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NORMAL SERVICE WILL BE RESUMED …

gone fishingDue to an impending domestic upheaval, there will be no new editions of  ‘Adverse Camber’ for the next few weeks. With a bit of luck and a following wind, normal service will be resumed in the late spring or early summer.

Feel free to take a look around, make yourself a cuppa and admire the view from the conservatory. Oh, and don’t nick any of the ornaments …

~~~o~~~

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THE BREAKDOWN MAN COMETH

hammer-chisel-9966906_FotoSketcherIt’s been absolutely throwing it down all week. Stair rods. Cats and dogs. Piddling down – not to put too fine a point on it. The dainty little narcissi, which came up far too early (I did tell them – but would they listen?) are now standing forlornly in puddles of water. The garden birds send little tsunamis rippliing across the grass as they hop around in search of soggy seed and the crocuses have all fallen over in a sodden mess. Mind you – having said that, I think they had help. I found the Old Girl dog standing in the middle of them the other day. I remonstrated with her and explained, patiently, that I would much prefer it if she DIDN’T walk through my crocus patch. However, as none of the words coming out of my mouth were either  ‘cheese’, ‘chicken’ or ‘walkies’, she simply lowered her podgy bottom onto the poor flowers and sat there looking at me.

All of which is a bit of a digression, to make the point that it’s been raining very wet rain.

It isn’t very far down to the village shop, but in something close to a monsoon, a traveller on foot will end up drenched before they’ve gone ten yards, so when the ironmongers rang to say that the replacement hammer drill I’d ordered had arrived, I decided to get the car out to go and collect it.

Now there’s absolutely NOTHING the dogs like better than driving around in the car barking at nothing. If you offer them the choice between ‘chicken’ and ‘car riding’ they will unfailing turn their backs on the fridge to queue at the garage door. So, even though I was only going to be gone for about fifteen minutes at most, I thought I’d make their little doggie day for them by taking them with me.

I went through to the garage, shooed the dogs into the car and then opened the double doors onto the driveway. I got in and started the car. It started first time. I engaged reverse, got the bite, released the handbrake and  …. the car wouldn’t move. The dogs barked delightedly.

I tried again. All that happened was that the offside rear of the car sort of rose up everso slightly into the air, like a cat stretching gently, then fell back when I took my foot off the accelerator. The dogs bounced up and down dementedly and snapped at each other, as if going nowhere at all in a car was the most exciting thing EVER.

Even with my limited mechanical know-how, I recognized the problem as a seized brake, probably caused by the flood water I’d been through a couple of days earlier – and I smugly told myself that I knew EXACTLY what to do about a seized brake, because I am a capable, modern woman and I know such things.

I rocked the car. The dogs yapped hysterically. I bounced it. The dogs went berserk. I revved it in first gear. I revved it in reverse gear. The dogs thought it was the most fun they’d ever had – well, at least since they discovered the joy of shredding a pillow. They were all but bouncing off the windows. I pleaded with the car. I sobbed pathetically, hammering on the bonnet in impotent rage. Nada. it remained resolutely immobile.

Defeated, I got the dogs out of the back of the car. They were deliriously happy even though we hadn’t left the garage.

Back in the cottage, I searched the internet for ‘Seized brakes’ and found many videos of Blokes with Wrenches speaking of removing wheels and hitting things really, really hard with mallets – at which point I said to myself, ‘I pay my breakdown service vast amounts of money every year – so I think THEY can come and hit things really, really hard with a mallet’.

It took them 55 minutes to arrive – which is the price you pay for lovely scenery and a neighborhood buzzard – but the Breakdown Bloke was lovely. He got in the car, started it, tried to move it and failed. He bounced it, rocked it, revved it and eventually decided that was required was the strategic deployment of violence. He got out a lump hammer and a cold chisel. My eyes popped.

‘Watch carefully,’ he said, ‘So you know how to do this if it happens again.’

He explained how you could tell which brake was seized by which part of the car reared up when you tried to move it …. then  went down on his knees, removed the hubcap from the offending wheel and with no ceremony whatsoever, placed the chisel near the rim and gave it a good sharp whack with the lump hammer. There was an unmistakable CLUNK as the brake came unstuck.

‘Sorted,’ he said with a grin. ‘I’ll just do the paperwork and leave you in peace.’

The next day, over lunch, I relate all of this to the Professor down at Bramblings,

‘I pay the breakdown people £100 a year for their services, and they come along and hit my car with a lump hammer …’

He looked at me over his half moon glasses for a moment, before saying quietly, ‘To our professional charges for hitting your car with a lump hammer: £10. To our professional charges for knowing WHERE to hit your car with a lump hammer: £90.’

Good point.

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VICTIM

socketTaking advantage of a lull in the lunatic weather we’ve been having recently, the hounds and I were out in the garden, wading through ankle-deep-but-unmowable grass, retrieving the wheelie bin from the pond and general taking note of the ravages of winter, while being shouted at by the resident robin, demanding to be fed.

