0

WANTED: AMANUENSIS

shortDown at the Post Office Stores they have one of those little notice boards that displays Parish Council announcements, posters for forthcoming village attractions, ‘Wanted/For Sale’ advertisements, fuzzy photographs of lost cats and the going rate for a quick cut and blow dry in the comfort of your own home. Adorned with clip art and haphazard spelling, the assorted postcards and sheets of luridly coloured  paper provide a little light relief while you’re waiting to be served at the counter, and I always cast a quick eye over them in search of a cheap laugh. (In my own defence, I’m actually a kindly soul who as a rule never deliberately gives offence – unless someone’s really asking for a swift kick in the teeth – but that doesn’t mean I’m not sniggering on the inside).

So there I was in the Post Office, patiently waiting my turn in the shuffling queue, smirking at the postcard advertising “Touch Typong Lessons” and ignoring stage-whispered opinions about the quality of this years’ judges of the Carnival floats when, without any warning, a long arm snaked over my shoulder to pin a handwritten card to the board.

I and several other people nearby flung ourselves sideways in a ridiculously melodramatic fashion, as if the arm had a sign saying ‘UNCLEAN’ hanging from it, then self-consciously recovered our composure enough to examine the new arrival on the board. Almost immediately the elderly gentleman to my right said bluntly,

‘What the f*ck does THAT mean?’

I could see his point. The card carried just five words:

WANTED: AMANUENSIS.
APPLY PILGER, BRAMBLINGS.

I glanced back over my shoulder at the owner of the arm, and found myself looking up at craggy man in his early seventies with shoulder length silver grey hair and a glint in his eye which could only charitably be described as ‘challenging’.

‘Go ahead’, the look was saying. ‘I dare you to ask me what amanuensis means.’

Being the daughter of a woman who was famous for calling a spade ‘a bloody shovel’, I lurched immediately into knee-jerk mode. A moment’s mature thought might have resulted in a more diplomatic turn of phrase, but – what the heck, and in any case, he shouldn’t have looked at me like that:

‘If you want a shorthand typist, why don’t you just say so?’

To his credit, he didn’t flinch. ‘Because I want someone who bloody well knows what it means.’

‘Well good luck with that, Sunshine.’

I turned back to the notice board, mentally chalking one up to myself, and flashed what I hoped was a charming smile at the elderly gentleman who had been so perplexed. ‘Highfalutin word for someone who writes things down from dictation’.

‘Like a seckerterry?’

I winced inwardly but nodded in agreement. ‘Pretty much, yes.’

And that was when it all got a bit heated. There was a sort of hiss,as if someone was letting air out of a car tyre nearby and then, from behind me, the Professor thundered,

‘Are you always so bloody rude, woman?!’

‘Are you always such an arrogant sod?’ Not witty, but the best I could manage at short notice.

Behind the counter, Isobel Buchanan’s jaw went slack and the eyes of everyone in the shop swivelled towards the epicentre of the disturbance:  the Professor and I – two incomers squared off against each other. Someone, somewhere was probably opening a book on the outcome.

‘He needs one of them machines, is what ‘e needs.’ Offered the elderly gentleman to no-one in particular, and the waiting customers turned into a row of nodding dogs as he concluded grandly, ‘What you talk into.’

The Professor was not only unbowed, he showed no signs of being so much as mildly winded either. I got the uncomfortable feeling he hadn’t had a decent shouting match with anyone in ages and was relishing the prospect of getting stuck in.

‘I know what I want.’ he roared back at me. ‘And I don’t want an illiterate half wit. And I’ll thank you, Sir,’ here he paused to stab an accusing finger at the elderly gentleman, ‘ … not to talk about me in the third person.’

‘What you want and what you need are very different things,’ I retorted, beginning to feel a bit pink around the edges. ‘And you can leave him alone. He can talk about you any way he wants. Plus – he has a point. What you need is a machine, not a human being; something you can shout at to your heart’s content.’

He opened his mouth to answer, but at that moment, Norman Ruskin – who, unbeknown to us both, had been quietly observing proceedings from the back of the queue – decided it was time to step in as peacemaker before we started lobbing tins of fruit cocktail at each other. He swept in smoothly.

‘If I’d known Isobel was laying on a floor show for her customers, I’d have been down earlier … Professor, I’ve been wanting to talk to you for some time – so this is a happy meeting.’ Grasping the fuming academic firmly by the elbow he steered him out of the shop, saying something en route about wanting his advice on scales, or it possibly sales, or even snails … I couldn’t quite make out which because it was swamped by the sound of a car transporter thundering past.

As the door closed behind them, one of THOSE silences descended on the Post Office, and was only broken when someone up at the front of the queue said quietly, ‘I hope he got his money back from the charm school.’

That did it. We laughed. We chuckled. We exchanged notes on what happened and agreed that he was a Very Rude Man. Eventually, I even confessed that I was qualified for the post he was advertising but wasn’t looking for a job and even if I was, wouldn’t consider setting foot inside Bramblings, not even for ready money.

It was, therefore, in a happy frame of mind that I picked up the ‘phone at home and listened to my accountant on the other end of it, telling me that:

(a)  HM Inspector of Taxes was demanding an unfeasibly large chunk of my savings and

(b)  My net income was currently falling short of my net expenditure, so I was faced with a choice of  living in a cardboard box, throwing myself on the mercy of the state and/or finding a way of supplementing my income.

‘Bright, articulate woman like you – shouldn’t be a problem. Little part time job would do it nicely, especially if you also stop spending a small fortune on bird food every month. Must be something around that would suit, surely. Can’t be too many shorthand typists around any more … What was that you just said? I couldn’t make it out through all the sobbing.’

I took a deep breath.

‘I said: It’s funny you should say that …’

0

CARNIVAL

carnCarnival: the word conjours up images of scantily clad, nubile young things gyrating to Latin-American rhythms in Rio, or beautifully be-masked revellers drifting elegantly through Venice on a warm spring evening. What it does NOT immediately bring to mind is a dozen and a half sodden Mothers’ Union members being dragged down a village main street on a flatbed trailer in the middle of a biblical downpour …

I’d received my instructions from John Jukes: I was to meet with him and my two fellow judges in the car park beside the Bank at 6.45pm sharp. From there we would ‘process’ (his word) to the steps outside the front of the Bank Chambers, be introduced to the assembled onlookers, and after that the festivities would commence.

