1

THE GUILD

carrot-cakeJazz Ruskin doesn’t often ask favours. She issues direct orders, carves commandments in stone and pronounces definitively upon all matters from which way round loo rolls should be installed to What’s Wrong with Western Civilization – but she doesn’t ask favours, so when she comes to you asking for one and it doesn’t involve (much) expenditure of money, just a little of your time, it’s very hard to say ‘No’.

In this case her problem was The Guild, or to give it its full title, the Midshires Countrywomen’s Guild. More precisely her problem was the local branch of the Guild, of which she is the President.

‘It’s dying on its feet, frankly,’ she sighed over tea and fondant fancies at The Copper Kettle, the poshest and most genteel of Adverse Camber’s three watering holes. ‘The average age of the members is about 75, and the older members are dying off without any new blood coming in. We desperately need some younger members to liven things up and – er – help move furniture.’

I’m pretty certain my eyes narrowed slightly as she spoke.

‘I should have know you didn’t didn’t suggest tea and cakes at The Copper Kettle just for the pleasure of my company.’

‘Please? Pretty please? With knobs on? … It’s just one evening month, for a couple of hours. Buy sum raffle tickets, listen to a speaker, drink tea, eat sandwiches and cakes and then go home, after you’ve put the chairs and tables away. Please?’

‘You don’t sing silly songs or anything, do you?’

‘No, no, no … nothing like that. If I tried to get them singing songs, they’d stampede for the exit. It’s just a nice little social gathering. And the speaker’s only an excuse for the tea, really.’

She cocked her head sideways in what she doubtless hoped was an endearing manner but actually looked more like a Jack Russell judging the distance for a precision strike on my nose.

‘Oh all right. When?’

‘Tomorrow evening. Seven-thirty in the Village Hall. You’re a brick.’

‘Who’s the speaker, out of interest?’

‘Eunice Simmons from Giddingford.’ She gave the village its local pronunciation of “Gafford”. ‘She’s talking about our local celebrity Thomas Metcalfe the philanthropist and abolitionist.’

I perked up a bit at that news. ‘Oh yes. They’ve just opened the new museum in his old home there, haven’t they? That could be quite interesting.’

And so it was that the following evening I arrived at the village hall to find the furniture-arranging already well in hand – and I have to say that the local members of the Midshires Countrywomen’s Guild  didn’t seem to be having any problems at all with the physical stuff. A strongly-built woman with razor-cut iron grey hair –  who plainly wouldn’t see 70 again – came sailing past me with a pile of stacking chairs. Audrey was organizing the joining together of three folding tables for the tea and sandwiches later. Another two were laying out the seating, while a little birdy creature, whom I took to be Eunice Simmons, was twittering around ineffectually as Mrs Fitt and Isobel from the Post Office erected the screen for the projector. I have never seen a bunch of less tragic and decrepit elderly women in my life. And then, to add insult to injury, Maggie arrived. Big, healthy, strapping Maggie, who can lift a bale of straw with one hand while simultaneously dragging a cow from a ditch with the other.

She looked at me. I looked at her. And then we both looked at Jazz, who was sitting at a table in one corner of the hall sorting through a sheaf of papers and making notes in the margins. She smiled when she saw us, and it was the smile of the consummate con artist.

‘You’ve been had,’ Maggie said succinctly.

‘I believe I have.’

‘So was I, last year. She needs a certain number of punters to cover the cost of renting the hall. When one dies or heads off to the Happy Pastures Nursing Home. she has to commandeer someone else.’

‘With a sob story.’

‘Exactly. But we won’t forget, will we?’

‘No. We won’t.’

The chair-carrier hove into view again, and I felt moved to say, ‘Can I take those from you?’

She looked at me doubtfully, then passed them into my outstretched hands. They hit the ground so hard, the entire fabric of the building shook. ‘They’re heavier than I was expecting,’ I said, trying to sound nonchalant.

‘They go over there, by t’ Vicar’s wife … They’re the spares in case anyone extra turns up.’