I’d almost completed a circumnavigation of the cottage when something caught my eye on the gravel by the oil tank. It was a shiny something which, on closer inspection, turned out to be a chrome hexagonal socket from a socket wrench set, just like the one I had in the shed. This struck me as slightly odd as the set belonged to my late father and I’d never had occasion to use it … but I decided that it must have been a stray that had fallen out of a rubbish bag I was taking to the dustbin, and just carried on.

Then I spotted another shiny something on the path at the corner of the house right beside the downpipe from the guttering … and yes, it was ANOTHER chrome hex socket.

Now, one hex socket is odd, but two is downright suspicious, especially when you have no memory of handling, let alone throwing out, a socket set – and that’s when I realized that I was standing on the direct route between the garden shed and the front gate: the unlocked garden shed, the key to which had not been handed over when I bought the cottage.

Surely not?

I’d be the first to admit that I don’t keep the garden shed in what you might call apple pie order even under normal circumstances, so I leave it to your imagination what it looked like when, prior to the arrival of the first of the winter gales, I’d hurriedly chucked into it all the loose pots, tools, tubs and buckets that were scattered around the garden.Even at its best, after I’d cleared a path to the peanuts, it looked as if someone had been in and comprehensively trashed it – so no one except Yours Truly could possibly have told if it had been interfered with. (In fact, that should read ‘no one, not EVEN Yours Truly’.) I opened the door and surveyed the wilderness of bird food tubs, ancient garden tools and miscellaneous gardening gloves, kneeler pads and plant pots. Then I looked at the two chrome objects in my hand and tried to find the socket set.

It wasn’t there.

I sucked my teeth and did a mental stocktake.

Long-handled loppers: check.

Two pairs of hedging shears: check.

Long-handled grass shears: check.

Ash-handled hoe: check

Three bow saws: check.

Assorted bands saws, wood saws and hacksaws: check.

Power cable: check.

Machete: check. (Phew.)

Strimmer: check.

Cordless drill-driver: in the house charging.

Electric hammer drill: ……………

Ah.

Just to be sure, I was forced into sorting the shed out. I dragged everything out, with the dogs swirling and snuffling excitedly around me (where there’s bird food, there are rodents ….) and then put it back tidily.

Hammer drill was there none.

The sequence of events then became clear. Local villains cruising the area on the off chance of finding an unlocked door duly find one. In the midst of the embarrassing chaos that is my garden shed, they spot a glimmer of felonious light: a hammer drill and a grey plastic case containing a socket set. They grab them. The catch on the socket set gives way (because it always does) spewing the contents over the pathway. They swear. They scoop up all the bits they can find in the dark and flee, triumphant … until they find out exactly what they’d got.

Their magnificent haul amounted to a secondhand, bottom-of the-range hammer drill which cost a whole £29 brand new six years ago (and which I was about to replace with a better model anyway) plus a dirt cheap, and quite possibly given-away-free-with-something, socket set, now minus at least two pieces (a third or fourth piece may have vanished down the drain). I estimate the total value at about a fiver if they were really lucky, and assuming that they even had the nerve to try and flog them – because I’m telling you that that hammer drill wouldn’t do a THING for anybody’s street cred.

I almost didn’t bother to report it to the Police, but then thought I should probably do my civic duty and all that, just in case the criminal masterminds were still in the area. Accordingly, I filled in and sent off an ‘Online Non-Emergency Crime Report Form’ and thought no more of it.

Remembering that I was now, unexpectedly, the proud owner of a magnificently tidy shed, I went out to admire it, taking with me a plastic bag full of miscellaneous keys I’d found in the garage after I’d moved in, on the off chance that one of them fitted the door. Fishing out a few likely-looking candidates, the second one I tried went in and turned in the lock.  If I ever acquired anything valuable I could lock it in. How very unexpected.

Half an hour later, my ‘phone rang. It was Alastair, the ‘Contact Management and Resolution Officer’ at the County Constabularly HQ, calling to acknowledge the report and to take a few more details: When did I think the burglary took place? (Last night or the night before.) What sort of door was it, and was it locked? (Wood and glass and (blush) No.) What was the value of the property taken? (Absolutely minimal, and quite possibly nil.)

‘Nil?’

I explained about the dirt-cheap, incomplete, socket set in the case with the dodgy catch and low-end-of-the-market drill.

He sniggered. I’m sure that isn’t in the  ‘How to’ manual for Contact Management and Resolution Officers.

‘Technically,’ he said, in the tone of one who knows he’s talking nonsense, but has to ask so he can tick his box, ‘you’re a victim of crime and as such entitled to a visit from victim support.’

I sniggered. He sniggered. We sniggered together.

‘I don’t think so, thank you. I’m not remotely worried. The house is quite secure and besides, I have two very opinionated and gobby dogs.’

‘Good … But have you locked the shed door now?’

‘After the horse has bolted? I most certainly have. The grass rake is perfectly safe.’

He promised to send me an Incident Report Number and we parted on immensely chummy terms.

