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Thursday, November 11, 2010

Horse-radish and Hovels (part 1)

My friend Lavender and my brother Jeremy have planned a fireworks party. Lavender lives up the lane from Jeremy in the rambling and somewhat decaying family home of her brother-in-law Ptolemy. Jeremy has a tumble-down cottage in the grounds and I am over there when the delivery van, containing the fireworks, arrives. 'Yeah', says Jeremy, 'this year we want a really big fireworks display, something that will wake the neighbours up, something really bloody impressive! He licks a Rizla paper and rolls another cigarette, 'I've ordered over £300 of fireworks' he says and starts to laugh loudly - 'that should go off like buggery!'

Jeremy is in his mid-fifties, has an amiable manner, is pretty easy to get on with though he is a little eccentric. He lives alone. Grub, his clingy black and white cat, is banned from coming indoors as she had taken up peeing in the bathroom and until she can learn to aim directly into the lavatory bowl like everyone else she now resides in a little lean-to opposite the front door. Grub's sole mission in life is to mount increasingly frantic SAS style campaigns to get back in. Her love for Jeremy is vigorous and physical and she trys to sneak back over the threshold, flirtatiously snaking stealthily through the legs of unsuspecting visitors like a feline Mata Hari, or throwing herself into short and quickly defeated shoulder-led runs at the now nailed-up cat-flap in the back door. Most of her victories occur during the summer when she leaps through the odd open window and with a look of pleasurably surprised shock she will land on Jeremy’s chest and knead him desperately like a deranged succubus or head-butt him passionately with her small bullet-shaped skull and penetrating sloe-eyed stare. But Jeremy is cold-hearted in this regard and Grub is soon banished outdoors again.

I am rather surprised by Jeremy's insistence on her exclusion, its not as if the cottage is a temple to a pristine and elegant lifestyle.

Jeremy's cottage is at the bottom of a steep mud-slicked precipice-edged track with pot-holes the size of caverns which will admit only those drivers with the strongest of stomachs or most relaxed of attachments to survival. Jeremy roars with laughter at those of us more at home on tarmac or feeble enough to admit to our fear of the dangers. Lavender is as immune to these as he is and I have watched with open-mouthed wonderment as she reverses one of her many old bangers, at speed and in the pouring rain, the whole of the way up the track while the vehicle skitters from side to side and slides dangerously close to the land drop - Osbert, her little dog, paws on the dashboard and fearlessness framing his face, looks back at me with scorn.

The cottage has a roof which leaks in several places, infestations usually only seen under strict scientific experimentation and is in dire need of a tender loving injection of hard cash. And though rotting ceilings, plaster-cracked walls and a sitting room with an almost permanent drag of blown-in from-the-outside leaves could be seen in some circles as a haven of bucolic simplicity the chain-saw which sits in the middle of the room, next to the sofa, perhaps isn't. But Jeremy appears blind to it all, 'God you are so up-tight!' he jeers when I try to point out, helpfully, that a chainsaw isn't the most friendly or appealing of household ornamentation.

When the sun is out, the sleepy Arcadian landscape is warm and dreamy but the harsh onset of winter soon causes it to become a bleak Dickensian environment. The dwelling, more hovel than home, damp and unwelcoming to a degree usually only seen in the poverty stricken favelas of South America becomes more peasant than pleasant.

There is a serious leak in the skylight just above the doorway into the kitchen and after the rainfall comes the dampness. Unless they are wiped down regularly the table, chairs and wooden counter tops will often wear the dull blue-green bloom of an endemic creeping mildew. Spiders reside in comfort everywhere, setting up vast systems of webs which twang irritably when accidentally confronted. Also present are an army of crusty and resilient woodlice who march without reason up wall and across floor like some brainless legion of small armoured idiots.

The bathroom, which is on the ground floor and just off the kitchen hosts varying amounts of fungi which blossom out from under the bath during particular atmospheric conditions and have to be regularly culled. It all adds to the swell of the ever-increasing occupancy levels of this unorthodox habitat that Jeremy calls home.

I think Jeremy is rather proud of it. 'Bacteria!' he sometimes says with a flourish, 'Its the only way forward in this over sanitized world!'

I haven’t even mentioned the mice who periodically get a handful of poisonous blue pellets thrown at them but whom, so far, have declined to move out. Even Grub seems unperturbed by their presence.

And after years of reclusive living Jeremy has suddenly taken to entertaining on a wholly frivolous scale. Hence the fireworks party.

He has many friends who happily pop around for supper to discuss important local and international events and who choose to focus on his intelligence, warmth and relaxed attitude to life rather than the chaos and rainfall of his surroundings. Jeremy isn't that keen on washing dishes either and often the kitchen counters are densely cluttered with over-flowing ashtrays while food cartons spilling out their contents vie for space with many half drunk mugs of coffee and countless glasses filled with the dregs of last nights - often last weeks - Ginger Beer or red wine. These tetchily rub shoulders with pans of congealed spaghetti while great teetering towers of used plates, soup bowls and other assorted crockery balance atop one another with all the skill and deftness of Eastern bloc circus acrobats. In between all this, speckled and food-veneered, lie handfuls of cutlery in fallen stacks like a wearily scattered but still playable stainless steel version of pick-up-sticks.

Sometimes ones foot will jar against a small white pudding-bowl placed there by Lavender when she is visiting, for Osbert to sup out of when thirsty. I always manage to kick it sending a sloppy wave of dog-slimed water spilling onto my shoe and on over to join the residual pool which is often already under foot.

Lavender herself is so totally at home and undisturbed by Jeremy's lifestyle that I often feel the outsider in a really quite normal homestead. Then I remember a conversation between Lav and Jeremy. A discussion about the lack of bowls for pudding at supper one evening,' I'll have the dogs water bowl' said Lav with cheery alacrity, 'Quick rinse under the tap if you think it needs it!' 'Won't do any harm at all!' retorted Jeremy when he saw revulsion straying through my eyes. Yes, I know. Bacteria.

Lavender was just leaving as I arrived that morning, having been prodding Jeremy to dig up some of his secret batch of wild horse-radish roots which she was going to turn into a delicious sauce to go with beef at the party.

Jeremy was getting increasingly wide-eyed and expansive about the arrival of the fireworks and a hoped for twenty minute display of hardcore incendiary action. 'Oh yeah' he said, 'my friend Tom up the lane is going to set it all up then let them all off and is even more excited than I am! - and we might even try and cram the twenty minute display into a ten minute one for real impact!' He threw his head back and laughed someone who shouldn't be in involved with fireworks. I am filled with ever-increasing horror.

But Jeremy is in no mood for my protestations or any soppy sisterly advice and he strides out purposefully with a wild smile in place to help with the delivery.

When he returns he is carrying 3 large boxes which he places one on top of the other on the table in the kitchen. Right next to the wood-burning stove. I point out the danger of this but it has no effect on Jeremy in fact this sort of reaction only brings out the Revlon-red rag to his bullish behaviour. He doesn't even bother to glance up at me before tearing open one of the boxes. The entrails of his nearly finished but still ember-full roll-up hang precariously from his lower lip. 'Here' he says proffering the open box towards me, 'take a look at the size of these rockets!'. I am clammy with fear and I cannot take his relaxed attitude a moment longer, I find an excuse to leave and rush to get myself into the car and away before the whole place : brother, fireworks, damp-hovel and cat are all blasted into smithereens.

As I drive away I am filled with dread. I would rather walk barefoot over cracked milk-bottles than endure an evening of explosives set off by a couple of over-grown schoolboys with all the blundering enthusiasm and restraint of a Land Rover full of gun toting Somali warlords.

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