A Tunnel is Only a Hole
on its Side
The Hole Trilogy
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
Copyright © 2013 James Minter
All rights reserved.
To everyone. I hope this book brings you that smile.
I wrote this book, the story, the characters and how they behave are all mine, but like many things, it takes a host of people to actually put something like this together. First and foremost, I must thank my wife Maggie, who deserves recognition for her significant contributions. I write longhand – with pen and paper!! She is a 100 words per minute typist. Without her ability to listen to me reading aloud while her fingers dance across the keyboard, the whole process would have been extremely long and tedious.
I’m also very conscious of the need for quality, especially in this self-publishing era. To this end I engaged the services of Gale Winskill, Advanced Member of the Society of Editors and Proofreaders, (SfEP) who was diligent in identifying the errant commas, slips in tense, transgressions from point of view and generally poor grammar where it occurred.
Additionally, I have to say thank you to Fiona Joyce (Dunscombe), prize winning author, who has a wonderful, envious, grasp of the English novel and writing which I can only aspire to. We never stop learning. Fiona showed me how far I still have to go. With her mentoring and coaching skills I feel confident I’ll get there.
Never judge a book by its cover, according to the saying, but everyone does. With so many books available, the need for an eye-catching cover has never been greater. My thanks goes to Paul Shinn, who, yet again, has successfully captured the spirit of my story in his wonderful drawing.
Colin was denied sleep. Unsure if it was the cold or the worry he tossed and turned. Beside him, Izzy slept. He judged by her deep rhythmic breathing, she was in a far better place. The clock had moved on fifteen minutes since he’d last looked: five o’ clock; dead on. The bells of Henslow church confirmed it. Why us? Why now? He couldn’t answer himself but nor would the thought let him alone.
Pulling the covers over his head challenged the cold — it was bitter in their bedroom — but it did nothing to drive away his angst. I can’t disturb her, that’s not fair. But she is my wife … and great in a crisis. He leant over to shake her. Watching her sleep, he couldn’t bring himself to do it. The conversation played out in his head. Okay, creep down stairs, jot down my ideas and come back with a cuppa, she’ll never know. He had a plan; action took over from thought. First one foot, trailed closely by a second, emerged from the covers. Before his body had time to follow, his feet rejoined him back in bed.
‘My, it’s cold out there!’ Shocked, he blurted out the words. Realising, he shushed himself: Don’t wake her. Are you a man or a mouse? He was back in his head. Hesitating before answering, he dwelt on his response. Colin, get a grip; slippers and socks are by the bed, your dressing gown’s on the back of the door. Quickly and quietly gather them up, then head for the landing. His thoughts and actions were in sync. Making his way downstairs, he remembered the third from the top produced a loud squeak. Stepping over it, he stumbled past the next two treads. In the dark, he’d misjudged the distance. He struggled to maintain his balance ricocheting off the walls like a pinball in an arcade machine. The bottom step came quicker than anticipated, but at least he was down in one piece. Gathering himself, he listened for signs of movement from Izzy. He heard nothing.
Passing the coat stand he grabbed a scarf, matching bobble hat and fingerless mittens. The central heating wouldn’t come on for a couple of hours. It was so damned cold. The relentless north-easterly wind made it feel like Siberia. Poor buggers, he thought, they live with this most of the time. Slipping into the sanctuary of the kitchen, he dressed for warmth. The Rayburn offered some solace, but against the pernicious gusts growling around the window and door, it was all but useless.
He pulled the table and chair as close to the cast-iron structure as he could. Pen at the ready and tea in hand, he settled into the task. Henslow church bell rang six times. The wall clock confirmed it. He’d made several notes, nothing of any significance, more like headings. What he needed were incisive questions if he was going to get to the bottom of this. He wished Izzy was here; after all it was her who started him off on this path of uncertainty.
She must have sensed his needs. Her head popped around the door.
‘Are you in there?’ She yawned as she spoke, ‘I wondered where you were.’ Fully entering the room she rubbed her eyes against the bright light. ‘How long have you been here?’
He realised he’d nearly got away with it. ‘Only a few minutes.’ She didn’t like it when he couldn’t sleep.
‘Tea? I’m making one for myself.’ She pulled a chair out from the table. ‘What are you doing?’
He didn’t know if it was his wife or mother speaking. Either way he felt better she was there. ‘It’s what you said at teatime, you know, about the bypass coming through our farm …’
‘Colin is that what’s got you up? For goodness sake, it’s only a rumour I heard in the village. You know what they’re like. Take no notice.’ She cringed at the thought, ‘Porridge and toast?’
How do women do that? From devastating news to breakfast needs in the same breath without batting an eyelid. He didn’t ask her. ‘Yeah, great. Thanks.’ He continued with his deliberations.