That night, as I was heading upstairs to bed (having, naturally, double-checked to make sure that all lockable doors were, indeed, locked), I paused on the half-landing to gaze around the downstairs living area at my motley collection of possessions. I couldn’t help feeling that anyone who went to the effort of breaking in would be deeply disappointed by a 15″ portable television and an elderly laptop that’s so cantankerous you have to hit in just the right place to persuade it to start.

Not that the disappointment would last long of course: they’d be too busy throwing themselves out of the nearest window as two berserking Jack Russells came hurtling down the stairs.

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SERIOUSLY, THOUGH …

samanthaPersonally, I hate people who say ‘I told you so’, but sometimes it’s irresistible.

I was up in the little office at the farm, sobbing quietly over the assorted envelope backs, milk record cards and wrappers from jumbo economy size tins of cat food that Maggie used for keeping track of her finances, when the woman herself arrived bearing a mug of tea and a massive Jersey slice which had plainly been purchased with real money from a real baker.

I eyed it suspiciously.

‘What’s the occasion?’

‘Occasion? What do you mean?’ She tried to look innocent, but Maggie has one of those big, round open faces that can hide nothing. She wanted a favour and it couldn’t have been more obvious if she’d had a sign around her neck written in inch high letters.

‘Unless Alec has become uncharacteristically open-handed and arrived bearing baked goods for no good reason, you want something.’ I snatched it from her before she could withdraw it in a fit of pique. ‘Tell Auntie.’

‘We-e-e-l-l.’ She wrinkled her nose slightly – a sure sign she was out of her comfort zone. ‘I’ve done something a bit foolish, on an impulse.’

I took the pastry slice apart and, carefully distributing the cream evenly over both parts, bit into the bottom layer. ‘What’s that then?’

British Farming ‘phoned me up the other day and asked if I’d be interested in writing a thousand words on women in farming for their ‘Real Life Farmers’ section.’

I nearly choked on my flaky pastry. ‘WHAT?’

‘It’s a great honour to be asked. Every month they feature two farmers in different parts of the country talking about the same subject.’ She paused. ‘They offered money.’

‘But you can’t put two coherent sentences together …. Oh.’ Understanding dawned. ‘I get it.’

‘It’s MUCH more your line than mine. I thought that if I told you what I wanted to say, all you’d have to do is – you know …’

‘Write it.’

‘Would you?’

‘Of course.’ I tried very hard not to sigh audibly. ‘When’s the deadline?’

‘Tomorrow.’

‘TOMORROW?! Maggie, how long have you been sitting on this?’

‘Not long.’ She bridled defensively.’Only a fortnight or so.’

‘Or so …’

‘I’ve been busy doing other things. They want a photo, too.’ She pulled a camera from her pocket. ‘Alec tried to take one, but he’s only good at taking pictures of tractors. He made me look half-witted.’

With an effort, I swallowed the obvious retort and picked up a notepad. ‘You’d better sit down and talk to me, hadn’t you? And then we’ll go outside and take a photo.’

An hour later, I had taken several pages of shorthand notes of Maggie’s perfectly sensible and interesting thoughts on Women in Farming and a photograph of her sitting on the stone steps outside the office looking reasonably intelligent and becomingly windswept.

‘Right,’ I checked my watch. ‘I’ll take this home and work on it. I can probably get it done by end of play today, then we can look at it together and do any tweaking before we send it off to them tomorrow morning.’

She beamed. ‘That’s brilliant. I’ll split the fee with you.’

‘Deal.’

I was back three hours later with 987 words of deathless prose and we sat down with Alec at the kitchen table to read it over together.

I’d inserted a few small jokes … just light-hearted asides to lift the piece slightly … and I was pleased to see the usually slightly dour Alec smiling as he read it. Maggie, on the other hand, was developing little furrows above the bridge of her nose. Eventually, she lowered the printed pages and sat staring at them for a moment in silence. Then she shifted uncomfortably in her seat, cleared her throat and said, ‘It’s very good …’

‘But?’

‘I like it …’

‘But?’

‘I think they’re looking for something more … you know … serious. I like the little jokes but I’m really not sure it’s the right tone for the magazine.’

Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Alec raising an eyebrow, but he held his silence.

I took a deep breath, then nodded. ‘That’s not a problem Maggie. I understand what you’re saying, and I can easily take them out and just make it a perfectly factual piece.’

‘You don’t mind, do you?’

‘Of course not. It’s your piece and you have to be comfortable with it. I’ll just rejig it slightly, and we can send it this evening so it’s with them first thing tomorrow morning.’

So that’s what I did. I took out all the tongue-in-cheek bits, turned it into an exemplary piece of farm journalism, gave it back to Maggie for approval and sent it off together with the photo.

Two weeks later, publication day dawned and after breakfast I duly wandered down to the Post Office to buy a copy of British Farming magazine in order to admire my handiwork.

On the way back up the hill to the cottage, I thumbed through the glossy pages looking for Maggie’s piece and eventually found it towards the back, after an article on dairy cattle nutrition and before a ‘Best Buys in Slurry Tankers’ feature. The photograph I’d taken had come out very well, and the article looked thoroughly professional and business like just as Maggie had hoped.

All of that, however, was noted and discarded in a matter of moments. What riveted my attention was the companion piece on the opposite page. It was by a young female hill farmer in Wales. She was pictured in a lush green field, down on one knee and holding a microphone to a border collie’s nose.

And she was interviewing her sheepdog.