For two days beforehand the residents of the three Cambers had been in high spirits. According to the Met Office, the forecast for the evening of the parade was fine and dry. This, I gathered, was almost completely unheard of; wet and windy was par for the course. Once, Maggie told me with barely-disguised glee, the rain had been so heavy it triggered a flash flood that very nearly did for the Mothers and Toddlers group. All dressed as Roald Dahl characters, they were caught unawares when the deluge came racing around the corner of Chapel Lane and down the hill. Main Street was littered – positively littered, she emphasized – with felled Oompah-Loompahs.

I watched the forecasts as anxiously as everyone else. The front of the Bank provides an ideal viewing platform: approached from one side by six steps and from the other by a wheelchair ramp, and protected by iron railings, there is a flat area at the top immediately outside the door which comfortably accommodates four people standing side by side and provides an unimpeded view of the street below. Unfortunately it’s also entirely devoid of shelter and wide open to the rain-bearing westerly winds.

Every forecast said the same thing: there was a weather front moving in from the Atlantic – the remnants of a dying hurricane to be exact – but it was slow-moving and wouldn’t reach UK shores until the Carnival was over, the floats safely back in their barns and garages and the revellers either tucked up in bed or propping up the bar in the Drovers Arms ripping the judges apart.

It’s just such a shame that it picked up speed as it approached landfall.

By the time I arrived at the Bank, squally winds were already whisking the leaves from the nearby plane trees into little vortices that eddied around the car park like damp autumnal dervishes.

John Jukes briefly introduced us to each other. Upper Camber was represented by an aesthetic-looking man sporting rimless spectacles and an immaculately tailored overcoat that absolutely screamed Savile Row. I mentally marked him down as a solicitor or an accountact, but he turned out to be a butcher with expensive tastes. His named was Geoff and he was very jolly. The Nether Camber judge was a rather tightly-wound late middle-aged lady in sensible shoes,a belted raincoat and a hat which was firmly attached to her curly grey hair with the largest, gaudiest hatpin I’ve ever seen. Her name was Mrs Dyer and she’d recently moved to the area following the death of her fourth husband. I thought it was a bit odd to emphasize ‘fourth’ as if it was an achievement, but then as someone who responds to the question ‘And are you married?’, with a ‘No’ so menacingly delivered it deters all further enquiry – I’m in no position to throw stones.

Can four people ‘process’? If they can, we did. We processed solemnly from the car park around the side of the bank and up the stairs to the viewing platform, which had been decorated, if that’s quite the right word, with the funereal bunting made from old shirts and trousers that I’d last seen at the Summer Fayre. It flaggered damply in the wind. I knew how it felt. For a couple of minutes we just stood there in the rain, self-consciously on public display. I wished I’d worn something other than my oversized puffa jacket, which made me look like the Goodyear blimp. A camera flashed over to our left, and I realized to my horror that the local press were present. The front page of next week’s edition will be carrying a large colour photograph of a dapper butcher, a neat little widow and a giant blue balloon wearing a clashing bobble hat.

Distantly, from the top of the hill, there came the sounds of a brass band tuning up. Then it started to get closer, and I realized that they weren’t tuning up at all but actually playing. Sort of. I could just about make out ‘Paint Your Wagon’, or possibly ‘Stairway to Heaven’.

As the first float approached, accompanied by guttering torches, the wind picked up and the rain started to increase in intensity. The ‘Frozen’ float looked more like ‘Drenched’. A word to the wise: if you’re going to spend hours making costumes, it’s probably as well to remember that November in the UK tends to be wet and windy. Cardboard and crêpe paper don’t react well to either, especially not both together.

The float paused in front of us. We looked at it. Mrs Dyer was openly bemused.

‘What is it supposed to be?’ she asked disapprovingly, eyeing the drooping antlers on the felt reindeer.

Geoff had a valiant punt.

‘It’s an animated film about … um … personal responsibility, self-sacrifice and  … um …’

‘How high heels and a body-hugging sheath dress will set you free?’ I suggested unhelpfully.

The float moved on to be replaced by ‘It’s the Cambers for Me’ – a tableau extolling the virtues of the local area including, unexpectedly, brick making – the pollution from which is popularly believed to have sent more local people to an early grave in the last century than any other cause, including Spanish Flu. One woman was dressed up as a fantasy shepherdess, representing the local wool trade and a chunky bloke holding a pitchfork and a bunch of carrots was presumably rsupposed to represent agriculture. There was a wonky pile of bricks stacked between them. And that was it. Sheep, bricks and carrots.

It moved on.

During the course of the next ten minutes, we were passed by a succession of soggy people on a ramsahckle collection of farm and industrial vehicles, accompanied now and then by enthusiastically tuneless marching bands. Glitter ran off costumes and pooled around participants’ feet. Sodden cardboard ripped off in the ever-rising wind, unstable palm trees (from the ‘Life in Ancient Egypt’ float) toppled over and the ill-fated Mothers and Toddlers group trudged dispiritedly down the hill dressed as liquorice allsorts. The costumes were made out of painted upholstery foam. A couple of the poor kids could barely walk because of the weight of the saturated foam and all of them had water and paint running down their arms and legs. I’d have felt sorry for them if I hadn’t been so thoroughly miserable myself. Rain had started to run down my neck and I only knew my feet were still there because I could see them glistening wetly in the streetlights.

Then, almost miraculously, light, warmth and vitality surged down the hill towards us as a small fleet of restored Jeeps rolled up, led by four couples dressed as American GIs and their girlfriends, who were performing perfectly choreographed jive routines to the strains of Glen Miller. The girls all sported ‘Victory Roll’ hair styles and authentic 40s clothing and the young men conveyed perfectly the  ‘overpaid, over-sexed and over here’ glamour that the GIs brought to austerity-gripped Britain in 1942.  The rain and cold were momentarily forgotten as they stopped in front of us and jived as if there was no tomorrow … and then they were gone, to be replaced by a spotty youth who’d stuffed his car full of garden gnomes.My programme told me it was called ‘Gno place like Gnome’.

By the time we retired to The Drovers for the ‘slap up meal’ we’d been promised (cheese sandwiches, shop-bought sausage rolls and crisps) we were cold, soaked and fed up. We were also in absolutely no doubt who the winners were. We didn’t really even need to discuss it. We informed Mr Jukes that the jiving GIs had won it hands down, and it was only as he trundled off happily to announce the result to the waiting crowds in the saloon bar that I remembered Maggie’s comment about the previous year’s winners:

‘Last year, the judging committee voted for a float entered by incomers from the local holiday village. All terribly slick and impressive and professional. It was the best float by a country mile … At least two of the judges have since had to move house.’

I checked the programme:

‘GI Jive’ by Camber Valley Holiday Village.

