April 28, 2010

Doing the chores

Filed under: Canal,misc — Duchess @ 6:08 am

My favourite chore – just as well, because it’s at least a daily one eight months of the year – is the fire.

From the time I got back to England in early January, until just a few days ago, the stove has been going almost continuously. Once a fortnight, or so, Dusty rings his bell, ties his boat up to mine and tosses 25 kg bags of coal onto my roof, before filling my tank with diesel and, if I need it, replacing my propane. If I am not home he slips a bill through my stern doors before he moves on to the next boat.

In between his visits I drag the coal bags one by one from the roof and onto my covered front deck, and twice a day I fill my coal scuttle using a small black shovel. I’m a little bit glad when the bag is empty enough that instead of shovelling I can lift it and pour the last nuggets, but then I’m a little bit sad too, because I know in just one more scuttlefull I’ll have to heave another 25 kg bag from the roof.

On a really bad day I realise at about 9 o’clock at night that the scuttle needs refilling and the bag is empty. I don’t like doing the roof manoeuvre ever, but especially not in the cold and dark. So then I suffer from duelling aphorisms: never put off until tomorrow what you can do today, competing with: sufficient unto the day is the trouble thereof.

At bedtime I bank up the coal and close down the dampers, and with luck, in the morning I only need to open all the draughts and the fire will wake up with me. There’s a “Mr Tippy” steel box by the stove for emptying hot ashes and I proudly keep count – nine days, ten days, a fortnight and the fire has never gone out. Coal is heavy and dirty, but it burns for a long time and a fire set just right can be left alone for many hours.

But the wind conspires with the stove to make my fire temperamental and capricious. On still nights if I turn the draught too low the fire will die, and when it is windy, if I give the stove too much air, the coal will be burnt to ashes before dawn.

On those mornings I kneel cold and tea-less in front of the stove, trying to coax it into life: fire first, kettle next.

But all is changed, now that spring has finally arrived: the trees are in blossom, the hedge has leaves and the flowers in the towpath gardens no longer look windswept and tentative. Yesterday the temperature reached the heady heights 21 C (that’s around 70 in “old money” – the Brit expression for all measurements imperial).

Dusty was the only unhappy boater on the canal as the days began to warm. He grumbled that he hoped it would be a short summer. I still had 3 bags on the roof and didn’t order more, though his text message announcing his visit read: “You think spring has sprung, but I had ice on my boat yesterday. Plant your coal bulbs now!”

Dusty is right, of course. We still need our fires, and I still light mine most evenings; as soon as the sun goes down, it’s cold. But I don’t need to keep the fire going through the night, and if I throw in a shovelful of coal in the morning I am sitting in a tee shirt with the doors open by 10 am.

These days, wood, and not coal, is my friend. Small logs burn fast, and can be scrounged here and there. I’ve watched my neighbours drag fallen branches from along the river below the lock and cut them up on makeshift sawhorses. Until September we just need a quick, fire fix. Poor Dusty.

April 20, 2010

Ferrets are the new Chihuahuas

Filed under: Back story,misc,This is not a mommy blog,Village life — Duchess @ 11:47 am

I heard on the news the other day that ferrets are the latest chic pets in the UK, for some reason favoured by flight attendants (who have a lot of time on their hands just now).

Trend setter that I am, I had pet ferrets more than a dozen years ago.

My children began agitating for a ferret or two after they saw pictures in an educational book helpfully provided by their American grandmother.  The begging campaign went on for months.

In a moment of insanity, I called the local wildlife park and negotiated two young males.  The gamekeeper enthusiastically agreed that ferrets were just what my family needed.

We named our new pets Bangers and Mash, one streaked steel gray and the other a pale ermine. The gamekeeper advised handling both as much as possible in order to tame them.  As I stroked and cuddled Mash, he nestled into my shoulder, turned his head and sank his teeth into my neck.  Every time anyone held him he bit suddenly and he bit hard.