~~~o~~~

(Picture credit: based on a photograph by Trevis Rothwell and reproduced under a Creative Commons Licence.)

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LBJs AND LITTLE HITLERS

BenHave you ever tried counting LBJs?

Do you even know what an LBJ is?

No? Well, let me enlighten you. LBJ stands for Little Brown Job, which is shorthand for all of those small brown birds which look like sparrows but aren’t, necessarily, although they could be. The situation is further complicated by the fact that the females of some quite colourful and/or distinctive sparrow-sized birds like chaffinches and reed buntings are ALSO Little Brown Jobs, the better to be camouflaged upon the nest.

None of which is a huge problem to the majority of  people for most of the time, but when you’re trying to count the little buggers and they (a) don’t have the courtesy to stay still and (b) all look like each other in the first place, especially through a grubby window, it’s a total pain.

Those of you who haven’t already wandered off to do something more interesting, like stare at a dripping tap, may be wondering why anyone would be counting LBJs in the first place. Well, it’s simple. Every winter, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds organizes the Big Garden Birdwatch, asking willing souls like me to sit down and stare out of a window for an hour to count and list all of the birds they see. It’s a sort of avian stock-take which provides an annual snapshot of the UK bird population. It’s also a rare opportunity to sit down and do nothing very much for an hour with a clear conscience (that bloody Protestant Work Ethic is SUCH a downer, man).

Inevitably, of course, some of the participants can’t help approaching it like a competitive sport, vying with each other on social media to snag the most exotic species. While most of us content ourselves with putting out fat-filled coconuts, sunflower seeds and industrial quantities of bird seed, you just know that someone, somewhere in the Highlands, has staked out a deer carcass …

So my Big Garden Birdwatch day arrived, and there was a Force 5 gale howling across the garden. Nothing daunted, I battled my way outside with two wildly excited Jack Russells swirling around me and hung up my fat blocks (two of), half coconuts (four of), niger seed feeders (one of), peanut feeders (two of) and seed feeders (three of), then scattered seed and suet pellets on the bird table, ground feeder tray, patio and garden table. Before I’d even got back inside the house, the fowl of the air were descending en masse behind me; the LBJs were twittering excitedly in the cotinus bush by the bird table, the collared doves were congregating in the fruit trees and the starlings were lining the edge of the roof, ready to drop like vertical take-off jets as soon as I’d shooed the dogs inside.