Watching dawn break was a pleasure Izzy enjoyed especially on a cold frosty February morning. Their farm took the brunt of any bad weather; the metre-thick stone walls proved more than a match. She felt reassured knowing the house had stood for a couple of hundred years. The various trees, shrubs and saplings scattered around the yard were bent near double with the weight of the hoar frost. They glistened white. The water vapour crystal covered branches formed magnificent structures. Devoid of foliage, the tendril-like twigs, enclosed in this thick coating, lost their individuality of species while assuming uniformity of colour. Nature, despite the efforts of man, she thought, is responsible for extraordinary feats, and a blanket of hoar frost is one of them.
‘Have you seen outside?’ Lost in his deliberations he didn’t answer. She tried again. ‘Have you looked out this morning?’
‘What? No, sorry. What did you say?’ Despite it being Saturday, he had no time for trivia given the potentially devastating news of them losing their farm and livelihood to a new road.
The view from the window captivated her. ‘Oh nothing, love, just looking at the hoar. Wondered if you’d seen it?’
‘What? A whore?’ He lifted his head to confirm what he’d heard.
I’m talking about the hoar frost. Anyway that’s a horrible expression. If any girl has to do that sort of thing for money I feel sorry for her. It must be dreadful: all those stinky men groping and slobbering. Now you’ve ruined it for me. I was thinking how amazing Mother Nature is til you filled my head with disgusting thoughts.’ The sound of post being pushed through the letter box interrupted her. ‘Oh, I wonder what exciting offers we’ll be unable to resist today.’ Scurrying out to the hall she returned. ‘Here …’ She plonked a stack of letters in front of him.
Too engrossed to notice, he slapped his pen on the table and flopped back in his chair. ‘I stopped traditional farming because of paper work and now my new business of hole-farming is under threat from road building.’ He shook his head. ‘What does one have to do …?
While he talked she sorted the post: most went to recycling. One in particular caught her eye. ‘I think you’ll want to see this.’ Izzy pushed the envelope towards him.
The handwritten address, with its large expressive curls suggested confidence, creativity and attention-seeking in the writer. It worked. Colin took it for a closer inspection. He recognised the handwriting.
‘It’s from Lady Wills.’ He didn’t disguise his anticipation
Izzy leaned in. ‘Go on then. Open it.’ She was just as keen.
Picking up his knife he licked off the residual Marmite before placing the tip in the envelope’s seal. An incisive movement revealed the contents. He laid the letter, accompanied by two additional inserts, on the table. Each had their draw: Izzy’s eyes landed on the gold-embossed writing of an invitation; Colin’s on the cheque for £15,000, for the holes he’d supplied. Looking at each other, broad grins filled their faces.
‘Tell me! What does she say?’
Colin flicked open the folded sheet. He turned towards the light and cleared his throat.
‘Dear Colin and Isobel …’ he read aloud.
‘Isobel? That sounds a bit formal. I wonder why she calls me Isobel?’
‘It’s just the way she is. Now shush. Let me finish.’ With that he flexed his arm, holding the letter high so as not to cast a shadow across it.
‘Dear Colin and Isobel,
I know the recent past has been difficult — starting a new business; the various accidents befalling Colin; the incident with the geese; Mr Pryor; the Major; stockings and so on, but throughout this time, you have shown dedication and commitment to your business, and more importantly, to your customers; namely, me.
I want to thank you personally for your efforts and show you my appreciation by extending the hand of friendship. Accordingly, I invite you both to my house-warming party. Your contributions have been significant in getting the magnificent gardens to their former glorious state, with the added feature of a series of ornate ponds which now adorn the Long Walk. Please find herewith a cheque for same. I’m planning to incorporate the ponds into the party with a torchlight parade, so everyone will get the opportunity to wonder at your achievements.
I do hope you accept my invitation. As you will notice from the enclosed invite, it is a fancy dress “Come as you are” party. A prize will be awarded to the couple that most closely resembles their picture. See the invite for details.
For now, yours sincerely.
‘Oh, Colin, fancy that; a personal thank you. Extending the hand of friendship, and featuring your holes in a torchlight parade. When’s the party?’ Reaching across him she retrieved the invite. ‘April, that’s …’ she counted on her fingers, ‘about 8 weeks. I’m not sure I can wait.’ She moved into the light. ‘Have you seen it?’ Holding her arm’s high, she ran her fingers over the embossed writing. The cream card featured an ink drawing of the manor; subtly done, it had sufficient depth to be recognisable, but not so much as to overwhelm the writing. Their names had been handwritten by Diana herself. ‘Look, it’s the same writing as the envelope.’ Izzy placed both side by side to check. ‘Such a distinctive hand. She’s a woman of class.’
