Over the summer I went back to London for the first time since moving to Northern Ireland a year ago. Fumbling around for my Oyster card outside Marylebone station (I was enough of a Londoner still, I thought, to have it in my hand before I reached the barrier), a man sauntered up beside me, unzipped his fly and began to urinate. It was a warm day and my legs were bare. He was, I am sad to report, within splashing distance.
Later that same weekend I was walking to my sister’s flat in Hackney when a group of lads slid into my path. Too late to cross the road, I thrust my hands deeper inside my pockets and braced for the inevitable. Sure enough: “Cute, ain’t ya.” Ach, that wasn’t so bad, I thought. Then: “I’d get you pregnant.” Hmm. I gripped my thumbs and walked a bit faster.
Not so very long ago I would have shrugged off these encounters – grim as they were – as part and parcel of life in the big city. Worse (much, much worse) things happen every day, I would have said. But this time around I was unsettled. The feeling surprised me, although perhaps it shouldn’t have. After living in London for nine years – most recently in a dispiriting little house off the A2 where, lying in bed, I could hear the ping of text messages arriving on my next-door neighbour’s phone – I had spent the previous six months in a holiday cottage on the shore of Lough Erne, with only my boyfriend, a family of swans and the occasional red squirrel for company. By no means am I suggesting that London has the monopoly on bad behaviour but it is home to 9 million people. Fewer than 20,000 live in our nearest town, Enniskillen, 11 miles or so from the cottage. Statistically speaking, there is simply less chance here of running into someone with their willy out.
Much has been written about the exodus from towns and cities brought on by the pandemic. In January a report from accountancy firm PwC predicted that more than 300,000 people would leave London this year alone. The accuracy of that forecast remains to be seen but anecdotally, at least, a vast migration appears to be underway. It is an odd sensation, finding yourself part of a trend when traditionally you have been an untrendy person. Odder still when you consider that up until my parents dropped me off at Heathrow with two enormous suitcases and a promise to come back in six months if it wasn’t working out, I would have declared myself a city girl through and through. Cut me, I would have said, and I bleed £6 pints and a deep distrust of strangers.
To say that my decision to move to the westernmost county of the UK – about as far from Boris Johnson’s clutches as one can get without a passport – was spontaneous is quite the understatement. Some might call it rash to move to a country where you know no one to live with a man with whom you have spent hardly any time. My mum cried when I told her I was leaving. So did my best friend. Yet everything I loved about London – the gigs, the galleries, the whoosh of hot air announcing an oncoming Tube – had disappeared during the pandemic. Most of my friends, I realised when I could travel only as far as my legs could carry me, had abandoned the city long ago. I was 35, divorced and handing over £750 a month for a room whose ceiling leaked at the suggestion of a downpour. Really, I had nothing to lose.
So Fermanagh, then. Nearly a year has passed and I’m still here so I think we can conclude that it’s working out. For the first six months we lived in the holiday cottage, which under normal circumstances would have been occupied by German fishermen lured by the bounty of the lough. (No one has been able to clarify for me why German fishermen in particular. Bright ideas on a postcard, please.) Fermanagh is a rural county and the cottage is five minutes in the car from the closest shop; the first time I woke up there during the night it was so dark that I thought I had gone blind. Out jogging one day I encountered a runaway cow careering up and down the road ahead of me. (I have had to give way to a flock of sheep more than once.) Our bin was plundered not by foxes but by pine martens after I neglected to close it properly. If we wanted to keep warm we had to fetch coal from the bunker and build a fire. When fog descended on the lough – as it often did – white space stretched endlessly in every direction. It was like being trapped in Janet’s void in The Good Place. When it lifted it took your breath away.
The trade-off for the beauty of the lough is rain. Rain, rain, rain. There is a saying here: “For six months of the year, the lakes are in Fermanagh. For the other six months, Fermanagh is in the lakes.” Right now the grass is the uncomplicated green of a children’s colouring book and squelchy underfoot. We have recently moved from the cottage to a flat on the edge of town and when you run a bath hot water gushes from the tap in the sink too, as if to say: Look, look how much water we have here. I have had to buy a hairdryer just to dry off our dog after his walks. (Happily, these ceilings do not leak.)