Anticipating a bumper crop of ticked boxes, I made a cup of coffee, grabbed a bar of chocolate, a notebook and a pair of binoculars, and settled in an armchair in front of the patio windows, which provide a grandstand view of virtually the whole of the back garden.

It was absolute bedlam out there: starlings were squabbling over the ground feeders, LBJs were scuttling around under the bird table and collared doves and wood pigeons were squabbling over the seed on the patio. I decided to concentrate on the LBJs to begin with, as there were so many of them bickering over the food falling from the table.

The trick with counting small, milling flocks is to look at them with your naked eye for a moment, zero in with the bins, do a swift head count in a slow sweep and then assume that the ones you count twice are probably cancelled out by the ones you didn’t count at all. I counted 14 tree sparrows – which are LBJs with chestnut brown heads and therefore relatively easy to identify.

I went to write it down … which is when I realized that I didn’t have a pen.

Normally, I have pen and pencils all over the place – in pockets, shoved down the spines of notebooks, on the tea trolley, on the coffee table, in pots, boxes and vases on every shelf and in every nook and cranny of the cottage – but could I find one anywhere immediately to hand? What do YOU think? In the end, I had to go and snag the one hanging on a string by the calendar in the kitchen … but by the time I got back to the armchair, every single bird had vanished. I mean ALL of them. The garden had gone from Piccadilly in the rush hour to the Russian Steppes in the off season, in the space of two minutes.

I printed “Tree sparrows: 14” in my notebook … and then waited.

I scanned the hedges, undergrowth and bushes with the binoculars in search of life.

I waited.

And I waited.

I did another sweep with the bins, and finally spotted something behind the cotinus bush: a sleek, blue-grey something exactly the same colour as the neighbour’s cat.

‘CAT!’ I screamed, shooting to my feet and causing the Boy Dog to hurtle off the sofa so fast that he crashed into the Old Girl, who was staggering out of her basket as rapidly as her creaky old legs would carry her. I was on the point of Deploying the Hounds of Hell to see off the invader when the blue-grey something emerged from behind the bush with a flagger of wings a sad little bundle of feathers in its talons. Not a cat, then.

With a sigh, I scribbled, “Sparrowhawk: 1” in my notebook.

After a moment’s thought, I then wrote, “Tree sparrows: 14  13“.

I waited again. Then I waited some more, and was on the point of giving it up as a bad job when a male chaffinch – the dumb blond of the bird world – landed on the nearest peanut feeder. For a few more minutes, nothing else happened, and you just knew that all the other birds were sitting in their hiding places  watching and waiting to see if he survived longer than five minutes …

Finally, as he continued to stuff his face unmolested, they all started to trickle back and, about fifteen minutes after the little fatality, the garden was once more full of birds.

I recorded my ever-present robins, blackbirds, collared doves and wood pigeons,plus a lone dunnock and the resident wren, then turned my attention back to the LBJs under the bird table again – at the precise moment that the low winter sun made a brief appearance, hitting the patio doors at an oblique angle and reminding me that I’d forgotten to clean the glass.

Gamely, I peered into the murk, sorting out the tree sparrows from the house sparrows and the female chaffinches and was eventually rewarded with a reed bunting. Then I spotted something lurking fuzzily behind it in the shadows. With an excitement that will only be understood by other bird watchers, I twiddled feverishly with the central knob-thingy on the bins and – just as I brought what I think was a twite into sharp focus – a great dark mass loomed up before me, nearly giving me a coronary.

The Boy Dog, with one paw on each of my knees, had climbed onto the tuffet in front of my chair and was staring straight down the business end of the binoculars at me.

I looked at him. He looked at me – and his look plainly said, ‘Enough already.’

‘But … Twite.’ (And yes, I often have one-sided conversations with my dogs.)

He didn’t move. The Old Lady Dog – his faithful wing (wo)man – moved into position behind him.

A shower of starlings hurtled from the roof outside.

‘Starlings,’ I whimpered pathetically.

Neither of them budged. I put the binoculars down and closed the notebook. The clock on the wall confirmed that it was, indeed, an hour since I’d begun the birdwatch.

I knew then that I was beaten.