Her eyes widened, darting across the words, she reread them again and again. Her lips curled, a smile grew to fill her face. In her mind she was far away, not in the kitchen of the old farmhouse, but walking gracefully, elegantly down the Long Walk of Henslow Manor. She imagined all the other partygoers admiring, pointing, commenting on Colin’s holes. Contemplating the text she chewed her lip. She didn’t want him to speak; to break the spell. Then it dawned on her.
‘It’s a come as you are party: pictures, prizes. Colin, you know what that means?’ She waited. An answer didn’t come, ‘Where’s the camera?’
The puzzled look on Colin’s face told her he’d not been listening.
‘The invite … it’s a fancy dress party with the theme of come as you are. That means come dressed in the clothes you’re wearing when you get the invite. And she’s asked for a picture to be sent with the RSVP to prove it.’
‘What me? In my blue-striped winceyette PJs, with knitted bobble hat and matching scarf? Izzy!’ He shivered emphasising how he felt.
‘Look here,’ she ran her fingers over the text again. ‘It clearly says “come as you are”. It’s just a bit of fun. Everyone’s in the same boat. Can you imagine Steve Pryor in his pyjamas, with his fat belly?’
‘I’d rather not, thank you.’ He surveyed his own substantial stomach and sighed. ‘Do we have to?’
Her mouth slackened and eyes widened: she stared. ‘Colin you aren’t serious?’
Her gaze followed his, but didn’t stop at his paunch. Instead, she was drawn to the fly of his pyjama trousers. ‘You’ll have to wear underpants. You can’t walk around Henslow Manor like that.’ Colin’s manhood was clearly visible.
‘You shouldn’t be looking.’ He blushed. It was an automatic response.
‘We’ve been married for forty years. There’s not much left to shock me.’ She grabbed at his masculinity.
‘Izzy, no … not now. I’m busy. Anyway, we’re in the kitchen; that sort of thing remains in the bedroom.’ He brushed her hand away.
‘I’m only teasing. We still need a picture. Have you seen the camera?’
Colin wasn’t listening. He’d gone back to his notes.
‘Colin? Camera? Have you seen it?’ She rested her hand on his shoulder.
‘Umm … yes … no. I don’t know.’ He didn’t look up.
‘Is it in Old Alfred Mac?’
‘What?’ He was still refusing to participate in the conversation. Rather he doodled.
‘What? You know what! The camera! You took it with you to get some pictures of the ponds in the Long Walk, remember? Did you take it out of the lorry?’
‘Look, I’m trying to concentrate. Can you be quiet for a minute?’
‘Did you leave the camera in Old Alfred Mac?’
‘What about the route, exactly how close is it coming to our farm?’
‘I don’t know it was just gossip. Now where’s the camera?’ She was getting fed up with the sound of her own voice.
He was fed up hearing the same question. Pushing back his chair the legs scraped across the kitchen flagstones. Their noisy protest drowned out his mutterings. In haste, he slammed the back door. His movement triggered the security lights in the yard. She saw he’d nothing on his feet. The cold of the frozen ground got to him. Up on tiptoes, his gait reminded her of a praying mantis. Making steady progress, it faltered when he trod on something obscured by detritus. An interlude for toe-rubbing, accompanied by a stream of expletives followed, before he resumed his journey towards the lorry cab.
She used his absence to make herself more presentable: she ran a comb through her hair, removed her gilet and donned a cardigan, and a pair of shoes more becoming than her faded pink lamb’s wool slippers.
‘Here!’ He was back. He thrust the camera at her.
‘Look Colin, I don’t like the bypass idea any more than you do, but I’m just the messenger. Anyway, you were the one who went out without anything on your feet. You can’t blame me for that.’ She took the camera.
‘Go on then, take your ruddy picture. I need to get on.’ He held a false smile; the grin so wide it hurt.
‘I can’t take it yet, the camera’s cold.’ She held it up for him to see. The lens was misty after coming from the unheated lorry cab into the warmth of the kitchen. ‘Give it a few minutes.’
Dropping his smile, he flopped back into his chair. The fly on his pyjama bottoms gaped. There was nothing to see. It must be cold out there, she thought. It crossed her mind to warm him up, but given his foul mood and how he had reacted to her earlier advances, she thought better of it.
‘Okay, it’s ready now.’ She waved the camera under his nose. He grunted in response. ‘Come on Colin, the sooner we do this the sooner you can get on.’
Reluctantly, he stood. Pushing back his chair, again the legs screeched on the flagstones.
‘Do you have to?’ He was behaving like a petulant child, she thought
‘You know very well what! Come over here.’ Izzy had the camera positioned on top of the refrigerator with the timer set. ‘Stand there!’ She pointed towards the sink. ‘And smile.’ She depressed the shutter-release button before darting back to join him. The ten-second timer counted down.