I licked my lips nervously.

‘I don’t suppose,’ I said to my fellow judges, ‘that either of you know where the fire escape is?’

~~~:~~~

(Picture credit: Original photograph by Xavler Donat and reproduced under a Creative Commons licence.)

0

A RARE HONOUR

doomedIn life, there are good days and there are bad days – and then there are the days when you find out that:

(a) You’ve been suckered and

(b) You’re doomed.

Today has been one of the latter.

It started in a perfectly harmless way. I went down into the village to post a parcel, buy some stamps and see if Isobel Buchanan had any of those nice chocolate egg things filled with concentrated sugar syrup and violent yellow food colouring. It’s the wrong time of year for them of course, but Isobel is cheerfully unfussy about stock control and it’s one of life’s unexpected pleasures to discover a chocolate Santa lurking behind the baked beans in August – so it wasn’t beyond the realms of possibility that she had the odd chocolate egg or two languishing somewhere. If I got really lucky, I thought, they’d be out of date and she’d sell them to me cheap – or even given them to me for free. Yes, I’m that sad.

As it turned out, the parcel and the chocolate eggs (half price – Yes!) were no problem. It was the stamps that proved problematic, which – given that I was in a Post Office – was an unexpected setback.

‘How many £1 stamps do you have, Isobel?’

Her eyes narrowed suspiciously. ‘That’s a strange question.’

‘In a Post Office? It’d be a strange question in the butcher’s, but …’

‘WHY do you want to know how many £1 stamps I have?’

‘Because I need quite a lot and I don’t want to clean you out. Fifty pence ones will do, if it’s a problem.’

‘Oh. Well. I see. That’s different. I’m sorry but Professor Pilchard came in and bought a hundred £1 stamps …’

‘Professor PILCHARD?

‘Pilger. PILGER. I must stop calling him that. One day I’ll do it to his face … Anyway, he bought a hundred of them. I just wondered if you were in it with him.

I was beginning to feel the universe shifting around me again. It’s a feeling I’ve become very familiar with since I moved here. ‘In WHAT with him?’

‘Whatever it is he’s doing with one hundred £1 stamps’

‘Sticking them on envelopes?’ I hazarded. She wasn’t amused. In fact, she didn’t appear to have heard me.

‘He’s an odd man.’ She did a funny little chicken-bottom thing with her mouth. ‘Doesn’t seem to want anything to do with village life.’

I thought that this was actually entirely understandable, but refrained from saying so and merely cocked my head to one side in the manner of one who is expecting more information to be forthcoming. She didn’t disappoint.

‘He moved here shortly before you did – but you hardly ever see him around. He stays shut up in that big house of his – Bramblings, out on the Nether Camber road – and never sets foot in any of the village events. Old Commander Wingfield now, he was lovely. Joined in everything, opened the garden to the public, held fundraisers for the church there … but the Professor …’ Her mouth hardened into a thin pink line. ‘He doesn’t want to know.’

‘Well, that is his prerogative. Some people are just reclusive.’

‘Can’t think why anyone would want to be. It isn’t natural. For all your funny ways, YOU aren’t reclusive, are you?’

I was just trying to frame a suitable reply to that one when the bell on the shop door jingled, announcing the arrival of another customer. Glancing over my shoulder, I saw the Chairman of the Parish Council – John Jukes – advancing on us, looking even gloomier than usual.

Mr Jukes is the local undertaker. Legend has it that he once came up with “Your Dead are Our Living” as a catchy strapline for his adverts in the parish magazine, but I have yet to see any written proof of this and until I do, I’ll continue to regard the story as apocryphal on the grounds that no-one could be that daft, not even John Jukes. (On the other hand, it was his wife who, as a receptionist at the local solicitors, had to be stopped from telling tearful clients phoning up to make an appointment after the death of a loved one that they would be seeing ‘Mr McLaughin, rhymes with coffin’ …)

Isobel eyed Mr Jukes questioningly. ‘No luck?’

He shook his head, then appeared to notice me for the first time. Suddenly, and disconcertingly, he smiled. I can’t tell you how unsettling that was. If ever a man had teeth like ancient tombstones, that man was John Jukes. I promptly rechristened him The Mouth of Sauron.

‘JUST the person I’ve been looking for.’

‘Really?’ My voice was so squeaky, I sounded like a three year old. ‘Why’s that then?’

Out of the corner of my eye, I thought I could see Isobel nodding in satisfaction, but I was so hypnotized by The Mouth, I’m really not certain.

‘You’ll have heard all about Camber Carnival?’

‘Um. Yes. Sort of.’ I could hardly have avoided it. Once a year, after the clocks have gone back and the dark evenings are descending, all of the Camber villages – Adverse, Upper and Nether – join forces for a thoroughly pagan ritual involving a  torchlight procession down Adverse Camber’s main street, marching bands, and decorated floats. The highlight of the evening, I have been told, is the competition for Best Decorated Float, which is always judged by three local dignitaries.

For more than a month, amidst utmost secrecy, float construction has been underway in all three villages, with hammering noises issuing from behind closed garage doors, local shops selling out of glue, paper, paint and glitter and the Adverse Camber band spending hours every evening in the Parish Hall, practising what sounds like a hitherto undiscovered piece by Arnold Schoenberg.

The Mouth came closer.

‘Every year,’ it said, ‘we ask a well-regarded person from each of the three villages to judge the Best Decorated Float competition … and at the last Parish Council meeting, we voted unanimously to ask … you.’

‘Me?’

‘It’s a rare honour,’ chipped in Isobel. ‘A very rare honour indeed. Many would like to, but few are asked.’

‘It’s very straightforward,’ continued The Mouth. ‘All the three of you have to do is stand on the steps of the Bank as the procession goes past. Each display that’s entered for judging will stop in front of you for 30 seconds, so that you can have a good look, and then when they’ve all passed you, you repair to a private room in the Drovers where, over a slap-up meal, you decide between you who the winner is.’

‘Oh. Well … That sounds quite jolly and civilized. I’d be happy to, in that case.’ I smiled weakly. ‘Thank you everso much for asking me.’

Later that day, feeling quite pleased with myself, I wandered up to the farm to tell Maggie my news.

She gave me one of THOSE looks – the sort that cause you to hear the thundering hoofbeats of an approaching apocalypse.

‘What? What’s wrong?’

‘They saw YOU coming. didn’t they?’

‘Whaddya mean? They said it was a rare honour. And that the Council voted unanimously to ask me to do it.’

She snorted in a most disrespectful way.

‘They voted unanimously to ask Professor Pilger. He declined. Forcefully, as I understand it. Ever since then they’ve been looking for a sacrificial victim. They’ve asked three people to my knowledge. John Jukes even tried me this morning. I pleaded a prior engagement.’

