Sunday, 30 November 2008

In from the cold

Talking to a friend of mine yesterday on the phone really brought it home how different a lifestyle we lead. He was getting ready to go and watch a football match, I was getting ready to go outside and begin the daily rounds of the animals. He was talking about the central heating, I was telling him about fetching the logs I had chopped. It was strange listening to him hearing how important it all was, his devotion to his team as important as our devotion to our animals. I suppose everyone focuses on something to give them a sense of meaning.

Today was one of those rare days where, as we both have colds, I wished we were more like River Cottage with a team of gardeners and workers to go and do it all for us. But once we ventured out into the chill the animals soon took our minds off how grotty we were feeling. The sun forced itself through the fog and revealed some startling colours on the hill.

By mid afternoon we were almost finished and the cold cure was wearing off so I headed indoors as Tracey fed the rabbits. A voice from outside alerted me that strangers were in the yard.

Not quite strangers but a strange man, Mad Keith was at our front door, as he was fully clothed and not visibly armed I went out for a chat. He was after a favour, now this was a first, the techno hermit has only once ventured up our lane and that was on an out of control motorbike a couple of years ago. Asking for help was visibly hurting him but the seventy year old hermit was clearly suffering from the cold, was there any chance we could get him a bag of coal he wondered. No problem, come in and have a coffee first.

He stepped inside the cottage and his jaw dropped "I've never been in here before" he whispered taking off his cap and clutching it to his chest "Its massive" he breathed as wandered around the living room like a pilgrim in a cathedral. As he lives in a seven foot by seven foot space I suppose the ground floor of the cottage does take on a new perspective.

Coffee made we sat and chatted. Mad Keith wasn't happy, the council wanted council tax off him, first time in 43 years, he had been banded group A and that was a lot of cash for a hermit to find. For a while now he has been writing to them asking why now, but the bureaucratic machine seems to want to squeeze the blood from his particular stone. Maybe as revenge for not being able to evict him from the hill in 1992.

I drove him to his shed to get his wallet, Rene just managing the 1 in 4 grass slope that this pensioner cycles up and down daily. He came out of the shed with a can, could we get some petrol too? Images of him trying to light coal soaked in petrol in a wooden shed were banished as he explained he wanted it for his chainsaw. The prospect of him armed with a working chainsaw was equally worrying but slightly more acceptable so I took him and his can to the nearest forecourt.

Hermit smalltalk involves ignoring any questions asked and sticking to a subject totally unrelated to the one under discussion. So I obtained his views on the weather, the council, the credit crunch and foreigners. All were despised with equal passion, the credit crunch because he was bloody sick of hearing about it on the radio. Asked if he had ever been abroad he looked at me like I had just asked him if he liked eating babies, "Never, No! Never!" he rasped.

"You have a radio Keith?" I asked steering the conversation back to safer ground.

Now I did know he was a modern techno hermit, having a mobile phone, but what I didn't know was that he was wired for sound! His shed has electricity!

Three years ago he bought a generator "Undred and seventy quid it cost!" and since then he has had electric. This powers the battery charger for the radio and mobile phone. But it doesn't work anymore, stopped yesterday, don't know why, wouldn't start, buggering thing.

We got the fuel and coal. For a moment it looked like there would be murders when the girl at the checkout asked for £2 more than he had bargained for, but as he had not bought coal for over a year her mistake was understandable and the queue breathed a sigh of relief as he shuffled through the door.

I drove up the hill to his shed and carried the coal to his door.

Did I want to see his generator, well theres an offer you don't get every day and one I couldn't refuse. He carefully pulled clear some sacks and coats and there in the gloom was a shiny as the day it was made generator. He stroked it like you would a Holy relic. "I just doesn't work though" he muttered sadly.

"What happened" I asked

"Well I tried to start it and nothing, I was here all day pulling, nothing." He shook his head and patted the silent genny affectionately. I avoided the double entendre trap and pressed on.
"When did you last have it going?" I asked hoping to gain an insight into the demise of the brand new looking contraption.

He looked up at me, "Let see now, it was when I cut the hedge, I needed the trimmer"

I looked at the nine foot high wilderness type foliage "When was that Keith?"

"Spring" he resumed stroking the silent machine "I don't use her much see"

"Has it, er she got petrol in it, her?" seemed like an obvious question but one that needed asking.


"Yes Petrol" I pointed to the can and the filler cap as he ran a gnarled finger along the words Petrol Generator.

"She takes petrol do she?"

I topped it up from the chainsaw can while he watched attentively.

He pressed the switch and pulled the cord. The generator spluttered into life and hummed along providing a backtrack to Keith's wild celebratory jig. He stopped "Why do you think she didnt work yesterday?" he asked and shook my hand and before I could answer he said, "What do I owe you?"

"Nothing Keith, glad to help" I said climbing back into Rene and heading home.

As I bumped along the track returning to my warm cottage, my lovely wife and a mug of mulled cider not for the first time this weekend I realised how different my life is and how lucky I am.

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