‘Are you sure it’s …?’ He was interrupted by the flash.
‘You ruined that. We’ll have to do it again.’
‘You think so?’ He wasn’t convinced.
She showed him the image in the review screen. ‘Is this how you want Henslow to see you?’ The camera had caught him in mid-sentence; he looked more like a goldfish than her Colin. He said nothing; she set up the camera again.
‘Right, ten seconds.’ In a trice she was back by his side. ‘Smile.’ They waited.
‘It’s funny, you think ten seconds is such a …’ Once again, he was interrupted by the flash.
‘Oh, for pity’s sake, Colin! Just shut up and wait. Ten seconds are ten seconds. Try counting elephants. Okay, here we go again.’
‘One elephant, two elephants …’
‘Not out loud, you …’ Now she was thwarted by the flash. ‘Look what you’ve made me do! Count in your head.’
After repeated attempts, she was successful.
Reviewing the image, ‘It’s no David Bailey, but it’ll do.’
Colin took the camera. He studied the screen.
‘Have you seen this?’
‘Yeah, it’s not great, but it’s recognisable as us, and Diana can see what we’re wearing. Why?’
‘Before emailing it, you need to study it more closely.’
She snatched the camera back. ‘What do you mean?’ Her intense scrutiny produced a result. ‘Oh my God! We can’t send that! It’s pornographic!’ She flushed bright red.
‘I thought after forty years of marriage nothing could shock you.’ He couldn’t help smiling to himself.
She fired up the computer. ‘I’ll upload the image and crop it from the waist down. No one will know.’
‘Marg!’ Graham had no success waking her. ‘Marg!’ He shook her shoulder. She pulled the duvet over her head. ‘Marg!’
‘For goodness sake! What?’ She wasn’t happy being disturbed.
‘Sorry, my love, it’s just … I’m wet.’
‘What? Wet? What do you mean wet?’
‘My hair … it’s sort of wet.’
‘Night sweats; all that whisky and Vindaloo. I’m not surprised.’ She still hadn’t emerged from under the covers, ‘What time is it?’
He glimpsed at the digital clock’s green figures, glowing from the far side of the room.
‘Early. Five-ish, I think.’
‘Turn your pillow over. I’ll sort it in the morning.’ As she said it she rolled over, grabbing a handful of bedding in protest at being disturbed.
He flipped over his pillow. ‘Marg.’
‘What now?’ Any sympathy had evaporated.
‘It’s no better.’
‘There’s a spare one in the top of the wardrobe.’ Dismissive, she hoped the exchange had ended.
‘My side or yours?’
‘Urrr! If I get it do you promise to shut up and let me sleep?’
‘That would be so kind. Of course.’
‘Well, put your light on so I can see,’ she said in a, do I have to think of everything? sort of way.
Fumbling for the switch, he turned his bedside lamp on. A flash, followed by nothing, suggested the bulb had failed. He sought confirmation. The red glow of the Teasmade standby light and the clock’s green digits had vanished. The room was in total darkness. The trip fuse had blown.
‘Oh, for pity’s sake! What now?’ As he said it he swung his legs out of bed. He needed to investigate. She scooted further down the covers; the cold was bitter.
‘My foot … the carpet … its soaking!’ He placed his other foot on the floor. ‘We’ve a leak.’ Standing, he peered up, despite it being pitch-black. A large water droplet hit him between the eyes. ‘It’s coming from the loft.’ The futility of pointing escaped him. Insistently, he waved his arms around.
‘What are you going to do?’ Marg pulled the duvet around her like a shawl. She spoke through chattering teeth. ‘It’s so cold.’
‘When I was in the Falklands …’
‘No, Graham, this is not the time. We need action, not stories.’ With it being so dark she missed his indignant look.
‘All I was going to say was …’ He never finished the sentence. A torrent of freezing water, carrying a large chunk of ceiling and other building debris, knocked him off his feet. Stumbling against the wardrobe doors he came to rest prone, amongst plasterboard, fibre wool and several hundred copies of Punch magazine that, until now, had been stored happily in the loft for posterity. With a lack of visual cues, all Marg could go by were the sounds of crashing and banging, accompanied by the groans of her husband. Near silence returned to her previously lovely bedroom, broken only by the sound of a continuous drip from the fractured water pipe high in the roof void.
‘Graham, speak to me. What’s happened?’ Staring hard into the darkness she strained for a sign. The coughing and spluttering told her he’d survived, but was in no fit state for conversation. She ventured a foot out of bed. The usual soft, embracing shag-pile had turned into an ice-cold clench of a water-sodden carpet. Instinctively, she pulled her foot back under the covers.