‘Right.’ By dint of waddling like a toddler with a full nappy, I managed to stagger across to Jazz with them, who tapped the papers on the table to square them up, then said brightly. ‘Thank you for coming. The membership fee is £22 … but you can bring it next time if you don’t have it now. Raffle tickets?’

Membership fee paid and raffle tickets bought, I sat down between Maggie and Mrs Fitt waiting for the main feature. Eunice was having trouble with the projector. The image – which was apparently the title of the talk – was both upside down and mostly being projected on the wall behind the screen. She dragged the table back a couple of feet, thereby making the problem worse

Jazz clucked. ‘You need to move the projector CLOSER to the screen Eunice. Here, let me …’

‘Really? Closer? How strange … Oh look yes, that works …’

Except that the slide, still upside down, was now half on the screen and half off.

‘You need to lower the front feet,’ said a voice from the back row. ‘Or raise the screen.’

Cue more fluttering and twittering …

Finally, we could see the title of the talk in all its glory:

THOMAS METCALF
OFGIDDINGFORD.
OUR “LOCAL HEROE”.

I snorted. I couldn’t help myself. Maggie dug me in the ribs. Mrs Fitt didn’t notice – she was too busy frowning at the screen. ‘I’m sure Metcalfe has an ‘e’ on the end.’

‘That would be the one that shouldn’t be on the end of hero’ said Isobel, from the row behind, making no attempt to whisper.

The first slide after the title was a photograph of an elderly lady standing in a cottage doorway.

‘This,’ said Eunice portentously – or as near to portentously as she could manage with a voice that sounded as if she’s been inhaling helium for a week, ‘is Mrs Campbell. Mrs Campbell lived in Thomas Metcalfe’s house for forty years. Can you imagine that? Forty years in one house.’

We then learned that Mrs Campbell was terribly nice to all the local children, did her own laundry in the big copper around the back until well into her nineties and was given to chasing door-to-door salesmen away with a broom.

Next up we were treated to a series of interiors of the cottage with Mrs Campbell in her kitchen, Mrs Campbell pointing toward the outside privy, Mrs Campbell tending the fire in the cast iron grate and Mrs Campbell on the stairs. These were followed by Mrs Campbell in the garden, Mrs Campbell at the bottom of the garden, Mrs Campbell at the local school and Mrs Campbell pointing proudly at the newly-installed plaque on the wall saying ‘Thomas Metcalfe Lived Here Very Briefly Before He Found Somewhere More Interesting To Go’. (Well, okay, it didn’t actually say that, but the gist was that he stayed in Giddingford no longer than was absolutely necessary.)

At last, after much more information about Mrs Campbell, we were treated to a picture of Thomas Metcalfe.

Sort of.

It looked as if it had been done by a ten year old. This, it turns out, is because it WAS done by a ten year old. Eunice Simmons’ ten year old daughter Lizzie, who had copied it from a book to illustrate a school project. The next slide was the title page of Lizzie’s project. Her spelling was noticeably better than her mother’s.

‘In her project, my Lizzie said she thought it would be a good idea if Mrs Campbell’s house was turned into a museum. Now I’m not saying that her project and what she said in it in any way influenced anyone, but ….’ She let the thought hang in the air for a moment, before finishing triumphantly, ‘Now it IS a museum.’

A-a-n-n-d …. then we were back to Mrs Campbell who was, incidentally, absolutely no relation to Thomas Metcalfe at all.

‘Isn’t she wandering off the point a bit?’ hissed Maggie in my ear. It was Mrs Fitt’s turn to snort.

‘She’s never been anywhere near it.’

At length, after many more photographs of Mrs Campbell, much building work and numerous dignitaries pointing at things – by which time people were make no attempt to hide the fact that they were looking at their watches – Eunice finally got around to Thomas Metcalfe, who was a good man who hated slavery, lived in London most of his life and died young from cholera, caused by sewage in the water. The End.

She fell silent.

No-one moved. No-one even coughed.

Everyone looked over at Jazz, who was gazing glassily into the middle distance.

