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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

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SCHLICKETY-BINK ….

garageThere are, of course, both pros and cons to living in a rural community. The biggest ‘con’, unsurprisingly, is that everyone knows everything about you. If they don’t know it they try to find it out as soon as possible, and if they can’t find it out, they make it up. Gossip abhors a vacuum. If you meet a (male) friend for lunch in a remote watering hole ten miles away, it’s a major talking point in the local pub by evening. Furthermore, in the absence of any concrete information to the contrary, your lunch partner will be an old flame/your husband/your ex-husband/your best friend’s husband/your brother/your fancy man – depending on how lurid (or boring) the informant’s own internal life is. It’s the price you pay for fresh air and tranquillity – along with midges, rats and Victorian drainage systems. On the other hand, the biggest ‘pro’ is – well – that everyone knows everything about you. It’s virtually unheard of for people in small communities to lie dead in their house for weeks without anyone noticing. Most of the neighbours know your personal habits better than you do, and if you don’t turn up to collect your morning paper by midday, they’re sending the ghillies out. Nor do problems stay problems very long, because there’s always someone you can ask for help; and if they can’t help you themselves, they’ll always know someone who can (or possibly someone who knows someone – but it amounts to the same thing). Reliable local tradesmen are another bonus. True, punctuality and a pressing sense of urgency aren’t always well to the fore in their list of virtues, but when they do eventually turn up they do a decent job and they don’t rip you off. This isn’t necessarily because tradesmen in rural areas are inherently more honest or competent than those in urban areas, it’s because – as the local plumber said to me the other day while he was elbow-deep in my cistern – ‘Word soon gets around.’ The tradesman who overcharges and/or does a shoddy job in an area where the main means of communication are grapevines and smoke signals doesn’t stay in business very long. Which isn’t to say that you don’t often need industrial quantities of patience and a sense of humour: take my car for instance. It’s a solid, sensible and unremarkable vehicle that starts first time, trundles along gamely and isn’t a target for car thieves because no boy racer would want to be seen dead in it. I’ve had it for many years and every thud, rumble, click and squeak of its aging engine and chassis is an old friend to me. So when I started it up in the garage this morning and it began going ‘schlickety-bink, schlickety-bink, schlickety-bink‘, alarm bells rang. I know every single sound that car can make, and ‘schlickety-bink’ isn’t one of them. Very cautiously, I eased it out of the garage and into the road, expecting at any moment that something would fall off, explode or shoot through the bonnet. Then – when nothing unfortunate happened – I nursed it down the hill to the local garage.

Burdock’s Garage is housed in a large and dilapidated building which was built in the 1950s as a fire station, but never used as one. When construction was nearly completed, someone realized that the road at that point was so narrow the fire engine would have to do a five point turn just to get out, which – while immensely entertaining for the onlookers – would have been potentially devastating for the poor bloody householder whose bungalow was being incinerated. So the fire station stayed where it was, and the new building stood empty for several years until William Burdock Snr took it over on a temporary basis while his own premises were being refurbished after – you guessed it – a fire. When the refurbishment was complete, he decided that he didn’t want to move back, so he stayed put and rented his old premises to – you guessed it again – the Fire Service. So Burdock’s was at The Fire Station and the fire station was at Burdock’s and everyone was happy.

The fire station is long gone, but Burdock’s remains, patched up with an assortment of old doors and corrugated iron sheets and decorated with advertising signs which would probably valuable if they weren’t only held together by rust. William Burdock Jnr is one of life’s mysteries. He’s a cheery bloke who is forever wandering around with a mug of tea in his hand, talking to passers-by and never, apparently, doing any work. How does he stay in business? Well, he has a brother, known universally as ‘Big Gerald’, who is both a mechanic and part owner of the garage, but hardly ever seen during the hours of daylight. You work it out.

When I arrived at Burdock’s, William was, as always, outside with a mug in his hand. He beamed at me as I pulled up and wound down the window.

‘It’s make a funny noise William.’

schlickety-bink …. schlickety-bink …. schlickety-bink

‘What sort of noise?’

schlickety-bink …. schlickety-bink …. schlickety-bink

‘A sort of schlickety-bink sort of noise.’

He cocked his head to one side and listened intently for a moment.

schlickety-bink …. schlickety-bink …. schlickety-bink

‘Nope. Can’t hear anything. Hold on – let me get in the passenger seat.’

He clambered in, still clutching his mug, and repeated the head-cocking exercise.

schlickety-bink …. schlickety-bink …. schlickety-bink

‘Is it making the noise now?’ he asked.

schlickety-bink …. schlickety-bink …. schlickety-bink

‘Yes. It is …’

‘Are you sure?’

schlickety-bink …. schlickety-bink …. schlickety-bink

‘Absolutely CERTAIN, William.’ I realized that I was starting to clutch the steering wheel so hard my knuckles were turning white, and took a deep breath for the sake of my blood pressure. Still he looked bemused.

‘Is it a loud noise?’

schlickety-bink …. schlickety-bink …. schlickety-bink

Fortunately for my sanity, Big Gerald chose that precise moment to break the habit of a lifetime and emerge blinking into the sunshine, attracted either by my increasingly hysterical tone of voice or possibly by the schlickety-bink …. schlickety-bink …. schlickety-bink ….

‘Your engine’s squeaking a bit,’ he pronounced solemnly, after listening for a moment. ‘They do that, Zetec engines, when they get older. Not a problem.’

‘Can you fix it?’ I asked, desperately. ‘Like now?’

‘No need. There’s nothing amiss. They just do that, Zetecs. If it worries you, remind us the next time you book it in for a service. Mind you, it’ll soon start squeaking again, being a Zetec.’ And with that, still muttering about Zetecs, he disappeared back into the gloom,  presumably to carry on communing with his shock absorbers and differentials and what not.

I looked across at William who was still sitting in my passenger seat, unconcernedly drinking his tea and poking around in my glove compartment.

schlickety-bink …. schlickety-bink …. schlickety-bink

‘Can you still not hear it?’

schlickety-bink …. schlickety-bink …. schlickety-bink

‘Oh yes. I can hear THAT. I didn’t think that was the noise you were talking about. They do that, Zetecs.’

schlickety-bink …. schlickety-bink …. schlickety-bink

(Image from a photograph by Elade Manu, and reproduced under a Creative Commons licence