‘But … what’s the problem? It sounds simple enough.’

‘Last year, the judging committee voted for a float entered by incomers from the local holiday village. All terribly slick and impressive and professional. It was the best float by a country mile.’

‘And?’

‘At least two of the judges have since had to move house. One of them was Sid Button.’

‘As in the Sid Button I bought my cottage from?’

‘The very same. I’d put it on the market now, if I were you – to give yourself a decent head start.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

0

THE TALE OF THE WARDROBE

double oakThe Great Declutter continues apace, and this week it was the turn of wardrobes, books, bookcases, bedding and clothing.

I inherited all of my family’s furniture. Some of it is beautiful, and cherished and has love and beeswax lavished upon it on a regular basis. A lot of it, however, is purely utilitarian: cheap and sturdy flat-pack dating back to the days when MFI was king and IKEA hadn’t set foot outside Sweden – and when a family of six haseffectively been reduced to a family of one (plus two loud-mouthed dogs), six wardrobes is more than anybody realistically needs – especially in a three-bedroomed cottage.

In addition, I was also the proud owner of upwards of 2,000 books (approximately 80% of which hadn’t been opened  in years), sufficient clothing to open a secondhand shop all of my own and enough china and crockery to keep a small tearoom supplied for a decade.

When I couldn’t persuade the regulars on the local online selling site to buy any more of my surplus belongings at ludicrous prices, I rang a national charity who advertised free partial and complete house clearance and said, ‘Come and Get It’.

Not unreasonably, they needed a list of what I had so that they knew what size van to send and fortunately I was able to reel a list off the top of my head: 5 wardrobes, 5 bookcases, 12 large zipped laundry bags of clothes and bedding, a double cupboard, 50 boxes of books …

‘Fifteen boxes of books …?’

Fifty. Five-zero.’

‘Five -zero. Fifty. Really? Okay. Carry on …’

‘Numerous boxes of kitchenware – crockery, cutlery, saucepans, casseroles …’

‘How many boxes?’

‘Numerous.’

‘I need a precise number.’

I chose a number at random. ‘Ten’

‘Ten. Got it. Carry on.’

‘Numerous – I mean TEN boxes of general china, ornaments and – uh – stuff.’

‘What sort of stuff?’

‘Bric-a brac, costume jewellery ….’ I improvised like crazy – covering all eventualities and leaving myself room for manoeuvre. ‘Carved wooden boxes, pictures in frames, old board games … that sort of thing.’

‘Okay. Anything else?’

‘I think that’s about it,’ I puffed out my cheeks. ‘Unless you want a couple of insane Jack Russells.’

‘We don’t accept animals.’

‘I was only … oh, never mind. When is it likely to be collected?’

She consulted something off-phone for a moment, then said, “Tuesday sometime. Is that acceptable?’

‘Fine. I’ll be here all day.’

The next few days were a blur of wardrobe-emptying, bookcase clearing, box stuffing, laundry bag ramming and ornament wrapping. I was still at it at 11.00pm on Monday and up at 5.00am on Tuesday to get as much cleared and packed as I could.

The morning wore on. Lunchtime came and went. The afternoon was rapidly running out of daylight and I was on the brink of getting on the ‘phone to ask where they were, when it rang. There was a unmistakably Polish accent on the other end.

‘We are in village. We cannot find you. You are not where your postcode is.’

This always happens. One postcode covers almost the entire village and a satnav takes you to the middle of the car park, which at least means you always know where people are, but some weekdays the car park is a milling morass of lost delivery drivers.

I explained carefully where I was then hung around outside the gate to flag them down and prevent them from overshooting. Expecting to see at least an 18 tonne truck, in view of what they were collecting, I was a mildly taken aback to see a 7.5 tonner trundling up the hill towards me, and wondered what part of ‘Five wardrobes and five bookcases’ had confused people.

Two men, one clutching a clipboard, climbed out and I sort of peered around hopefully for the rest of them. There was no ‘rest of them’. Two men in a box van. Fifty boxes of books. five wardrobes, etc, etc, etc.

‘Just the two of you? Oh. Fair enough. Shall we go in, then?.’

I led them upstairs and showed them the biggest wardrobe first – a beast of a thing, that had travelled with us for nigh on 40 years and was so huge we’d nicknamed it Godzilla.

‘We start with that …’

‘The doors do come off quite easily,’ I offered, but he shook his head.

‘We can manage, thank you.’

‘Okayyyy ….’

Standing back, I watched them manhandling the double wardrobe out of the corner, through the door and onto the landing. So far, so good. Then the gaffer sent his companion (who had, so far, uttered not one syllable) down the stairs to take the bottom end. A certain amount of grunting ensued as they carried it down the stairs to the half-landing, where the stairwell doglegs to the right – and where the wardrobe lodged firmly at an angle, taking a chunk out of the wall.

They jiggled it. They wiggled it. They came back up and went back down again. Still it stuck.

‘It came up in one piece,’ I said mildly. ‘ Perhaps you should try lying it on its back, that way it will end up the other way around on the half-landing and you can tip it to get it down the rest of the way.

The gaffer – who was getting a bit pink in the face by this time – shook his head.

‘This did not go upstairs in one piece. It was taken apart.’

‘No it wasn’t.’

‘Yes it was. Look I show you …’ He pointed at the cross-headed screws in the side.’These are usually glued. This is screwed. It takes apart.’

‘I know it takes apart, but it wasn’t taken apart when it came upstairs.

‘Please. It must have been.’

‘LOOK.’ I took a deep breath. ‘If it had been taken apart to come upstairs, it would have been ME who did the taking apart and the putting back together, and I think I’d remember. Believe me. It came up in one piece. Try taking the doors off.’

Grudgingly, they complied and it was almost enough to do the trick, but not quite. I repeated the suggestion that they try taking it down on its back instead of its side.

‘It will not work. It did not come up in one piece.’

‘Yes. It. Did. Try it on its back.’

‘It will not go that way. Please. It is too wide.’

By this time, I was beginning to feel slightly sorry for the poor bloke, being so doggedly courteous in the face of a bolshie Englishwoman.

‘It isn’t. It will just fit. Trust me. Just TRY IT.’

‘Okay. We try. But only to prove to you that it will not go down that way.’

Muttering instructions to his mate, he turned the wardrobe onto its back, lifted it up and then looked at me.

‘See? It WILL not go down that way …’

At that moment, a slightly muffled voice floated up from the bottom end of the wardrobe, part way down the stairs. It said just one word:

‘Will.’

I did TRY not to smirk, but I’m not entirely certain that I succeeded.

After that. the remainder of the wardrobes and bookcases posed no problems at all, but when I went downstairs to supervise the loading of the boxes and bags, it became immediately obvious that the wheels were coming off the  Grand Plan at a rate of knots.