Her nearest neighbour poked her hard in the midriff and she looked horribly affronted for a moment before coming to her senses, removing the in-ear headphones she was wearing and lurching to her feet.

‘Well that was absolutely fascinating. Yes. Fascinating. And I’m you’ll all join me in thanking Eunice very much for taking the time to come here and tell us all about … er …Thomas Metcalfe.’ She applauded vigorously and we all politely followed suit.  Eunice beamed happily.

Later, over tea and cakes, Maggie, Mrs Fitt and I examined the Schedule of Speakers for the remainder of the year.

‘What have we got next month?’ asked Maggie in the tones of one who is expecting the worst.

‘A Crocheted Nativity Scene’, announced Mrs Fitt.

No-one said anything.

Then Jazz’s voice boomed from the far end of the table: ‘Oi , you lot – don’t hog all the carrot cake ….’

~~~:~~~

3

IT WAS A DARK AND STORMY NIGHT …

dawg by fireIn general (she said, looking around wildly for wood to touch) this little corner of Adverse Camber is sheltered from the worst of the autumn storms. Further down the hill, where Wingfield Road crosses Main Street, the buildings form a wind tunnel and when there’s a Force Six blowing from the north west, Winged Victory atop the war memorial has been known to rock alarmingly on her footings, threatening those unwise enough to be in the vicinity with an untimely and unfortunate death. People regularly get to their feet at Parish Council meetings and say Something Must Be Done, but Victory rocks on while everybody nods solemnly in agreement, writes Important Things in year planners and then moves on to something more pressing and less expensive, like what colour to paint the park railings.

Up at the top end of Wingfield Road however the contours of the land and the height of the surrounding trees and ancient hedges are such that my cottage is protected from nearly all directions – which isn’t to say that I don’t get buffeted by the winds – just that I’m less likely than many to end up chasing bits of my roof down the road.

It was a little blustery the other night, but I was tucked up in the living room in front of the fire with a book and a pot of tea and smugly certain that no harm would befall me in my cosy  sanctuary.

And that’s when I heard it …

When you’ve lived in a house for a while, you can identify every sound it makes, from the groan of the floorboards as the central heating cools down or heats up and the creak of the conservatory  as it dries out after rain to that irritating branch outside the window which you keep meaning to get the secateurs to, but always forget about until the next time it comes rat-tat-tatting on the glass. But THIS sound was none of those. This was something I’d never heard before … a sort of rhythmic  ‘hurrgg-urrgg ’ which seemed to be coming from the direction of the fireplace.

Carefully stepping over the Old Lady Dog, who was fast asleep on a pile of blankets and pillows in front of the fire, I listened for a while. I cocked my head to one side to try and pinpoint the precise location of the sound. I moved around. I even pressed my ear against the wall (which was a daft thing to do, given that it’s about two feet thick).

Eventually, I decided that it must be coming either from outside the house or actually IN the chimney. I tried to tell myself that whatever it was, it was unlikely I could do anything about it until morning, but another little voice was saying, ‘If it’s something minor and you CAN fix it, you can stop worrying about it, and you might prevent worse damage.’

I looked at Boy Dog, who was upside down on the settee with his feet in the air and his head buried under a cushion. The Old Lady Dog slept on undisturbed. Plainly neither of them could hear anything untoward, as they can be relied on to bark the place down if they hear a hedgehog sneeze two gardens away …

The rain was beating against the windows. That bloody branch was tapping on the casement in the dining room. The back door was rattling on the latch. I didn’t want to go outside but I knew I’d never settle until I did, so I donned wellies, mackintosh and sou’wester, grabbed a torch and plodded out into the wet, the wind and the darkness.

When you’re out in a storm of course, all you can hear is the wind – but that didn’t stop me from standing foolishly outside the living room window and listening for the ‘hurrgg-urrgg’ sound. Inside the room – which looked so very warm and comfy and inviting  – Boy Dog was sitting up on the settee, gazing at me with his bleary eyes half-closed, his mouth snagged up on one side and an expression which plainly said, ‘You have GOT to be joking.’ The Old Lady Dog, of course, hadn’t moved.

