Jess of the dairy fields
by Jessica Miller; the illustration is by Becky Blake
Published in November ’13
As autumn approaches, I love nothing more than battening down the hatches, lighting the fires and listening to the wind moaning and the rain hammering against the windows. There is such comfort in putting match to newspaper and kindling and watching the little flames spread and grow. I started lighting fires from 1 September – whether it is cold or not.
Frugal by nature, and conscious of the cost of logs, Jasper finds my pyromaniacal tendencies exasperating. This year, however, a friend who owed him a favour donated enough logs to fill the woodshed, and he hasn’t complained once that I’ve got both fires blazing by lunchtime. On the contrary, he happily fetches wheelbarrows full of logs, always pausing in the door of the woodshed to gloat in quiet satisfaction over his enormous stash, which is, quite literally, up to the rafters.
Last November, my mother-in-law mentioned that it was time to get the chimney swept. I had thought that chimney sweeping had been consigned to history with smog, Dickensian waifs and strays and scullery maids with pinched faces in mouse-infested attics. (Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess left an indelible impression on me as a child.)
‘Do people still go up chimneys?’ I asked in astonishment.
‘No dear, not any more. Make sure you book one soon. The run-up to Christmas is very busy.’
I was leafing through the Yellow Pages later that afternoon, when looked over my shoulder. ‘Chimney sweeps? What do we need a chimney sweep for?’ he asked in a scandalised voice.
‘I thought he could come and mow the lawn,’ I suggested.
‘You are too hilarious for words. Seriously, we don’t need a chimney sweep. They’re a waste of money.’
‘So what do you suggest?’ I asked.
‘I’ll do it myself,’ said he.
‘You?’ I asked nervously.
‘Yes,’ he replied. ‘It’s not rocket science you know.’
‘I know that, but it is a highly skilled job.’
‘Highly skilled job! A long brush and some elbow grease. How hard can it be?’ he shrugged.
Every chimney sweep I looked at was a member of the National Chimney Sweeps’ Guild and boasted diplomas and certificates to prove that they sweep to a strict code of practice. I felt this involved more than a brush and some elbow grease, but, with trepidation, bit my tongue. Jasper’s notorious determination (when it comes to saving money), is matched only by the unorthodoxy of how he performs domestic tasks.
I had been nine months pregnant when I discovered a huge active hornets’ nest in the corner of one of the stables. Jasper dismissed my suggestion to summon Rentokil and set off down to the yard with an air of purpose. I waddled after him, watching in bewilderment as he wrapped himself in a horse’s fly sheet and gauze head bonnet complete with large triangular ear sockets. He then seized a handy length of blue polypipe, marched into the stable and without further ado proceeded to smash the nest to smithereens. I found a turn of speed that belied my tide-affecting bulk as the air turned black with enraged hornets.
Back in Dick-van-Dyke land, Jasper had draped an oblong of silage sheet in front of the inglenook – ‘to catch any soot’, he winked confidently. He was using baler twine to fix the head of a yard brush to a thick length of extra wide polypipe.
Frog dozed on the hearth rug, watching drowsily. Whistling merrily, Jasper fed the pipe up the chimney and commenced a vigorous thrusting. I went back into the kitchen to start cooking dinner. Jasper kept up a running commentary as he worked: ‘Yes, there’s quite a build up…. The fire will burn much more efficiently after this…. Blimey, that was a big bit of soot… This is a piece of cake!… Almost finished!’
I smiled as I chopped the carrots, chiding myself for my initial reservations.
There followed a short period of silence, followed by a loud clatter, a whooshing noise and then a string of bellowed profanities punctuated by a yelp from Frog.
Dropping the knife, I rushed into the drawing room and stopped dead. Night seemed to have fallen; the air was ink-black with dust. As I watched, it was settling onto the fabric of my beloved velvet sofas, clinging to the newly painted walls and gathering on the curtains. As I moved forward, I almost tripped over Frog – she was all but invisible; only the supplicating white crescents of her eyes could be seen as she gazed up at me in bewilderment. Jasper stood before the fireplace, black from head to toe.
At that moment the phone rang and continued to do so until it was picked up by the answering machine. It was Jasper’s mother: ‘I’ve found the number of the chimney sweep. I suddenly had the most awful thought that Jasper might try to tackle it himself.…’