They were standing looking in the back of the van, frowns creasing their foreheads.

‘Wazzup?’ I asked, cheerfully.

‘We run out of room.’

‘Oh, I don’t know. You can just about get the rest in … the boxes will stack and the bags can be stuffed in pretty much anywhere.’

‘We have three more collections.’

‘Ah. In that case, you run out of room.’

He looked at his watch.’We have to go back to shop, unload, then come out again.’ He added something succinct in Polish which I suspect was a reference to spherical objects, then said, ‘Where are books?’

I took them over to the summerhouse where I’d stored all the books as I packed them up, and I’m pretty certain they’d never seen so many boxes of books before in their entire lives, because for a few moments, they just stood there and sort of gawped.

About 25 boxes in, they were visibly wilting, so I decided I’d better lend a hand.

By the time we’d got all of the boxes and all the bags of clothes and bedding in the van, they could barely get the doors shut … and were personally looking distinctly frayed around the edges.

I signed the receipt for them and they reeled off into the gathering gloom in their little van, faced with a delivery and three more collections before they could retire to their local pub to tell everyone about the crazy woman with the wardrobes and All Those Books.

For my part, I retired to my newly emptied house to bask in the warm glow of a job well done and secure in the knowledge that I would never have to shepherd Godzilla either up or down another staircase in my entire life.

0

MAN AND SUPERMINI

bedI’ve been having a bit of a declutter.

Having inherited the leftovers of 60 years of family life from my parents, I’ve decided that the time has come to put sentimentality aside and ditch everything that is not strictly necessary, beautiful or useful.

Smaller items can be sold using online auction houses, of course. but the larger stuff — like furniture – is awfully tricky to wrap, takes entirely too many first class stamps to send and makes the local Post Mistress very cross indeed. For that reason, I’ve been using a local ‘Buy, Sell and Swap’ site to shift the bulkier heirlooms, and I’m here to tell you that there’s a whole undiscovered sub-culture out there, sitting in an eerie blue glow as they reel though ‘Dirt Cheap/Buyer Collects/Needs Gone Today’ listings for stuff they never even knew they wanted.

There are several rules governing  behaviour on such sites that the newcomer needs to be aware of, so as a sort of Public Service, I’ve been taking notes:

1. ‘Reasonable offers considered’ will be interpreted as ‘75% less than the asking price’.

2. If you pitch your prices accordingly, and add 75% to the asking price, all you’re likely to get is abuse.

3. Really good quality items listed at sensible prices will either be ignored or the 75% rule will come into effect, whereas there’ll be a stampede for a job lot of half-used tins of paint and emulsion.

4. People will be terribly interested in something, promise to come along bearing money, ask you to reserve it for them while they find somebody with a van and then you’ll never hear from them again. In the meantime, of course, you’ve been turning down offers because ‘I’ve already promised it to someone else’.

5. Once you’ve made a sale and the buyer has appeared to cough up the money and collect the goods, their eyes will start roaming around your property and they’ll try to buy anything that doesn’t seem to be nailed down. Someone who came to buy a strimmer from me spent an inordinate amount of time making offers for  my (brand new) planters, the water butts, the deep freeze and my folding bicycle – none of which they could have got into their car anyway. Which leads me to …

6. A person’s desire to buy something is inversely proportional to their ability to transport it.

I had a small larder fridge which was surplus to requirements, and advertised it ludicrously cheaply because:

(a) I wanted to get rid of it and

(b) It was secondhand when I got it, and I couldn’t guarantee how much longer it would keep working.

A terribly nice but rather portly gentleman turned up to collect it in a very old, leather-upholstered Rover saloon. He rolled up at the gate sort of bug-eyed and pale-faced, having never strayed so far from street lights and dual carriageways before.

‘I never even knew this place existed.’ were his first words.

With the pleasantries out of the way, we fell to examining the fridge, and after a cursory inspection (along lines of ‘Does the light come on when you open the door?’) he pronounced himself happy. We then turned to look at his car.

‘I think I’m going to have to take the child seat out of the back …’ he said after a moment of silence.

‘I’d say so.’ I replied, doing a quick visual to-and-fro between the fridge and the car. ‘Because you aren’t going to get it in anywhere else.’

I stood for a while watching him struggling with the child seat before deciding that if I wanted my life back I’d better go and lend a hand.

‘It’s my neighbour’s,’ he explained. ‘I took her and her little ‘un to the station. I know nothing about child seats.’

‘Well that makes two of us, but how hard can it be?’

Eventually, and completely by accident after many minutes of fruitless pushing and shoving, I found a release lever under the front of the seat … which only left us with the problem of fitting the fridge in the car.

‘You do know they’re supposed to be transported upright, don’t you?’ I observed wheezily as we crowbarred it onto his back seat, face down.

‘Are they?’ he said, leaning heavily against it to give it a final shove. ‘Why?’

‘Oil in the refrigeration system. Gums up the works.’

‘Oh.’

‘But if you let it stand for 24 hours before you plug it back in, it’ll probably be fine.’

‘I’ll do that. Thank you.’

If it worked at all when he got it home, I’d be very, VERY surprised …

All of that, however, pales into insignificance against the saga of the metal bedstead.

A local lady put dibs on it for her brother, whose marriage had just collapsed, necessitating his move into a council flat. He had nothing at all in the way of domestic items, so she was scouring the local selling sites for cheap furniture and household goods for him. When she explained the problem, I said I had a lot of bedding and general household bits and bobs that he could have for a song, if it helped, and she accepted gratefully and arranged a time for her brother and their dad to come around and see what I had that he could use.

The two of them duly turned up dead on time. The father was a lovely bloke all bouncy and smiley and in his early 70s. The son was tall, lugubrious and a bit taciturn, but I told myself that he was going through a rough time and probably didn’t feel terribly sociable.

They looked at the bed and agreed to buy it, said they’d take all the the bedding and towels (although a degree of self-control was required when the son said,’Don’t you have anything that matches?’) and also put dibs on a chair, a box of glasses and mugs and small coffee table.

‘Great,’ I said. ‘When can you come and take them away?’

They looked at me as if I was crazy.