Trying to tuck my head into my shoulders to stop the water from running down my neck, I went around the side of the house to examine the chimney – one of those external ones, which look as if they were tacked on as an afterthought. So intent was I on peering upwards that I completely failed to notice the wheelbarrow, full of weeds, that I’d abandoned when the rain had arrived earlier in the day. It was now a wheelbarrow full of weeds and water, and as such had become an immoveable object. In a straight contest between it and me, there was only ever going to be one winner. Attention fixed at roof level, I backed into the barrow. It caught me just behind the knees, dumping me unceremoniously onto the soggy brambles, nettles and alchemilla mollis within. I sat there for a moment in the wind and rain and thought, ‘Well, that could have been worse’ … which is when the whole thing started to topple slowly sideways as one leg sank  into the muddy ground.

I landed on my backside in the ooze and in one smooth movement, the sodden contents of the barrow slid inexorably into my lap.

Drenched, filthy, scratched and stung, I admitted defeat (I mean, I can take a hint as well as the next person …) and dragged my tragic self back into the house. where I peeled my outer layers of clothing off and stood for a moment in the doorway to the living room. The sound was still there … ‘hurrg-urrgg ’ … ‘hurrgg-urrgg ’ … ‘hurrgg-urrgg

I ignored it.  ‘I’m going to take a bath,’ I announced to the dogs. (Yes, I always talk to the dogs as if they’re people – do you want to make something of it?)

The sound stopped. The Old Lady Dog raised her head from the blankets and looked at me in her usual blank fashion. Then, deciding that I didn’t come bearing cheese, chicken or even dog biscuits, she wriggled a little further into the blankets and pillows and went back to sleep.

And started snoring again.

hurrg-urrgg ’ … ‘hurrgg-urrgg ’ … ‘hurrgg-urrgg

0

TITS

fotosketcher-image‘I bet you’re good at trivia quizzes, aren’t you?’

My ‘self preservation radar’ would normally have immediately started semaphoring ‘trouble approaching rapidly off the port bow’, but Mrs Fitt was such an unlikely harbinger of doom that she caught me unawares.

Actually, remembering her murderous rage when Marianne Hinchcliffe released a clockwork mouse at the Christmas Fair as a joke, perhaps I should have considered the possibility that she was a woman with unplumbed depths, but for 95% of the year she’s a placid woman, at peace with the world and everyone in it  – and therein lay my downfall.

What I should have said was ‘Nope. Terrible at them. Brain like a sieve, don’t you know.’

What I actually said was, ‘Depends on the questions.’

And that, dear readers, is how I ended up on the Adverse Camber team at the annual grudge match which is the ‘Camber Villages Quiz Night’.

The three villages take it in turns to host the event. This year the honour fell to Upper Camber, who rather fancy themselves as a cut above Nether and Adverse Camber (so I am told) as evidenced by the damask table cloths and the tea and cakes served on in-vogue mis-matched bone china.

Last year, Nether Camber emerged victorious, to the shock and disbelief of all concerned – including the Nether Camber team – since historically the battle has always been between Upper and Adverse, with Nether there just to make everyone else look good. No-one was quite sure how they did it, but popular opinion inclined towards bribery, and the finger of suspicion fell on the neutral adjudicator who, it turned out, was not so neutral after all, being the second cousin by marriage of the brother-in-law of Nether Camber’s retired butcher. Or something.

However THIS year, Binkie Clements assured me in a stage whisper, would be different because THIS year, Adverse Camber had a secret weapon.

‘What’s that, then?’ I whispered back.

‘YOU of course.’

I’ve never entirely understood the expression ‘that sinking feeling’ until that moment, because I swear the pit of my stomach dropped about three inches. ‘It depends on the questions, Binkie.’ I said feebly. ‘If it’s sport, television, recent films or modern music, I’m useless.’

The four of us were hunched over the be-damasked table like a quartet of witches: Mrs Fitt, Binkie Clements (mother of Isobel, down at the Post Office), nice Jenny from the vets and yours truly, all hissing together like co-conspirators which, as it turned, out was going to be the MO for all three teams for the whole evening: ‘Don’t talk so loudly – they’ll HEAR you’.

The Quizmaster (and question setter) was a retired teacher from Beechings, a (very) minor public school halfway between Nether and Adverse, whose integrity was considered to be unimpeachable because of his poshness. I personally thought those were pretty dodgy grounds upon which to base a value judgment, but kept the thought to myself.

All three tables, plus the Quizmaster, were up on the stage of Upper Camber Community Hall which – as was frequently pointed out to us – had just had new windows, heaters and curtains. In the body of the hall sat the audience, theoretically drawn from all three villages, but in practice mostly Upper, and therefore wildly partisan.