I often tell people that although Jack Russells aren’t suitable pets for anyone who doesn’t think dogs should have opinions of their own, it’s only when they start developing language skills that you need to worry. The thing is, that day may not be very far away.

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OF ROGUES AND ROLL-TOPS

roll topMaggie is lovely. She is breathtakingly blunt, completely tactless and utterly devoid of anything remotely approximating social skills, but she’s also honest, decent, hardworking and kind-hearted – and in a world which sometimes seems increasingly devoid of all of those qualities, it counts for a lot.

She inherited the farm from her father, along with his extensive knowledge of animal husbandry and – unfortunately – a level of numeracy and literacy bordering on the non-existent. She’s a farmer – first, last and foremost – and her view is that the welfare of her stock is what matters and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs – more commonly known as Defra – can take a long walk off a short pier.

Unsurprisingly, Defra takes a dim view of such reactionary attitudes and will, in common with the Mills of God, slowly but inevitably grind transgressors into a very fine paste.

Which is why I found myself sitting in ‘The Office’ – basically just a storage area above the old tack room – staring at a mountain of papers, ledgers and worryingly unopened brown manilla envelopes.

I was vaguely aware of a rhythmic sort of thumping, grunting sound outside the door, but was so hypnotized by the scale of the task facing me – and wondering if Maggie could ever possibly afford to pay me for the hours upon hours it was plainly going to take me to sort it all out – that I dismissed it as some piece of arcane farm machinery in action in the yard below, until the door burst open and a red-faced Alec asked, in between gasping for breath – where I wanted the filing cabinet.

‘Filing cabinet?’ I stared at him blankly. ‘What filing cabinet?’

‘The one I’ve just dragged up the chuffing stairs.’ (You may at this point substitute any term you suspect he may have used in place of ‘chuffing’ ….)

The ‘office’, I should probably explain, is accessed by means of a set of steep external stone steps rising diagonally from the corner of the old stable block and terminating in a platform outside the door, protected only by an iron railing which I suspect to be mostly rust.

‘A filing cabinet? Oh …’

‘Mags thought you could probably use it. It’s time someone did. It’s a bloody museum piece and I don’t think it’s ever been used – leastways, not as a filing cabinet.’

I gazed around the crowded little room slightly desperately. It contained an absolutely massive roll-top desk, a large oak table with one rat-chewed leg propped up on a copy of ‘British Sheep Breeds’, a bar stool apparently purloined from The Drovers and several racks of what looked like old greenhouse staging – all of it virtually invisible beneath a generation’s worth of letters, pamphlets, magazines and ancient calendars which featured cattle drench and farm implements instead of chocolate box views and furry animals.

What remaining space there was (which wasn’t much) was occupied by battered cardboard boxes that I hadn’t yet found the courage to investigate, but which I suspected should probably be printed with government health warnings.

‘How big is the cabinet?’

He stood aside to reveal not – as I had hoped – a small two-drawer wooden job, but a metal three-drawer leviathan.

‘How on EARTH did you get that up the steps?’

‘At great personal expense.’ He peered around the room. ‘If we moved some of those boxes over by the window, we could probably make enough space. What’s in them, anyway?’

‘No idea, and I’m too scared to look.’ I indicated the table leg. ‘That damage wasn’t done by anything petite and friendly.’

‘You should have brought those two terriers of yours. They’d love it up here. I keep telling Mags we need Jack Russells – fabulous ratters. Come on. Let’s be brave.’ He smiled, not entirely benevolently, I felt. ‘The worst that can happen is one runs up your leg.’

I bridled. ‘I am NOT afraid of rats. Or spiders.’

‘Mags is. Hates spiders. Loathes rats.’ He opened the nearest box, which had originally contained tinned peaches, and peered inside. ‘Books.’

He tried another. ‘More books.’

‘What sort of books? Farming manuals, that sort of thing?’

I tried a couple myself. More books – reading books: fiction, classics, non-fiction …

Alec frowned. I frowned. We frowned together, because we both knew that Maggie is not what is generally referred to as ‘A great reader.’

‘Did her dad read a lot?’I ventured, checking out a few more books, and finding some surprisingly good quality ones – leatherbound, quarter leather, 19th century.

‘Maggie is a true child of her father. Isaac used to move his lips when he read. I think he may even have used a finger to keep his place. Top bloke and all that, but I’m pretty certain he didn’t read to relax. The instructions on the side of mineral blocks were about his limit.’

