‘You’ve lost what?’
Adam emerged from his potato patch like Aphrodite from the waves – if Aphrodite had been a bloke in tweeds.
‘Eccles,’ I flapped my arms helplessly. ‘I’ve looked everywhere for him and I’m afraid he may have gone into the storm drain.’
‘Eccles?’ I don’t think I’ve ever seen a human being looking more non-plussed. than Adam was at that moment. ‘And Eccles is …?’
‘Ah.’ Comprehension dawned and he returned his attention to his spuds. ‘Well, it’s turned a bit nippy. I expect he’s looking for somewhere to hibernate.’
I’d been hoping for immediate and decisive action from the village ‘Go To’ man … and was mildly exasperated that he was plainly more interested in his potato crop than my wandering boy.
‘I expect he is,’ I snapped back. ‘But I don’t think a storm drain’s a particularly intelligent place to choose – do YOU?’
He straightened again, one hand on the small of his back, and looked at me as one would at a particularly tiresome child.
‘I don’t think they’re famous for their IQs. What makes you so sure he’s gone down the drain?’
‘Boy Dog says he has.’
Belatedly, I realized I could have phrased that more coherently – or at least so that it didn’t make me sound entirely doolally – and added hastily, ‘I told him to find Eccles and he got very excited about the drain.’
‘Dogs always get excited about drains.’ He sighed. ‘But I’ll come and have a look this afternoon. There’s rain forecast and I want to get the taters up before the ground gets waterlogged.’
‘Thank you.’ I hopped impatiently from one foot to the other. ‘I’d appreciate it. Soon as poss and all that .’
‘Tell you what,’ he said, reaching for his garden fork. ‘You give me lunch and I’ll come up as soon as I’m done here.’
‘You’re an angel! Deal!’
The drain had been installed by a previous occupant, to cope with the run-off from the field behind the house during prolonged periods of rain. I hadn’t even known of its existence until I commented to Maggie one day after a cloudburst that the lower garden was awash, and she replied that it sounded as if the drain was blocked. The next thing I knew, Alec had appeared armed with drain rods and a drainage spade and was rummaging in the undergrowth around the hydrangea. An hour’s work revealed two sloping gullies that fed water in from both side of the garden, culminating in a six-inch drain, covered by a grille, that headed off towards the road at the tangent.
While looking for Eccles that morning, I’d discovered the cover had been dislodged (quite probably during the Great Cow Invasion), to reveal an invitingly dark and cosy cave, just the right size for a small tortoise and – as we hadn’t had any rain for several weeks – bone dry.
After three bowls of soup, a mountain of bread and half a truckle of best Cheddar, Adam was flat on his stomach in the shrubbery, shining a powerful torch into the depths whilst simultaneously batting off the Boy Dog, who wanted to have a look too.
‘I rang Maggie, and she said she’d send Alec down as soon as he appeared,’ I offered, fretting helpless on the grass like a mother hen. ‘She didn’t say where he’d gone.’
‘At work, I expect.’
‘Work?’ My brow furrowed. I hate it when my brow furrows. One day it will stay that way: I know it will, because my mother told me so and my mother never lied.
‘He’s a part-time fireman. We call him the Visiting Fireman.’ I swear the back of his head was grinning. ‘He just helps out on the farm in his spare time.’
‘So he’s not actually a farm hand? A paid one, I mean.’
‘No money changes hands as far as I know. But that would be none of my business. Don’t suppose you know whether this drain runs straight, do you?’
‘No idea. Alec rodded it, though.’ Suddenly, that sounded thoroughly suggestive – and I wasn’t the only one to think so. I’m sure Adam’s shoulders were shaking.
After a few more fruitless minutes of peering and dog-batting he said, slightly hopelessly,
‘I don’t suppose this prehistoric pet of yours responds to his name, does he?’
‘He’s a tortoise, Adam . He doesn’t respond to anything except tomatoes.’
He rolled onto his side and gazed up at me, puffing out his cheeks in thought. ‘I could try guessing the direction of the pipe run and dig an exploratory hole half way along … That way we’d be dealing with two shorter lengths instead of one long one. And we might strike lucky.’
‘It’s a bit of a long shot.’
‘They found Richard the Third that way. Well, most of him anyway. Let’s see where the other end of this drain comes out …’
The other end of the drain didn’t take much finding. It debouched into the road drain outside the cottage, downhill from the front gate. The position of the outlet suggested a straight pipe run, so with the aid of a length of rope, Adam traced the line backwards and started digging by my camellia. Two feet down, he hit pay dirt. Or, more precisely, he hit clay – a old clay drainage pipe.
At that moment, I heard the unmistakable ‘chink’ of the front gate opening, and a few seconds later Alec appeared, ditching shovel and drain rods in hand. Boy Dog galloped over to greet him, followed more sedately by the Old Girl who had emerged from her basket in the house to see if she was missing anything.
The two men immediately went into Bloke Mode. All gruff practicality and male cooperation.
‘Want a hand there, Adam?’
‘I need to make this hole bigger so we can get a couple of lengths of pipe out … could you shift the soil out of the way?’
An hour later, watched by the two dogs from the corner of the garden and me from the patio, the pair of them had dug and cleared a hole four feet long by three feet wide and were ready to try and ease the pipes out.
‘Do you want a cup of tea first?’ I asked. ‘I made lemon drizzle cake yesterday.’
I had them at ‘lemon drizzle cake’ of course, and we all sat in the late afternoon sunshine. clutching mugs and gazing out at the garden, the snoozing dogs and …
‘What’s that in the corner, by the dogs then?’ asked Adam. ‘That wooden thing under the leaves and twigs?’ He paused. ‘Is it a hedgehog box?’
‘Yes it is,’ I said proudly. ‘I put it there last week.There’s another one further up the hill.’
Alec looked at Adam, and Adam looked at Alec, but neither of them said anything.
A horrible thought dawned. ‘Oh …’
Alec casually reached for another piece of cake. ‘You didn’t look in the boxes, did you?’
As we sat there in silence, considering this new information, there was a rustling in the undergrowth by Boy Dog’s rear end. He lifted his head, sniffed at the disturbance and then went back to sleep. The next minute, Eccles trundled slowly out of the brambles with a mouthful of dry grass, and headed for the hedgehog box.
Adam didn’t bat an eyelid.
‘We may as well get those pipes up,’ he said. ‘Just to make sure the drain’s clear before the rain comes.’
Alec nodded in agreement. ‘Good idea. Swift half down the Drovers afterwards?’