles a moment late; nods when she should shake her head. She misses the beat. You accept the rebukes when she says you do not speak clearly enough; speak too fast; sit too far away. You move closer; speak more slowly; raise your voice. Even as my father holds her hand, age isolates her. Age is terrible. I am not signing up to it. God is an ingrate. My mother's goodness and her Catholic reverence brought her decay and sickness. She got old; blind; deaf. They are sins to be reckoned with. They are sins he should forgive. Step up to the mark, Jesus. Lay on hands. Heal the sick. It's been a while.
Haunting Houses
I am down for work—two nights away for a media consultancy job then back to Northumberland on Saturday morning. Our house in London was nothing special apart from the fact it was ours. It looked as if it had suffered some damage during the Second World War when bombs rained down on the East End. The kitchen has wooden cupboards and a faux


On Sale
Jun 17, 2009
Page Count
352 pages

Judith O’Reilly

About the Author

Judith O’Reilly was the education correspondent for the Sunday Times of London, where she also reported on politics and news, and worked undercover on education and social and criminal justice investigations. She is a former political producer for ITV’s Channel 4 News and BBC2’s Newsnight. A freelance journalist, she started her blog http://www.wifeinthenorth.com in 2006. She lives in England.

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