For the first couple of rounds, things chugged along peacefully enough and the three teams seemed pretty evenly matched. It was a simple system. We were given sheets of questions on differing topics and had five minutes in which to confer over the answers and write them down. Then the teams swapped question sheets for marking and the Quizmaster supplied the answers.

The first hint of needle crept in during the ‘Birds’ round when Mrs Fitt, who was writing down the answers, wrote ‘tit’ instead of ‘blue tit’ and the Upper Camber team, who were marking our paper, marked it as wrong (with some justification). Binkie objected, loudly and repeatedly. The Quizmaster upheld the decision, but Binkie wasn’t to be appeased, even when it was pointed out that there were coal tits, great tits, long-tailed tits … to Binkie, they were all tits. Rather like the Quizmaster.

The worst thing I could possible have said at that juncture was ‘It’s only a bit of fun, Binkie …’, so of course, that’s exactly what I said. Three pairs of disbelieving eyes swivelled towards me and I shrank back into my chair, chastened and muttering sulky apologies.

The subsequent round (punctuated by Binkie still grumbling about tits) was on cars, and nothing I could say would convince my fellow team members that Porsches were German-made cars. Nor did they later believe that Brunel was NOT a Scot (even when I said that I’d seen the ‘Brunel was born here’ plaque in Portsmouth), so it was a bit unfortunate when they decided to take my word for it that the patron saint of Edinburgh was St Margaret.*

The anagram round went well and I was officially crowned Queen of the Anagrams, then in the Sea Life round Binkie had her revenge on Upper Camber when they answered ‘anemone’ instead of ‘sea anemone’ and the Quizmaster agreed with us that they were two very different things and it was therefore a Wrong Answer.

‘Aha! Wrong! Wrong!! It’s WRONG!!’

It got better – or worse, depending on where you were sitting – when, in the cryptic round, Mrs Fitt knew that a grape was a sort of hoe and that, therefore, the answer to  ‘Digger for Mrs Bucket’ was ‘grape hyacinth’ and not just ‘hyacinth’.

‘Ah-ha-ha!’ Crowed Binkie. ‘You didn’t know what a grape was, did you!! Aha-ha-ha-hah!!!!’

Mrs Fitt looked skyward and pointed out that Binkie hadn’t known either and had, indeed,  poo-pooed the very idea when it was suggested. It didn’t have any discernible effect on her.

The greatest outrage, however, was reserved for the Quizmaster who – in a fit of temporary senility – declared that Braille was a reading aid for deaf people. The silence which followed this announcement was total, as people mentally reviewed everything they thought they knew about Braille. Then, pandemonium broke out …. I’m sure that above the generaI cacophony I heard someone  yelling ‘It’s the BLIND ye great eggwap!’ – which is an expression I last heard in the wilds of Lancashire. The poor man tried to make himself heard above the hooting, whistling and stamping … but in the end had to just sit there until the noise had subsided enough for him to say mildly, ‘I did, of course, mean blind people’, which just got them started all over again.

After that, he completely lost his sang froid.  In the following round, he started giving the answers to the next set of questions (No, the name of the  ‘Iron Chancellor’ of Germany was not ‘Poppy’.) Then he yielded without a murmur when someone came up with an alternative answer to an ‘Odd Man Out’ question and on the final straight he  cringed visibly when one of the more vocal members of the Upper Camber team demanded the adjudicator be called in over the provenance of ‘SOS’. It turned out that he was the adjudicator too, on account of being posh and unimpeachable.

It didn’t make any difference in the end, because it was Nether Camber, who kept their heads down and stayed out of the firing line, who won again. As they collected their plastic trophies from the Quizmaster to polite applause, they tried not to look smug. – and failed. All around me I could feel new conspiracy theories being hatched over the tea and cupcakes.

There was, inevitably, a post mortem in the car on the way home. Questions and answers were analysed, the subject of tits was raised more than once and agreement was generally arrived at that somehow or other, We Woz Robbed.

When we reached Adverse Camber, we all repaired to Binkie’s house for coffee and biscuits  … and it was there  Jenny noticed something that suddenly made everything – well, not quite so bad. She was looking at the results sheet.

‘Oh look!’ she said cheerfully. ‘We beat Upper Camber. They came last.’

‘Serves them right,’ said Binkie with considerable satisfaction. ‘Tits.’