‘Can you move?’ Panic sounded in her voice.
‘I survived Goose Green and all those bloody Argies could throw at us.’ He was back. ‘Just need to get my bearings.’
‘In the under-stairs cupboard, there’s one of those Maglite torches.’
‘I’ll try, my love, for you, Queen and Country.’
She knew he was alright; melodramatic but fine. ‘We’re depending on you.’ As she said it the sound of the bedroom door handle turning, followed by the appearance of a chink of light, confirmed his exit. The landing, illuminated by a street lamp, shed much needed light into the pitch-black of their disaster area.
Graham, crawling on his hands and knees, kept his profile at ground level, for fear of more incoming magazines. His military experience taught him to minimise the target area. Blackness returned: he’d closed the door behind himself.
That man doesn’t think. She considered calling after him. Before long the beam of the Maglite cut through the darkness. Playing off the ceiling, the full extent of the damage became clear.
‘Water–cock–stop thingy; have you turned it off?’ Mage spoke. Spurred into action, he disappeared, with torch, in search of the stopcock. A brief glimpse of street light entered the room before he shut the door behind himself. Again, she was plunged into total darkness. Focused on his mission he never heard her protests.
Left to her own devices Marg negotiated the water-soaked carpet, squelching each cold step. Fumbling her way, she reached the door at the same time he returned. Without thinking he flung it wide open. She took the full brunt of his action. Feeling resistance and hearing her cry out, he didn’t stop. Swinging the torch around he illuminated her with the beam.
‘What happened to you?’ He was unaware of what he’d done. ‘There’s no time for lying around, old girl. We need to get this lot sorted.’
Dazed, definitely wet, and given how hard he hit her, very sore, she’d landed near some magazines. Although sodden, crunched up, they made excellent missiles. She let rip.
‘Oi, what’s that for?’
She threw another. ‘I was on the other side of the door, you great oaf.’ Soaked from head to toe, her nighty and hair clung to her. Marg looked like a participant of some perverse water-based sex romp. As the wife of an ex-Major, and Chair of the Harpsden Ladies Guild, it wasn’t the image she wanted to exhibit.
‘Remember, what happened here today stays here! I don’t want to be the centre of gossip or rumour.’ She was adamant.
‘There are more important things to do right now than talk about you.’ As he said it another cascade of water came from the gaping hole in the ceiling. ‘I need to get up there.’ He strode to the wall of wardrobes. ‘It’s freezing. I’ll need to wrap up.’ He slipped a T-shirt over his head. ‘You know … layers. In the army we were told the best way to keep warm is with lots of layers.’ He donned a second T-shirt. ‘Something about trapped air acting as an insulator.’
By now he’d put on three T-shirts and a couple of ordinary shirts.
‘What about your legs?’ She sounded wifely.
He pulled on a second pair of Y-fronts. ‘All my socks are only ankle high. If I put on more than a pair of trousers I won’t be able to bend.’ He rummaged in the drawers for inspiration.
‘Look in my top drawer … on the far left.’ The torch beam switched sides of the wardrobe.
‘What the hell am I supposed to do with this?’ He was holding up black thong.
‘Far left.’ She sounded irate.
‘What am I looking for?’
‘Tights. A pair of my tights under your trousers will give you an extra layer.’ Her terseness didn’t escape him.
‘I’m a man. We don’t wear tights. I leave that sort of thing to that bloody Griggs farmer fellow.’ He sounded most indignant.
‘They’re your legs. If you get cold or cramps, don’t come running to me. For goodness sake, get on with it! Who’s going to see?’ At times like this he drove her to distraction.
‘Which ones?’ Does it matter?’
‘There are some thick, black ones. Try those.’
He held up a pair by the waistband, letting the legs hang. ‘I’m six foot four and you’re five foot three. What chance have I of getting into these?’ He emphasised his comment by running the torch beam up and down the dangling legs.
‘Yes, I guess so. What about stockings then?’ As she spoke a blast of Arctic air funnelled through the ceiling hole. It caused them both to recoil.
‘Where are they?’ His teeth chattered so much he could hardly form his words.
Marg squelched her way over to the wardrobe. She wasn’t keen on him rifling through her drawers. ‘Here …’ She passed him a pair of stockings and a suspender belt.
He held the latter at arm’s length as if it would bite given half a chance. ‘What am I going to do with this? My waist is forty-four inches …’
‘And counting.’ She didn’t know if he heard. It was true.
‘This wouldn’t fit around one thigh.’
‘Oh, give me those.’ She snatched back the stockings and suspender belt. ‘Here, try these.’ She passed him a pair of hold-ups. ‘They’ve elasticated tops so they don’t need a suspender belt.’