What else? For the first time in my life I have chilblains, which I had only ever come across in the pages of Little Grey Rabbit. I have bought almost no new clothes for a year, which – come to think of it – is probably a good thing since I have an unfortunate habit of cottoning on to a fashion at the precise moment it becomes old hat. If there were ever any doubt that I live in the country now, I need only open the local paper (there are two – one Catholic, one Protestant – but for some reason my boyfriend (who is neither) prefers the Catholic rag), which is 50% drink driving and 50% the price of cows. (One of the primary schools in the area recently held a raffle for which the top prize was a choice between £1,000 and a heifer.) If you order a gin and tonic in a Northern Irish pub you might feel a little fuzzier than anticipated when you reach the bottom of the glass since the standard measure here is 35ml, compared to 25ml in the rest of the UK. Everything comes with chips. People are as friendly as they say.
If it sounds idyllic, it is. But it would be disingenuous, I think, to ignore the gnarlier truths of my new home. Beyond being the westernmost county of the UK, Fermanagh is a border county. In 1987 a bomb exploded in Enniskillen during a Remembrance Sunday parade, killing 11 people (a 12th man died from his injuries after spending 13 years in a coma). 2021 has marked the centenary of the partition of Ireland and, exacerbated by the wrangling over Brexit, the legacy of The Troubles lingers in the air. At the end of April – mysteriously and to much consternation – an Irish Tricolour was hoisted in the grounds of Enniskillen castle. Lately – and depending who you talk to, more upsettingly – flags of the Ulster Volunteer Force (a loyalist paramilitary group) have appeared throughout the town. Boris Johnson, whose government, it was reported in August, has spent more than £163,000 on union flags in two years, would do well to note that here, flags count for more than a hollow display of patriotism.
I am at once fascinated by the history of this place and anxious not to fetishise it. At one point my boyfriend tells me that the staunchest loyalists will not shop in the cavernous Asda on the outskirts of town on account of its green logo, preferring the red, white and blue branding of the equally cavernous Tesco across the way. I seize on this detail and enthusiastically relay it to my family in England before realising that the people whose reality this is might not appreciate becoming the subject of round-eyed dinner party conversation. When bursts of unrest in Belfast and Derry make headlines and I become conscious, suddenly, of my Home Counties accent, I have to remind myself that I am not part of the story.
In many ways my boyfriend is part of the story. On Remembrance Sunday 1987 he was weeks away from his fourth birthday, watching the parade with his mum and sister on the opposite side of the street from where the bomb went off. To what extent the depression that stalks him, 34 years on, is a consequence of that day he does not know but regardless, there are periods when he is really quite unwell. I had caught a glimpse of what he has to contend with when we were dating in London and in my naivety – without any real experience of mental ill health – thought I could handle it. Exactly how wrong I was became clear a month or two after I arrived in Fermanagh when he was overwhelmed by a particularly tenacious downswing which pinned him to the sofa for weeks on end.
Suddenly, unexpectedly, I was shouldering the financial responsibility in my new relationship in an unfamiliar country where my entire support system was the one person on whom I couldn’t unload. I was ashamed to feel my cheeks flush with resentment when the electricity bill took priority over my expensive (unnecessary) face cream (they don’t teach you that in girlboss school). We began to drift away from each other, like the little black birds bobbing on the water outside our window. It was tough for a long time but somehow we made it through. Had we been in London, I am not so sure that would have been the case. It would have been too easy to toss our relationship on the pile of items requiring that bit more work to make them fit. Here, time passes slowly and beneath the broad sweep of sky there is space to move apart, stretch our legs, come together again. Things are good now. Leaner, stronger, more supple. In the lockdown couple olympics, I reckon we’re heading for a podium finish.