‘We’ll take them now,’ said the son, in the tone of one who thought he was dealing with an idiot. ‘That’s why we came.’

I looked at them. Then I looked at their car.

It was one of those super-minis … you know – the teeny-tiny cars with no back-ends, just a hatch where the rest of the car should be.

‘You think you can get a bed and a mattress into THAT?’

‘Aye,’ said the father, shuffling off gamely.’I’ll just put the back seats down.’

The strangest part was where they put the six-foot base in the back of the car and were genuinely surprised that three feet of it were sticking out the end.

Volunteering rags for the sticky-out bits, plus ropes to tie the back down, I went off to fetch them while father and son just stood there, scratching their heads in puzzlement, still apparently convinced that there must be some way of getting the whole thing in and closing the hatch. After all, they’d put the seats down and everything …

I came back with the necessary, plus a big sheet of polythene for the mattress, which was plainly going to be sticking out the end as well. Again I got the uncomprehending stare.

‘The mattress will get wet if it rains,’ I said, looking up meaningfully at the leaden skies.

‘We can get the mattress in,’ said the son, and went off to fetch it.

I can honestly say that I’ve never seen anyone fold a pocket-sprung mattress in half before, let alone stood and watched them trying to shove it into the back of a very small car.

Part way through the process, the father mildly suggested that they should take it out and try again from a slightly different angle because it seemed to have got stuck on something (you know, like the front seats …) at which point the son went absolutely and completely ballistic. I should think they heard him in the next village. He ranted. He raved. He said that his father always did the same thing and why couldn’t he effing this and effing that and he could effing … well, you get the picture.

His father dropped everything and wandered off to safe distance down the lane, leaving me standing beside the human volcano, holding onto the mattress in the hope of preventing it from springing out of the back of the car with the force of a cannonball and fracturing my skull, while vaguely telling myself that now I knew why his marriage had collapsed. ‘Anger management problems’ I said to myself sagely.

And then, as suddenly as he had erupted, he subsided again. His father wandered back and we carried on as if nothing untoward had happened. We took the mattress out, stuffed it back in, and even found room for the bedding, towels, glasses and mugs. Regretfully, however, they had to pass on the chair and the coffee table. Money changed hands. They left. I locked all the doors. I gibbered for a while.

There’s really nothing I like better than a little walk on the weird side.

0

THE OTHER LEFT …

laneI pride myself on my navigational skills. All my friends will tell you that I scorn satnavs and swear by homing instinct and map books. Not that I don’t own a satnav: I do. I won it in an online competition which involved me volunteering the information that Emily Brontë wrote Wuthering Heights, (or possibly that Charlotte wrote Jane Eyre  – I forget which it was now, it was so long ago). Half an hour later I was told I was the proud owner of a satnav. It was all very odd. If I’d realized what the prize was, I’d have kept quiet. Such is life.

Purely out of curiosity – and to experience life at the cutting edge of technology – I did use it once, on my way back from my weekly shop. It tried to send me up a single track road with no passing places and nowhere to turn around, so I consigned it to the depths of the glove compartment forever, along with a packet of wet wipes, an ancient and inedible roll of extra-strong mints and a shriveled up apple core.

Last week, when I decided to take a few days off and head north into Scotland for some R & R, I set off for my rented cottage confident in my ability to find my way unerringly to my destination armed with nothing more than a map book, the cottage owner’s directions and my famous homing instinct.

Finding Scotland is easy. You just keep going north until you pass a sign saying ‘You Are Now Entering the People’s Republic of Scotland’.

Finding the area of Scotland I was going to – Dumfries and Galloway – is equally easy. Just after you pass the aforementioned sign, turn left. Bingo.

For a while, everything went swimmingly. Once you’ve negotiated the crazed shoppers throwing themselves across the road to reach the temple of rabid consumerism that is Gretna Gateway Outlet Village, you’re on the perfectly splendid A75, cruising effortlessly towards your destination, enjoying the rolling Scottish countryside and thinking how thoroughly civilized it all is.

It was when I left the ‘A’ roads that the trouble started.

You see, I was totally convinced that I knew where I was going. I’d researched it thoroughly beforehand, peering at maps, reading the directions, carefully circling places in pencil and making notes to myself about which way to turn where. My downfall was brought about by a combination of hubris, natural stupidity and the fact that, unlike most people, I don’t have a ‘left’ and ‘right’: I have a ‘left’ and ‘other left’ … and if I don’t have a helpful co-pilot to shout ‘THE OTHER EFFING LEFT!’ at me at the relevant moments, I tend to go the wrong way. (If I’m giving someone else directions, I have the disconcerting habit of waving the correct hand around while saying the wrong word, which invariably ends with the poor lost driver saying ‘Thank you very much’ rather feebly and then driving off in the hope of finding someone who isn’t a gibbering idiot.)

Having spent a sizeable chunk of my adult life negotiating narrow country lanes – reversing for hundreds of yards, squeezing into tiny passing places and performing 16 point turns – they hold no terrors for me, which is just as well because otherwise I’d have been a basket case by the time I finally found the cottage.

(I will now switch over to Internal Narrative Mode to give you a true flavour of what followed …)

Okay … So I have to go straight through this village … Ooh. You can’t. That’s funny, I’m sure the map didn’t show a fork in the road there. Well, I’d better take this one, it looks like the more major road. … Oh I say, that’s a nice church … and look at that dear old chap sitting on the seat with his walking stick, gumboots and tweed cap – how quaint is that? … Um … I think it’s this way … do the instructions say ‘left’? Is that left? Which hand do I write with? Oh yes … this one … ooh, don’t do that when you’re driving you fool … so that’s left … so that’s NOT left and anyway I’ve gone past it … This road looks interesting … what does that sign say? … Upper Middle of Nowhere? … I remember seeing that on the map and it’s going in the right direction …. Aargh! … tractor …. Back we go … there was a passing place back here somewhere … oops, mind the wall … ah yes … here it is …. Oh, it’s all right, don’t bother to say ‘thank you’ it was my pleasure, really it was, you hatchet-faced moron … . Never mind, onward and upward … Golly, very upward … I don’t remember anything about a steep hill … and there’s grass growing down the middle of the road, that’s never a good sign … a-a-a-nd … bugger-that’s-a-long-way-down … I think I’d better turn around when I can and try that turning I missed … Oo-er … it’s becoming a cart track … ah, a gateway … that should do … a-n-d …back the way we came … Isn’t this fun? … There’s the turn again … what does that sign say? … Lower Middle of Nowhere … okay, that sounds hopeful … dum-di-dum-di-dum-di … Oh there’s that’s the nice church again … and the old chap on the bench … heh-heh-heh … I know where I’m going sir, really I do … Crikey that’s a very humpy hump-back bridge … and all those scrape marks where cars have grounded on it … wait for the graunching sound … no, we’re good … That’s a very posh house … that can’t be it, can it? … Does it look like the picture on the directions? … Well, sort of  … but …. that really  can’t be it  … much too grand for the likes of me … let’s go on a bit further …. turn right over the bridge it says …Bloody Hell!! Where did HE come from!? … That was close. Sodding locals … what a pretty road … all green and leafy … and LOOK, we’re coming to a village.’