‘Ah the wonders of modern technology.’ He surveyed them in his hands.
‘Sit on the bed, take your socks off. They’re wet anyway. Stockings first, one at a time. Bunch it up in your hand, holding the end open. Start by pointing your toes and pull gently, unravelling the stocking as it covers more of your foot. Now, up the leg. Be firm, but don’t put a hole in them.’ The spectacle of her husband, Graham — ex-British Army Major and Captain of the Harpsden Golf Club for the tenth consecutive year — wearing stockings had never entered her mind, but how quickly and easily he managed to get them on; as if it wasn’t his first time did. She said nothing.
He stood on the bed. The beam from the Maglite clearly defined him. Marg took in the sight. ‘You need to pull them up more; you’ve baggy knees.’ As she said it the light from the torch paled next to the built-in flash of her smartphone’s camera. ‘I had to, Graham ... you don’t know how ridiculous you look.’ She took another for good measure.
‘Right Mrs Flash-Happy.’ He snatched her phone, repaying her flagrancy by taking a couple of her. ‘As you’re so good with cameras, you can take some pictures of this lot. No doubt we’ll need them for the insurance claim.’ He handed her phone back, and finished dressing in silence. Better that, he thought, as a row now wouldn’t help.
She duly snapped away. With each picture she realised how badly spoiled her once gorgeous bedroom was. The enormity of the flood-damage dawned.
‘We’re upstairs!’ The realisation hit her. Before she’d finished speaking she was onto the landing and running down the stairs, ‘Graham, quick. Here!’
In the drawing room the ceiling rose of the chandelier provided the perfect conduit for a stream of water from above. It had poured, was still pouring, unabated onto the Chesterfield. Rivulets emerged from each corner, distributing the insidious substance evenly across the entire surface of the hand-made, specially imported Turkish carpet.
‘Bucket!’ She ran past him, headed for the utility room.
‘I thought the same, though we usually save that sort of language for the Mess.’ She was beyond earshot.
What wasn’t escaping via that route was spreading over the rest of the ceiling. The emulsion paint acted as a dam. Given the volumes of water, it was now trapping a significant quantity, forming a large, inverted dome. It weighed heavy. As it was still growing sooner or later, gravity would win.
She was back. ‘Prick it! We need to prick it, otherwise it’ll burst. You’re taller. Climb onto the sofa and prick it.’ She handed him the bucket before disappearing again.
He held the it beneath the chandelier, while waiting for her to return. It was filling too quickly, and worse for him, too noisily. Since waking, with all the unexpected activity, he hadn’t had the opportunity to evacuate his bladder. Alone in the dark, with only the sound of running water, the need was overwhelming.
‘Marg!’ His urgency was obvious. ‘Here, now!’ From where he was stood, looking through the double doors opening into the conservatory, he saw the torchlight reflected off the glass. She was in the kitchen. The light was moving constantly, bobbing about as she trailed from drawer to drawer, and cupboard to cupboard. Now it vanished. ‘Marg!’ He tried again.
‘Here, look,’ she puffed. Conscious of the impending disaster, she’d run. In the darkness, he couldn’t see she was holding a meat skewer.
‘What am I looking at?’
‘Here, in my hand’ She shone the torch on her outstretched arm, ‘It’s a skewer.’ She sounded proud.
‘Sorry, I can’t do anything right now. I need you to take this bucket.’ He thrust it at her. Without thinking she accepted. It was close to full; the weight took her by surprise.
‘Graham!’ Her protest went unheard. He was long gone, heading for the cloakroom and the relief brought about by the first pee of the day. Struggling, she emptied the bucket it into the sink.
‘We’ll need more than one.’ He was now back standing by the sofa, and able to concentrate. ‘You swap with me. Hold the bucket to catch the dripping water, and I’ll get the stepladder and another bucket from the garage. We’ll have to hope the bulge holds.’
His re-emergence was announced by a clunking sound in time with each step. The metal bucket, hooked over the ladder’s top rung, swayed with his motion. In the dark, Marg was transported to her youth, remembering the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz. She’d played Dorothy in her school production: a far more enjoyable experience than was happening right now. She sighed.
‘What are you going to do with that?’ Her curiosity got the better of her.
‘If you climb off the sofa I’ll push it out of the way. The bucket can perch on top of the stepladder, then we can concentrate on the bulge.’
‘You’ll need something to stand on. Even with the skewer you won’t reach.’
Looking around, he spotted the antique carver chair in the hall. He headed towards it.
‘What are you going to do with that? No way! Not over my dead body. That was Grandad’s.’ There was no ambiguity in her tone.
‘But, Marg, look!’ He shone the torch on the bulge. ‘It can’t last much longer.’