~~~:~~~

* It’s St Giles.

0

STRAWHANGERS

ratty-1I lived in a thatched cottage once before, many years ago. It was a rental cottage which we lived in temporarily when we were moving from Scotland down to England. (By the way – if you’ve never tried moving from Scotland to England, or vice versa, take my advice and DON’T unless (a) you absolutely have to and/or (b) have the constitution of a small ox. Although the two regions are joined at the hip (or just below the bust if you look at  the island as a sort of wizened and warty old crone), they have different legal systems which – especially when it comes to buying and selling houses – don’t exactly co-exist amicably.)

Anyway, as I was saying, we lived in a rented cottage for about six months and it was an archetypal Ye Olde English thatched cottage, complete with tiny windows, thick walls, rising damp, low ceilings and tiny doors you had to almost bend yourself double to get through. Oh, and rats. it had rats. Lots of them. Rats love thatched roofs. Not that I remember the rats with horror: I rather like them and always have done.

I remember waking up one night and hearing a scrabbling sound inside the built-in closet to the left of my bed. When I switched on my torch and opened the door, there was rat sitting in one of my shoes. I was so enchanted that I didn’t tell anyone, but started leaving food for it – nuts, bits of cheese, half-eaten sandwiches …. It was only when the place was overrun with them and they’d despatched the white doves in the neighbours’ nest box, ransacked the bird food in the lean-to shed and shredded my father’s best dress jacket that I owned up. The Matriarch thought it was funny. My father didn’t, but he was out-voted.

These days, I’m as fond of rats as ever, but less sanguine about actually sharing my home with them. We live in perfect amity as long as they stay at the top of the garden  or occasionally scuttle across the patio and keep out of the house. I therefore thought it was probably time, now that I was more or less settled in and had a little spare cash, to have the thatched roof looked at by A Proper Chap: mostly to make sure it was sound and still fireproof, but partly to see if there was any sign of occupation by Large Rodents.

Asking around for recommendations produced just one name – Chas Metcalfe. Chas was, I was assured, efficient, helpful and reasonably priced. The fact that he also seemed to be related to half of the village via their third-cousins-by-marriage may or may not have been a factor in the recommendations of course.

I rang him and got an answering machine with a terribly official-sounding message on it, conveying – without saying as much – that they were Thatchers to the Nobility. Trying not to sound terribly common, I started to leave a message, but before I’d got half way through my (previously rehearsed) spiel, someone picked the ‘phone up and said cheerily,

‘I’ve been expecting your call ….’

An hour later he arrived at my gate, not – as I was expecting – in a battered old van with a roof rack and miscellaneous mediaeval-looking instruments hanging out of the rear doors, but in a brand spanking new Mercedes-Benz Sprinter with ‘STRAWHANGERS’ emblazoned on the side and a softly purring engine under the bonnet which sounded as if it could do 80 up the autobahn without breaking into a sweat. Nor did the man who climbed out of it look as if he was a Master Thatcher. No tatty overalls. No battered tweeds or trousers held up with baling twine – just a pair of (very expensive looking) chinos and a sweatshirt emblazoned with the same artwork as the van. And he was thirty if he was a day.