And there, again, was the church and the old chap in the gumboots and tweed cap sitting on the bench …

By this time the light was going and  I decided it was probably prudent to pull up and consult the directions again … but  they were scarcely helpful: ‘Leaving the village, drive point two of a mile and turn left. Drive for one point three miles and turn right. Drive point three of a mile and turn right into the driveway.’

As I read them, wondering how anyone could reasonably expect me to watch the mileage while simultaneously avoiding drystone walls and boy racers, the strangeness of the wording  struck me and I realized, belatedly, that they’d been cribbed directly from a satnav – which is when I had my one bright thought of the entire trip.

‘If I program the post code into the satnav, it should take me where I want to go.’

I rummaged in the glove compartment, dragged out the hated technology, plugged it in, punched in the postcode and …’Turn left …

Like a little sheep, I allowed it to guide me back down the way I’d just come, past the old chap on the bench, and into the woods.

‘Drive for one point three miles and turn right.

Turn right.

I stared down the way it was directing me. The lane went over something that was not so much a bridge as a slightly-wider-than-average iron girder. Under no circumstances, normally, would I have gone down it … but the satnav was nagging, so over I went, waiting for the scraping noise as I lost my paintwork.

‘Drive point three miles and turn right.’

‘Turn right.’

‘You have now arrived at your destination.’

And, to my amazement, I had.

The cottage was in a location so far off the grid that I needed a satnav to find it. The irony was blinding.

Nice cottage, though.

1

THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE PIGGY-WIGS

wemyss pigAs I believe I’ve said before – and will doubtless say again – the good thing about living in a small and relatively isolated community is that everybody knows everyone else and if someone goes missing – doesn’t come in to collect their papers, doesn’t take in their milk or doesn’t fetch up at the Drovers’ Arms at precisely 7.30pm for their half of Old Snecklifter – an expeditionary party will be sent out to make sure they’re still the right way up.

The bad thing about living in a small and relatively isolated community is that everybody knows everyone else and you can’t get away with a bloody thing. The village grapevine makes the KGB look positively leaden-footed.

Which is why I nearly choked on a Viennese whirl at  Mrs Fitt’s charity coffee morning the other day.

I actually hate coffee mornings, but when you receive a hand-designed invitation, embellished with shakily executed flowers, multiple curlicues and a knock-kneed, cross-eyed donkey that looks more like a rabbit, you can’t really say ‘No.’ The only alternative is to plead a previous engagement and then vacate the village for a couple of hours at the relevant time, which would be both churlish and excessive, however tempting.

So there I was, over-sugary confection in one hand, dinky little bone china cup of weak instant coffee in the other, pinned against the flock wallpaper in Mrs Fitt’s front room by the redoubtable Audrey.

‘If you own a dozen bibles, why do we never see you in church?’

‘Pardon?’ I did the rabbit-in-the-headlights thing. One minute we’d been talking harmlessly enough about what a sterling job the local Horse and Donkey Rescue Centre did, the next I’d been skewered.

‘Stan Burgess says you have a dozen bibles in your house.’

Comprehension dawned.

I’d hired Stan Burgess to build a bookcase in the alcove in my sitting room. Plainly, while doing so, he’d taken a mental – or possibly written – inventory of the contents of my library.

‘Well he’s wrong.’

‘Why would he lie?’

‘I didn’t say he lied. I said he was wrong. I have sixteen bibles. He obviously missed a bookcase somewhere. I also have six copies of The Lord of the Rings, four copies of A Pilgrim’s Progress and ten copies of Wuthering Heights. I collect fine and first editions of classic books. Not …’ and here I straightened to my full five foot eight inches (plus two inch heels), ‘ … that it’s anything to do with you.’

Norman Ruskin sidled up, a wicked glitter in his eye. ‘Did someone say “bible”?’

Audrey backed off a little. ‘I was asking her why we never see her in church when she owns so many bibles.’ She held his gaze defiantly. ‘It seems very odd to me.’

‘She’s a book collector. I actually covet some of those bibles. They’re beautiful.’ He sank his teeth into a scone as Audrey digested this information.

‘You KNEW?’

‘Of course,’ he replied through a mouthful of blackcurrant jam and cream. ‘We were comparing notes. I too am a bibliophile.’

She clucked irritably. ‘Well of course you collect bibles, you’re a clergyman.’

‘No, Audrey.’ He sighed, very gently, and gazed around for something else to eat. ‘You misunderstand. A bibliophile is someone who loves books – not specifically bibles. What I collect are whodunnits. Christie, Sayers, Allingham … I have literally hundreds of murder mysteries. Jazz complains that I don’t leave her any room for her pigs.’

‘Pigs?’ Audrey plainly felt that the conversation, which had started so promisingly for her, was unravelling faster than she could knit it back together. ‘What pigs?’

‘Porcelain pigs, metal pigs, glass pigs, pig pin cushions, pigs on tea towels, piggy banks, pig duvets, pigs on table mats, pig mobiles, fluffy toy pigs … Jazz just loves pigs. Pigs and whodunnits, that’s what up at the Vicarage.’ He smiled at her benignly. ‘But I do have a bible somewhere, too. It goes with the dog collar.’

‘But  … but … I’ve never seen them.’

‘That’s because they’re in our private rooms.’

‘Norman’s whodunnits take up the whole of one wall,’ I added, helpfully. ‘They’re awesome.’

Her eyes swivelled manically towards me. ‘YOU’VE seen them?’ The ‘you’ carried a whole world of bemused disbelief, as if the very fabric of her universe was crumbling. I nodded enthusiastically.

‘Oh yes. And the pigs. Lovely collection of piggy banks.’

The poor woman sort of staggered away. I felt almost sorry for her. Almost, but not quite.