She ran past him before returning from the kitchen with a breakfast bar stool.
‘I can’t stand on that. I’ll break my neck.
Not if I do it first. She kept the thought to herself. ‘What do you suggest?’
This time it was Graham who ran past her, heading for the kitchen. He came back with a second barbeque skewer and a roll of Sellotape. Strapping the two together he had a prodder of adequate length to reach the bulge whilst standing on the floor.
‘Right, my girl, this is it!’ He had his makeshift tool within an inch of the dome of water.
‘No, not yet!’ The ferocity of her voice surprised him. ‘Let me get this lot out the way.’ She shone the torch at the sideboard laden with family pictures, knick-knacks and other objets d’art precious to her. ‘I know you … there’ll be water everywhere.’
‘Thanks for the vote of confidence. Actually, I’m planning to make a small incision, sufficient to let the water escape in a controlled, manageable stream, to minimise further damage.’
‘Yeah, pigs may fly. Just do it.’ Her patience was tried. She flicked off the torch to look out the window, to see if it was getting daylight. It wasn’t. She flicked it back on. His small incision ended up as a six-inch gash. Gravity took over. He was completely soaked. In the torchlight she saw he was less than happy. She kept her ‘I told you so’ to herself.
‘Graham, I think we need help.’ Her diplomacy was understated. Taking her phone from her pocket, the light from the screen illuminated her face. She busied herself typing. ‘Here.’ She held it up for him to see.
‘24/7 Emergency Plumbing? They’ll cost us a fortune.’
She ignored his protests; the sound of ringing confirmed her intent.
‘Good morning, 24/7. How can we help you?’ It was on speaker phone.
‘We’ve a burst pipe in the loft.’
‘Who am I speaking to?’ He sounded too cheery for that time of the day.
‘Sorry, I’m Mrs Woods. We have a burst pipe in the loft.’
‘Your address, Mrs Woods?’
‘Lane End House, The Lane, Harpsden, OX7 2DL. Can you come right away?’
‘Are you easy to find?’
‘Do you know Harpsden?’
‘Do you know the Lane?’
‘Well, we’re the house at the end.’
‘Just checking. Now, what seems to be the problem?’
‘We’ve a burst pipe in the loft.’
‘You say you’ve a burst pipe in the loft?’
Give me strength. ‘Yes. Now, what time can you get here?’ She was trying to move the conversation on.
‘Well, you’re the third so far today. It’s down to the heavy frost last night; minus fifteen, apparently.’
‘So what are you saying?’
‘Not before midday.’
‘Midday? What are we supposed to do til then?’
‘Have you turned your stopcock off?’
‘Then there’s not much else you can do.’
‘But we’ve no electricity, water or heating.’
‘Sorry to hear that. Do you get on with your neighbour?’
‘You know … the people next door.’
‘Yes, I know what neighbours are. Why?’
‘Well you could ask them.’
‘For what?’ She held the phone at arm’s length, looking at it in disbelief.
‘If you could use their facilities. You know, shower, toilet, kettle …’
‘Oh, I see. Thank you I’ll bear them in mind. See you after twelve. Good bye … I think he’s right, Graham. Come on, we need to get you into dry clothes. Can you manage a smile?’ As she said it the flash on her phone’s camera fired. ‘In time, you’ll laugh about this, you wait and see.’
In the Pryor household the phone rang with a persistence that only phones can muster. From deep under the duvet, Julia let her feelings be known.
‘For goodness sake, Steve, answer it!’ She waited for release from the ringing that she might continue sleeping. It didn’t come. ‘Steve!’ As she said it she put her knees into his back and shoved. The combined onslaught had the desired effect.
‘What? Who’s that ringing at this ungodly hour?’ His hand appeared. Fumbling on the bedside table, he tried to locate the offending article. The ringing continued, the phone remained elusive. Fed up, Julia had no option but to stretch across him.
‘Julia Pryor. How can I help?’ The caller had no inkling of the preceding events. Julia’s telephone voice was well-manicured, displaying a quality of authority and calmness.
‘Marg? Why are you ringing in the middle of the night?’ She checked the alarm clock; it was actually nearly eight. ‘What’s happened? It’s not Graham? He’s okay, isn’t he?’ Julia pulled herself up to a sitting position, sorting her pillows out to make herself comfortable. She sensed it was going to be a long call.
‘Oh, poor you!’ She turned her attention towards Steve, whilst still listening. Shaking his shoulder, his head emerged from under the covers.
‘Who is it? Tell them to sod off. We don’t want any double glazing.’
‘It’s Marg. Their bedroom ceiling’s fallen in.’
‘It couldn’t have happened to a nicer person.’ He pulled the covers back over his head.
‘Steve, what’s wrong with you? Graham’s a good friend.’
