I am, at heart, a Hobbit. Other people’s inspirational quotations tend to come from the likes of the Dalai Lama, Maya Angelou and Francis of Assisi. My own is from Bilbo Baggins:
We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner!
Factor into the above that I’m of a somewhat stocky build with a mop of unruly wavy hair, dodgy dress sense and big feet, and it becomes unavoidable. No matter how much I may fancy myself as a Dúnedain Ranger, or a Wizard, or a Shieldmaiden of Rohan, the truth is that if I have to take my slippers off to do it, I probably won’t.
All of which is leading up to me saying that I’m the least likely person I can think of to be climbing in a total stranger’s pantry window and falling head first into a Belfast sink.
It started perfectly normally.
I was taking the dogs for a walk. There’s a really nice, not-too-strenuous three mile circuit from my cottage which goes down through Adam’s yard, up the other side of the valley, skirts Hangar Wood and then onto the Firs … a high expanse of sandy heathland that used to be an area of coniferous woodland until the timber was needed during the First World War and the trees were felled. Nothing now remains of the firs except a few stumps and the name, which has persisted, in that oh-so-British way, even though the origins of it are remembered only in folk memory.
From The Firs, if you can keep your feet in the almost continuous south-westerly gale that blows across it, you can enjoy wonderful views of the whole of the Camber Valley including Upper and Nether Camber and the inappropriately named Bellevue Brick Works: a blot on the landscape, but an historically important blot on the landscape and therefore okay.
The path down then takes you back into Adverse Camber via what is prosaically but accurately known as ‘Back Lane’ – a single track road with a few ancient cottages dotted along it which developers have never been remotely interested in because it spends most of the year in the shadow of The Firs and is, in any case, reputed to be slipping downhill at a rate of a couple of centimetres every century due to the ground water seeping through the sandy soil.
I was being dragged bodily down Back Lane by the Boy Dog, with the Old Girl plodding in the rear, when we were brought to a halt outside the cottage of Old Ma Farrish.
Ivy Farrish, to give her her proper name, has been an incredibly old lady as long as anyone can remember, and has forsworn aging in the normally accepted fashion to concentrate instead on shrinking by one inch each year, presumably with the intention of eventually just vanishing. She currently stands about 4’10”, and every inch of it was now standing in front of me, propped up on two walking sticks, in apparent contravention of all the known laws of physics.
‘I’m locked out,’ she announced without any preamble. ‘You can climb in the pantry window. I’ve put the steps there for you.’ She pointed stage left with her chin.
I peered around the corner of the wall in the direction she was indicating, and there, sure enough, stood a pair of battered aluminium steps beneath a small frosted window which I judged to be barely big enough to admit one of my legs.
‘Are you SURE you’re locked out?’ I asked, a touch desperately.
‘You’re a bit big.’ She eyed me disapprovingly. ‘But you’ll fit.’
‘Should I check the door? You know, just in case?’
‘I’ll watch the dogs for you.’
Feeling I was getting nowhere, conversation-wise, I was about to say that I’d tie the dogs up, because Boy Dog was a bit rumbustious, and she couldn’t handle him, when she scuttled forward like a huge spider, and snatched the leads from me.
‘Off you go then. Hurry up.’
I waited with my heart in my mouth for Boy Dog to drag her unceremoniously from her feet and vanish down the lane with her in tow, but to my utter disbelief he just sat down at her side to wait patiently, as if that was a perfectly normal reaction to being hijacked.
Outnumbered, I mooched over to the steps and peered unenthusiastically up at the window. It was a small casement window, and it was part open. Aware of three pairs of eyes boring into my back, I climbed up the steps, lifted the casement stay and opened the window fully. Immediately I realized that, unfortunately, Old Ma Farrish was entirely correct. I could just squeeze through, head first.
With a glance back over my shoulder, and praying that there was no-one around with a camera, I wormed my upper body into the pantry, then paused to look around. It was grim, dark and a bit smelly. Directly below me was a huge Belfast sink – cracked and stained and looking as if it harboured the bacteria of decades. I twisted around and looked above me for something I could get hold of to drag myself inside, but there was nothing beyond a rickety curtain pole – so I had no choice but to wriggle in, try to land with my hands in the sink and hope a helpfully creative thought occurred to me on the way down.
It didn’t. My hand slipped and I landed in the sink with all the grace of a half hundredweight of coal, my neck at the sort of angle only Gustav Klimt could have dreamed up and the rest of me sprawled over the draining board and halfway up the wall.
With extreme difficulty, and fearing that no part of me would ever work properly again, I dragged my shoulder out of the sink, straightened my neck very carefully and extracted the remainder of myself from the various bits of the pantry it had landed on.
Then, hobbling pathetically around the cottage and bleating at intervals as parts of my anatomy complained about their treatment, I went in search of a door. Eventually, I found one. Unfortunately, it was not only behind a large dresser, but also nailed shut. Convinced that I’d fallen into the grip of a nonagenarian maniac, I was about to burst into tears when I heard peremptory hammering from the other side of the house.
‘What’s keeping you?’
The back door was actually only five feet to the left of the pantry window, but in my mildly concussed state, I’d completely failed to notice it. When I finally managed to wrestle the lock open, I found the old lady and the two dogs standing outside staring balefully at me.
She handed the leads back to me and kibbled inside, slamming the door on me with the finally benediction:
‘I hope you didn’t break anything in here.’
I limped slowly home, my back stooped and my head tilted to one side to ease the pain in my neck; and as I went I fantasized about waking up after a dark and stormy night to discover that Old Ma Farrish and her cottage had simply slithered down the hill into a sinkhole never to be seen again. She, of course. would be perfectly fine, but the Underworld would never know what had hit it.