It was half an hour later that Maggie appeared at the top of the steps carrying a tray with three mugs and a plate of biscuits on it, and found us knee deep in books and boxes. We’d worked our way to the window and discovered that every single cardboard box in the office contained books. There were, in fact, enough to stock a small private library.

She squeezed past the filing cabinet, which virtually filled the narrow doorway.

‘Thought I’d come and see how you were doing. I’ve brought us some tea and biscuits.’

I held up a book questioningly. ‘We were trying to make room for the filing cabinet, and found these ….’

‘Chuck them out. I’ve been meaning to for ages. Eddie said I could keep them instead of what he was supposed to be paying me for storage.’ She snorted. ‘Pillock.’

‘Ah.’ The light dawned on Alec’s face. ‘The famous book shop scheme.’

‘Yes.’ She dumped the tray on the roll-top desk. ‘Which went the same way as  all his other grand plans.’

‘Eddie? Book shop?’ I looked from one to the other, seeking enlightenment. ‘What?’

‘Eddie Lassiter.’ Alec peered suspiciously at the biscuits on the plate. ‘Did you make these, Mags?’

‘No. They were on offer at the Post Office Stores.’

Reassured, he helped himself, then continued. ‘Eddie Lassiter. Would-be entrepreneur. Last heard of making people’s lives a burden to them in London. Or possibly Birkenhead. A couple of years back he had a plan to open a book shop in a vacant shop in Upper Camber, then found out how much the business rates would be, how little money there was in secondhand books and that it helped if you knew something about books in the first place. A year or so ago, the little bastard vanished off to …. wherever …. leaving a trail of devastation, debts and broken promises behind him along with,’ he looked around the room, ‘his stock.’

‘I’d virtually forgotten they were up here.’ Maggie idly picked up a volume and read the spine. ‘It’s all old stuff. We can dump them in the trailer and take them to the tip …. or burn them.’

I winced at the mere idea of burning the books and wondered desperately if I could give a home to at least some of them.

‘That would be a shame,’ I said, flipping one open to look at the fly leaf – and play for time. ‘There are some really nice books here …’

Then, I felt a smile creeping unbidden over my face. ‘And I bet I know someone who’d be happy to buy them from you.’

‘Eh?’ They both looked at me as if I was stark, staring bonkers.

‘Their original owner.’ I held up the book so Maggie could read what was printed inside the front cover:

WINGFIELD
BRAMBLINGS

‘It’s the contents of the library from Bramblings. The books were supposed to be included in the sale, but the agents sold them separately … apparently to Eddie Fly-by-Night. I’m pretty certain Professor Pilger will take them off your hands for a fair price. He gets his books back and you get the money you’re owed for storage. It’s win-win.’

I could see Maggie was looking at me in a whole new light.

‘Would you talk to him for me? I don’t know anything about books.’

‘Of course. On one condition.’

‘What’s that then?’

I pointed at the huge roll-top desk, which absolutely dominated the tiny space we were in.

‘You tell me how the hell you got that desk up here.’

0

THE PEN-PUSHY TYPE

pheasant_FotoSketcherMaggie and Alec had an argument this week. Even if Maggie hadn’t ended up prowling around my kitchen violently gutting and stripping a pheasant I’d found  outside my front gate that morning I’d still have known that they’d had an argument because the whole of the upper end of the village, along with a substantial chunk of the next parish, must have heard them. Given the fact that a couple of large fields separate the farm from the village, I leave it to your imagination how loudly they were bellowing at each other. Of course, they were doing the bellowing in the farm yard and it was a particularly still and frosty morning, but even so the decibels were impressive.

She slammed into my kitchen unannounced – but not entirely unexpectedly – as I was eye-to-eye with the road kill, both dogs gazing up at me adoringly and the Old Girl gently weeing with excitement. Throwing herself into the armchair by the Aga, Maggie proceeded to  pronounce at length upon Alec’s questionable parentage, his morals, his intellect  and his general worthiness to move freely in polite society.

‘So what was the argument about then?’ I asked as casually as I could manage,  attempting to convey that it was a matter of no great interest to me, even though I was gagging to know.

‘He said my bookkeeping is crap.’ Without warning, she lurched to her feet and snatched the pheasant from my awkward hands. ‘For God’s sake give me that before you hack a finger off.’ The dogs immediately switched allegiance.