‘Yeah, that’s what I thought, but I’m not so sure now.’
‘What do you mean? Sorry, Marg. No, not you. Steve made a comment.’ She held her hand over the receiver. ‘Look, they need somewhere to go. They’ve no water or electricity. The plumber suggested they go next door, but you know they’ve never got on with the Bertrams, so they want to come here. What shall I say?’
‘How long will they be here?’ He didn’t sound too welcoming.
‘Marg, any idea …? No, forget that. Of course you can come here, and stay as long as you like. After all, what are friends for? Will you want breakfast? We’ve not eaten yet.’ She listened for a few more minutes whilst Marg filled her in on the details. ‘Okay, bye for now. See you in half an hour-ish.’ She went to replace the handset. As she leant over, Steve’s arms appeared from under the covers, grabbing her.
‘Not so fast.’ He pulled her down on top of him. She saw the glint in his eye that said only one thing.
‘Not now. They’ll be here in a few minutes. I need to get showered and dressed, and so do you … and shaved; your face feels like a badger’s bum.’
‘You’re so romantic. That’s all a bloke needs to hear.’
‘Look, think about it. If we’re nice to them, they’ll be beholden to us. You know, owe us a favour.’ She smiled down at him.
‘You’re worse than I am. I thought you said they were friends.’
‘Well, they are, but …’ She thought for a bit. ‘It won’t hurt to have them in our debt. You never know when it’ll come in handy.’
The doorbell chimed. From within the house could be heard sounds of activity: doors closing, feet on stairs, and shouts of enquiry. It was obvious to Graham and Marg their hosts weren’t ready for their arrival.
On the outside of the door it was a different story. After their early morning battle with cascading water, building materials and Punch magazines, all the Woods had wanted to do was to leave as quickly as possible. Normality beckoned. Graham hated his early morning routine being interrupted. Waking to the shrill of the Teasmade had a comforting sound all of its own: it signalled all was well with the world; that a new day had arrived; that he had control of his situation. As a former army major, being in control, uniformity, consistency, regularity were paramount. Without these facets in life how would it be possible to get through a day unscathed? For him, surprises weren’t good; they represented a shift from an ordered society. He disliked surprises, and the roof falling in had been a bigger surprise than he cared for.
‘Open up, man! We’re freezing out here.’ He could hold his peace no longer.
‘Graham, what did you say that for? I’m sure they know we’re here. Listen.’ As Marg spoke the front door opened. Julia appeared, looking immaculate. In the intervening thirty minutes, she’d showered, dressed, done her make-up, put the coffee on and even placed bread in the toaster.
‘Marg, Graham, hope I didn’t leave you …’ Her words dried up as she took in the sight. Her jaw-dropping was a big giveaway. She tried to speak again. ‘What the hell happened?’ She was beaten again. Graham appeared defiant.
‘Say nothing!’ With that, he pushed past her. Marg followed somewhat less forcefully, but still determined to get off the doorstep as quickly as possible.
‘Where shall I put this?’ Graham waved a holdall. As he did a bottle of tablets flew out landing on the hall carpet. He didn’t notice. ‘It’s all we could grab. You know, toothbrush, flannel, shaver ...’
‘Um, err, the guestroom: top of the stairs, second door on the right. You know the way, Marg. There are towels in the en suite. Do you want some breakfast first, or a shower and freshen up?’ Julia watched each in turn. Graham was half-way up the stairs before she’d finished speaking. Marg saw the disbelief on Julia’s face. She shrugged in empathy. ‘Make yourself at home, Graham,’ she called up after him. Any sarcasm in her tone went straight over his head.
As Graham reached the top step, Steve appeared. ‘What the fu—? Flipping heck, are you wearing …?’ His surprise was genuine. He’d never seen him in anything at all reminiscent of his current attire.
‘Keep schtum, there’s a good chap. There’s a perfectly good reason why I’m dressed like this.’ He brushed past Steve, disappearing into the guest bedroom.
‘I’m looking forward to hearing this perfectly good reason over breakfast.’ What for Steve, had started off as a miserable day, now took on a new twist. He rubbed his hands in glee, bouncing down the stairs two at a time. ‘Marg, your husband never ceases to amaze me.’ He smiled broadly, before leaning in to give her a welcoming kiss on each cheek. He gazed her up and down. She’d grabbed her winter coat as she left the house, and apart from her wellingtons, appeared normal, if a tad dishevelled. ‘Go on, get your shower and tidy up.’ She started to walk past him. ‘Here, give me your coat.’ He went to take it from her.
‘Thanks, no. I’ll hang onto it for now.’ She pulled it tight.
‘As you please.’ He didn’t feel he should press the matter any further. From the corner of his eye, h
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