‘She’s basically a decent soul,’ Norman said as we watched her retreating back. ‘And knows absolutely no fear, which comes in handy when you need an attack dog to go and sort the local council out. Teeny bit inflexible though. Do you really have sixteen bibles?’

‘Oh yes. Do you really have a houseful of pigs and whodunnits?’

‘We do. Except I made up the bit about the pig duvets. We don’t have those.’

‘Tell you what – I’ll show you mine if you’ll show me yours.’

‘Deal. How are the Viennese whirls?’

‘Tooth-rotting. How are the scones?’

‘Rock solid. Should we brave the Victoria sponge?’

‘Why not. I’m all for living dangerously.’

 

 

 

 

0

LOOKING FOR ECCLES

TORTY‘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 …?’

‘My tortoise.’

‘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.

‘Bingo!’

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?’

‘Can do.’

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?’

‘No.’

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?’

‘Champion.’

1

ATTERCOP, ATTERCOP …

webThe other evening, the Old Girl dog was sitting on my lap and gazing lovingly into my face. Well, I told myself it was lovingly, but I suppose it was more likely she was simply trying to implant the word ‘cheese’ in my brain. However, whatever her motives, she was sitting on my lap staring at me.

And then she yawned.

I swear could feel my skin peeling away from my flesh …

She was as an elderly dog when I adopted her, and her teeth were in such bad shape that most of the front ones were extracted as soon as she was strong enough. (She recently sank her gums into the ankle of a passing jogger and he didn’t even notice.) Since then, Tom-the-Vet and I had been keeping an eye on the few she has left, knowing that they would eventually need attention, but also conscious of the fact that 13 year old terriers shouldn’t be given general anaesthetics any more often than is absolutely necessary – at least not if you want them to wake up again.

It’s a constant balancing act, trying to decide which is the lesser evil, but that yawn told me the balance had tipped and Something Had to Be Done. So this week I deprived her of breakfast and took her down to the surgery to meet her fate.

The Boy Dog was ecstatically happy when I came back without her. He had me all to himself, didn’t have to share things with HER and thought all of his Christmases had come at once.  I, on the other hand, told to ‘come back at 2.30pm’, spent the day fretting and watching the clock: remembering her stricken face as I walked away, worrying that her staunch little heart would pack up under the strain and expecting the ‘phone to ring at any moment with a sad voice on the other end saying ‘I’m terribly sorry, but …’

Needless to say, it didn’t happen. Tom-the-Vet says she has the heart of small ox and that whatever it is finally kills her, it’s not  going to be a heart problem. In my opinion, it’s likely to be something she ate. She’s a dog without discernment, dietetically-speaking. Rocks, slugs, toads, dirt, decomposing wildlife, mushrooms, hedgehogs … she’s tried them all at some point, with varying degrees of ‘unfortunate consequences’ most of which end up on the fireside rug. (In case you were concerned the hedgehog was, of course, never in any danger at all and the toad was also completely unharmed. In fact, she couldn’t spit it out fast enough, and spent the next half hour ack-ack-acking her way around the garden.

Unable to wait until 2.30pm, I turned up at the vet’s surgery 20 minutes early and, reassuringly, could hear her shouting the odds from the recovery room just down the corridor. She sounded absolutely furious, which I took to be a healthy sign, and settled down happily to chat to Jenny, the friendly veterinary nurse who doubled up as the receptionist.

As we were discussing the merits of various breeds of dog (a couple of demented pugs having just left the waiting room as fast as their stumpy legs would carry them) an elderly lady came in, carrying a capacious handbag. From the apron under her coat to the short wellies that had seen better days, everything about her said “Farmer’s Wife”.

‘I don’t ‘ave an appointment, but I wondered if Tom would take a look at something for me?’

Jenny smiled at her brightly. ‘What’s the problem Hilda?’

‘Something’s been biting our Glen, and me son found this in the kitchen …’

Rummaging in her bag, she produced a jam jar, half-filled with grass and with holes punched in the lid. She held it out to Jenny who leaned forward to inspect it just as the woman added, “It’s an attercop.”

The effect on Jenny was electrifying. She shot backwards as if someone had punched her in the solar plexus and literally flattened herself, bug-eyed against the far wall.

‘PUT … IT …  AWAY.’

Startled, Hilda shoved the jar back into her bag and stared at Jenny as if she thought she’d gone stark staring bonkers, which – indeed – she very nearly had.

‘Can’t. Stand. Spiders.’ She gibbered, and if she could have climbed out of the window, I’m pretty certain she would have done.

I, on the other hand, love spiders – and as soon as I heard the word ‘attercop’. I was on my feet, hopeful that something exotic had escaped from a crate of bananas. I took the jar from Hilda’s bag, ignoring poor Jenny’s feeble pleas of,

‘Oh please don’t …’

Peering through the glass at the lurking occupant, I was vaguely disappointed to see a perfectly ordinary house spider. True, it was a very large and handsome specimen, but it was nothing out of the ordinary, and I said so.

‘It’s a beauty, though.’ I added, put it back in her bag. ‘And the grass was a kind thought.’

‘Well, ’twas skittering around in the jar and I didn’t want it to hurt itself.’

Jenny squeaked. Hilda and I looked at her curiously, and it was Hilda who voiced what I was thinking:

‘So you don’t like ALL animals, then?’

She shook her head mutely and it wasn’t until the jar was safely stowed away in the handbag once more that some of the colour returned to the unfortunate girl’s face and her vocal cords started to function again. Mind you, what she finally said fell firmly into the category of “the blindingly obvious”:

‘I’m absolutely terrified of spiders.’

‘So what would you do if someone came in with a pet tarantula?’ I asked, more out of badness than genuine curiosity.

‘I’d leave the building,’ she replied firmly, recovering some of her shattered composure. ‘Possibly even the county.’

At that moment, Tom-the-Vet appeared with a small and slightly wobbly Jack Russell on a lead and the news that she’d lost four more teeth. ‘Won’t stop her eating, though. Just keep her on soft food for a couple of days.’

As I was leading the Old Girl away to return her to the bosom of her family and a deeply disappointed Boy Dog, I heard Jenny saying calmly, ‘Hilda has something she’d like you take a look at and I’d be obliged if you could do it in the surgery.’

‘Oh?’ said Tom. ‘What’s that then Hilda?’

‘Attercop. Big one.’

‘Really? I LOVE spiders. Let’s take a look.’

And then I heard a whimper. At least, I think I did – although it might just have been the consulting room door squeaking as it closed …

(Picture credit: Adapted from Cobweb II by Kjell Eson on Flickr and reproduced under a Creative Commons License.)