My next door neighbour got a brush stuck up his chimney, today. That’s not a euphemism, he really did get a brush stuck up his chimney.
The meadow on the other side of the river from my sister’s house is the greenest strip of countryside in the three-hundred and sixty degree view from up here, and this morning it was bustling with walkers. Even there, the lushness of spring, the acid green of new growth, has faded to a tired, threadbare state in this heat wave. Blades of brown grass snap beneath your feet and the leaves on the beech trees look dusty. Only the silvered willow weeping into the river gives off a feeling of freshness. Tromping along the path with dust filtering into my Crocs and sticking to feet that have waded into the water to persuade Eric to come in and cool down, I was absorbing as much of the moment I could manage. Perhaps because I was uprooted many times as a child, I have a habit of trying to imprint my surroundings in my memory so that if I can’t revisit a place physically, I can at least revisit in my mind. It doesn’t work – you can’t (or at least, I can’t) come back into a moment. You can’t feel it, smell it, hear it. You can overlay mental pictures with a soundtrack and try to remember how you felt but it’s not the same. It’s not the same as being aware of the breeze lifting a strand of hair and brushing you cheek with it. It’s not the same as looking down and saying, ‘Dear God, Eric! Did you really have to do that there?’ when a particularly ‘country’ smell terrorises your nose. And it’s not the same as slowly becoming aware that the herd of curious heifers are coming across their field to cluster near you on the other side of the electric fence. Those things are in the moment only. But … I still imprint. At least, when I look back, I am comforted by knowing that I was fully in that moment.
And then, I went home. Approximately three minutes after entering the house there was a knock at the front door. Eric snapped his head round to look at me, his ears flying, then he looked back to the front door. An embarrassed face peered in through the window. That’s when I discovered my neighbour’s chimney dilemma. After getting his brush wedged through the top of his chimney, the poor chap had rung the local sweep to see if he could borrow some ladders. The sweep told him that, yes, he could but not for another three days. When he remembered the previous tenant of my house talking about the amazing views from the attic, my neighbour had an idea. Unfortunately for him, I was lost in a moment down by the river when he first knocked on my door. How tense must he have been whilst I was at one with nature?
When we did meet on the doorstep I was only too happy to help. I took him to the foot of my ladder and sent him up into the attic. He was most impressed with the conversion up there, he was envious of the view and he was ecstatically relieved that he could reach the chimney top from my window and extract his rebellious brush. I was pleased that his trauma was over. I like my neighbours. Eric likes their cats. He would like to get to know them better. I tell myself that he wants them as playmates and not snacks but I’m not in a hurry to find out in case I’m wrong. How embarrassing would that be? (I’m pausing here to lose myself in imagining that conversation. ‘Er, hi. You know how you said that if I ever needed a favour …? Well, my dog was hungry and …’)
Disinterested in people, unless they are passing by outside whereupon he’ll throw himself at the window and bark like he’s demented, Eric flaked out on the cool of the kitchen floor whilst I showed man and brush out again. He snored on while I boiled the kettle for coffee but he did raise his head briefly when I stepped over him on my way out the back door. Realising that I was taking shears to the head-high nettles that have tip-toed across the field and hopped down into the garden in a slow-motion game of Grandmother’s Footsteps, he lay down again signalling his disinclination to come and help. Twice he’s got off his rope and taken off across that field and when I’ve examined the rope for damage, I’ve found none. Therefore, he must have undone the clip that fastens him to the rope. That means he’s hiding an opposable thumb somewhere and, if so, I feel he could do more to help around the house. He’s not playing though. When I ask, he looks at me with a sulky expression that seems to say, ‘sod off, I’m a dog.’
It wasn’t until the heat of the day had ebbed to a level that’s bearable for a black dog that Eric roused himself and ambled out to wedge his bum on my lap. We sat like that for some time watching the golden late-afternoon light withdrawing up the hill as the sun sank. I absently rubbed the dog’s ears and scratched his chin and looked out at my small slice of the world. I’ve seen the green flash at sunrise and sunset, I’ve seen the clouds falling like a cloth over Table Mountain and I’ve watched butterflies as big as dinner plates fluttering around hibiscus flowers (and tried to imprint it all) but those moments are far away in time and none were better than these silent minutes spent with my best friend.
Later, I shifted the dog to allow the blood supply to return to my feet and took him for another walk. This time we gazed down on our village from the hill-top as the day turned monochrome and lights came on in the windows of families settling down for the evening. Lower down the hill, at the edge of the field Eric and I were strolling across, the glow from my sister’s windows shone an invitation to call by but we resisted and stayed out until it was dark.
Under a clear sky dominated by the wonky W of Cassiopeia, we crunched across the desiccating grass of a field neatly bisected by silver light. Behind us, peeking through the trees, the fat moon hung low creating half a field of shadow, half a field of shimmering brightness. Around us, on the other side of their lit windows, people went about their lives unaware of woman and dog paused mid-way home. We were outside in every sense, Eric and I. We’d nodded and passed the time of day with the walkers by the river and we’d spent a little while in the company of the bloke from next door. Now, we were alone with the screech owls and the little rustling creatures in the grass. We could go into the warmth and welcome of humanity if we needed to, if we wanted to, but we’re creatures of the margins, happy to step into the world and often relieved to step out again. We’d been among people enough today so we went home and turned on our own lights.