I began to suspect – not for the first time – that ‘reasonably priced’ was a relative term.

Fifteen minutes later he had his ladders out and was on the roof, clambering around with what looked to me like an alarming lack of concern for his own well-being.

‘Do be careful,’ I bleated. ‘My first aid skills don’t extend to broken necks.’

‘No worries,’ he retorted from on high.’ I’ve been doing this since I was a kid. I’m from a long line of thatchers.’

‘And did they all die from old age?’

‘No.’ He tugged experimentally at one of those whatever-they’re-called things that pins the thatch down. ‘One of them stepped back to admire his handiwork. But if the fall hadn’t’ve killed him, his pickled liver would have.’

Ten minutes later, he was IN the roof, having squeezed himself through an access hatch scarcely big enough for a child. ‘People,’ he grunted as his feet vanished from sight, ‘were a lot smaller back in the day.’

I followed him up (well, my head and shoulders did … the rest of me stayed firmly in the 21st Century), and watched his head torch bobbing around for a moment, then going out.

‘Are you okay?’ I asked worriedly, peering into the pitch black void. ‘Do you want the light on? There is a light you know …’

I may, or may not, have heard a sigh.

‘I’m checking for daylight.’

‘Oh. Right. I’ll shut up then.’ I shut up for about 15 seconds. ‘See any?’

‘A little, around the chimney stack.’

‘Is that bad?’

‘Easily fixed. Probably just the flashing.’

I almost said, ‘Does easily mean cheaply?’ but managed to bite my tongue.

‘Any sign of rats?’

‘It’s hard to tell in the dark.’ He paused for half a beat to allow the barb to go in. ‘But I don’t smell any. Do you?’

I sniffed exaggeratedly, but all I could detect was dust. ‘Nope.’

‘You can turn the light on now.’

In the dim light of the 25 watt bulb he surveyed the inside of the roof visually. It looked like any old attic to me, but then, what do I know?

‘Yes. There’s a bit of damp around the chimney … but no other signs of a problem. and no rats. Only mice.’

Back down in the kitchen, mug of coffee in hand, he did some calculations on a chic little ‘Strawhangers’ notepad for the cost of lifting the thatch around the chimney, relaying the flashing and then rethatching. He showed me the result.