I found Mash a new home fast (as did his next family), but, as far as I was concerned, Bangers settled in much better.  The kitchen became his domain, and he had free rein whenever the doors were shut. 

Bangers spent his evenings like any model pet, curled up on my lap, letting himself be stroked.  He similarly favoured my younger son. 

No one else was safe.  Bangers terrorised the two sheep dogs, and the cats hissed and bolted whenever they met him. 

The kitchen became a no-go area unless I went in first and captured him.  Otherwise there was usually blood: Bangers was no amateur ferret.  

Bangers doesn’t like strangers, I would explain apologetically to friends, relatives and visitors, scooping him up in my arms.  He’ll be all right when you get to know him. 

My husband absolutely declined to get to know him, and the children began to suspect that there was a good reason most people just had dogs or cats.

Meanwhile, taking advantage of any windows or doors left carelessly open, Bangers became a regular escapee, though he always came home.  He knew when he was on to a good thing: squeaky toys, raw hamburger for tea, and an evening in a comfortable lap.

One day, during my mother’s annual visit from the US, she and I went out, leaving my stepfather alone in the house.

In the middle of the afternoon the shopkeeper’s husband banged on the window.  Hugh opened it, just a crack.

Your ferret is in my wife’s shop! the man shouted.  You had better come and get him!

It isn’t my ferret, returned Hugh, a lawyer by trade.

A lengthy negotiation ensued.  It was finally agreed that, without prejudice, Hugh would open the kitchen window, and the shopkeeper’s husband could, if he so chose, and entirely at his own risk, pass the animal through that opening.  Once the animal was inside, Hugh would close the window.

The next day the ferret’s visit to the shop was the talk of the village.

I thought he would go up Mrs P’s trousers! said the Principal Soprano in the church choir.

Yes, replied the Shopkeeper, adding darkly, And we all know Mrs P doesn’t wear knickers.

After that, and what with the children complaining they couldn’t get breakfast because Bangers would attack them, I bought a rabbit hutch and moved our pet outdoors.

For a while that seemed a good solution, but rabbit hutches are designed for much stupider animals, and Bangers soon worked out how to open the cage’s sliding door. 

He often escaped, but as he was always back, happily curled up in his bed by tea time, I convinced myself that this arrangement was working.  Bangers obviously liked his home, or he wouldn’t return, and no harm seemed to come of his outings.  In the evenings, I still brought him in the house to sleep on my lap.

This was the uneasy status quo for another few months.  My neighbours reported sightings of Bangers all around the village (they hadn’t forgotten poor knickerless Mrs P’s happy escape), but by the time they phoned, Bangers was invariably back home, and peacefully asleep. 

It couldn’t have been my ferret, I would say.  I’ve just checked, and my ferret is locked in the rabbit hutch.  Maybe you saw a weasel.

One early summer day the old lady two doors down knocked on my door in obvious distress.  Your… creature! she gasped, Is…in…my…house!  A bloody handkerchief was wrapped around her hand.

She breathlessly explained that she had fought to rescue her ducks from his jaws, and after biting her he had run from the garden through her open door and up her staircase. 

I knew Bangers too well to think he would still be there, but to reassure her I wandered through every room of her house calling him and squeaking his favourite toy.   Bangers come! I shouted. Bangers come!  (Squeak, squeak.) 

Meanwhile my elderly neighbour had phoned the vet.  He arrived while I was still reassuring her that my ferret could not possibly be in her house. 

I don’t charge for treating ducks, the vet said, glaring at me. 

Sometime that evening, as usual, Bangers came home.  Since he hadn’t managed to dine on duck he happily accepted his usual minced beef.

In the morning the District Nurse was on my doorstep.  My neighbour had a severe attack of angina in the night (brought on by worrying about her ducks, said the nurse).  An ambulance was called, and she had spent the night in hospital.  If I didn’t find another home for my ferret, the District Nurse would inform the Environmental Health Officer that I was harbouring a Dangerous Animal.

A friend of a friend knew a ferret fancier in the nearby village of Ducklington.  He had already taken in the incorrigible Mash, and Bangers joined his former litter mate that afternoon. 