I haven’t seen too many people gutting a pheasant before, but I can safely say I’ve never seen anyone doing it with such … venom. I think it’s called ‘acting out’.

I digested what she’d just said for a few moments before cautiously venturing an opinion (and mindful of the fact that she was holding an extremely sharp knife). ‘But your bookkeeping IS crap. You told me so yourself ages ago.’

In fact, she hadn’t needed to tell me, because it was stating the blindingly obvious. We were in her breakfast room at the time, surveying a wilderness of bills,  Defra paperwork, spreadsheets and assorted dirty mugs, empty plates and chickens – live ones. It was summer and the so-called breakfast room opened directly onto the farm yard. It was not unusual, Alec had once informed me, to find a curious pig wedged in the doorway.

Feathers were now flying as she wrenched furiously at the plumage. They fluttered down to the delighted Old Lady and Boy Dog, who  started snuffling around the floor like demented hoovers. I did  consider asking her if she wouldn’t mind doing that outside the back door, but it seemed both churlish and slightly inadvisable in the circumstances. She chuntered on, enraged:

‘The fact that my bookkeeping leaves a lot to be desired is beside the point. The point is …,’ another handful flew in the air. ‘The point is that he isn’t being very supportive. It’s all very bloody well criticizing, but it’s a hell of a lot more helpful to offer a solution. I’ve got Defra and the accountants on my back and all he can do is tell me my bookkeeping is crap. And THEN he tells me, while he’s at it, that my clerical skills in general are lacking too. That was the word he used: LACKING.  Well bugger it, I’m a farmer, not a sodding clerk and he can effing well go to ……’

‘Cup of tea?’

‘Eh?’ She looked up at me, feathers in her dark hair and an unmistakably wild glint in her eyes. ‘What?’

I waved the kettle at her. ‘Tea?’

‘Oh.’ She subsided very slightly. ‘Yes. Thanks …. Where was I?’

I filled the kettle, switched it on and busied myself with the mugs. ‘You’re a farmer not a sodding clerk.’

‘That’s right. Yes. I’m a farmer, not a …’

‘Are you in a real mess with the paperwork?’

She paused in mid pluck, then sort of wilted like an unloved and unwatered geranium. ‘Yes. Nightmare.’

‘Would sorting it out require specialist knowledge, or could anyone do it?

‘I suppose anyone could …’ She fell silent. I didn’t entirely like the sort of silent she fell. It was the sort of silent people fall when they’ve had an idea you’re probably not going to like – but before I could suggest that she put a card in the Post Office asking for part time clerical help, she said:

‘Would you? Would you do it? You’re a form-filling, pen-pushy type, aren’t you?’

Now, I’ve always thought of myself as a frustrated writer and artist, forced into clerical servitude while I waited for the world to discover me, so being told I was a form-filling pen-pushy type was NOT the way to my heart.

‘I wasn’t actually going to  …’

‘I’ll pay you. By the hour. And feed you. I’ll give you lunch.’

Lunch was no inducement. I’ve eaten Maggie’s cooking. The money though, was. I have, as you may recall, a tiny accountancy problem of my own.

‘I HAVE a job.’

‘There’s no reason why you can’t have another one, is there? How long does it take to write about snails? How much is there to SAY about snails anyway?  Please? Pleeeease?’

She look so pathetic and un-Maggie-like sitting there surrounded by feathers, with a dead pheasant in her hands and a toothless, arthritic Jack Russell bitch trying to climb into her lap that I weakened.

‘All right. But only until you’re out of trouble.’

‘You angel! You absolute, copper-bottomed, gold-plated brick! When can you start? You’ll need somewhere to work. I’ll ask Alec to clear out the old office over the tack room. We can put a heater up there. Fabulous. That’s all agreed then. Pop up tomorrow morning and we’ll agree an hourly rate and take a look at what needs to be done.’

Suddenly, she was the old, no-nonsense, business-like Maggie again. She stood up, sending clouds of fine, downy feathers into the air, and handed me the almost-plucked bird, which she seemed to be surprised to find herself holding. ‘About midday good for you? We can talk over lunch.’

‘Midday’s absolutely fine … but let me bring lunch. My treat.’

‘Great.’ She headed for the door, then paused on the way out to look around the kitchen. ‘Did you know,’ she said, frowning slightly, ‘that the place is full of feathers?’

(Picture credit: From an image by flickpicpete on Flickr and reproduced under a Creative Commons Licence.)