The next time someone tells me something or somebody is ‘reasonably priced’ I’ll make a point of asking, ‘As compared to WHAT, exactly?’

~~~:~~~

 

 

0

OF SLUGS AND SNAILS AND PUPPY DOGS’ TAILS …

digging‘You have to throw them at least 70 feet, you know.’

Adam was doing an excellent impersonation of a country hick, leaning on the fence with a piece of grass in his mouth,watching me as I picked the slugs and snails from around my newly planted hollyhocks and hurled them viciously into Maggie’s field. He’d been hedging since late morning, but had finished for the day and was loitering in the hopes of a cup of tea.

‘What?’ I straightened up and eased the crick in my back.

‘Yes.’ He shifted his weight from one foot to the other. ‘They have a homing instinct. Throw them any less than that, and they just come back. Throw them further, and they get lost. I’m surprised you don’t know that … typing the Prof’s book for him and all.’

‘We haven’t got  onto the homing instincts of slugs yet. He’s still lingering over their really bizarre sex lives. What do YOU do about slugs and snails?’

‘Grow marigolds, encourage frogs and toads, bribe the village kids to collect them … but mostly go out with a torch on a wet night and scoop the little beggars up, then despatch them to Happy Valley.’

‘Happy Valley? Is that a euphemism for ending their miserable, misbegotten lives?’

‘Of course not. I live in peace with nature.’ He made himself more comfortable on the fence. ‘Happy Valley is the bottom end of my place, past Wittenshaw Beeches. Slug heaven.’

‘You retire your slugs to Slug Heaven?’ I lobbed another one into the field. ‘How sweet. I came out the other night with the dogs, in the rain, and the patio was awash with slugs and snails. I stopped counting when I got to 50. They’ve destroyed my cape gooseberries, made hash of my acanthus, and felled a five-foot high sunflower.’

‘Ah now. Sunflowers they love.’ He looked around curiously, as a thought struck him. ‘Speaking of your dogs – where are they? They’re unnaturally quiet.’

It was a good point. Normally, the sound of Adam’s – or indeed anyone’s – voice in the front garden would have brought them hurtling from the house, shrieking the odds and throwing themselves at the intruder with psychotic intent. But they were quiet. They were suspiciously quiet. I looked at Adam. He looked at me. We both looked around the garden, listening. Nothing.

Then, a horrid thought occurred to me. ‘My spring bulbs. I bet those depraved little sociopaths are digging up my bulbs again ….’

Clambering to my feet, I waddled stiffly around the side of the house (my knees aren’t  as biddable as they once were) and heard the ‘clink’ of the gate as Adam followed. Sure enough, the Boy Dog and the Old Girl were around the back, quietly laying waste to my newly-planted bulbs. All you could actually see of them was two enthusiastically waggling  bottoms as they scrabbled at the freshly dug bed, showering soil and crocuses all over the patio.

‘Nooooooo! BAD DOGS! WHO DID IT?! WHO DID IT?! BAAAD DOGS!’

The Boy Dog immediately shot off into the shrubbery, ears down, tail down and belly dragging on the ground. The Old Girl however just stood there looking at me dispassionately over her shoulder for a moment before carrying on where she’d left off. Adam snorted but wisely kept his mouth shut.

BLOODY DOGS!!!!.’ Stomping bad-temperedly across the patio, I grabbed the Old Girl around her barrel chest and hauled her from the hole, whereupon she immediately started galloping wildly in mid-air as if she’d decided belatedly to make a run for it, but hadn’t noticed that her feet were no longer on the ground. Boy Dog meanwhile  watched the pantomime from the safety of the azalea but wasn’t, I noticed, bothering to look remotely guilty any more – just very, very interested.

Retreating to the utility, I dumped the Old Girl unceremoniously in her bed and came out to find Adam collecting up all the crocus bulbs. ‘Got a broom?’ He asked. ‘If you sweep the soil back into the bed, I’ll replant these for you.’

‘You’re a cherub, Adam. Thank you.’ I fetched the yard broom and started sweeping. ‘But how do I stop them? This is the second time it’s been dug up’. I thought about that statement for a moment. ‘Actually, it’s the third time … but the first time, it was a cat.’

‘Barbed wire entanglements.’

‘Eh?’

‘Or possibly bean netting. Do you have any? If not, I’ve got some.’

I had some. I even knew where it was, I fetched it, and flourished it triumphantly like a magician producing a rabbit from a hat … and what Adam did with it was so simple I kicked myself for not thinking of it. Instead of stretching it out as I expected, he scrunched it up and then pegged it down firmly enough to keep it in place but loosely enough to keep it mobile and tangly.

‘Oh now, that’s clever.’

‘Thank you.’ He got to his feet and brushed the dirt and dust from his baggy cords. ‘That should confuse them.’

Boy Dog chose that moment to emerge, very cautiously, from the shrubbery and sniff the netting. We watched him. He sniffed, he peered and then he reached out a paw to touch – only to retract it again in confuddlement. The look he turned on me said, more clearly than any words, ‘How COULD you?’

I paid Adam for his help in tea and rock cakes and returned to the serious task of hurtling slugs into Maggie’s field, secure in the knowledge that my spring bulbs were now safe from the predations of Jack Russells.

The next morning, I wandered out into the garden clutching a mug of tea and a slice of hot buttered toast to admire our handiwork … and the toast turned to ashes in my mouth. Ashes, I tell you.

The netting was still in place, only now it was neatly protecting four very large molehills.

0

As I was saying …

A little later than promised (or, indeed, intended), the Adverse Camber Diaries will be returning to a computer/tablet/whatever screen near you next week .

Promise.

With bells on.

0

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~~~

0

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.

0

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.

0

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.)