For several years afterwards, on the way home from swimming lessons we used to pass the roundabout leading to Ducklington.  Sometimes I would remind the kids as we drove by that Bangers and Mash were there.

My children always declared themselves glad that Bangers and Mash were having a jolly Ducklington life, but my littlest one invariably shook her head solemnly and spoke for the others:

Ferrets do not make good pets.

April 11, 2010

Doing the washing up

Filed under: misc — Duchess @ 1:17 pm

As all the world knows, a general election has been called in the United Kingdom.  The exact date is always within the gift of the Prime Minister, the only rule being that every constituency must choose its Member of Parliament at least once every five years. 

Gordon Brown was dead out of time when he finally confirmed he would go to the country on 6 May 2010; the last Parliament was elected on 5 May 2005. 

Once an election is called, Parliament has only a few days to deal with any pending legislation.  First there is prorogation, and then there is dissolution.  In between, there is the wash-up.

During the wash-up the government quietly drops anything especially controversial, and Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition agrees not to grumble; there isn’t time for the usual debate as bills progress through the House of Commons to the Lords and back again. 

Instead the Clerk of the Parliament reads out each remaining bill, and then, as if the very language brings special magic, the Clerk begins speaking Norman French: never mind our usual democratic processes, the Queen wills it. 

Royal assent comes in a form Chaucer would have found familiar in the Customs House of 14th century England.  Hundreds of years later, willy nilly, law is still made.

Quietly lost in last week’s wash-up was a bill that would have added 10 pence to the price of (alcoholic) cider. 

Saved was the Digital Economy Bill, which Her Majesty vicariously willed into law in Parliament’s last minutes.  I am told that, among other things, this bill means households caught pirating software, music, movies or television could have their internet access cut off.  I guess that pretty much includes any UK household with teenage children. 

Never mind, though internet lights may be going out all over Britain, parents can still drown their sorrows in cheap cider.

La reine le veult.

April 6, 2010

Pussy cat, pussy cat, where have you been?

Filed under: misc,Politics and history — Duchess @ 2:21 pm

After months of nursing the worst kept secret in Europe, Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown finally revealed the next general election date.

First he had to visit the Queen to get her permission to dissolve Parliament.  Since “dissolve” sounds a bit drastic (and possibly painful) the press usually turns that verb into a noun, and instead explains that the PM asks HM for a “dissolution”. 

Never mind.  It amounts to the same thing: the Prime Minister takes a flash car to Buckingham Palace, bows to Her Majesty (who, like everyone else, has known for months what’s coming) and before you can say Peter Mandelson, everyone is melting.

And now I’ve got to work out how to get a vote, non-person that I have become, ever since I moved onto my boat.  My tenants will be registered at my address and they will have removed my name, assuming I would re-register elsewhere. 

The problem is, my boat has no address…  And, though I get parcels and deliveries at the pub, I don’t think I can claim to be resident there.  Once upon a time only landowners could vote in this country.  It still seems to be true that only people with addresses can.

Meanwhile my Baby will be a first time voter this election, and she is very keen.  She has signed up to volunteer for the Liberal Democrats.  Her father says she can put up posters in the windows of his house in north Oxford.  He is wondering if that will cost him business as an economist-for-hire, but he’s willing to take the risk.  His beloved grandmother was an early 20th century member of the Liberal party, and nostalgia beats billable hours.

As for me, though I voted in the European elections last year, this will also be my first general election.  I became a British citizen a few weeks too late to vote last time. So I asked my Baby to find out from her Lib Dem organiser friends how her homeless mother could be franchised.

She declined.  She thoroughly disapproves of the way I live, and when I ask why, she gives me a long list, beginning: 1. You shouldn’t risk drowning when you cross the threshold in the morning.

Right.  I’ve got until 6 May to work out how, and for whom, to cast my vote. 

When it is all done, dissolving will make way for kissing of hands.  There’s nothing in the world like British politics.  What larks!

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